b. 28/04/1876 Lowestoft, Suffolk. d. 15/08/1917 North Sea.
Thomas Crisp (1876-1917) was born in Alma Street, Lowestoft, Suffolk on 28th April 1876, one of a large family of five sons and two daughters to William Crisp (a master shipwright and boatbuilder) and Mary Ann (nee Patterson). He was educated at the Baptist School and then St John’s National School, which was very close to the sea and he was desperate to leave. He continually played truant and forced his father to withdraw him and put him in the British School in London Road “where there were no tapering masts or gleaming iceblocks to lure him away.”
Attempts to interest him in his father’s trade as a shipwright were all in vain. His first sea voyage after leaving school was in a Lowestoft drifter around the west coast of Britain. After four years of herring and mackerel fishing, he decided to go in for trawling and soon became third hand on a Lowestoft sailing smack. In search of more adventure, he joined the Merchant Navy, shipping aboard a liner plying between London and New York. Later, he was in the steamer “Mobile” when she narrowly escaped being sunk following a collision with another vessel. He remained a deep sea sailor for two years, reaching the rank of Quartermaster.
During one of his spells ashore, he met Harriet Elizabeth Alp, a fisherman’s daughter from Aldeby, near Beccles. They were married in 1895, settled in Burgh St Peter, a small village 6 miles inland of Lowestoft, and produced a family of two sons and a daughter. He was now a senior seaman, but lacked qualifications for advancement, so returned to trawling and quickly gained a mate’s and then skipper’s certificate.
In 1902 he joined the fishing firm owned by the Chambers family of Lowestoft. The latest addition to their fleet of smacks was a wooden ketch called “George Borrow” and for the next 13 years he would spend his career with her, first as mate, then as master. His eldest son, Tom, joined the George Borrow as a 14 year old apprentice in 1913, and his father gained a reputation as a very fair man. Crisp continued to fish until February 1915, when his son quit to join the Navy, advancing his age from 16 to 18. Increasingly, their work was being disrupted by enemy submarines and the fishing fleet was being decimated. In August 1915, the George Borrow was sunk by a time bomb off the coast of Cromer.
Crisp enlisted into the Royal Naval Reserve, and was made a skipper of an armed smack. By September 1916, he was able to pull enough strings to get his son, who had been serving on drifters at Dover, back to Lowestoft, where he joined one of the decoy boats as a deck hand. Eventually, they joined forces in early 1917, when Crisp was given command of “I’ll Try”, a veteran of special service. His son acted as mate. Their first action together on 1st February 1917 saw Crisp awarded the DSC (gazetted on 23rd March). The authorities were so impressed by Crisp’s coolness and boat handling skills that they offered him a position aboard a larger Q-ship. Sadly, his wife Harriet was terminally ill at the time, and he chose to remain skipper of his smack, soon re-christened “Nelson”. Harriet passed away on 12th June 1917, just two months before Tom’s own death.
On the 15th August, 1917, the Smack “Nelson” was engaged in fishing when she was attacked with gunfire from an enemy submarine. The gear was let go and the submarine’s fire was returned. The submarine’s fourth shot went through the port bow just below the water line and the seventh shell struck the skipper, partially disembowelling [sic] him, and passed through the deck and out through the side of the ship. In spite of the terrible nature of his wound Skipper Crisp retained consciousness, and his first thought was to send off a message that he was being attacked and giving his position. He continued to command his ship until the ammunition was almost exhausted and the smack was sinking. He refused to be moved into the small boat when the rest of the crew were obliged to abandon the vessel as she sank, his last request being that he might be thrown overboard.
Crisp’s body was not recovered. His VC was presented to his son, Tom, by King George V at Buckingham Palace on 19th December 1917. Tom junior actually received a decoration himself that day, receiving the DSM, for the same action. The following July, he wore both his and his father’s decorations at his wedding. Tom Crisp’s medals are in the keeping of Lowestoft Town Council having been presented for public display by Tom Crisp junior on the 50th anniversary of the award of his father’s VC in a ceremony attended by another member of the Nelson’s crew, Ted Fenn.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: LOWESTOFT TOWN HALL, SUFFOLK.
BURIAL PLACE: BODY LOST AT SEA.
Steve Lee www.memorialstovalour.co.uk – Image of the Memorial in Lowestoft War Museum.
Richard Alexander (East Suffolk Council) – Image of his VC Stone in Lowestoft.
East Suffolk Council – Image of his replica medals in Lowestoft Town Hall.