The ILSTON was transporting railway material from Swansea to France. In 1917, Light railways were urgently needed to transport vast amounts of supplies across France to supply the front lines. Between January and September 1917, this railway network was to grow to some 2,000 miles of track.
A search on the Commonwealth War Graves register of names reveals that Will Gent was serving as Third Engineer aboard the ILSTON. The record states that he was aged 29 and lists his parents and their address. It tells us that his name is recorded on the Tower Hill Memorial in London and on the Swansea Cenotaph.
The Third Engineer on a ship was usually in charge of boilers, fuel and auxiliary engines, and was the third most senior marine engineer on board.
Will Gent’s baptism entry found on Find My Past, records that he was baptised Charles William Reginald in St Mary’s Church, Swansea on 7 December 1887, listing his parents as Reginald Hamilton and Elizabeth. The address is given as 25 Vincent Street, and his father’s occupation as ‘mariner’.
Entry for Will Gent in St Mary’s Church, Swansea baptisms register 1885-1891 (P-123-CW-15).
25 Vincent Street, Swansea (left) where Will Gent was born in 1887, and 36 Pentreguinea Road (right), where the family later lived close to the docks in the St Thomas area of Swansea. (Google Maps).
We can find this record on Find My Past: Will Gent registered at Kilvey Infants school in 1896, it lists him as living by then at nearby 40 Kilvey Road. His father, Reginald, is recorded as being a ‘sailor’.
The 1901 census, accessed on Find My Past, shows the Gent family living at 40 Kilvey Road, Swansea:
Their father, Reginald, is not listed. He may have been away at sea on the day of the census or in prison because, interestingly, the 1891 census shows that Reginald was a prisoner in Swansea gaol where he was serving a four-month sentence. A newspaper report from the time states that he had not paid back a loan. There is a Merchant Seaman index card from 1922 in which Reginald is listed as serving as Best Mate on the SS ENDYMION (Glasgow).
This 1911 census record, also accessed at Find My Past, shows that the Gent family have moved to nearby 36 Pentreguinea Road, Swansea.
Reginald Gent is listed as a Master Mariner (steamship) born in Liverpool, and we can see that Charles W R Gent (Will), his son, is aged 23, and is working as a marine engineer (Merchant Service). His younger brother, George is 16. His older brother, Dai, is not listed in this census. This tells us that Will Gent was already an engineer serving on board ships before the war.
As stated above, Will Gent is listed as an engineer in the merchant service in the 1911 census, so we know that he had been working on ships for years before the war.
A 1915 crew list from February 1915 shows him as Third Engineer on the steamer FULGENT. The FULGENT was sunk by U 30 on the 30 April 1915 while carrying coal from Cardiff to Scapa Flow. Two lives were lost. It is possible that Will was on board the FULGENT when she was sunk. We don’t know what other ships Will served on before he lost his life in June 1917 as searches on the CLIP crew list database has no record of his name.
Scapa Flow was the designated anchorage of the British Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet during the First World War. In 1915 the Grand Fleet typically burned 800 to 1000 tons of coal per hour. Ships carrying Welsh steam coal from Cardiff to the fleet at Scapa Flow were vulnerable targets for U-boats and this risk led to the setting up of an alternative supply line: the ‘Jellicoe Specials’ trains in 1915. The sea around Orkney has one of the largest concentrations of shipwrecks in the world.
Will’s death was reported in the Cambria Daily Leader, 5 July 1917, under the headline ‘Swansea Engineer Drowned’ with no mention of the sinking or of the ship.
This report tells us that his full name was Charles William Reginald, that he lived in the St Thomas area of Swansea, and that his brother was the ‘well-known’ international football player, Mr Dai Gent.
An obituary, published a year later by his parents and brothers in the Cambria Daily Leader on 29 June 1918, records that he was known as ‘Will’ and was killed at sea when his ship was torpedoed.
A further obituary notice in 1919 does publish the ship’s name.
This obituary, published in the Cambria Daily Leader on three consecutive days, two years after Will’s death, points to the ongoing grief of his family.
C. W. R. Gent is one of the 68 names on the memorial plaque at All Saints’ Church, Kilvey Road, Swansea, which commemorates the men of the parish who lost their lives in the war. Will’s name, C. W. R. Gent, is the second name down in the central column. This photograph has been digitised and is online on the Swansea Archives website.
