John Priest, The Human Shipwreck
On 29 February 1916, Alcantara was sailing in the North Sea when she came across the German merchant raider Greif disguised as a Norwegian merchant vessel. A gun battle ensued which resulted in the sinking of both ships and Priest getting wet again. Since Priest never actually set foot on Greif we don’t think we can count this as two for the price of one, but it’s certainly a game attempt.
He didn’t have to wait too long for his next dunking either. November 1916 found him sailing in the warmer waters of the Mediterranean near the Greek island of Kea. He was onboard HMHS Britannic, the third sister ship of Titanic. As she was sailing along quite happily, she struck a sea mine which exploded and 55 minutes later Britannic had sunk. Priest was left wringing his clothes out again and by this time we suspect he was starting to get funny looks from the rest of his shipmates.
To this day Britannic is still the largest passenger ship on the sea floor and Titanic is the second largest. In another strange twist of fate a stewardess named Violet Jessop also survived the sinking. Like Priest, she had also been on Olympic during the collision with Hawke and had survived the sinking of the Titanic!
Being rather closer to home was no help either. In April 1917 he was in the English Channel onboard the SS Donegal, a Midland Railway passenger ferry that was being used as a Hospital Ship to transport wounded servicemen back to England from France. On the 17th of April Donegal was attacked by a German U-Boat, struck by a torpedo and sank, giving priest yet another swimming lesson.
This was in fact Priest’s last swimming lesson as he made his mind up to retire from his somewhat moist career and find employment on terra firma. It does seem as though he was given little choice in the matter though as he once said no one “wished to sail with him after these disasters”, to be fair John, we’re not too surprised.
For his service during WW1 Arthur John Priest was presented with the Mercantile Marine Ribbon. He may have been known as the “unsinkable stoker” but the ships he was on weren’t so lucky. He died of natural causes at the age of 49 at his home in Southampton, with his wife by his side.
As far as we know the RNLI has never named a lifeboat after him. We’re not sure whether this would be a great way to remember the unsinkable stoker or just a bad omen!