John Steel

Rank Lieutenant
Service No Unknown
Date of Death 07/02/1916
Age 34
Regiment/Service Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, HMS Peel Castle
Cemetery Ramsgate Cemetery.


John was born on 11th May 1881 in Peckham, south London, to Lieutenant-Commander Richard Charles Steel, R.N. (b.1852), and Emma Steel (1853-1929). He was baptised with his older brother, Charles, on 12th June 1881 in Christ Church Camberwell. John had five siblings: Charles (b.1879), Amelia (b.1887), Vernon (b.1888), Grace (b.1900) and Richard (b.1905).

John married Elisa Olava Haaland (1883-1968), a Norwegian woman, in 1910. At the time of the 1911 Census, the couple were living with a servant at Arkwright, 142, Etchingham Park Road, Finchley. John was employed as a Lecturer with the London County Council. The couple had two children: Emma Elisa (1911-1969) and Rina (1913-1995). Emma married William Stubbs in 1936, resided at 3 Beulah Close, Edgware, in 1939 and emigrated to New Zealand sometime thereafter. Both she and her mother died in that country at Whakatane, Bay of Plenty.

It is believed that John held two university degrees, a B.A. and a B.Sc. He was employed as a lecturer at Islington Training College, which was founded by the London County Council in 1906 to provide a 2-year training course for teachers. Although described as a men-only college records reveal that it did have a number of female students. It was closed during the First World War due to the lack of male students and was never re-opened.

On 16th November 1915, John received his commission in the Navy as a Lieutenant on HMS Peel Castle, an Isle of Man passenger steamer, which had been converted into an Armed Boarding Vessel with 100 officers and crew and capable of carrying boarding parties and prize crews. The ship was part of the Downs Boarding Flotilla, a section of the Dover Patrol, and mainly tasked with regulating the large amount of maritime traffic between the Kent coast and the Goodwin Sands and to act as one of the guard ships which would stop and examine all neutral shipping proceeding to Continental ports. As a fully qualified linguist, John’s duty was to interrogate the crews of boats bound for Continental ports.

After less than two months’ service, John died in an on-board fire off Deal, Kent. The funeral took place three days later with full naval honours at Ramsgate. His father was among those at the graveside, together with Mr. J. W. Muckle and Mr. B. Dumville, of Finchley, representatives of the Islington Training College. John’s estate was valued at £205 2s, which went to his widow.

The circumstances of John’s death were widely reported and reveal that he made a dash from his cabin and was caught in the thickest part of the fire and suffocated. How the Manx Fleet helped in the Great War, published in 1923, recounts the incident as follows:

About 1 a.m. on February 7th, 1916, the Peel Castle met with a very serious disaster. A fire broke out in the steward’s storeroom above the magazine. The alarm was given, all the fire hoses were used, and every means taken to extinguish it, but, occurring amongst a quantity of inflammable stores and temporary woodwork, the fire quickly spread. We managed to get the magazine flooded. All hands were mustered, and it was found that one of the interpreters, Mr. Steel, was missing, so every effort was made to find him, but without success.

Two other interpreters were sleeping in the Ward Room, just above the place where the fire started, and only escaped by getting through the ports in the ship’s side. The captain and officers just got away with what clothes they stood in. Fortunately the wind was very light, blowing on the starboard beam, which kept one side of the upper deck clear of smoke for a time, and provided a passage to each end of the ship. To prevent any rush in the event of an emergency, the boats were lowered, and all the men that could be dispensed with were sent away to a tug. A party of about thirty sailors and stokers were retained on board, in order to work the hoses and pumps. The Dover salvage tug Lady Brassey now came alongside, got her hoses to work, and the fire appeared to be well in hand. But about 3 a.m., the upper structure amidships went up in  flames, the shells in the racks round the guns, the small-arm ammunition, and rockets, began to explode, so all hands abandoned the ship. After a while, the Lady Brassey got a rope on the Peel Castle and towed her close to the beach, so that if she should sink, she would be in shoal water, and not block the fairway. With her pumps, she kept the fire from spreading, and eventually the amidship portion burned itself out.

After leaving the Peel Castle, the crew were taken to the tug Mirror, then transferred to the yacht Marcella, and then to H.M.S. Louvain, where they were very hospitably received.

About 12 noon, the Captain, with a small party of officers and men, returned to the Peel Castle, and completed the work of extinguishing the fire, which was still burning in the bunkers, and smouldering in different places. They also recovered the remains of Mr. Steel, who had evidently left his cabin, and attempted to escape by the stairway.

The Captain’s and the navigating officer’s quarters having been entirely destroyed, we had to make shift as best we could. There was no means of cooking, so we lived, perforce, on tinned meat and bread for some days, which diet, although, perhaps, very wholesome, soon became decidedly monotonous."

On February 9th, an enquiry was held at the Naval Base, Ramsgate, as to the cause of the fire. Whilst this enquiry was in progress, two German seaplanes commenced dropping bombs, so the enquiry was adjourned, while the Court went out to see them. One bomb dropped in a field, so an officer was sent to get it: he brought it back, and handed it round for inspection. It had failed to explode, owing to the safety-pin not having been withdrawn. Considerable damage was done later on by certain bombs that were dropped on the town.

On February 13th, the Peel Castle was towed to Chatham Dockyard for refit. It took six weeks to put the Peel Castle once more into condition for further work. On 9th August, 1916, she went back to her old job in the Downs.”