Crest of the V&W Destroyer AssociationCrest of the V&W Destroyer AssociationHMS WITCH






Northwich adopts HMS Witch

Warships Week 7 - 14 March 1942


Bridge
This swing bridge across the River Weaver at Northwich, Cheshire,  was built in 1899
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Between October 1941 and the end of March 1942, Warships Weeks were organised in cities, towns and villages throughout Great Britain.  The intention was to raise a sum by investment or deposit in all types of war savings representing the cost of building one of His Majesty’s ships ranging from the smallest to the largest vessels.  Once the target had been raised the community adopted the vessel along with its crew and the bond was strengthened by presentations in recognition of the money raised. Adoption plaques were presented by the Admiralty to the community and a plaque presented by the community to the adopted vessel. Links were maintained by the writing of letters and the provision of comforts and whenever possible visits were arranged to the adopting area. Most of the V&W Class destroyers in commission with the Royal Navy were adopted during the Warship Week scheme and in a number of cases local sea cadet units later took the name of the ship. To find more about Warship Weeks see Peter Schofield’s article on ‘National Savings and Warship Weeks’.

HMS Witch was allocated for adoption by Penzance but Lt Cdr  Cecil Holmes RN, her CO pulled strings to see she was adopted by Northwich. His wife was pregnant when he returned to Britain to take command of HMS Witch on 4 May 1941 and their son, Jasper Hamilton Holmes, was born at Sandiway, four miles west of Northwich, on 14 November 1941 which is why he wanted Northwich to adopt his ship. The ports on the Mersey and the Clyde were heavily bombed and his pregnant wife would be safer in this small Cheshire town with a rail service from Liverpool, the HQ of Western Approaches Command, where HMS Witch berthed between escorting Atlantic Convoys.

HMS Witch was escorting a return convoy from North America when the birth took place and Lt Cdr Holmes describes below how he heard the news:

"We had just got into Derry and were topping up with fuel and I was having my first bath for ten days when there was a tap at the door from the Yeoman of Signals:

    'From Commander-in-Chief, Western Approaches to HMS Witch, It's a boy. Both doing well'.
    'Yippee, that's wonderful Yeo. Go and tell the Wine Steward to give you a very large drink on me.'

And that's how I heard of my son Jasper's birth a week late!"


Penzance and Northwich compete to adopt the Witch!
This advertisement for their Warships Week appeared in The Cornishman on Thursday 13 November 1941 the day before the son of the CO of HMS Witch was born at Northwich in Cheshire
Adveet foer Warships Weekn in Penzance to adopt HMS Witch
Penzance raised 240,000 to adopt HMS Witch in 1941
The Cornishman !3 November 1941

HMS  Witch (D89)
HMS Witch (D89) was commanded by Lt Cdr Cecel H. Holmes RN
Imperial War Museum A1453

Jasper Holmes with his father, Lt Cdr Cecil H Holmes RN
Father and son at the end of the War
Lt Cdr C. H Holmes was born at Seoul, Korea, and Jasper at Northwich


Lt Cdr  Cecil Holmes RN, her CO pulled strings to see HMS Witch was adopted by Northwich in Cheshire where his son was born. His Danish wife was pregnant when he returned to Britain from Hong Kong where he had been given command of the S Class destroyer HMS Scout in 1937, to take command of HMS Witch on 4 May 1941. Their son, Jasper Hamilton Holmes, was born at Northwich on 14 November 1941. No family connection to Northwich has been dicovered but the ports on the Mersey and the Clyde were heavily bombed and his pregnant wife would be safer in this small Cheshire town with a rail service from Liverpool, the HQ of Western Approaches Command. I would like to hear from anybody in Northwich who remembers  the family.

On the 29 January 1942 readers of  The Cornishman learned that they were not to adopt HMS Witch, their first choice, and the ship for which they had raised 240,269  during their Warships Week in November 1941, but HMS Foresight, an F Class destroyer completed in May 1935. HMS Witch would be adopted by Northwich in Cheshire where the first born son of her CO was born on 14 November 1941. This decision was naturally resented by the people of Penzance who had spent so much time promoting Warships Week and collecting National Savings for her adoption.  Just over six months later on 12 August 1942 HMS Forseight was attacked by Italian Torpedo Bombers in the Sicilian Narrows during Operation Pedestal to relieve Malta, was badly damaged and had to be sunk by HMS Tartar. HMS Witch fought on and survived the war and went to the ship breakers at Granton on the River Forth in 1946.

