Harold Mole


Harold’s paternal grandparents were Henry and Caroline Mole. Henry was born about 1821 in Kings Nympton, Devon, and Caroline about 1831 in Minsterworth, Gloucester. They lived in the Bratton Fleming area of Devon and Henry was a miller. They had 6 children, Charles (Harold’s father), born about 1857, Mary Ann, born about 1860, Caroline, born about 1864, George and William, both born about 1866 (twins?), and Elizabeth, born about 1868. All the children were born in Devon, either in Chittlehampton or Bratton Fleming.

Harold’s maternal grandparents were James and Mary Ann Dixon. James was born about 1826 in Marple and Mary Ann about 1832 in Middlewich. In 1861 they lived at 2 Angel Meadow, Chadderton, and James was a canal lock keeper. In 1871 they lived in Chapel Field, Marple, and James was a lime agent. In 1881 they lived at Church Lane, Marple, and James was a railway labourer. They had 5 children, Elizabeth, born about 1854, John, born about 1855, Ann, born about 1858, Fanny (Harold’s mother), born in 1859, and Jane, born about 1871. The children were born either in Marple or Oldham and the older 4 all worked in the cotton industry.


Charles Mole was born about 1857 in Chittlehampton, Devon. Fanny Dixon was born in Hollinwood, Lancashire, on 22 December 1859 and was baptised at St Margaret’s church, Hollinwood, on 29 January 1860. About 1887 Charles and Fanny were married and in 1891 they lived in Chadwick St, Marple. Charles was a railway porter. By 1901 they had moved to 27 Orchard St, West Didsbury, and Charles was a club steward. In 1911 they were living at 20 Arley Avenue and Charles was described as a club caretaker. They only had 1 child, Harold.


Harold was born in Marple about 1892. In the 1901 census he was staying with an aunt, Ann Goodwin, at Chadwick St, Marple. Also in the house was his grandfather, James Dixon, now described as a retired platelayer. In 1911 he was a warehouseman for shippers. He became a Marconi operator on HMS Mendi and died on 21 February 1917 when the ship sank in the English Channel after a collision. He was 25 years old. Harold left £182 6s 11d to his father.

HMS Mendi

The ship was a British single-screw steamship built in Glasgow by Alexander Stephen and Sons. Before the war she was used as a passenger liner between Liverpool and West Africa. In autumn 1916 she was chartered by the government and converted to a transport ship. On her last voyage she picked up from a South African port 1500 tons of government cargo and a battalion of the South African Native Labour Contingent (SANLC) comprising 5 officers, 17 non-commissioned officers and 802 native troops. She sailed for England, calling en route at Lagos and Sierra Leone. She stopped for orders at an English Channel port, setting sail again during the afternoon of 20 February 1917. During the night it became foggy and she slowed down.

At 5am on 21 February she was struck at right angles by another ship, the Darro, which was crossing from France to England with 143 crew under her master, Mr Henry Winchester Stump. The Darro cut 20 feet into the Mendi but then backed out and sailed on. The master of the Mendi sent for Marconi operator Harold Mole to tell him to send out an SOS signal but he did not come and was not seen again. Within 20 minutes of the collision the Mendi was listing heavily and the order was given to lower the life rafts. Because of the list, half the rafts jammed. The captain was last seen on the bridge going down with his ship.

Thirty crew members, including Harold Mole, died following the collision. 646 of the 913 passengers drowned. Mr Stump was later disciplined for travelling at speed in fog without sounding a horn and he was also criticised for failing to assist HMS Brisk in efforts to save the men of the Mendi.

The Mendi disaster was one of South Africa’s worst tragedies of World War I. When the news was announced to Parliament on 9 March 1917, all the members of the South African House of Assembly, led by Boer War hero and Prime Minister Louis Botha, stood as a mark of respect. The ship has given its name to South Africa’s highest award for courage, the Mendi Decoration for Bravery.

After the war, none of the black servicemen nor any members of the SANLC received a British War Medal or ribbon, a decision taken by the government of South Africa. White officers and SANLC personnel from adjacent British protectorates did receive medals.

Today the Mendi lies on the ocean floor about 11 miles south of the Isle of Wight. The South African Native Labour Contingent 21000 black South African volunteers served in France with the SANLC between 1916 and 1918, part of a labour force of French, British, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Egyptian and Canadian labourers along with German prisoners of war. They dug quarries, laid and repaired roads and railway lines, and cut tons of timber. Most were employed in the French harbours of Le Havre, Rouen and Dieppe, loading and unloading supply ships and trains.

333 men died in France and most are buried at the British military cemetery at Arques-la-Bataille. Those who died on the Mendi are remembered at the Hollybrook Memorial in Southampton. The Mendi disaster is also commemorated on a plaque at Delville Wood Museum in France, a memorial in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, and the new Mendi memorial in the Avalon cemetery in Soweto, unveiled by Queen Elizabeth II in 1995.