Thursday, 24 December 2015

On Christmas Day

RCAMC brass button, CC Attribution-Share Alike licence, user Lx 121
Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps brass uniform button, taken at John McCrae House, Guelph, Canada, taken by Lx 121 Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License
Follow the link below to read about Arthur Carr, a Hartlepool man born on Christmas Day, 1895, who moved to Canada and served with the Canadian Army Medical Corps (RCAMC). 

You can read more about the RCAMC here

Friday, 18 December 2015

Winter larks

After the dumping of snow some of us received on the 12th December, thoughts turn to the winter weather.  After the previous years spending the cold winter months in billets, camps, and trenches, by January 1919, the remaining men of 2nd Battalion, Durham Light Infantry found themselves in Lechenich, south west of Cologne, Germany.  

Many of the men had been demobilised, or were waiting to be. The battalion spent the month training, and playing football and games. They also found time to indulge in a spot of ice skating, or they at least tried to.
D/DLI 7/426/152(57) Second Lieutenant Hubert McBain and Lieutenant Arderne on ice skates, Lechenich, Germany, January 1919
D/DLI 7/426/152(58) Lieutenants Pratt and Arderne, not on ice skates, Lechenich, Germany, January 1919

Friday, 11 December 2015

Festive cheer

As Christmas moves nearer, we can once again look to the Durham Advertiser from 24 December 1915, for guidance on revelry in the city both teetotal and of a more spirited variety (despite government restrictions).  

Crop from 34th Division's Christmas card, 1916 (D/DLI 12/5/3/2)
D/DLI 12/5/3/2 Crop from 34th Division's Christmas card, 1916
Despite the restrictions that seem to be pouring on the devoted heads of the licensed victuallers like a shower of shrapnel, the Trade still comes up smiling for Christmas, and, if we judge from the roaring trade our good friend Boniface [general term for landlord] is doing, it is a smile that will not soon wear off...

...Before enumerating their varied stocks of Christmas cheer, we ought perhaps to draw attention to a few of the restrictions imposed upon the Trade by the Liquor Control Board, and to point out how it affects the Christmas purchaser...orders must now be left at the shop or sent by letter, and as no credit is allowed, a remittance must accompany each order.  We might also point out that following the recent relaxation of the licensing restrictions during Christmas week, spirits may be purchased for consumption off the premises from 12 o'clock noon until 5.30pm and ale, stout, and wine from noon each day until 8pm.  These restrictions apply only strictly to Christmas week, from the 20th until the 24th.  

Sarsfield & Co. shop front, 7 Market Place, around 1900 (D/CL 27/277/308; Clayport Library reference 120A; Durham Record no. DR 02238)
D/CL 27/277/308 Sarsfield & Co. shop front, 7 Market Place, around 1900
There is such an outcry nowadays about the drink evil that one is glad to turn to a good teetotal beverage, and we can strongly recommend a good drink of Swenden’s Seltzer Water as supplied by Messrs Sarsfield and Co. the well-known family and dispensing chemists, of the Market Place.

Although the whole of the local balls have this year been abandoned owing to the dark war cloud looming over the country, there is no reason why the delightful art of Terpsichore [one of the muses, delight in dancing] should be entirely neglected. Our little friends need to be instructed how to “trip the light fantastic” so that they may do themselves justice in the ballroom when peace again reigns, and we notice the classes held by Miss E. Smith at the Masonic Hall in Old Elvet, and those held by the Misses Balles at the Burlison Art Gallery, 49, Sadler Street, have been running merrily during the past term and that the second term is now announced.

Friday, 4 December 2015

Christmas shopping advice

Christmas wasn't put on hold because there was a war on.  The Durham Advertiser gives some advice for shoppers in 1915.  These extracts, however, are from the edition of 24 December so this must be for the last minute shoppers.  The piece titled 'Smart Footwear', shows that some gift ideas are enduring.

Embroidered postcard with Christmas image (D/DLI 13/2/210)
D/DLI 13/2/210 embroidered postcard
The following article showing the preparations made by the principal tradesmen of Durham to cope with the demands of Yuletide, is in continuation of that which appeared in our last week issue. Our advice as to early shopping appears to have had good results, and during the past week shopkeepers have been oppressed with the cheerful burden of attending to the wants of legions of customers desirous of selecting Christmas presents for those near and dear to them. Time is getting short and the Christmas shopper must busy about and complete his or her purchases before the pick of the bargains have been swallowed up. A further list of Durham tradesmen who are offering special facilities for securing gift articles at moderate prices is given below.

Mr W. Lightfoot is offering some smart floral and holly decorations for Christmas at his three well-stocked establishments at Nos. 1 and 79, North Road, and at the Avenue Corner, and there is also obtainable every kind of choice fruit, boxes of figs, dates, etc. for the dessert table.

War or no war, we must not forget the kiddies this Christmas, and the delights of Santa Claus must be present in every home where the merry, happy prattle of the little Toddles is to be heard. There are toys galore at Mr T.A. Middleton’s, and the juvenile stocking can soon be filled by a visit to No. 15, Elvet Bridge. Every description of toy, mechanical and otherwise, is on sale, and at prices which will readily admit these children’s delights into every home.

A smart pair of slippers, boots, shoes, or gaiters are always a most acceptable form of Christmas present, and the widest choice is to be had at “Stantonia,” No. 1, Claypath. Here we have a really smart display of seasonable stocks of footwear, and despite the prevailing high prices, the goods are very reasonably ticketed. A special line is made of ladies quilted satin slippers, which are offered in all colours at 1st 10d per pair instead of the usual price of 2s 11d. Men’s slippers in felt, carpet, Morocco, and glace kid, are also offered as Christmas presents, and surely a more useful gift for one’s gentlemen friend could not be given. 

