Friday, 30 June 2017

Michael Heaviside VC Centenary Film Night

There are two film events coming up for the Michael Heaviside VC Centenary. Both events are free but a ticket is required. You can book at: 

Friday, 23 June 2017

An Incredible Coincidence

This week we have a story from Steve Shannon.

One day, whilst rummaging about in a music stool at his home in Bradford, David Wilson, then aged about 7 or 8 years old, found a telegram. It was from the War Office informing Constance Penrice that her husband, Second Lieutenant Gordon Penrice, had been killed in action. As David’s mother was called Constance, he asked her about this telegram and she explained that she had been married twice and that her first husband had been killed in the Great War. David later remembered that his mother had cried when she told him.

Years later, David’s mother came to live with her son in County Durham. After her death in 1986, he found a photograph of Gordon Penrice amongst her papers. In this photo, Gordon is wearing an officer’s uniform with the badges of the Durham Light Infantry (DLI).
Second Lieutenant William Gordon Penrice, 20th Battalion DLI (DCRO D/DLI 7/532/1)
D/DLI 7/532/1 Second Lieutenant William Gordon Penrice, 20th Battalion DLI
In 1993, David wrote to DLI Museum asking for help. In my reply, I was able to tell him that Second Lieutenant Gordon Penrice had been killed in action on 7 June 1917 during the Battle of Messines, whilst serving with the 20th (Wearside) Battalion DLI. Sadly, however, he had no known grave but was commemorated on the Menin Gate at Ypres. I also enclosed photocopies from a Regimental history describing 20 DLI’s role at Messines and suggested where David should go for more information, such as the National Archives, Imperial War Museum, and Commonwealth War Graves Commission. David then began his research in earnest. 

Then, David’s wife found an overlooked – and seemingly unimportant – war pensions form amongst Constance’s papers. Written in Constance’s hand across the top was “2nd Lieut. Gordon Penrice, D.L.I. Buried at Elkhof Farm, Voormezeele – S. of Ypres”. So was Gordon’s grave lost or not? Had his widow known where he had been buried? 

Soon after, I met David in the museum for the first time and we poured over original trench maps, we soon found Eikhof (not “Elkhof”) Farm near Voormezeele. We looked at the 20th Battalion’s original war diary, and discovered that Second Lieutenant Penrice had only joined the battalion on 31 May 1917. He was killed a week later on the first day of the Battle of Messines.
Drawing by Reverend JAG Birch, 5th Battalion DLI, of a map of Messines on 7 June 1917 (D/DLI 7/63/2(196))
D/DLI 7/63/2(196) Drawing by Reverend JAG Birch, 5th Battalion DLI, of a map of Messines on 7 June 1917
We then discussed the lost grave and I suggested that the grave had originally been marked in June 1917 but that the marker had been lost probably in 1918, when there had been more fighting around Eikhof Farm. 

During this meeting, I told David that George Thompson, a veteran of the 20th Battalion DLI [editor’s note: not the transport driver featured in Durham hymns], had been interviewed by the Imperial War Museum and that he still lived in Spennymoor. David ordered a copy of the tapes from the IWM and was amazed when he heard the old soldier remember what he had seen and done on 7 June 1917. 

David met George twice, first in December 1993, and again in February 1994. During these meetings, George, who died in September 1994 aged 97, explained that after the initial attack at Messines, he was with an officer and a few other soldiers, when they came across the body of a DLI officer. They buried the body in a shell hole near Eikhof Farm, removing all identification papers, and marked the grave with a rifle stuck in the ground muzzle side down.

Could this have been Gordon Penrice? George Thompson didn’t know but more research convinced David that it was. David knew that only two DLI officers had died at Messines on 7 June 1917. One had been identified and was buried in a Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery. So Gordon Penrice must have had been buried at Eikhof Farm. And someone must have told his widow. 

In May 1994, their research finished, David and his wife visited the modern t’Eikenhof farm in Belgium. Somewhere nearby on 7 June 1917 Gordon Penrice had been killed in action and then buried in a shell hole.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Touching Base

This week Jo writes about some of Durham at War's supporting items you might not be so aware of.

