Friday 21 April 2023

How is Nelson’s daughter connected to seafarers‘ welfare? Dorothy Caulfield's progress


On this day she .... on Sunday April 26 1942 Dorothy Nelson-Ward, age 54, (pictured) died in a German air attack on Bath’s Regina Hotel (picture on right). 

In these reprisal raids for RAF bombings of Rostov and Lubeck 26 other guests died too, including Dorothy's sister Rachel Caulfield. The high fatality rate is thought to be because guests refused to use the hotel’s basement shelter

Dorothy matters because in 1933 she founded  the Watch Ashore, the support organisation for partners of merchant seafarers. It still thrives today.

How did the Watch Ashore come about, under the aegis of the former Dorothy Caulfield? After all, the elite Dubliner was not a merchant seafarer herself. Her husband, Admiral Philip Nelson-Ward was Royal Navy. And her titled late father had been an Assistant Principal Clerk in the Admiralty.

The answer is that a committed and enterprising visitor to her home told her stories that inspired her: William Harry Coombs (pictured): jovial, 4ft 10 inches tall, full of concern. 

Inspired, near Chichester

In 1928 Dorothy’s husband Philip Nelson-Ward, was involved in founding the Officers (Merchant Navy) Federation, and had become its president. He remained active in it. Sometimes Captain William Coombs, the leader, came to their home at Crocker Hill House, Boxgrove, West Sussex  (pictured) to talk business.

According to Coombs’ own history of the Watch Ashore, ‘The Honourable Mrs. Nelson-Ward was keenly interested in these discussions and often said to her husband that the wives and mothers of officers would be only too eager to help in the cause of reform ....

‘Why should there not be a definite association of womenfolk, relatives of Merchant Navy officers? So asked Mrs. Nelson-Ward.‘

Blooming in London then in branches nationwide

And so the Watch Ashore began in 1933. ‘Mrs. Nelson-Ward set out a sound, practical idea of a body that would not be a women’s club on the pattern of those already existing. 

‘It would be an organization for the specific purpose of its members getting to know each other and working for the same end: to stimulate public interest in all matters concerning the Merchant Navy and its officers, and to enlist public support for the reforms which were urgently necessary. ‘

The founders ‘set up a ... “ginger group”  which would involve itself in writing letters to Members of Parliament, getting publicity in the Press, trying to interest influential people in the pressing problems of the Merchant Navy.’

On 20th February, 1933 Dorothy convened the first meeting, at the Officers (Merchant Navy) Federation premises. The Rules agreed that they shall 'form a bond of mutual interest between the wives, mothers, sisters, daughters and others interested in the wellbeing of the Officer personnel of the Merchant Navy of the British Empire' and 'further and promote the objects of the Officers (MN) Federation'. 

Other women, such as Lady Headley, the wife of master mariner, took on the leading roles. The branches flourished.

There had been similar organisations before, including city mission-type bodies run by ladies who pitied the RN sailor figure, and the Royal Naval Wives’ Association which was run by wives of naval officers. But never before had Merchant Navy officers' wives united as part of the organised labour movement.

Two years later, in 1935, the ‘men’s federation’ had become the Navigators' and Engineering Officers' Union, the forerunner of today’s Nautilus International. William Coombs became its General Secretary and possibly the Nelson-Wards were at a launch event.

(Pictured the Royal Arcade, Newcastle, offices of the union, which Watch Ahore members would have likely used for their 1940s meetings.)  

Irene, William’s wife, had become active in what was in effect the  union’s gendered auxiliary, the Watch Ashore. It seems that possibly she and Dorothy worked closely together, just as their husbands had done.

In 1937 Dorothy Nelson-Ward became a widow, living on at Crocker Hill House with her sister Rachel. The Watch Ashore had been going for just over nine years when the Luftwaffe bomb put an end to Dorothy’s life five years later. She is mentioned on Philip's memorial at Boxgrove, see picture below.

Irene Combs, the Watch Ashore’s vice-president and treasurer, kept on battling. In 1956 she was honoured for services to the Merchant Navy. Dorothy had not been given a similar award.

The Nelson link

What’s the connection with Nelson?  Dorothy was the granddaughter-in-law of Horatia Nelson (pictured), Admiral Lord Nelson’s daughter by Emma, Lady Hamilton. Horatia begat Philip, who later fathered the Philip whom Dorothy married. 

Dorothy did not meet Horatia (1801-1881), who died a year before Dorothy was born in 1882.  But Dorothy lived with Elizabeth Horatia Somerset, Philip Nelson-Ward’s sister, in Portsmouth. 

Finding out more

Anyone wishing to learn more about the Watch Ashore can find its archives at Hull archives. See 

The Watch Ashore can be visited via: