Second Officer David Blair
- Navy and Scientific Expeditions
As Blair was in the Devonport area for the Oceanic court martial, he joined Lightoller in volunteering for a job which involved disguising themselves as fishermen and patrolling a section of the coastline:
Davy Blair, my old Oceanic pal, and I volunteered for a job that we had got wind of in the Flag Lieutenant’s office. The main qualification for the men who were to get it, we were told, was that they should be “Hard Cases.” Well, Davy and I had both done the Western Ocean, and knew it in its worst moods these many years. If the Mail Boat Service didn’t qualify us as far as weather was concerned, then nothing ever would.
We were accepted and told to get fixed up with fishermen’s rig, such as is used by the Brixham trawlers. A visit down sailor town soon completed the outfit, blue jersey, smock, rough serge pants, heavy weather cap, and seaboots, making us the imitation of a perfect fisherman. My first disguise! And if I looked as big a fool as I felt, then I’d need to be sorry for the success of our venture.
Davy was given a section of the coast from Newquay round the Lizard including Falmouth to Dodman point. Here my section ended and carried on past Mevagissey, Looe, round by Plymouth, Start Bay, Dartmouth and on past Tor Bay to Teignmouth. A fairly big patrol with a roving commission to find out what I could get, and report back in a week’s time to the C. in C. Devonport. My craft was a pure and simple Brixham smack, with no attempt to disguise the discomforts. (Titanic and Other Ships, Charles Lightoller, 1935
During 1915, Lieutenant Blair performed further Navy service, listed in his records as in "charge of Naval Sub Base at Penzance" and then a year aboard the HMS Dreel Castle, an Auxiliary Patrol Base at Falmouth, Cornwall. (26.5.1915 - 19.5.16). Hardly legible notes on his time at Dreel Castle read: "Great zeal energy and attention to his duties… to my entire satisfaction… Blair is a most capable and energetic officer and has carried out his duties in… Penzance with tact and discretion."
It seems he spent most of the war working at the "Dreel Castle" as "S.N.O Penzance" (1.5.17 - 15.3.19) and continued to perform well, with another note on his record later stating: "With utmost zeal, great ability and to my entire satisfaction, Commander Blair has been unsparing of himself in his work, has displayed very high powers of organisation and tact , is a most valuable officer."
Built in 1908, the Dreel Castle was a "hired drifter." Author Pete London, who wrote the book "Cornwall in the First World War" (2013) described the Dreel Castle's role in the war:
From 1916, the Royal Navy posted armed motor launches at Falmouth and Mount's Bay, tasked with hunting German submarines in the waters off Cornwalll's long coastline. To keep them supplied, the Navy co-opted the Dreel Castle, an drifter of 97 tons originally registered at Kirkcaldy.
Converted into a depot vessel and based at Falmouth, Dreel Castle plodded a monotonous route to Penzance and the small naval outpost at St Mary’s, ensuring the launches and naval auxiliary craft were replenished with fuel, arms, equipment and rations. (Source: https://petelondon.blogspot.com)
OBE, Promotion and Medals
His time during the war at Penzance was indeed rewarded. On the 20th of December 1917 he received a confidential letter from the Home Secretary to inform him that "in view of the service you have rendered on work connected with the War, it is proposed to submit your name to the King for appointment as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire."
According to The Times of Thursday 14th February 1918, the day before the "King held an Investiture of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire at 10.30 o'clock this morning. The following were severally introduced into the presence of His Majesty, when The King invested them with the Insignia of the respective Divisions of the Order into which they have been admitted... OFFICERS Lieutenant-Commander David BLAIR, R.N.R."
A write up in the local newspaper, The Cornishman (Penzance, Cornwall) congratulated Blair and acknowledged his work:
The whole town will join with us in congratulating Lieutenant Commander David Blair, now in command of the Penzance Naval Base, on his receiving distinction as an officer of the Order of the British Empire. The honour was bestowed upon him at Buckingham Palace by His Majesty the King on Wednesday. In the trying and arduous task he has been called upon to deal with since he was appointed to take charge of the Penzance base in April, 1915, Com. Blair has shown indefatigable zeal, and has not spared himself in any way to carry out his work efficiently and at the same time to make the lot of the men under his command as cheerful as possible. The work at the Penzance branch of the Service since Mr. Blair's arrival has undoubtedly undergone considerable expansion, involving more labour and a greater degree of executive control and ability. (The Cornishman 21 February 1918)
On the 21st of April 1918, he was officially promoted to Lieutenant Commander. Then on the 29th of August 1918 he was awarded the French Cross of Chevalier of the Legion of Honour (Legion d’Honneur). Later, on the 19th of March 1919, he was officially awarded the Royal Naval Reserve Decoration.
