‘What’s that you say Lassie? You’re really from Lyme Regis!’
The origin of the Lassie story is almost certainly a World War 1 incident that took place in Lyme Regis. Tony Burton-Page sniffs out a curious, but true, canine tale.
Published in June ’16
Lassie. The name conjures up a host of images. A Scottish girl, perhaps, for those from north of the border, but for most British people the image is that of a courageous dog and possibly the dog food named after her. Lassie is one of the most famous dogs of all time: she has starred in eleven films and a long-running television series, has been the heroine of many books, has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and is on Variety’s list of 100 Icons of the Century, the only animal on the list.
Slightly less well known is the fact that the original Lassie was a Dorset dog – from Lyme Regis, whose inhabitants proudly claim her as one of their own. Rather surprisingly, the story goes back to the early days of World War 1, well before the first Lassie novel (1940) and the subsequent film based on it (1943). This Lassie belonged to Tommy Atkins, not the pseudonymous British soldier, but the landlord of the Pilot Boat Hotel, which stands to this day in Bridge Street.
The legend has it that Lassie was particularly attached to the landlord’s wife, who suffered from epilepsy, and would raise the alarm by barking when she had one of her frequent fits and would lick her face to rouse her back to consciousness.
The saga begins, however, with a naval tragedy – the torpedoing of the battleship HMS Formidable by a German submarine on 1 January 1915. This was one of the earliest British losses in World War 1: Britain had declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914 and the only British battleship lost in enemy action so far had been HMS Audacious, which struck a mine in October of that year. Formidable was a pre-dreadnought battleship, which meant that she was not as heavily armoured as battleships built after HMS Dreadnought in 1906 and also that she was slower in the water, being powered by conventional steam engines rather than by Dreadnought’s revolutionary steam turbines. Her full crew complement was 780, although on her fatal voyage there were 747 men aboard – which was still a huge number by today’s standards; nowadays a ship of Formidable’s size would probably have 300 people on it.
HMS Formidable was one of the ships of the 5th Battle Squadron, which consisted of eight pre-dreadnought battleships based at Portland. The squadron spent the whole of 31 December on exercise, steaming towards Start Point, on the westernmost side of Lyme Bay, then turning on to a reciprocal course towards St Aldhelm’s Head. However, a German submarine, U-24, had penetrated the defences of the Straits of Dover three days earlier and was now patrolling the English Channel. Her captain sighted three large warships and shadowed them. Just after midnight on 1 January 1915 he was able, thanks to a full moon, to identify them as battleships. At 2.20 am he fired a torpedo at HMS Formidable, which was steaming at 10 knots at the rear of the squadron, and struck her amidships on the starboard side under the forward funnel, hitting the second boiler.
The ship began to list, water flooded the engine room, steam pressure dropped to zero and all electrical power was lost. The captain, Arthur Noel Loxley, in the Royal Navy since the age of 14, did not panic but ordered the ship’s boats to be launched. There were twelve of these, but Formidable was now listing severely to starboard, and only boats on that side could be launched. The loss of electrical power meant that the heavier boats could not be moved. Moreover, the weather had begun to deteriorate and the sea was getting rougher. Two boats were successfully launched, however, but just after 3.00 in the morning, U-24 fired another torpedo, which struck Formidable on the port side. There was now no prospect of saving the ship. The escorting cruisers HMS Topaze and Diamond rushed to the scene to pick up survivors, but the larger ships headed away, in accordance with Admiralty instructions on encountering submarines.
HMS Formidable sank at about 4.30 am, approximately 30 miles south of Lyme Regis. Topaze and Diamond had only managed to rescue 80 men. Of the two ship’s boats which had escaped before Formidable went down, a sailing launch had rescued 71 and a sailing pinnace had rescued another 71. The launch was spotted five hours later by Provident, a Brixham trawler, and all the men clambered aboard it just before the launch broke up in the increasingly heavy seas. It took them another eight hours to reach Brixham.
The other boat, the pinnace, had been holed and its rudder lost from its rough launch. The men had to bail constantly to avoid being swamped, and navigation was hopeless in the pitch dark and with no rudder. When dawn finally broke, there was no land in sight. The sailors saw several boats and tried to make for them, but in the high seas they themselves were invisible to any potential rescuers. The short winter daylight soon failed but the gales continued relentlessly. During the terrible journey, fourteen men died and were lowered over the side to lighten the boat and increase chances of survival. At about 5.00 in the evening, though, Petty Officer Bing saw two lights and they rowed towards them as hard as they could in their by now exhausted state.
It was not until an hour before midnight that Gwen Harding, walking home along Marine Parade with her parents after dining with friends elsewhere in Lyme Regis, spotted the pinnace and raised the alarm. Two policemen, Sergeant Stockley and PC Rideout, went to the sea front and saw the boat heading towards the shore. Stockley sent Rideout to get more help while he himself went to the seashore. There he was able to catch a line thrown from the boat and make it fast.
More Lyme residents arrived and assisted in bringing the boat to shore. Forty-eight men were landed alive, but there were nine corpses. Tommy Atkins opened the doors of the Pilot Boat Hotel for the exhausted crew, some of whom were too weak to move. Local residents brought food, blankets, cigarettes, hot water bottles and brandy but many of the survivors were so cold that they could not even swallow. The hotel’s cellar was pressed into use as a temporary mortuary.
It was there that Mrs Atkins’s rough-coated collie, Lassie, found Able Seaman John Cowan, who had not responded to resuscitation. Apparently dead, he was laid out with the other corpses. But the ever-inquisitive Lassie began to lick his face and hands. No-one noticed her until about half an hour after she had started – but then a faint murmur was heard to come from the able seaman, followed by an exultant bark from the dog. Those nearby realised that Cowan was still breathing and summoned medical aid, after which he was quickly taken to the Cottage Hospital in Pound Road. There he made a full recovery, and Lassie stayed with him during his convalescence.
The story made its way into the newspapers, and the Daily Chronicle of 5 January reported: ‘Willing hands completed the work the dog had begun and in a short time Cowan sat up. Since then the dog and Cowan have been inseparable and as Cowan is not yet allowed out, he and the dog spend most of the time before the kitchen fire, cultivating the acquaintance so curiously begun.’
Lassie became a celebrity. The town presented her with a silver medal and she appeared later that year at Crufts Dog Show in the Canine Heroes section. Her story spread all over the world – it even appeared in a newspaper in New Zealand. It almost certainly came to the attention of a dog-loving boy called Eric Knight. In 1915 he was in Canada, but he had been born and bred in Yorkshire: the transatlantic move was brought about by the death of his father, which had left the family in dire poverty. After his military service, Knight developed a talent for writing and in 1938 the American weekly magazine Saturday Evening Post published his short story, ‘Lassie Come-Home’. It was so well received that he expanded it into a novel with the same title, which was published in 1940. Hollywood got hold of it and in 1943 the film Lassie Come Home was released, with Roddy MacDowall as the human star. There followed six sequels, and the rest is canine history.
Although Knight was involved with the production, he never saw the film, as he was killed in a plane crash in January 1943. He never admitted to being inspired by the story of Lassie and John Cowan, but for the residents of Lyme Regis the connection will always remain.