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Life aboard a dreadnought ship during war time could be tedious and dull.  Routine practises and duties as well as reading or catching up on personal correspondence only went so far to occupy time - moral needed to be maintained within the troops.

The Royal Marine Band that was stationed aboard HMS VANGUARD was led by Band Master John Vitou and his talented Band Corporal, Edmond “Jack” Sayers (pic1), totalling 15 musicians.

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Edmond or Jack as he was better known, had joined the VANGUARD  on 23rd August 1912, following training as a musician at HMS GANGES, Suffolk.  He specialised in playing the violin and clarinet, but had an already artistic flare as he could sketch and draw - and had a great sense of humour to round his personality off. (pic 2).

“On the sea a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of girls - if he’s not seasick” - Jack Sayers (Band Cpl) H.M.S Vanguard 1/7/1916


With Vanguard being a Battleship and part of the Grand Fleet (serving in both 1st and 4th Battle Squadrons) it was not ideal to perform anything aboard to a large crew while anchored and stationed at the Fleet’s Naval base in Scapa Flow.  Ships and crews had to be ready at short notice for any enemy action.
The Royal Navy therefore dispatched sister ships the SS GOURKO and the SS BORODINO to provide suitable space in which performances and concerts could be made.  The GOURKO was the “theatre” ship - originally built as a food store ship and also known as a frozen meat ship, an area inside was cleared and a stage was set up for productions.

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Only one production is known from HMS VANGUARD - Double Salvoes - produced by Jack, it was performed by members of the crew and photographs of the characters were printed in “The Bulletin” dated 20th June 1917 (see images below).  The play even had a program printed for the audience - dated Winter 1917, which was probably performed in the January of 1917 (pic left).

Double Salvoes was a musical calamity - Frank Lamb earned the star role of Squire and Able Seaman William Hopkins was also cast as a main character due to his wonderful singing voice.  Frederick Teucher, a Sick Berth Attendant, gained the role as the Squire’s Daughter.  

Several of the Boy ratings performed as Maidens in the Chorus.


Members of the crew in character


Photographs of the performance in "The Bulletin"


Jack Sayers in character - playing Isaac Levi

In Act ii, scene iii the scene was set at the village pub, the Dewdrop Inn.  This stage was built in the Gourko, with a white picket fence, a whiskey barrel and bar front, along with an extremely artistic backdrop (pic 5).


Unfortunately there are very few records of the GOURKO, so it is not known how many times she was alongside VANGUARD providing entertainment.  The BORODINO was a better documented ship with a fantastic account of its movements in “S.S Borodino - A short account of the work of the Junior Army and Navy Stores Ltd with HM Grand Fleet - Dec 1914 - Feb 1919 - by William J Allen  (see link)

The little ship is probably most famous for, and linked to HMS VANGUARD due to the night of 9th July 1917.  The band and theatrical crew were not performing that Summer evening at Scapa Flow, for the GOURKO was anchored to the ROYAL OAK, entertaining as the new battleship of the fleet with a group of 16* officers from VANGUARD in attendance. 

* List of Officers - 

Wilfred Neville Custance Commander

William Legh Pope Lieutenant, RNR

Cecil Henry William Blunt Lieutenant, RMA

Ernest Edward SowterMate

Cyril Francis Carpmael Sub Lieutenant

Laurence Chase Sharman Sub Lieutenant

Joseph Wilkinson Chief Boatswain

Ernest Holbrook Gunner

George Henry Bray Boatswain

Hugh Sladden Artificer Engineer

William James Collins Warrant Electrician

Gordon Thursby Campbell Midshipman

Gordon Vincent Knight Midshipman

Reginald Frederick Nichols Midshipman

Robert Hugh Stewart Peter Midshipman

Wilfred John Sutton Clerk

It was due to the lateness of the concert finishing that these men were not included in the casualty list after HMS VANGUARD exploded suddenly, at 11:20pm, ripped apart and killing 843 men and boys on board.

After the Great War both the GOURKO and the BORODINO returned to civilian life, but were once called again for duty in 1940.  Their fates were not to be used as before however, but to be sunk as block ships in French harbours, to hinder the Germans on any invasion.  BORODINO was sunk as planned in Zeebrugge port.

GOURKO however wanted a bit more drama to her demise, as she had previously seen decades ago - she was to be sunk off Dunkirk but struck a mine shortly before cue, on 4th June 1940 (pic 6 shows her position in French waters).

Position of Gourko sinking_LI.jpg

Sources and acknowledgements:

Immense thanks to Ian Hastings for sharing his photos of Jack and images of the Double Salvoes production - all subject to copyright.

Detritus of Empire - regarding Gourko information and photograph

Kevin Heath for providing an image of GOURKO’s final position.

Brian Budge and Jonathan Saunders for the definitive list of Officers aboard the GOURKO.

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