This biography was written by Victoria Doran.
At 43, Richard Fletcher was one of the older men to die. He only joined the Merchant Marine during the war.
Horse Fair, Wolverhampton with St Peter’s church in the background
Copyright Wolverhampton Arts and Museum Service
Richard Fletcher was born in the summer of 1874 in Wolverhampton, Staffordshire, the eldest son and 3rd child of Richard Fletcher (1847-???) and Sarah Ann Short (1850-1900). He had one younger brother, Daniel Fletcher (1880-???). Richard was baptized at St Peter’s church somewhat belatedly on 24 June 1875, his older sister Rosa Jane Fletcher (1873-1894) being baptized at the same day (noted on the previous page of the register).
From at least the late 18th century all his parents’ forbears had pursued a skilled trade, which they usually worked at alone or with one or two employees. Most lived to a good age, and a couple still managed to leave a little money when they died. They were in various trades such as tin plate work, locksmithing, tailoring and baking. They were probably proudly independent. A class of artisan that largely disappeared with the increasing mechanisation of the industrial revolution.
Most branches of the family came from Wolverhampton or slightly further afield in Staffordshire. The only exceptions were his maternal great grandparents. Thomas Short (1799-1870) was a shoemaker from Launceston, Cornwall and Jane Forrester (1795-1869) came from Newport, Shropshire.
Richard Fletcher senior was brought up by his grandparents, Solomon Fletcher (1783-1863) and Martha Blakemore (1789-1877). He was illegitimate, his mother being their daughter Anne Fletcher (1823-???). She worked in Wolverhampton as a servant, and Richard Senior may not have realised she was his mother. When he married Sarah Ann Short on 19 December 1870, Richard senior gave a father’s name of Richard, and a father’s occupation of locksmith. The occupation was his maternal grandfather’s and the name that of one of his mother’s brothers.
By the age of 13 Richard senior was an errand boy living with his employer a butcher. Having worked as a cab driver in the 1870s, Richard senior returned to the butchery trade by the 1881 census.
1861 census for Fender Row, Wolverhampton
The census enumerator has only got the facts approximately correct. Richard senior was actually 2 years younger than stated, and Sarah Ann was actually 4 years older than stated. It is also probable that the oldest daughter, Lucy (1871-???) was not born in Wolverhampton. No trace of her birth there has been found, not have Richard senior and Sarah Ann been found at the 1871 census.
After this census the family seems to fall apart. No subsequent trace of either Richard senior or Lucy has been found. On 22 November 1890 Sarah Ann was admitted to Burntwood Lunatic Asylum as an inmate. She remained there until she died on 26 Mar 1900.
No trace of Rosa Jane has been found in 1891, but her death was registered early in 1894 in Wolverhampton.
At the 1891 census the youngest member of the family, Daniel is at Cottage Homes, Wednesfield, Staffordshire. These are described as ‘School and Houses for children from the Wolverhampton Workhouse‘. No further trace of Daniel has been found.
Meanwhile Richard Fletcher was working as an farm servant at The Underwood, Underwood Lane, Church Coppenhall, Cheshire. This is now part of Crewe and is over 40 miles from Wolverhampton. No member of the family had worked on the land for many generations, so it seems probable that the entire family had come into the care of Wolverhampton’s Poor Law Guardians well before Sarah Ann was committed to the asylum. Richard may well have been placed on a farm in his early teens.
On 12 July 1899, Richard married Elizabeth Edge (1883-???) at St Bridget, West Kirby. The Edge family arrived in north west Wirral in the 1840s and lived in various locations. Her father William Edge (1843-1907) was born in West Kirby. Her mother Mary Bedson (1845-1921) came from a long standing family of Parkgate fishermen. Elizabeth herself was born in Heswall. It seems likely that Elizabeth was working as a servant in the Crewe area when she met Richard Fletcher as they moved back there for the birth of the first of their 7 children, George Wilfred Fletcher (1901-1967) in the summer of 1901. Richard was working as a bricksetter’s labourer.
By the time their second child, Lilian Rose (1906-1965), was born on 2 September 1906 the family was living in Birkenhead. All the remaining 5 children were born in Birkenhead, with Richard working for the Gas Corporation as a labourer. The last child Annie was born there in the summer of 1915.
We do not know when Richard went to sea, but due to the merchant marine losses to U-boats there would have been a shortage of seamen.
On 4 February 1918 Richard was a fireman (shovelling coal) on SS Lofoten 7 miles south east of Start Point, south Devon. Without warning she was torpedoed by UB-38 and lost with all 17 hands on board.
The SS Lofoten was a defensively armed cargo ship of 942 gross tonnes. A photo and more about her can be found here.
UB38 had made 21 patrols since her commissioning on 18 July 1916 and had sunk 47 ships with tonnage totalling 47,476 under 4 different commanders. However her career came to an abrupt stop just 4 days after the sinking of the SS Lofoten on 8 February 1918 when she encountered a minefield and was lost with all 27 members of her crew.
Richard is commemorated on the Merchant Marine War Memorial at Tower Hill, London.
Tower Hill Memorial, London
He is also remembered on Grange Hill War Memorial and the plaques in St Andrew and St Bridget churches, West Kirby.
His eldest son, George Wilfred Fletcher, also served in the Merchant Marine during the First World War, though only just 17 years old by the end of the war. He later stayed at sea, eventually settling in Canada.
It is not known when the family moved back to West Kirby, but Elizabeth’s address is given by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission as 42 Birkett Road. This would probably have been recorded about 1920.
Birth: Jul 1874 at Wolverhampton, Staffordshire
Death: 4 February 1918; 7 miles south east of Start Point; torpedoed by UB38
Addresses: 6 Horse Fair, Wolverhampton, Staffordshire (75); 14 Fender Row, Wolverhampton, Staffordshire (81); The Underwood, Underwood Lane, Church Coppenhall, Cheshire (91); 13 Parker’s Row, Church Coppenhall, Cheshire (01); 50 George Street, Birkenhead (11)
Unit: SS Lofoten
Number and Rank: not applicable
Medals: awarded medals but not known which ones
Commemorated: Tower Hill Memorial, London; Grange Hill War Memorial and St Andrew & St Bridget churches, all West Kirby
Sources: CWGC, PR, BR, Probate, www.uboat.net, Census: 81, 91, 01, 11, UK Lunacy Patients Admission Registers