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Walter Billett

RN WW1 Badge
Boy 1st Class,
HMS Monmouth,
Royal Navy
Killed 1st November 1914

Walter Billett's Parents

Walter Billett was born on 18th November 1896 as the youngest of six children to parents Elihu Billett and Ellen (née Dyer).

Elihu is a sufficiently unusual name to have confused enumerators and compositors (type setters) during his lifetime, and continues to confuse modern programs that transcribe census documents now; hence often he shows up as ‘Elisha’ or ‘Elijah’. Elihu's name was in fact taken from a lesser-known biblical character in the book of Job.

Elihu came from North Wraxall (between Marshfield and Yatton Keynell), where the Billett name was prolific in the 19th century.

Walter’s mother, Ellen (nee Dyer, daughter of Henry & Mary), was from Bath, with records showing her family living in the small courtyards called St Michael’s Court and Hen & Chicken Court off Walcot Street (where Waitrose now stands) before moving out to Cheltenham Street (near the Green Park Tavern).

The Billett Family

Elihu Billett and Ellen Dyer married in Bath at St Saviour, Larkhall, in 1885.

Elihu was a carter, or 'drayman', and the newly-married couple first lived in Prospect Terrace (a terrace of three houses on the north side of Chilton Road, Camden).

When Walter’s sister Alice was born in 1888 they lived in Albert Terrace, Twerton (tucked away behind Burnham Road), but Florence was born in Lyncombe & Widcombe parish; the 1891 census confirms that Elihu, Ellen and the two daughters had moved into Ellen’s parental home at 14 Cheltenham Street, together with Ellen's brother Henry Dyer junior. This means that there were 5 adults and two children in what we would today consider to be a small terraced house. It seems that Walter’s sister Nellie also arrived to add to the throng at this time.

Billett Tree

By the time Edward was born, however, the Billetts were briefly living at Brookleaze Buildings in Larkhall (just above Larkhall Square), then at Nias Place (tucked away between Cheltenham Street and the GWR railway line) before returning to Cheltenham Street in 1896, but this time to their own property at number 23, where Walter was probably born. 


Cheltenham Street showing WW2 bomb damage
Cheltenham Street, where Walter Billett was born while the family lived at number 23, seen here in the aftermath of the Bath Blitz over 40 years later. The gable end of  Stothert & Pitt Newark Works is visible through the gap in the houses. [Image: Bath in Time]

The houses in Cheltenham Street were all either destroyed or badly damaged during the bombing of World War Two and were subsequently demolished, so the house in which Walter spent the first few years of his life no longer exists.

The 1901 census shows the family living – apparently briefly – at 4 Moorfields Cottages. There were two such addresses in Bath at this time; one in Middle Lane, Dolemeads (which became Broadway upon redevelopment early in the 20th century); the other was situated where we now find the junction of Shaftesbury Road and Moorland Road, in Oldfield Park.

This latter row of cottages was a continuation north-westward of the buildings in what is now called Shaftesbury Mews. Moorfields Cottages were cleared soon after 1900 to improve road access to the new development in the area of Beckhampton Road, St Kilda’s Road and Faulkland Road; this area was called ‘Durley Park’ when it was built (not to be confused with the road now called Durley Park, near St John’s School).

1902 map of Moorfields cottages

Moorfields Cottages (blue arrow) continued the alignment of Moorland Road towards the (now converted) farm buildings in what is now ‘Shaftesbury Mews’. But they were ultimately cleared to widen Shaftesbury Road and improve access into the new development in the Beckhampton Road area.


From 1902, when Walter was 5 years old, local directories show the family living in Maybrick Road, first at number 17, then (from 1903) at number 11. It is from 11 Maybrick Road that Walter would have walked to school at South Twerton for the majority of his schooldays. During this time, Walter’s father is still shown working as a carter or ‘carman’ (the modern equivalent would be a delivery van driver), then later as a porter, for the Great Western Railway.


11 Maybrick Road
11 Maybrick Road

By 1911, census information shows that the family later moved to Pera Road, Walcot, with only the three youngest children at home. Census returns from further afield in the same year show that Walter’s eldest three sisters had entered service. It seems to have been common at this time for those in service to travel some distance from home and family to take up employment. Alice, by now 23, was a parlour maid in a manor house near Sevenoaks in Kent and Florence (21) was a housemaid near Sherborne in Dorset. Nellie, however, seems to have found employment nearer home at a house at Grosvenor Villas (Claremont Road) in Larkhall. 

