I Am Alone

It wasn’t until my grandfather was aged 88 that I was able to tell him more about the father and half-brother that he never knew. And the events in the life of my great-grandfather at the turn of the century make very sad but interesting reading…

…brawls, disturbances, court appearances, deaths, disasters, inquests, desertion, solitude, death in the old workhouse…

My grandfather Maurice Miller Ward was born in 1899. The 1901 census for Langton Matravers in Dorset showed him as a ‘visitor’ aged 1, in the High Street home of James Bower, a quarryman and his wife Julia. Ten years later, he was still at Langton, but boarding with grocer Margaret Cooper and her two daughters. On both censuses, my grandfather’s birthplace was shown as Southampton.


Jessie with Maurice

Maurice’s mother Jessie Ward (nee Morris) was also living in Langton, but at Durnford House. She worked for Thomas and Ellinor Pellatt who ran the Boys’ School; in 1901 as cook and in 1911 as housekeeper. On both censuses she was shown as married. When my grandfather Maurice married in 1922, the register entry showed his father as deceased.


Maurice Miller Ward pictured in 1948

But my great-grandfather was not deceased then. Nor had my grandfather Maurice been born in Southampton. In fact, his birthplace was Aldeburgh on the Suffolk Coast, the hometown of his father, well over 150 miles away.

Family of Fishermen

My great-grandfather’s name was James Miller Ward. He was born at Aldeburgh on 20 February 1857 to David James Ward, a fisherman like his father before him, and his wife Louisa (neé Miller). They had eight sons and three daughters, two dying as infants.

James married Anna Maria Forster at the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, Aldeburgh on 6 May 1878. His occupation was recorded as mariner. James and ‘Annie’ had just one son, also named James Miller Ward, born 11 November 1878. When the census was taken in 1881, James senior was shown as a fisherman and his wife as a net maker. In 1891, James senior was absent, presumably on a fishing vessel.

Family Brawl

On 22 January 1885, James senior’s wife Annie accused Louisa Laws, James senior’s sister of assaulting her. At the Petty Sessions on 7 February 1885 the evidence disclosed that the assault, which was mutual, took place in the High Street after a regular “sisterly” quarrel, during which some very “choice” language was used on both sides. The Magistrates dismissed the case, characterising it as a “family brawl,” in which one was as bad as the other. Considerable amusement was caused during the hearing of the evidence, the attitude of the litigants being frequently pugilistic, causing the Chairman to remark, amidst much laughter, that “he should not like to quarrel with either of them.”


On Christmas Eve 1895, a party was taking place next door after a wedding. Oscar Downing, a fisherman, was charged with assaulting James senior and his wife Annie. Downing and others had been drinking healths all round, and Downing, by his singing outside the house, caused James and Annie to come out. Downing wanted some whisky, and on being refused, struck a blow over the gate at James senior. Downing then entered the garden, and was twice knocked down by James senior, while wife Annie pulled his hair! Police Constable Jackson said Downing was drunk and bleeding from the nose and escorted him home. The Bench, in consideration of the fact that James senior had knocked Downing about, fined him only five shillings plus costs. The fisherman outside the Court marked their sympathy with the youthful Downing by subscribing nearly sufficient money to pay his fine.

Wife’s death

On 28 November 1897, James senior’s wife Annie died of cancer aged just 41. He was present at her death.

Second marriage

Almost one year to the day after his first wife died, on 30 November 1898, James senior, now described as a yachtsman and aged 40, married Jessie Morris aged 30.

Mother’s death following fall

On 12 February 1899, James’ mother Louisa Ward, aged 70, was in her sitting-room when her husband called to her to open the front door. In crossing the room, she tripped over some cocoa-nut-matting, and fell, breaking her thigh. She lingered on for five days until 17 February 1899 when she died from shock to the system. An inquest was held the following day and a verdict of “Accidental Death” was returned.

Son’s wedding

On 3 April 1899 son James Miller Ward junior, a yachtsman aged 21, married Alice Clarke, a domestic servant, also aged 21.

Granddaughter’s birth

On 9 August 1899 James junior’s wife Alice gave birth to Daisy Alice Maria Ward.

Son’s birth

On 22 October 1899, James senior’s second wife Jessie gave birth to Maurice Miller Ward (my grandfather).

Son’s death in lifeboat disaster

Just six weeks later, James Miller Ward junior, was the youngest of seven lifeboatmen who lost their lives in the Aldeburgh Lifeboat Disaster of 7 December 1899.


