In open boats for about 2 hours in a rough sea

Three Sisters of the Community of St John Baptist had a terrifying experience as they travelled home from India.

20 April 1918

Sister Alexandrina, Sister Marion Edith and Sister Edith Helen, who had left Calcutta March 9th, arrived safely after an adventurous voyage. They had only been allowed to travel with special permission from the Government of India on account of Sister Alexandrina’s state of health, which made it necessary for her to leave India.

Their ship was torpedoed by an enemy sub-marine in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Africa. Then passengers were transferred to the ship’s boats and all were saved. They were in open boats for about 2 hours in a rough sea. The Sisters & their companions were picked up by a British sloop-of-war and landed at Bizerta, where they remained for 4 days. Then they were taken on board a French mail boat carrying troops and were safely landed at Marseilles after a very uncomfortable voyage owing to the crowded condition of the steamer.

From Marseilles they travelled by train to Paris & Havre, & from thence crossed to Southampton.

Owing to rationing orders limiting the quantity to each House of certain articles of food, & the scarcity of others, the Sisters from the other Houses cannot for the present come to the House of Mercy for tea on Sundays, as has been the custom, nor have their meals there when having day’s retreats.

Annals of the Community of St John Baptist, Clewer (D/EX1675/1/14/5)


“The bomb passed through the bows, exploding on the other side”

Three of the Sisters of the Community of St John Baptist, whose base was at Clewer, were shipwrecked on their way home from India thanks to enemy action.

April, 1918
My dear Associates

You will all be interested to hear that we have just welcomed home from Calcutta Sister Alexandrina, Sister Marion Edith and Sister Edith Helen after a really perilous voyage. The only route available was via Colombo, which they reached by train from Calcutta. The first part of the voyage through the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea was very enjoyable, smooth and lovely weather.

Good Friday was spent in the harbour of Suez, and Port Said was reached on Sunday morning. Along the banks of the Suez Canal they saw many races of the recent fighting in Egypt – deserted trenches and dug-outs, and in one place a camp of a considerable size, but their own course was perfectly uneventful.

After waiting four days at Port Said, their steamer joined a large convoy of vessels bound for England, protected by several destroyers and sloops. All went well during the first six days, and then, at 7 a.m. on a date I am not allowed to mention, the ship was struck by a torpedo. Mercifully no one was seriously injured, the bomb having passed through the bows, exploding on the other side.

Fearing another attack, the Captain immediately transferred all the passengers to the boats, and after rowing about on a rough sea for two hours, a sloop picked them up, and conveyed them to Bizerta, a French town on the coast of North Africa, the actual site of ancient Carthage, about four hours by rail from Tunis. At once everything was done on a most generous scale for their comfort and protection, and four days later a mail boat from Tunis conveyed all the passengers to Marseilles, and from there the homeward journey was continued via Paris, Havre and Southampton….

Letters to Associates of the Community of St John Baptist (D/EX1675/1/24/6)

First impressions: Sydney Spencer’s first evening in Harwich

Sydney Spencer starts work for the YMCA at Harwich alongside his friend Kenneth “Jumbo” Oliphant, and reports on his first evening:

Friday 11th
At the Royal Naval Sailors Home: Harwich

I arrived at Russell Square to meet Oliphant at 11.30 but he did not turn up till 12.30, as the telegram which I sent him stating the hour as 11.30 had arrived to him stated as 12.30. …Harwich is a very dirty squalid place from what Jumbo & I saw of it last night when we arrived at 9.30. There are nine of us here altogether counting the leader Mr Daldy with whom we came down from town. … Both Jumbo and I are a little disappointed at the fact that we are housed instead of being under canvas. I was looking forward to the tent sleeping just as an experience. All our bedding which we brought with us is now of course not wanted as beds are supplied us. Also the early hours which I was expecting are not kept here, the members of this house apparently not getting up till 5 o’clock for breakfast. Jumbo & I sleep in separate rooms which makes it impossible for us to have our quiet times together.

I begin my work today under the care of a Mr Hayes (who is an Oxford man), & I go with him about a mile out of Harwich for a place I think called Pontisbury. It is right among the trenches so I ought to see some interesting sights as well as just sell “pop”. The man who sleeps with me is from a college in Manchester and he knows a lot of Hindus at Oxford, among them Raju, having lived with him for a fortnight. He is heavily interested in Hindus and was to have gone off for the YMCA to India to a hall in Calcutta which has about 16 Hindu students, & work among them.

Friday evening
I have spent the day from 9.30 right on till 6 pmbehind the counter at the camp at Packerton. It has been a weird sort of day full of extraordinary experiences. In this room there were collected sometimes about thirty or more “tommies”. It is extraordinary how quiet and orderly they all are. They sit & write their letters, read the papers and have their refreshments, and give not the slightest bother at all. They all seem to be aware of the benefit they receive from having this Y.M.C.A. shelter to come to, & accordingly respect the institution and do all they can by natural and almost pretty little courtesies to show their appreciation. One or another with a sheepish smile will bring a few cups back left on the table, or will say, when teaspoons are scarce, “never mind that, I’ll use my mate’s”, & so on. Studying the faces of these men, one sees a great deal more which indicates latent intellectual abilities than one might expect. Some have a native charm about them & the expressions on their faces sometimes show keen intelligence or lively interest & appreciation. We sell here to the men, cakes and buns, tea & coffee, and the ubiquitous “ginger pop”; paper and envelopes are supplied free of charge, & we sell stamps & postal orders to those who want them.

(Diary of Sydney Spencer, 11 September 1914 (D/EX801/12)