Capt. Gilbert Ratcliffe Watson

Captain Gilbert Ratcliffe Watson
S.S. Nerissa

As Douglas How mentioned in his article, not a lot is known about Captain Gilbert Ratcliffe Watson. He was one of the main players in the Nerissa story and yet he is only mentioned a few times in reports and documents. I mentioned this to Harry Butler and of course Harry immediately went on a search to find Gilbert’s service record. The portrait photos shown came from Gilbert’s daughter-in-law, Ellena Watson in Kendall, England. She very kindly sent all her photos of Gilbert to Harry. He intends to donate them to the Maritime Museum in London.

Among the photos received from Ellena was a letter written in 1994 from a Canadian, Len Burrow. Len had written to Ellena asking for information about Captain Gilbert Watson. It looks like he intended to write the story of the Nerissa sinking. I did a search on the internet for Len Burrow and found that in 1982 he had written a book called, “Unlucky Lady: The Life and Death of HMCS Athabaskan 1940-44”. Len was 80 years old when he wrote to Ellena in 1994 so would be 90 years old now.

Gilbert Ratcliffe Watson was born on May 4,1882 in Kendal, Westmorland. On the 1891 British Census it shows that his father was Charles Watson, a printer-compositor, his mother was Mary Agnes Watson, and that he had 2 brothers, Charles and Robert, and 4 sisters, Ada, Mary, Sarah and Margaret. Gilbert was the second youngest child.

First record we have of Gilbert signing up on a ship was on Dec. 14, 1898. He signed up on the ship Drumlaurig as a boy, age 16. He signed off on April 4,1900. The following are his next three ships:

Drumblair; barge; signed on: 15/6/00; signed off: 28/6/01. Drumblair; barge; signed on: 31/8/01; signed off: 28/3/03. Kinfauns; barge; signed on: 15/6/03; signed off: 20/12/04.

On March 23, 1905 Gilbert received his Certificate of Competency as an Ordinary Second Mate. His personal description shows that he was 6 ft. tall, fresh complexion, and had brown hair and blue eyes. The following are his ships during the period June 1905 to December 1912:

Celtic Monarch; a square rig; 2nd mate; 10/6/05 to 11/9/07.

S.S. Celtic Princess; 2nd mate; 7/12/07 to 11/3/10.

S.S. Fenmore; 3rd mate; 30/6/10 to 29/8/10.

S.S. Rowanmore; 3rd mate; 10/9/10 to 13/1/11.

S.S. Fenmore; 3rd mate; 7/2/11 to 24/7/11.

S.S. Fenmore; 2nd mate; 27/7/11 to 30/12/12.

On February 22,1913 Gilbert received his Certificate of Competency as a First Mate of a Foreign-Going Ship. The following are his ships during the period April 1913 to June 1920:

S.S. Heathmore; 2nd mate; 21/4/13 to 5/8/14.

S.S. Rowanmore; 2nd mate; 6/8/14 to 20/9/16.

S.S. Rowanmore; 1st mate; 21/9/16 to 30/10/16.

S.S. Kerry Range; lst mate; 21/12/16 to 6/4/17.

S.S. Quemmore; 1st mate; 16/5/17 to 24/6/17.

S.S. Thistlemore; 1st mate; 3/10/17 to 26/5/1S.

S.S. Cundall; 1st mate; 10/12/18 to 14/6/20.

On October 18, 1920 Gilbert received his Certificate of Competency as a Master of a Foreign-Going Ship. The following are his ships during the period November 1920 to April 30 1941:

S.S. Dromore; chief officer; 17/11/20 to 25/7/23.

S.S. Sachem; chief officer; 10/9/23 to 15/12/25.

S.S. Newfoundland; chief officer; 15/2/26 to 15/5/26.

S.S. Nova Scotia; chief officer; 21/5/26 to 15/7/29.

S.S. Mid-Ocean; master; 15/10/29 to 15/7/36 (?).

S.S. London Corporation; chief officer; 27/7/36 to 24/12/36.

M.V. Pacific Reliance; chief officer (?); 18/10/38 to 30/10/38 (?).

M.V. Pacific Enterprise; chief officer (?); 31/10/38 to 10/4/39 (?).

S.S. Humber Arm; chief officer (?); 14/4/39 to 6/6/39.

M.V. Pacific President; relief officer (?); 23/8/39 to 15/11/39 (?).

M.V. Pacific Pioneer; relief officer; 21/11/39 to 1/12/39 {?).

S.S. Humber Arm; master (?); 11/12/39 to 13/3/40.

S.S. Nerissa; master; 17/7/40 to 21/3/41 (torpedoed and sunk April 30 1941].

Gilbert Ratcliffe Watson was issued the following Medals and Ribbons:

Mercantile Marine Ribbon issued 24/3/20. British Medal Ribbon issued 24/3/20. Mercantile Marine Medal issued 9/4/23. British Medal issued 9/4/23.

Sometime, probably in the early 1900s, Gilbert married a girl named Sarella and they produced two sons. Both sons married but there were no children. They both passed away at an early age. One of the sons’ wife, Ellena Watson, has provided us with information and photos, for which we are extremely grateful. She is still living in Kendal, Westmorland.

Harry found the following entry on page 156 of the Wills Admons Book at the National Archives:

WATSON, Gilbert Ratcliffe of 31 Wildman Street, Kendal. Died 30 April 1941 on War Service. Administration Carlise. 1st Nov. to Sarella Watson, widow. Effects £668.19s.

Hugh Frost was on the 39th crossing of the SS Nerissa. He was 4 years old and came over with his parents. In 1987 Hugh took his mother back to England for a visit. One of the things she wanted to do was visit an old friend in Kendal. While his mother and several women were sitting for tea her friend said, “Do you know who lives across the street ?” Well it was Mrs Watson, wife of Gilbert. So later they went over and had a good visit with her. There on the mantel was a model of the Nerissa along with photos and medals of the Captain’s.

I find this quote from Jack Cockrell’s article in the Times Colonist August 8, 2001 especially moving. We owe so much to these men of the Merchant Navy.

“As they watched from the water, the Nerissa’s skipper, Capt. Gilbert Watson, a First World War vet who’d been ‘fished’ – sunk – several times before, stood on the bow. He fired three flares into the air and yelled ‘Good luck boys’ as he went down with his ship.’