Wednesday - 22 October 2014

Bell rings in a year of WW1 centenary sales

20 March 2014Written by Tom Derbyshire

Theophilus Jones, a private in the Durham Light Infantry, achieved the unfortunate distinction of being the first soldier to be killed on British soil during the First World War.

The 29-year-old was hit during the bombardment of Hartlepool on December 16, 1914, and the König class SMS Grosser Kurfürst was one of several warships which were responsible for the first major home attack of that conflict.

For many years the ship's bell lay almost forgotten in a Bristol garden but now it is coming up for sale through Atlantic Crossing Auctions in Southampton on March 22, one of the most interesting of the many First World War items which are being consigned to auctions in the 100th anniversary year of the conflict starting.

Steve Booth, who has run the company independently since 2005 and holds two sales a year, said: "We went down on a call for some furniture from a ship called Leviathan and the lady mentioned there was a bell in the garden and we thought automatically it would be from the same ship.

"It took about 20 minutes to find it because the garden was rather big, then my colleague called me from the other side and said 'there it is' - in a bush. It took about half an hour to get it out and we saw the name on the bell and realised it was quite important. I wasn't sure about the ship at the time but did research later and found out its background."

Scuttle and Salvage

The Grosser Kurfürst (Great Elector) also fought at Jutland in 1916 and at the end of the war it was interned at Scapa Flow but scuttled with the rest of the German fleet in 1919.

Mr Booth added: "It was salvaged in 1938 and went to the scrapyard in Rosyth - this is where the connection with the ship's furniture comes in. The Bristol lady's grandfather had gone to Rosyth to buy some furniture from a ship called Leviathan, which was owned by the United States Line but had previously been the Hamburg America Line ship Vaterland, which had been ceded at the end of the First World War to the Americans.

"The grandfather had wandered round the scrapyard after buying this furniture and spotted the bell. He bought it and it sat in the family home's garden down through the generations."

Only one other German ship's bell of this type is known in the UK, Steve said, and it now stands outside the church of St Michael on the island of Eriskay in the Outer Hebrides. That bell belonged to SMS Derfflinger, which also took part in Jutland and the December 1914 bombardment, although Derfflinger was off Scarborough and Whitby rather than Hartlepool.

"I've been in contact with the church to try to get theirs for a future sale but they call the congregation to church with it every Sunday... so it's unlikely I'll get it," said Mr Booth. "It's the only other one I've heard of. I think the reason was that by the time these things ended up at scrapyards round about the mid 1930s, with the rearmament programme going on before the Second World War, they were melted down and the metal was reused, so certainly any of these bells are rare survivors.

"One or two made their way back to Germany in the middle of the last century as presentation pieces, but by and large they went to the smelting yard."

The bell is estimated at £6500-7000 in the 300-lot auction on March 22, with viewing from 11am on the day of the sale or by prior arrangement.

It takes place at the Avenue St Andrew's United Reform Church Hall in Southampton. Contact Mr Booth at monhke2545@hotmail.co.uk or 07766 186747. 

Look out for a round-up of First World War highlights sold at auctions so far in 2014 in a future issue of ATG's printed newspaper.

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