Amazing Indictment before Devon Assizes

Justice Bray


On 2 February 1917 Captain Thomas James Stayman the Master of the defensively armed cargo ship ss Claverley appeared before Mr Justice Bray and jury sitting at Devon Assizes at the Castle at Exeter charged on an indictment containing five counts

1. Attempting to murder John Lloyd George Gifford on the vessel on 26 December 1916

2. Assaulting and wounding John Edward Jackson on the vessel on 30 November 1916

3. Refusing to obey the order of a senior Naval Officer at Gibraltar to proceed to England by an Admiralty route and to take further supplies of coal aboard

4. Endangering the lives of members of H.M. Forces by ordering a junior officer to fire at the Admiralty Hospital Ship Panama

5. Endangering the Hospital ship by altering course with a danger of a collision with her.


Captain Stayman entered a not guilty plea to each of the counts

It should be remembered that the Hospital Ship Panama shortly after the end of World War One became RFA Maine (3) and remained in the RFA Service until June 1947

Panama HMHS

The prosecution counsel Mr Clavell Salter KC advised the Court that the ss Claverley was of about 4,000 tons and was on a voyage from Rangoon, Burma to London.

ss Claverley

The ship was fitted with a gun for defence from submarine attack with two RNR gunners John Gifford was the Chief Gunner and he, together with a RNR Gunners Mate, were expressly under the orders of the ship’s officers.

The Claverley sailed from Port Said on the 7 December 1916 and on the following day Gifford, who was by his gun was directed by the Captain to fire 50 shells. The regulations restricted a gunner as to the number of shells to be fired for practice and test and Gifford told the Captain of this. He fired the allotted number but refused to discharge any more. The Captain, who was apparently intoxicated, left him with some angry words.

In the evening of the same day the ship sighted another vessel which was found to be the Hospital Ship Panama. The Panama displayed all the correct lights for a Hospital Ship around her hull and was displaying a large cross in red lights on each side. Captain Stayman spoke about this Ship to the 2nd Officer who confirmed to the Captain that it was a Hospital Ship.

The Captain altered the Claverley’s course so that the ship was steaming directly towards the Hospital Ship. The Chief Gunner was called by the Captain to the bridge and ordered to fire on the Hospital Ship. HMHS Panama contained wounded soldiers, medical officers, nurses and crew. The Chief Gunner refused to obey whereupon the Captain repeated the order. Again the Chief Gunner refused. The Captain ordered him off the bridge.

By the 26 December when the Claverley was only two days from Plymouth it was believed that the Captain realised his conduct would be reported upon arrival in England and he thus endeavoured to prevent this. His position was no doubt a serious one because he had given this order to a subordinate and the regulations provided that in the case of an order being given to a gunner by an officer of the ship which the gunner thought was not a proper one, he should obey the order and report it afterwards. Luckily for everyone in this case the Chief Gunner had sufficient strength of character to defy his Captain.

On the afternoon of the 26 December the Captain sent for the Chief Gunner to come to his cabin where he talked to him in a very friendly way and gave him a drink. He also gave the Chief Gunner a 10/- note which he indicated was a Christmas present for the Chief Gunner and his mate. An offer of a further drink was refused by the Chief Gunner.

The Captain asked the Chief Gunner if his mate knew about the order to fire on the Hospital Ship and was told that he did not. The Captain then asked ‘Do you intend to report it?’ The Chief Gunner did intend to do so but remained silent. The question was repeated and again the Chief Gunner refrained from answering.

Prior to leaving the Captain’s cabin the Chief Gunner was ordered to report to the Captain on the bridge between 9pm and 9.30pm that night.

At the appointed hour the Chief Gunner went to the upper bridge where the Captain directed him to go to the lower bridge. The Chief Gunner went as directed. On reaching the lower bridge the Captain rushed him from behind seizing him with one hand by the throat and with the other arm gripped him round the waist. The Chief Gunner was knocked off his feet and the Captain tried to get him over the wire ropes which ran round the ships deck and were supported by stanchions. While doing this the Captain said ‘I’ll murder you’. The Chief Gunner clung to the top one of the two wires and did what he could to save himself from being thrown overboard. Providentially the ship lurched violently to starboard and the Captain was thrown away from the wire ropes against the saloon where he fell.

The Chief Gunner made good his escape and hid in a Fireman’s cabin under bags and gear.

The Master searched the ship entering the Chief Gunner’s cabin where he assaulted the Gunner’s mate. The Captain told the Gunner’s Mate he intended to kill the Chief Gunner if he could find him. The Captain further searched the engine room telling the 1st Engineer that he would ‘Smash the Chief Gunner’s brains in if he could find him.’

The Chief Officer, on learning of the Master’s attempt to throw the Chief Gunner overboard, gathered a number of members of the crew, found the Captain and seized him. A fight ensued and the Captain was hit on the head with a saucepan before he could be hand cuffed. The Captain was then secured in his cabin.

On arrival at Plymouth the Police were called and detained the Captain. He was taken ashore and charged.

After hearing the case for the defence and the evidence having been summed up by the Judge the jury retired and on their return announced that they found Captain Stayman guilty of the attempted murder of the Chief Gunner.

Captain Stayman then changed his plea to the 3rd count on the indictment – the refusal to obey the order of a senior Naval Officer at Gibraltar.

The other counts on the indictment were not proceeded with.

The Judge commented that the Master had been drunk for more or less most of the voyage home.

Captain Stayman was sentenced to five years penal servitude for the attempted murder and five years penal servitude concurrent for refusing to obey the senior Naval Officer.


The Claverley was sunk on 20 August 1917 when she was torpedoed by the German submarine UB 38 some 4 miles SE of the Eddystone Light House while on passage from the River Tyne to Genoa with a cargo of coal. Ten members of the crew were killed