Donkey Man

What kind of character has his nick-name carved above his own on his gravestone? I didn’t even want to know how B.J.N. Ketteringham, MMR, got his pet moniker, but I thought it was pretty clear that when he died, not five months before the end of World War I, his friends wanted the world to know the name he was known and loved by.

Well, that’s what I thought. I think a lot of things.

Sharmani first told me about the monument to Donkey Man some months ago, and I had originally imagined he might be a rakish old Greenwich pensioner about whom we could have some fun one day. But I when I actually sought it out, I found his simple graveĀ in the South West-ish part of East Greenwich Pleasaunce deeply moving. He’s with several others from the first World War (not far from Anthony Sampayo) in a part of the cemetery that is very cosmopolitan indeed.

From sundry veterans’ forums I found Donkey Man’s whole name – Bertie John Nugent Ketteringham, 92723, was in the Mercantile Marine Reserve, and was Australian, from South Brisbane, son of William T. and Margaret M. Ketteringham, of Ferndale Rd, Annersley. He died of pneumonia, which is yet another pause for thought. I always tend to think of anyone who fell in the first World War as being a lion, charging out of the trenches on donkeys’ orders and being gunned down by the Hun, but this tells a completely different tale. One where, way out at sea somewhere god-knows-where, men are dying from disease, too.

And even that isn’t right. Nothing seems to be what it seems in this post. Donkey Man actually died at Greenwich Seaman’s Hospital, after being moved from Chatham, though where he contracted the pneumonia is anyone’s guess. He’d only signed up on 1st January that year.

HMS Eaglet is on the grave stone – but I found most about him on a completely different ship, HMS Teakol. HMS Teakol was sold to Eagle Oil, which might explain the name – but that wasn’t until 1920, so that couldn’t be right either.

HMS Eaglet itself is actually a training ship for reservists – which is probably what Ketteringham was doing on board, and possibly what it was doing in Greenwich. Today’s incarnation is not the same ship that served in the Great War, that version was destroyed in a fire in 1926 and there have been a couple of others since then. But our Eaglet (called HMS Eagle at the time; its name wasn’t actually changed until 1919, to mark it different from a new ship of the same name, which means that Ketteringham’s headstone wasn’t installed until at least a year after his death) was a frigate, mobilised in 1914 as part of the Royal Naval Division, and served at Gallipoli, Vimy Ridge, Passchendaele and Cambrai.

At this point I guess I have to let you down. Donkey Man wasn’t a nickname, or not a personal one, anyway. It’s a generic term for the guy who looked after the engines on a ship. For a moment, when I discovered this, I was ever so slightly disappointed. But only for a moment. For me, it only opened up a whole bunch of other questions about B J N Ketteringham.

I find myself wondering what a 32/3 year-old Australian was doing signing up in 1918. I guess he couldn’t see that the end of the war was just months away, and he felt he needed to do his bit. He would have known about his countrymen’s fate over the past years, and he did it anyway. He travelled thousands of miles to serve. I think of what he must have thought as he set out. I think of Margaret and William, back in Ferndale Road, I think of what Bertram imagined he was getting into, and how it actually turned out. That it would appear he didn’t see one of the Big Battles in no way makes our own Greenwich Donkey Man any less worth remembering today.

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4 Comments to “Donkey Man”

  1. Dazza says:

    Lest we forget………

    I am always amazed at the bravery and gallantry of the young men and women who put their own lives at risk to protect those of us left at home. I often ask myself, would I be willing to travel hundreds if not thousands of miles to fight for my country? I,sadly, always find myself lacking.

    We should remember those that have fought and are still fighting to defend those unable to defend themselves. We should also remember those that died or suffered miles away from their loved ones, not through seeing direct action, but succumbed to disease or fell foul of circumstance and didn’t get to return home.

    Every year at this time, I honour those Men and Women. I hope that you all will too……

    To those that have gone before me, I salute you and your courage. May your sacrifice never be forgotten!!!!

  2. Old China says:

    Poor old Bertie, what a sad story.

    Thanks for doing a Rememberance Day related post. I’m sure Bertie would have been happy, not to say amazed, to think he was being remembered and talked about 93 years after his death and many miles away from home.

  3. Chris says:

    Yes, thanks Phantom.

    It also serves to remind us that the ‘Spanish flu’ which started up in 1918 — and probably was responsible for Bertie’s demise — killed some 70 million globally. That’s far more than the Great War itself.

    Indeed, more people died in India of flu than in WW1.

    My grandad — who used to be head teacher at the Meridian School in the Old Woolwich Road — copped his Blighty wound in 1916.

    All grandads have a walking stick, but I didn’t realise for ages that he had been using one since he was 18….

  4. philip says:

    I’m pleased that this grave has been noticed. I’ve always wondered whether there is a family connection here. My grandmother was Bessie McCreddie nee Ketteringham (born 1880 in Tilney St Lawrence, one of a very large, extended family). Ketteringham was a North Norfolk name so Bertie’s parents or grandparents could have emigrated from there. I think this is one of the graves which we photographed for an Australian national records website. He certainly has not been forgotten in recent years.