The Doris Burton mystery

Some of the Doris Burton crew remembered on one of the Lost At Sea plaques on the Oliver's Mount war memorial.
Some of the Doris Burton crew remembered on one of the Lost At Sea plaques on the Oliver's Mount war memorial.
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Written by Dr Jack Binns

The German naval bombardment of Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby in the morning of Wednesday, December 16, 1914 almost eclipsed every other concern in these towns about the war. Apart from the relatives of the crew, everyone for the time being forgot about the possible fate of a local trawler called the Doris Burton, which had set out from Hartlepool and had not been heard of since November 21. Of the crew of this new, fishing trawler there had been four men and two boys from Scarborough. Three of them were married men and between them they were fathers of 18 children.

Had the Doris Burton struck or netted a German mine and gone down with all hands? Had a U-Boat taken off the men and boys and set them adrift in the trawler’s small boat? Had the crew been captured and taken back to Germany as prisoners? Or had the trawler capsized in a storm and taken down all of the fishermen and boys with it?

No-one knew. There had been no news and no sightings reported.

Even to this day, a century later, we still do not know 
what happened to the Doris Burton and its unfortunate crew.

Of the six from Scarborough, the senior was the skipper John William Truefitt. Born in the town in 1873, he was the son of Burton and Mary Jane Truefitt who lived at 61 Quay Street. Presumably, John William was part owner and the boat was named after his father’s family. In 1902, he had married Maria Jenkinson, from another local seafaring family, and by 1914 they were living at 27 Castlegate with their five children. Second on board was first mate Absalom Cave, also a native of Scarborough since 1866 and the oldest of the crew. His father, John Cave, had been born at Sherburn, but his mother, 
Dinah Coates, was a Scarborian. Absalom had married Lavinia Hodds at St Thomas’s church in East Sandgate in 1891. They had lived together at 98 Longwestgate, where all eight of their children, five girls and three boys, had been born. However, by 1914, 
the Caves had moved to 
Hartlepool and Absalom’s parents were in Dean Road’s Wheelhouse Dwellings, a charity home for the elderly poor.

The third member was deckhand Robert Jowsey. He was 29 years old and unmarried. His parents had a home at 3 Whitehead Hill, but by 1914 Robert was living with his sister Eliza in Parkin’s Lane.

The fourth crewman was Willliam Reynolds. Born in Scarborough in 1875, he was the only son of a fisherman, George, and his wife, Caroline. In 1914 his parents had a home at 18a Castlegate.

Before going to sea, William had worked on South Bay sands as a “wheelman”, in charge of the platforms and planks which carried visitors out to pleasure craft without getting wet feet. In 1897,he had married Elizabeth Calpin and they had lived at 5 The Bolts on Sandside with their five children. In 1914, William was described as a “trimmer” on board the Doris Burton, that is the one responsible for rigging and sails on the boat.

Born in 1898,Thomas Leslie Harwood was the 16-year-old cook on the Doris Burton. He was illegitimate and brought up by his grandparents who regarded him as their son. They lived at 1 Paradise Row and later 5 Merchant’s Row. Thomas had gone to Friarage Infants school and then the Juniors in Longwestgate and at 13 was apprenticed to the Home and Colonial Stores in Westborough. His voyage in the Doris Burton was his first and last.

Finally, deckhand John Christopher Mansfield was also only 16 years old.

He was born at 11 Friars’ Gardens and baptised at the parish church of St Mary’s, where his parents had been married in 1895. His father, John Canney Mansfield, was a labourer. John Christopher had also gone to Friarage and then Longwestgate Juniors until 1912 and afterwards to sea.

All six of these Scarborough fishermen and boys were commemorated on London’s Tower Hill Memorial along with the other 12,000 civilian seafarers who lost their lives during the Great War and have no known grave.

Thomas Harwood’s name was the last to be added on the Oliver’s Mount memorial to the other five who were on board the Doris Burton.

To this day nothing of the Doris Burton has ever been found or reported – no bodies, no clothing and no debris of any kind.

Officially, though without proof, the trawler was said to have been “lost with all hands probably due to a mine explosion” on Saturday, November 21, 1914.

When all hope of their survival had vanished, their pictures appeared in an issue of the Scarborough Pictorial. They were just half a dozen of the many thousands of 
innocent civilian victims of the Great War.