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Funds sought for headstone for RN veteran who saved shipwrecked passengers

William Johnson Ancient is buried in Nova Scotia
9 July 2021

An appeal has been launched to pay for a headstone on the unmarked grave of a Royal Navy veteran who risked his life to save passengers aboard a stricken liner.

William Johnson Ancient, who spent nine years in the Senior Service in the 1800s, became famous for his actions when White Star Line steamship Atlantic struck a rock near Nova Scotia on April 1 1873.

Some 200 or so passengers made the perilous 40-yard trip over the ropes to the rock.

Chief Officer John W Firth, who could not swim, sought sanctuary in the mizzen rigging to wait for help as the ship began to break apart.

Three small rescue boats arrived but couldn’t get to Firth and the others for fear of wrecking themselves.

Third Officer Cornelius L Brady tried to gather crew to go out again to rescue Firth and the others, but nobody volunteered.

The ship was wrecked only a mile from Lower Prospect, a small fishing village about 30 miles southwest of Halifax.

Once informed of the disaster that morning, William Ancient, a former Royal Navy sailor turned Anglican priest from nearby Terence Bay, coordinated the efforts to help the survivors that had safely made it to shore.

He went to the local magistrate, Edmund Ryan, once he caught wind that three people were still clinging to the ship’s rigging and asked for a boat and four volunteers to help him rescue them.

He saved Firth and a boy named John Hindley, but a woman with them died from exposure. More than 500 of the 976 passengers perished, including every woman on board, while Hindley was the sole child to survive.

Ancient received medals from the Royal Lifesaving Society and the Liverpool Shipwreck and Humane Society, a commendation from the Humane Society of Massachusetts and gold watches from the City of Chicago and the Government of Canada, along with numerous cash rewards.

Ancient had joined the Royal Navy in 1854 and served in the Baltic during the Crimean War and went on to serve in the North Atlantic and Mediterranean squadrons before leaving in 1863 and training to become a clergyman.

He died on July 20, 1908, at the age of 74. He was buried at Saint John’s Cemetery in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

The fundraising is organised by Francis Jastrzembski, of Wisconsin, who founded Shrouded Veterans in 2019 to rescue neglected graves.

He said: "Ancient is a Royal Navy veteran, and I believe he should be honoured for his service.

You can support the appeal at:


Ancient is a Royal Navy veteran, and I believe he should be honoured for his service.

Francis Jastrzembski, Shrounded Veterans

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