Obituary for
Britannic Survivor
George Perman

As some of you might already know, over the last few months I have been occasionally assisting Russell Wild with The Official Britannic Research Centre. Having done an excellent job to date, other commitments have sadly forced Russell to move on to pastures new, and Bruce Beveridge has now assumed the mantle (not to mention the cost) as webmaster of the new Britannic site, which is being re-launched on July 15th. Hopefully Russell will be able to resume his role at a later date, but in the meantime I would like to wish him bon voyage for now, and to wish Bruce the best of luck with his new enterprise.

My own personal commitments make it very unlikely that I will be a regular contributor to this newsletter, which is probably for the best, but I will, nevertheless, be keeping an eye on it with great interest. And so, to help with the re-launch, my own small contribution is a brief obituary to the Rev. George Hayward Perman, who as a fifteen-year-old boy scout, became one of the youngest survivors on the day that the Britannic went down.

In a way, it is rather unfortunate that my first contribution to this newsletter is such a sad one, but, if nothing else, it has taught me never to give up. Until eighteen months ago, I had always despaired of ever finding a Britannic survivor. Suddenly there was George Perman, and although his recent death might be looked upon with a not inconsiderable degree of sadness, if other contacts with the RAMC check out, then perhaps there may still be at least two more living. That, however, is for the future…

 
George Perman 01.jpg (483842 bytes)

A photograph of Britannic survivor George Perman who was
98 years old when this photo was taken on April 1st 1999
Photograph by Simon Mills

 

Rev. George Hayward Perman

Britannic Survivor: 27th March 1901 - 24th May 2000

George Perman was born on 27th March 1901, his mother being of Scottish extraction and his father a hotel manager from Margate. During his early years he lived with his family at the Dolphin Hotel in Southampton, where his father worked, and was educated at Shirley School. As a boy scout with the Southampton 2nd Freemantle Troop, one of George’s more important tasks, once war had been declared, was to guide the soldiers around Southampton and to the dock area, but when he heard that Captain Bartlett wished to include a troop of scouts in Britannic’s crew, he duly applied for the position.

As a fifteen-year-old boy scout, George’s duties aboard Britannic, when not being instructed in signalling or PE, ranged from acting as a messenger to operating one of the ship’s lifts, a task which he was performing on the morning of 21st November 1916, when the ship was suddenly rocked by a mysterious explosion. He immediately went up on deck, where, fortunately, he was handed a spare life belt by a passing member of the ship’s crew; his own life belt was still in his quarters near the bow of the ship, which had been completely obliterated in the explosion. George’s greatest misfortune that day was that he happened to be in one of the lifeboats which was pulled into the turning port propeller, but luckily he was able to grab hold of a hanging davit line and hold on until the propellers had stopped, before lowering himself into the water. Aside from a few rope burns to his hands, George was uninjured physically, although the memories of the blood-red water and the ship’s white flanks splattered with blood probably left unseen emotional scars for years to come. Some members of his family even believed that the experience shocked him so much that it effected his growth, for although George came from a reasonably tall family, he remained on the short side for the rest of his life.

Once in Athens he and other scouts were royally entertained by the Greek branch of the boy scout movement, and following his return to Southampton George retained his link with the sea by accepting a job offer from one of his neighbours as an electrical apprentice at the Thorneycroft shipyard. Five years later, while on the way to work, he overheard someone saying that the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company were advertising for an electrician, and that same evening he applied for the job. And so began the second phase of his life at sea. After only one voyage, George was promoted when the ship’s second electrician left the ship, and within three years, at the age of only twenty-four, he was serving as chief electrician at the then fabulous rate of 29.00 per month. The Panama Canal was a frequent destination, and in time George became familiar with all of the major North American west coast ports, from San Francisco to Portland, with Vancouver becoming a particular favourite.

After seven years at sea, George “swallowed the anchor” to pursue his true calling in the Church of England. Because he was already so well read in evangelical subjects, he completed the three year course at Ridley College, Bristol, in only two years, before being ordained by the Bishop of Manchester. After serving as curate, first  in Tunbridge Wells and then in Rainchurch, during which time he had also married Gertrude Annie Matthews, who taught Latin and French, he was transferred to his first parish at the Smithfield Martyr’s Memorial Church, London, where his church and vicarage were both heavily damaged in a bombing raid on London during the Second World War. After twelve years in Clerkenwell, he became vicar at St. Mary’s Church in Ealing, where he would also remain for a further twelve years before retiring.

Following his retirement, George and Gertrude lived in London and Felixstowe, before moving to Worthing in Sussex. They never had any children and, following Gertrude’s death, George moved to the Koinonia Christian Rest Home in Worthing, where he died, aged ninety-nine, at 4.00 a.m. on 24th May 2000. The memorial Service was held at the Church of the Holy Trinity on 8th June 2000, followed by a private cremation at Worthing Crematorium.

It was not until the last year or so of his life that George really spoke about his time on the Britannic in any great detail. To him it was very much a thing of the past, and the matter of the present was always of far more concern to him. When I was finally able to sit down and discuss the ship with him for the first time in April 1999, I felt almost unbelievably privileged that I should be the first to hear about his hitherto unspoken memories of the day that the Britannic sank. A second visit that June, this time armed with a video camera, confirmed that although he was very frail, the memories were still there. My only surprise was that far from being overly impressed by the sight of Britain’s largest ship sinking beneath the waves, George’s major worry at the time was where his next job was coming from! Sadly I only knew George for a little over a year, but even in that short time, more than anything else, the fact that I was at last speaking with a living link to the Britannic made me feel that all the effort really was worth it after all.

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