Chorley boy caught up in war action at sea on his maiden voyage was "as cool as any soul" on board

Historian Stuart Clewlow recalls the story of a calm apprentice who stood on the boat deck of torpedoed ship with a black cat in his arms.

Thursday, 12th August 2021, 10:34 am
Updated Thursday, 12th August 2021, 3:14 pm
Sailors regard black cats as lucky (unknown sailor and cat). Picture courtesy of Stuart Clewlow
Sailors regard black cats as lucky (unknown sailor and cat). Picture courtesy of Stuart Clewlow

As the Chorley Guardian reflects on the 150 years since it first published, we're telling the stories of people from our community who have touched peoples' lives in our Chorley 150 series.

We continue to look back with local historian Stuart Clewlow.

In May 1917 our local newspaper which was then “The Chorley Guardian and Leyland Hundred Advertiser” reported the `coolness` of a Chorley boy caught up in an action of war at sea.

Frank Heald's Masters certificate. Picture courtesy of Stuart Clewlow

The newspaper later learned the identity of the boy and 100 years later it has been possible to add a little bit more information to the story.

It was reported to the newspaper by an anonymous eye witness that a British merchant ship was sunk in early 1917.

The vessel was attacked and sunk by a German submarine off the coast of Ireland.

According to a narrative from the seafaring man, the ship was homeward bound and was hit without warning by a torpedo which blew away one propeller, rendered the port engine useless, damaged the steering gear and wrecked the gun, at the same time seriously wounding the two gunners, who were pinned beneath it.

A Mercantile Marine War Medal. Picture courtesy of Stuart Clewlow

The ship began to sink by the stern and the crew of 90 and about 14 passengers, all got away safely in life boats.

Amid all the excitement one of the incidents which impressed everybody was the behaviour of the ship's boy, a 15 year old apprentice on his maiden voyage, who was known to the crew as “Jellicoe.”

The only personal detail that could be recalled about the boy was that he came from Chorley.

From the first explosion of the ship to the departure of the last boat, he stood on the boat deck with the ship's pet cat, a black one, in his arms, calmly awaiting orders.

The Heald family gravestone in Chorley Cemetery. Picture courtesy of Stuart Clewlow

All the crew could get out of him was a smile.

“As cool as any soul aboard” was the description of him.

The boy was eventually ushered off the ship and away in the last of the four boats.

He was still in possession of the cat when picked up several hours after by a British destroyer.

We're asking Chorley Guardian readers to nominate 150 reasons to celebrate Chorley to mark the Guardian's 150th birthday

The week after the article it transpired that that boy was Frank Heald, son of the late John Heald junior, and grandson of the late Alderman John Heald of Phoenix House, Chorley.

Frank was born in Chorley in 1902 and at the time of the 1911 census, he was living with his sister and aunt in Bristol.

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Sadly Frank had an older brother who had been killed in action the year before.

Hugh Heald was serving with the Royal Fusiliers and died on the Somme in July 1916 at the age of 25.

His body was never recovered and he is remembered on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing and also mentioned on the family gravestone in Chorley Cemetery.

Frank survived the war and earned the Mercantile Marine War Medal.

He continued his service with the Merchant Navy, earning his Second Mate Certificate on September 1921 and was appointed Master on June 1925.

He died in Bristol in June 1948 at the age of 46.

In many cultures a black cat is seen as bad luck.

However seafaring superstition stands that a black cat is good luck because the cat would rid the ship of rodents which in days of old would chew through ropes and rigging and cause damage.

On that fateful day in 1917, the superstition of feline good luck for sailors stood as firm as Frank's grip on the cat.

Chorley 150 countdown

This story is part of our Chorley 150 series to mark the 150th anniversary of the Chorley Guardian.

If you'd like to suggest a story for this Chorley 150 series featuring 150 stories of inspirational people and places that we love, then email [email protected]