Tag Archives: Whitby

A Family Historian on Holiday: A Whitby Cemetery and WW1 Shipwreck

What does a family historian with an obsession with the Great War and local history do on holiday? Take a break isn’t the answer, as my recent Whitby visit illustrates.

I’ve no Whitby ancestry to hunt, so I didn’t intend doing anything history-related other than a few evenings working on my neglected One-Name Study. But a walk to Saltwick Bay put a halt to that. A scramble down the steep and unforgiving cliff path to the isolated beach and I was hooked. Apparently there is the wreck of a trawler, the Admiral Von Tromp. However the tide was too high for it to be visible, so I decided to revisit at low tide.

Before returning I decided to pinpoint the wreck location. In doing so I discovered it wasn’t the only shipwreck on that stretch of coastline: at around 4.10am on 30 October 1914 the Hospital Ship Rohilla ran aground on an area of rocks by Saltwick Nab with 229 people on board. That was it. I had to find out more.

The Scar and Saltwick Nab – photo by Jane Roberts

The SS Rohilla, launched in 1906, was owned by the British India Steam Navigation Co. Ltd. Initially a passenger liner operating to India, by 1908 she was working as a troopship. Throughout, she was captained by David Landles Neilson, and he continued in post when, in August 1914, she was requisitioned by the government and converted to a hospital ship. Later that month she was on her way to the Scapa Flow to complete training in her new role. One of HMHS Rohilla’s first patients was Prince Albert, who developed appendicitis whilst on board the HMS Collingwood. At the end of the month the future King George VI was safely transported, along with 43 other ill servicemen, to Aberdeen where he successfully underwent an appendectomy the following month.

Training complete, on Thursday 29 October 1914 the Rohilla left Leith on the Firth of Forth in late afternoon good weather tasked with her first France and Flanders hospital run, to pick up wounded soldiers from Dunkirk. Captain Neilson had to contend with an unfamiliar route and the threat of mines, using dead reckoning techniques because of the wartime restrictions around usual navigational aids: so no lighthouses, buoy lights and sounds, shore lights etc. As they reached St Abb’s Head, north of Berwick upon Tweed, the weather began to deteriorate. They passed the hazardous Farne Islands Longstones at a distance of seven miles according to the dead reckoning calculations. The ship’s course was altered at just after 10pm to clear minefields, and again at 1.50am. Depth soundings were taken at midnight showing the Rohilla was still on course. The next set were not taken until 4am, by which time the impending catastrophe was unfolding before the eyes of Albert James Jeffries in the Whitby Coastguard Station.

Coastline from Whitby to Saltwick Nab OS six inch to the mile, 1910-1911, Published 1919 – Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland https://maps.nls.uk/index.html

It was filthy weather with squally rain, the wind ranging between near gale to strong gale and a heavy sea when, at around 3-40am on Friday 30 October Jeffries saw the Rohilla. He realised she was heading for the rocks near Saltwick Nab, with no alert from the buoy bell muffled due to war, and no lights to warn her. He tried to contact her via the Morse Lamp and sounded the foghorn, but received no reply.

Back on board the Rohilla, the Morse had been seen but not decoded, the assumption being made that it was from another ship as those on board still thought they were way out at sea. The 4am sounding revealed the ship was far nearer shore than thought, but before anything could be fully reported to Captain Neilson and acted upon, there was an almighty shock as the ship struck something. Officers afterwards reported a lifting sensation, and Captain Neilson’s automatic response was “Mine, by God”. He immediately ordered the vessel to be driven full speed towards shore in a bid to get closer to land and rescuers. She ran aground on the Scar rocks by Saltwick Nab at around 4.10am. She was stuck only 500 or so yards away from the shore.Despite the Rohilla’s proximity to land, the severe weather conspired against the would-be rescuers, whose heroic attempts to save those stranded on board spanned three days and over 50 hours. Some of these efforts were captured on film. The dramatic British Pathé footage can be viewed here. The aftermath is shown in British Film Institute footage here.

Only one of the Rohilla’s lifeboats was launchable but, due to conditions, it proved impossible for her to bring a line ashore. Neither could the shore-based rocket brigades establish a viable line to the ship, thus ending any hope of setting up a breeches buoy by which to bring those aboard to safety one-by-one.

