Just a stocking-filler really, but have you ever wondered what happens when a coffin enters the water but will not sink?

I am sure that this must have happened several times, but as always, when it happens at the funerals of VIP's it is highly noteworthy.

This is a story about the sea-burial of the Commander in Chief Portsmouth, one Admiral of the Fleet Sir John Kelly GCVO KCB

 after whom, HMS Kelly was named. 

This is a picture of Admiral Kelly's daughter at the launching of Mountbatten's HMS Kelly

He was also famous for his counsel to the lower deck after the Invergordon Mutiny and and as a naval Commander in WW1. After his death [and just like that of Lord Nelson in 1806] his body rested at the Old Admiralty in Whitehall. His funeral {6th November 1936} was a major London event involving the movement of the coffin from the Old Admiralty , through Horseguards Parade and up to the Mall, along the Mall and through Admiralty Arch into Trafalgar Square and thence to the Naval Church at St Martin's in the Field for the funeral service. His coffin was borne on the 'naval gun carriage' [as opposed to the State gun carriage which the navy keeps at Whale Island] which is kept at HMS Collingwood - see this file HMS Collingwood - keeper of a working burial gun carriage which requires only a small crew to man-handle it.  The bearer party were eight chief petty officers from HMS Pembroke the Chatham RN Barracks: this was odd, given that the Admiral was C-in-C Portsmouth!  The event was filmed by Pathe News and that film can be found here http://www.britishpathe.com/video/funeral-of-admiral-sir-john-kelly After the London funeral, his body was transported to Portsmouth by train where it rested in the Naval Cathedral, St Anne's Church Portsmouth Dockyard. The gun carriage was also returned to Portsmouth.

He died when aged 65 and was buried at sea on the 8th November 1936 in the traditional place just off the Nab Tower off the Isle of Wight. The ship involved was the old WW1 Ceres-class cruiser HMS Curacoa as originally built as a conventional cruiser of just over 4000 tons. At this stage in the story, just take note of her gun which is a 3" gun or in those days, a 12-pdr [pounder] gun and note its relative position to the coffin. She sailed from Portsmouth with four junior rates standing with heads bowed on each corner of the coffin facing outboard, with her quarterdeck awash with floral tributes and her Ensign at half mast: there are seven sailors on the quarterdeck, the other three awaiting orders to "let go aft" with a dockyard-matey [to the left of the letter 'C' copyright maker] ready to oblige. Tug 'Swarthy' stands-by to assist, whilst the WW1 'W'-class destroyer HMS Wild Swan [D62] - lost on 17th June 1942, bombed by German aircraft in the Bay of Biscay - one of the destroyer escorts, proceeds ahead towards the harbour entrance.

Just a note to avoid confusion. In 1939, Curacoa was converted into a AA cruiser and lost the gun [gun's] you see. This is what she looked like at the start of the war. Don't be confused by her Pennant Prefix. Had it been visible on the picture above [or in the Pathe Newsreel footage] you would have seen that her Pennant Number was I41 [India forty-one], the pre-war way of doing things. In 1939, all Pennant Numbers changed, and unlike now, having a 'D' or an 'F' doesn't necessarily mean the ship is a destroyer or a frigate. The figures '41' belonged to the Curacoa irrespective of the prefix letter.

When his coffin was committed to the deep, it floated amid much embarrassment for the navy and consternation to his family watching the event. No amount of wishing or praying could stop the coffin from bobbing up and down on the water, so a decision had to be taken. Note that the ship was loaded with admirals from every corner of the UK attending the funeral of their colleague, so the decision taken would have been a consensus of theirs and not the idea of the captain of the ship.

Whilst the relatives and friends were ushered over to the disengaged side of the ship [non firing side] fed with tea and buns by the wardroom stewards,  over on the engaged side, a QF {quick firing} 12 pounder gun [that's a large 3" gun, big enough to sink a ship*] the very one I have mentioned to take note of above was turned upon the coffin and for half and hour they blasted away at the coffin until it sank [all except for the debris caused by the shells hitting the wood work and who knows what else?] which was scooped up by a seaboat from the destroyer HMS Witherington [D76] - lost 29th April 1947 en-route to a ship-breakers yard - one of six destroyers escorting the Curacoa, and surreptitiously sorted away. Five Admirals of the Fleet were his pall bearers, the sixth, Sir Ernle Chatfield, the First Sea Lord was too ill to attend, and a 19-gun salute was fired from the Curacoa.

The picture below shows sailors training with a 12-pounder gun at the Whale Island Gunnery School in Portsmouth in 1890 firing over Portchester Creek. Imagine the damage that thing can do at close quarters?

The following text byte comes from the records of the time.

"Following the Ivergordon Mutiny in 1931, Joe Kelly was given command of the Atlantic Fleet [renamed Home Fleet] to restore morale and discipline [shades of Howe and the Spithead Mutiny in 1797].  A sailor's sailor, the rugged Joe Kelly was the perfect choice but the task exhausted him although subsequently, he saw out his time as C-in-C Portsmouth from January 1935 to July 1936. He was promoted to Admiral of the Fleet the day before hauling down his Flag on his 65th birthday. Joe Kelly, worn out and very tired, died four months later."

Despite a thorough search, there is no record remaining which gives us an idea [fly on the wall] of what happened back in Whale Island [the funeral organisers], or indeed on the ship itself, after the bodged funeral. Heads must have rolled, surely, and that much used naval expression of "who called the....." must have applied here in asking "who called the ~~*******## a gunner?" My heart goes out to those poor relatives and what the navy did [or didn't] beggars belief, bizarre behaviour in the extreme.

The story is well known of the terrible fate which was to befall the Curacoa.

Within the year, the new Commander in Chief Portsmouth was dead and he too had a sea-burial, but this time, lessons had been learned and the coffin had two six inch shells added to the body. See this file DIAMOND_JUBILEE_AND_THE_ROYAL_NAVY

Of some interest, the next but one C-in-C Portsmouth whose Flag flew when the German bombings of the City and the Naval Base were at their heaviest and most destructive point, was Admiral Sir William James [1939-1942] who went on to grand old age dying in Hampshire when aged 91 in 1973. He was not so famous as a sailor as he was for a sitting he was made to do for a painting when just a young child, the painter being his grandfather. The painting was later bought by the makers of Pears Soap and used as an advert which they called 'Bubbles'. The Admiral was naturally called Bubbles which followed him for much of his life, often to his great embarrassment especially when inappropriately used.


Admiral Sir William James GCB