Henry Hamer was 22 years old when he was killed in action during the biggest naval engagement of the First World War. The Battle of Jutland at the end of May 1916 took place off the coast of Denmark. It involved 250 ships and was the only large scale clash between the British and German navies during the war.
It was part of a strategy set by the First Lord of the Admirality, Winston Churchill, to keep control of the shipping lanes and deny merchant ships from supplying Germany via the Atlantic. Nearly ten thousand lives were lost as the Grand Fleet commanded by Admiral Sir John Jellicoe squared up to the High Seas Fleet led by Vice-Admiral Reinhard Scheer. Both sides claimed victory.
Henry joined the Navy on 14 January 1915, signing on for a period of 12 years. He was 5 feet 6 and a half inches tall, had brown hair, blue eyes and a scar on his left wrist, no doubt from his work as a fitter in a Leeds engineering works. With no naval experience he was sent for training for just over five weeks to Victory II, an inland depot established in 1914 near Crystal Palace in south London.
On 25 February 1915 Henry joined H.M.S. Invincible, a battlecruiser built by Armstrong Whitworth on Tyneside in 1907, one of the oldest and slowest in the fleet. By the time of his death he was an acting artificer, 4th class, working in the ship’s engine room.
As a “tiff” his job would have been to help maintain the low and high pressure steam turbines which powered the ship. Fuel oil was sprayed onto coal in the boilers and it would have been hot, dirty, smelly, and noisy. Before the war Henry had undergone an apprenticeship at an hydraulic engineering firm, probably Henry Berry’s in Hunslet, so his skills would have been well matched to his work at sea.
Earlier Invicible had taken part in the first major naval battle of the war in the Heligoland Bight off the coast Germany on 28 August 1914. Three German light cruisers and a destroyer were sunk and it was seen as a great victory with the returning ships being met by cheering crowds. By early December 1914 Invincible had sailed with a task force from Plymouth to the South Atlantic and in the Battle of the Falklands helped sink two armoured cruisers, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau.
After that battle Invincible went to dry dock in Gibraltar for repairs following which she returned home to become the flagship of the 3rd Battlecruiser Squadron under the command of Rear Admiral Horace Hood. Henry was on board in late April 1916 as she tried to locate German ships which had shelled Yarmouth and Lowestoft but couldn’t find them in heavy weather and was accidentally rammed by a patrol yacht necessitating further repairs at Rosyth.
In the Battle of Jutland it must have been hard work for Henry Hamer and his mates down in the engine room. The Invincible, along with the Inflexible and Indomitable were ahead of the main fleet and on the afternoon of 31 May 1916 were at full speed chasing German ships which Admiral Hood thought were escaping through the Skagerrak strait between Denmark and Norway.
The majority of the British ships commanded by Admiral Jellico were to the north of them when the 3rd Battlecruiser Squadron came into contact with Vice-Admiral Franz Hipper’s group of fast scouting battlecruisers.
Just before 6pm Invincible opened fire on Wiesbaden and a few minutes later hit her in the engine room. The Germans launched torpedoes but the British battlecruisers turned quickly to avoid them although one passed underneath Invincible without detonating. As she turned turned north Invincible’s helm jammed and the engines had to be stopped.Within a few minutes she was underway again.
Then at 6.21pm, with the Germans only 9000 yards away the British opened fire on the German ships scoring direct hits on Hipper’s flagship, the Lützow, including two below the waterline from Invincible which would eventually sink her.
Luck was against the Invincible though and just after 6.30pm a shell hit the “Q” turret in the middle of the ship. It penetrated deep into the midships magazines which exploded with such a force that the ship broke in two and sank within 90 seconds.
Henry Hamer was among the 1,026 on board who drowned. There were only six survivors who were picked up by H.M.S. Badger.
The Invincible’s final moments were recorded in the official history of the battle published in 1923. “Flames shot up from the gallant flagship, and there came again the awful spectacle of a fiery burst, followed by a huge column of dark smoke which, mottled with blackened debris, swelled up hundreds of feet in the air, and the mother of all battle cruisers had gone to join the other two that were no more. As her two consorts swerved round her seething death-bed they could see she was rent in two; her stem and stern rose apart high out of the troubled waters as though she had touched the bottom, and near by a group of half a dozen men were clinging to a life raft, cheering the ships as they raced by to continue the fight.”
Bryan Gasson was one of the survivors. He was a Royal Marine operating as a rangefinder in the midship turret of Invincible. “Suddenly our starboard midship turret manned by the Royal Marines was struck between the two 12in guns and appeared to me to lift the top of the turret and another of the same salvo followed. The flashes passed down to both midship magazines containing 50 tons of cordite. The explosion broke the ship in half. I owe my survival, I think, to the fact that I was in a separate compartment at the back of the turret with my head through a hole cut in the top. As the ship sunk, I floated to the surface.”
Henry Hamer was born in Hunslet on 8 August 1893. His father was also called Henry and had come to Yorkshire from Brecon in South Wales to work in one of the factories making steam engines. He became a market gardener and married miner’s daughter Elizabeth Wainwright Bailey in 1891.
At first the family lived at the Gardener’s Arms on Beza Street in Hunslet. They moved to Highfield Lane in Woodlesford in about 1897 where Henry senior had several employees most likely growing rhubarb and other crops on the land which is now the All Saints’ estate. He was also an active citizen as a councillor on the Hunslet Rural District Council and on the parish council where he came second in the poll in 1907.
As well as Henry there were two other children – Elizabeth, born in 1898, and John who was three years younger than Henry. He followed his father into the gardening business. Also living with them was granny Bailey who had been born in Beeston. After the war Henry’s family moved to Ellingstring near Masham in North Yorkshire.
Perhaps coincidentally there was a David Hamer serving as a stoker on Invincible. He came from West Hartlepool but his father had been born in South Wales so they may have been related. Their names are recorded on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial, “final resting place unknown.”
Henry’s brother and sister both stayed in North Yorkshire and lived long lives. John Hamer was 83 when he died in 1980 and Elizabeth was 90 when she passed away in 1988.
The wreckage of the Invincible was found in 1919. The pieces of the ship were resting on a sandy bottom near each other. The site is protected as a war grave.