Ordinary Seaman Gilbert Harold Halstead was one of the 745 men and 51 officers who lost their lives when the battleship HMS Bulwark exploded at 7:50am on 26th November 1914 while anchored near Sheerness. Although sabotage or enemy action was initially suspected, a naval court of enquiry found that the explosion was caused either by a fault in one of the shells stored in a corridor or by the overheating of cordite that had been placed adjacent to a boiler room bulkhead. A list of the casualties was published in the Birmingham Daily Mail on 3rd December 1914.
Gilbert Halstead was born in Solihull on 10th February 1896, the only son amongst the five children of Harold William Halstead and his wife Evangeline (née Thompson). At the time of the 1911 census, the family was living at 14 Richmond Road, Olton, and 15-year-old Gilbert was working as a gun fittings hardener at a small arms factory, whilst his father was listed as Managing Director of a motor company. Ten years earlier, in 1901, when Gilbert was five, the family was living at Warwick Road, Olton and Gilbert’s father was listed as a carriage maker. Previous censuses show Harold as a wheelwright and apprentice carpenter.
Gilbert’s service record is available on the Find My Past website (accessible free of charge from computers in any Solihull library) and shows that he joined the Royal Navy training ship, HMS Impregnable, on 18th June 1912, as Boy Second Class, aged 16. He was described as 5ft 5½in tall on enlistment (although this later increased to 5ft 7in by the time of his 18th birthday) with dark brown hair, dark blue eyes, and a fresh complexion. It was noted that he had scars on both palms, and his previous occupation was given as warehouse boy.
He was promoted to Boy First Class in March 1913, before becoming an Ordinary Seaman on his 18th birthday, 10th February 1914, and signing up for a engagement period of 12 years, joining HMS Bulwark on the same day. In August 1914, Bulwark carried out a number of patrols in the English Channel, before being transferred as part of the 5th Battle Squadron to Sheerness on 14th November 1914 to guard against possible German invasion (information from World Naval Ships Forum).
Gilbert Halstead served on Bulwark from February 1914 until he was “Discharged Dead” when the ship was sunk on 26th November. His character was recorded as very good, and his ability increased from moderate in October 1913 to satisfactory in November 1913.
The ship was ripped apart just as the crew was having breakfast. Eye-witnesses reported that when the smoke cleared, there was no sign of the ship, which had been moored at buoy no. 17 at Kethole Reach on the River Medway at Sheerness. Debris fell up to four miles away, and the sound of the explosion was heard 20 miles away in Whitstable. Southend pier was also reportedly shaken by the blast. There were only 14 survivors, five of whom later died from their injuries.
Gilbert Harold Halstead’s body is not one of those known to have been recovered from the sea, so he is commemorated on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial. He is also listed locally on war memorials at St Margaret’s Church, Olton and at Olton United Reformed Church, as well as on the war memorial at St Mary’s Church, Moseley.
Please get in touch if you know more about Gilbert Harold Halstead, or his family in Olton or Solihull (his mother was born in Solihull and his grandparents William Thompson and Anne Howes Robbins lived in Solihull High Street).
Heritage & Local Studies Librarian
Tel.: 0121 704 6934