On the 15th of April 1919 Blair's Navy records state "London Gazette 15.4.19 transferred as Officer to the Military Division of the Order of the British Empire.
On the 24th of June 1919, Blair returned to civilian life with an appointment to Chief Officer aboard the SS Haverford, an American transatlantic liner built in 1901. During World War I, Haverford was used as a transport ship for British troops and had been severely damaged in 1917 and again in 1918 from German torpedo attacks. It returned to passenger service on the Philadelphia-Liverpool route for the American Line, making its first voyage in June,1920. The Haverford was purchased by White Star Line in 1921 and retained the original ship name. This was unusual for White Star, as most purchased vessels' names were changed to a more typical White Star name, usually ending in "-ic". The ship was assigned to the Liverpool-Philadelphia route as well as the Hamburg-New York route.
Blair's Navy documents state his engagement on the Haverford was from the 15.9.1919, on the Liverpool-Philadelphia route. Blair is listed as being on holiday leave for a month from 13/8/20 - 18/9/20, then returning to the SS Haverford until the 14th of February 1921, the year in which the White Star Line took over ownership of the Haverford. However, Blair had other things on his mind.
On the 14th of February he resigned from the White Star Line, retiring as Commander aged 47. Lightoller had resigned from the White Star Line exactly a year before, on the 14th of February 1920, so it is possible that similar disillusionment was the cause.
St George and the Research Expeditions
Fortunately, Blair's Navy records continue after this resignation from the White Star Line, mentioning that on the 16th of June 1923 he was "employed as commanding officer on a steam yacht St George belonging to the Research Expeditions."
The St George was a "Composite Auxiliary Steamer 3 masted Schooner" built in 1890 by Ramage & Ferguson (Leith) from a design by W C Storey. It was 191 feet in length, 32.1 ft in breadth and 17.7 ft deep, departing on the 19th of January 1891 from Southampton for a world voyage (http://www.clydeships.co.uk/). This world cruise was recorded in a book entitled "The Cruise of the St. George R.Y.S. to See the World (1893)" in which George Fyfe MD, the ship’s doctor, wrote a vivid account of the voyage and a description of the ship:
‘The St. George is a three-masted auxiliary-screw steam yacht, and next to the Royal yachts is one of the largest and ﬁnest of the Royal Yacht Squadron, of which her owner is a Member. She was built at Leith, by Ramage & Ferguson, from the design and speciﬁcations of a ﬁrst-class yacht architect (Mr. Storey) for her owner’s use … and has cost about £50,000. The predominant idea in her construction has been to combine strength and sailing qualities and special adaptation for navigation in distant seas, with elegance of yacht-like symmetry, and every home-like convenience and indeed luxurious comfort for the sea-farers aboard of her. The St. George is a hundred and ninety-two feet long and thirty-two feet beam, 1,000 tonnage, double-bottomed of teak and steel, ﬁrst-class engined, and with everything in duplicate in case of break downs where repairs could not be effected; capable of steaming twelve knots an hour and of doing ﬁfteen under canvas, for which she is specially rigged with arrangements for feathering her screw to favour her sailing speed ; electric lighted all over and electric search light if at any time needed. As to our cabins they are like elegantly upholstered bedrooms, ten feet high and nearly twelve feet square, with marble baths and hot and cold water arrangements. The saloon is thirty feet wide, well-lighted and ventilated, with open ﬁreplace and overmantle, richly furnished, decorated and upholstered; has organ, piano, and well-selected library, chieﬂy travel, science, and ﬁction; as well as ample lounging and writing conveniences. The reception and smoking room on the deck is in keeping with the saloon, and forms an elegant and luxurious lounge for wet days and evenings… As to what I have jocosely called our ‘live stock’ there are ﬁfty-three all told, consisting of thirty-seven A.B.s and ship’s officers, nine in the steward’s department, and seven gentlemen including the owner and myself. Our table is an exceptionally excellent one in viands, wines, beverages, &c., as well as in the no less important matters of cooking and waiting. (Source: The Royal Yacht Squadron - www.rys.org.uk)
The St George did service during first world war as "Oriflamme" and then the Wallington base ship (J J Colledge "Ships of the Royal Navy" Volume II) but by 1924 was owned by Research Expeditions, by which time she was painted white. The expeditions were scientific in nature and were officially known as the "St. George Expedition to the Pacific" by "members of the Scientific Expeditionary Research Association."
