Hero’s restored headstone in Spalding Cemetery

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The memory of a Royal Marine Reservist who died early in the First World War will continue to live on in Spalding.

A headstone in Spalding Cemetery dedicated to the memory of Richard Fennessy has been restored.

Local historian Cheryl Arnold, of Spalding, discovered the headstone in a poor state of repair when she was placing Remembrance crosses in the cemetery.

She went on to uncover Richard Fennessy’s story – he was one of 1,459 men killed when three British cruisers were sunk by a German submarine off the Dutch coast seven weeks after the UK declared war on Germany at the outbreak of World War 1.

His widow, Ethel Maud, ended up living on a farm in Pinchbeck with her four children. When she died the family laid her to rest in Spalding Cemetery and added an inscription to Richard as well.

Richard and Ethel’s grandaughter, Cecilia Mann, who lives in Kent, arranged for a special service to take place in the cemetery in February, and the Royal Marines prayer was read.

Cheryl has since watched the restoration of the headstone and says: “It was fascinating to watch this man cleaning the grave and putting the lettering back. He had a reel of lead and hammered and chiselled it and it just finished up looking fabulous.”

Miss Mann first heard about her grandfather’s death when she was a little girl staying with her grandmother in Pinchbeck in 1954.

She has gone on to research her family history, and in particular that of her grandfather, Richard Fennessy.

She writes: “One quiet afternoon, I was sitting on a stool next to my grandmother while she was showing me how to crochet. My grandmother started to relate to me the events surrounding her husband’s death.”

Miss Mann says that when the First World War was declared in August 1914, Richard Fennessy (32), a RMLI Reservist, immediately had to prepare for war and travel to Chatham Barracks to board his ship, the Aboukir.

The letter informing Miss Mann’s grandmother of her husband’s death arrived nearly two months later.

Later, a surviving member of the crew of HMS Aboukir visited Ethel to tell her about her husband’s death by drowning at sea.

Miss Mann wrote: “He said he had tried to hold Richard Fennessy above the water and keep him afloat, but later had to let him go. The visiting crew member recalled that the order was given, ‘Every man for himself’.

“My grandfather was able to swim, it was part of his training as a Royal Marine, but the weather in the North Sea at the time was considered to be too bad for destroyers to go to sea and so when the torpedo struck at about six o’clock in the morning, it must have been daunting even to the strongest swimmer, with almost no opportunity of being saved.”

It wasn’t until the late 1970s that Miss Mann decided to research the life of her grandfather, but says as a result of the family upheaval much information had been lost.

She says: “Although there was documentation concerning his death, I wanted to know about the man and how he lived. There was also the importance of verifying the truth of oral history, so that for example I traced records of Richard’s nine siblings at a time when TB was rife and doctors were able to diagnose but were all too often unable to cure due to the lack of antibiotics. Richard’s own mother, Catherine, died of TB, leaving young children.

“I visited the house where Richard was born, where three families shared the house and the one toilet in an outside yard.”

An aunt gave Miss Mann the only known photograph of her grandfather, taken from a picture of him in the Post Office Musical Society and subsequently used as a memoriam card and given to his widow.