Captain William James Short

Military unit: Mercantile Marine, RMS Eider
Date & place of birth: 25 January 1871 at Southampton
Date & place of death: 26 December 1917, aged 46, at Gorleston, Suffolk

William James Short was a captain with the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company. He was drowned when the small boat in which he was going ashore was overturned by a strong wave a few hundred yards offshore.

Family background

William James Short was born on 25 January 1871 in Bevois Valley, Southampton. He was the first-born child of James Robert Short (1853–1904) and his wife, Sarah Sophia née Varley (1851–1941).

Like his father and elder brother, James Robert Short joined the Merchant Navy from a young age. Aged only 17, he married 19-year old Sarah Sophia Varley at Southampton Registry Office on 10 September 1870. (Sarah was the daughter of William Varley, a marine engineer.) The couple’s first child, named William James after his grandfather, was born at Pomona Cottage, 30 Kings Terrace (at the junction of Mount Pleasant Road and Onslow Road), the following 25 January.

At the time of the 1871 census, James (described as a 20-year old mariner), Sarah and William (recorded as “William James Varley, 2 mths”) were living with Sarah’s parents, William and Elizabeth, at 2 Bridge Place, Northam Road. Also living with them was a lodger, 44-year old William Gammon.

Over the next twenty years, the couple had a further nine children, two of whom died as infants.

At the 1881 census, James was recorded at Portsea Pier as the master of SS Princess Beatrice, a paddle steamer with the Southampton, Isle of Wight & South of England Royal Mail Steam Packet Co. Sarah was living at 10 Northbrook Road, in the St Mary’s district, with her four sons. Their daughter, Maud was staying with James’s father, William James Short (1823–1898), at 19 Bugle Street, Southampton. (William was the general manager of the Southampton, Isle of Wight & South of England Royal Mail Steam Packet Co.) At the time of the census, Sarah was expecting her seventh child (having lost a daughter, Louisa, aged 3, in 1877). Henry was born a few weeks later, but died at less than three months old.

SS Solent Queen

In June 1889, James was on the bridge of the newly launched paddle steamer SS Solent Queen off Hythe Pier, en route from Cowes to Southampton, when the cry “Man overboard” came from one of the crew. James quickly turned the boat round and rescued the passenger, who turned out to be female, but dressed in a man’s overcoat and trousers. Sadly, she died in the Southampton Infirmary two weeks later. At the inquest, it was found that the woman had deliberately jumped into the sea; she was suffering from advanced breast cancer and had financial worries. The coroner gave the cause of death as “Collapse, consequent from pneumonia”; he praised the prompt action of James and his crew in saving the woman from drowning.

In 1891, James and Sarah were now at 30 Northbrook Road, with their eight youngest children. William is not recorded in the 1891 census – presumably he was at sea.

By the 1901 census, James had left the sea and the family were at 94 St Mary Street, where James gave his occupation as a “restaurant keeper”. Before long, he was back at sea but died on 17 March 1904 at the Royal Portsmouth, Portsea and Gosport Hospital. He had been the mate on the SS Bittern, when he fell into the ship’s hold and was fatally injured. He was buried in Southampton cemetery alongside his two infant children – the many floral tributes at his funeral included one from the members of the crew of the RMS Eider.

William James Short was baptised at St Luke’s Church in Cranbury Avenue, Southampton on 26 February 1871.

On 3 May 1896, aged 25, he married 20-year old Jane Bigden Bath at the Southampton Registry Office. Jane was born in Southampton and was the daughter of Stephen Bath, a builder, and Harriet Palmer. Prior to the marriage, Jane was living at 49 Cranbury Avenue, Southampton with her parents. (Her second Christian name comes from her paternal grandmother, Harriet Bigden.)

William and Jane had three children: Jane Bigden Bath (born January 1897), William James Creswell (born 24 January 1899) and Iris Roina (born 25 February 1907).

At the 1901 census, Jane was living at 17 Raven Terrace (Lyon Street), Southampton with her two eldest children, and 75-year old William Gammon, described as Jane’s grandfather. William Short’s maternal grandfather, William Varley had died in 1883, and in 1890 his grandmother, Elizabeth, aged 64, had married William Gammon. William Short was again not recorded on the 1901 census.

Ten years later, the family had moved to “Rokesby”, 26 Denzil Avenue, Southampton. In that year’s census, William is again absent, Jane was living with her three children, together with William Gammon (now 85), described as an ex-publican, as well as Phyllis Payne, a 20-year old general servant.

Masonic career

William’s father, James was initiated into Southampton’s Lodge of Peace and Harmony No 359 in November 1881, and remained a member until his death in March 1904.

William followed in his father’s footsteps when he was initiated into the Lodge of Peace and Harmony on 19 June 1911, aged 40. He was passed to the second degree on 17 July, and raised to the degree of a Master Mason on 21 August 1911.