Seamen who served for six months or more during the war and entered an area where the enemy was active, were awarded the Mercantile Marine Medal and the British War Medal together (TNA BT351/1/1-2).
Will Gent’s medal card has very little information, only that these two medals were issued to his family address in 1923. The medals may be still with the family.
It seems that the other seaman of the family, Will’s father Reginald, served in the First World War on the SS PLUTUS among other ships. He survived the war, receiving his own medals and continued to serve as first mate on merchant ships. However, his Merchant Seaman’s card has the handwritten note ‘Deceased 12.11.33’. As he was born in 1856, he was 77 when he died. His burial record notes intriguingly that ‘Henry C. Gent’ officiated as vicar at the burial – a relation?
A burial record records that Will’s mother, Elizabeth Gent (nee Roderick) was buried on 23 January 1923. The census tells us that she was born around 1860 so she was about 63 when she died. We know from the 1911 census that she had six children of whom three died as infants. With the death of Will in 1917 only two sons survived her – Dai and George. We know from this census that she came from Llandovery and was a Welsh speaker.
This photograph shown courtesy of the Gloucester Rugby Heritage website shows Will’s older brother David (Dai) Gent.
Dai played for Llandovery at full back and had several games for Llanelli before being taken on by Gloucester Rugby Club. He made 146 appearances for them between 1903–11 at scrum half, winning five caps for England, his first against the 1905 New Zealand team, on the All Blacks’ first UK tour. He later became a head teacher and a rugby correspondent for The Sunday Times and wrote The Classic Guide to Rugby. He died in 1964 in Hellingly, Sussex, aged 81.
This article from the Cambrian Daily Leader is dated 21 January 1919.
We know that Will’s younger brother, George Mayor Gent, served as a Private with the Swansea Pals (14th Welsh Regiment). He survived the war.
We know from burial records on Find my Past that Will Gent had three other siblings who died young, these included a brother with the same name, Charles William Reginald Gent born 1884 who died, aged 3, shortly before Will was born in 1887. A sister, Margaret Clarice Elizabeth who died aged 17 months in 1891 and another brother, George Lawrence Roderick who died aged 1 in 1894.
Built in Port Glasgow in 1915 and owned by Swansea Steamers, Ltd (Richards, Turpin, Ltd), the SS ILSTON weighed 2426 tons and would have had a crew of about 50 men of different nationalities. (The five other casualties of the sinking included two Indian seamen).
The wreck is S.E. of Lizard, South Cornwall at a depth of 45–48 meters.
In 1969 divers reported that the large (300 ft long) wreck of the ILSTON was lying intact off the Cornish coast, with its cargo of railway equipment still in the holds and engines intact.
In 2007 divers reported that the wreck was still intact, but that the cargo of railway rolling stock had spilled across the seabed. The deck gun still the stern with ammunition and the forward accommodation is accessible and still harbours some interesting finds.
What we can find online about Will Gent and his family is limited to what is shown here. The family home was near to the docks in Swansea, so we know that Will grew up in sight and sound of the busy port. His father was a sailor who became a master mariner and it is common to find, when researching family trees, ancestors who went to sea, because such large numbers of people were employed in the merchant service, especially in port towns in Wales. It was a career that often ran in families.
Despite being 29 (or 30 in some records) Will doesn’t appear to have married nor had children. This may have been because being at sea, especially during the war, left not much time for courting. We have no photograph of him and this is the case with many of the men and women who lost their lives during the First World War. But his family may have more: his Mercantile Marine medal issued in 1922, photographs, letters sent home from sea, a torpedo badge issued to merchant seamen who survived a submarine attack, or a diary. These documents do survive in many family archives and we hope that the U-boat project will uncover some of these important reminders of lives lost at sea a century ago.
What we have discovered, however, tells us much about the War at Sea in general; from the vital cargo carried by the Welsh ships that Will worked on and the reliance on an already established merchant service and experienced sailors; to the way incidents at sea were reported in local newspapers and the way deaths were recorded in official documents. In this way, researching an individual life provides us with ways to increase our understanding of the war and the importance of respecting those wrecks that are the ‘graves at sea’ of the seamen.