T HE small mining village of Lowca, once a hive of industrial activity with its coal pit, its engineering works, its coke and chemical plant and railway, has long consigned heavy industry to the past.

But it has never been far from the headlines for one reason or another and has ‘dined out’ for years on the tale of the German U-boat that tried to shell the place during the First World War.

The U-boat had entered the Solway Firth via the north channel looking for ships leaving the Clyde and it surfaced just a few miles off the coast of Lowca to target the coke ovens and toluene plants of the Workington Iron and Steel Company. The Lowca plant was targeted because it manufactured synthetic toluene out of benzene, used to make explosives.

One shell went through a benzene tank and another landed in the garden of a house at Howgate.

The U-24, under the command of Lieut Commander Schneider, had previously surfaced near Harrington in full view of Captain Cowley, the harbour-master, and his assistant Robert Moore, who were both out in a fishing boat. Ignoring the two men, the U-boat started shelling the Lowca works (which had been designed and built by the German firm Koppers), watched by crowds of people from Whitehaven pier and all around.

(When the coke ovens were being built by the German firm, some girls from Parton got married to some of the German workers and returned with them to Germany, prior to World War One).

When the shelling began, a valve operator on duty, Oscar Ohlson, released flaming gas into the atmosphere, which produced a great cloud of smoke, which seems to have convinced the Germans a vital target had been hit. The U-boat then submerged. Actually, only about £800 of damage was done, and no one was injured, apart from an unlucky dog, killed by a shell splinter. William Twentyman, stationmaster at Parton, held back a Whitehaven bound passenger train in his station until the shelling stopped.

Afterwards, the full force of local anger was to fall upon the head of Mrs Hildegarde Burnyeat (née Retzlaff) the German wife of local MP, William John Dalzell Burnyeat, who lived at Moresby House (where they kept a butler, James Brown from Yorkshire, a cook, Annie Marshall, 27, from Parton and a housemaid, Florence Wright, 25, from Lowca).

Mrs Burnyeat remained pro-German throughout the war and in the wake of the submarine raid was arrested by the authorities under the Defence of the Realm Act and interned at Aylesbury Prison in Buckinghamshire. She was still there when her husband died a year later, aged just 42, though she was allowed out to visit him during his dying hours. They had no children.

Fraulein Hildegard Hedwig Anna Augusta Retzlaff, born in 1875, came from Friedenau, Berlin, the daughter of Col Retzlaff, an officer of the Prussian Army, and had married William Burnyeat in September, 1908 at the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin.

William was the son of local JP and ironmaster William Burnyeat and his wife Sarah Frances (née Dalzell) of Millgrove, Low Moresby. The couple had met while on holiday in Sicily and after marriage, honeymooned on the Rhine and in the English Midlands.

Hildegard Burnyeat never ceased to be German in her sympathies. Her neighbours knew her to be a strong supporter of her homeland and that many of her relatives were fighting against the British. Her brother was serving in the German army and she publicly defended the German methods of warfare.

Locals thought she should have been interned as soon as war broke out. Hildegard had acted as hostess to a German woman who was later arrested, convicted as a spy and sentenced to death (later commuted to life imprisonment).

It was noted that in August 1915, the time of the U-boat bombardment , strange bright lights had been seen on the coast near Whitehaven. The implications of collaboration fuelled public resentment towards Mrs Burnyeat and reports were sent to the authorities, who, some time later, arrested her, probably as much for her own protection as anything else.

Her internment hit the headlines in the national press alongside reports of the German wife of a Darlington curate getting six months for spying, and the shocking news that Nurse Edith Cavell, who had been caught by the Germans harbouring allied soldiers in Brussells, had been shot (and one of Cavell’s Belgian collaborators, Princess Maria de Croy, had been sentenced to 10 years’ hard labour for striking a German officer).

These were tense times and it was while being held in the internment camp for women set up in a section of Aylesbury jail that Hildegard’s husband’s health began to fail and she was allowed out during his last hours to visit him.

William J D Burnyeat died in 1916, aged 42, around a year after the U-boat raid on Lowca.

The eldest son of a wealthy industrialist, he had studied law at Oxford and was called to the Bar in 1899, practising on the Northern Circuit. Later he entered politics and, as a member of an old and esteemed local family that was key to the area’s coal, iron and steel trades, stood for Parliament as a Liberal and was voted in as Whitehaven Borough’s MP in 1906, serving a four-year term.

While World War One was still raging, Hildegard, soon after her husband’s death, was released from her internment by the Home Secretary, apparently on health grounds, and was relocated to Harrogate, to live with an English family, much to the aggravation of the residents of the Yorkshire spa town.

The growing number of “alien guests that have come to the town in small battalions and monopolised certain places” was causing much concern, particularly with the high numbers of soldiers present in Harrogate.

Indignant townsfolk called for an explanation from the Home Office. “Everybody is asking why Harrogate of all places should have been selected as the residence of this German-born woman,’’ reported the Daily Dispatch. “It is common knowledge that Mrs Burnyeat is the daughter of a Prussian officer.’’ There was talk of a public meeting being called to air the issue of ex-internees being sent to Harrogate.

In his will William Burnyeat left the bulk of his estate, gross value £13,834, to Hildegarde, for life, or until her remarriage, unless she married ‘a natural-born British subject.’ He was survived by his father and mother, two brothers and two sisters. Hildegard subsequently married the non-British Van der Loeff.

T HE report from a Munich paper of the U-boat raid said that, although the military effect of the bombardment of the Cumberland coast was not very considerable, its significance as a feature of the Anglo-German naval war was great. “The extreme importance of this bombardment lies in the fact that it proves that the British fleet is not able even to protect the coasts of the Irish Sea from attack by German warships.’’

And an official German version of the shelling issued from Berlin related: “On August 16, a German U-boat destroyed near Harrington a benzol factory, together with a benzol warehouse and the furnace belonging thereto, by artillery fire. The works blew up amidst high roaring flames. The benzol factory is one of the largest in England and of all the more importance to the English production of high explosives as there are only a few of those sort of works in England.

“The assertion made in the English Press that a U-boat had bombarded the open town of Harrington, Parton and Whitehaven is incorrect.’’

The bulletin claimed the same U-boat had the previous day been bombarded in the Irish Sea by a large passenger ship of the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, although it had not attacked the steamer.

In December, 1917, Lieut-Commander Schneider, while commanding another U-boat, was washed overboard and drowned.

The events were captured in verse by a local bard and the poem was sold for 1p in aid of the Soldier’s Tobacco Fund:

Bombardment at Lowca

On August 16, old Kaiser Bill

Said to his men now prove your skill

And try and reach the Cumberland coast

The feat of which I’d like to boast

The Kaiser’s word they did obey

And fired away at Parton Bay,

With shot and shell they did their best

To put the Lowca Works at rest

The damage done was not so much

The Benzol plant they did not touch

One shell fell here, another there

Which gave the workmen quite a scare

The inhabitants too grew quite alarmed

Because this port is still unarmed

This opportunity the enemy seized

And rained the shells just where he pleased

Two shells went through a cottage home

The father shouts ‘a German bomb’

The children then rushed out like bees

And joined the Lowca refugees

The submarine then made its way

Across the dub from Parton Bay

To find some other defenceless port

Where German fiends could have their sport

Remember Bill, the time will come

When we’ll have thee beneath our thumb

And thou wilt wish thou had’st never been born

For we’ll treat thee with the utmost scorn

Thy barbarous deeds and acts are such

We could not punish thee too much

Don’t ask from us to be forgiven

The most fiendish villain under heaven

In 1800, brothers Adam, Thomas and Crosby Heslop, formerly associated with the ironworks at Seaton, established an iron foundry and engineering business on the seashore by the mouth of the Lowca Beck.

The three brothers were all dead by the mid-1830s, their investors sold up and the works were taken over by local iron mining partnership Tulk and Ley which began a long tradition of locomotive manufacture. In 1857 it was sold again, to Fletcher, Jennings & Co.

In 1911 a chemical works was established to exploit the latest coal by-product technologies. This was the plant shelled by the Germans.

The first plant in Cumberland for the recovery of by-products from coke ovens began working in 1908 at Risehow Colliery, Flimby, and originally comprised 40 regenerative coke ovens with plant for the recovery of tar, ammonia sulphate and crude benzole.

By 1938 these coke ovens and many more at various other collieries had been replaced by more modern ones at three central locations: the Allerdale Coal Company at Great Clifton (50 ovens), the Cumberland Coal Company Ltd at Whitehaven (69 ovens), and the Workington Iron & Steel Company (53 ovens).

Crude tar from the Whitehaven ovens was processed at the plant of Messrs T Ness adjoining the coke ovens at Kells. Tar from the Allerdale and Workington company works went to the United Coke and Chemicals Company by-products plant at Lowca which was built in 1923 and closed in 1978.

Robbie Knox was a cooper, making barrels for this tar plant and we thank his son, John Knox, 86, of Cleator Moor for these two rare old images [above] of the plant. He thinks they date from the early 1920s. Robbie, who is pictured extreme left, died in 1969. On the extreme right is Joss Lavery, John’s uncle, who died in 1981.

The plant was capable of distilling 100 tons of coke oven tar per day (24 hours). The oil refining plant was capable of treating the distillate products from 200 tons of tar per day.