James Miller Ward junior

Briefly, the events surrounding the disaster were as follows:

At 11am on Thursday 7 December 1899, guns were fired summoning the crew of the lifeboat after signals of distress had been heard in the heavy storm. The sea was so high that after a particularly heavy wave striking the broadside of the lifeboat, it capsized, turning upside down, and came to rest on the beach. Of the 18 crew, 12 managed to make it back to the beach, but six were trapped in the overturned hull. One of them, James Miller Ward junior was washed out from under the boat and although efforts were made to revive him it was futile. Hundreds of men tried to raise the boat to get to the other men but without success. After three hours, a hole was smashed through the hull, but the other five men were dead. It was nearly six o’clock before the last body was freed. And one of those that did make it back to the beach later died from the injuries he sustained. An inquest was subsequently held at which James Miller Ward senior was present and asked questions. He also confirmed that his 21 year old son was master of a yacht in summer and filled up his time fishing in winter. At the time his widow Alice was expecting their second child.


The overturned lifeboat after a hole had been smashed through its hull



Remembrance Cards for James Miller Ward junior

Grandson’s birth … …and death

In July 1900 James junior’s widow Alice gave birth to Percy James Reuben Ward. Sadly he had a cleft palate and died just six weeks later on 31 August 1900.

Father’s death

On 4 October 1900 James’ father David Ward also died after a fall the previous month and a further inquest resulted with the same verdict of “Accidental Death” recorded.


Sometime before census night of 31 March 1901, Jessie had moved out of their Aldeburgh home and taken Maurice with her to Langton Matravers in Dorset and all contact with James senior is believed to have ceased. James senior was the living on his own in Lee Road, Aldeburgh.


James Miller Ward senior, second wife Jessie & son Maurice in pram

Life continues

At the time of the 1911 census, James senior was actually moored in Harwich Quay on board the fishing vessel ‘Wygiel’. James was the mate and his brother George Henry Ward was the master.

Last Will

On 23 April 1926, James senior made his last will and testament. He was then living at 71 King Street, Aldeburgh. He said:

“I give devise and bequeath all my estate both real and personal to my son Morris Miller Ward if he is living at my death and comes forward and identifies himself within five years of my death (he having been taken away by his mother many years ago) …”


James senior died on 8 May 1936 at the Red House, Bulcamp-cum-Blythburgh. The Red House was the former Union workhouse. It was not a very nice place. Some thirteen years later the poor conditions at the Red House were even brought up in a House of Commons debate when the sanitation was described as inadequate, the bathrooms were in a deplorable condition and elderly patients had to sleep in beds placed beside outside doors.


On 17 May 1936, the following appeal was published in the News of the World:

“WARD. Will Morris Miller Ward please communicate with me the undersigned when he will hear something to his advantage. Dated this 12th day of May, 1936. J. Noel Cooper, solicitor, Saxmundham, Suffolk.”

Replica fishing boat

The announcement was pointed out to Maurice and he travelled to Suffolk to collect a large-scale replica wooden fishing boat which his father James had supposedly built with just one arm (having lost an arm in a whaling accident many years earlier). James senior’s effects were valued at £195.

The replica boat is now in my possession. It bears the inscription ‘I AM ALONE.’

Lifeboat Disaster Memorial


The Lifeboat Disaster Memorial

A memorial to the disaster is sited in the graveyard at the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul. It bears the following inscription:

On December 7th 1899, in response to signals of distress, a crew of 18 brave men manned the lifeboat “Aldeburgh” which was speedily launched in the teeth of an easterly gale and a heavy rolling sea. At duties call to rescue others with their own lives in their hands, these brave men went afloat, when alas! the boat capsizing seven of them met their end and lie buried here.

By a large fund promptly raised to provide for those suddenly bereft, as well as by the monument, fellow townsmen and fellow countrymen near and far paid tribute to an example of noble self-forgetfulness.

There are seven crosses marking the individual graves of the six men who died at the time of the disaster, and the seventh who died of his injuries over 3 months later.


Grave of James Miller Ward junior

The inscription for James junior reads:

In Loving Memory of James Miller Ward aged 21
The Lord hath need of him

Centenary commemoration


Centenary Commemoration Invitation

On 5 December 1999 I attended a special service to commemorate the Aldeburgh Lifeboat Disaster with other members of my family.

Closer to home

By coincidence, James Miller Ward junior has his name inscribed on a memorial in my home town of Poole in Dorset – the RNLI have their headquarters here and a few years ago they erected a memorial on which the names are inscribed of all lifeboatmen who have lost their lives over the centuries.


