Charlie Wells: The Dreadnought Boy
Christmas before last, I booked on a Countrylink train to Tamworth, New South Wales, where I transferred to a bus which took me to Inverell, a trip of almost nine hours. The reason being, my dad’s uncle’s family live there, which makes them my second cousins.
My dad, when he was alive, would often speak of his cousins in Australia. And being an avid letter writer, would regularly correspond with them, and they with him, exchanging family photos and anecdotes. It’s my belief he would have liked to have visited them one day, or even to emigrate, to Australia, family ties however keeping him from his dream. He sadly died suddenly in 1988.
When I holidayed in Australia in 1991, as a tribute to dad, I decided to visit my Australian relatives, hoping that in so doing a small part of him might see and experience the things that I would do.
The journey I described at the beginning I took almost twenty five years ago, alone, and new to this enormous and varied continent. From the carriage window, I experienced vistas vastly different to any I had seen before. Hectares of bush, as far as the eye could see. Lofty gum trees, their white trunks flashing in the January sunshine. Kangaroos bounding in the parched grass, and strutting emus gazing lazily as we passed by. The mighty Great Dividing Range seen across the plain from the window of the Countrylink bus speeding me north through strange sounding places like Manilla, Barraba and Warialda.
How must all this have appeared to a young lad arriving fresh off the boat from England, knowing full well he would never to see his mum and brothers again? Because young Charlie Wells was the reason I was making this journey.
In 1903 the Australian government hit upon a scheme to fund the building of a battleship for the British Navy, as the country’s contribution to increasing the British fleet. The Dreadnought Scheme, as it was called, raised $90,000 by public donation. However by the beginning of World War One, the sum remained un-utilised. It was decided therefore to use the money, firstly to build a naval college at Jervis Bay, on the south coast of New South Wales, as well as fund the emigration from British cities of boys and young men, from the age of fifteen upwards, to New South Wales in order to pursue useful agricultural work in the far reaches of the state, at the same time swelling the male population of the out lying districts.
Every family has a tale, or should I say, mythology, relating to one family member or another; my grandmother on my father’s side was convinced she was related to French aristocracy when in fact the only French person in her family tree was a hugonot silk weaver from Bethnal Green.
I have been lucky however, discovering three such ancestors, with juicy tales to tell, resulting in me writing five novels recalling events in their lives. The Merry Millionaire, and it’s sequel, Pomp and Circumstance, The Durra Durra Saga, a romantic historical novel telling the life of my great great uncle, and convict ancestor, James Baker Waldon, The Boy at the Mansard Window, a murder mystery, set in the depths of the Kentish Weald during Hop Picking. And presently, The Dreadnought Boy; a biofiction novel telling Charlie Wells’ story.
With regard to Charlie, the story goes that as a toddler he fell and broke his back, ending up in St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, Chatham in Kent, where it was realised the little chap had lost all feeling in his legs. My great grandmother, Elizabeth Wells, was told by the doctors that, if she managed to keep little Charlie still, he just might manage to heal himself and walk again.
His older brother George constructed a wooden cot for his baby brother, in such a way it would restrict his movement giving his injured spine a chance to mend. Of course, over the years Charlie must have grown, so there would have been several boxes built to accommodate the growing lad.
I can’t be entirely accurate with the date, but it would have been prior to the beginning of the First World War, that one day my grandfather, Jack Wells, Charlie’s second eldest brother, and my great grandmother, heard a noise coming from the upstairs back bedroom. And reaching the top of the stairs, discovered Charlie, now perhaps a lad of thirteen or fourteen, standing beside the box, and able to walk.
War was declared in August 1914, and young men began to sign up. But because my grandfather and his two brothers worked at Chatham dockyard as fitters and turners, they were considered reserved occupation, so were never conscripted. What then would happen to their younger brother Charlie, who had no education all the years he lay in the box, thus a prime subject for cannon fodder. The story goes, that he and a friend decided to chance their luck in Australia, and booked passage on a ship bound for Sydney. But Charlie missed the boat, and his pal went without him, his mate’s ship sunk by a German submarine, with the loss of all hands. Charlie continued to take another ship, and finished up in Australia. Well that’s how the story goes. Nonetheless, this part of Charlie’s story was not entirely accurate, and by research, I was able eventually to fill in a few gaps.
So what really happened to Charlie Wells?
As a member of Ancestry.com for over ten years, I’ve researched my family tree extensively. But when I came to fitting my grandfather’s brother Charlie into the tree, I came up with a curious find. The genealogy website Find my Past has a data base holding outgoing passenger lists for ships leaving England, so I searched its records to find my great uncle Charlie and the ship he took to emigrate to Australia. Remarkably I found him quite easily, recorded as leaving England in July 1915, on the RMS Osterley, listed aged sixteen, travelling third class and recorded as a Dreadnought Boy.
Up until then I’d never heard of a Dreadnought Boy, or the Dreadnought Scheme, so with my imagination ignited I delved into my research, coming up with the information I have previously mentioned.