Rescue by Breeches Buoy, Popular Science Monthly Volume 15, 1879 – Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

So what about shore-based lifeboats? This was still an era predominated by the rowing-boat lifeboat. Petrol-powered motor vessels only just started to make an appearance from 1905. Six lifeboats tried valiantly to battle the elements in what Coxswain Langlands of the Whitby Lifeboat described as the hardest job he’d experienced in almost 40 years’ service. It was impossible to launch the heavier Number 1 Whitby Lifeboat, the Robert and Mary Ellis, due to the severity of the weather. That left the lighter Number 2 boat, the John Fielden. Again the weather meant it could not be rowed out of the harbour, so an alternative plan was successfully undertaken to lift and lower the craft over the breakwater, carry her under the East Pier Spa ladder and then drag her across the Scar, the rocks which run from Whitby to Saltwick Nab.

John Fielden rescue attempt on 30 October 1914

She was badly damaged in the process, but still managed two trips to the Rohilla rescuing 35 people before it was decided conditions were no longer safe and she was abandoned on shore to be smashed to pieces by the ferocious storm, no longer seaworthy.

Whitby Lifeboat Museum Rohilla Exhibition – by Jane Roberts

Amongst the first batch of those rescued were the five women aboard the ship: four nurses and the stewardess. The Queen Alexandra’s Royal Naval Nursing Services (QARRNS) nurses were 38-year-old Margaret Muriel Benington who had been a QARNNS nursing sister since June 1910; Mary Barbara Bennet, from Glass in Aberdeenshire, age 36, who joined as nursing sister in November 1910; Margaret Brand Paterson, age 34 whose seniority date as a nursing sister was 1 August 1911. She was known as Daisy and from Terrona, Langholm in Dumfriesshire; and Devon-born vicar’s daughter Mary Louisa Hocking, age 26, who joined as a probationary nursing sister in December 1913, who was only promoted to nursing sister in June 1914. The older three joined the Rohilla on 18 August 1914, whereas Mary Louisa only joined the ship on 23 October. Letters from two of the nurses appeared in the Whitby Gazette on 13 November 1914, and give a flavour of the help they received. These are as follows:

Muriel Benington: Dear Sir, Please allow me to thank through you, all the people of Whitby who did so much for me and the other survivors of the wreck of the Rohilla. I simply cannot express my gratitude for the kindness which was shown to us from beginning to end by everyone with whom we came in contact. I shall write to thank specially some of the ladies who supplied us with clothes and other things, but I do not know the names of the men who helped me along the shore, or of many who did things for me. Again thanking you for the help and sympathy of your townspeople.

And:

Mary B Bennet: Dear Sir, I shall be so glad if you will express my thanks and gratitude to the crew of the Whitby lifeboat. We sisters realise that they endangered their own lives to save ours, and we cannot be thankful enough to them for the excellent work they did. May I also thank you for the trouble you took over us? It was marvellous the prompt way in which we were fitted out with clothes. I shall never forget he kindness of the Whitby people during our short time there.

After their ordeal the nurses were granted 14 days leave, with Mary Hocking given an extension of seven days. The admirable conduct of all four was acknowledged. Sister Bennet received the Royal Red Cross, the decoration awarded to ladies for exceptional services in nursing the sick and wounded in the army and navy. She received her award from the King at Buckingham Palace in May 1915. That was not the only award she received in her nursing career. In 1920 she was presented with the O.B.E. by the Governor of Hong Kong.

Sister Mary Barbara Bennet

Of the others, Sister Paterson was granted the Royal Red Cross 2nd Class in 1918 (by this stage the decoration could be either 1st or 2nd class) in part for her Rohilla efforts; and Sister Hocking was awarded the Royal Red Cross 2nd Class in 1919.

The fifth woman was stewardess Mary Kezia Roberts. This was not her first shipwreck. In April 1912 she was one of those saved from the Titanic. She described her Rohilla experience as even more trying than when the great liner went down. Her trunk, which would have contained her belongings on the Rohilla, was discovered recently on eBay and is now on display at the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) museum at Whitby. The museum is housed in Whitby’s former Number 2 lifeboat station.

