Teen with musical talent was one of first to die in Great War

HMS Monmouth - the ship on which Stephen Ellison McCaw lost his life on November 1, 1914.
HMS Monmouth - the ship on which Stephen Ellison McCaw lost his life on November 1, 1914.
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A TEENAGER who became one of the first – and youngest – Wearsiders to die in the Great War is the topic of a talk this week.

Stephen Ellison McCaw lost his mother at seven, was admitted to Houghton Workhouse at nine and by 10 was serving as a cadet at Wellesley Nautical School in North Shields.

Miners left the domestic and caring to the women, so James wouldn’t have known where to start.

Brenda Graham, researcher

Despite his tough childhood, however, the Newbottle-born sailor was a talented musician - being accepted by the Royal Navy School of Music in 1912. Two years later he was dead.

“His story is tragic, yet fascinating,” said researcher Brenda Graham, who will give a talk on Stephen at Kepier Hall, St Michaels and All Angels Church, Houghton, this Thursday.

“I discovered him when I was looking at Houghton Workhouse during the Great War. His father obviously had difficulty coping with three small children, so placed them all in there.”

Stephen, eldest son of coal hewer James McCraw and his wife Elizabeth Wild, was born in May 1896 and spent his early years at the family home in South Market Street, Hetton.

Sharing the terraced house were his older half-siblings, Minnie and Nellie - the daughters born to Elizabeth when she was married to James’ brother John several years earlier.

“Newcastle-born John wed Elizabeth in about 1880. They made their home in Hetton, where John was a tailor, and had four daughters. Two of the girls died in infancy,” said Brenda.

“By the time of the 1891 census the family were living in George Street, Dubmire. Also living there were two of John’s brothers - James, then 22, and 16-year-old Archibald.”

When John died in May 1895, Elizabeth turned to James for comfort - marrying him in October. Stephen was then born in 1896, followed by John in 1897 and Beatrice in 1900.

Tragedy struck again, however, in 1903 - when Elizabeth died at the age of 42. James was left with six children to bring up - with just his meagre mining wages to cover all expenses.

“Miners left the domestic and caring to the women, so James wouldn’t have known where to start. I feel Minnie and Nellie, as the oldest, would have struggled to cope,” said Brenda.

The youngest child, Herbert, died aged ten months. Just a few years later, in 1906, Stephen, John and Beatrice were admitted to Houghton Workhouse - and Minnie married soon after.

Stephen and John were sent to the training ship Wellesley the following year, which trained boys for naval careers, whilst Beatrice was transferred to an orphanage at North Ormesby.

“Stephen was obviously musically talented, as he become a band boy at the Royal Naval School of Music in March 1912, where his ability was described as very good,” said Brenda.

“His mother’s oldest brother, Charles, had been a Colliery Band Boy, so it’s likely that this talent for music came from Elizabeth’s side of the family.”

Stephen, who was 15 and nine months old when he signed up for music training, was described at the time as 4ft 8½ins with a fresh complexion, hazel eyes and dark brown hair.

A year later, in September 1913, he was posted to HMS Powerful as a band boy, where he served until moved to HMS Monmouth on August 3, 1914 - two days before war broke out.

“Monmouth was a 1st class armoured cruiser assigned to 5th Cruiser Squadron, but she was soon sent to join Admiral Christopher Cradock’s South American station,” said Brenda.

“When he learned that Admiral Maximilian von Spee, at the head of a squadron of German cruisers, was planning to leave the Pacific for the Atlantic, he moved to try and prevent this.”

On November 1, 1914, Cradock discovered the German ships were just off Chile’s coast. But the Germans outnumbered the Allied force - and were far more powerful too.

Two Allied armoured cruisers, including Monmouth, were sunk by enemy fire as the Battle of Coronel ensued. All 739 of the men aboard Monmouth, including Stephen, were lost.

“The sea was just too rough to attempt any rescue effort,” said Brenda. “Stephen served less than three months on Monmouth before he died. His was a short, and very tragic, life.

“And it would appear Stephen’s father also died in the war. He was attached to the Tyneside Scottish and killed in action on the first day of the Battle of the Somme on July 1, 1916.

“I wonder what became of the rest of the family. If any descendents are still living up here, I would be very interested to hear from them.”

l Learn more about Stephen and his family at Brenda’s talk at Kepier Hall, Houghton, at 6.45pm on May 28. Any relatives of Stephen can contact her on 584 1943.