estuary english 

Letter to Harold Gibson, ex-Chair Dromore & District Historical Group re: The Life and Times of James Kirker Strain, 31 August 2007
Dear Harold,

Re: Your article, “The Life and Times of James Kirker Strain” in Dromore and District Local Historical Group Journal, Vol. 3, 1993 []

I read with great interest your article and thought you might like to hear something of a footnote to the story.

I became interested in the Strain family when I found out that my great grandfather, Harry Goffey had, as a young man, rescued Rev. J.K. Strain’s son from drowning at Warrenpoint; a deed for which my great grandfather and another rescuer, Horace Fleming, earned the Royal Humane Society’s Bronze Medal. The case is listed in the Society’s annual report of 1893 under number 26, 630 and the citation reads:

“H. Goffey, bookkeeper, and Horace Fleming, at great personal risk, rescued Crawford Strain from drowning at Warrenpoint, co. Down, on the 31st July, 1893.”

According to the minutes of the Society, Crawford, then aged 18, could not actually swim. Despite or perhaps because of this he had “whilst bathing” somehow been carried out of his depth “50 yards from shore. Depth 12 to 15 feet. Strong wind blowing.” The salvors, Harry, 22 and Horace, 20, had dived in off a lighter and saved the son of the manse from imminent disaster. The case had been sent to the Society by the Town Clerk, Chas Hurson, who had witnessed the rescue.

From local newspapers I found out that the 31st July 1893 had been a bank holiday and that there had been a large number of English people spending their holidays at Warrenpoint. My great grandfather and his co-rescuer were from Liscard, across the Mersey from Liverpool. Harry was the son of a successful greengrocer and nephew of Colonel James Goffey who ran a well-appointed fleet of sailing ships, J&W Goffey, and was at one time Chairman of the Liverpool Shipowners Association. Horace Fleming, a Quaker, was the son of a Liverpool boot manufacturer of Irish birth and would later become a pioneer of Adult Education and serve as a justice of the peace for Birkenhead.

With local people taking advantage of cheap holiday train fares, the beaches at Warrenpoint and Rostrevor were crowded and towns further inland were deserted. Newry was “a city of the dead” with all the shops closed except for pubs. There “weren’t enough people left,” according to the Newry Reporter, “to patronise a dogfight.”

 The  Newry Telegraph, Tuesday August 1, 1893 picks up the story:

Yesterday while a young man respectably connected and a native of Dromore, County Down, was bathing some distance from the spring boards at Warrenpoint he got out of his depth, and when endeavouring to make for the shore was suddenly carried into about twelve feet of water.  An alarm that was then made by a number of men and boys who were either in the water near to the place or dressing.  Nothing then could be seen of the young man save his head, which came to the surface a few times.  Just at that moment two young men named respectively H. Goffery (sic), and Horace Fleming, both of Liscard, Cheshire, had entered the boxes after bathing, and when their attention was called to the desperate position of the Dromore man they ran at full speed, plunged into the water, and passed onto a lighter at anchor, from which they leaped into deep water, and rescued the drowning man amid the delight of all present.  It is clearly evident the young gentleman, whose name is kept back for the present, owes his life to Messrs Goffery (sic) and Fleming, and it is to be hoped their names and gallant conduct will be brought before the proper quarter. - COR.” 1  

The correspondent’s hopes were realised and the two heroes were duly awarded the Royal Humane Society Bronze Medal.

Harry went on to pursue a career as an artist associated with the Herkomer/Lucy Kemp-Welch circle in Bushey and he was secretary of Bushey School of Painting when it reopened under the direction of the latter in 1905. His work still occasionally crops up in auctions today. He specialised in mezzotint engravings from old masters and animal portraits, often of dogs, etched in a “realistic” style that would start to look increasingly old fashioned with the greater accessibility of photography after the First World War.

But what of Crawford Strain?

James Kirker Crawford Strain was born on 13 January 1875 at the Manse of the First Presbyterian Church in Dromore and baptised the following May by his grandfather, Rev. Alexander Strain, minister of the Presbyterian Church in Cremore, South Armagh.