E/HB 2/768 Photograph of Bede Territorials (8th DLI) at Scarborough Camp, [1913], most of these men are on the Bede Database
E/HB 2/768 Photograph of Bede Territorials (8th DLI) at Scarborough Camp, [1913], most of these men are on the Bede Database
When the Durham at War website was designed it was envisaged that it would broadly consist of stories about people, places, events and organisations. Attached to the stories are “supporting materials”, which might be the transcripts of documents that our volunteers have been working on, photographs, newspaper articles, books or objects. Of the 600 or so supporting materials that have now been published on the website, a handful have surprised us by not sitting easily within the definition of supporting materials that we applied at the beginning of the project: the databases.

At the time of writing we have five databases on Durham at War (or more properly; they are spreadsheets that we have turned into PDF documents). The first that was published was the “Bede College in the Great War database”.

This is the work of our colleague, David Butler, who trawled through the Bede College archives here at Durham County Record Office, in order to create a list of Bede men who served during the First World War. As well as service details, David has recorded references from the archives to each of the men that he has identified. So, it is now possible to look them up in the administrative records of the College or find mentions of them in the Bede Magazine.

When using the Bede database, please note that in order to get all of the rows of information onto the screen, we have had to reduce the size of the page. You can very easily zoom in by using the plus and minus buttons that appear in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen with Chrome or the same on the bar at the bottom of the screen with Internet Explorer.

The largest database that appears on the site is Peter Hoy’s amazing work on over 4000 service men and women for South Tyneside. His database is so extensive that we had to divide it in to chunks to get it on the website! As well as looking at the usual family history sources (1911 census, BMD indexes) and military documents (medal cards and 'Burnt Documents'), Peter has used local newspaper sources to develop profiles on the individuals he has researched:

D/DLI 7/805/73 Soldiers from 'D' Company, 14th Battalion DLI, c.1916
D/DLI 7/805/73 Soldiers from 'D' Company, 14th Battalion DLI, c.1916 
Colin Alsbury contacted us after we included the story of a man who started out with the Derbyshire Yeomanry and transferred to 14th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry. He very kindly gave us permission to use his research findings, allowing us to shine a light on another aspect of DLI history. We hadn’t realised that quite a number of men transferred from that regiment in October 1916, probably as reorganisation to bump up numbers lost during the Battle of the Somme.

Another small(ish) but perfectly formed database is that created by our own Victoria. She is particularly interested in Prisoners of War both Germans in County Durham and County Durham men in Germany and Switzerland. While researching the prisoner of war camp at Harperley, she found a list of German prisoners who died of Spanish Flu right at the end of the war, in John Ruttley’s book ‘Prisoners in the North’. She used a combination of sources, including the International Red Cross records, to build up a picture of each man:

The most recent database that we have published on the site is the work of Mavis Dixon. She collaborated with historian Cyril Pearce, who has created a national database of conscientious objectors. They shared information about men from Country Durham and the resulting database is now available to search. As well as the usual sources, Mavis undertook archival research in other repositories, most notably the Cumbria Archives Centre in Carlisle. Cumbria Archives hold the Catherine Marshall collection which reflects her involvement in the suffragette and pacifist movements.

The databases on our site are not something that we had necessarily planned for, but they allow us to include a lot of information that we might not have had the time to pursue as full stories. There are a few other databases in the pipeline that we’ll publish in due course. Watch this space!

Friday, 9 June 2017

Transcription errers

This week we have a blog post from our volunteer, Jean, who researches Canadian soldiers.
Not Middle Earth or Westeros
Not Middle Earth or Westeros
Many of you will have transcribed handwritten documents, and know how it can sometimes be impossible to decipher the handwriting. In a document it is usually possible to work out the word from the context, but trying to decipher place names is another matter completely, unless, of course you are familiar with the area.

Spare a thought for those who transcribed the 619,000 plus attestation papers of the Canadian Expeditionary Force to prepare them for digitisation, which included of course, the records of the nearly 3,000 men from County Durham who had enlisted. They couldn’t just go to a gazetteer to check on a place name because they weren’t able to decipher it let alone spell it correctly.