Western Morning News
Tuesday 13 January 1942
A letter from the Admiralty congratulated the area on reaching its financial objective in Warship Week, and hoped steps would be taken to establish relationship between the vessel to be adopted and the inhabitants.

Manchester Evening News
Tuesday 19 October 1943
More veterans than any other ship of her size in the RN is the boast of HMS Witch an 18-year old destroyer adopted by Northwich.  Among her ratings are 19 men who are more than 40 years of age.  Oldest of the veterans is Leading Stoker L. Anderson (50) of Tavistock, Devon.  

The Sphere
Saturday 6 November 1943
HMS Witch: The vessel has been adopted by Northwich in Cheshire, a plaque from which is proudly displayed in her wardroom.

Warship Week in Northwich
 7 - 14 March 1942
Northwich was a "Company Town"  dominated by Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI)

In 1873, John Brunner and Ludwig Mond built Winnington Works in Northwich, Cheshire, and began producing soda ash. Sodium carbonate (soda ash) is the main constituent of glass and Bicarbonate soda (baking soda) is a by-product of sodium carbonate. Martin Ashcroft, Managing Director of Tata Chemicals Europe, describes why the industry developed at Northwich:

“We have been making it by the same process since the 1890s. The raw materials you need for soda carbonate are brine – we sit on top of salt reserves in Cheshire and the link is still there today. You also need water, and we have the river Weaver. The other material is limestone, which comes from about 40 miles away in Derbyshire. We have reserves up to the year 2340."

In 1926, Brunner Mond was one of the four main companies that merged to form the monolithic Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) and as Ashcroft explained:

“It was part of ICI from 1926 to 1991 when ICI divested the business. It produced soda ash for the best part of a century. It was virtually everyone’s livelihood around here. The houses and schools were built by ICI. That was largely what the business was about until bicarbonate came in."

The boom years came to an end with the exploitation of natural soda ash deposits in Africa, ICI broke up in the 1990 and the Alkali Division was bought by Tata Chemical in 2006. Soda Ash is no longer produced at Winnington, the business is now based on the production of Sodium Bicarbonate.

The archive of Bruner Mond (including 18,000 employee records) in the basement of Mond House in Northwich are now part of the wider archive of ICI in the Historical Archive at the Catalyst Museum in Widnes where they are looked after by Judith Wilde, the former Archivist at Brunner Mond. An ongoing digitisation programme will widen access to the collection, an essential resource for researchers into company, local and family history.

The ICI Alkali Division made a significant contribution to the 394,022 raised by Northwich during its Warships Week from 7 - 14 March 1942,  150,00 more than Penzance but this was not the reason why Northwich adopted HMS Witch instead of Penzance. The reason given by the Admiralty to The Cornishman for the adoption of  HMS Witch by Northwich was "because of her Commanding Officer's connections to that place".

Northwich Guardian, 13v March 1942Northwich Guardian, 20 March 1942
Lt.Cdr. Cecil Hamilton Holmes, RN (1906-81)

The CO of HMS Witch from 4 May 1941 to July 1942 was Lt.Cdr. Cecil Hamilton Holmes, RN. Cecil Holmes was born in Seoul, Korea, where his father was working at the British Legation, on 18 March 1906. Cecil was one of four children, two born in Japan where his father retired as His Majesty's Consul-General at Yokohama and was awarded the Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG) by King George V in his 1928 birthday honours. This seems very remote from Northwich but his father's family came from Ireland and he was born near Liverpool, not that far from Northwich.

Cecil Holmes was 13 when he joined the Royal Navy in 1919 and by 1929 was a Lieutenant.
At his own request he was sent to Japan to study the language from 1933-6. His family tree has been traced by Nina Challenor and can be seen on Ancestry. By 1937 he was a Lt Cdr and on 20 January 1940 was appointed CO of HMS Scout, an S Class Destroyer based at Hong Kong, his first command. He was 33 and travelled to Hong Kong on the liner Aeneas with his 21 year old Danish wife, Lisbet Kampmann.

