Finding Captain William Henry Selby Hall

Tilbury Docks

 

William Henry Selby Hall was born 13.9.1858 in Greenhithe, Kent, just across the Thames

from Tilbury Docks, from where he would later sail regularly as a P&O Captain.

He was the son of Walter Rowland Hall, RN Captain (Coastguard). He married Mary

(maiden name as yet unknown) and they had a son Charles Ottley Hall in 1891,

who died aged 21 in 1912 and was buried in Portslade, East Sussex, presumably where

Captain Hall then lived.

 

He was the Master of SS Persia taking mail and passengers on a voyage to Bombay

when it was sunk by U38 without warning on 30th December 2015. The attack was made

south east of Crete as Persia sailed from Valletta to Port Said. Over 340 people lost their lives

that day, including 45 of 63 women and 14 of 16 children aboard.  The women included

Doctors, Nurses, Missionaries, Nannies, Fiancées and Mothers.

 

U38s torpedo exploded close to the forward port furnace and boiler resulting in a second

explosion. Persia sank in five minutes.  U38’s Captain Max Valentiner became the third

most successful U-boat commander of WW1 (Tonnage sunk) and was celebrated as an ace,

winning prestigious decorations for his missions. Captain William Henry Selby Hall, like

many merchant seamen and captains, sank with his ship and into relative

obscurity. With input from everyone who knows even a little about him, his family,

homes, Merchant Navy Training Ship and subsequent career, I hope to go some way

towards rectifying this. Snippets of information are like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle –

little pictures that turn into a big picture. If you know anything about this man, please

let me know so that my book about the sinking of SS Persia will do him long-overdue justice.

 

I also believe that the family name Wheeler may be connected to him in some way, so,

among others, I hope to hear from anyone with that name who may be related to

Captain Hall.

 

I can be contacted at    ss.persia@yahoo.com and hope to hear from some of you soon!

 

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U-boat threat? You can’t be serious!

At the outbreak of WW1, Britain and the Royal Navy had failed to recognise U-boats as serious threats, either militarily or economically. However, on 5th September, 1914, they got a tragic wake-up call when H.M.S. Pathfinder was torpedoed off St. Abbs Head by U21, the first ever sinking of any vessel by a motorised torpedo. The number of men lost is thought to have been 260, with only 16 saved.

This early warning still wasn’t heeded by the Admiralty until on 22nd September, three outdated British Armoured Cruisers, on patrol together and manned mainly by naval reservists, were all torpedoed and sunk off the Dutch coast. The sister ships were H.M.S.Aboukir, H.M.S.Cressy and H.M.S.Hogue, in a joint patrol known as Cruiser Force C. Some senior naval officers had not favoured using these older ships on such a patrol, as they would be at risk if they encountered the latest German warships. With typical naval humour, the three ships were nicknamed ‘The Live Bait Patrol’.

The ships were cruising slowly, about 10 knots, without zig-zagging. Why waste fuel on unnecessary manoeuvring where no U-boats had been reported? They were not to know that, on that day, Kapitanleutnant Otto Weddigen in U9 had been sheltering in the area from a storm. Early that morning he spotted the three ships and fired a single torpedo at 0625, striking H.M.S.Aboukir. She lost the use of her engines and started to list. Believing that she had struck a mine, her Commander, Captain Drummond, requested help and the other two came to her aid before the mistake was realised. They were both torpedoed. All three ships, each of 12,000 tons, were sunk. Although over 800 men were saved, 1,400 men lost their lives. Would the Admiralty start to take U boats seriously?

Commander Dudley Pound, who was to become First Sea Lord in World War 2, but was then serving in H.M.S.St.Vincent, wrote in his diary on 24th September –

“Much as one regrets the loss of life one cannot help thinking that it is a useful warning to us – we had almost begun to consider the German submarines as no good and our awakening which had to come sooner or later and it might have been accompanied by the loss of some of our Battle Fleet” (Halpern. Naval Miscellany VI. p.413.) Fourteen hundred men? Three ageing warships?

By 21st September 1915, one year on from this dreadful anniversary, U-boats would have sunk over 580 allied or neutral vessels. Serious? Worse was to come.aboukir copy

Cressy Class Armoured Cruiser.

u-boat

WW1 U-boat in dry dock. Note the two torpedo tubes aft.

