In a corner of the churchyard of St Helen’s, Cliffe, Kent, on the base of a stone cross, are the names of villagers who gave their lives for their country in the two World Wars. Engraved on this memorial was one name that caught my eye, Arthur Maton. Who was this Arthur? I discovered that he was the nephew of my great grandmother, Elizabeth Jane Maton and I made it my quest to find out his story. A tragic one it is, cut short by a terrible explosion on board HMS Vanguard in 1917, one of the worst naval disasters in British history. Arthur was only just out of his teens, a young man aged 20, when he lost his life. In writing about him, I hope to ensure that he will be remembered, long after those who knew him have passed on.
Arthur John Maton was born on November 19 1896 in Bemerton, Salisbury, Wiltshire. He was the son of Edith Agnes Maton, who found herself at the age of 20, an unmarried mother. She had probably been working as a servant when she fell pregnant, and certainly, a few years previously, when the 1891 census was taken, she was a nurserymaid for the Reverend John D Morris and his wife, Jessie, living at St Edmund’s Rectory on Manor Road in Salisbury. She decided to have baby Arthur privately baptised, perhaps because he was a sickly baby or because there was no father, on January 10th 1897 and this event is recorded in the parish registers of Bemerton, Salisbury, where Edith had grown up with her 11 brothers and sisters:
New Life for Edith Agnes Maton
Later that year, in the autumn of 1897, Edith married Sidney Hatcher, an agricultural labourer from Alderbury, a village three miles south-east of Salisbury. He was an older man, around 15 years her senior, and they had two children of their own, Sidney Herbert (b. 1899) and Viola Evelyn (b. 1900). They made a home at Nursery Cottage in Alderbury, where the family were living in both 1901 and 1911, but there was no sign of Arthur in the household. This suggests that Sidney Hatcher was not Arthur’s father. So where was little Arthur living at this time?
Move to Kent
Arthur was, in fact, many miles away in Kent, living with his maternal grandparents, Thomas and Sarah Ann Maton. It would seem that Edith had left baby Arthur with her parents for them to bring up. Perhaps her new husband had not wanted to welcome a child that was not his into their home.
Sometime between 1891 and 1901, Thomas and Sarah Ann decided to move away from Wiltshire and join their eldest daughter, Elizabeth Jane, in the small village of Cooling on the marshes of north-west Kent. In 1885, Elizabeth Jane had married a prosperous farmer and prominent local Wesleyan Methodist, George Alfred Batchelor. George’s father, James, was both a farmer and a publican and in 1899, he bought a farm called Gattons on Cooling Street in Cooling:
It is at Gattons, a handsome Georgian residence, that Thomas and his family are found to be living in 1901 along with little Arthur, aged 4. Thomas had found work as a farm labourer and may well have been working for his son-in-law, George Batchelor. Thomas is described as the head of the household, whilst his daughter’s father-in-law, James Batchelor, recorded as a 78 year old retired farmer, was rather cheekily described as being a “boarder”:
Whether Edith kept in touch with her son is unknown. She had her own young family and was living a long distance away so contact must have been limited. Perhaps she was just happy that he was being well-cared for by her parents. They in turn may have welcomed the company of a young grandchild after their own children had left home.
By 1911, the Maton family had moved to the neighbouring village of Cliffe and their home was 2 Winifred Terrace, Higham Road:
Thomas, had retired from farm work and had his own business as a milkman, as can be seen on the 1911 census schedule. Delivering milk was a less strenuous job for a man of his age and he had his young grandson to help him:
With mounting tensions between Great Britain and Germany, hostilities broke out in the summer of 1914 and despite predictions that it would soon be over, the War dragged on. Did Thomas fear that his young grandson might get caught up? With losses increasing, fresh recruits were needed and the pressure was on young men, particularly those without dependents, to sign up.
