Petty Officer Stoker, Royal Navy, HMS Vanguard
Service no. 311632
Died in an explosion on 9 July 1917, aged 27
Remembered at Chatham Naval Memorial, Kent
Chris Burge writes:
George Sidney Miller was born in Willesden, northwest London in 1892, the second child of parents George Henry and Elizabeth Miller, who were both originally from Great Yarmouth in Norfolk. At the time of the 1901 census, George, 33, and Elizabeth, 29, lived in four rooms at 47 High Street Clapham with their three children: Irene, 12; George, nine; and Samuel, five. George Snr, a police sergeant, died in 1903, aged 36. On 16 January 1909 Irene married Talbert Vincent Wilcocks at St Mark’s Church, Kennington, giving their addresses as 74 and 76 Clapham Road. The marriage was witnessed by Talbert’s sister and Frederick Staughton.
By the time of the 1911 census, Irene was living in four rooms at 26A Mandalay Road, Clapham, with her husband and their two baby daughters. George Sidney Miller appeared in the census at the Royal Navy Torpedo School Ship HMS Vernon, Portsmouth, listed as ‘Stoker 1st Class’. He was listed as 22 and single, both of which were untrue.
George Sidney Miller had joined the Navy on 1 May 1907, signing for 12 years. He claimed to have been born in Willesden on 25 November 1888. He was described as 5ft 6in tall with dark brown hair, brown eyes and a fresh complexion. He married Laura Hazelden on 17 November 1910 at St Barnabas, South Lambeth, where Laura had been baptised as a child. Her family home was at 8 Horace Street. At the time of the wedding George gave his true age, which was 18, and HMS Vernon as his place of residence. Frederick Staughton was one witness of their marriage. George and Laura’s first child, George Frederick Sidney Miller, was born on 25 April 1911 and baptised on 10 May 1911 at St Stephen’s, South Lambeth, at which time Laura gave her address as 76 Clapham Road, where she lived in one room and had been working as a laundress.
In the 1911 census, policeman Frederick Staughton was living at 74 Clapham Road with his wife ‘Amy’ and 15-year-old stepson John Miller, born in Harlesden, northwest London. Amy Staughton was 38 and from Great Yarmouth. Frederick had married an ‘Amy Miller’ in 1906. While it’s not certain that George’s mother Elizabeth and Amy were the same person, his younger brother was baptised Samuel John Miller, which suggests Frederick Staughton may have been more than a family friend.
At the of outbreak of war, George Miller had risen to Leading Stoker and already educationally passed for Petty Officer; he was at the Pembroke II shore station. Between July 1914 and May 1916, he served on HMS Stour, part of the 9th Destroyer Flotilla that patrolled home waters. George and Laura’s second child, Eileen Laura, was born on 7 December 1915 and baptised at St Stephen’s, South Lambeth, on two weeks later, when their home address was 35 St Stephen’s Terrace, which was virtually opposite the church.
A year later George Sidney Miller was involved in an incident that threatened to end his naval career. He appeared in court accused of the manslaughter of Herbert Jones. George Sidney Miller, 24, stoker, had been bailed in a police court on 23 November 1916 after a Coroner’s Inquest into the death of Herbert Jones. The case was heard by Justice Avory on 13 December 1916 at the Old Bailey where George pleaded guilty, and was reported in newspapers soon after:
A NAVAL WHIRLWIND. A naval stoker, aged 23, pleaded guilty at the Old Bailey to-day to the manslaughter of Herbert Jones, whom he was said have struck outside a public-house. It was alleged that an insulting remark had been used to him and he ran amok. Mr. Justice Avory said that he doubted whether the prisoner intended to hit the deceased. You were the victim of that mistaken kindness which people show men in the services home on leave. I wish it could be made a more serious offence than is now to treat soldiers and sailors. You were mad with drink for the time being, and you ran amok. “I understand that someone called you a coward. Anything more calculated to irritate a man like you I don’t know. You ran about waving your arms like a whirlwind, striking anyone and not caring who it was.” Prisoner was bound over.
Justice Avory’s sympathetic hearing saved George from disgrace and worse. Whether it was chance or the Navy deliberately keeping George out of further trouble, he found himself sent far from London to the Fleet at Scapa Flow where he joined the crew of HMS Vanguard on 1 January 1917 and by April was an acting petty officer (stoker). HMS Vanguard was the Royal Navy’s seventh dreadnought battleship when launched in 1909, part of the Naval Arms Race that had preceded the war when the public were associated with the chant ‘We want eight and we won’t wait!’ The only time HMS Vanguard fired her guns in anger was during the battle of Jutland in 1916. In the Fleet anchorage in Scapa Flow on the evening of Monday 9 July 1917, it was overcast, with a gentle northeasterly. Vanguard and her neighbours carried out their usual evening routines until about 11.20pm when, without warning, flames became visible abaft Vanguard’s foremast, followed immediately by two heavy explosions, and the battleship disappeared under a pall of smoke. When the smoke lifted the great ship had gone. Of the 845 onboard, only two survivors were found. George Sidney Miller had died that day.
The Naval Court of Inquiry was unable to determine any definite cause to the explosion. It was only able to conclude that it may have been due to the ignition of cordite from an ‘avoidable cause’, or the deterioration of perhaps unstable cordite. No blame was attributed to any one person.
By the time the loss of the Vanguard was widely reported in the British press on 14 July 1917, the next of kin had been notified and Laura Miller was still at St Stephens Terrace, South Lambeth Road, SW8. When the Stockwell War Memorial was unveiled in 1922, Laura had been living at 111 Gaskarth Road, near Clapham South since 1918. It was the home of George’s married sister Irene, whose husband Talbert had served in the Royal Garrison Artillery during the war.
Laura Miller was married for a second time in 1925 to Edward Henry Gardener, an older man who had served in the Royal Navy between 1897 and 1906 and during the war. They lived in Boyd Road, Colliers Wood, from 1925, where Laura was still living when Gardener passed away in 1954. Laura passed away in Merton in 1971, aged 78.
George and Laura’s daughter Eileen Laura Miller died in 1934, aged 18. His son George Frederick Sidney Miller died in 1989, aged 78.