Photographs of Ely dignitaries visit to warship unearthed

Dignitaries visiting HMS Walpole

Dignitaries from Ely visiting the warship HMS Walpole in December 1943. Pictured is a Mr Clarke, Chairman of the Urban Council. It is thought the gentleman on the right is Heber Martin, Chairman of the Ely Rural Council. The plaque and ship's bell are now with Ely Museum. - Credit: Crowley family archive

It was a once in a lifetime opportunity for a carefully selected group of dignitaries – a tour of the active warship adopted by the City of Ely.

And photographs from that visit in December 1943 have been unearthed within a treasured family archive.

They were among the unpublished memoir of the late Rear Admiral George Crowley, who was the Commanding Officer of HMS Walpole between 1943 and 1945.

Ely dignitaries on board HMS Walpole

Group photograph from when Ely dignitaries visited HMS Walpole in December 1943. The ship's then Commanding Officer, George Crowley, is stood next to the Dean of Ely Cathedral. - Credit: Crowley family archive

The destroyer had been adopted by the City of Ely after the community generously donated £559,000 of their own savings during the “Warship Week” campaigns of 1940 and 1945.

In today’s money, that’s close to £31.5m.


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HMS Walpole was his first real command, and he was keen to establish strong links with the people of Ely after their mammoth fundraising effort.

Dean of Ely on tour of HMS Walpole

Very Rev Lionel Blackburn, then the Dean of Ely Cathedral, was among those who toured HMS Walpole in December 1943. - Credit: Crowley family archive

And the tour of the ship in Harwich for the area’s dignitaries was one of Rear Admiral Crowley’s initial steps as Commanding Officer to develop such a relationship.

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Bill Forster, a wartime naval historian and retired academic, said: “They’re an amazing set of photographs which really bring the visit to life.

“You can tell everyone there is thrilled and honoured to be there, but from the looks on their faces it seems they’re quite overwhelmed by the experience.

“You can tell these visitors clearly don’t belong on a warship. Everything is so different and they seem unsure about the equipment they’re looking at.”

The photographs include the Very Rev Lionel Blackburn, then the Dean of Ely Cathedral, watching the ship’s gun master demonstrating the Y-gun.

In another, the dean is pictured with Lieutenant Crowley meeting the wider members of the ship’s company.

Dean of Ely being show

Very Rev Lionel Blackburn, the Dean of Ely Cathedral, being shown one of the ship's guns. - Credit: Crowley family archive

The plaque Ely presented to HMS Walpole on her adoption and the ship’s bell are featured in one photograph, captioned as “Mr Clarke, Chairman of the Urban Council”.

Both the plaque and bell are now with Ely Museum.

In the same photograph, it is thought the gentleman on the right is Heber Martin, Chairman of the Ely Rural Council.

Bill Wilson, former editor of the Ely Standard

Bill Wilson, the former editor of the Ely Standard, also joined HMS Walpole on a tour of duty escorting convoys along the east coast. - Credit: Crowley family archive

Bill Wilson, the then editor of the Ely Standard, was among the group and some of the photographs were published alongside his report.

In his article, he describes how they had to climb “the ladder up the ship’s side” on their arrival.

On a separate occasion, he joined HMS Walpole on a tour of duty escorting convoys between Rosyth, a town on the Firth of Forth, Scotland, and the Thames Estuary. 

During this trip, he is pictured on the ship’s bridge in a duffle coat.

Mr Forster added: “The families of some of the people in these photographs may even live in the area still. If they are, I’d be very keen to speak with them.”

Rear Admiral Crowley wrote his detailed account of life at sea with the navy during his retirement in the 1970s.

About the visit, he said: “The ship was at divisions and the Ely team were first of all led round the divisions and at each stop the dean gave some stirring words of encouragement and thanks.

“After this there was an opportunity for our visitors to look at the ship more closely and there was a demonstration of gun drills and suchlike.

“The Chief Boatswain's Mate - a Petty Officer - then gave the dean a boatswain's call which I really believe he was delighted to receive.

“Then, after half an hour or so, we gave the party drinks in the wardroom, but how we all got in I cannot think, followed by what in those days was a very nice buffet lunch.”

HMS Walpole company photograph 1945

HMS Walpole, the ship's company photograph, taken in January 1945. - Credit: Crowley family archive

To further illustrate his career memories, there is an album of captioned photographs and newspaper clippings connected to the action his ship was involved in.

Rear Admiral Crowley’s son, Patrick, said: “It’s really interesting to hear how much this special relationship between Ely and HMS Walpole is celebrated – because I don’t recall my father speaking about it much.

“He had a very busy and active war in destroyers from start to finish. Throughout his career, he served on at least five or six different ships, maybe more. HMS Walpole is just one little episode, albeit a significant one.

“He was a man of great initiative. As the people of Ely had so generously adopted this ship, it was probably his idea to forge strong communications with the city and invite this group on board.

“And the links initially formed during that visit remained for many, many years after the war.”

HMS Walpole's crew which sank two E-boats. 

HMS Walpole's crew which sank two E-boats in December 1944. - Credit: Crowley family archive

HMS Walpole was a First World War destroyer of the V and W class.

She was known as a lucky ship for escorting the Dutch Crown Jewels to safety in the UK at the very start of the Second World War.

During the war itself, she was employed mainly on anti-E-boat work and as the escort for the many convoys of merchant ships along the east coast and across the channel.

HMS Walpole was also involved in the Normandy landings.

Her working life came to an end in 1945 when she hit a mine in the North Sea. She was able to return to port but was subsequently written off and dismantled.

However, the important links her last commanding officer was so keen to establish were maintained for many years following the war.

In 1989, members of the crew were present to see the ship’s ensign raised in Ely Cathedral where it is still present today.

Rear Admiral Crowley died in 1999, in Gloucester.

  • Mr Forster is trying to trace family of those in the photographs, particularly the former Ely Standard editor Bill Wilson. If you can help, please email billforster@vandwdestroyerassociation.org.uk.

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