Sunderland doctor served in WW1 – aged 61

WAR HERO: James Beattie
WAR HERO: James Beattie
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A DOCTOR who was shipwrecked on an iceberg and tended to the dying during Sunderland’s worst disaster volunteered to “do his bit” in the Great War – aged 61.

Aberdeen-born James Walker Beattie made three voyages to the Arctic Seas while studying medicine – including one in 1874 which saw him left stranded on ice.

And, after taking up general practice in Sunderland four years later – initially as an assistant to Dr Wilson – he was first on the scene at the 1883 Victoria Hall Disaster.

“Dr Beattie’s ability to show courage in the face of calamity helped him through several major incidents,” said Katy Gill, of Sunderland Volunteer Life Brigade.

“This courage also saw him volunteer to serve in the First World War, despite the fact he was more than 20 years older than the maximum age of new recruits in 1914.”

James, son of Aberdeenshire farmer Alexander, was born in 1853 and educated at Aberdeen Grammar School – before studying medicine at Aberdeen University.

During his medical studies he explored the Artic Seas by ship, ending up caught on the ice near Melville Bay, off the west coast of Greenland, during an 1874 voyage.

The 56 passengers and crew were left stranded after their ship, the Tay III, was lost – but their lives were saved after being picked up by a Norwegian whaler.

“James indulged in hunting and shooting during these adventurous trips into Arctic waters; the voyages taking place long before the days of conservation,” said Katy.

“He then returned to his studies in Aberdeen, intending to travel to Australia upon qualifying. But, family circumstances meant that he had to stay in the UK.”

James arrived in Sunderland in 1878 and, just five years later, was one of the first to be called to the scene of the 1883 Victoria Hall Disaster – in which 183 children died.

“He saved many lives with his prompt actions,” said Katy. “A little later, in 1886, he enlisted in Sunderland Volunteer Life Brigade – as the group’s honorary surgeon.

“He’d have been present at many Brigade rescues, as well as incidents along the Wear – as he was honorary surgeon for the River Wear Watch from 1883 to 1908 too.”

Indeed, in July 1900 James and three others went to the rescue of a man in difficulty at Roker. Saving the swimmer earned James a Royal Humane Society Certificate.

And, for several years, he held the rank of captain in the Durham Volunteer Artillery – as well as serving as the Schools Medical Officer for Sunderland from 1909.

“At the outbreak of World War One James joined the Royal Army Medical Corps and, although then aged 61, he applied for active service,” said Katy.

“As he was well over the usual age limit he was offered hospital work in this country – but he was not happy with this and went personally to London to make an appeal.

“As a result of this, he was posted on active service with the rank of Captain – leaving Sunderland on May 27, 1915, to serve on hospital ship HMHS Oxfordshire.” James spent only a brief time aboard Oxfordshire before being posted to HMHS Asturias – where he helped with the evacuation of troops from Suvla Bay, Gallipoli.

But, in March 1917, the ship was torpedoed by German submarine UC-66 on route to Southampton – with the loss of 35 lives. James managed to survive the tragedy.

“The medical officer was then posted to HMHS Warilda; which carried 546 patients and was destined to be sunk in August 1918 with the loss of 117 lives,” said Katy.

“James, however, had moved on to the smaller hospital ship HMHS Aberdonian just before this happened – but he died suddenly of heart disease on July 31, 1918.

“The Aberdonian was at Southampton Docks at the time. The doctor’s body was returned to Sunderland for burial and he was laid to rest at Sunderland Cemetery.”

James, of Park Place West, left widow Anne, five daughters and a son. He was one of the oldest to take an active Great War role – and possibly the oldest in Sunderland.

“He was obviously an extremely brave man and, although he was older than most recruits in the First World War, he was obviously determined to do his bit,” said Katy.

•Sunderland Volunteer Life Brigade will open its Watch House, at Pier View, this Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 11am-4pm as part of the Heritage Open Days spectacular. A World War One commemoration has been set up at the site.