Stoker 1st Class William Oliver Smith HMS Pathfinder

Written by BSHG
First Published


William was born on the 30th of June 1882 to parents Emily and George Edward Smith of Burton upon Stather.

His father, George, was a Grocer and came from Thornton Vale, Yorkshire and Emily from Amersham, Bucks. According to the UK Census' he had two older brothers George Edward (1874) and Thomas Clarkson (14/7/78).

Sadly their father died on 19th January 1897 and probate was granted to his wife Emily who carried on the grocers business in Burton upon Stather with her son George Edward. By 1901 they were also assisted by two Grocers Apprentices, Ernest Blackburn 16 and Fred Bennett 13. William was listed as still living at the property (a house & grocers shop) and his occupation an Engine Fitter.

Wiliam's service in the Royal Navy begin on the16th September 1904 aged 22 years, he had signed on for a minimum 12 years. His first ship Archeron was a training ship but during the next 10 years he served on a number of ships Venerable, Sapphire II, Leviathon, Black Prince, Amythyst and Pembroke II and progressed to Stoker Class 1. Naval records describe him as being 5ft 5 1/4" with brown hair, brown eyes, a fresh complexion and with a distinguishing mark of a mole on his left forearm. As documented here his service ended tragically on the Pathfinder on 5th September 1914.

The Family

NB. William's brother George Thomas Smith m. Fanny Manders of Scotter in St. Johns Church, Scunthorpe on 1/09/1899 and had children George Edward (1910) and Marjorie (1914). I find them on the 1939 Register, still living on the High St in Burton Stather. George Edward a Steel Worker and daughter Marjorie, who became Marjorie Potts, a School Teacher. William's brother Thomas Clarkson m. Maude Ethel Lings at Burton Stather on 18/12/1908 they went on to live in Flixborough with Thomas working as a Forrester. The 1939 register also records a daughter Grace who married and became Grace Read.

Perhaps someone may recognise a family connection there? If so please contact us.

HMS Pathfinder

Scout cruiser HMS Pathfinder. © IWM (Q 75425)

HMS Pathfinder is historically significant as the first ever ship to be sunk by a locomotive torpedo from a submarine. The German submarine, U-21 under the command of Otto Hersing spotted the scout cruiser patrolling the North Sea near the Isle of May on the morning of September the 5th 1914. At around a quarter to four that afternoon, Hersing fired a single Type G, 20 inch torpedo at the ship. The lookouts spotted the approaching wake and Lieutenant-Commander Favell, the officer on watch, ordered the ship to be turned to avoid the torpedo, but there was not enough time. The torpedo struck beneath the bridge and was followed by a huge secondary explosion in the fore section of the ship. The fore mast and funnel fell and the whole of the ship before that point was destroyed, with no chance of escape for the crew in that section. Captain Martin-Leake ordered the stern gun to be fired, to attract attention from the shore which was in view. But the gun, evidently damaged in the blast, fell from it's mounting when fired, rolled on the deck and off the stern taking crew with it. There was no time to lower the boats before she sank, about 14 miles north of St Abbs Head (56° 7.094' N, 2° 10.049' W).

The ship gave a heavy lurch forward and took an angle of about forty degrees down by the bow. Water came swirling up to the searchlight platform. The Captain said, Jump you devils jump!. The Captain and his secretary remained with the ship until the very end but somehow both survived.

Lieutenant Stallybrass, HMS Pathfinder survivor

First on the scene were Eyemouth fishing boats, followed by the Destroyers HMS Stag and Express. Survivors were gathered from the field of debris they found. It is not known exactly how many people were onboard HMS Pathfinder when she sank, but there are reckoned to have been more than 270. There were only 18 known survivors. Some of those rescued died later from injury or exposure.

The precise position of the Pathfinder wreck was not discovered until June 1984, when the well known American marine archaeologist and author Clive Cussler discovered it during one of his North Sea expeditions on the Buckie built Arvor III. The wreck has since been dived many times and is protected as a war grave.

You can read more about the loss of HMS Pathfinder Here.

Although the loss of HMS Pathfinder is well documented, we know little about William Smith himself, any further information would be gratefully received please Email FTAO Karen.

Record Details for William Oliver Smith

First Names:William Oliver
Initials:W. O.
Birthplace:Burton Stather
Death Date:
Family Info:Son of Mrs. E. Smith, of Burton-on-Stather, Scunthorpe, Lincs., and the late Mr. G. E. Smith.
Rank:Stoker 1st Class
Service Number:307471
Service:Royal Navy
Ship:HMS Pathfinder
Commemorated:Chatham Naval Memorial - Panel 5. Map
Place of Death:Western Front - Battle of the Marne, Ourcq to 9th


Use the interactive map to view the location of William Oliver Smith's Memorial. You can view all the graves, memorials and benches by downloading our KML file which can be viewed in Google Earth and other mapping software.


  1. Commonwealth War Graves Commission
  2. The Destruction of HMS Pathfinder by Bob Baird and Clio
  3. The Sea Hunters - True Adventures with Famous Shipwrecks by Clive Cussler

Remembered with Honour.

Last updated

© 2018 Burton upon Stather Heritage Group