He is described in the RHS Committee minutes as a “student”, which is perhaps not surprising given the scholastic bent of his forbears and from his father’s obituary in 1908 it is clear that Crawford has by then achieved a BA degree. He is also described in the obituary as a "licentiate of the Presbytery of Dromore" so it seems that he was at that time set on following in his father and both his grandfathers’ footsteps.

The next time he appears on the radar is in November 1922 at the time of his mother Maria’s death, when letters of the administration of her estate show that they had been living together on Sandford Road in the affluent south-eastern suburbs of Dublin. His occupation at this time is described as “Tutor”.

And that, rather frustratingly, seemed to be the end of the paper trail. The young man who my great grandfather had pulled from the sea would have to remain a watery enigma. But then my researcher in Ireland, genealogist, Robert C Davison, had an amazing piece of luck:

“On a visit to the Linen Hall Library in Belfast a speculative check was made of a collection of Death Notices from the Belfast Newsletter newspaper. These were cut from the newspaper and stuck in loose-leaf folders in alphabetical order and on a yearly basis. This was done by a member of the public who was also a member of the Library, which is the only subscription Library in Ireland. The folders commenced in 1947 and a number of STRAIN deaths were noted in that year and subsequent years. In the 1949 folder the following was found:

STRAIN – 30th. March 1949 at Holme St. Martins Avenue, Shanklin, Isle of Wight, Thomas Greer STRAIN MA, younger son of the late Dr. J.K.STRAIN, Dromore, Co. Down.

This information must have been passed on by either a family member or a friend, who was wishing to alert those in Northern Ireland who knew Thomas that he had died outwith Ireland.”  

I felt we were getting closer, and at the first opportunity trawled the Isle of Wight press for an obituary for Crawford’s only living sibling (his sister, Lizzie, had died at the tragically young age of 15). I wasn’t disappointed:

“Mr Thomas Greer Strain (70), of 23 St Martin's Avenue, Shanklin (whose death on Wednesday week we reported in our last issue), will be missed by his many friends in the town where he resided for the past 20 years.  Mr Strain, who was educated at St John's College, Cambridge became a mathematic wrangler.  He afterwards taught mathematics at Chesterfield and Liverpool and was a lecturer at Chelsea Polytechnic.  After his retirement, he came to Shanklin, where he had coached in mathematics and literary subjects.  His wife predeceased him nine years ago.

The remains were cremated at Southampton on Saturday and interred at Shanklin cemetery on Tuesday.  The Rev. R. B. Copley (Vicar of St Saviour's) officiated at the latter ceremony, which was attended by Miss A.M. Bradfield (sister-in-law), Dr J. Cowper and Mrs H. Reid.  Mr C. Strain (brother), who is recovering from a recent illness, was unable to be present.”  4

It struck me that there was every chance Crawford, now in his seventies, might also have been living on the island at the time of his brother’s death. Again, I wasn’t disappointed.

James Kirker Crawford Strain, an eighty year old of “independent means” died of coronary heart disease and old age at Osborne Cottage Guest House, East Cowes on 24 September 1955.

He had lived through two world wars and the turbulent end of British rule in Ireland. And, though I really have just the sketchiest outline of his life I can perhaps infer that, like me, he had an interest in history.

Osborne Cottage had been built by Queen Victoria for Princess Beatrice in the grounds of her beloved Osborne House. It had since been a hotel and was now a guest house and twilight home for post-war gentlefolk of independent means. It still serves the latter function.

This summer I went to pay my respects to Crawford Strain at Kingston Cemetery, East Cowes which was built next to the river on land, one of several information plaques says, given to the people of the town by Queen Victoria, who also donated the iron gates.

Crawford does not have a headstone (which makes me suspect that he was the last surviving member his immediate family) but I obtained his plot number from the cemetery officer, who very kindly turned out on her day off, and I had a photocopy of the cemetery plan.

For one reason or another I had not brought any flowers, but I needn’t have worried. The short grass which covered his mortal remains was interspersed with primrose leaves and, another plaque informed me, some areas of the cemetery were being managed to encourage wild flowers including three species of orchid. This, I reflected, at least had the advantage over cut flowers that they would bloom again next year unbidden.