It was whilst looking at my list of names and places of birth for our men who joined the CEF that made me consider these problems ... I hadn’t for a start realised that there were so many ways to write Hartlepool. There’s Martlepel , Hurtlepool, Hortiport, Hortlepool, Hartley Hill, Hartleypal, Nortlepool, Hattlepant, Martlopool and more.

In most cases you can tell straight away what the place name should be, but occasionally I have to go back to the original attestation paper to see if I have better luck than the original transcriber in deciphering the writing. Sometimes just a quick look gives the right place and I think how did they get that wrong, but that is so easy for people with local knowledge to say. Occasionally I need to go a bit further and check birth or census records, but in the end most are decipherable.
Examples from the Canadian records
Examples from the Canadian records
Some of my favourites are Leaham Herbert and Scaham Harbon for Seaham Harbour; Noughland Spring and Hootenay Spring for Houghton-le-Spring; Walton Port for Witton Park; that well known Scottish island Splluy Mora for Spennymoor; Westeonfith for West Cornforth, and how they made Daibrighton, Dedenfon and Durlinjlos out of Darlington I am not quite sure. But the two that stick out as unbelievable transcriptions are Wookson On Quebec (Stockton On Tees) and Jecce Ireland (Sunderland).

Try these ones and see if you can work out where our men were born: Loaf Hill; Camdon; Creek; Southsfield; Paocban; Hamituly; Buttley; Taw Haw; Lediefield; Onfield Place; Durshopel Codery; Sammerland and finally Southampton, and I don’t mean the port on the south coast!

Highlight the text below to reveal the answers:
Low Fell; Coundon; Crook; South Shields; Page Bank; Hamsterley; Birtley; Tow Law; Sedgefield; Annfield Plain; Burnhope Colliery; Sunderland; South Hetton.

Friday, 2 June 2017

100 years of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission

Commonwealth War Graves Commission exhibition at Brookwood Cemetery
Commonwealth War Graves Commission exhibition at Brookwood Cemetery
It is impossible to do a First World War project without encountering the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC). I visit the website several times a week, if not day sometimes, I only have to type ‘c’ into the address bar for the site to come up. Whilst the website is an invaluable research tool, it is to say nothing of the physical work that is done in tending to the 1.7 million graves across 154 countries. 

This May has seen the CWGC marking the 100th anniversary of its establishment by Royal Charter (in 1917 it was known as the Imperial War Graves Commission). However, the groundwork actually began some years earlier when Fabian Ware, a commander of a mobile unit of the British Red Cross, began recording all the graves he and his unit could find. The CWGC website says ‘By 1915, their work was given official recognition by the War office, and incorporated into the British Army as the Graves Registration Commission (

To mark this anniversary, the CWGC have launched an exhibition at their Brookwood Cemetery called ‘For Then | For Now | For Ever’ ( It tells the story of the CWGC from its beginning right through to today, and does not shy away from controversial aspects of its work. When you think of a war cemetery, you probably picture rows of matching white headstones with regimental insignia. However, one of the items on display at the exhibition is a petition with ‘more than 8000 signatures – predominantly from mothers who had lost sons in the Great War – asking the Commission to reconsider the use of a uniform marker in favour of a cross.’ (

The exhibition was opened on 20 May by Brian Blessed OBE. In his speech, Blessed said ‘The CWGC has done an incredible job over the last 100 years and long may it continue. I would urge everyone who can to visit the exhibition, and also their local war graves, find out the stories behind the headstones and commemorate those who ‘gave their tomorrow for our today.’’ (
David Domoney’s design for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission garden at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show
David Domoney’s design for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission garden at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show
To mark the significant horticultural aspect of the Commission’s work (it employs 850 gardeners), they approached David Domoney to help create a garden for the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, which was awarded a silver medal. You can read about the development and creation of the garden on the Commonwealth War Graves’ blog:

The exhibition at Brookwood Cemetery, near Woking, Surrey, is open 10am-4pm, seven days a week until 19 November 2017.