Wife had dangerous wartime job of making poisonous gas

The Murfitt family with Ada and Arthur. The three girls are (from left) Lily, Alice and Emma
The Murfitt family with Ada and Arthur. The three girls are (from left) Lily, Alice and Emma
Lieutenant Colin Churcher

THIS WEEK IN 1971: ‘Mine disposal officers get awards’

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A century ago, there was such a shortage of work that many decided to uproot and emigrate to North America and Canada.

Former Londoner Arthur Murfitt was a private in the Royal Marines, most probably based at Eastney Barracks, Portsmouth. Sometime before 1910, he left his wife, Ada, and three children, Lily, Alice and Emma, and made his way to Canada.

Perhaps he could find no work and joined the Canadian Royal Navy. It is not known how, but he must have come home at some time to see his family as there is a photograph showing Arthur in the navy with a cap tally HMCS.

Whatever happened is not known, but Arthur returned to Canada and later made arrangements for the family to travel out to join him. The ship they were booked to travel on was none other than the RMS Titanic.

As luck had it, one of Arthur’s girls contracted scarlet fever (then known as an infectious disease) and there was no way she was going to be allowed on board. So on April 10, 1912 the doomed White Star liner departed Southampton without Ada and her three children. Such is fate.

A short while after the ship went down, Arthur went AWOL (Absent Without Leave) from the navy. One may wonder if he thought the family might have gone down on the ship.

With mail taking forever to travel across the world at that time, he may not have known that the family never embarked on the Titanic. This is only supposition though.

Having deserted, the family lost touch with him and this led to great hardship, with Ada having to raise the three girls singlehanded with no assistance from the state.

It is known that Arthur wrote to the Lord Mayor of Portsmouth to ask if there was any knowledge of the family and if they had survived the wartime blitz on the city. He also made some contact with his daughters and sent money to them from time to time.

Throughout the hardships of First World War, Ada had to find the means to bring up her girls and worked for the Portsea Island Gas Works.

Whether the work was of a secret nature at the time is not known, but Ada was involved in the making of poison gas. Before today’s safety standards, it must have been a perilous occupation.

At the end of the war there were pages of announcements commending local people who had done valuable work for the country. Ada was among these people.

This story raises another question about poison or mustard gas being produced in Portsmouth. Most believe that it was only the German army that used it. The British thought it was a cowardly way to win a war, but as the enemy used it then the Allies did too. The first time was in the Battle of Loos on September 25, 1915.

Was this gas manufactured in Portsmouth? I have researched everywhere, but I have come up with no answers at the moment. I shall keep you informed.

Many thanks to Mrs Beryl Jacob, whose grandmother was Ada and whose mother was Lily Murfitt.