But there’s another reason I wanted to pay my respects. Harry Goffey lost his first born son, Jock, at the battle of the Somme aged eighteen, the same age as the young man he’d plucked from the jaws of death on a summer’s day in 1893. I felt, no doubt sentimentally, that books were being balanced. Though I doubt my great grandfather would have felt like that.

I was happy to think of Crawford safe at anchor on the bank of the Medina, a light breeze clinking the masts in the marina and the lifeboat resting in its shed across the indolent water.


Whilst I was flicking through local papers at the newspaper library in Colindale I was amazed to find that Crawford was not the only son of a Dromore manse to have had a narrow escape from drowning. Captain J.L. Rentoul was the son of Rev. J Rentoul, minister at Second Dromore (Rev. Rentoul had, incidentally, been among the mourners at Rev. J.K. Strain’s funeral) and he had been working as a doctor in the Royal Army Medical Corps when his ship, the 48,150-ton Britannic was sunk by a mine in the Aegean in 1916.

A sister-ship of Titanic would not necessarily fill you with great confidence even without the threat of enemy U-boats, but the White Star Line were confident that lessons had been learned. The new ship had a watertight double skin protecting her boiler and engine rooms and no fewer than 48 lifeboats, two of which, it was boasted, even had engines and wireless.  5

The owners were keen to emphasise comfort and reliability (en-suite cabins, instant hot water) over speed. Built in the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast, she was launched in February 1914 to considerable excitement. A little under two years later, and before completion, she was requisitioned as a hospital ship and space was made to accommodate 3,309 casualties.

One published account of her last voyage was written, interestingly, by the ship’s Presbyterian chaplain, Rev. John Alexander Fleming (no relation, as far as I know, to the hero of Warrenpoint). Rev. Fleming reported to Southampton docks on Saturday 11th November 1916 and Britannic sailed at noon the following day destined for Mudros, a small Greek port on the Mediterranean island of Lemnos, to take on board wounded.

Rev. Fleming described his first impression of the floating palace: “It seemed like a picture from fairyland, and the green lights and the giant red crosses stood out in bold relief against the dark background of the sea.” 6 

On Friday night (17th) she reached Naples and took on coal and water. Delayed by bad weather, they set off again during a lull on the Sunday afternoon. Tuesday morning (21st) was, Rev. Fleming remembered, “perfect”. The sun was “dazzling” and the water like “glass”. Leaving his cabin for a late breakfast, he heard a “great crash” which he thought was a torpedo but is now believed to have been a mine laid by a German submarine.

The ship which took two years to build, and cost 2 million, sank in fifty minutes leaving life boats and survivors scattered over a large area. Thankfully the wards had been empty and consequently fatalities relatively few: 21 crew and 9 RAMC personnel.

Rev. Fleming was in the second-last boat to leave the sinking ship.

“The Banbridge Chronicle
XLVII 4129 Saturday December 9 1916


Dr. Rentoul, RAMC, son of Reverend J. Rentoul, MA, The Manse, Dromore, was on board the hospital ship, Britannic, when she fell a victim to an enemy torpedo, had a marvellous escape.  It seems that after being in the water for some time he managed to get into a small boat, and in the end was fortunately picked up.  With the exception of slight bruises he is little the worse of (sic) his experience, and is expected home at any time.”

That optimistic note seems a good place to draw my narrative to a conclusion. The moral of the story, if there is one, might be that if you’re in imminent danger of drowning, you could do a lot worse than attach yourself, limpet-like, to the nearest available son of the manse from Dromore, Co. Down.

Yours sincerely,

Richard Shepherd

1  The  Newry Telegraph, Tuesday August 1, 1893
The Banbridge Chronicle, Wednesday January 1st, 1908
3  Robert C Davison MAPGI, pers comm, 2006
4 Isle of Wight Guardian and Sandown and Shanklin and Observer, Thursday March 31, 1949
5 HMHS Britannic, Simon Mills, Shipping Books Press, Market Drayton, 1996
6 The Last Voyage of His Majesty’s Hospital Ship “Britannic.” , John Alexander Fleming, Marshall Bros, London, 1917

  Richard Shepherd, 2007