The key members of the team were:
David Blair, Commander/Captain
James Hornell Ethnologist and scientific director
Cyril Crossland, Marine biologist
G. H. Johnson, General biologist
H. J. Keelsall, Lt.-Col., Ornithologist
L. C. Cheesman, Entomologist
C. L, Collenette, Assistant entomologist
L. J. Chubb, Geologist.
The concept for the expedition was proposed in early 1923, when a meeting was held at Burlington House and it was decided to form a Scientific Expeditionary Research Association with an expedition first planned to the South Pacific during the summer and last ten months. Blair was involved in the planning and proposed the following:
"Commander D. Blair the marine superintendent, said he thought it was enough for the present to say that they were going to the Pacific. It might be necessary to draw up a definite programme, so as to include the investigations desired by the various scientific societies concerned. His idea was that they should "work with the sun" having visited various islands in the South Pacific, should return by way of the Panama Canal." (The Western Daily Press (Bristol, Avon, England), 4 January 1923)
Indeed the St. George set off from Dartmouth on the 10th of April 1924 (the same date that 12 years before Titanic had departed), with the port now the official expedition headquarters. The day before there was a send-off which occured "under the chairmanship of Commander Blair...who proposed the toast of 'The Visitors' [and] said there was the work of years to be done in the Pacific, and he emphasised the desirability of continuing it, even after the expedition returned. As to their voyage, he felt confident that they would show good results." After speeches from the deputy mayor of Dartmouth and Pay-Lieut. F.W.Kealey, organiser of the expedition "the health of Commander Blair was drunk with musical honours, and he led the singing of the National Anthem before the final leave-taking." (The Daily Telegraph, 9 April 1924). In another report on the launch of what was described as a "romantic voyage," Blair was quoted as saying that it had taken 15 months and the support of 200 firms: "I feel very happy in knowing it is a dream realized, for it does not fall to the lot of many men to have their dreams realized. (Western Morning News (Plymouth, Devon) 9 April 1924)
The long scientific voyage encountered several challenges along the way. Early in the journey they experienced a terrific storm in the Bay of Biscay and they very nearly lost one of their lifeboats. "It was lifted from its fastenngs by a huge wave, but the captain, with the help of two members of the crew, succeeded, at the risk of their lives, in saving the boat from being washed overboard." (The Daily Telegraph, 30 July 1925) They also encountered bad weather when nearing the Panama Canal in June. That was not the only issue. While passing through the Panama Canal they were mistaken as a "rum-runner" carrying liquor "but on investigation it was found that she was a party seeking strange bugs, birds and beetles for the Scientific Expeditionary Association of London, England. The expedition is in charge of Commander D. Blair, R.NR." (Victoria Daily Times, 7 August, 1924)
They also met various exotic animals. Dr. Penny, the doctor of the expedition, was bitten on the leg by a crocodile while swimming, but fortunately he was able to "dispatch it with a heavy stone." While fishing one night they were driven ashore by sharks. But that did not prevent Commander Blair once catching "a king-fish weighing 82lb with a rod and line. It took them an hour to land the fish, and completely exhausted them." Blair was also involved in a night capsizing on Fatuhiva Island, when a whaleboat containing "the captain, the Governor of the Marquesas, three native ladies and others, was capsized in the heavy surf, and several of the party were injured." The St. George also struck a coral reef on entering the harbour at Rapa Island, although there was no serious damage. On the island itself the men were outnumbered ten to one by the women who made a "tremendous fuss over their visitors, loading them with garlands, and all day long the St.George was crowded with natives." After visiting Easter Island the return voyage to Panama had bad weather, meaning a trip that should have taken 8 days took 103 days, resulting in their supplies being completely exhausted and a tug had to tow the St. George the final 52 miles into Panama. (The Daily Telegraph, 30 July 1925)
The 7th November 1924 edition of the "Science" journal ran an article on the 1924 expedition, as did the Nature magazine on the 8th of November 1924 with a short article by James Hornell, Scientific Director, St. George Expedition, from Panama, dated September 24, 1924:
The St. George Expedition to the Pacific.
With reference to recent newspaper notices of the work done by scientific staff of the St. George
Expedition to the Pacific, the members of the Scientific Expeditionary Research Association will be greatly
obliged if you will give the courtesy of your columns to the following brief resume of the results obtained to date.