At 14, Walter was employed as a milkman and his elder brother Edward (then 17) seems to have followed his father’s footsteps into a job as a carter. We know that Edward was in the coal business from a September 1912 newspaper report of his being admitted to the Royal United Hospital (then in Beau Street) with head injuries after falling from a coal cart.


Pera Rd, Walcot, 1960s
Pera Road, Walcot, was Walter Billett's family home at the time he went to war. Seen here as it looked in the 1960s. [Image: Bath In Time]

Earlier in 1912 Walter made a cameo appearance as a witness in the trial at the Guildhall of a man from Third Avenue (Oldfield Park) who stole some Dresden china from his employer’s china repair shop and sold it on in Bristol to cover debts.

Walter Billett in WW1

Royal Navy

Walter’s Navy record shows that he joined up at the age of sixteen in August 1913, well before the outbreak of war and Kitchener’s subsequent call for volunteers in August 1914. His  record shows that he enlisted for a period of twelve years, with this period to take effect from the date of his majority (18th November 1914). In fact Walter never reached his eighteenth birthday.

Further details on Walter’s documentation give us a description: 5ft 5¾ inches tall; 34½ inch chest; black hair, blue eyes and a fresh complexion. Distinguishing features are listed as scars on both thighs and a tattoo of a heart on his left arm. 

HMS Vivid I and HMS Queen

Walter’s first posting, from 30th August 1913 to 8th January 1914, was to HMS Vivid I. Although there had been ships bearing the name 'Vivid', there was no HMS Vivid afloat at this time; between 1912 and 1920, HMS Vivid I was in fact the name of a port-based administrative & training station only. Walter probably did live and work aboard a ship, however, namely an old 19th century gunboat called HMS Cuckoo. The hulls of old ships were often converted to accommodation and training facilities and moored in the vicinity of major Navy stations at Portsmouth, Dartmouth and Plymouth. Cuckoo was synonymous with Vivid I at this time and moored at Plymouth. Walter’s rank was ‘Boy 2nd Class’; the standard rank for a boy of Walter’s age upon enlisting.


Naval training station, Dartmouth, end of 19th century
This photo of a Dartmouth-based naval facility around the turn of the 20th century shows how old wooden gunships were converted to accommodation and training facilities. One such facility, at Plymouth, was HMS Vivid, where Walter Billett was based on the old gunship HMS Cuckoo in 1913-14. [Image: Bath in Time]

From 9th January 1914, Walter was aboard a battleship called HMS Queen and, a couple of weeks later, his record shows that he was promoted to ‘Boy 1st Class’. 

In April 1914, HMS Queen became a gunnery training ship, stationed at Portsmouth. 


HMS Queen (1902)

HMS Queen. Walter served on Queen in the first half of 1914.  [Image: Royal Museums Greenwich]


Walter spent only six months on Queen and on 3rd June returned to Vivid I for six weeks. On 20th July he left Vivid I and there is a gap of ten days before his next posting on 30th July. It is possible that Walter was on leave for this period; it may have afforded him a last trip home to his family in Bath; this is speculation, however.

HMS Monmouth

HMS Monmouth was an armoured cruiser of the County Class, built in 1903 and carrying nearly 700 crew and officers.

Soon after the outbreak of war, Monmouth was part of the South Atlantic Squadron under the command of Sir Christopher Cradock.


HMS Monmouth (1903)

HMS Monmouth, which was sunk with all crew in the Battle of Coronel on 1st November 1914 [Image: www.coronel.org]


We know HMS Monmouth’s movements in detail from the log of another sailor on board the vessel. Monmouth left Plymouth on 6th August 1914 at 4.30pm. A week later, she arrived at St. Vincent in the Verde Islands, where she stayed overnight before moving on to Pernambuco in Brazil. On 22nd August, Monmouth was joined by the cruiser HMS Glasgow and later by the armed liner Otranto, as Monmouth was in & out of Abrohlos (to the north of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil). Together these ships left Abrohlos on 2nd September. During September, ports of call included Lobas Island (off River Plate), Montevideo (Uruguay), the Straits of Magellan and Orange Bay (Cape Horn). In early October, HMS Monmouth called at Port Edgar on the Falkland Islands, then made her way via the Straits of Magellan and Cape Horn toward the western coast of South America and to Chile.

Battle of Coronel, 1st November 1914

The Battle of Coronel was a severe defeat for the British Navy at the hands of a small squadron of German ships led by Count Maximilan von Spee off the Chilean coast, near the city of Coronel.

