Donkeyman Wilfred Gowing of merchant ship SS Combe, died when the ship was lost en route from Liverpool to Archangel, Russia. Wilfred was born in Cranworth, Norfolk on 16th September 1891 and was the fifth of the seven children of parents Horace, a gamekeeper, and Mary Ann (née Wilkins) who had married at Mary’s home parish of Temple Balsall in 1883.
The family moved around frequently – eldest son, Harry, was born in Aldridge, Walsall in 1883, but the family had moved to Compstall, Cheshire by 1885 when the second child, William Frederick was born, moving to Shrigley, Cheshire by the time daughter, Emma Elizabeth, was born in 1887. Their fourth child, Arthur, was born in Birmingham in 1889, and the family was then in Norfolk from at least 1891, when Wilfred was born, until at least 1894 when his sister, Evelyn Lucy was born. Youngest child, Dorothy Mary, was born in Bladon, Oxfordshire in 1896.
Mother, Mary Ann, had died by 1901 when her widowed husband, Horace, and their children were living in Fen End with her father, William, a farmer. Horace remarried in 1901 and had four children with his second wife, Mary Ellen (née Breckill) with whom he was living in Cheshire by 1911.
Wilfred worked as a groom before joining the Royal Navy as a Boy in October 1908. He became an Ordinary Seaman in September 1909 and his character was described as “very good” before he deserted in Sheerness in June 1911. It’s not known when he joined the Merchant Navy, although he is listed as a crew member of the Combe on a previous voyage in 1915, being described as a Fireman and Trimmer, although his place of birth is incorrectly given as Sherwood.
The SS Combe was built in 1912 and owned by Stephenson & Clarke Ltd. The ship was chartered by the Royal Field Artillery in 1915 as an artillery ship and set off from Liverpool on 12th October 1915 for what would be her final voyage. She lost her escort on 14th October 1915 and was posted as missing with all hands. The fate of the ship appears still to be unknown. Wilfred was a Donkeyman, meaning that he was an engineer looking after the sonkey engine in the ship’s engine room. He is commemorated on Tower Hill Memorial, along with 21 of his shipmates who were also lost with the SS Combe. They are also commemorated on the Stephenson & Clarke memorial at South Shields.
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