The expedition reached the Isthmus of Panama on June 9, 1924. After a short stay in the Canal Zone, devoted by the staff to assiduous collecting, the St. Georg.e carried out a lengthy cruise to the various tropical Islands of the Eastern Pacific, including the Pearl in the Gulf of Panama, Gorgona, off Colombia, and the Galapagos; Cocos, Coiba, and Taboga were also visited. Very large zoological collections were made at these islands, and it is likely that a considerable number of new species and varieties have been obtained. Small mammals have been captured by Mr. P. H. Johnson at all the Islands; these should prove of notable interest as few specimens have been obtained there previous to our visit. They include numerous rats exhibiting a wide range of variation, particularly in the Galapagos. Much attention has been given to the birds by Lieut.-Col. Kelsall; up to the present more than 300 specimens have been obtained, a number smaller than expected, due to the difficult but unavoidable conditions that often prevailed.
The entomologists have had conspicuous success, their collections being most extensive. Miss Cheesman's attention has been devoted in the main to those groups not usually collected, and which in consequence are required to fill gaps in the British Museum collections. It is probable that some of the species will prove to be new, but it is impossible to ascertain this until they have been worked through by specialists. Lepidoptera and Coleoptera, collected by Mr. C. L. Collenette with the assistance of Miss Longfield, are very well represented ; special attention was devoted to the less conspicuous forms as being likely to be of greater interest than the large and showy ones. Early stages have been described and preserved wherever possible; many ecological facts have been recorded and should prove of great interest. Dr. C. Crossland has made large collections of Polychata, Nudibranchs, and Polyzoa, and Mr. J. Hornell, extensive series of Mollusca, marine and terrestrial. It is expected that these will afford most useful data for the settlement of synonymy and consequently for better knowledge of geographical distribution. At least five Atlantic species of polychates have been found in the Panama region, indicating that an appreciable number will be found common to the Atlantic and the Pacific when the collections are systematically examined. Large numbers of flowering plants were gathered in the principal islands visited ; those from Gorgona have been received at home already. We understand from a cable received a few days ago that the authorities at Kew place considerable value upon them; indeed, in consequence of their representations it has been decided to pay a second visit to this interesting island, in order to make the botanical material as complete as possible.
Geology has had adequate attention from Mr. L. J. Chubb, who has amassed an extensive series of notes and rock specimens from the various islands. The outstanding result of the expedition, so far as can be judged at present, has been the discovery by the undersigned of several series of figures graven upon large boulders lying between tide-marks on the eastern shore of Gorgona. The most numerous were two series of archaic figures among which are distinguished what seem to be rude representations of sun-gods and a stepped pyramid. together with figures of monkeys, birds, and other animals. Besides these are two comparatively modern sculptured portraits, one perhaps of Incan age, the other referable to the buccaneering days· of the eighteenth century. A number of stone weapons and implements were also found, associated with potsherds of considerable interest. Advantage is to be taken of our pending return visit to search the island thoroughly for further archaeological remains. JAMES HORNELL, Scientific Director, St. George Expedition. Panama, September 24.
(Source: HORNELL, J. The St. George Expedition to the Pacific. Nature 114, 681 (1924). https://www.nature.com/articles/114681a0)
Ultimately The St George Expedition travelled a total of 30,000 miles and was 17 months in duration, returning October 1925. More than 100 cases of specimens were sent to the British Museum, while the entire cruise was filmed and "should prove to be one of the most interesting and entertaining of travel films ever shown" (The Daily Telegraph, 19 September 1925).
Blair's Navy records list the following:
1.4.1925/18.2.1925 "St George steam yacht "on a cruise to the South Seas. Expects to return to England about June
2.4.1924 - 19.9.1925. Is in command of St George" - Research Expedition S.Pacific Ocean Master
31.10.1925 is still in command of St Geroge which is temporarily laid up, Dartmouth
16.12.25 Is not retaining command of St George
By the 20th of April 1926, his Navy documents state that he is "not attached to any vessel but expects to proceed to sea shortly" but it is not until 1928 Blair reappears in an entry dated 19.3.28 "At present residing in Panama and has lately been cruising on the coast."
This aligns with the address provided in his document from 1928 through to 1931: "British Consul, Panama City, Republiuc of Panama" and later "c/o Panama Corporation Ltd, Panama."
The next entry is almost a decade later: "29.6.1936 Until end of 1935 was in command of large yacht voyaging to South Seas. Has returned to England."
In one of his final references to work, an entry dated 14.5.1947 curiously mentions "States employed on lecturing at L.C.C.Institute"