Brixham in the Great War


Image of Medicinal Purposes book

When HM King George V spoke of ‘this grave moment in our national history’, how did Brixham face the challenges of the Great War? This remarkable story reveals the heart- warming response of the close knit community whether at home or overseas, from the incredible rescue of HMS Formidable by a lone fishing trawler and the bravery of local people who surmounted personal loss, to the provision of a Red Cross Motor Ambulance sent from Brixham to the Somme and the men who sacrificed their lives in the trenches. A small town’s journey during a pivotal moment of history.


January 1915

The conflict was not ‘all over by Christmas’ as Field Marshal Sir John French had suggested: 100,000 soldiers had died since August 1914 and the German threat crept invidiously towards British shores. In January 1915, Brixham captured the nation’s interest when Captain William Pillar and his crew of the Provident brought to safety 72 officers and men of the sabotaged battleship HMS Formidable, which formed part of the Squadron engaged in the bombardment of German fortifications on the Flemish coast. The Western Guardian enthused: ‘The story of their rescue is one of the most thrilling narratives ever told of the daring seamanship of the West-country fishermen’.

The Provident, part of the home fleet, had sailed ‘round the Berry’ to the fishing ground as usual. Responding to the battleship’s distress flares in weather described by Captain Pillar as ‘never a worse gale’, the crew displayed remarkable courage and seamanship to bring the survivors to port. The shipwrecked men had been at sea for 11 hours in a small boat. The 75- foot trawler, which weighed 50 tons and had a 17-foot beam, took almost four hours to berth alongside and cast a small warp to the men, all the while battling against storm force waves. Captain Pillar, William Carter, Jack Clarke and Dan Taylor, aged just 15, with the skipper’s nine-year-old nephew, Len Pillar, provided shelter and sustenance to the debilitated men, preventing fatalities. Sailors who fled the catastrophe in launches were not so fortunate: one boat eventually reached Lyme Regis with the men ‘in the last stages of physical exhaustion’. They were incapable of disembarking unaided and several expired as they were assisted ashore; others died of exposure or drowned while abandoning ship. Hundreds of lives were feared lost in the disaster.

On arrival at port, Dr Elliott examined survivors at the Pier, appearing with ‘commendable speed’. Nine casualties were admitted to the Cottage Hospital, where the highly skilled practitioner performed surgery on Leading Stoker Smithurst, who was seriously injured through jumping from the battleship to the escape craft. Provided with comforts, the exhausted men spent the night in private dwellings and hostelries and the following day, Lady Leith and Miss Burn visited them. Lord Leith visited Captain Pillar, hero of a nation, to express admiration. Colonel Burn MP, on war service, wired: ‘Your member is proud of you’. About 50 survivors attended Divine Service at All Saints’ Church in thanksgiving and a contingent was recovered sufficiently to make an emotional departure from Brixham Station; Captain Tyrer, Vice Chairman of the Council, led farewells with Dr and Mrs Elliott in the absence of the recently bereaved Chairman, Rev Mr Sim.

The national press reported the incident exhaustively. The front page of The Times featured pictures of the valiant crew, while a naval officer gave a personal account of his rescue to the Daily Telegraph, which was published in full. Reports also described how wreckage from the Formidable had been found on Chesil Beach, with the body of Bruce, the faithful dog of Captain Noel Loxley, who had gone down with his ship, washed ashore near Weymouth. The nation’s interest in Captain Pillar and his crew remained undiminished with many letters and gifts sent by individuals in admiration and gratitude. A child wrote: ‘My dear Captain Pillar, I hope you are very well. How brave you were saving those men, and I hope you get a VC – Love from Edward Corcoran, 6 years old’. The mother of a survivor, Mrs EL Hughes, wrote to Captain Pillar: ‘My heart is too full for words. How I wish that I could see you to thank you for your kindness to my dear boy. May God bless you and yours’. Among the gifts received were many items of warm clothing, including a large parcel of mittens, scarves and chest protectors from Edinburgh, and knitted gloves from Newquay. Len Pillar received a muffler, mouth organ and sweets; Dan Taylor received a 10/- postal order from an admirer in Hampshire and a Paignton resident sent 1/- ‘for the kind boy Dan who did his best’. A ‘People Fund’ was established for subscriptions to honour the heroes with gifts to which Colonel Burn immediately sent five guineas. Over £200 was raised in total with many donations received from families and sweethearts of those serving at sea and Brixham men serving on naval vessels.


‘Hats off to Samantha Little for her enterprise and initiative: Through Cloud and Sunshine is another cracking read…a vivid snapshot of Brixham in the First World War.’
‘I hope Miss Little’s work inspires people to visit Brixham Heritage Museum’.
Anthony Steen MP,
Foreword, 2008
‘Expressive detail…a grand job, Miss Little.’
Bob Curtis,
Herald Express, 21st November 2008