Category Archives: St Mary’s RC Church

Letters: Life, Love, Death & The Somme

Letter from Lance Corporal Herbert Booth, 9th  Battalion The King’s Own (Yorkshire Light Infantry) to his brother James shortly before 1 July 1916 – Published in the “Batley News” 12 August 1916
 “Well, old boy I do not know when I shall be able to write you another letter after this. In fact I will tell you the truth, it is like the song “It may be for years, or it may be for ever”; but never mind lad, whatever happens to me you can depend on me meeting it with a brave heart.  I will tell you this kid, it is going to be one of the biggest scraps that has ever been known, and I have not the slightest wish to withdraw.  If the worst happens, it is only death, and that comes to everybody at some time or another.  I understand by your letter that you have been rejected.  I know that you would like to have a smack at the Huns, but never mind, you have the satisfaction of knowing that you offered your services to your King, and that is what a lot of single young men have not had the pluck to do.  If things turn out right, and I have luck enough to come through this job safely I shall be able to tell you as much as anyone here can.  This is my tenth month out here and I have not been away from the battle area one month out of the ten.  Perhaps by the time you get this you have read all about this affair in your papers.  If I have the good luck to come out alive I will drop you a field card or a line of some sort at the earliest possible convenience, and let you know how I have gone on.”

WW1 Silk Postcard – my own collection

Letter from Lieut R.H. Ibbotson to Ellen Booth, Herbert’s wife – Published in the “Batley News” 12 and 19 August 1916
“I have received your inquiry about your husband, Lce-Corpl Herbert Booth, and am extremely distressed to have to tell you that the news I have to give you is of the very worst, and that your husband was killed in action on the 1st of July.  He took part in the magnificent advance made by this Battalion.  I am sorry I did not know your husband personally.  I have only just come to this Company to command it from the transport which I looked after during the attack.  None of the officers in “A” Company who took part in the attack are here now, they were all either killed or wounded.  Anything I can say in a letter to you cannot possibly help you, I am afraid, to bear this terrible blow, but I can honestly say that you have my deepest and absolute sincere sympathy”

Letter from Pte W H Fisher writing from Grovelands Hospital, Old South Gate, London – Published in the “Batley News” 26 August 1916
“Corporal Booth was one of my best pals. We went “over the top” on the morning of July 1st, like two brothers, and we had only got about 30 yards out when he was hit right through the temple.  I had to leave him and got about another 150 yards when I was wounded.  I spoke to him, but he never spoke”.

Roll of Honour In Memoriam Notice – Published in the “Batley News” 26 August 1916
Booth – Lce-Corpl Herbt. Booth, KOYLI, killed in action on July 1st

We little thought when we said good-bye
We parted forever and you were to die
But the unknown grave is the bitterest blow
None but aching hearts can know

From father, mother, sister and brother-in-law

Roll of Honour In Memoriam Notice – Published in the “Batley News” 7 July 1917
Booth – In loving memory of my dear husband, Lance Corporal Herbert Booth, who was Killed in Action, July 1st 1916.

We often sit and mourn for him,
But not with outward show,
For the heart that mourns sincerely
Mourns silently and low,
We think of him in silence,
His name we oft-times call,
But there is nothing left to answer
But his photo on the wall
RIP

From his wife and children, 6, Beck Lane, Carlinghow

Roll of Honour In Memoriam Notice – Published in the “Batley News” 6 July 1918
Booth – In loving remembrance of our dear brother, Lance-Corporal Herbert Booth, 9th Batt. KOYLI who was killed on the Somme, July 1st 1916.

Brother of ours on the grim field of Battle
Died fighting for honour, and all that is
True
Brother of ours, you’re a man and a hero.

From his brother and sister-in-law, James and Cissie, 3 Crow Nest, St James’ Street, Burnley

Roll of Honour In Memoriam Notice – Published in the “Batley News” 3 July 1920
Booth – In loving memory of a dear son and brother, Lance-Corporal Herbert Booth KOYLI, killed in action July 1st 1916

Only a wooden cross
Only a name and number
O God let angels guard the spot
Where our dear one doth slumber

From his dear mother and father, sister and brother-in-law, 13 Carlinghow Hill, Batley

Lance Corporal Herbert Booth
9th (Service) Battalion, The King’s Own (Yorkshire Light Infantry).
Born: 15 May 1885
Killed in Action: 1 July 1916
Age: 31
Buried: Gordon Dump Cemetery, Ovillers-La Boisselle
Husband of Ellen and father of James and Hilda

Sources:

  • Batley News – Various Dates
  • CWGC
  • Parish Registers – St John’s, Carlinghow (CofE) and St Mary of the Angels, Batley (RC)
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Murderous Assaults with Poker & Rope: The (Un)Fortunate William Gavan

This is a tale of my 2x great grandfather William Gavan, a victim of crime but perhaps himself a wrong-doer? Two recent record releases, one on Ancestry UK and the other on FindMyPast, have supplemented earlier findings. One has possibly revealed a twist on this earlier research. 

William Gavan hailed from County Mayo, moving to England at around the time of the Great Famine of the late 1840s. He was certainly in Kidderminster by the 1851 census. It was in the town’s Roman Catholic chapel that he married County Mayo-born Bridget Knavesay in 1852. They moved to Batley in around 1860 with their young family, Honor, Margaret, Sarah and John. Eldest son James died sometime prior to the move, and Honor’s death followed in 1869. The couple had four further children – Mary, Thomas, Bridget (my great grandmother). Their youngest, William, was born in 1872. 

In the absence of any baptism record, William’s year of birth ranges anywhere between 1821-1832 depending on source. 

The story begins in April 1870. This was the first mention I found of William in Batley’s only town paper at the time, the “Batley Reporter”. I discovered the entry by pure chance whilst doing a library newspaper search for something totally unrelated. The headline captured my imagination: “Murderous Assault with a Poker“. It conjured up visions of the reputed cause of death of Edward II whose tomb I saw at Gloucester Cathedral. This story proved to be far less gruesome, but on a personal level far more interesting. As I read on I realised the victim was my 2x great grandfather William Gavan. 

On Saturday 9 April, at around 9.30pm, William was drinking with a friend, James Brannan, in John Farrar’s establishment, the “Ringers’ Arms” on New Street, Batley. The beerhouse was gain-hand for William, as he lived on the same street. Thomas Cain, a New Street neighbour, sat opposite William. Thomas, a much younger Irish man in his early 20s, lived with his mother.  

“Ringers Arms” sign, a few decades later – image courtesy of Batley Community Archive

 Initially conversation was friendly. At some point though Thomas made some remark, about William beating his wife. William responded by telling Thomas to go home and mind his mother. This seemingly innocuous response triggered a dramatic reaction. Thomas grabbed a poker and struck William on the head, a blow so violent as to render him unconscious and draw a copious flow of blood. William was taken home and the Doctor, William Bayldon, summoned. 

He found William slumped in a chair, faint through blood loss which had saturated his hair, covered his face and even soaked into the chair. The almost two inch long wound, on the left of his head, extended through the whole thickness of his scalp and resulted in an arterial rupture of a branch of the left temple artery.  

Police Sergeant Lund apprehended Thomas in his home at around 4am in the morning of 10 April. When charged with the assault he declared “I did hit him once with the poker, and I hope the b______ will die, if I thought he would not, I would have given him another blow”. So a fairly clear admission. 

William was confined to bed for five days after the assault, necessitating the deferral of the case against Thomas. Finally able to give evidence, William appeared at Batley Borough Court on 18 April. He must have cut a dramatic figure with bandaged head, remaining seated throughout the process. Dr Bayldon said the wound had not healed and would probably require treatment for a further fortnight. So a pretty impressive injury. Equally theatrical was the dramatic production of the offending poker during the case.  

The assault was of such a serious nature Batley Borough Court decided to refer the case to the Quarter Sessions at Bradford. The “Batley Reporter” had a one liner reporting the outcome on 21 May 1870: “Nine Months – Thomas Cain, unlawfully and maliciously wounding William Gavin [sic], at Batley” 

This is where the new records in Ancestry.co.uk come in. A recent addition is the West Riding Quarter Session records, 1637-1914. They are searchable by the name of the person indicted, but not by victim or witnesses. Luckily, through newspapers, I knew the name of William’s assailant. The indictment book gives detail of the full charge against Thomas Cain – in essence that he unlawfully made an assault on William and unlawfully beat, wound and ill-treated and did other wrongs to him. It also provides the names of the witnesses. The case was heard on 19 May 1870 and Thomas pleaded guilty. The wording is very formulaic and repetitive and doesn’t really add many details – for that the newspaper report is best. But it does provide another layer of detail, and a search of these records could help identify hitherto unknown charges against ancestors. 

By the time of the 1871 census Thomas was back home from the Wakefield House of Correction and once more living with his mother in New Street. The Gavan family had upped sticks and left the street on which they’d lived since their arrival in Batley. They now resided at Spring Gardens. I do wonder if the re-location owed something to the return of William’s attacker. I don’t expect many would want to remain living in the immediate vicinity of their poker-wielding assailant. 

But at the back of my mind was the wife-beating allegation Thomas made against William, which precipitated events that April 1870 night. Was there any substance in the claim? Was William ever hauled in front of the Magistrates to answer accusations? Did he beat Bridget? No charges on this count showed in the Quarter Session records, but any case wasn’t bound to get to that level. It may most likely have been dealt locally in the Petty Sessions.  

I never got round to further perusing the local newspapers for the period to see if William featured again. In the absence of any other information it was too formidable undertaking; neither did I check at West Yorkshire Archives for any lists of those appearing before Batley Borough Court.  

Here FindMyPast’s newspaper collection came to the rescue. It pays to keep checking because newspapers are added regularly. I was overjoyed to discover the addition of the “Dewsbury Reporter”. Not quite as good as having the “Batley Reporter” or the later Batley town paper, the “Batley News”. But not to be overlooked, because Batley stories feature in this neighbouring town’s paper. Also, it’s fair to point out, on FindMyPast there is a limited run for the Dewsbury paper. So far, it covers editions from its inception in 1869 until 1884. But it is part of the period of my ancestors lived in the town. So definitely worth a speculative search one evening. Hopefully the coverage will expand over time.

I really had to play around to overcome OCR errors as well as the dreaded surname variants for Gavan. It was worth the effort. Whilst there may be more to find, I unearthed some absolute corkers. And not confined to the occasional drunk and riotous episode either. 

Reports for the Gavan family included a rather interesting one dated 6 September 1873. In short William was summoned to appear at Batley Borough Court on Monday 1 September to answer a charge preferred against him by his wife, Bridget, of threatening to take her life. When the case was called she refused to say anything against her husband until Inspector Wetherill said he would lock the pair of them up. This loosened Bridget’s tongue. Apart from anything else, she had young children to consider. Youngest child William was only one.

She and William quarrelled on the 29 August. During the row he threatened kill her, something she took seriously. Afraid he would do her grievous bodily harm she reported him. William was bound over to keep the peace for six months. So perhaps there may have been something in what Thomas Cain alleged over three years earlier. Maybe Thomas was indeed upset at the way William treated his wife. And the hot-headed youth acted whilst in his cups. 

The next gem involved Bridget. On Wednesday 2 June 1875 it was her turn to appear in the Borough Court. I love the phraseology and images conjured up by the newspaper report, so much so I’m reproducing it in its entirety: 

Bridget Gavan was charged with assaulting Mary Winn, wife of Peter Winn, Spring Gardens, on the 20th May. Mr Hudson appeared for the complainant, and stated that the complainant’s husband was a coal agent, and sold coals in the neighbourhood, and collected money in small instalments. On Saturday last he called at the house of the defendant for some money, but instead of receiving the money he received a very warm reception from the defendant’s tongue, which induced him to leave the house and go away about his business. After visiting several other places, he went again and saw the defendant, who struck him, and scratched him in the face. He went home and told his wife, who naturally was not very well pleased with it, and on Monday she happened to meet with the defendant at a friend’s house, and asked her why she had insulted her husband. The defendant used some very naughty words, and afterwards she followed complainant to her house, seized her by the hair of the head, and a scrimmage took place to the detriment of both parties; and then it was that the complainant took out a summons for assault, and the summons was served on Monday. The summons was taken by the defendant, and in a very indecent manner was thrown by her into the complainant’s house, and she also broke a window. Evidence having been given by Peter Winn and the complainant, the defendant said the complainant struck her first with a brush. The Bench thought there had been some provocation on both sides, and only inflicted a fine of 2s 6d and costs”. 

I do wonder what constituted “very naughty words” and the mind boggles at how a summons could be taken in an “indecent manner”.  And why did Bridget react like this? Had Peter Winn overcharged her? Was he trying to collect money already paid? Was the coal he supplied of inferior quality? The dispute between the Winns and Bridget must have been the talk of Spring Gardens! I wonder if the Gavan’s used a different coal agent subsequently? 

But the residents of Spring Gardens were to be treated with another far more dramatic domestic disturbance in the Gavan household a little over a year later, stoking their gossip fires in a way far beyond the coal dispute. 

This jewel in the crown of my finds was accompanied by yet another “murderous assault” headline. Once more William had the role of victim. This time his attacker was his son-in-law, John Hannan. Again a much younger man in his 20’s.

John married the eldest surviving Gavan daughter, Margaret, at St Mary of the Angels RC Church, Batley on 21 September 1875, shortly after Margaret’s 20th birthday. The newly-weds lived at Spring Gardens in the household of Margaret’s parents. 

Less than 12 months after their wedding John, who was well-known to the authorities, appeared in Batley Borough Court facing charges of being drunk and riotous at Spring Gardens, assaulting Inspector Inman and assaulting William. His previous convictions included unlawfully wounding, larceny and attempted breach of the peace in connection with a prize fight. So an array of offences. 

His latest brush with the law followed drink-fuelled events on the evening of Saturday 1 July 1876. At 9pm that evening several women besieged Batley Police Office to report William lay seriously injured, probably dying, following an attack by John. 

Inspector Inman went to the house to find William with his head on a pillow, surrounded by more women. When Inspector Inman asked John what he’d been doing, John’s responded “What are you doing, you b____”. As the Inspector attempted to take John to the police station, John got hold of him by the thigh, threw him on his back and made his escape, assisted by several of the women. These allegedly included William’s daughter, 19 year old Sarah Gavan. She vehemently denied this, claiming she was away at that particular point in proceedings. 

In the meantime Dr Bayldon attended William, the same physician as was called following the 1870 attack. Again mirroring the earlier attack, William had several facial cuts, including a two inch one down to the bone. Bizarrely he also had a rope tied around his neck.  

Crime Scenes – Batley

 Fortunately William’s injuries were less serious than initially thought. Able to appear in court, without undue delay this time, he asked the Bench to “go easy” on his son-in-law. Upon being told that the matter was far too serious, William claimed not to remember anything about the night, when he “had had a sup of drink himself”. He believed John had tied a rope around his neck, but he had no feeling as John had rendered him insensible. Whether this memory loss was legitimate or a way of protecting John is open to question. I know where my suspicion lies. And the Mayor did remark to William “And yet you want to be very kind to him”. 

In his defence John claimed both he and William were drunk. He was attempting to get his father-in-law in the house and to bed. He’d pushed William causing him to fall and receive his injuries. He denied all knowledge of the rope around William’s neck. 

Sarah Gavan’s answers proved equally unsatisfactory and vague. John brought her father home and the pair participated in some “acting”, one trying to get twopence out of the other’s hand. She accounted for the rope around her father’s neck as part of this horseplay. John tried unsuccessfully to get her father to bed and she left them to it.  

It seems that concluded the evidence. John pleaded guilty to the drunk and riotous charge, and to the assault on William. For each of these offences he was fined 10s and costs, or 14 days. To the assault on Inspector Inman, he pleaded not guilty. However the Bench convicted him, imposing a one month prison sentence. No fine option for this offence. 

So a very fruitful search, adding more colour to the characters of my paternal ancestors. What struck me was how neatly the incidents linked, the symmetry between them – neighbourhood quarrels; family fall-outs; hot-headedness; Dr Bayldon’s visits to patch William up; and too much booze.

I am now in the process of a series of visits to the Wakefield branch of West Yorkshire Archives to see if the Batley Borough Court records point to any further potential ancestral misdemeanours. The list of complainants, defendants and dates will make a newspaper search more manageable. And, even in these early stages, there are plenty more newspaper searches to go at as a result.  

However, it’s something of a race against time, given the planned closure of Wakefield on 13 May until early 2017. My impending surgery could in effect mean I may have to wait until next year to finish. I do have a number of archive visits booked, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed. 

Sources: 

  • Ancestry.co.uk:  West Riding Quarter Sessions 19 May 1870 & HO 27 – Home Office: Criminal Registers, England and Wales 
  • Batley Community Archive – “Ringers Arms” sign
  • Batley Reporter” – 16 & 23 April 1870 and 21 May 1870
  • Census: 1851-1881 
  • GRO Marriage Certificate: William Gavan & Bridget Knavesay 
  • Parish Register: St Mary of the Angels, Batley 
  • FindMyPast: 
  • Dewsbury Reporter” – 6 September 1873, 17 October 1874, 5 June 1875 and 8 July 1876 & HO 140 – Home Office Calendar of Prisoners 

Obsolete Mayo Family History Website: Way Back Machine to the Rescue

In a couple of my blog posts (My County Mayo Family and The National Library of Ireland Catholic Parish Registers Website and Parish Registers: Brick Wall Breakers and Mystery Creators) I’ve referred to one of my much loved, and missed, websites. It was a County Mayo baptism and marriage transcript site, EastMayo.org, launched in 2005. Mainly using LDS films, it’s aim was to provide a free facility to researchers of family history in East Mayo. It concentrated on “that area of County Mayo encompassed by the Roscommon border and the towns of Charlestown, Boholo, Swinford, Kiltimagh, Knock, Claremorris and Ballindine”.  

 The transcripts included:

  • Aghamore 1864-1883 and Knock 1869-1905 Baptisms; 
  • Aghamore Marriages 1864-1882; 
  • Claremorris Civil Registrations 1872-1875; 
  • Claremorris Marriages 1806-1890 and Baptisms 1835-1912; 
  • Kilconduff Marriages 1846-1878; 
  • Kilmovee Baptisms 1854-1910 and 1881-1913; 
  • Kilmovee Marriages; 
  • Kilmovee Marriages Out of Parish; 
  • Knock Marriages 1883-1943 

With generations of my family from the Catholic Parish of Kilmovee, this site was a Godsend. I was disappointed when it disappeared. Although in 2015 the National Library of Ireland launched its free Catholic Parish Register website plugging some of the gap, the EastMayo.org had a broader date range for its limited number of Parishes.   

And there were some extras such as the fabulous “Kilmovee Marriages Out of Parish” transcriptions. Basically, if someone married out of Parish, the priest in the Parish the marriage took place contacted the priest in the person’s baptismal Parish informing them. 

I’ve seen something similar in the Batley St Mary’s registers. These contained such letters slipped between the pages. Indeed in this Parish, the priests went so far as to annotate the person’s baptismal entry with their subsequent marriage details, whether the marriage took place in or out of Parish.  

The Kilmovee transcripts covered marriages in the first part of the 20th Century, with marriages taking place within Ireland and beyond. Although only a snapshot of around 30 years, the Batley marriages of my grandpa (John Callaghan) and his brother (Martin Callaghan) are captured in them. 

An example of the global range of these marriages is seen in the initial transcriptions. They included former Kilmovee parishioners marrying as far afield as Glasgow, Batley, Orange – New York, Stockport, Congleton, Manchester, Doncaster, Accrington, Huddersfield, Charlestown, St Helens, Jersey City – USA and Silver Falls, Canada.  

Information on these Out of Parish marriages varied, but could contain: 

  • spouse; 
  • baptismal date (a bit of creativity here – most of the dates given seem to be approximate); 
  • parental details, with sometimes the mother’s maiden name; 
  • date and place of marriage (church and location);
  • witnesses; 
  • officiating priest; 
  • age; and  
  • if the person is widowed. 

The information provided linked your ancestor to a Parish. It also enabled you to track back further, for example by looking at the baptism transcripts.  

Yes, there were acknowledged transcription difficulties, but it was a wonderful resource.  

An updated EastMayo.org site domain name still exists with links to Irish-related websites, though it is not the original site with all that wonderfully name-rich information. But all is not lost. The original, as it stood between 2006-2011, can still be accessed via the Internet Archive Way Back Machine. 

And I’ll end with another really useful County Mayo website, which can be found here. Besides current day information, including where to stay and things to do, there is information about the area’s history, geography and culture generally as well as that of individual towns and villages. There is also a message board which may be helpful for those with Mayo roots.

The Battle of Bellewaarde, 16 June 1915: A Batley woman’s efforts to discover her Royal Scots Fusilier husband’s fate

This blog posting is the story of two people: Michael Rourke and his wife Margaret Duffy. Michael died during World War 1.  The story is as much about him as it is about his wife and the extraordinary efforts she made to discover his fate.

Both were parishioners of Batley St Mary’s RC Church, ordinary working class Yorkshire folk, with the County Mayo background typical of the parish.  Margaret did not have the money and contacts of some who found themselves in similar desperate positions during the war.  But she had persistence, ingenuity and determination.  Her story is the story of many other families up and down the country trying to find out what had happened to missing husbands, fathers and sons.

Michael and Margaret do not have any link to my family. This work is based on research I did for my charity booklet about the men named on the Batley St Mary’s War Memorial.

Michael was born in West Town, Dewsbury in 1877. He was the eldest child of Irish-born parents, Patrick and Bridget Groark (neé Mullany) who married in 1876.

At this point it is worth mentioning the complexity of certain Irish surnames which, even in the late 19th/early 20th century, continued to have various versions.  Groark was one of these, and the family can be found using a number of variants including Groark, Rourke and even Groak. I have referred to Michael as “Rourke” throughout, as this was then name he used when enlisting in the Army in the 1890s, and indeed the family seemed to use this version initially.  But by around 1900, at the time of the birth of their youngest child Agnes, the family were transitioning from Rourke to Groark, and this version became the commonly used one as the 20th century progressed.

Michael was one of ten children. His siblings included Mary Ann (1879), James (born in 1881 but who died the following year), Maggie (1883), Lizzie (1887), James (1889), Henry (1892), Francis (1894), Nellie (1896) and Agnes (1900).

Initially the family lived in the Dewsbury RC parish of St Paulinus.  In 1881 they resided on Ingham Road, Dewsbury with Patrick described as a cart driver.   By 1889, as is shown in the baptism for their second son bearing the name James, the family had moved to neighbouring Batley.  James was their first child to be baptised in St Mary’s parish.

In 1891 they were recorded as living at North Street, Cross Bank, one of many streets of houses in the vicinity of St Mary’s church; then in Wooller Houses, in nearby Carlinghow in 1901.  By 1911 they were back in North Street.  During this period Patrick worked in agriculture as a farm labourer, and the 1911 census gave more detail specifying that he was a cowman.  Bridget worked in the woollen industry in 1881 as a weaver and in the following census as a rag sorter.

13-year-old Michael is recorded in the 1891 census as working as a coal miner.  In April 1897 he enlisted in the Militia with the 3rd Battalion, The King’s Own (Yorkshire Light Infantry).  As mentioned earlier his attestation papers were under the name “Rourke” and indicate that he was employed as a hurrier at Critchley’s colliery. It is in this name that all his military records can be found.

“Hurrier” was the Yorkshire term for the person who moved the coal tubs from the coal face where it had been hewed to the shaft at the pit bottom. They might be known as a waggoner in some parts of the country, a drawer in Lancashire, a putter in Northumberland or a haulage-man in Scotland.  Hurriers in this period were usually youths as this was one of the early stages in a normal career progression pattern through underground pit roles.

The same attestation papers also provide a physical description. Michael was 5’3” and 104lbs, fresh complexioned with light grey eyes and dark hair.  However within a week of signing up, he purchased his discharge for £1.

In July 1897, still employed by Critchley’s  but this time as a collier, he changed his mind and re-enlisted  in the Militia serving once more with the 3rd KOYLI for just over 12 months before transferring to the Regular Army with the Royal Scots Fusiliers in July 1898.  His Regular Army attestation papers describe him as 5’3¾” and 111lbs, fresh complexioned with light grey eyes and brown hair.  He had a small, round scar over the outer end of his right brow and a scar on the back of his right middle finger.

However a pattern was emerging as, yet again, Michael had a change of heart and in November 1898 was discharged on payment of £10, half of which was refunded in May 1899. He returned once more to work for his former employer at Critchley’s colliery.

The reason for the refund is not mentioned. But the probable cause is because, true to his previous form, Michael had once again signed Militia attestation papers in January 1899 with the 3rd KOYLI and by April 1899 was back with the Royal Scots Fusiliers[1]. The 1901 census shows him at home with his family, but his occupation is a soldier.

I have not tracked Michael’s life in the next 10 years, but according to newspaper reports he did serve in South Africa in the 2nd Boer War.

By 1911, Michael had returned home to Batley. Weeks prior to the 1911 census Michael’s mother Bridget died.  She was buried in Batley Cemetery at the beginning of March.  Michael was now once more out of the Army and living with his family.   He had changed career totally and now worked in the woollen industry as a mill hand willier[2].  This was his occupation immediately before the war at Messers Chas Robinson and Company’s mill.

On 7 June 1913 Michael married at St Mary of the Angels Church. His bride was Margaret Haley (neé Duffy), a widow with three children.

Margaret was born on 11 December 1876, the daughter of County Mayo-born coal miner Patrick Duffy and his wife Mary (neé Regan). The Duffy’s have two other younger daughters recorded in censuses – Mary and Catherine.  A fourth daughter, Bridget, died infancy. The family lived in Birstall[3] with Margaret, when reaching working age, being employed in the local woollen industry as a weaver.

Margaret married general labourer John William Haley in late 1899 and the couple settled in Whitwood, Castleford.  The marriage was short for John died in 1903, age 34. At the time Margaret had two children, Thomas (1900) and Patrick (1902). She was also heavily pregnant.  She returned home to Birstall and her family.  Daughter Margaret Kathleen was born in late 1903. By 1911 Margaret and her three children were residing with her widowed father in the town, but she moved to Batley after her marriage.

According to the baptismal register at St Mary’s, Michael and Margaret’s only child, a son named Michael, was born on 11 April 1914. The family lived at North Street, Cross Bank and this was the family address when war was declared.

Michael and his three brothers all joined the Army.  Michael was immediately called up as a National Reservist, going out to France with the 1st Battalion, The Royal Scots Fusiliers in early September 1914[4]. James enlisted with the York and Lancaster Regiment; whilst Henry and Francis served with The King’s Own (Yorkshire Light Infantry).

Michael Rourke

Pte Michael Rourke, 6093, 1st Bn Royal Scots Fusiliers

In early November 1914 Margaret received an official communication from the Infantry Record Office at Hamilton informing her that her husband had been admitted to hospital at Port-le-Grand, suffering from bronchitis.  She had not received a letter from him since the middle of October and was naturally very anxious about his condition, although the communiqué did give her  some small measure of reassurance that any news about his health would be immediately passed on to her.  Shortly afterwards, that same month, he was invalided home with rheumatism.  After a spell in England he returned to the Front for a second time.

In May 1915 a letter from him was published in the “Batley News”.  He said he was well and the weather very hot.  He also mentioned that the men got a bath and change of clothing when out of the trenches.  He also enclosed a copy of an address to his Battalion by his Brigade Commander, highly complementing them on their part in an action in which Michael participated.  This read:

“In order to cover the right flank of troops on our left, your battalion was ordered to take up a very bad and exposed position on a forward slope and sure enough on the morning after you were exposed to a very heavy shell fire, followed by an infantry attack by vastly superior numbers.  The Germans came pouring through, and it soon became obvious that your position was untenable, and we were ordered to take up a position further back. 

The Colonel, gallant soldier that he was, decided, and rightly to hold his ground, and the Royal Scots Fusiliers fought, and fought until the Germans absolutely surrounded and swarmed into the trenches.  I think it was perfectly splendid.  Mind you, it was not a case of “hands up” or any nonsense of that sort.  It was a fight to a finish.  What more do you want?  Why, even a German General came to the Colonel afterwards and congratulated him and said he could not understand how his men had held out so long.  You may well be proud to belong to such a regiment, and, I am proud to have you in my brigade. 

General Sir Smith Dorrien also praised the RSF for their fine work after Neuve Chappelle.  He visited them in billets and addressed them in terms of high praise.  “None but the best troops could do the work, and so I sent you, and you have done it”

 Michael’s last letter home was dated 14 June 1915.  By early July his family were becoming increasingly uneasy as to his wellbeing, but there was still no definite information.  The first disquieting news had arrived from a fellow-Batley soldier in late June. Pte C King of the 1st Northumberland Fusiliers wrote to Margaret on 21 June as follows:

“Mick and I were together on June 15th and promised that if anything happened to either of us on the 16th we would write to his home.  I hope you will not take this too seriously but live in hope; I went round his regiment and could not find any Mick.  Some of his pals told me he was wounded”.

Writing to Mr. A Baines of Upton Street, Cross Bank, Batley on 30 June Pte King wrote further about the fate of his friend:

“I am very sorry for Mrs Rourke.  His regiment was in the charge with us on the day I will never forget – the 16th of June.  I saw for myself that he was amongst the missing, but there is hope yet.  It was a bloody sight but a grand charge.  We had a lot of casualties and they lay all over.  My deepest sympathy goes to Mrs Rourke, for I am very much afraid that poor Mick is gone.  The Germans shelled us for 27½ hours after we made the charge and the men were blown to bits; it was hell”.

There then followed months of uncertainty interspersed with inconclusive, sometimes conflicting, information, as Margaret desperately tried to find any information as to what had become of Michael.

Around the same time as she received news from Pte King, she also received information that her husband had been wounded and taken into a Chelsea Hospital.  She asked the Record Office for information but they told her that her husband’s name had not yet appeared on any casualty list, and no report had been received that he had been admitted to any hospital.

But Margaret did not give up this line of inquiry; instead, using her church contacts, she followed it up by contacting Father F Kerr McClement of St Mary’s, Cadogan Street, Chelsea[5] to see if he could be of assistance.  Unfortunately he was unable to provide any positive news, writing to her:

“I am sorry you have had so much anxiety as to your husband and I have done my best to find his whereabouts.  He is not in St Mark’s College, Chelsea (which is generally known as Chelsea Hospital) nor in St Georges Hyde Park Corner, Victoria, Tite Street, or in any of the private hospitals visited by us”.  

On Saturday 17 July, Mrs Rourke finally received a communication from the War Office stating that they were sorry to inform her that her husband had been missing since the 16 June. At the time he was serving with the 1st Battalion’s “A” Company.

Margaret’s next recorded steps were to contact two organisations with expertise in tracing the whereabouts of missing soldiers – the British Red Cross and Order of St John Inquiry Department for Wounded and Missing Men.  The former organisation responded with the following news:

“Pte Pilgrim, of this regiment (the Royal Scots Fusiliers), who is now in No 2 Canadian General Hospital, Le Treport, tells us that there are two men named Rourke in his regiment.  The man whom he knows something about is a slim man, slightly built dark, with a moustache, about 38 years of age.  This man was wounded at Hooge on June 16th, and could not be brought in, as the Germans had retaken trenches which they had lost.  We do not know if this refers to the man for whom you are inquiring; perhaps from the description you could tell us if it is so.  But you must remember that it is not at all certain from this report what happened to Pte Rourke.  We hope to obtain more information which will make the matter clearer.”

The description given matched Michael’s. The records of the International Committee of the Red Cross do show that Margaret made enquiries about Michael, but sadly only the card noting this and Margaret’s address exist.

As more and more news filtered through, it appeared that Michael had taken part in an attack at Hooge where the Allies captured four lines of German trenches.  The Germans counter-attacked re-capturing the last two trenches.  Michael lay wounded in the third line of trenches, but so severe was the action that when the retreat came and the Germans re-captured that line, his comrades were unable to take their wounded colleagues back with them.

Margaret still did not give up, continuing to write to authorities in an attempt to establish any firm news of her husband’s fate, clinging to the hope that if not lying injured in an Allied hospital, perhaps he was being held as a prisoner of war.  With this in mind her next step was to write to the King of Spain.