Von Spee was in fact heading home to Germany from the Pacific in a squadron of what were considered to be outdated vessels, including the armoured cruisers SMS Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the light cruisers SMS Dresden, Leipzig and Nürnberg; these were rather slow, but still well armed with large guns and a long range of fire. Given the slow pace of his ships, von Spee does seem to have been fatalistic about his chances of making it back to Germany in one piece. Hence he was making trouble where possible in the South Pacific by attacking shipping convoys and was by no means averse to a confrontation with Cradock’s South Atlantic Squadron when the opportunity arose.

Cradock’s squadron was moved from patrol duties in the South Atlantic to try to head off von Spee. Cradock divided his squadron into two and led his fleet around to the western coast of South America, leaving the remainder on the eastern side, in case von Spee gave them the slip. The western fleet included armoured cruisers HMS Good Hope and HMS Monmouth, as well as the light cruiser HMS Glasgow and the converted liner HMS Otranto. These ships were known to have inferior firepower compared with the German vessels; the well-equipped but very slow HMS Canopus had therefore been summoned by the Admiralty to join Cradock’s fleet to provide cover. Canopus’s slow maximum speed of 12 knots meant, however, that it could not keep pace with Cradock’s other ships. Cradock’s requests for more adequate back-up (e.g. from HMS Defence) were not approved.


Glasgow was sent to Coronel harbour to pick up messages, but her solo appearance there was observed by German shipping and details radioed to the Leipzig. Glasgow intercepted these radio calls; the interpretation was that the Leipzig was also alone somewhere in nearby waters. Hence Cradock took the risky decision to head up the coast, leaving Canopus behind, whereas the Admiralty’s orders seem to have been in favour of sticking with Canopus at the cost of avoiding an engagement. In fact the Germans were using the Leipzig call sign to cover all the vessels in the fleet. The Germans, in turn, were expecting to meet with the lone Glasgow.

Schematic of the Battle of Coronel

A schematic of the Battle of Coronel [Image: www.wargamer.com]


The British ships, heading north, encountered the German fleet – including the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau – at distance. Despite the disadvantage of firepower, the British ultimately engaged the German vessels.

It seems the German ships manoeuvred to maintain a position relative to the British fleet, such that the British ships were silhouetted against the fading light of the sky in the west, whereas they themselves were obscured in the growing darkness.

In heavy seas, the German ships Gneisenau and Scharnhorst opened fire from 10km and were very accurate in spite of the distance. Given that the British ships had a range of fire nearer 7km, they were already badly damaged before they had any opportunity of replying in kind. Some reports say it took the German ships little more than an hour to silence the British guns and put the Glasgow and Otranto to flight, although the Glasgow appears to have chosen to engage the Dresden and Leipzig briefly before departing. The Monmouth and Good Hope, burning, presented easy targets in the growing darkness and the Germans proceeded to sink them with little further ado. Damage to German ships was insignificant.

From a contemporary Press Association report: 

“German officers bear testimony to the great gallantry of the crew of the Monmouth which, while in a sinking condition, attempted to ram one of the German vessels.” 


German propaganda postcard of the Battle of Coronel

A German propaganda postcard showing ‘sinking English ships at the Battle of Coronel’. In fact the battle took place in near darkness. (Image from www.germanpostalhistory.com]


Walter Billett’s war was therefore extremely short and he was the first of the South Twerton men to fall in the Great War.

Reports of the Battle of Coronel appeared – unconfirmed by the Admiralty – in British newspapers from 5th November, although details about exactly what had happened were sketchy. But although even the German reports were unclear about whether HMS Good Hope had been sunk or escaped, the sinking of HMS Monmouth was a certainty. It is therefore possible that Walter’s family learned of his probable death from newspapers in advance of official notification. Indeed, the Admiralty’s official response to early reports of the loss of HMS Monmouth included reference to their surprise that Canopus received no mention in reports of the battle; this illustrates how Cradock’s decision to leave the Canopus behind was indeed out of step with official intentions.


Von Spee had enjoyed a relatively easy victory, with minimal damage and no losses, but had used a high proportion of his ammunition and was therefore vulnerable. After responding to a telegram order (faked by the British) to head for Port Stanley, he sailed into a British trap, with Canopus opening the firing and von Spee’s slow vessels unable to outrun the superior British ships. Von Spee’s squadron was destroyed in the subsequent Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914.

Coronel telegram from Admiralty

The Billett family would have received a telegram similar to this one, also issued to the family of a victim of the Battle of Coronel. It must have been little consolation to receive such scant detail of the circumstances surrounding the death of a loved one.


Decoration

Walter Billett received the following medals posthumously. Some sources state the Royal Naval personnel were not in receipt of the 1914 Star (issued only to servicemen who saw active service in the early weeks of the war and these were usually involved directly in the initial battle and retreat from Mons). Even the National Archives state that the 1914 Star was awarded:

"For service under fire in France and Belgium, 5 August-22 November 1914. Includes sailors serving ashore."

