From Russia with royals - a Royal Marine from Clapham helped Tsar’s family escape during First World War

George Gravestock, from Clapham, in 1919.
George Gravestock, from Clapham, in 1919.

A Royal Marine, who lived in Felmersham and Clapham after the First World War, was among the crew who helped the Russian Royal family make their escape to England. Richard Johnson, from Bedford, reveals the story of his great-grandfather’s part of the dramatic journey

George Gravestock, who was a publican in Felmersham and Sharnbrook, rarely spoke about his brush with Russian royalty during the First World War, recalls his daughter Christine Morrissey (née Gravestock).

HMS Marlborough, April 1919.

HMS Marlborough, April 1919.

Eager to leave home and serve his country, George told the enlistment officer that he was over 18 years old when he joined the Royal Marines in April 1915.

In reality, George was only 27 days past his 16th birthday. Still a boy, George’s medical records show that he grew 4 inches taller over the course of the war.

Serving in Belgium, the Mediterranean, and the Black Sea, his most exciting episode was his time on the HMS Marlborough in April 1919. Less than a year after the execution of his cousin Tsar Nicholas II, King George VI agreed to grant refuge to the surviving Russian royal family. The ship was tasked with the evacuation of 17 Russian royals – including the late Tsar’s mother, sister, aunt, cousins, and grandchildren – from Yalta in Crimea to the British naval base in Malta.

During the rescue operation, George patrolled the grounds of the Dulber royal palace at Koreiz on the Black Sea.

Thinking of his girlfriend Ethel at home, he cut a rose from the royal gardens, which he would later send to her.

On the journey to Malta, the crew of the Marlborough did their best to lift the spirits of the Russian royals, including the Dowager Empress Marie, who was the sister of the Queen Mother, Alexandra. At Easter, the Marines painted Easter eggs for the Romanov children and played with the royal dogs.

After arriving in Malta, George had a handsome photograph taken of himself at the Grand Studio in Valletta.

And several months later, he sent it to England, inscribed ‘To my Dearest Ethel, with fondest love from George, August 5 1919’.

After the war, George returned to England and married Ethel. After some years working in the police force, George ran the Sun Inn in Felmersham and later moved to the Half Moon in Sharnbrook, where he was the publican from 1939 until 1959.

He finally settled in Clapham, where his daughter Christine and grandson Peter still live.

Although rarely discussing the war, George never forgot those left behind. Christine said: “Every year on Remembrance Sunday he would remember his friends and comrades who lost their lives. He would always do that - right up to the time he died.”

>> The story is recorded in Frances Welch’s book The Russian Court at Sea. Richard Johnson is currently studying for a PhD at Oxford.