Part of the RNLI Memorial at Poole

Sharon White (nee Ward)

East Anglian Daily Times – Friday 12 March 1999

News Report – 8th Dec 1899

Called out in atrocious conditions to go to the assistance of a boat in distress the 46ft 13 ton wooden lifeboat Aldeburgh was flung over and submerged by a mighty wave shortly after launching. While some of the 18 crew managed to swim clear and make it back to shore many were trapped under the capsized hull and either drowned at sea or after the boat came to rest upside down on Aldeburgh beach.

As the sad centenary of the tragic event approaches preparations are being made to honour the brave men who perished that day in the name of duty. A church service is being organised and a wreath will be laid at sea. Efforts are now being made to trace living relatives of victims and survivors of one of Aldeburgh’s worst disasters as recounted below.

At 11am on Thursday telephone messages were received at Aldeburgh that minute guns were firing out at sea to the southward but caution was exercised before the gun cotton rockets used for the purpose of summoning the crew of the lifeboat at Aldeburgh were fired,” reported The East Anglian Daily Times of December 8 1899.

An understated introduction to a graphic account of one of the most terrible disasters ever to hit the East Anglian coast. On that morning responding to the alarm signals with unswerving dedication to duty 18 local crewmen had swiftly mustered at the lifeboat station. The sprat boats had taken the early morning tide but those who had gone north saw that a gale was brewing and wisely beached at Sizewell,” continues the report. So horrendous were the sea conditions that even after meeting at the lifeboat station it was some time before the order was given to launch the 46ft “Aldeborough”.

The storm at length broke and by noon a heavy gale was raging from the south east by east blowing dead on shore. Signals of distress were soon heard. Battling against the heavy sea the crew fought against the on shore wind until they headed south at great speed with sails set. But despite making good progress disaster lay only minutes away. Just then a heavy sea struck the boat on her quarter and before her helm could recover a mighty sea struck her broadside. She was over in a moment and such a scene has never been witnessed off Aldeburgh.

The boat remained afloat but was driven by the force of the sea inshore. Some crew members struggled free or had been thrown clear of the crippled boat. But half of them were trapped in the upturned keel. Almost all the inhabitants of Aldeburgh were watching the boat as she went through the surf towards Slaughden Quay at the southern end of the town and cries of horror were raised in a thousand voices when it was seen that she had capsized.

When it finally beached no time was lost in attempting to release those held inside the 13 ton boat. A rush was then made to cut through the wreck with axes. On the tide receding there was great anxiety to dig out the boat in which by that time a large hole had been made. Work was carried on with remarkable energy although darkness set in and by 6.30pm all bodies had been recovered. People had poured on to the beach from the town as news of the tragedy spread. Many were wives and mothers of the men trapped in the boat. They were helpless to act as the muffled shouts and screams of their suffering loved ones reached them.

Interviewed at home after the ordeal by the East Anglian Daily Times reporter he said “We missed half a dozen of the crew at once and knew they must be under the boat. In a short time James Miller Ward was washed out from under the fore part of the boat. He was insensible and dead really, for Dr Wrightson and others tried for an hour or more to bring him to and could not do so. The tide was still making and with the waves breaking right over the boat some of us were working up to our necks in water all the afternoon before we got the last of the bodies out from under the boat. Some of them were dreadfully crushed.”


Zeppelins over Aldeburgh

Aldeburgh has been visited by Zeppelins on at least two occasions, one during wartime:

August 1915 


Zeppelin L-10

Extract from ‘The Beginnings of Strategic Air Power: A History of the British Bomber Force‘, Neville Jones, 2012:

On the night of 9-10 August 1915, the Zeppelin L 10, commanded by Oberleutnant Wenke, was one of five German airships which set out to attack targets in England. The airship crossed the coast at Aldeburgh at about 9.40 p.m. and steered for London on a south-westerly course. After maintaining this course for some time, Wenke changed to a south-easterly course, and shortly after midnight he made his attack in poor visibility on what he thought were the London docks. He was in fact some 30 miles to the east of the capital and his bombs fell, not on London, but on the Isle of Sheppey, at the mouth of the Thames. Of the other four airships taking part in the raid, only one, the L 9 commanded by Kapitanleutnant Loewe, succeeded in reaching the area in which his target lay.


[The first air raid in Britain to cause fatalities was the Zeppelin raid on Great Yarmouth on 19 January 1915 in which two civilians were killed]

August 1931

The image below is of The Graf Zeppelin over Aldeburgh in August 1931:


Graf Zeppelin over Aldeburgh August 1931. Image courtesy of Charles Walker