Lisbet was pregnant when Lt Cdr Cecel H Holmes returned to Britain to take command of HMS Witch on 4 May 1941. Their son, Jasper Hamilton Holmes, was born at Sandiway, four miles west of Northwich, on 14 November 1941 which explains why he wanted Northwich to adopt his ship. Cecil's sister Doreen Ruscombe King, was renting a house nearby. Sandiway and Hartford were the upmarket end of town, away from the chemical works and brine boilers of Northwich itself. Hartford was on the West Coast Main Line to Liverpool, the HQ of Western Approaches Command. The ports on the Mersey and the Clyde were heavily bombed and his pregnant wife would be safer in this small Cheshire town.

HMS Witch was escorting a return convoy from North America when the birth took place and Lt Cdr Holmes describes below how he heard the news:

"We had just got into Derry and were topping up with fuel and I was having my first bath for ten days when there was a tap at the door from the Yeoman of Signals:

    'From Commander-in-Chief, Western Approaches to HMS Witch, It's a boy. Both doing well'.
    'Yippee, tht's wonderful Yeo. Go and tell the Wine Steward to give you a very large drink on me.'

And that's how I heard of my son Jasper's birth a week late!"

The programme of events held  during Warships Week

Posters and souvenir programmes were printed t
o promote Warships Week and encourage personal savers and companies to support the National Savings programme. The two local newspapers carried reports on events and the money raised. Cheshire Archives and Local Studies provided the copies of articles published by the Northwich Guardian on 13th (on left) and 20th March (right) but the quality is poor.

ICI Alkali Division in this "company town" invested heavily. Sir Frank Spickernell (1885-1956) joined the Navy as a clerk but became Paymaster-Commander and Secretary to Admiral Lord Beatty, CiC of the Grand Fleet. After the war he carved out a second career in business with ICI and in 1927 became Private Secretary to Alfred Mond, the Company's first Chairman. He was a strong supporter of the Northwich Warship Week and presented cheques from ICI for 71,000 and 43,000 during events held in the Bath Hall, since demolished. The swimming pool was boarded over for the dance at which the wife of Lt Cdr Holmes the CO of HMS Witch, was a guest, and a grand parade was held through the town.

Leading Seaman H. Bannister (later PO Bannister) was a Norwich Man who served in HMS Witch from the outset and "gave up a week of his leave to visit local schools" describing her exploits as reported in the Northwich Guardian on the right. Bannister was  one of the crew of the 1st Whaler which rescued survivors from the SS Independence Hall when she ran ground on Sable Island on the Newfoundland Grand Bank. The sailing whaler tried first but capsised with the loss of  the "Chief Buffer", PO William Trick, and Sub Lt Fothergill took out the 1st Whaler with a volunteer crew including Bannister.
PO H. Bannister moved to Woking in 1943 but may have family in Northwich and I would like to hear from them.  The typescript list of 47 men in HMS Witch when fiirst commissioned  has LS H Bannister's name at the top was probably compiled by him. It was found in the papers of Lt Cdr Cecil H Holmes RN  after his death.

The Crescent Players production of the Walter Haskett comedy “Ambrose Applejohn’s Adventures” was a popular show. The list of the amounts raised by the various post offices in the Northwich area encouraged districts to compete with each other. “One of Northwich’s own boys was an officer onboard" - but his name was not given by the Northwich Guardian. When the target set was reached a radiogram was sent to the commander and crew of HMS Witch: “Northwich done it. Splice the mainbraces". 

After the success of Warships Week a ceremony would have been held at which the Admiralty presented a replica of the crest of HMS Witch mounted on a wooden shield to  the two councils and they presented the crest of the town cast in lead and mounted on shield made of steel. The Admiralty shield is similar to those presented in other towns and cities but the immensely heavy town crest is quite different from any I have seen and clearly intended to be bolted onto the ships structure alongside thee heavy bronze screen plaque where it would be exposed to the elements and seen by all the crew members. It has been in store - not on display - at the Weaver Hall Museum and Workhouse (better known locally as the "Salt Museum") for many years.
I would like to hear from older residents of Northwich who remember their Warships Week.