Friday, 27 November 2015

Howden-le-Wear History Society shares 50 stories

Cover of Remembering Our Fallen
Remembering Our Fallen

Supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund history society members have researched fifty stories of the men commemorated on their local war memorials at Howden-le-Wear and Fir Tree. Early in 2015 they published their research in a book ‘Remembering Our Fallen: The Great War 1914-1918’ and you can read summaries of each man’s story on the Society’s website:

This month the History Society generously offered to share the complete stories on Durham at War and we’ll let you know when these start to go online. We already have a volunteer preparing the data.

In the meantime, if you’d like to buy a copy of the book and support Forces’ charities, only £5 plus £2 postage, please contact

This would make a nice Christmas present!

Friday, 20 November 2015

More than Biggles

Naval Air Service truck, courtesy of the Imperial War Museum © IWM (Q 70469)
Naval Air Service truck, courtesy of the Imperial War Museum © IWM (Q 70469) 
This week we hear from David Donkin about how he became a Durham at War volunteer and his research of Durham men in the Royal Naval Air Service.

When I retired from work in I decided to use some of the extra time I had available to fill the gaps in my family tree research.  My aim was to get details of all family members, including all sixteen of my great, great grandparents.  When I'd filled as many gaps as I could I realised that to go much further I would need to get to know my local records office so checked out the Durham County Record Office website.  While looking at the site I got a bit sidetracked and came across some resources for tracing ancestors in the military ending up at the Durham at War pages.  Until that point I knew that one of my great uncles, Lancelot Ellison, had died in the First World War as we have his bronze Next of Kin Memorial Plaque.  Beyond that, because the male family members I knew about were almost all coal miners, I'd assumed they were in a reserved occupation and didn't go to war. Certainly neither of my parents or other relatives had ever spoken about others involved in WW1. 

However, pretty quickly I found out that Lance's brother Richard had also died and that both had served in the Royal Naval Division and both were buried in Gallipoli.  I later found out that a third brother Frank had served in the 3rd Tyneside Irish and been wounded in France.  On a hunch, because my maternal Grandmother's parents were Irish, I looked up her brothers in the Tyneside Irish records and found that sadly one of them, Matthew Cairns, had served with them and died in France.

So in a relatively short space of time I'd found out something about four Great Uncles and the part they'd played in WW1 when previously I hadn't known that three of them had served at all!  This made me think there must be lots of other families who also wouldn't be aware of what their relatives had done in the war and that this was a great shame at the centenary of the First World War.  

About this time I saw a call for volunteers for the Durham at War Project and the opportunity to research and tell stories about extraordinary lives lived by ordinary Durham people during the war.  I volunteered and was offered the opportunity to research the records of people who joined the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS).  I had little previous knowledge of military records or of the air services and in truth what little I thought I knew probably owed more to the Biggles books I read as a boy than to anything else. 

Sketch of a 'British Airplane' by Reverend JAG Birch, 5th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry (D/DLI 7/63/2(92))
D/DLI 7/63/2(92) Sketch of a 'British Airplane' by Reverend JAG Birch, 5th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry
The basic building blocks for a story of a Durham RNAS recruit are a Navy Record for any time up to 31 March 1918 and an RAF record for any service after 1 April 1918.  This is because, as I quickly learnt, the Royal Air Force was formed in April 1918 by combining the Navy's Air Service and the Army's Royal Flying Corps.  These service records are the foundation blocks that I combine with other records such as births, marriages and deaths and probate records to develop a story to post on the Durham at War website.

The biggest learning curve I've found is how to decipher the combination of old style handwriting and abbreviations used on these records to make sense of where people served and what they served as.  On the first story I worked on I knew that the man had initially travelled to Crystal Palace in London for training and then had been posted to Orkney, but for a long while I couldn't work out where they had been posted just prior to leaving the service.  Then I figured out the abbreviation for Edinburgh where he attended a Dispersal Centre before returning home.  Now I am much more familiar with the names of air stations all round the UK and I am beginning to see some abroad as well.  I am also much more able to understand abbreviations for the different ranks. 

Perhaps it is my sense of humour but I find there are moments of unintended comedy in some of the service records I have looked at such as the one that observed the recruit "has defective vision which is corrected by glasses" but later records that he was appointed an aerial gunner and observer!

I haven't found any pilots from Durham yet but it is clear that fitters from the Durham pits were much in demand as air mechanics for their knowledge of engines and metalwork and  that carpenters and joiners were also needed to fix  wooden parts still used on planes at the time.  More surprising were the tailors who were called up until it became clear that wings on some planes were still covered in cloth and that the RNAS also looked after observation balloons for home defence.  At the moment I've just started to look at the record of a watchmaker and it will be interesting to see if he used any of those skills in his service.

My motivation to volunteer for the Durham at War project is to acknowledge that almost exactly 100 years ago ordinary people throughout Durham just like me and my family gave their time in service of their country and that their stories should not be forgotten.  As time has passed the people who could remember  hearing the stories at first or second hand  have become fewer and fewer and this project is a way of recording stories for posterity.

Here are some of the stories that David has put on Durham at War:

George William Gale, a Cornsay Colliery man who in all of the armed services during First World War

Thomas Henry Young, a Meadowfield man who joined the Royal Naval Air Service on his 41st birthday  

Friday, 13 November 2015

Explore Your Archive 2015

Archi've Remembered
Explore Your Archives!
This year's Explore Your Archive campaign is upon us.  Keep an eye on Durham County Council's twitter feed 16-20 November for themed tweets.  Some will be reminding you of blog posts past, some of stories on Durham at War, and others will be about the Record Office as a whole.  You can also check the #explorearchives hashtag to see what other archives are tweeting about.

To see if there are any events happening in your area, or for more information about the campaign, go to

Explore Your Archives pencils

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

As we remember...

Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red at the Tower of London, November 2014
Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red at the Tower of London, November 2014
...a poem from a DLI soldier who survived the war.

‘Now to be still and rest…’

Now to be still and rest, while the heart remembers
All that it learned and loved in the days long past,
To stoop and warm our hands at the fallen embers,
Glad to have come to the long way’s end at last.

Now to wake, and feel no regret at waking,
Knowing the shadowy days are white again, 
To draw our curtains and watch the slow dawn breaking
Silver and grey on English field and lane.

Now to fulfil our dreams, in woods and meadows
Treading the well-loved paths, - to pause and cry
‘So, even so I remember it,’ – seeing the shadows 
Weave on the distant hills their tapestry.

Now to rejoice in children and join their laughter,
Tuning our hearts once more to the fairy strain, - 
To hear our names on voices we love, and after
Turn with a smile to sleep our dreams again.

Then – with a newborn strength, the sweet rest over,
Gladly to follow the great white road once more,
To work with a song on our lips and the heart of a lover, 
Building a city of peace on the on the wastes of war.

Percy Hugh Beverley Lyon, 6th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry, 1918

We have two diaries written by Captain PHB Lyon at the Record Office, one at the beginning of the war, from which many of the photos in the Second Ypres exhibition have come; and one from his time as a prisoner of war in 1918. After the war, Lyon went on to be headmaster at Edinburgh Academy, then Rugby School. He died in 1986 at the age of 92.

The poem has been taken from the memoir, Hugh Lyon 1893-1986, produced by his daughters, Elinor Wright and Barbara Lyon in 1993, published by Laurence Viney.

Friday, 6 November 2015

Thomas Kenny VC remembered at Wheatley Hill

Gill Parkes writes about the unveiling of Thomas Kenny's Victoria Cross paving stone:

The first of seven paving stones to commemorate County Durham’s First World War Victoria Cross recipients was unveiled on Wednesday 4 November 2015.
Thomas Kenny's granddaughter with the paving stone.  Image © John Attle
Thomas Kenny's granddaughter with the paving stone.  Image © John Attle
The ceremony at Wheatley Hill cemetery took place in a November mist strongly reminiscent of the conditions one hundred years ago when Lieutenant Philip Brown and his observer Thomas Kenny got lost in fog in No Man’s Land, and battled to find a way back to their own lines under enemy fire. Kenny’s bravery in carrying his wounded officer on his back for over an hour before going for help earned him the Victoria Cross.

Hundreds of people, including over 40 members of Thomas Kenny’s family, watched as the stone was unveiled just inside the cemetery gates. Several eyes were dabbed as local schoolchildren recited the same poem that the teachers and pupils of Wingate Catholic School had used in March 1916 at a reception and presentation in honour of their former pupil. 

Here is some video and photo coverage of the occasion:
Commemoration for County Durham war hero, ITV News, 4 November 2015

DLI Museum Friends Blog: Thomas Kenny VC

DLI First World War Victoria Cross hero honoured

Watch video of the commemorative stone unveiling ceremony on 4 November 2015:

It is amazing how events such as this can lead to new discoveries. Two days before the ceremony a pastel portrait of Lieutenant Brown arrived in the Record Office as an addition to the regimental collection, and on the day itself I learned that the long-lost clock and statuettes presented to Thomas Kenny by his former school in 1916 may have been rediscovered. A fitting end to a special day.

Friday, 30 October 2015

County Hall War Memorial - Richard Corker

This week have another post by David Butler with an update on one of the men who appears on the Durham County Hall war memorial.

Richard Robson Corker at Bede College (E/HB 2/693)
E/HB 2/693 Richard Robson Corker at Bede College 
Richard Robson Corker (1892-1916)

Two years ago I was writing mini-biographies of some of the men commemorated on the County Council war memorial in the Durham Room at County Hall. One of those men was Richard Robson Corker. He had been born on 14 July 1892 at Beamish, and in 1911 was an 18-year old student teacher at Bede College, Durham, living out of college as a lodger on Gilesgate, Durham.

Richard had previously attended the Pupil Teacher Centre at Consett Technical Institute, and at the same time worked as a student teacher at Waterhouses Mixed Council School. He began his formal training at Bede College in September 1910. After completing his training in July 1912, he was appointed as a certificated teacher at Waterhouses Mixed School.

On the outbreak of war in 1914 he joined the 18th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry (the ‘Durham Pals’). 18 DLI was involved in the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916, and Richard Corker was badly wounded by shell fire. His is recorded as having died of wounds on 1 July and is buried in Euston Road Cemetery, Colincamps, France.  Richard is reported to have been recommended for a decoration ‘for steadiness, and reliability under fire, and devotion to duty at all times, both as an able instructor, and as a leader in trenches’, but nothing came of this. 

In 2013, when I was writing the notes on Richard my next step was to look for the school log book to see what it said about him, but I noted that ‘unfortunately the log book for Waterhouses School has not survived; consequently we have no knowledge of Richard’s career at the school’. However there is good news: the Waterhouses School log book has now re-appeared and has been donated to the Record Office (reference D/X 2041/1). 

We now know that Richard Corker began as a student teacher at Waterhouses on 13 September 1909. In mid-April 1910 he was absent for four days taking the second part of his Preliminary Certificate examination. As part of his training he visited Neville’s Cross School on 26 April and Belmont CE School on 3 June. On 24 June George Sutcliffe, the head teacher of Waterhouses, noted that Richard had passed his Preliminary Certificate with a distinction in history. 

Although he ceased employment at Waterhouses on 31 July 1910 to train at Bede College, on 23 September, George Sutcliffe noted that Richard had spent five weeks of his vacation in the school and ‘has been of valuable assistance’. This follows a note that a new unqualified assistant teacher ‘has proved so far almost wholly unable to undertake any effective teaching’, and we are left wondering whether there is a connection between the two comments. 
Waterhouses County Junior Mixed and Infant School, 1970s (D/Ph 125/216 )
D/Ph 125/216 Waterhouses County Junior Mixed and Infant School, 1970s
Following Richard’s period at Bede College he was appointed as a certificated assistant (CA) at Waterhouses school to begin on 19 August 1912, at an annual salary of £95. On 2 September 1912 he was absent having been summoned to attend as a witness at a court martial at Newcastle Barracks. His name does not then appear in the log book until 25 September 1914 when it was noted that he went on War Service.

On 21 July 1916, John Wylam, who had become head teacher in 1913, made the following entry in the log book:
Richard Corker, C.A. who joined the army in Sept. 1914 and was made sergeant, has been killed in action in France on July 1st 1916 in the beginning of the great offensive. A letter has been received by his father from his Captain and a fellow Sergeant, speaking most highly of him for his bravery, his cheerfulness, and the regard for him by the men in his platoon and regiment. His loss is deeply deplored by the teachers and children. He was an excellent teacher and had a promising career in front of him. 
Even though records may appear to have been lost, there is always the possibility that they may be found. It is owing to the goodwill of those who find such records, and present them to the Record Office, that they can be made available for research, and I hope that others who come across similar items are encouraged by this story to contact the Record Office. 

Friday, 23 October 2015

A word from another one of our volunteers: Name, rank and number...

Canadian flag 1828-1921
Canadian Red Ensign 1868-1921 Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
This week, Durham at War volunteer, Jean Longstaff, writes about the research she has been doing.

Name, rank and number...

...and date of birth, that’s what you get when you agree to take on some research about Durham born men who served in the Commonwealth forces, in my case the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF).  Jo did offer me Australia, but for some reason Canada seemed more appealing.

On retirement I had been wanting to volunteer for something that wasn’t going to tie me down to doing so many hours a week  on set days, but something to occupy me  when I wanted to do it and for how long I wanted to spend on it.  What I wasn’t expecting was something so addictive, that this was all I did for three weeks!  You sit down to fill in an odd half an hour before lunch and suddenly it's tea time.  Luckily my husband was away so it didn’t matter that meals were at odd times and housework wasn’t getting done.

Censuses (my Latin always makes me think that should be censii) can tell you so much, but in some cases 10 years is a long gap in the history of a family.  One of the first soldiers I researched was living in four rooms with his parents, grandmother and nine siblings all under 12.  Ten years later at the same address there were only his parents and five children, had they left home or died?  Two brothers were listed as aged 15 on the census, were they twins or was poor mother struggling with two pregnancies in the same year?  On checking which quarter of the year they were born in, on birth Marriages and Deaths, it would appear to be the latter.  The United States censuses give you even more information, just about everything but their shoe size.
Map of Canada in 1914 (Ministry for Culture and Heritage)
Map of Canada in 1914 (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 14-Aug-2014
Most of the first batch of men I researched were called John, Robert or Henry and I thought ‘wouldn’t it be easier if they had more unusual first names’.  How wrong was I?  Marmaduke presented even more difficulty in tracing records.  Thinking about it, there are only so many ways you can transcribe John and Robert, you can always try Bob, but if the transcriber can’t make head nor tail of Marmaduke, it could be listed as anything.   Then there are those who were christened William, moved to Canada as William C. and moved on to the US as Charles.  The “ability to think outside the box” to use a modern phrase is a must if you want to fill in the blanks.  I’ve only been stuck once and that really annoys me.

Then there’s the service records.  You have to learn a whole new language to understand them as they are all written in abbreviations; to me CCS was the name of the group who recorded the theme to Top of the Pops but now it’s a Casualty Clearing Station.

Perhaps the most interesting bits are the reports of the medicals carried out after the men have enlisted, some are most thorough in their descriptions, others not so.  “Fair, freckle faced, red hair”, (you know this soldier is sure to be nicknamed Ginger), then there is the much more abrupt “flat-footed”.   One medical officer passed as fit a man who had polio as a boy and had a withered leg with the comment “right leg shorter than the left”, whilst another medical man obviously went over soldiers with a fine toothcomb to be able to pass the comment “tiny scar on inside of left heel”.

I’ve now bored all my friends with stories of the local men who served in the CEF, but hopefully made them aware of the Durham at War website, and I could still spend all day every day pouring over relevant records, but reality strikes, husband returns home, other things must get done and we must stop fighting over whose turn it is to use the computer! 

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Event at Bowburn

You may have heard on the news at the start of the week about the centenary of the death of the nurse Edith Cavell.  During the early months of the First World War, she used her role as a nurse to save the lives of men on both sides of the fighting.  However, she also helped Allied soldiers escape from the area of Belgium that was occupied by the Germans.  For this, the Germans found her guilty of treason and she was executed on 12 October 1915.  

Edith Cavell appears on the 1920 Bowburn miner's banner and on Friday 16 October, they are holding a commemoration event, with a talk on the life of Cavell.  You can also find out more about the men of Bowburn who fought in the war, and the Durham at War team will be on hand to talk about the project and give advice on WWI family history.

Bowburn memorial event 16 October 2015

Friday, 9 October 2015

Food for thought

“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.” 
 - Philip Pullman

Whilst good nourishment might not have been easy to come by in a prisoner of war camp, at least Henry Wilkinson had access to books, even if they weren't the well known works. In this set of books read in July and August of 1918 there are several lesser known stories by popular authors such as Arthur Conan Doyle.  It is not say that these books do not have merit, but it is hard to think that even with the limited range available, a book titled 'Yeast' would be considered of interest if it were not written by Charles Kingsley.

Petticoat Government, Baroness Orczy, published 1910, ready 19 July 1918
Written by the same author as the Scarlet Pimpernel books, Petticoat Government is a story in three parts, The Girl, The Statesman, and The Woman, concerning the French aristocracy and the Madame du Pompadour’s influence over Louis XV of France.

During the First World War, Baroness ‘Emmuska’ Orczy set up the Women of England’s Active Service League, which had 20000 members.  Katie Adie’s book ‘Fighting on the Home Front’ says these women had to pledge “not to be seen in the company of a man ‘who had not answered his country’s call’…” 

A Short History of Our Own Time, J McCarthy, published 1879-1890, read 21 July 1918
This is a history in five volumes subtitled ‘From the accession of Queen Victoria to the general election of 1880’.  It is not indicated whether Wilkinson had access to all five volumes of the book given that the library did not always have a full complement of books in multiple parts. However, the next entry in the book list is dated nine days later as opposed to the usual one or two, so maybe Wilkinson did have access to the majority, if not all, of the volumes.  The book seems to be more often referred to without the ‘short’ in the title.  It is not clear if there is a difference or not.

The Score, Lucas Malet, published 1909, read 30 July 1918
There are two stories in this book.  The first tells of a successful actress who cares so much for the best interests of her friend and lover that she sacrifices her own marriage and love.  The second story takes place at an Italian convent and looks at the psychology of evil.  (Summarised from the Internet Archive)

Lucas Malet is the pseudonym of Mary St Leger Kingsley, the daughter of Charles Kingsley. 

The Captain of the Pole Star, Arthur Conan Doyle, published 1890, read 2 August 1918
This book has a series of short stories including the title one, in which the crew of a ship hunting for treasure in the north pole begin to doubt the sanity of their captain after they hear a one sided conversation coming from his quarters.  It also contains ‘J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement’ which is the story of the Marie Celeste.  It popularised the mystery to the point that many commonly held ideas are actually Conan Doyle’s fictional embellishments. 

Arthur Conan Doyle was a popular author in the libraries of prisoner of war camps.  In July 2014, I posted about PHB Lyon reading the Sherlock Holmes story ‘His Last Bow’.

A Fountain Sealed, Walter Besant, published 1897, read 8 August 1918
One of many fictional books written by the novelist and historian Walter Besant, this is a work of historical fiction about the supposed mistress of King George III in the 1700s. 

Hunted Down, Charles Dickens, published 1859, read 12 August 1918
This is a short detective story thought to have been inspired by the alleged poisoner Thomas Wainewright (who also inspired many other writers including Oscar Wilde).  It was published at a time when the London Metropolitan Police was well established and the public had an appetite for crime stories.

Yeast, Charles Kingsley, published 1848 (Fraser’s Magazine), 1851 (book), read 15 August 1918
The second book by Charles Kingsley that Wilkinson read, the Victorian Web describes the novel as telling  “the fate of Lancelot Smith, a wealthy young man, who changes his religious and social views under the influence of Tregarva, a philosophical game-keeper, who acquaints Smith with the social, economic and moral conditions of the rural poor.”

Friday, 2 October 2015

A date for the diary

Events for the unveiling of the first Victoria Cross paving stone in the county have been finalised.

You can read about Thomas Kenny on the Durham at War website

You can download an A3 version of the poster, to share with anyone you think might be interested 

Friday, 25 September 2015

Don't Panic!

Did you know that you might be able to find some First World War service information in Second World War records? A lot of the First World War service records were destroyed during the bombing of the Second World War so it can be difficult to find out what our ancestors did. 
Home Guard Regulations (D/DLI 5/1/1)
D/DLI 5/1/1 Home Guard Regulations
In 2012, The National Archives undertook a pilot project to digitise some of their home guard records.   The good news for us is that the group of records selected were those for County Durham.  The press release from the time says ‘The County of Durham was selected as a representative sample to digitise for this project, as it contains a number of different patterns of settlement; urban, rural, mining and coastal, and can therefore be considered a microcosm of the whole collection.’

The reason this is great is because one of the questions on the enrolment form is about previous military service:
“Do you now belong to, or have you ever served in, the Armed Forces of the Crown?  If so, state particulars of all engagements.”
The National Archives WO 409/27/50/959 extract from Home Guard enrolment form
Now this won’t contain the same amount of information as a service record might, and it was also up to the man enrolling to put what he thought was relevant.  However, in the absence of any other information, this is a source worth checking.  In the case of William Francis Corner, who I was looking at, it gave me the reason why the solider had only received the British War Medal despite enlisting with his brother in the Durham Pals and training with them.  He was transferred to munitions, likely due to his civilian work as a chemical analyst. 

As mentioned earlier, the man you are researching must have served with the Durham Home Guard during the Second World War period.  The records can be downloaded for £3.30 and searched here:

Friday, 18 September 2015

A helping hand

A post from Jo.

When not liaising with volunteers or adding content to the website, quite a lot of our job involves spreading the word about the project.  We visit local and family history events, taking displays and giving talks.
A helping hand, Battle of Ginchy, IWM Q4210
Helping a wounded soldier, the Battle of Ginchy, taken by Lieutenant John Warwick Brooke, 9 September 1916, 
© IWM (Q 4210)
On Saturday 12th September, I could tell my kids that I was going to work at a castle when I went to mind the stall at the Brancepeth Archives and History Group's World War One event at Brancepeth Castle.  Two days earlier, I had been back to university.   At Newcastle University, Durham at War participated in a conference arranged to publicise the work of the First World War Engagement Centres .  These are academic centres that have a number of World War One themed specialities who are trying to make links between academics and community researchers. For example, Hertfordshire University has taken on the topic of conscientious objectors and is co-ordinating research from communities and academics.

The Tynemouth World War One project, which will be known to many of you, is planning to make use of the contacts that are possible through the Engagement Centres in order to work with Dr James McConnel from Northumbria University on patterns of emigration to Canada and Australia from the North East.  Something that Durham at War has been interested in and has a number of volunteers researching at the moment.

The conference also resulted in making a few contacts who have contributed material to the site. Michael Grant of the Alnwick Museum sent us a profile of John Charles Grant (no relation) from Alnwick who had penned a poem about an Officer Training Corps in Chopwell Woods. Both are now available to look at on Durham at War. As is a page for the Tyneside Irish Brigade Association, in the "What's On" section.

The day was completed with a talk by Ian Johnson, Newcastle University Archivist, about the First World War research that the university archives have been involved in.  To illustrate a number of photographs of Armstrong College, which was used as a hospital during the war, he also took us on a guided tour of the campus.  
Archivist Ian Johnson, Newcaatle University
Archivist Ian Johnson, Newcastle University
He can be seen in the photo here holding up one of the archival photographs (a copy, of course!) next to the doorway where the photograph was taken.  Unfortunately, my camera phone isn't good enough to do justice to the old photo of military invalids gathered around the door having a crafty fag away from matron's stern gaze.

Friday, 11 September 2015

Distant Lands

 “Reading gives us someplace to go when we have to stay where we are.”  
Mason Cooley

Author=© Jorge Royan|License=CC-BY-SA-3.0
Author=© Jorge Royan|License=CC-BY-SA-3.0 
Another blog post in the series looking at the books read by Henry Wilkinson whilst a prisoner of war at Stralsund.  As our nights start to draw in, maybe there is something in this group, which includes three books involving travel that takes your fancy.  It is a long held belief that books can transport us to a different place but the idea of reading about distant lands (the South Pacific is about as far removed from the Prussian coastal prison camp as you could get) whilst in captivity must have been bittersweet.

Jupiter Lights, Constance F Woolson, published 1889, read 13 July 1918
Jack Bruce left England to fight in the American Civil War where he has married and had a child.  Jack dies of yellow fever and his wife quickly remarries, to a man who likes to drink and gets violent when he does.  Jack’s sister Eva travels to South Carolina to her retrieve her nephew and take him back to England.  Eva ends up staying in America longer than planned when events take a desperate turn.
(Summarised from reviews on Good Reads and Amazon)

Avenged on Society, HF Wood, published 1893, read 14 July 1918
A satire written in a diary style in which the author inserts himself as a character – it tries to comment on society’s penchant for romanticising criminals who got away with their crimes.
(Summarised from a review in The Spectator 15 April 1893)

A Son of the Sun, Jack London, published 1912, read 16 July 1918
A book of eight short stories about Captain David Grief, a businessman with financial interests in the islands of the South Pacific.  Set at the beginning of the 20th century, the stories tell of Grief’s adventures, inspired by the authors own experiences sailing in the region. 
(Summarised from Wikipedia)

A New England Nun and Other Stories, University of South Carolina Special Collections
A New England Nun and Other Stories, University of South Carolina Special Collections
A New England Nun, ME Wilkins, published 1891, read 17 July 1918
Published in a collection of short stories by the same story, the title story is that of Louisa Ellis, a woman who has lived alone for many years and is set in her particular ways.  Fourteen years earlier, she had promised to marry Joe Daggett when he returned from seeking his fortune in Australia.  When Joe returns, Louisa finds it difficult to adapt after such a long time alone but believes a promise is a promise.  However, she finds out that Joe has developed feelings for the woman who has been looking after his mother.  Without telling him the reason, Louisa releases Joe from their engagement. 
(Summarised from Wikipedia)

Elizabeth Visits America, Elinor Glyn, published 1909, read 18 July 1918
A sequel to Glyn’s 1900 novel The Visits of Elizabeth.  The first book takes the form of the letters Elizabeth sends to her invalid mother in England whilst she travels abroad going to the grand parties of titled relatives.  Elizabeth Visits America takes the same format except that Elizabeth is visiting America with friends and they want to see the real place, ‘the American Americans we don’t meet at home’.
(Summarised from the Edwardian Promenade blog review)
This is an example of what Newcombe and Winston say in their Library Journal article that oftentimes, they might have the sequel to a book without a copy of the original. 