Mary Kezia Roberts’ Trunk at Whitby Lifeboat Museum – by Jane Roberts

In addition to the Whitby lifeboats, ones from other North East coast stations were asked to assist. In an echo of the John Fielden efforts, the Upgang lifeboat, the William Riley, over a mile away from Whitby, was brought overland and lowered more than 200 feet down the sheer cliffs on Friday afternoon. However, the ferocity of the weather prevented any launch until Saturday. Even then the weather was such that the rescue was aborted. The Scarborough lifeboat, towed by trawler to the vicinity, was similarly unable to get anywhere near. A trawler also assisted the Robert and Mary Ellis out of Whitby Harbour and to the wreck, but she too was unable to get close enough to affect a rescue. These were all rowing lifeboats.

Help from a couple of motor lifeboats further north was also sought. The Tees-mouth lifeboat, the Bradford, was prepared to set off on Friday, but the weather prevented her launch. She finally set off at around 7am on Saturday morning but broke down in the severe weather off the coast at Redcar shortly after departing her South Gare base. She had to be towed back to port by a fortuitously accompanying tug. That left the Tynemouth motor lifeboat, the Henry Vernon. She put to sea during the late afternoon of Saturday 31 October, arriving in Whitby around nine hours later. With a mind to safety, her rescue attempt was scheduled for daylight.

Throughout these various rescue attempts townsfolk were helping from shore, going into the freezing, swirling sea to assist the lifeboat crews and any survivors fortunate to be saved by them, or those souls attempting to swim from the stricken vessel. That Friday morning they had witnessed the horrific site of the stern breaking away from the Rohilla and disappearing under the waves, men still visible on it – some even strapped to the structure. This was followed by the bows being similarly swallowed by the merciless sea, leaving just the bridge section above water. By now bodies were washing ashore.

Hospital Ship Rohilla grounded at Whitby, Popular Mechanics Magazine January 1915 – Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

As time wore on conditions were becoming desperate for those left on what remained of the Rohilla, exposed to the elements with no food or water, and no immediate prospect of rescue. On Saturday morning, as the tide ebbed, Captain Neilson semaphored to prepare for swimmers. Men jumped – some made it, others were swept away and dashed on rocks. Makeshift rafts were also fashioned and men lashed themselves to them. By the evening of 1 November, 50 men remained on-board awaiting their fate. With the impending arrival of the Henry Vernon the signal went to them to hold fast, help was at hand.

At around 6.30am on Sunday 1 November the Henry Vernon, captained by 50-year-old Royal Engineer Herbert Edgar ‘Bert’ Burton, left Whitby harbour. As she approached the wreck she discharged oil on the swirling waves. It had the desired effect, temporarily calming the waters enabling the rescue of all 50 men in one journey. The last man off the Rohilla was its Captain, carrying the ship’s black cat, an action for which he was later awarded the Bronze Medal by the RSPCA. They returned to the haven of Whitby, wet, battered, bleeding, exhausted, bare-footed, ill-clad, some still in pyjamas given the timing of the wreck, but safe at last. In all they had endured over 50 hours of hell. The crew of the Henry Vernon returned home to a heroes’ welcome.

The inquest on the initial bodies of the victims concluded on 5 November 1914. As published in the Whitby Gazette the following day, the unanimous verdict of the jury was that:

“…..the steamship Rohilla undoubtedly struck something a little time before she grounded on the rock at Saltwick, and they think that in the stormy weather which prevailed, and in the absence of lights and all usual safeguards, and in view of the special risks of navigation in the North Sea since the war, the master navigated the ship with all reasonable care, and is entirely free from blame for her loss.”

Given the comparative ease with which the Henry Vernon completed the rescue, the inquest jury also recommended strongly that a motor-lifeboat be provided for Whitby. The Margaret Harker Smith was launched in June 1919.

The logical next step for me was to visit Whitby (Larpool) cemetery. What holiday for a family historian doesn’t include a sneaky cemetery visit? The ‘Rohilla Plot’ is a trench grave in which 33 victims, 19 of whom are unidentified, are buried.

One side of the ‘Rohilla Plot’ at Whitby (Larpool) Cemetery – by Jane Roberts

At the centre of the trench is the Memorial. Erected by the ship owners, it is dedicated to the 91 officers and men who lost their lives in the tragedy.

Rohilla Monument at Whitby (Larpool) Cemetery – by Jane Roberts

RohillaMonument at Whitby (Larpool) Cemetery – by Jane Roberts

RohillaMonument at Whitby (Larpool) Cemetery – by Jane Roberts

Rohila Monument at Whitby (Larpool) Cemetery – by Jane Roberts

There is actually some confusion around the total number lost on the wreck. It seems to range between 83 to 92. The Rohilla Monument lists 91 but the actual number of names on it total 92. The final name etched in the Monument image above is that of F. Randell. Frederick Randell (or Randall) was a coastguard boatman based at H.M. Coastguard Station, Whitby who was killed whilst on duty during the German Naval bombardment of the town on 16 December 1914. He too is buried in the ‘Rohilla Plot’. I have covered the naval bombardment in a couple of other blog posts. Shrapnel and Shelletta looks at war-associated baby names, including George Shrapnel Griffin born during the bombardment of Whitby. The events of 16 December 1914 are covered in more detail in another post as they prompted my great grandfather to lie about his age and enlist on my grandma’s 8th birthday.

’92 LIVES LOST’ is also etched into the ship’s bell from the Rohilla which is on display at the Whitby Lifeboat Museum.

Rohilla Ship’s Bell at the Whitby Lifeboat Museum – by Jane Roberts

The loss impacted on communities from all corners of Britain. The then West Riding of Yorkshire (now Lancashire) town of Barnoldswick was particularly hard hit. 15 members of the Barnoldswick St John’s Ambulance Brigade were members of the Royal Naval Sick Berth Reserve on board the vessel. Only three survived. Amongst the dead were brothers Thomas and Walter Horsfield.

One name which struck me on the Rohilla monument was that of a Catholic priest. The Very Rev. Canon Robert Basil Gwydir O.S.B. was born on 20 January 1867 in County Longford, but of a family with Welsh origins. Educated at Douai and ordained in 1891 he began his ministry at St Augustine’s, Liverpool before transferring to St David’s, Swansea. There he was prominent in religious, social and educational circles in the city. His work included being a member of the old Swansea School Board and the Board of Managers at Swansea General Hospital. He had also been admitted to the circle of Welsh Bards.

Canon Gwydir volunteered for service with the Fleet at the outbreak of war and was appointed to the Rohilla only a short time before the disaster. When she struck the rocks he ran below deck, towards danger but also to the assistance of the only patient aboard the vessel, a naval gunner with a fractured thigh. This was in the stern portion of the ship which was soon overwhelmed by the sea and subsequently broke off. Canon Gwydir’s body was washed ashore and recovered, being one of those identified in the initial inquest. He is buried at Belmont Abbey Churchyard, Herefordshire. There is a stained glass memorial window dedicated to him at St David’s Priory Catholic Church, Swansea. He was the first Chaplain of any faith or denomination in all the Allied services to be killed in the Great War.

My final visit on the Rohilla trail was the RNLI museum at Whitby. I was thrilled to discover an exhibition devoted to shipwreck and rescue. As mentioned earlier, exhibits included Mary Kezia Roberts’ trunk and the ship’s bell. But there were so many other artefacts and lots of information about those involved, including the incredibly brave lifeboat men whose efforts I have not done justice to in this post. The pair of oars (below) are from one of the Rohilla’s lifeboats. The museum is well wort a visit, and rounded off my Whitby holiday perfectly.

Part of the Rohilla Exhibition at Whitby Lifeboat Museum – by Jane Roberts

For far more information about the Rohilla than I can convey here, this is a link to an excellent website devoted to its history.

Sources:

  • Benedictine Military Chaplains in the First World War – James H. Hagerty: http://www.monlib.org.uk/papers/ebch/1998hagerty.pdf
  • British Film Institute: http://www.bfi.org.uk/
  • Commonwealth War Graves Commission: https://www.cwgc.org/
  • Craven’s Part in the Great War, John T Clayton, 1918 – e-book via Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/52157
  • HMHS Rohilla Website: http://www.eskside.co.uk/ss_rohilla/index.htm
  • Ireland Civil Birth Indexes via FindMyPast
  • Ireland’s Own, Canon Gwydir – A Heroic Cleric of WW1, Margaret Smith https://www.irelandsown.ie/canon-gwydir-a-heroic-cleric-of-wwi/
  • National Library of Scotland Maps: https://maps.nls.uk/index.html
  • Newspapers via FindMyPast including: Burnley News 4 November 1914; Daily Record 31 August 1915; Dundee Evening Telegraph7 May 1915; Leeds Mercury 31 October 1914, 2 November 1913; Sheffield Daily Telegraph26 June 1919; Western Mail 7 May 1915; Whitby Gazette 6 and 13 November 1914; Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer 31 October 1914, 2 November 1914, 4 November 1914, 5 November 1914
  • RNLI, 1914-1918 The Great Warhttp://www.eskside.co.uk/ss_rohilla/rohilla_history.htm 
  • RNLI, Whitby Lifeboat Station, Station History: https://rnli.org/find-my-nearest/lifeboat-stations/whitby-lifeboat-station/station-history-whitby
  • Teesmouth Lifeboat Supporters Association – History: http://www.teesmouthlifeboat.org.uk/html/history.html
  • The National Archives Reference ADM 104/161 Nursing Service Register 1894-1929
  • The Tablet 7 November 1914 via the Tablet Archive: http://archive.thetablet.co.uk/
  • The War on Hospital Ships 1914-1918, Pen and Sword Maritime 2008: Stephen McGreal
  • Whitby Lifeboat Museum https://rnli.org/find-my-nearest/museums/whitby-lifeboat-museum
  • Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Main_Page
  • Redcar.org past and present – People, Thompson James, Tees-Mouth Lifeboat http://www.redcar.org/thompson-james-tees-mouth-lifeboat/
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Happy Birthday and Farewell: A Father’s Love

16 December 1914 marked a momentous day for my family. My grandma celebrated her sixth birthday. But not any old ordinary birthday in Batley for her, spent with her mum, dad and seven year old sister Nellie. This birthday was unlike any other.

Astonishingly, I discovered this of all days was the day her 46 year-old father, my great-grandfather Patrick Cassidy, chose to enlist with the local regiment, King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (KOYLI). Patrick, born in 1868 in Hagfield, County Mayo, even knocked several years off his age to ensure he would be accepted. His attestation papers show he claimed to be 35 years and 11 months.

I knew my great-grandfather had been in the Army. My grandma told a tale of a motor vehicle turning up at their Hume Street home containing someone to see her dad. The story goes that the officer inside was the one he’d acted as batman for. I had no date for this event, but given my grandma remembered it, I’d guessed in sometime after 1912.

However, because of his age, I’d discounted him seeing his military service during the Great War. Combined with his age, his uniform in one of the family photos, with its three point-up chevrons on the lower left sleeve indicating 12 years good conduct, indicated pre-war service. I’d marked it as pre-1904, as he’d first turned up in Batley in January of that year. And by then he was a labourer. That was also his occupation when he married Ann Loftus in 1906. And also in the 1911 census.

Patrick Cassidy

As it happens his attestation papers backed up this earlier service theory. He confirmed to the attesting officer he had previous time-expired service with the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment (West Riding). He described it as 33rd and 76th West Riding, harking back to 1881 and the Cardwell Reforms when the Halifax depot 33rd and 76th Regiments of Foot merged.

One thing I found amusing from these papers: My grandma, who adored her father, always gave the impression of him being a tall man. According to his army forms he stood at the incredible height of…….5’ 3.5”. Just goes to show, don’t take all oral family history as gospel!

Anyway, back to the lie over his age. As an ex-soldier, by this stage of the war, the age limit was 45, not 38 as for other volunteers. So he really did go overboard with his age reduction. In fact, with his precise 35 years and 11 months, it seemed he was still working to the end of August 1914 rule change for volunteers without previous service, when the upper age limit was increased from 30 to 35. He really was determined to do his bit.

Still, I couldn’t get my head round it. Not the fact he chose to sign up. Not even the fact he lied about his age to do so. But why on earth would he do it on his young daughter’s birthday? Why not wait till a few days later? In fact, why not wait till after Christmas? Had there been some major family row that prompted it? Or had a close family member or friend, as yet unidentified by me, died whilst serving? Was my great grandfather out to avenge their death? Those were the only explanations I could come up with.

His papers offered no clues whatsoever as to why he would act in this way and leave his wife, children and labouring job in Batley to take this huge risk. Or did they?

Several months later, whilst doing some general research, I realised the papers did contain the answer. The key was in the date. I’d been looking at it in narrow family terms, my grandma’s birthday. I’d not looked at any wider historical events. Besides being my grandma’s sixth birthday, Wednesday the 16 December 1914 marked the day German Imperial Navy ships Seydiltz, Moltke, Blücher, Derfflinger and Von Der Tann bombarded the east coast towns of Scarborough, Whitby and Hartlepool with a final toll of over 130 killed and almost 600 injured. 

The attacks occurred from around 8am to 9.30am that morning. In the immediate aftermath, in scenes reminiscent of Belgium and France, refugees fled their homes seeking safety inland. Distressed residents from the stricken towns, some still in slippers and nightdresses, disembarked in local railway stations with tales of terror and destruction and reports of “scarcely a building left standing.” The historic landmarks of Whitby Abbey and Scarborough Castle suffered damage. Famous seaside hotels, like Scarborough’s Grand Hotel, bore shell scars.

The Grand Hotel, Scarborough

From 16 December onwards newspapers the length and breadth of the country carried the stories of this exodus, along with tales of death, injury and destruction wreaked. This from “The Yorkshire Evening Post” of 16 December reporting of arrivals in Leeds at 11 o’clock “One woman who arrived was wearing her bedroom slippers; in her arms was a two-year-old son in her nightdress and an outer garment lent by someone on the train.”

Another refugee was Mrs Knaggs, who lived in the vicinity of Scarborough’s damaged Grand Hotel. She arrived in Leeds on the 1 o’clock train into Leeds with her eight-year-old daughter and a few hastily packed groceries. She recalled meeting “…scores of women and children. All seemed unconsciously making for the railway station. Some were half dressed, and carried with them all manner of household articles. Another refugee had a child of a fortnight old in her arms, and with her was another partly-dressed girl of fourteen…..The streets of Scarborough were filled with women. These refugees were without food, money and very scantily clothed.”

Whitby resident Mrs Hogg was another Leeds arrival. Her house was struck by a shell. She recounted: “Outside shells were flying about, tearing up the pavement and damaging houses….In the fields in the outskirts of town big holes were torn in the ground and all the telegraph wires were down. People were hurrying along, some with a few belongings they had managed to get together. One man was carrying a parrot and two bird-cages. My little boy had run out of the house in his slippers. He lost his slippers on the way, and had to walk in his stocking feet.

The German navy were dubbed the baby-killers of Scarborough, a reference to one of the victims, 14 month old John Shields Ryalls. In a letter to the Mayor of Scarborough on 20 December 1914 Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty wrote: “Whatever fears of arms the German Navy hereafter perform, the stigma of ‘Baby-Killers of Scarborough’ will brand its officers and men while sailors sail the seas.” 

Baby Ryall’s picture along with another victim, 15 year-old boy scout George Harland Taylor, featured prominently in the press with inflammatory headings like “Slain by Germans” and “Killed by the Raiders.” Others included 28 year-old Miss Ada Crow, due to be married to her army fiancé, Sergeant G.R. Sturdy, on what turned out to be the day of her funeral.

Some were of the opinion that the attack was the best thing that could have happened – it would give a boost to recruitment, now waning after the initial rush following the declaration of war. Battalions would be filled on the back of the attack.

By 18 December newspapers were reporting a material increase in numbers coming forward to recruiting offices, particularly in the areas affected by the bombardment. And from 18 December a new recruitment poster made its appearance:

AVENGE SCARBOROUGH 
Up and at ‘em now!
The wholesale murder of innocent women and children demands vengeance.
Men of England, the innocent victims of German brutality call upon you to avenge them. Show the German barbarians that Britain’s shores cannot be bombarded with impunity. Duty calls you now.
Go to-day to the nearest recruiting depot and offer your services for your King, home, and country.

This theme was echoed in subsequent recruitment poster campaigns. This included a depiction of the ruins of 2 Wykeham Street, Scarborough where four died: Johanna Bennett (58), her son Albert Featherstone Bennett (22) a driver in the RFA, and two young boys John Christopher Ward (9 according to newspapers, although GRO entry gives his age as 10) and George James Barnes (5).

My great-grandfather didn’t wait for these rallying call to arms. He went to the recruiting office on the very day of the attack. Though I can’t be 100 percent sure, it looks like he enlisted because he wanted to protect his family. The bombardment of east coast town, with the huge loss of life and the streams of refugees which followed, brought the war so much closer to home. The Yorkshire seaside resorts of Whitby and Scarborough were particularly popular local holiday destinations. In fact when war was declared only four months earlier the local Territorials, 1/4th KOYLI, were on their summer camp in Whitby. No longer was it a distant war affecting civilians – women and children – in foreign lands. It was now in Yorkshire. His family were now under threat. He couldn’t stand aside any longer.

So what became of him? The attestation papers indicated his resurrected army career with the KOYLI proved short-lived. On 15 January 1915 he was discharged as unlikely to become an efficient soldier. Unsurprising given his age. But the discharge setback did not deter him. It wasn’t the end of his military service.

By pure chance I found an entry in the “Batley Reporter and Guardian” of 27 August 1915. Private Patrick Cassidy of Hume Street appeared in Batley Borough Court charged with being absent without leave from the 3/4th battalion Duke of Wellington’s Regiment, who were stationed at Halifax. So he’d gone back to his old regiment. The Batley Borough Court records gave the offence date as 24 Aug 1915. He pleaded guilty and was remanded to await a military escort.  I wonder if this has any link to the vehicle my grandma recalled?

The 3/4th Duke of Wellington’s was formed in March 1915 so it seems Patrick may have remained a civilian for as little as a couple of months after leaving the KOYLI. The battalion remained in England throughout the war, stationed at Clipstone Camp, Rugeley Camp, Bromeswell (Woodbridge) and Southend, training and supplying drafts for overseas service. I’ve traced no Medal Index Card for Patrick so it seems he remained on home shores. However he did see the war out. In the Batley Electoral Register of 1918 he is listed as being absent as a naval or military voter.  Unfortunately the detailed Absent Voter List for Batley does not appear to have survived. This would potentially have confirmed his service number and regiment.

So this tale goes to show that when researching family history you need to look at wider historical events be it local, national or international. They too have an impact on the lives and decisions made by ancestors and can help you see your family history in a new light.

Sources:  

  • Batley Borough Court Records – West Yorkshire Archives
  • Batley Register of Electors – 1918
  • GRO Indexes
  • Imperial War Museum Poster from 1915: “Men of Britain! Will You Stand This?” © IWM (Art.IWM PST 5119). Shared and re-used under the terms of the IWM Non Commercial Licence
  • Newspapers including:
  1. Batley Reporter and Guardian – 27 August 1915.
  2. Leeds Mercury – 17 December 1914
  3. Yorkshire Evening Post – 16 and 18 December 1914
  4. The Leeds Mercury – 21 December 1914
  • WO 364 -Soldiers’ Documents from Pension Claims, First World War

Shrapnel and Shelletta: Baby Names and their Links to War, Remembrance and Commemoration

In these weeks leading up to Remembrance Sunday, my thoughts turned to some research I first undertook in 2011 around baby names. In particular the commemoration aspect behind some name choices, especially in times of conflict. Name choices which went beyond bestowing a “conventional” Christian name on a baby in honour of, or affection for, a relative or friend, living or dead.

Unusually this train of thought was prompted by the 16 December 1914 German naval bombardment of Hartlepool, Scarborough and Whitby. This had an unexpected impact on my West Yorkshire family history. In the course of researching this event I discovered a snippet in the “Batley News” of 9 January 1915 which captured my attention. It recorded the birth of a baby girl in Hartlepool. Her unusual name commemorated the momentous events occurring locally and wider afield at the time of her birth: Shelletta Louvain.

Shelletta is clearly a reference to the events in Hartlepool; Louvain is presumably a mark of respect and signifying a shared experience with Belgian city of Louvain destroyed by the German Army in August 1914. GRO records show the birth of a “Shelletta L Liddle” in the Hartlepool Registration District in Q1 of 1915.

Commenting on the child’s name, the “Wells Journal” asked its readers to “…. think of the poor fate of the poor Hartlepool girl …born to the accompaniment of shell fire, who has been condemned by her parents to go through live bearing the burden of the name Shelletta Louvain!

