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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions