The Devonshire-Ellis, John Brown & Co; and Imperial Russian Connection

by Chris Devonshire-Ellis

July 30th, 2015

image[1]In years gone by, the Devonshire-Ellis family built ships, owning the John Brown & Co shipyards.
From these yards came many historic vessels, amongst them HMS Hood, the Luistania, Queen Mary, QE2 and the Royal Yacht Britannia. The British Admiralty and Cunard were major clients, but what is less well known is that unlike their competitors, John Brown & Co would also provide technologies and supervise the building of vessels to overseas shipyards – an early form of technology transfer.

These included the Japanese, Italian, Belgian and other navies, in addition to John Brown Clydebank Shipyards supplying the Russian Imperial Navy under Tsar Nicholas II. The relationship began with the ordering of two turbines, built in the Clydebank shipyards, then delivered to Odessa for fitting into the Russian Battleships Imperatrista Mariya and Imperator Alexander III, both Dreadnought class ships. The order, dated 12th December 1911 was placed by the Russian Shipbuilding Company of St.Petersburg, for delivery to Nicolaieff, the new Floating Dock on the Black Sea in what is now Southern Ukraine. They were provided at a cost of £96,000 (about £8 million today), including commissions of 2.5% and 2% respectively paid to middle men J.G.Crookstone and a Mr. Dimitrieff. These turbines were delivered in 1912, and subsequently fitted into these ships.

Russian trials on these turbines produced a performance of 32,100 steam horsepower against a commissioned performance of 26,000 shp. However, financial and political problems would delay the ships appearance as part of the Black Sea Fleet for another five years.



The Russian Tsar Nicholas II and Admiral Eberhardt, the Commander of the Black Sea Fleet were impressed by the turbines performance, and placed orders for two complete ships, which were to be constructed under John Brown & Co supervision at the St.Petersburg Docks. These were the vessels Imperator Petr Velikiy (Emperor Peter the Great) and Imperator Nicholas I which were originally launched in June and September, 1913, yet mothballed until 1917 following disagreements on Naval expenditure by the new State Duma. It would prove a huge mistake.



For this service, my Great Grandfather, Sir Charles Edward Ellis, then Managing Director of John Brown & Co; was awarded the Russian Medal for Zeal.

Of the Nicolaieff vessels, progress was slow and beset by political prevarication as Russia slipped into chaos. Admiral Eberhardt resigned in 1917 (he would be shot by the Bolsheviks in 1918) and was replaced by Admiral Kolchak
who rushed them into service, with them finally joining the Black Sea Fleet in 1917. By this time Tsar Nicholas had abdicated, and the Imperator Alexander III renamed Volia (Freedom). Russia was now mired in both civil conflict as revolution threatened, and was also at war against the Germans in World War One.

Volia was captured by the Germans in 1918, and returned to British control at the end of the war. The British promptly gave her to the still functioning White Russian Navy – under command of Kolchak – as revolution raged across Russia. She was renamed again as the General Alekseev.
Kolchak eventually found himself as the de facto Head of a Provisional White Russian Government as he tried to hold together what remained of the crumbling Imperial order. Tsar Nicholas and his family had been executed in 1918, with Kolchak desperately trying to keep the Reds at bay. However, despite initial gains, the White Army suffered numerous successive losses, with Kolchak eventually captured by the Communist Reds in Siberia in early 1920. He was shot by firing squad in Irkutsk. This effectively signaled the end of White resistance, ushered in Lenin and the Soviets, and sparked a huge migration of White Russians to the south.

In a last, desperate bid to escape certain death as the Red Army approached; surviving Royals (including Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna, the Tsar’s younger sister) and 4,000 White Russians were evacuated by Tsarist sailors from Crimea, in November 1920. This included the General Alekseev, as part of the Wrangel Fleet – the last surviving remnants of the Imperial Black Sea Navy. The fleet sailed first to Turkey, and subsequently made its way to Bizerte, Tunisia. The evacuees dispersed around the world (Grand Duchess Olga eventually settling in Toronto) while the Tsarist Russian sailors were granted asylum by France. In 1924, the French Government recognised the ships as being the property of the Soviet Union, who sent Alexsey Krylov to examine them. Krylov was responsible for overseeing the transition of Imperial Russian shipping to the Soviets. The General Alekseev and others in the Fleet were deemed in poor condition, and remained in Bizerte, prior to eventually being scrapped by the French Government in 1936 in lieu of unpaid docking fees.
More detail about this period can be found here.

Her impressive 12 inch guns however ended up being reused amongst various vessels and sea defense units during both WWII and the Cold War. There is more detail about what happened to these guns here.

The Imperatrista Mariya meanwhile was sunk in 1916 while at anchor at Sevastopol when the ships magazine exploded. An inquiry into the incident failed to fully answer if this was deliberate sabotage or an accident. She was refloated, upside down, in 1918 and her guns removed, but was found to be in poor condition. She was scrapped in 1926.

Of the two John Brown & Co engineered St.Petersburg ships, the Imperator Peter the Great was captured by the German Navy at Sevastopol in 1918, and was then given to the French in WW1 reparations, where she was then leased back to the Russian Soviet Union. Renamed the Yakutia, she hit a mine in February 1920 and sank off Varna, along the Bulgarian Black Sea coast, but was raised in 1938 and pressed once more into service as World War Two loomed. She was scuttled by her crew in Odessa in 1941 following a battle with the German Navy, raised again and refitted by the German Navy a year later, before being scuttled again in 1945. The Soviet Union raised her once more in 1948, refitting her as a Hospital Ship from 1953, based from Vladivostock.


She then served as a Cruiser under the name Morskaya II, servicing the Russian Far East routes from 1977. She sank in a storm in the Korean Port of Busan in 1987, while en route to be broken up – a final act of defiance. She was eventually dismantled in situ.

The Imperator Nicholas I was renamed the Avjator (Aviator) by the Russian Navy in 1917 as a seaplane tender, and was subsequently captured by the Germans at Sevastopol in May 1918, then abandoned. She was then taken over by the French Government as part of war reparations, before being sequestered by John Brown & Co in Marseille – the company had never been paid by the Russians. Following negotiations between the British and French Governments and John Brown & Co; settlement was reached, and she joined the Soc. des Services Contractuels des Messageries Maritimes. She was based in Marseille, renamed the Pierre Loti and serviced passenger routes between the South of France and the Levant from 1922. In 1936 she was transferred to passenger ship duties between IndoChina and Australia, prior to being taken over by the Blue Star Line, eventually servicing West African routes. She was stranded on the Laval Bank in Gabon, en route from Lagos to Gabon’s capital city Libreville in 1943 and declared a total loss. Her wreck is still there.
The Imperial and Soviet Russian connection with the Devonshire-Ellis family and John Brown & Co does not end there. In 1936, John Brown & Co purchased Markham & Co, an engineering firm known for its tunneling equipment, and work on the Paris Metro and London Underground. Markham also carried out the original engineering work on the Moscow Metro. Soviet workers did the labor and the art work, but the main engineering designs, routes, and construction plans were handled by specialists recruited from Markham employees, who constructed the original, 11km line and 13 stations into the city centre. However, further British work was stopped on the advise of the KGB, fearing British engineers were gaining too much intelligence about the layout of Moscow. However, Russian and British engineers had shared much technical information, with the Gants Hill Underground Station on the London Underground even taking its design work from the Moscow Metro in tribute.