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Early days

I submitted a proposal on this project to one publisher recently  and was impressed to get a reply on the same day, requesting a  full synopsis and ‘a few chapters’ for further evaluation, which  was encouraging. I am on the case, pending confirmation of contents of the synopsis.

Three people had previously reviewed my Prologue and Chapters  1 and 2 and they are in reasonable shape. Two  later chapters,  one about the sinking itself and the other about the fate of  passengers and crew have been drafted and my first revisions  are in progress. I hope to make them available for review soon.

One of the next big challenges in writing a century-old history  is that, in order to give it proper balance, I need to understand  three books written by U38 Kapitanleutnant Max Valentiner –

U 38: Wikingerfahrten eines deutschen U-Bootes

(U 38 Viking voyages in a German U-boat)

Todesgefahr über uns. U 38 im Einsatz

(Danger of Death Above – U 38 in action)

300000 tonnen versenkt!: Meine U-boots-fahrten

(300,000 tons Sunk! My U-boat voyages)

I have a copy of the first book on the list and am seeking the  other two and some willing volunteers to scan them in search of  relevant information, which I can identify in advance.  Thanks to ‘Google Translate’ for the book  titles now included above in English!

 

U38 crew taking a smoke-break while main batteries being recharged800px-German_Submarine_U38

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SS Persia 1915

The SS Persia Story

P1040801 ss persia mir copy

The Maritime Museum at Buckler’s Hard  , Beaulieu River, Hampshire, has a display commemorating the torpedoing of P&O liner S S Persia in 1915. The story and the evocative display quickly captured my imagination. I sought books to learn the full story but found none, though there are some excellent websites which have been great sources. In recent months I have embarked on my own voyage of discovery, to write the SS Persia story and fill this gap in World War I maritime history.

 

I soon realised that telling the SS Persia story had to cover much more than just one tragic day, during which at least 343 people died. In addition to being a war story, it includes aspects of other genres – murder, political intrigue, international law, a prison escape,  secret love, courage, tragedy, bereavement, comradeship and more.

The centenary of the sinking of the Persia 70 miles off the coast of Crete passed recently, with only modest acknowledgement, perhaps because many small scraps of the story are still scattered far and wide. The challenge is to find and fit all the jig-saw pieces together. Unfortunately, there is no box lid with a helpful picture. Descendants of both crew and passengers are dispersed across the world, lacking association, a common voice and even a common language. I hope to change this by telling the whole story and the unvarnished truth, creating a tribute to all those who died and those  whose lives were irreparably damaged when SS Persia was torpedoed and sank in only ten minutes.

My collection of information is growing rapidly, thanks to contributions from those at the heart of the Maritime Museum, from descendants of both passengers and crew aboard the SS Persia when she was attacked and from historians who have recorded World War I from both British and German perspectives. Can you add another piece to the jigsaw? If there is someone in your family history who went through this tragic incident, or who lost a relation, friend, lover, or colleague and you are interested in contributing to the story, or you have photographs, documents, letters, postcards, news clippings, or anything that seems as if it might be relevant please email me  All contributions will be acknowledged.

Some of the lost

The U-boat was under the command of Kapitanleutnant Max Valentiner who recorded in his log before firing the fatal torpedo –

‘I can see Cruiser with two masts and two funnels of around 9,000 tons 

that I assume to be a troop transporter.’

These details are in memory of some of the ‘troops’ who did not survive –

Dorothy Benson;  age 11 years, daughter of Alice (also lost)

Kathleen A Benson; age 5 years, daughter of Alice

Rose Mooney & Children
Rose Burcombe with Helena and Edward

Helena Burcombe,  age 2 yrs 2 months, daughter of Rose (also lost)

Edward Burcombe, age 10 weeks; Son of Rose

Gabour, Infant, other details unknown

Hoyle; age 3 years, daughter of Elizabeth (also lost)

Margaret Mccall Hutchison, age 15 Month

Keddy; age 6 years ,son of Sergeant and Mrs Keddy (both also lost)

Keddy; age 3 years, son of Sergeant and Mrs Keddy

Christine Minnitt, Infant, daughter of Mrs J Anson Minnitt (also lost)

McGinn, Quintilla, born 15 August 1915, son of Marie Maud (also lost along with un-named Ayah)

Alexander Macdonnel Montgomery; age 3 years

Elizabeth B Ross;  age 2 months, daughter of Mrs CE Ross (also lost)

Tresham, Infant, details unknown, child of Mrs Tresham (also lost)

 

 

 

 

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