Career in the Merchant Marine

On leaving school at 14, William probably served as an apprentice seaman. On 21 July 1890, aged 19, he received his certificate of competency as a Second Mate from the Board of Trade. On 6 March 1894, he received his certificate of competency as a First Mate and finally, on 10 February 1896, he was awarded the Certificate of Competency as a “Master of a Foreign-Going Ship”.

There are few details of William’s early career with the Merchant Navy. It is probable that he was a member of the crew of the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company’s R.M.S. Eider when the crew of that vessel sent a memorial wreath to his father’s funeral in March 1904.

RMS Eider

The Eider was a 1,236 ton mail ship built at Glasgow in 1900. She was used on RMSP’s Southampton-Bremen-Hamburg feeder service until 1907, when she was chartered to the Union Castle Line for the same service. She was one of the smallest ships in the Royal Mail fleet.

William was appointed master of the Eider in 1911.

On 5 August 1914, the Eider was the last British ship to leave Germany after war was declared the previous day.

Death and commemoration

On Christmas Day 1917, William Short was master of the SS Eider when she was brought up for the night at Gorleston, near Great Yarmouth, Norfolk. The following morning, Wednesday 26 December, it was decided to go ashore for provisions. At 10:00 a.m., the ship’s boat was launched and William, second mate Richard Hughes and four seamen set off to the harbour.

There was an ebb-tide, and the sea was very rough with a moderate gale blowing from the north-east. Once the boat had been rowed away from the ship, a lug sail was raised, which was lowered about a hundred yards from the mouth of the harbour. Once the sail had been stowed, the men started to row the boat with William at the tiller. Just then, a large wave hit the boat, turning it over and throwing William and his shipmates into the sea. The five other men managed to cling on to the overturned boat, but William was thrown well clear, and started to drift away to the south.

Within 15 minutes, the five men were rescued by a group of four local boatmen who had been towed out to sea by a tug, before rowing to the capsized boat. The tug took the men aboard before searching for William, but no trace could be found.

His body was washed onto the shore on Saturday, 29 December, still fully clothed with the exception of his oilskin.

An inquest was held on the following Monday, at which the Coroner praised the four local men for their pluck and courage in rescuing the five seamen in such difficult conditions, adding that local men would not have taken the harbour in those conditions unless forced to so.

The Coroner returned a verdict of “Accidentally Drowned” and said “they all knew the dangers of the bar, and it was a fine rescue by the Gorleston boatmen”.

William’s body was returned to Southampton; his funeral was held at St Luke’s Church, in Cranbury Avenue, close to the family home on Thursday 3 January 1918. Apart from family members and friends, the mourners included the Worshipful Master of the Lodge of Peace and Harmony, Wor. Bro. Thomas Lavington, and several members of his lodge, and many Royal Mail steamship captains and staff. (Wor. Bro. Lavington, had attended the funeral of another lodge member, Lieutenant Stanley James Young, at St Luke’s Church only a week earlier.)

He was buried in Southampton Cemetery in Hill Lane, close to the monument to the RMS Douro, near to his father. His grave bears the inscription:

In sweet and loving memory of Captain William James Short
The dearly loved true and devoted husband of Jane Bigden Short
Who was drowned off Great Yarmouth
Whilst in command of S.S. Eider December 26th 1917, in his 47th year

William is not recognised by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission as a war casualty, although he is commemorated on the Southampton Cenotaph in Watts (West) Park. He was posthumously awarded the Mercantile Marine War Medal and the British War Medal.

Subsequent family history

William’s widow, Jane, died on 22 December 1927, almost exactly ten years after her husband, and was buried alongside him and their elder daughter, Maud (Cooper), who had died earlier that year.

Their son, William, died in 1976, while their youngest child, Iris outlived two husbands and died in 1998, aged 91.



1871 England Census

1881 England Census

1891 England Census

1901 England Census

1911 England Census

City and County Directories, 1766–1946

Masters and Mates Certificates, 1850–1927

National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1858–1966

United Grand Lodge of England Freemason Membership Records, 1751–1921

Bitterne Local History Society: List of Names on the Cenotaph

Clydeships: Screw Steamer Eider

Find a Grave: William James Short

Hampshire Advertiser: 5 January 1918. Drowned in the North Sea

Masonic Roll of Honour: Ships Captain William James Short

The National Archives:

BT 351/1/128341: Medal Card of Short, William James

DCrew/113912: EIDER Reg No 113912 Crew Lists

Royal Mail Steam Packet Company:  “A link of empire; or, 70 years of British Shipping” 1910. pp. 31-32

Southern Echo:

5 June 1889. Suicide off Hythe. A Woman Dressed as a Man

23 March 1904. Funeral of Mr James Short

Yarmouth Independent: 5 January 1918. Gallant Rescue of Five Men by Gorleston Boatmen. Steamer’s Captain Drowned


Photograph credits

Gravestone: Find a Grave

SS Solent Queen: E-Bay

RMS Eider: