Commander Harry Pursey, R.N.

It’s a fact that not many Purseys have stuck their heads above the parapet throughout the ages. Had one or two others distinguished themselves on the wider stage, tracing the wider family’s collective history might have been a good deal easier!

One who did do so was Commander Harry Pursey of Sidmouth, Devon.

Commander Harry Pursey (1891 – 13 December 1980) was a British politician and naval officer, who began his career as a boy seaman. He was elected as labour MP for Hull East in 1945, serving for 25 years, before ceding his seat to John Prescott in 1970.

Harry attended the Royal Hospital School and the Royal Naval College in Greenwich. At 16, in 1907, he joined the Royal Navy as a boy seaman with HMS Impregnable. In the Great War, he took part in the Battle of Jutland aboard Revenge and saw service in the Aegean aboard Forward. Second-in-command of a landing party from the Forward, he helped evacuate a Royal Naval Air Service station on Lesbos Island, for which he was commissioned and received a mention in dispatches.

After the war he was posted to the Black Sea and saw action in Somaliland and Mesopotamia. He was promoted to Lieutenant in 1920 and to Lieutenant-Commander in 1928. He retired in 1936 having served on HMS Hood.

He had a great interest in “below-decks” naval history, and spent his later years working on a history of the Invergordon Mutiny (see – issue 1976, page 2).

[The Invergordon Mutiny was an industrial action by around 1,000 sailors in the British Atlantic Fleet that took place on 15/16 September 1931. For two days, ships of the Royal Navy at Invergordon were in open mutiny, in one of the few military strikes in British history.]

During the Spanish Civil War (1936 – 39), he worked as a journalist in Spain.

In September 1954 in New Jersey, USA, he married Lillian Maria Alder who claimed to be a Hungarian Baroness. That same year, she was arrested in Montreal for possessing counterfeit United States money, and acquitted after trial. She was arrested the following year for the possession of drugs. This time she was convicted. They were divorced in 1959.

His obituary in The Times described him as “the first naval officer promoted from the lower deck” to enter Parliament.

Harry’s immediate ancestors hailed from Bathealton, Somerset. Prior to that his family can be traced back to Wellington (Thomas Pursey and Charlotte Hancock) and in the 1700s most likely West Buckland (William Pursey and Mary Cross).

(With thanks to Wikipedia upon which much of this content was sourced.)

* This piece is dedicated to my Dad, who was in the Royal Navy, as was my brother. They followed in the footsteps of a good number of Purseys who braved the seas in search of adventure.


4 thoughts on “Commander Harry Pursey, R.N.

  1. During the late 1960s and early 1970s I was involved in several research projects on Royal Navy history, particularly during the Great War. I don’t recall why I contacted Commander Pursey, but from the the nature of his letter of response to me (28 September 1970) it must have been matters regarding the Lower Deck in H.M. Ships. Our correspondence did not continue, but I still have his brief letter outlining his research goals and an attached copy of his biography reprinted from “The Fleet:The Journal of the British Navy.”

    I had likely responded to a letter he may have sent to “Navy News,” the fleet newspaper of the RN. Many former seamen wrote to that publication seeking old friends or commenting on items they had read there, and I found them an excellent source if information not available elsewhere.

    I will be happy to donate this letter if it may be of use to The Pursey Project.


  2. Hi, commander Harry Pursey used to be a very good friend of my Grandfather Percival Noble here in Hull were I now live. My G.F. Was local labour councillor around the 1950’s. Harry Pursey came to regular meetings at my Grandfathers house, along with Harry Woodford and more.
    Can anyone give me contact details of Harry Purseys relatives pls as I would love to find out if my Grandfathers name or photo occurs in any archives pls .
    Many Thanks
    Roger Noble

  3. Harry’s brothers Walter and George were no slouches either.

    Both were noted golfers although it seems Walter was the better of the two, becoming professional at the famous Westward Ho! links course at just 19 years of age.

    He finished 13th in the British Open in 1921 before going to the States. He was professional at the Inglewood Country Club of Seattle from 1924 – 42 ( In 1927, he won the Pacific Northwest Golf Association (PNGA) Open.

    Brother George followed him out to the States in 1925. The Western Times commented “George Pursey is a golfer of great promise, and his career in the United States will be watched with great interest.”

  4. Harry’s Hungarian wife Lillian led a colourful life. He was her third husband and it was on their honeymoon to Canada in the autumn of 1954 that she was arrested and charged with having counterfeit US currency.

    She was tried twice on the charge. Acquitted the second time round, her defence was that the money had been left to her by her second husband, a Greek barrister who died a few weeks after their marriage.

    Subsequently, she had $40,000 worth of jewellery stolen, including a $17,000 diamond ring.

    Three weeks later, she was again arrested – this time for possession of drugs. She was convicted and sentenced to six month in prison but won a new trial on appeal.

    In October 1956, at time the jewel-robbers were being sentenced, her second trial for possession began. She was again acquitted later that month.

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