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Who is the oldest sailor in any Allied Navies during the First World War?

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Being identified as the oldest sailor in the British Navy or any of the Allied Navies to see service during the First World War is something to be proud of. That unique achievement along with a verifiable lengthy service record belongs to none other than Petty Officer James Dupen who had served with both the Royal British Navy and the Royal Naval Canadian Volunteer Reserve.

Petty Officer James Dupen was born on 9 October 1850 in Bethnal Green, Middlesex, in the East End of London, England and was baptized on 17 November 1850 at the Parish of St. Matthias. He was the second of four children of James Dupen (1829-1909) and Elizabeth Blackett (1828-1864). James' mother passed away when he was fourteen years old. His father remarried two years later and had another six children born into the household.

James Dupen (son), at the age of seventeen years and nine months, began a lifelong career with the military when he enlisted with the Royal Navy on 3 June 1868 initially serving for 12 months on H.M.S. St Vincent, a 120-gun first-rate ship of the line used as a training ship from 1862 to 1905. Dupen travelled on many ships upon completion of training. "In 1869 he went aboard H.M.S. Gladiator of the African fleet and was stationed at the Cape of Good Hope. Then he transferred to H.M.S. Rattlesnake, and in 1872, back in England aboard H.M.S. Thalia, he went aboard H.M.S. Duke of Wellington, where he served a few months before appointed to the troopship H.M.S. Euphrates, plying twice a year between Portsmouth and Bombay. He remained on her two years, passing through the Suez Canal six times. After the Euphrates he returned to the Duke of Wellington, and then took a gunnery course aboard H.M.S. Excellent, later becoming a leading seaman and first class gunner."

His final Royal Navy posting was when he joined the paddle steamer H.M.Y. Osborne in 1876, where he had the opportunity to serve the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII (1841-1910) and meet three generations of the royal family. Dupen had said that "he was fond of Queen Alexandra [1844-1925], who acted as a mother to the crew" and that "King Edward was hearty and liked members of the crew to sing nautical songs for him. King George V [1865-1936] was just a boy at the time and romped about the decks." He had done tailoring for the Prince of Wales when he was aboard the royal yacht. This should not be surprising as Dupen's father's profession was a weaver. He remained with the yacht for a period of fourteen years until he took his discharge in 1890. That same year, he opened a small tailoring shop in the naval town of Portsmouth, and it was there he received news that he was granted the honour of a 'Royal Warrant of Appointment to The Prince of Wales.' This accolade is a prestigious mark of recognition of those who have supplied goods or services to members of the British Royal Family. Having secured this Royal Warrant status, he had the privilege to publicly display the royal approval and the Prince of Wales's feather badge wherever he dwelt in the British Empire. It was in Portsmouth that he proudly first displayed his royal sign, implying that his services or products are of high quality.

Dupen remained less than one year in Portsmouth, for Canada was calling him. He, his wife, along with eight children in tow (three daughters and five sons, aged one to seventeen years) made the long trip arriving in Calgary, Alberta sometime in 1890. All ten members of the Dupen family arrived in time to be registered at Calgary in April 1891 as part of the decennial Census of Canada. It appears that James Dupen was the owner of the Prince of Wales Restaurant where he "did business under the feathers" until 1904, when he moved west to Banff, Alberta and operated the Hotel View. In that same year he arrived in Victoria, British Columbia and opened a tailoring and mending shop. A few months later, he bought the Royal Arms Hotel at 1717 Store Street and remained its genial proprietor until 1916.

Despite his age and that he had been a pensioner after twenty-two years' service with the Royal Navy when the First World War broke out, James Dupen gladly came forward to serve his country "so as to release a younger man for duty of a more strenuous nature" and rejoined the navy in 1916 at Esquimalt – a military installation first established by the Royal Navy in 1855, located four kilometres west of Victoria. He again put on the navy uniform – this time, serving as petty officer and gunner with the Royal Naval Canadian Volunteer Reserve. It was there that he had the unique distinction to be the oldest man wearing a naval uniform as he was sixty-eight when he received his discharge after the Armistice. By four years, Petty Officer Dupen's record beats that of Petty Officer 1st Class Edward John Hales, Senior, of H.M.S. Victory at Portsmouth, England, who according to the 14 May 1918 edition of the Daily Mirror is "said to be the oldest 'salt' in the British Navy" at sixty-four years of age.

One of Dupen's sons followed in his footsteps by serving with the Canadian military. Albert Edward Dupen (1880 – 7 May 1969), at age nineteen saw his first military action during the South African War serving with the Lord Strathcona's Horse regiment, in the Battle of Paardeburg (18-27 February 1900). He was among the nearly 900 Canadian volunteer soldiers who played an important role in the first major British victory of the war. He was also second vice-president of the Army and Navy Veterans of Canada – recognized as Canada's oldest veterans' association.

James Dupen married Harriet Moore (8 August 1854 – 20 September 1935) on 14 July 1873 at Saint Mary's, Portsmouth, England. Following a brief illness, Mrs. Dupen passed away suddenly at their home in the Surrey Block, at the corner of Yates and Broad Streets, aged eighty-two years. Two and a half years later on 14 March 1938, her husband James died, aged eighty-seven, at the Jubilee Hospital, also after a brief illness. Proud of his service until the very end, just below his living room window he had hung the royal warrant badge, "which had attracted much attention from passers-by, particularly visitors to town." As an entertaining talker, he loved to reminisce of his days in the navy and aboard the royal yacht. Petty Officer Dupen was a well-known member of the Naval Veterans' branch of the Canadian Legion as well as many other associations. James Dupen is buried with his wife Harriet, daughter Elizabeth, and son-in-law Walter Poole at Ross Bay Cemetery, Victoria (British Columbia) in plot M69 W8. As shown in the photograph, there is currently no headstone marking his burial within the family plot. However, thanks to the efforts of Mr. Kyle Scott, a veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces and a representative of the Last Post Fund, a proper headstone will be placed on site.

Petty Officer James Dupen has had a long and varied career including being a sailor, adventurer, tailor, and hotel proprietor. He was not only proud of his link to British royalty, at sea and ashore but also especially pleased to display his royal warrant distinction for nearly five decades for all his family, friends and visitors to see.

On this day, 14 March 2022, we commemorate the 84th anniversary of the death of Petty Officer James Dupen – the oldest sailor in the British Navy or any of the Allied powers during the First World War – and mark more than 153 years since he first joined the Royal Navy.

André M. Levesque

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