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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
News
people
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

BI Developer - Sheffield - £35,000 ~ £40,000 DOE

£35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

Employment Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - Senior Employment Solici...

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Day In a Page

Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little