A Woman of No Importance, Oscar Wilde, play first performed 1893, first printed 1894, read 18 July 1918
Oscar Wilde's audacious drama of social scandal centres around the revelation of Mrs Arbuthnot's long-concealed secret. A house party is in full swing at Lady Hunstanton's country home, when it is announced that Gerald Arbuthnot has been appointed secretary to the sophisticated, witty Lord Illingworth. Gerald's mother stands in the way of his appointment, but fears to tellOscar Wilde's [play is an] audacious drama of social scandal centres on the revelation of Mrs Arbuthnot's long-concealed secret. A house party is in full swing at Lady Hunstanton's country home, when it is announced that Gerald Arbuthnot has been appointed secretary to the sophisticated, witty Lord Illingworth. Gerald's mother stands in the way of his appointment, but fears to tell him why, for who will believe Lord Illingworth to be a man of no importance?
(Synospsis from Penguin books)

Friday, 4 September 2015

Heritage Open Day 2015

Durham County Record Office Heritage Open Day 2015

Durham at War Heritage Open Day
at Durham County Record Office, County Hall

Thursday 10 September
1pm - 4pm

10 unexpected stories from the website 
From document to Durham at War
Cocken Hall - then and 'now'
How to put your story onto Durham at War

Friday, 28 August 2015

The Caring Profession

D/DLI 7/805/102 J.B.E. Simmons, a soldier of a Durham Light Infantry Home Service Battalion, guarding a prisoner in a hospital bed, two nurses, a German prisoner of war, and a Canadian soldier, Sergeant W. Wade, 1914-1918

Mention nurses during the First World War and most people would probably think of the Red Cross and St John’s Voluntary Aid Detachment - even if they might not know the full name.   VADs were volunteers who had typically had little or no previous medical training.  However, the VADs were just a part of the nursing services during the First World War, as we have been learning from the research that we’ve been doing. 

Last week I wrote about Cissy Spence and the “trying circumstances” under which she won the Military Medal.  Cissy was not a VAD but a “professional” nurse.  She worked in Darlington and Wolverhampton Hospitals before the war and was part of the Civil Hospital Reserve of the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS).  The QAIMNS were founded in 1902 with the intention of providing regular nursing support to the Army.  It was soon realised this standing army of nurses was not attracting enough recruits so Civil Hospitals were encouraged to allow their nursing staff to be used by the War Office in time of need.  This meant that trained nurses were on standby and Cissy set foot in France on 8 August 1914, before the majority of male soldiers.

Also founded in 1902, the Queen Alexandra’s Royal Naval Nursing Service (QARNNS) provided similar support for the Navy.  While researching the Five Sisters Memorial in York Minister we came across the story of Louisa Charlotte Chamberlain, who family lived in Eastgate:

She served aboard the Hospital Ship China and was killed by a mine off Scarpa Flow along with a dental surgeon from County Durham, Herbert Myers Marshall:

Another area that I’ve been particularly interested in is the Scottish Women’s Hospitals.  Founded by Elsie Inglis, these hospitals employed women doctors as well as nurses to look after wounded soldiers.  They had strong links to the pre-war suffragist group the Women’s Union of Suffrage Societies and the Sunderland Press Secretary of the NUWSS posted a long account of the work they carried out in Serbia (Sunderland Echo, 20 March 1915).  I haven’t been able to track down any female doctors who worked for the SWH (yet!) but Durham at War does feature an orderly from Hartlepool that served with the organisation:

Red Cross database of VADs:

More information about the QAIMNS

The Scottish Women’s Hospitals

Friday, 21 August 2015

In trying circumstances

Watercolour of a nurse tending to a wounded soldier in a hospital, by Captain Robert Mauchlen,9th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry c.1917 (D/DLI 7/7/920/11(11))
D/DLI 7/7/920/11(11) Watercolour of a nurse tending to a wounded soldier in a hospital, by Captain Robert Mauchlen, 9th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry c.1917  
Recently a volunteer enquired as to whether Victoria and myself ever clashed over who did a certain piece of research.  While we may have had words over the last biscuit at teatime, we seem to have developed our own spheres of interest and even of seamlessly batting research between ourselves to suit our particular talents. 

For example: Victoria has a special interest in Prisoners of War, be it German prisoners in Durham camps or Durham men in camps in Germany or Switzerland.  This led her to the Hamsterley Parish magazines, looking for mention of the German POWs from Harperley.  In addition to what she was looking for, she found a record of the awarding of the Military Medal to Nurse Spence.

This information she passed to me, as she knows that I am interested in the role women played during the war and have been co-ordinating the Five Sisters research.  I soon found that Cissy Spence (also known as Sarah Jane and Joan) received the Military Medal for calmly carrying on with her work while bombs dropped all around her.  The Casualty Clearing Station that she was stationed at had 250 patients of which 27 were killed and 68 wounded during the raid.  In a piece of quintessentially British understatement her citation describes this as “trying circumstances.”

The Military Medal was first introduced as an honour in March 1916 and was awarded to its first female recipient, Dorothie Feilding, in September of that year.  During the war, 135 Military Medals were awarded to women.  Two of those medals we have tracked down to women from County Durham: Cissy Spence and Kate Maxey.  I wonder if there’ll be others…

Friday, 14 August 2015


Image used with permission of Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums
Yesterday [13 August] I went to a talk on a new collaborative First World War art project between Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums and American sound artist, Halsey Burgund

The piece is called Tributaries and it is an app based sound work using voices of Tyne and Wear.  The geographical scope of the project overlaps with Durham at War, such as Gateshead and Birtley. 

The app is meant to be used on a smart phone whilst walking around Tyne and Wear.  Over an ambient background piece of music that is constant but varies depending on how far from the Tyne you are, voices come in and out, reading from First World War diaries, letters, newspapers et al.  Some of the content is also location based so if you were using the app in North Shields for instance, you might hear an extract of a story relating to the town or a person from there.

The content already available was produced by volunteer using material from within Tyne and Wear’s archive and museum collections.  The volunteers did both research and the reading.  Newcastle Library held an open day for the public to look at First World War era newspapers and record their favourite stories.  The voices also include that of Jenny Bartram, the BBC weather presenter, who reads from the weather log of St Mary’s Lighthouse in Whitley Bay. 

