Monthly Archives: October 2017

Buried Alive: A Yorkshire Cemetery Sensation

1888 – Woodhouse Cemetery, Leeds: The gravedigger, shovelling clods of dense, frozen earth, heard a knocking from the coffin and felt an upward motion of the ground beneath him. He paused, listened, consulted with colleagues, then continued with his work.

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By Tim Green from Bradford – St George’s Fields, Leeds, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51864472

Being buried alive was the stuff of gothic nightmares. The press in the 19th and early 20th centuries revelled in tales of premature interment, be it at home or overseas. Horror stories like Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Premature Burial’ fuelled public imagination. But there were plenty of real life stories to whet the reader’s appetite for the macabre.

There was the phenomenon of January 1905 concerning Esther Elizabeth Holden (née Mills) a mother in her late 20s, living at Hapton, near Accrington. Her first husband, James Henry Ferris, played rugby for Rochdale Hornets and according to reports died as a result of an injury sustained in a game against Leeds.  She was left with three young sons – James, Herbert and Henry.  Esther married William Holden in 1901 and their daughter, Florence, was born in 1904. Dr Shotton attended her during a serious illness in January 1905, visiting her the day before her ‘death’. When her husband, William, informed him she had passed away he was unsurprised and issued a death certificate citing the cause as heart disease and exhaustion. William made funeral preparations drawing the £27 insurance money and arranging for the funeral coach. He laid out her body washing her face and brushing her hair and, in accordance with a Lancashire custom, putting on her a pair of white stockings. Undertaker James Waddington then arrived to measure her for the coffin. Whilst in the process of doing this, Mr Waddington became aware of a flickering eyelid, and he realised she was alive.[1]  Brandy was fetched from the local pub and she revived, although still very weak and constantly swooning. Donations poured in for the family to assist with Esther’s recovery. This included one sovereign raised from the sale of the death certificate to an Accrington man.

Deathbed_Study,_by_Julia_Margaret_Cameron

Deathbed Study – Julia Margaret Cameron [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 

Debates raged about the inadequacy of the law around death certification, especially the fact a medical practitioner was not required to inspect the body before granting a certificate. Others asked how many people had been buried without it being realised they were in fact alive. It also gave ‘fuel to the fire‘ of those in favour of cremation: still viewed with distaste and suspicion by many Christians, the first Cremation Act entered Statute only a few years previously in 1902, although it had not technically been illegal prior to this date and the Cremation Society dated from 1874. All this did not affect Mrs Holden. Less than two months later she was appearing on stage at the Circus and Variety Theatre Rochdale, billed as

“Mrs Holden late of Rochdale, who was saved from being buried alive by an Accrington undertaker.”[2]

She lived until 1942. Others were not so fortunate.

Like the newly-born son of Elizabeth Ann and Charles Lean. Charles was the landlord of the Tavistock Hotel in Gunnislake, Cornwall. Elizabeth died on 14 December 1892 whilst giving birth to her 10th child. The boy, named Thomas, was sickly. When the family reported him dead, the doctor issued a certificate. The baby was placed in his mother’s arms in the coffin, and the lid was screwed down. Prior to burial the father heard the baby cry and, when the undertaker unscrewed the coffin, he was found to be alive. Thomas survived for only a short time afterwards, but the doctor ordered him to be wrapped in blankets for several days before he would permit burial. This took place on 20 December, three days after his mother.

In January 1895 at Heap Bridge, near Heywood in Lancashire a woman named Mrs Sutcliffe, who was laid out for several hours and covered in linen, raised herself up in bed. Two women tidying the room fled in terror, falling down the stairs injuring themselves in their haste to get away. That evening Mrs Sutcliffe told her son that she had been aware of the washing and laying out burial preparations, but was unable to speak. The recovery again was short-lived – the doctor said that her ‘second‘ death was accelerated by shock.[3]

Such was the fear generated by such tales, in 1896 William Tebb founded the London Association for the Prevention of Premature Burial. He published a book about the phenomenon, filled with advice about avoiding such a fate. Indeed, precautions were taken by some to ensure it did not happen to them. These included coffins equipped with contraptions like bells to sound the alarm; to veins being severed, presumably to check blood flow. James Mott, a Birmingham brass founder even had provisions incorporated into his will, including:

“…after my death two medical men or surgeons shall apply every test to prove that life is extinct, that a strong dose of prussic acid shall next to be put into my mouth, and that one of them shall decapitate my body in the presence of the other, and that both shall certify that such a decapitation had been done; or otherwise I direct that my body shall be dissected by post-mortem examination”.

He then wanted to be buried at sea.[4]

But back to the incident at Woodhouse Cemetery, the Leeds General Cemetery in the St George’s Fields area of town, that cold 17 February day in 1888.  Fred Posey was an experienced, respectable and trustworthy gravedigger, tasked with backfilling the grave after the funeral of a woman. Her family had left the scene and he was halfway through filling the nine feet deep hole. He then jumped into the chasm to remove the shoulder boards fastening the sides of the grave up. It was at this point he claimed he felt several knocks beneath his feet and a slight upward movement of earth. He ran to a colleague in the cemetery, and with what the newspapers described as a pallid face and quivering voice, recounted the story. Eventually swayed, the other cemetery worker came to the grave and listened a while but deciding it was nothing, Fred was persuaded to continue his work.

V0042296 A gravedigger observes the resurrection of a dead woman. Aqu

A gravedigger observes the resurrection of a dead woman – Aquatint by Mayr. Credit Wellcome Library London, Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

The case became a media sensation, causing a public outcry. The demand for an exhumation of the coffin reached Parliament. Leeds MP Herbert Gladstone raised the issue in the House of Commons in early March. The Home Secretary, Henry Matthews, wrote to the Local Authority ordering that if any suggestion of truth existed about the story an inquest should be held. Accordingly, a warrant was issued for the exhumation of the body.

The woman was named as Arabella Elizabeth Tetley. The daughter of watchmaker John Henry Elliott and his wife Arabella, she was born in Leeds in 1864 and baptised on 21 January 1870 at the Methodist Chapel, Little Stonegate, York. The family subsequently moved to Bradford.

Arabella married William Tetley, a schoolteacher, on 10 April 1884 at St Augustine’s Church, Bradford. The couple’s first child, a son named William Norman, was born in Spilsby, Lincolnshire in 1885. However, by 2 February 1888 when she gave birth to daughter Lily Isabel, the couple resided at Beckwithshaw, near Harrogate where William worked as a schoolmaster. Shortly after giving birth 23-year-old Arabella fell victim to that scourge of childbirth puerperal fever, and died on 14 February. Dr Deville, who attended her throughout her confinement and illness, issued the certificate. But was she really dead?

In the early hours of Monday 5 March her body was exhumed and later that day an inquest held at the Millgarth Street Mortuary by Leeds Coroner, Mr J.C. Malcolm. They now had to determine whether her death was indeed natural causes, or if she had been asphyxiated as a result of being buried alive.

The coffin was opened by surgeon Mr Scattergood, formal identification took place and members of the jury viewed the body before witnesses were called. Chief of these was gravedigger Fred Posey. He denied ever having made statements about a knocking sound, saying “I never said nowt to nobody.” He admitted there had been a strange noise, one the like of which he had never heard so he fetched monumental mason, Sykes Shepperd. Contrary to the pale-faced, quivering voice description given by the media, Shepperd said Posey did not seem at all alarmed. In fact, he lit his pipe in the stonemason’s shop. They did go to the grave though and waited kneeling on it for around 20 minutes, but heard nothing further. They attributed the noise to the sound of the frozen clay rattling the sides of the coffin. Shepperd believed because of the three to four tons of earth on it any movement was impossible, and neither would it have been possible to hear any noise.

Next Mr Scattergood came forward. He described shrinkages and crevices in the coffin, with some portions detached. But Arabella’s body was undisturbed, still wrapped in its shroud with the flowers and wreaths laid upon it. When the shroud was drawn back her hands were in the expected position. The Coroner ordered the jury to return a verdict confirming Dr Deville’s original certificate.

What became of Arabella’s family? William was still employed as a schoolmaster living at the Dudley Hill Road School House at Beckwithshaw in 1891. His sisters Mary and Catherine were in residence too, presumably helping look after young William and Lily – yes she survived. William re-married in late 1891, to the wonderfully named Eularia Winter. In 1901 the family lived at Grove Park Terrace, Harrogate with William undertaking a new venture as a hardware and fancy merchant, later described as a 6½d bazaar in 1911. It was clearly a family enterprise, as the household still included his unmarried sisters, who worked in the shop too. A third unmarried sister, Rose Jane, joined the family in 1901, but she earned her living as a school-mistress. In addition to William and Lily, William now had three daughters and a son to his new wife – Caroline (8), John Archibald (6), Dorothy (4) and Eularia (1). So a whole new life.

The question of the source of the initial report to the press remains unanswered. Was it a case of Chinese whispers and the story being embellished for dramatic effect until it reached the ears of the eager media? Whatever the origins, the effect would only have served to heap distress on Arabella’s grieving family: Wondering if she had been buried alive; the trauma of the exhumation; appearing at the inquest to identify the body and give evidence; perhaps attending the reburial; and despite the verdict, would they always have that niggling doubt – was she really coffined alive?

Sources:

  • Ancestry – West Yorkshire Archive Service; Wakefield, Yorkshire, England; Yorkshire Parish Records; Old Reference Number: 17D85/7
  • British Newspaper Archive on FindMyPast – Leeds Times, 3 March 1888
  • British Newspaper Archive on FindMyPast – Pall Mall Gazette, 6 March 1888
  • British Newspaper Archive on FindMyPast – Knaresborough Post,10 March 1888
  • British Newspaper Archive on FindMyPast – Reynolds’s Newspaper, 11 March 1888
  • British Newspaper Archive on FindMyPast – Blackburn Standard, 19 January 1895
  • British Newspaper Archive on FindMyPast – The Yorkshire Evening Post, 18 January 1905
  • British Newspaper Archive on FindMyPast – The Grantham Journal, 21 January 1905
  • British Newspaper Archive on FindMyPast – Burnley Gazette, 1 March 1905
  • British Newspaper Archive on FindMyPast – The Yorkshire Post, 29 August 1927
  • Census: 1891-1901
  • FindMyPast – Methodist Chapel, Little Stonegate, York (Borthwick Institute Reference Y EB 1)
  • Cornwall Online Parish Clerks http://www.opc-cornwall.org/
  • GRO Indexes
  • Premature burial and how it may be prevented: with special reference to trance, catalepsy, and other forms of suspended animation –  by Tebb, William, 1830-1918; Vollum, Edward Perry, d. 1902: https://ia600202.us.archive.org/35/items/prematureburialh00tebb/prematureburialh00tebb.pdf
  • The History of Cremations in the UK http://www.watltd.co.uk/the-history-of-cremations-in-the-uk/
  • Wellcome Library Images: https://wellcomeimages.org/
  • Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Main_Page
  • Woodhouse Cemetery Burial Registers: https://library.leeds.ac.uk/special-collections/collection/706

[1] The Grantham Journal – 21 January 1905

[2] Burnley Gazette – 1 March 1905

[3] Blackburn Standard – 19 January 1895

[4] The Yorkshire Post – 29 August 1927

 

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The Tale behind a Tin: A Soldier’s Story

I was undecided when to write this post: Christmas-time or October 2017. It is about a Christmas present I received from mum and dad a few years ago – a Princess Mary Gift Fund box. So, on the face of it December would be the obvious choice. Instead I’ve decided to do it now as a tribute to a local soldier, for reasons which will become apparent.

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Princess Mary Gift Fund Box

The embossed brass Princess Mary tins were given as Christmas presents for those serving at Christmas 1914. The gift was the idea of Princess Mary, daughter of King George V. A public fund was established to raise money for the boxes and their contents, which were tailored according to smokers, non-smokers and the religious sensibilities of minority groups such as Sikhs. Subscriptions raised over £162,590, far surpassing the amount required. Originally intended for those soldiers and sailors serving overseas, the eligibility was extended to include those serving at home, prisoners of war and the next of kin of those who died in 1914 – over 2,620,000

The smokers box contained pipe tobacco, cigarettes, a pipe, a lighter as well as a Christmas card and photograph of Princess Mary. The non-smokers version had acid tablets and a writing case with contents, instead of the tobacco-related gifts. However, supplies of these original gifts proved insufficient to fill the boxes, so alternative gifts were provided, including bullet pencils, tobacco pouches, cigarette cases, shaving brushes and combs. Whatever the contents, many tins were kept or sent home even when emptied, as they were useful cases. Many survive to this day.

My tin is minus its contents. But what I find particularly special about mine is it is purported to have belonged to a named soldier – George Henry Sorby of the 9th Battalion the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (KOYLI). Accompanying the box is a picture postcard of him. I vowed to research his life. This post is a result of that research. In the course of doing this work I discovered George lived fairly local to me, in a place I used to visit regularly with my husband. 

George Sorby was born on 28 August 1894 at Warmfield, near Wakefield and baptised less than a month later at Sharlston St Luke’s. His parents were James and Ann Elizabeth Sorby (née Tweedle). They married in the other church in the parish, St Peter the Apostle at Kirkthorpe, on 25 December 1889. George was the third of the Sorby’s four children, and their only son. Eldest daughter Sarah Ann was born on 21 June 1890 whilst the family lived at New Sharlston. By the time Mary Emma was born on 18 July 1892 they were back in Warmfield. Mary died in December 1893. Their youngest daughter Martha Jane was born on 21 December 1896. She too died in infancy, in September 1900.

