Nicholas Swarbrick

First World War veteran


Nicholas Swarbrick, merchant seaman and farmer: born Grimsargh, Lancashire 14 November 1898; died Grimsargh 2 February 2006.

Nicholas Swarbrick, who was one of the last two Merchant Navy veterans of the First World War, serving as a radio officer on Atlantic convoys, has died aged 107.

He was born in 1898 at Grimsargh in Lancashire, where his father was a farmer. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was only six and he was later to lose his only sister from the same illness. He was only four when she first fell ill and, as she was infectious, he was not able to come near her because of her coughing. He recalled:

I never had a mother in the ordinary sense of the word - the sort of mother where you could fly into her arms. That was the last thing I was allowed to do. And, of course, there was the dreadful situation for my mother.

His sister, a mere seven years older than him, then ran the household.

His first school was Alston Hall in Grimsargh, after which he was sent to a Catholic school in Preston. His home was next door to the railway in Grimsargh and, in the morning, gulping down his breakfast, he could wait until the steam train was in the station before running to catch it for the 20-minute journey. He and his friends would pull the carriage window down and put their heads out - to be covered in ash from the train's smokestack.

Never interested in sport, he was a great reader but not averse to a game of marbles or conkers. When he moved to the senior school, he was progressing well with his education, but, at the age of 14, he was ruthlessly beaten by one of the priests for a minor fault with his homework. He was hit so hard, he never returned to school.

He was working with his father when the First World War broke out. Being interested in the new world of radio and scientific matters, he took a course in Liverpool learning Morse Code and was commissioned as a radio officer on the SS Westfalia, which sailed to Halifax, Nova Scotia, to pick up horses for the cavalry on the Western Front.

In December 1917, he sailed from Halifax just before the catastrophic explosion in the harbour when a munitions ship blew up, killing more than 2,000 people. During one of his many crossings, he watched a silent movie about the Titanic, which made a deep impact on him. Later, when his ship was transporting American troops from New York to Liverpool, he recalled passing over the site of the wreck of the ill-fated liner.

As in the Second World War, U-boats were menacing the Atlantic convoys. Swarbrick was to recall:

I'm not quite sure how many torpedoes missed us but ships were being sunk all around me. I was in the unenviable position of knowing before anyone else what was going on, on account of the radio distress calls. I was very much aware of the danger I was sharing with the people who were already being torpedoed. We picked up Morse from the other ships - that was the essence of my job - either from other ships or from shore. I could pick up an SOS from a ship in our convoy that was under attack but we never stopped to pick up survivors because if we did you'd be torpedoed. You'd be a sitting duck for a sub. I knew people were being left to die - but this was war.

On his last voyage before the Armistice, he was picking up signals from the radio station at the Eiffel Tower telling of the German retreat. His reports went into the ship's newspaper, printed daily. All messages received were handwritten in fountain pen and then communicated to the bridge by blowpipe.

After the war, he continued to serve as a radio officer in the Yeoward Line, calling at all the major ports in the world. He recalled:

So, in Brisbane and Madeira and the Canaries, we were free to join the passengers in their pursuits. After a while, we got to know the places, so the passengers were delighted to have a free guide and we were equally delighted to have quite a lot of young ladies. From a young man's point of view, it was heaven on earth. Once, I believe, I almost fell in love!

He left the Merchant Navy following the Great Crash in 1929 and returned to work for his father's coal, coke and lime business. When his father died, he took over the business and transferred his interest into farming, buying a number of large farms with a particular interest in cattle.

Nicholas Swarbrick lived a measured and well-focused life. A non-smoker and moderate drinker, he never married but was deeply interested in the progress of his brothers' children. He did not retire until he was 86 and sensed even then that he had many more years to come.

When I interviewed him a year ago in his residential home in Grimsargh for a book, Last Post: the final word from our First World War soldiers, he pointed out of the window and said:

I was brought up in those fields. I've sailed around the world many times and now I've come back to those fields - I have come full circle.

Max Arthur

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