A key aspect of Tributaries, as with some of Halsey Burgund’s previous works, is that is evolving.  Not only is the piece interactive (based on location), but it is contributory.  Users can record their own voices which will immediately be added into the sound work.  This can be from family records or reflections on the war and a particular location. 

You can find out more, including how to download the app, available for Apple and Android, at 

Friday, 7 August 2015

"Under Hell’s Flames" - The Battle of Hooge, August 1915

Before the First World War, a few kilometres east of Ypres on the Menin road lay the small village of Hooge. Hooge was no more than a handful of houses and farm buildings, but set back some 200 metres north of the road there was a large red-brick chateau and stables.

By the early summer of 1915, Hooge lay in ruins and no man’s land ran between the chateau and stables, then on 19 July a British mine was exploded under the German trenches, leaving a crater 40 metres across and 12 metres deep. Into this still-smoking crater rushed British soldiers. From the lip of the crater, the nearest German trenches were only five metres away. Less than two weeks later, on 30 July, the Germans launched a surprise attack, blowing up the stables and then, using flame-throwers for the first time against British soldiers, capturing all of Hooge and driving the terrified defenders away from the Menin road south towards Sanctuary Wood.
A view of the Hooge crater showing sandbags and other debris from German dugouts, August 1915 (D/DLI 2/2/213)
D/DLI 2/2/213 A view of the Hooge crater showing sandbags and other debris from German dugouts, August 1915
General Plumer, commanding the British Second Army at Ypres, ordered an attack to recapture the lost ground and the 6th Division was given the task.  Not only did this include the 2nd Battalion, Durham Light Infantry, they were chosen to lead the attack. *

Just after midnight on Monday 9 August 1915, rum was issued to each man and two hours later 2 DLI was in position on the northern edge of Sanctuary Wood. In addition to the usual weapons and equipment, they had to carry additional rifle ammunition, sandbags and shovels, plus one day's ration and a full water bottle. These men were about to attack at night across 500 metres of rising ground, hindered by shell holes, broken trees, shattered trenches, barbed wire and the unburied dead from the earlier fighting.

At 2.45am, the British artillery opened fire. Twenty minutes later, the Durhams advanced as near as was possible to the German front line and lay down to await the end of the shelling. At exactly 3.15am, the bombardment lifted and the Durhams attacked.

An account of this attack was recorded in a letter by an unidentified private, published a newspaper:
"Our artillery opened fire and they replied. It was simply awful but we lay there waiting for the order to charge. It came and we lost all control of our senses and went like mad, fighting hand to hand and bayoneting. We got into the first line and went straight on and then dug ourselves in under hell's flames." (D/DLI 2/2/47(1))
The 2nd Battalion Durham Light Infantry at Hooge 9 August 1915', Gerald Hudson, oil on canvas, The Regimental Trustees of the DLI Museum, Acc no. 883
'The 2nd Battalion Durham Light Infantry at Hooge 9 August 1915', Gerald Hudson, oil on canvas, The Regimental Trustees of the DLI Museum, Acc no. 883
Advancing in short rushes, 2 DLI quickly reached the trenches linking the crater, stables and Menin road. It was so dark with the smoke and dust from the explosions that Captain Robert Turner, who led the assault companies, later wrote: "It was difficult to know when we had reached our objective. I remember prodding with my walking stick to locate the road." (D/DLI 2/2/50).  The German defenders were overwhelmed. Later 300 dead were counted around the stables and over 200 bodies were seen in the crater. Many had been bayoneted.

By 6am, the Durhams were digging in on their newly-won positions and, for the rest of the day, they held on despite the incessant German bombardment. Again the anonymous soldier described the battle:
"There was nine of us digging this trench. I turned my back one second and when I looked again - what a sight! I will remember it till I die. Every man in the trench blown to atoms - arms, legs and heads staring you in the face. You will hardly credit what I did… I sat down and lit a Woodbine… I was stuck there by myself for sixteen hours and all the time a heavy bombardment." (D/DLI 2/2/47(1))

That night, after the order to pull back had been given, fewer than 170 soldiers and three officers returned to Sanctuary Wood.  The order, however, had not got through to all the surviving Durhams. Many had been isolated by the bursting shells and it was nearly twenty-four hours later that the last of the men came back.

The fighting at Hooge had cost the lives of over 500 German soldiers with a further 130 taken prisoner, whilst, of the 650 Durhams who had waited in the darkness before the attack on Hooge began, some 60 were killed and 330 wounded. A further 100 Durhams were also reported missing, though not all of these men were later listed as having been killed. 
March off of the colours at the Hooge Ball, 1954 (D/DLI 2/2/360(102))
D/DLI 2/2/360(102) March off of the colours at the Hooge Ball, 1954
Though almost forgotten today, the Battle of Hooge was not, however, forgotten by the 2nd Battalion DLI, and every year, until the battalion was finally disbanded in 1955, “Hooge Day” was celebrated. In the Officers’ Mess, an oil painting hung as a constant reminder to young officers of their battalion’s history; it is now looked after by the DLI Museum.  The battle honour “Hooge 1915” can be found on the old DLI Colours hanging in Durham Cathedral.

(Original text by Steve Shannon)

Further reading:
Nigel Cave, Sanctuary Wood and Hooge (Barnsley, 1993).
John Sheen, The Steel of the DLI: The 2nd Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry at War 1914-1918 (Barnsley, 2010).

*2DLI, who were the first Durham Light Infantry battalion to see action on the Western Front (from September 1914) still had many pre-war professional soldiers in its ranks.