- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Christopher Bedford Steel
- Location of story:
- The UK and Bari, Port Italy
- Background to story:
- Royal Navy
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 19 July 2005
This is the story of my great grandfather, Christopher Bedford Steel.
He was born in January 1907 in Hartley Wintney, Hampshire to Major Edwin Bedford Steel of the RAMC and Ethel Mary Steel (Nee Robinson, daughter of a Liverpool banker, Arthur Robinson.)
He spent the first few years of his life on his parents tour of India before being returned home to attend prep school with his older brother and sister.
Later he went to Rugby school in Warickshire then Hertford College Oxford, where he studied law. At Oxford, he got into a bad crowd of American students and was said to have gone off 'gambling and whenching.'
When he finally buckled down and focused on his studies, he got a grade 2 but he felt he had failed himself, as he had aimed higher.
But this is not to say his grade was not good enough as he was then admitted to Lincoln's Inn, London, to study in chambers and complete his exams to become a barrister.
Although he was called to the bar on November 17th 1930, he did not go on to practise.
He had various jobs and he sponged off his mother, who he lived with for a few years until he seemed to finally settle down and get a job as a driver for the army at barracks based in Portsmouth.
He travelled to London, where he met my great grandmother, Ivy Topham, a waitress in Lyons Cornerhouse.
They had only known each other for 3 or 4 months when, in correspondence with his brother, Christopher talked of marriage, which worried his family because he had proved himself to be somewhat unreliable and wayward in his early years, regardless of his current job in the Army.
In addition, Christopher had from his youth been interested in the Communist Party; the very reason for his marriage was, in his mind, him marrying into the class to which he was becoming affiliated with through his Communist interests, this much he admitted to his brother in correspondence.
He took Ivy to meet his mother and simply, his mother thought that she was 'too good for him.'
It was clear the family had nothing against Ivy, as Christpher had feared or assumed they did through their comments and opposition to the marriage, they only worried about his character and attitude.
Christopher also had no financial support for his wife and possible future family.
But the marriage went ahead in September, 1937 in Portsmouth. And what his family had feared did indeed transpire.
Christopher had a tendancy to become bored, as he had done with the idea of studying in chambers to become a barrister. Therefore, he became bored with being a driver with the Army as the pay did not seem to come through quick enough for him.
He was also waiting on an inheritance from his mother's side, an aunt who had died in March 1937. The will was taking a while to be processed. Christopher's frustration comes through in his constant queries in correspondence with his brother, leading up to his marriage to Ivy.
It was not long after the marriage, some time in about late Spring 1938, that Christopher's brother ended his correspondence with him, as he had become tired of the constant queries and requests for money.
Later that year, Christopher and Ivy had a daughter, my grandmother, in Portsmouth.
Their relationship, spanning from their marriage to the birth of their daughter, was bumpy and volatile as Christopher was not financially supporting his family, Ivy was strssed to the point that one time she threw plates at his head.
When my grandma, Alison Joyce Steel, was born, Christopher left Ivy with £15 and a typewriter. He was not heard of again by his family until after World War Two.
Very little is known of what Christopher did leading up to the start of WW2 but he did join the Merchant Navy and toured several places including Vancouver, Canada.
Then, as before, he became bored and returned to England where he was an Air Raid Warden in Soho and he lived with what his brother termed a 'Whitechapel Communsit Jewess.' It is clear that Christopher's interest in the Communist Party continued into the Blitz, but even then he was not well read in the history and according to the woman he was living with, he was an amatueur, not commited.
This part of his life would not be known where it not for Christopher's brother contacting this woman, who he did not like. It saddened him that his otherwise intelligent brother had ended up in such company.
Once again, Christopher grew bored of being an Air Raid Warden and return to the Navy where he was stationed as a Fireman/Trimmer on the Fort Athabaska, a Canadian built ship, that sailed to Bari Port Italy where many other ships were also based.
One of these ships, an American ship, had a secret cargo that only the captain and a handful of the crew knew about. The cargo was bombs that had been seized which contained mustard gas.
On December 2nd, there was a surprise German attack on Bari Port. In total, 17 ships were lost, including the Fort Athabaska and the American ship which blew up, releasing its deadly cargo. There were about 10 or 20 survivors from the attacks but as they were being taken to hospital, they were found to be suffering from mysterious chemical burns that were killing them. About 10 people survived. No one knew that the deaths were the result of the mustard gas; if it wasn't for this cargo, there may have been a few extra survivors but I don't know.
All I know is what I have learnt from a document recalling Christopher's life, written affectionatly by his brother, Anthony Bedford Steel, a teacher and fellow of Christs College Cambridge (Principal University College Cardiff from 1949-1966) and some accounts of the December 2nd attacks in articles and online records.
I wonder if anyone knows anything else about Christopher Bedford Steel and the attacks at Bari Port.
Christopher, in his life time, lived on
St Davids hill, Exeter and at the Old Cottage Friday Street in the village of Minchinhampton, Gloucestershire.
He boarded at Rugby school from about 1920 to 1923/1924. He was at Oxford from about 1923/1924 to 1926. From 1926-1930 he was at Lincolns Inn, London.
I would appreciate any information on any area of his story.
Jessica S Fox
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