Shelletta 3

The same paper recorded a Whitby child born during the bombardment of that town, named George Shrapnel Griffin. Other papers quipped if the child had been a girl they could have christened her Shrapnelly. George was, according to the “Whitby Gazette” born at the precise moment the first shell burst over the town! His birth elicited a letter to the family containing the King’s best wishes.

Baby George Shrapnel Griffin with his proud parents Mr and Mrs Edward Griffin

Baby George Shrapnel Griffin with his proud parents Mr and Mrs Edward Griffin

This chance find of a couple of event/place associated names prompted a search into similarly World War One associated Christian names in England and Wales. Using FreeBMD[1], this resulted in the following:

Baby's Names Table 1b

Notes:
1 = I have taken the total from FreeBMD, unadjusted for duplicates.
2 = Includes an Arrasy and Arrasina
3 = Some of the children named Delville had middle names starting with the initial “W” which may possibly have been for “Wood”, one child in 1918 had the Christian name “Delvillewood”.
4 = Includes Joffrena, Joffrene, Joffreen, Joffrench, Joffree, Joffrein and Joffrey.
5 = Battle was called Neuve-Chapelle. Four out of the six children had middle names starting with the letter C.
6 = Includes a Sommeria
7 = Includes an Armisticia

I discovered a sprinkling of children named Belgium and France and even a Poperinghe if I widened my search dates to 1920.

So there is a mixture of battle, personality and event associated names. Verdun, more usually linked with French losses, is surprisingly an overwhelmingly popular choice for both male and female babies. Dorrien, in honour of General Smith-Dorrien and a name I did not analyse in detail, proved popular in the early part of the war.

There will be far more examples. And my search does not include middle names, such as the one given to baby George Griffin. Incidentally no child was given the Christian name of Shrapnel, in my FreeBMD search.

No major surprise, but the registration quarters for these war-linked names mainly coincide with the dates of the various battles/events. For example the children named Antwerp were registered in Q4 1914, and Q1 and Q2 of 1915. This is consistent with the early October 1914 timing of the Defence of Antwerp by the British Royal Naval Division and Rawlinson’s IV Corps.  And Q2 1915 was the peak quarter for the registration of children named Luisitania, coinciding with the sinking of that ship on 7 May 1915.

It would be interesting to investigate if the Registration Districts in which these events were recorded correspond with the areas where the various battalions fought, especially pre-1917 when they had a more “local” affinity.  Also to know why parents chose these names for their children: Was it patriotism? Defiance? Or was it to commemorate a significant event at the time of the child’s birth, as in the case of Shelletta and George Shrapnel? Was it in honour and remembrance of the battle in which a husband or family member lost their life? Or more generally in recognition of where a husband fought? And did these names prove, as suggested in the “Wells Journal“, a burden in later life?

Incidentally the explanation for George’s name, as indicated in the “Whitby Gazette“, was: “George, after that of the King, in whose glorious reign England is rendering her greatest of many services to humanity by crushing Prussian militarism, and Shrapnel, as commemorating the German attack on our undefended town, so dear to all Yorkshire folk, and so famous in its history“. Sadly George never survived infancy to find out whether his name was to prove a burden or otherwise.  According to the same newspaper he died on 23 May 1915.

George Griffin The Cragg

The naming of children after battles and events associated with war is not peculiar to the First World War. Looking at names given to babies during the period of the 2nd Boer War, October 1899-May 1902, I identified the following:

Baby's Names Table 2

Notes:
1 = I have taken the total from FreeBMD, unadjusted for duplicates
2 = Includes a Kimberley Mafeking
3 = Magersfontein Paardeberg

Going back even further to the Crimean War, Inkerman first made an appearance in 1855 and also in subsequent years, proving extremely popular. Crimea, Balaclava and even a Sevastopol occur in the GRO indexes.

So baby names can provide a link to historical events at the time of birth, and another research angle.

If anyone has any of these names, or names of similar war-related origins, I would love to know!

Sources:

  • FreeBMD: http://www.freebmd.org.uk/
  • “Batley News” – 9 January 1915
  • “Wells Journal” – 8 January 1915
  • “Whitby Gazette” – 8 January 1915 and 28 May 1915

[1] Research originally conducted in July 2011 and updated in January-February 2015