Portrait of a sailor

11 February 2016 by Ellie

Portrait of Stoker 1st Class Joseph Norman Thomas


In 2014 we acquired this rather striking portrait of Royal Navy Stoker 1st Class Joseph Norman Thomas, who was born in Liverpool in 1892. At Merseyside Maritime Museum, we focus on the history of the Merchant Navy, with some exceptions, but we were drawn to this painting as we have very few portraits of seafarers in the collection. Joseph also had very strong local connections, being born and brought up in Liverpool.

He joined the Royal Navy in 1911 and was serving on board HMS Argyll, a Devonshire-class armoured cruiser, when war broke out in August 1914. Argyll was part of the Grand Fleet but following early successes, she ran aground and was wrecked off the Scottish coast on 28 October 1915. Fortunately Joseph and the rest of the crew were rescued from the water.

A few months later Joseph was on board HMS Arabis when the ship was attacked during a minesweeping exercise off the Dogger Bank in the early hours of 11 February 1916. Arabis was torpedoed and sank with the loss of 56 of her crew, including 23 year old Joseph. His body was never recovered and he is commemorated on Plymouth Naval Memorial. Today is the centenary of the sinking.

Joseph was adopted as a small child, and his adoptive family commissioned this portrait in his memory. It was painted by local photographer Morris Richards. He was very well known in the Garston area and regularly produced such portraits, using black and white photographs.

It was handed down through the family, until it was donated to us on behalf of Mrs Beatrice Gilmour, who sadly passed away shortly before we accepted it.

It is a poignant memorial to one of the many brave souls who made the ultimate sacrifice during the First World War. For his family, it was a very personal memento of someone they loved and missed.

Now it resides at the museum where we will ensure that it is protected, and that Joseph Norman Thomas is never forgotten.

  1. Paul Gilmour says:

    Beatrice Gilmour nee Beaumont ,was my mother,Norman would have been her step Uncle.This portrait was hung in the second bedroom of the family home at Mona St. Garston for many years ,I remember it from the early 1960’s. Norman was a neglected child ,my great grandfather saw him in the street sick and crying with measles or so I am told,he took him in and raised him with the rest of his children including my grandfather John who held on to the portrait until his death. My Great Aunt Rose told me before she died that was playing in the alley when Norman was heading back to his ship,she said he asked what she was doing ? she said just playing and he gave her a six pence before heading off for the last time. I am so glad that the portrait has found a safe home back in Liverpool.

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