Remembering a Gresham’s School Old Boy

Remembering Midshipman John Kempson

On 15th October 1914 Midshipman John Kempson went down with his ship HMS Hawke in the North Sea.  He was seventeen years of age.  His old School, Gresham’s, is remembering  John, the first of over 100 ex-pupils to die in the conflict, with a special commemorative service on the anniversary of his death.


John Reginald Kempson was born in Knighton, Leicestershire on 17th June 1897.  By 1892 the family was living in Norfolk in a large house at South Street, Sheringham.  John entered Gresham’s as a day boy in May 1909, but soon obtained a scholarship allowing him to become a boarder in Old School House. Although John was only at the School for three terms the Gresham magazine records that he played cricket for the day boys against one of the boarding houses, Bengal Lodge, and came second in a 500 yard running race in an athletics competition.

At the tender age of thirteen John decided on a career in the Royal Navy and by May 1910 had been accepted as a cadet at Osborne. His training was completed at Dartmouth where he did so well that on his first posting, to HMS Cumberland, he was promoted after only a month and reallocated as Midshipman to the cruiser HMS Hawke in August 1914 as the ship’s crew was brought up to strength in preparation for war.

Hawke had been recommissioned in February 1913 as a training ship, but with the outbreak of war became part of the 10th Cruiser Squadron engaged in blockading duties.  Their mission was to block access to the North Sea for German ships and to ensure that neutral ships were not carrying materials destined for Germany.

On Thursday 15th October HMS Hawke was approximately 60 miles off Aberdeen when she was stopped in order to receive mails and signals from another cruiser, Endymion, via a cutter between the two ships.  The manoeuvre was observed by the commander of a nearby German submarine, Otto Weddingen, and following the delivery of mail, Endymion got away but Hawke was struck by a torpedo on the starboard side causing two simultaneous explosions sending her to the bottom in less than eight minutes at 11 am.

Nearly 600 seamen subsequently found themselves trapped or struggling to survive the freezing waters.  One survivor commented – “I have never been on a ship so well equipped with lifesaving apparatus, but the way the vessel heeled over made it almost impossible to get the boats out,” whilst another stated – “many of the crew had scrambled on to the side of the sinking cruiser as she turned turtle and were sliding and diving into the sea.”  Several rafts had floated clear along with the mailboat cutter, but for the vast majority of the seamen there was little hope.  Hawke’s fate was not realised until later that day, and the first of 70 men to be rescued not picked up until early on Friday morning.

Kempson’s naval record, published in the Gresham magazine in December, stated that he was “killed in action, vessel torpedoed by submarine in the North Sea.”  His name was the first to be carved on the memorial screen in the School Chapel and the first to be listed on Sheringham’s War Memorial.  As one of the earliest and youngest of the Great War casualties his name is also remembered on other memorials including that at Chatham and the Roll of Honour for the City of Norwich.  Dallas Wynne Willson, housemaster of the Old School House, was moved to create his own roll of honour in memory of the little boys in his House who lost their lives.  The vellum document is a treasured part of the Gresham’s School Archive and bears the photograph (above) of young John Kempson as a naval cadet.


This post was written  by Liz Larby,  the Gresham’s School Archivist, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the sinking of HMS Hawke and the loss of the first Gresham’s boy in the Great War 


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