News from 1916: Death of Capt Mathias

Mark Baber

Jul 4, 2000
MAB note: Not stated here, and the reason for this article's being presented today, is that the incident described here occurred on 4 December 1916; This is the first (and so far, only) detailed report I've found about the circumstances of Mathias's death.

Poverty Bay Herald, Gisborne, New Zealand, 3 April 1917
Retrieved from the National Library of New Zealand web site,


The loss of the Laurentic has followed close on one of the saddest
tragedies of the war, the only news of which hitherto published (says the
Daily Express) has been in a brief Admiralty casualty list in December,
where it figured thus:---

Accidentally killed---Commander John Mathias, R.D., R.N.R.

Commander Mathias was in command of the Laurentic during the first
twenty-seven months of the war, during which time she was on patrol duty in
the East. She was ordered home last autumn from the Indian Ocean, and was
due at Liverpool shortly before Christmas. It was the body of her commander
that the Laurentic brought into port, killed in a brave endeavor to save
some of his men from an awful fate.

Two days' run from port, a serious fire was discovered in No. 2 hold. A
squad of men, with the chief officer at their head, plunged in to fight the
fire, but it gained such headway that it swept round them towards one of the
magazines, and cut off their escape. Word of their plight was sent to
Commander Mathias, who was on the bridge, and he immediately headed a relief
party himself.

They found their way into the smoke-filled hold, and succeeded in dragging
out some of the imprisoned men, then Commander Mathias went back for the
rest. As he made his way into the furnace-like hold to rescue the last man,
an iron beam, warped out of its place by the intense heat, fell on him and
the men who were pluckily following him. Commander Mathias was instantly
killed, and several of the men were injured. Another rescue squad
extricated them, and succeeded in recovering the body of the commander. The
fire was got under control, and the cruiser made port safely.

Last edited:

Mark Baber

Jul 4, 2000
MAB note: Here's a second report of Capt. Mathias's death, this one inaccurately stating the date of the fire on Laurentic.

The Tensas Gazette, St. Joseph, Louisiana, 16 February 1917
Original article digitized by Louisiana State University
Retrieved from the Library of Congress' Chronicling America web site,

Capt. John Mathias Homeward Bound After Two Years Away From Family
Chief Officer Led His Men Into Hold of Burning Vessel to Save Imprisoned
Stokers of the Laurentic

New York-A stirring romance of the sea was told recently when details of the
death of Capt. John Mathias, commander of the auxiliary cruiser Laurentic,
reached relatives here by mail. The Laurentic is a White Star liner, taken
over by the British admiralty.

Only two days from his wife and babies, and on his way home after two years
continuous patrolling in the Far East, Captain Mathias died attempting to
rescue men trapped in the blazing hold of his ship near the powder magazine.

Flying the homeward bound pennant at the peak, the Laurentic steamed at full
speed for port. From coal passers in the stoke hole to officers on the
bridge, every man was bent on pushing the cruiser to reach port in time for
the holidays.

In a hamlet in Yorkshire Captain Mathias' wife and two young children heard
the Laurentic had been ordered to return to her home station. Mrs. Mathias,
with her two little girls, aged ten and twelve years, made the trip to

They Discover Fire

On December 15, within two days run from port, a serious fire was discovered
in hold No. 2. With the chief officer at their head a squad of men plunged
into the hold to fight the fire. The fire had gained such headway that it
was sweeping toward the powder magazines, cutting off their escape.

Signalling frantically to their comrades on the deck, the trapped men
succeeded in getting word of their desperate plight to Captain Mathias on
the bridge.

Captain Mathias ordered some of his crew to follow him and plunged to the
rescue in the smoke filled compartment. The rescue squad succeeded in
dragging out some of the imprisoned men and then went back for the rest.

When Captain Mathias was entering the furnacelike hold to rescue the last of
his crew an iron beam warped out of place by the intense heat of the blaze,
fell on him and his squad of rescuers. Captain Mathias was instantly killed
and several of his men were injured. Another squad of seamen removed the
injured sailors and succeeded in recovering the body of the captain. The
fire was got under control and the cruiser put into Liverpool.

Forbidden to Wireless

Under admiralty instructions the officers of the ship were not permitted to
wireless the news of the accident and fire. With the home-bound pennant
still at the fore the Laurentic docked at Liverpool. Mrs. Mathias and her
two children waited for the captain, whom they had not seen for two years,
to come off the ship. Finally an officer appeared and told them how the
captain had sacrificed his life for his men.

Captain Mathias was well known in this port. The Laurentic, his last
command, after she finished the Montreal-Liverpool summer service, used to
sail from New York on winter cruises to the Mediterranean and the Caribbean

The captain first went to sea because of the jilting he received at the
hands of a little Irish girl. He was born in York, County Cork, and at the
age of fifteen was keeping company with a fair colleen who lived near the
Rushpool Docks, Queenstown. One day he declared his intentions to the girl,
Molly by name.

"Jack," she replied, so the story goes, "any time you want your socks
darned, a shirt patched or a tear in your breeches mended, you're welcome
enough here. But you're only an apprentice and I could never take what you
say seriously."

"When I come back I'll be captain of an Atlantic liner," the youth answered


Similar threads

Similar threads