Peter and Andrea Walker unveil the paving stone remembering their great grandfather, Captain Frederick Parslow VC, in Islington (Photo: Centenary News)

Tribute to first UK merchant sailor awarded the Victoria Cross in WW1

Posted on on 07 July 2015
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Tributes have been paid to a sea captain who was the first British merchant sailor to win the Victoria Cross for his heroic actions during the Great War.

A paving stone commemorating Frederick Parslow was unveiled on July 4th 2015, the centenary of his death in a German submarine attack off the Irish coast.

Captain Parslow's descendants took part in the ceremony in Islington, the north London borough where he was born, together with guests representing the Merchant Navy, the Royal Navy and Islington Council.

Frederick Parslow was killed while trying to evade a U-boat which surfaced to intercept his unarmed ship carrying horses from Canada destined for the Western Front.

He remained under fire on the bridge for several hours, ordering the second mate (his son, also called Frederick) to steer a zig-zag course.

Shortly after 11.15am on the morning of July 4th 1915, Capt. Parslow died when the bridge of his ship, the SS Anglo-Californian, was hit by shellfire from U-39's deck gun.

His son, who took command amid as destroyers from the British navy came to the rescue, was later awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions. 

More than 30 of the Anglo-Calfornian's crew were killed during the attack, together with 30 horses. Captain Parslow and eight crew members were buried at Queenstown (now Cobh) in Ireland.

Frederick Parslow VC lies in the Old Church Cemetery, Cobh; nearby are the mass graves of the Lusitania victims (Photo: Centenary News)

Captain Philip Hanton, of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, said Capt. Parslow's heroism was a reminder of the debt of gratitude still owed to the Merchant Navy for keeping Britain supplied.

He told the Islington ceremony: "In remembering this heroic VC, we should also dedicate that to the Merchant Navy, in both world wars and those serving today, who do still face the threat from the pirates who wish to take over their ships, imprison them and hold them to ransom.

Frederick Parslow was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, Britain's highest military decoration for valour in 1919. Together with Archibald Smith, a Merchant Navy captain killed in 1917, he was retrospectively made a lieutenant in the Royal Navy Reserve to qualify for the decoration.

Documents held in the UK National Archives reveal that the decision was accompanied by vigorous debate between King George V and government officials.

Aged 59, Frederick Parslow was the oldest recipient of the VC during the First World War.

The laying of paving stones remembering the 628 Victoria Crosses awarded in 1914-18 is a British government initiative marking the Centenary in local communities.

The Islington event was organised by Islington Council in conjunction with the Honourable Company of Master Mariners, the Merchant Navy Association and the Royal Navy. 

Islington Council's Deputy Leader, Councillor Janet Burgess, said it was an acknowledgement "of the debt that we do pay to those people who gave their all for us."

Four more VC recipients from the borough will be remembered in 2016/17.

As already reported in Centenary News, Frederick Parslow's story was highlighted at the launch of a new website enabling the British Merchant Navy's 1915 crew lists to be searched online for the first time. The website is a joint project between the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich and the UK National archives at Kew in London.

Sources: Merchant Navy Association; London Borough of Islington

Images: Centenary News

Posted by: Peter Alhadeff, Centenary News