After leaving HMS Witch Lt Cdr Cecil Hamilton Holmes
was based at HMS Tana, the shore base at Mombassa, Kenya, from 1942-3 and then joined the HMS Lanka in Colombo, Ceylon, as Deputy Chief of Intelligence Staff so it looks as if the Navy had found a use for his knowledge of Japanese. He stayed on in the Navy until the age of 50 when he retired as a Commander in 1956. His only son led a very different life from that of his father but is in poor health. Kate Holmes sent me a copy of her father-in-law's  entertaining memoir A Sailor Remembers which includes a chapter on his time as CO of HMS Witch.


The Sea Cadet Unit at Northwich
Training Ship
Witch

Hunts Lock on the Weaver Navigation at Northwich
Hunts Lock on the Weaver Navigation with the Weaver Railway Viaduct which carried trains to Chester and Birkenhead
in wartime
The Sea  Cadet Unit's two whalers from HMS Witch  were used on Regatta Day
Youtube

Sea Cadet from TS Witch at Northwich visit the Boat Show in 1966James Jackson GrundyThe Northwich Sea Cadet Unit was formed in 1942 and adopted the name TS Witch for its Training Ship. Councillors and Sea Cadets may have visited HMS Witch when she was based in Gladstone Dock at Liverpool escorting Atlantic convoys or at Rosyth when she was escorting convoys from the Firth of Forth to Sheerness on the Thames estuary between May 1944 and the end of the war.

Bob Edwards joined the Northwich Sea Cadet Unit in 1952 and recalled:

 "We had two dories and a couple of whalers from HMS Witch and on Regatta Day we towed them with a motor boat up through Hunts Lock and helped out where we could. The motor boat was an old ship's lifeboat we built cabins into with an old petrol engine, a Ford 100 E side valve if my memory is correct." What happened to the two whalers? Bob Edwards  recalled that the two whalers from HMS Witch  "were broken up at Hunts Lock and used for firewood, I presume by the lock keepers".

Were these the two whalers which rescue the crew of the Independence Hall when she ran aground on the Newfoundland Banks in March 1942? Leading Seaman H Bannister was a member of the volunteer crew of the 1st Whaler and was from Northwich. Lt Cdr Holmes described the rescue in his memoir A Sailor Remembers and on this website.

The photograph (left) was taken at the Boat Show in 1966 - link to a close-up of the officers. PO Bob Edwards is on the left next to Chris Watkins, the son of Walter Watkins, an Arctic Convoy veteran of HMS Onslow, and a member of the Committee which included included Mr Crill (an ICI manager) and the physics teacher from Sir John  Deane's Grammar School (Mr Ellis).

In 1980 ICI gave one of its eight small coasters built by W J Yarwood & Sons Ltd at Northwich to carry its soda ash from Winnington along the Weaver Navigation to
Runcorn on the Mersey, to the Sea Cadet Unit at Northwich. Yarwoods built a thousand small ships between 1861 and 1966 at its shipyard on the Weaver. She was named after James Jackson Grundy (1880-1953), the popular manager of the ICI Alkalii Distribution Centre but was now known as TS Witch and became the first permanent home of the Sea Cadet Unit as reported in Mond Mail. Northwich gave the shield bearing the crest of HMS WItch to the Sea Cadet Unit and it hung in TS Witch at its berth on the River Weaver. Lt Cdr Booth, the CO of TS Witch, did his sea training in HMS Witch, a further link between the two.

Northwich Sea Cadets merged with the Winsford & Middlewich Sea Cadets in 2001 and the TS Witch was sold to private owners. She reverted to her original name, the James Jackson Grundy, and was put back to work transporting grain from Liverpool Docks to Sutton Mill Quay at Frodsham. She achieved wider fame and was viewed by thousands when in 2012 she carried the giant puppets of the little girl and the diver in the Liverpool Sea Odyssey. Since then she has been sold again and is now a very ugly houseboat at Chiswick Mall on the Thames. The shield and its crest were saved by John Tackley, the Chairman of the River Weaver Navigation Society, who tried to buy the former TS Witch and put her on display alongside the Anderton Boat Lift which links the Weaver Navigation to the Trent and Mersey Canal.