Early in 1915, Arthur lost his grandfather, the man who had been a father to him since he was a baby. Thomas Maton died on April 21 1915 aged 73. The following month, the newspapers were full of the news of the Lusitania, an unarmed passenger ship, that was struck by a German torpedo and sunk with the loss of nearly 1200 lives. One imagines that although he missed his grandfather Thomas, with his death, Arthur felt free to leave his life as a dairyman and volunteer for service in the Royal Navy. Perhaps he was influenced by the rector of Cliffe, Canon H.B. Boyd who had upset a lot of people at a recruiting meeting in 1915. When volunteers were not forthcoming, he accused the villagers of being a “herring-gutted lot!”
Royal Naval Service
It was a grey Thursday morning on November 25 1915, when a knock at the door of the office of the recruiting officer at the naval barracks of HMS Pembroke, Chatham, announced the arrival of Arthur John Maton. A young, fresh-faced youth, with a shock of dark brown hair and grey eyes, Arthur walked into the room, looking nervous but excited. He had just celebrated his 19th birthday the week before and was ready for adventure. After being assessed, it was decided that Arthur would make a good stoker, since he was of medium height and young. To work in the stokehold on board ship you needed to be strong with a lot of stamina for it was a hot and arduous job shovelling coal to create a constant supply of steam, the ship’s lifeblood.
Six weeks later, at the end of January 1916, Arthur finished his land-based training at HMS Pembroke and joined HMS Gibralter. HMS Gibraltar was a useful ship for Arthur to gain experience and further skills as it was mainly involved in shore defence, and used as a depot ship in the Shetlands. However, his service on HMS Gibraltar was short-lived for after returning to HMS Pembroke for another six weeks of training in June 1916, he joined HMS Vanguard on July 24th 1916:
H.M.S. Vanguard was a relatively new ship, having been launched in 1909. It was one of three St Vincent-class dreadnoughts and had participated in the Battle of Jutland in May 1916, just before Arthur had joined her. By the summer, she was involved in North Sea patrols.
Arthur was obviously competent in his job for on November 25th 1916, after completing his first year in the Navy, he qualified as a 1st Class Stoker. His conduct was described as being “Very Good”. Undoubtedly, his elderly grandmother, Sarah Ann Maton, was very proud of his achievements.
Whilst it was wartime, and lives were frequently cut short, no one could have predicted that Arthur’s life was to be ended, not by enemy action but by an internal explosion on board HMS Vanguard. Shortly before midnight, on 9 July 1917, whilst the ship was anchored at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands, there was a series of explosions in the magazine. Pieces of the ship and human body parts were blown sky high, landing on neighbouring ships in the harbour. She sank almost immediately. There was no one to rescue for out of the 845 men on board, there were only two survivors. Arthur, aged just 20, was killed. It is thought that faulty cordite caused the devastating internal explosion:
Those Left Behind
The death of Arthur must have been a devastating blow to his family. Sarah Ann, his grandmother, had died earlier that year on February 19 1917, aged 72, so she was spared the terrible news of his death. In the official records, his mother, Mrs S. Hatcher, now of Swiss Villa, Whaddon, Nr Salisbury, is named as his next of kin. She was notified of his death and would have received the war gratuity:
Arthur has no known resting place as, like most of his fellow sailors, his body was never recovered. However, he is commemorated on the Chatham War Memorial as well as the war memorial in the churchyard of Cliffe, the village where he had spent his boyhood. His name is recorded here along with those of some of his schoolfellows, whose lives were also cut short:
We may know a lot about some relatives but sadly, others are relegated to being mere names, their lives today being completely forgotten. Arthur John Maton was in danger of being lost to the sands of time and this is my attempt to breath life into him, to make sure that future generations will know about his life. I was inspired to write about Arthur’s story after hearing about a group called HMS Vanguard 1917 (Facebook & Twitter). The purpose of the group is to put a face to every name and currently, (January 2020), they have found photographs of 279 of the crew members. Sadly, there is no known photograph of Arthur Maton, although his service records give a good idea of what he looked like. There is hope, however, that one day, a photo of him will come to light. In the meantime, I want to ensure that he is remembered.
© Judith Batchelor 2020