This was an area rich in coal, and James worked as a miner in the pits around Sharlston and Warmfield. The 1911 census shows George following his father in the industry, being employed as a pit pony driver below ground. This involved transporting the tubs filled with coal mined by the hewer to the pit bottom ready to be taken to the surface, then returning with the empty tubs. In this period, it was often the first coal mining job a boy undertook after leaving school, before eventually progressing to become a hewer. The family were now residing at Frobisher Row in Warmfield, and this remained the family address for the duration of the war.

George’s service records have not survived, so I’ve pieced this together from other sources. 

Shortly after Britain joined the conflict, George enlisted in Normanton, becoming a private with the 9th Battalion of the KOYLI, service number 15766. The KOYLI had its traditional base in the heart of the West Riding of Yorkshire and a massive recruitment drive in the locality took place in the early weeks of the war. The 9th Battalion was formed as part of the K3 phase of Kitchener’s New Army – the third batch of 100,000 recruits who answered the call to arms. They came under the command of the 64th Brigade in the 21st Division.

Initially based in Pontefract, they moved for training to Berkhamsted, then went to Halton Park near Tring in October 1914, from there on to Maidenhead, back to Halton Park in April 1915 and finally Witley Camp in Surrey in August 1915. 

Their Commanding Officer as of June 1915 was the deeply unpopular Lt-Col. Colmer William Lynch, a former regular officer, on the reserve officers list at the outbreak of war. It is said that before the Battle of the Somme, the officers in the battalion had a mess toast where tradition was to include a toast to Commanding Officer’s good health. Captain Gordon Haswell stepped up, but he omitted Lynch’s name, instead saying:

“Gentleman, I give you the toast of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, and in particular the 9th Battalion of the Regiment……Gentleman, when the barrage lifts.”

Both Lynch and Haswell were killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme and are buried in Norfolk Cemetery, Becordel-Becourt. But this was all in the future.

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Norfolk Cemetery – Headstones of Lt-Col Colmer William D Lynch and Capt Gordon Haswell – by Jane Roberts

On 10 September 1915 the battalion’s first line transport and machine gun sections left camp for Southampton and sailed to Le Havre. The following day, the main body of the battalion left Witley Camp to catch the train from Milford station to Folkestone. They sailed on the SS St Seiriol at 11.15pm that night, bound for Boulogne. They arrived at 1am the following morning and, after a brief rest, made their way via Pont de Briques to billets at Zutkerque where they remained until 20 September. Over the subsequent few days they marched in quick succession, interspersed by one-night stops, from Arques to Fontes, onto Amettes and Four-A(ux)-Chaux, finally arriving at a bivouac between Philosophe and Vermelles on 25 September.

It was a hike of around 47 miles, the urgency designed to get them into position for their first action of the war. For the 9th KOYLI, including George Sorby in ‘A’ Company, were destined to participate in a major autumn attack, a baptism of fire for the men of the New Army: The Battle of Loos. This battle took place in the industrial, coal-mining area north of Lens in the north-east of France. It was the first large-scale British offensive of the war, and marked the first use of poison gas by the British Army. The attack commenced on the 25 September.

The initial phase did not involve the 9th KOYLI, who were part of the 21st reserve Division. They were deployed on day two.

Getting to their assembly positions for the day two attack on Hill 70 to the north of Lens was a lengthy, arduous process in the dark, over unfamiliar and difficult ground. They left their bivouac at around 7.15pm on the 25 September and did not reach the original British front-line trenches until about 1am the following morning. They then had to proceed another two and a half miles under artillery fire to the assembly position to the east of the original German front line positions.

The attack commenced at 9am on 26 September, with the 9th and 10th KOYLI still held in reserve. It was a confusing battlefield picture marred by miscommunication and misunderstanding. It culminated in 9th KOYLI independently committing to an attack at around 12 noon, whilst Brigade HQ desperately tried to get orders to them to halt any further advance and concentrate on consolidating.  It was carnage. The 9th KOYLI were quickly forced to retreat to the trenches. The Unit War Diary notes that by 1.30pm they had lost 215 rank and file, either killed, wounded or missing. Final figures indicate 47 killed. By 3am the following day they left the trenches and were on their way back to a bivouac between Vermelles and Nouex les Mines. Their first taste of battle was bloody, short-lived and costly.

George’s initiation typified it. He suffered a gunshot wound to the neck in this very first encounter with the enemy. He was evacuated to Number 2 General Hospital at Quai de Escales, Le Havre where he underwent treatment for 2 days before being shipped back to England on the Hospital Ship HMHS St David. The former steamer was requisitioned at the outbreak of war and commissioned into service as a ship to transport patients back to Southampton.