But Walter's medal record survives and we are therefore certain of his medal entitlement. One interpretation is that he served ashore for one day (5th August) before the Monmouth set sail and was thus qualified.

1914 Star
British War Medal 1914-18Allied Victory Medal
1914 StarBritish War Medal 1914-18Allied Victory Medal

BELOW: Walter Billett's medal award roll, which clearly shows the Star ('St"), Victory Medal ('V') and British War Medal ('B'). The record also confirms that Walter's rank was 'Boy 1st Class'. The 'FR'  shows that the medals were issued to the father and the code on the right includes the initials 'IC' for 'Index Casualty'.
Naval Medal Award Roll for Billett


Commemoration

Walter Billett’s inscription on the South Twerton School memorial lists him as ‘AB’ or ‘Able Seaman’. This is the rank above ‘Boy 1st Class’; there is however no evidence of him attaining the rank of AB while in service and multiple official documents confirm his rank as 'Boy 1st Class'.

Billett on S Twerton memorial

In addition to the South Twerton School Memorial, Walter Billett is commemorated in numerous places, plus his family received personalised messages from the King, George V, and from the Admiralty.

Letter from the King  Coronel certificate from Admiralty

Official missives from the King may have provided some crumbs of comfort. Right: a certificate commemorating one of the fallen in the Battle of Coronel, such as the Billett family would have received.


Royal Naval War Memorial, Plymouth

Walter Billett is commemorated on this important national Naval memorial in Plymouth. 

Naval Memorial Plymouth
Billett on RN memorial Plymouth
The Naval Memorial in Plymouth and the panel bearing the name of Walter Billett.
(Photo courtesy of Rachel Sanders)

Bath War Memorial

See separate page for details of the Bath War Memorial. Walter Billett's inscription:

Billett on Bath memorial

Walcot Parish Memorial, St Swithins Church

We know that the Billett family moved to Pera Road, Walcot before 1911 and Walter is listed on the parish war memorial in the parish church, which takes the form of two white marble tablets, mounted either side of the entrance, on the rear wall of the church.

Please see the separate Walcot Parish Memorial page for more details of this memorial.

Walter's inscription:

Billett on Walcot Memorial


St. Andrew's Memorial

Walter Billett was originally commemorated on a memorial in St. Andrew's Church, Bath. This memorial did not survive the bombing of the church in 1942. Details are on the Walcot Parish Memorial page. His inscription is just legible in this 1921 photograph:

St Andrew Memorial


The Coronel Battle Memorial, Coronel, Chile

While this memorial in the town of Coronel does not bear individual names, it still honours those who lost their lives so far from home in the early weeks of WW1.

Coronel Memorial


Living Relatives

It would be great to hear from any living relatives of Walter Billett. We know from public sources such as censuses and www.bathbmd.co.uk that:

  • Eldest sister Alice Billett was in Sevenoaks, Kent, in 1911, but we know nothing more of her.
  • Florence Billett became Florence May on marriage in 1923 and possibly went on to have further family with the name Duncan.
  • Nellie Billett may have married and become Nellie Robinson in 1915, but there seem to have been multiple Nellie Billetts in Bath at the time.
  • Edward Billett is the most likely source of finding living relatives: 
    • He married Elizabeth Eyers in 1920 and went on to have extensive family:
      • Son Edward Billett (junior) married Doreen Angell (no known children)
      • Daughter Freda Billett became Freda Ireland on marriage.
        • Daughter Rita Ireland became Rita Turvey on marriage.
          • Daughter Angela Turvey became Angela Holroyd on marriage
          • Daughter Susan Turvey became Susan Coates on marriage
        •  Daughter Kathleen Ireland became Kathleen Nott on marriage
          • Daughter Julie Nott became Julie Russell on marriage
          • Son Andrew Nott
          • Daughter Elizabeth Nott
      • Son Albert Billett married Margaret McSorley
        • Children Robert, Stephen, Alison, Andrew, Kim, Mark
      • Twins Eileen & Kathleen - nothing futher known
    • He remarried to Emmaline Silcock in 1937
      • Sons Edward, Robert & Alan.
  • Lilian Billett married in 1919 and took the married name Clark having (to our knowledge) one son, Ernest Clark.

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Further Reading

For more details on the specific circumstances of Walter Billett’s contribution to the War:

  • ‘Coronel and Falklands 1914: Duel in the South Atlantic’ by Michael McNally
Coronel & Falklands 1914 book