Spain was a neutral country and King Alfonso XIII contributed a great deal to improving the treatment of prisoners throughout the conflict.  At his own expense he maintained a staff of 40 who helped him serve as an intermediary between prisoners and their families, using the Spanish diplomatic network in his endeavours.  In response to her plea for assistance she received the following reply:

“Palacio Real de Madrid,
October 30 1915

Madam, – I am ordered by His Majesty the King, my august sovereign, to answer your letter petitioning His Majesty to cause enquiries to be made in Berlin with regard to Mr Michael Rourke, you husband.  Although His Majesty’s Embassy in Berlin is charged only with the interests of France and Russia, His Majesty being desirous nevertheless of demonstrating his interests in British subjects, has graciously acceded to your request, and has commanded the Spanish Ambassador in Berlin to communicate with Great Britain’s representative there – the United States Ambassador – in order that in conjunction with the latter the necessary investigations may be made.  His Majesty earnestly hopes that these enquiries may be the means of procuring satisfactory information for you – E de Swire”.

Satisfactory information sadly was not forthcoming and Margaret continued in her quest.

Many other women were also tirelessly pursuing word about their missing menfolk, with advertisements for information appearing in newspapers.  It was in one of the Sunday papers that Margaret saw an advert from Elizabeth Morton from Chesterfield seeking news about her husband Lance Corpl Thomas Morton, 1st Royal Scots Fusiliers, reported missing on 16 June 1915 at Hooge.   Noting that this soldier was in the same Battalion as her husband and had been missing since the same date, Margaret wrote to Mrs Morton expressing sympathy with her and pointing out that she was in the same predicament.

Mrs Morton had received a response to her advert from a Pte Harry Thomson of the 1st Royal Scots Fusiliers, who was in a military hospital in Newcastle on Tyne.  He communicated the news of her husband’s death.  Mrs Morton passed Pte Thomson’s address to Margaret in the hope that he would be able to shed some light as to the fate of Michael.  Margaret wrote to him and received the following response:

“I am sorry to tell you that your husband, Pte Michael Rourke, was killed on the 16th June 1915.  He was slightly wounded with myself and Lance Corporal Morton.  I wanted him to go back to the dressing station and get looked after there, but he would not hear of it.  He wanted to go on and have it out with the Germans as he called it.  We went on together for about 20 yards when he fell with a bullet through the head.  He never spoke after it.  We managed to get him and some more of our men back later on and bury them behind our firing line.  I am sorry to have to tell you the sad news Mrs. Rourke, but it is best to know the truth.  The regiment lost very heavily that morning. The Royal Scots Fusiliers did their work very well.  I am glad to say that I am keeping a little better.  This is the second time I have been wounded.  I hope you are keeping well, yourself and all your family.  Anything also that you want to know about “Mick”, as we used to call him, I shall be pleased to tell you if I can.  I must close now as the doctor is on the rounds”.

Margaret forwarded the letter onto the War Office.  Towards the end of May 1916, eleven months after initially being posted missing, she received a letter in reply which confirmed that her husband was dead.  The letter read:

“Madame, with reference enquiry concerning Pte Rourke 1st Royal Scots Fusiliers I am directed to inform you that no further news having been received relative to this soldier, who has been missing since the 16th June 1915, the Army Council have been regretfully constrained to conclude that he is dead and that his death took place on the 16th June 1915 or since.  I am to express the sympathy of the Army Council with the relatives of the deceased:-your obedient servant C.F. Waitherton[6].

Michael died in what was known as the Battle of Bellewaarde. His body was never identified.  According to the website[7] dedicated to remembering the Battle, more than 1,000 men lost their lives within a 12 hour period on 16 June 1915, in an area of approximately ½ mile square.

Menin Gate Inscription

Menin Gate Inscription

Michael is commemorated on the Ypres (Menin Gate) memorial, alongside the names of more than 54,000 other officers and men whose graves are not known. These include Lance Corporal Thomas Morton, husband of Elizabeth, with whom Margaret had corresponded during her search.

Of Michael’s other brothers only the youngest, Francis, survived the war.

From cemetery and BMD records it appears Margaret never remarried. There is a burial in Batley Cemetery in April 1957 for Margaret Groark, aged 80.

The Menin Gate

The Menin Gate

Sources:

Copyright

© Jane Roberts and PastToPresentGenealogy, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jane Roberts and PastToPresentGenealogy with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

[1] I have traced six sets of attestation papers for Michael.
[2] A wilier/willeyer was someone who fed the willeying machine  which was used to break down the rag and wool, thus separating and cleaning the fibres
[3] Birstall adjoins Batley. Up until 1905 when St Patrick’s parish was established in its own right, Birstall fell within the Catholic parish of St Mary’s, Batley.
[4] Service Number 6093
[5] One of the oldest Roman Catholic parishes in central London
[6]  This featured in two newspapers, the “Batley Reporter and Guardian” and the “Batley News”. The latter indicates the letter was signed C F Watherston.
[7] http://www.bellewaarde1915.co.uk/ Website includes extracts of the 1st Battalion Royal Scots Fusiliers Unit War Diary.