b. 28/11/1891 London. d. 29/08/1958 Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.
Rowland Richard Louis Bourke (1891-1958) was born on 28th November 1885 in Redcliffe Square, London, the son of Isidore McWilliam Bourke MD, a retired surgeon major of the 72nd (Seaforth) Highlanders, of Curraleegh, County Mayo, Ireland, and his Italian second wife, Marianna (nee Carozzi). Isidore’s first wife, by whom he had three sons, had succumbed to cholera during his service in India. He had four children by his second marriage, Rowley, as he was known, being the only son, and two adopted nephews, and he settled in London, where he had a medical practice.
Around 1898, at the time of the gold rush in the Klondike, Isidore Bourke joined a flood of emigrants seeking their fortune out west. He went to Dawson, in the Yukon territory of north-west Canada, where he established the city’s first hospital. Rowley, who was educated by a number of Roman Catholic Orders in England, followed him to Canada in 1902 to try his luck in the goldfields.
The Bourkes were an unlucky family. In addition to his first wife’s early death, Isidore also lost a brother, who was shot and killed in Ireland, and a son murdered in Siam. Tragedy also followed them to Canada. Not only was their house in Dawson destroyed by fire, but also one of Rowley’s adopted cousins, Cecil, was accidently killed in 1907 by an explosion while clearing tree stumps at their ranch at Crescent Bay, Nelson. Nearly blinded in the same blast, Rowley was severely injured and left with permanently damaged eyesight. Such was the impact, the family immediately left for New Zealand. Rowley, however, returned and was farming a property at Nine Mile when war broke out.
His attempts to enlist in all three services each met with rejection on account of his poor eyesight. To help with the war effort, he donated a waterfront lot from his land to be raffled off, with proceeds going to a local patriotic fund supporting the families of serving soldiers. It was not enough. Still determined to “do his bit”, he left Nelson and paid his own way back to England, where, on 7th January 1916, he finally succeeded in securing a commission as a sub-lieutenant in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. After undergoing courses at Greenwich and Southampton, he was posted to Larne, Ireland, where he took command of ML341. For the next year, he was involved in a dull routine of anti-submarine patrols. Frustrated by a lack of action, he asked for a transfer.
His wish was finally granted in November 1917, when he moved to command of ML276. He joined the Dover Patrol, or Harry Tate’s Navy, as it was more popularly known, at an auspicious moment in its history. Barely a month earlier, Roger Keyes, a man who later described Rowley as “the bravest of all VC holders”, had taken command.
Rowley was eventually appointed with ML276 to being a standby rescue launch. The next six weeks were the most dramatic period of his life. As well as earning the VC and DSO, he was appointed a Knight of the Legion of Honour by the French Government (LG 12th December 1918), mentioned in despatches and promoted to Lieutenant-Commander, with seniority back dated to 23rd April 1918.
On 9th and 10th May 1918 at Ostend, Belgium, after HMS Vindictive's crew had been taken off, Lieutenant Bourke, commanding Motor Launch 276, went into the harbour to check that everybody had got away. After searching and finding no one, he withdrew, but hearing cries from the water he turned back, found an officer and two seamen clinging to an up-turned boat, and rescued them. During this time the motor launch was under very heavy fire and was hit 55 times, once by a 6-inch shell which killed two of her crew and did considerable damage.
Lieutenant Bourke, however, managed to take her into the open sea, and was taken in tow.
He returned to Canada, and in 1919, he married Rosalind (Linda) Barnet, an accomplished musician originally from Australia, to whom he had become engaged after the Ostend operations and whom he had promised to marry “as soon as the war was over.” Demobilised the following year, he returned to the Kootenays and his North Shore farm, but by 1931 his eyesight had deteriorated to the extent that he feared he might go blind. He decided to quit farming and, with his wife, moved in 1932 to Victoria, taking a Federal Civil Service post on the staff of the Royal Canadian Naval Dockyards at Esquimalt. Shortly before World War Two, Rowley helped organise the Fishermen’s Naval Reserve, a west coast patrol operation. At the outbreak of war, he joined the RCN Volunteer Reserve, serving variously as a recruiting officer and an extended defence officer, before being appointed as acting commander to HCMS Givenchy, a training ship. He retired in 1950.
In 1953, he attended the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and returned three years later for the VC Centenary Celebrations at Hyde Park. Rowley died at his home, 1253 Lyall Street, Esquimalt, on 29th August 1958. Following a mass at Our Lady Queen of Peace Church, he was buried with full military honours at Royal Oak Burial Park, Victoria. In his will, he left his medals to the National Archives in Ottawa and they have since been displayed on loan in the Maritime Museum of British Columbia and the CFB Esquimalt Naval Museum, where the exhibits also included a pair of his famously thick-lensed glasses.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: NATIONAL ARCHIVES, OTTAWA, CANADA.
ROYAL OAK BURIAL PARK, VICTORIA, BC, CANADA. SECTION O, PLOT 10, GRAVE 16
Library and Archives Canada (Kevin Joynt)
MOD Building, London
Bruges Exhibition in April 2018 for 100th anniversary