Wreaths and flowers laid by relatives at first memorial for 343 victims of the sinking of SS Persia

June 16, 2016

To mark the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the P&O ship SS Persia, the first exclusive memorial to commemorate the 343 passengers and crew who lost their lives was unveiled at an Act of Remembrance at Buckler’s Hard.

More than 150 relatives of those on board attended the special service on Wednesday 15th June along with representatives from P&O Cruises and nuns from the Daughters of the Cross, in memory of four of their order who lost their lives while accompanying a pupil home to India from Bury Convent Grammar School.

P&O captain Alistair Clark read ‘In Waters Deep’ and Lord Montagu, the grandson of survivor John 2nd Baron Montagu, read an extract from a letter which was written by his grandfather while he was recuperating. Lord Montagu and other relatives also laid wreaths and flowers as the Last Post was sounded.

Mary Montagu-Scott said: “The Act of Remembrance was so meaningful to so many relatives, who travelled from all over the country and overseas to be here. We are delighted that there is now a lasting memorial to those who died.”

The memorial sundial, which was commissioned by the Montagu family, has been specially designed and made by Harriet James and includes the words ‘Remember 343 souls who perished in the deep 30th December 1915’ and a picture of SS Persia. A sundial was chosen because of their use for navigation on board ships before more modern tools were invented.

The Maritime Museum at Buckler’s Hard tells the story of the sinking of SS Persia off the coast of Crete while passengers were having lunch on December 30, 1915 on their journey on the ‘Empire run’ from London to India during World War I.

The sinking was controversial because it broke recognised naval international law or the ‘Cruiser Rules’ which stated that passengers on merchant shipping should be given the opportunity to disembark before combat commenced. However, German U-Boat ace Max Valentiner commanding U-38 gave no warning before firing a torpedo and it took just five minutes for the ship to sink, killing 343 of the 507 people on board.

Launch of a jewellery collection created from gems in the wreck

At the time of the sinking, SS Persia was believed to be carrying a large quantity of gold and jewels belonging to the Maharaja Jagatjit Singh. In 2003, British firm Deep Tek found the wreck off Crete at a depth of 10,000 feet (3000m) and used robotic machinery to cut into its strong room and retrieve a part of its precious cargo. This is the world’s deepest salvage operation of its kind to date and they developed new techniques and machinery to work at such great depths.

A large haul, including 200 rubies and other precious stones, was brought up from the wreckage and the gems were still in remarkable condition despite being at the bottom of the sea for 88 years. The gemstones, which were recovered from the mailroom, included real rubies, amethysts, moonstones and some of the earliest known synthetic rubies.

An exclusive and unique jewellery collection using some of the recovered gems was launched at the commemoration event. Deep Tek has gifted gems for the collection to raise money for Smile Train cleft lip charity and the Mission to Seafarers, as well as to contribute to the sundial memorial.

The beautiful collection has been created by contemporary jeweller Alex Goodman of Goodman and Morris of Brighton. He has taken his inspiration from the design of the ship and its name Persia to create bracelets, pendants, earrings, cufflinks and bespoke rings in gold and silver.

Unveiling of a unique exhibit from the pocket of a survivor – the story of john 2nd baron montagu and eleanor thornton

A new and unique exhibit was also unveiled in the SS Persia display in the Maritime Museum at Buckler’s Hard for the commemoration event: A £5 note carried by survivor, John 2nd Baron Montagu which was in his pocket during his 32-hour ordeal in the water before his rescue.

John Montagu was travelling on his return voyage to India, where he had taken command of the 2nd/7th Battalion The Hampshire Regiment (Territorials) and been invited to join the Army General Staff as Inspector of Mechanical Transport. He was accompanied on SS Persia by his secretary Eleanor Thornton known as ‘Thorn’, who was also John’s mistress. Although the relationship was only known to a few, his wife Cecil had known about it for some years.

John and Thorn were sitting at their table in the 1st class dining saloon when the torpedo struck, exploding behind their seats and sending cutlery and crockery flying off the table and choking them with fumes, ash and steam. They went to collect their lifejackets but on reaching the deck, discovered that the list of the ship prevented the port lifeboats from being launched. As they climbed up the deck towards the starboard rail, SS Persia began to sink rapidly. A wall of water engulfed the deck. The violent vortex created by the sinking blew John back to the surface but Thorn was less fortunate and her body was never found.

Clinging to a badly damaged upturned lifeboat, John and his companions spent 32 hours in the water before the crew of SS Ningchow rescued them. News of the sinking reached London on 1st January 1916 and John was believed to have died. Press baron Lord Northcliffe paid tribute to his friend in an obituary in The Times, which John was able to read on his return to England.

The Bank of England £5 note dated 3rd July 1914, together with a letter from John Montagu to Portals congratulating them on the quality of their paper, was bought at auction for £960 last year and a copy has been added to the SS Persia display.

Meanwhile, the memory of Eleanor lives on as the model for the Spirit of Ecstasy mascot which adorns every Rolls-Royce car. A special ‘whisper’ mascot adorns Montagu family Rolls-Royces, with a finger to the lips which is believed to refer to the secret affair.

Eleanor and John had a child called Joan who was fostered and knew John as her uncle. After John’s death in 1929, Joan made no attempt to contact the Montagu family but by chance John’s family were finally reunited in 1979. One of Joan’s sons attended the Act of Remembrance.

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