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Where Once They Sailed: Sailor uses brother's birth year to enlist with Navy

Seaman James Thomas Hiscock
Seaman James Thomas Hiscock - Contributed

James Thomas was born to John Thomas and Jemima (Stringer) Hiscock of Hodge's Cove.

James travelled from the Southwest Arm area to St. John's for enlistment in the Newfoundland Royal Naval Reserve sometime in early September, likely after the summer fishery.

An Evening Telegram article entitled Our Volunteers on May 11, 1917, claimed that recruitment was slow with only 10 men showing up at the different recruitment stations around the province for enlistment with the Navy, Army and Forestry. It was the smallest number for several days. 

Courtesy of Laura Hancock James Thomas and his wife Bessie.
Courtesy of Laura Hancock James Thomas and his wife Bessie.

Among the published names were Robert and Isaac Smith of Island Cove; Samuel Drover of Hodge's Cove; and George Hiscock of S.W. Arm, Random. Their recruitment composed 40 per cent of the 10 listed names. For this short time period, it was a significant contribution of personnel from such a small area of the province for the war effort overseas.

Navy records do not show the acceptance of the enlistment for George Hiscock of Hodge's Cove. This could mean that George was recruited but was determined to be not medically fit for service. He returned to Hodge's Cove shortly after his name appeared in the paper.

Enlistment papers could not be located for James Thomas but his ship’s ledger indicates he likely signed his enlistment papers on Sept. 26, 1917, four months after the above mentioned newspaper article.

Could James have used his brother's birth year as means of covering his actual age at enlistment?

On his ship's ledger, James’ birth date is listed as Aug. 13, 1899. His birth certificate, however, clearly shows he was born on Aug. 30, 1901 at North Harbour, Placentia Bay where his father had temporarily moved the family from Hodge's Cove for work.

His brother George was born in March 1899.

Did James use a combination of the two birth dates to help conceal his age?

We will never be able to confirm the answer to these questions but based on his certificate of birth, we can say that he was just a boy, a boy of 16 years, searching for adventure and an opportunity to make his mark on the raging war overseas.

His ship's ledger records that his naval career began on Sept. 26, 1917, at the HMS Briton where he spent three months training. He was transported overseas and assigned to the HMS Vivid III Royal Naval Division, a shore-based structure at Devonport. He spent six months at this facility and was likely assigned to one of the King's trawlers.

On June 6, 1918, he was transferred to HMS Pactolus, a depot ship for submarines. While at this location he served on the Lassie II, a hired drifter with a ponder gun. The vessel was used mostly in conducting minesweeping duties. He spent the next nine months carrying out this duty at Ardrossan, Scotland with the 9th Submarine Flotilla conducting minesweeping and patrolling for the submarine fleet.

His next assignment was for only two weeks at the HMS Thames, a submarine depot ship at Devonport. Due to the quality of the copy of his ship's ledger, the ship he was assigned to was not identifiable.

On April 15, 1919, Seaman Hiscock was transferred to HMS Vivid III where he awaited his final transfer home to the HMS Briton. His orders were received a month later and he departed England for Newfoundland on May 14, 1919.

He arrived in Halifax aboard the SS Cedric and cleared customs. He then boarded a ship to Newfoundland on May 29 and was demobilized on July 2, 1919.

He returned home no longer a boy but a man. He had participated and witnessed the theatrics of war where he performed his duty to the best of his ability like all other enlisted men from our area.

The 1921 census indicates he was living at Hodge's Cove where he is listed as a member living with his widowed father Thomas.

Seven years later, he married Bessie, daughter of Martin and Laura Belbin of New Chelsea in a ceremony at Grates Cove on Oct. 11, 1928.

His family is listed as living at Hodge's Cove in the 1935 census with one child, Martin, age two.

James' sister, Susannah, was living at Englee after her marriage to Arthur Compton in 1925. His family reached a decision to move to Englee in the early 1940s where he found work in the lumber woods.

In the 1945 census, his family is listed as having two children, Martin and Eliol and living in the town of Englee.

They would be blessed with three more children, a daughter they named Laura and two more sons, Tobias and Gordon.

James worked in the fishery during the summer and at logging during the winter months. He also operated a sawmill where he received a head injury in 1954. This injury led to a series of strokes which caused his death on Sept. 20 of that year.

He is buried next to his wife Bessie, who died 23 years later. Both James and Bessie are resting at the Englee Apostolic Faith Cemetery.

William John Peddle began his training with the Newfoundland Royal Naval Reserve on Dec. 30, 1910 completing 112 days of required service by the winter of 1914. He was a well-trained sailor when The Great War was declared in the summer of 1914. He spent his entire naval career on the high seas in the company of other fellow sailors from the Southwest Arm area. Read his story in next week's issue of Where Once They Sailed.

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