Charles Algernon Fryatt, who became an acclaimed national hero after his pirate-dodging exploits during World War One, was a native of Southampton and spent the first twelve years of his life in the town. Born 2 December 1871 at 6 Marsh Lane, he was the second son of Charles Fryatt, described in census and parish records as a ‘mariner’, and his wife Mary Jane Brown Fryatt. Young Charles Fryatt attended the old Holy Trinity National School in New Road, until he transferred to Freemantle Church of England School in March 1882, after his family moved to Queens Road (later Queenstown Road) in Freemantle. From 1883 he continued his education at the Corporation Free School in Harwich, the port to which his father moved the family home on entering the maritime service of the Great Eastern Railway (GER) based there.

Charles attended the nautical training college on HMS Worcester, and then served on several merchant ships before joining the GER as an AB seaman in 1892. Marrying a local girl, Ethel Townend, in 1896, he helped her raise a family of seven children while living at a house in Dovercourt, seemingly held on a tenancy from his employers. With them he worked his way up through the shipping grades to become a ship's master in 1913.

Following the outbreak of war GER steamships were taken under the control of the Admiralty, but continued to operate services between Harwich and Holland. Dutch neutrality precluded the arming of British ships serving its ports, which had therefore to rely on seamanship and speed to elude German submarines.

Captain Fryatt's first notable encounter with the enemy was on 2 March 1915, when commanding SS Wrexham. Bound for Rotterdam, she was chased for forty miles but making up to 16 knots, thanks to valiant efforts by engineers and crewmen, she dodged shoals and mines to evade her pursuer and reach port safely. The GER chairman and directors presented her captain with a gold watch, inscribed “as a mark of their appreciation of his courage and skilful seamanship on March 2, 1915”.

A fortnight previously, the German authorities had designated the Channel and waters around Britain and Ireland as a war zone, declaring that “every enemy merchant vessel found in it will be destroyed without it always being possible to warn the crew or passengers of the dangers threatening”. British ships were therefore liable to be sunk without warning or without those aboard having time to get into lifeboats - as happened with the 5,000-ton British ship Falaba, sunk off the south coast of Ireland on 28 March 1915 with the loss of 104 lives.

On the afternoon of that same Sunday, the Brussels, to whose command Captain Fryatt had been transferred, was making another hazardous voyage to Rotterdam when she sighted the German submarine U 33 heading towards her near the Maas lightship. Captain Fryatt knew the fate awaiting his ship if she obeyed the signal to stop. He also knew that he could not match the speed of this new attacker, so he boldly ordered the Brussels full speed ahead straight at the submarine, firing off rockets as he went - to call for aid and give the impression of guns. His intent was to force the submarine to disengage and submerge, even to ram her. The Brussels may have struck a glancing blow to her conning tower or periscope as she went down. Thereafter, the Brussels safely made top speed into harbour at Rotterdam.

Reports of Captain Fryatt's refusal to give up his ship gained him general acclaim and commendation. He received a second gold watch, "presented by the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty in recognition of the example set by that vessel when attacked by a German submarine on March 28, 1915." The Admiralty also sent a vellum certificate, presented to him on its behalf by the Mayor of Harwich, expressing “their marked approbation of the manner in which you carried out your duty when attacked by a German submarine”. These “well-merited awards” were announced in the House of Commons by the Secretary to the Admiralty on 28 April and the Admiralty also wrote to the railway company praising “the highly courageous and meritorious conduct” of the masters of its steamers running between Harwich and Rotterdam, which reflected credit on British seamanship."

While British government circles had no doubt that international law fully entitled merchant vessels to resist arrest or sinking, the Germans took a different view of such civilian defiance. Publicity for his awards made Captain Fryatt a marked man in their eyes and this sealed his fate when he later fell into enemy hands.

For more than a year Captain Fryatt continued running his ship in and out of Rotterdam on voyages that were dangerous but without particular incident, until on the night of 22/23 June 1916, when homeward bound from Holland with Belgian refugees and a cargo of foodstuffs, his ship was surrounded and captured by German destroyers. His trial lasted less than two hours before he was sentenced to death. Barely two hours later - some city aldermen having been hastily summoned as witnesses - he was shot against the wall of the Aurora Gardens, a court near the Kruisport in Bruges where the Germans had previously executed Belgian civilian resisters.

Captain Fryatt's body was buried by the Germans in the cemetery at Assebroek, an eastern suburb of Bruges, with a simple wooden cross over his grave. After the war, on 4 July 1919, his body was solemnly exhumed and ceremonially returned to England for further honour to his memory. After lying in state at Bruges, where thousands lined to pay their respects, the coffin was carried aboard HMS Orpheus to Dover. The next day, 8 July, it was taken by special train to London and drawn on a gun carriage to St Paul's cathedral for a widely attended national memorial service. The body was then taken by another special train to Dovercourt, to be carried in procession to All Saints cemetery, where, with full military honours, the burial service was conducted by the Bishop of Chelmsford.

Memorials to him were later established in a number of locations in Belgium and England, but not in his native town of Southampton. The newspaper cutting referred to below describes the unveiling of a plaque in his memory at Freemantle Church of England Infants School. There are currently (2015) plans to erect a blue plaque to his memory in an appropriate location in the city. His name was added to the memorial wall at Southampton Cenotaph in 2014.

1. Charles Algernon Fryatt

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Photograph, c.1914

2. Memorial to Charles Algernon Fryatt, Bruges

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Photograph, c.1925

3. Memorial in the Aurora Gardens, Bruges.

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Photograph, c.1925

Newspaper clippings:

  • "Recognition at last for a forgotten war hero" - (The Daily Echo 27/01/2007). Account of the unveiling in 2007 of a plaque in Fryatt's memory at Freemantle Church of England Infants School. The ceremony was carried out by Fryatt's great-niece, Dot Stewart, and the plaque was donated by Jimmy Reber from Belgium, who attends the Belgian church which contained the original memorial to Fryatt. The article includes pictures of the ceremony and reproduces a contemporary front page from the Daily Mirror - headline "Mrs. Fryatt at her martyred husband's grave".

Further reading:

‘Captain Charles Fryatt: "Pirate Dodger" Hero of World War I’, by A. G. K. Leonard in Southampton Local History Forum Journal, no 18, Autumn 2011, p19-28. (HS/h)
Captain Fryatt: Patriot or Pirate, by Michael G. White. (HS/t/FRY)
Captain Charles Fryatt: courageous mariner of the First World War, by Ben Carver. (HS/t/FRY)
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004, Volume 21


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