I am hoping to be contacted by founder members of the Northwich Sea Cadet Unit in 1942 with more details of the early years of the the unit and its links with HMS Witch.

Weaver Hall Museum in Northwich


Weaver Hall Museum-b
Weaver Hall Museum
Photographed by Duncan Wilks, Museum Supervisor
Courtesy of Cheshire Museums


Weaver Hall Museum is full of displays and tales of the history and industry of West Cheshire and is housed in the old Northwich Union Workhouse building, built from 1837-39. The workhouse provided a last refuge for the poor of mid-Cheshire, and the displays at the museum tell this story from the daily routine to the diet of the inmates. Visitors can explore the workhouse schoolroom, the Master’s sitting room and the Guardian’s Boardroom, where weekly meetings took place to make decisions about the care of the poor.

The workhouse closed in 1968 and about half of the structure was pulled down the following year. The famous author Robert Westall, a local resident, campaigned to save the building and so it survived to become Weaver Hall Museum in 1977.

The displays now explore the history of the workhouse, along with Northwich industries such as boatbuilding, chemicals and salt mining. There are also galleries exploring archaeology, transport and local history. These displays are spread through the rooms of the old workhouse and the stories are told through films, models and eye-catching artefacts.

The plaques exchanged by the Admiralty and Northwich Urban and Rural District Councils after the adoption of HMS WItch
It is my hope that  the  two plaques shown below will soon be displayed alongside each other in Weaver Hall Museum
with an explanation of how Lt Cdr Cecil Holmes RN used his influence to see that HMS Witch was allocated to "Northwitch" for adoption after the birth of his son Jasper Holmes in Northwich on 14 November 1941.

Thev ship'svcresrt of HMS Witchj on the shield presentedb to Northwich by the Admiralty in 1942
The ship's crest of HMS WItch presented to Northwich by the Admiralty
The
Council gave it to TS Witch, the Northwich Sea Cadet Unit, formed in 1942
Courtesy of the present  owner John Tackley

The inscriptions

The inscribed plate on the Admiralty shield for HMS Witch
< The inscribed plate on the shield presented to Northwich



The inscribed plate on the plaque pressented to HMS Witch by Northwich
The inscribed plate on the shield presented to HMS Witch >
Crest of Northwhich presented to HMS Witch
The crest of Northwich cast in lead and mounted on a steel plate presented to HMS Witch
The plaque was returned  after the war and is in the Weaver Hall Museum & Workhouse
Courtesy of West Cheshire Museums



Michael Cooksley interviewed Bill Forster, Sam Naylor and John Takley about Warships Week and the adoption of HMS Witch
on his "Radio North Witch" programme, Northwich Now, on 16 October 2020
And the Northwich Guardian also published the story of the adoption of HMS Witch

Plans to display the shield presented to Northwich by the Admiralty and the plaque presented by the town to HMS Witch
at the Remembrance Day Service in St Helen Witton Church in 2020 came to nothing when the Lockdown forced cancellation of the Service

Others who helped tell this story include
Duncan Wilks, Nick Colley, Bob Edwards, Judith Wilde, Kate Cernik and Cheshire Archives and Local Studies plus Jasper and Kate Holmes, Dr Peter Schofield and Nina Challenor


We are also keen to hear from the people of Northwich about the links established between the town and their adopted ship
Ask your parents and grandparents if they remember Warships Week or served in the Sea Cadet at Northwich
And e-mail what you find out to  Bill Forster
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 The Anderton Boat Lift
The Anderton Boat lift built in 1875 raised narrow boats 50 ft from the Weaver Navigation to the Trent and Mersey Canal
The Winningtom Soda Ash Works in the background on the river manufactured soda ash from Derbyshire limestone and Cheshire salt
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If you want to find out more about the wartime service of a member of your family who served on HMS Witch you should first obtain a copy of their service record
To find out how follow this link: http://www.holywellhousepublishing.co.uk/servicerecords.html


If you have stories or photographs of HMS Witch you would like to contribute to the web site please contact Bill Forster



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