George did recover and returned to serve once more with the 9th KOYLI. His war finally came to an end during 3rd Ypres, otherwise known as Passchendaele. This offensive lasted from 31 July to 10 November 1917. He survived the Battle of Broodseinde Phase on 4 October, where once more the battalion suffered heavy losses. The Unit War Diary indicates in the period 1-8 October casualty totals were 20 officers and 360 other ranks.

Sorby - George Henry Trench Map 2

Trench Map Showing Location of the 9th KOYLI on 22 October 1917: Source – National Library of Scotland  http://maps.nls.uk/index.html
under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike (CC-BY-NC-SA) licence.

Now an Acting-Corporal, on the evening of the 21 October the battalion were once more in front line trenches, near Reutel to the east of Polygon Wood. The above trench map shows the location, circled in green. Early the following morning, the 22 October, the Unit War Diary notes:

“Enemy shelled trenches heavily between 4 A.M. and 7 A.M. the shelling being particularly severe in reply to our barrage at 5.30 am. C Coy. in support suffered several casualties.”

Nine men, including George, were killed.

Sorby - George Henry Casualty

The Men of the 9th KOYLI, Killed on 22 October 1917 – Source: Commonwealth War Graves Commission

George has no known grave and is commemorated on the Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing. He is also remembered on the Warmfield cum Heath War Memorial in the Churchyard of St Peter’s, Kirkthorpe. He was awarded the 1914/15 Star, the British War and Victory Medals. Unmarried, the soldiers effects registers list his father as legatee. No soldier’s will exists for George.

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George Henry Sorby , the Princess Mary Tin and his Inscription at Tyne Cot – by Jane Roberts

George’s parents eventually moved to Normanton. His mother died in around late October 1929. His father died in February 1939. Their burials are recorded in the Warmfield Burial Register. His sister Sarah Ann, who married Henry Rann on 23 February 1913, had two children – Margaret Kathleen in March 1917 and Cyril born in 1923. She died in 1977.

Warmfield-cum-Heath War Memorial – by Jane Roberts

Family History Alert: Launch of New GRO (General Register Office) Extended PDF Pilot for Certificates

Good news for those family historians wanting to potentially cut down on cost and delivery time for those all-important English and Welsh birth and death certificates. Almost 12 months since the launch of the last PDF trial, which I wrote about here, the GRO have launched a new extended PDF pilot, similar to 2016’s Phase 1 trial. GRO TrialThe results from that proved inconclusive in assessing impact on other GRO and Local Registration services. The GRO have therefore announced that, as from 12 October 2017, they will be running a PDF pilot which will run for a minimum of  three months – so not the mad dash three week/45,000 limit of last year’s Phase 1 trial. This longer run will better enable the GRO to make a considered evaluation of the pilot.

The more relaxed timeframe will also have benefits for us family historians  – giving us more time to evaluate our tree for gaps, and make repeat orders depending on what the certificates reveal once they arrive. The GRO say the PDFs should be received within five working days of ordering, providing the order is placed before 4pm.

Like last year the cost of a PDF certificate is £6. And, akin to the 2016 Phase 1 trial, it is limited to 1837-1916 birth certificates and 1837-1957 death certificates. This equates to those already digitised certificates under the GRO’s old DoVE (Digitisation of Vital Events) project. The DoVE project was never completed, hence the pilot limitations. So bad luck if you’ve been hanging on for a marriage certificate, or a post-1916 birth or post-1957 death certificate.

The GRO are unable to answer at this stage whether the service will become permanent or whether there will be an extension to more products (eg marriages).

That said, it is still a welcome announcement for those who want a birth or death certificate for family history purposes. Note the PDFs cannot be used for official purposes – e.g. passport applications.

The link to the GRO site is here. More details about the pilot can be found here.

I will be spending the weekend assessing any civil registration gaps in my tree.

Request for Help: WW1 Headstone and Memorial Photos

An unusual posting from me, but this is a plea for help with taking photographs of WW1 headstones and memorials. I hope to include these in a book due to be published next year. Full photographic credit will be given.

They are located in the UK, France, Italy and Gallipoli and are as follows:

France

Blog Image 1

Elsewhere

Blog Image 2

UPDATE: 

  • Theodore Marshall’s photo has been taken – thanks Andrew
  • John William Daintith’s headstone has now been photographed – thanks Charlie
  • George Thom’s headstone photo has been taken – thank you Gill

If anyone can help, my email address is pasttopresentgenealogy@btinternet.com