Graveyards, Headstones and Now Lie I Like a King?

From time to time I write articles that fall outside the geographic area of the blog and, in part, this is one. It started off as the story of Albert Edward King, a man from Chalford in Gloucestershire; Albert has no place in my family history, nor does Chalford have any connection to me other than I was spending a long-weekend there enjoying a rest when I literally stumbled over his grave. While I was resting-up I did have my laptop, access to Wi-Fi and, as Stroud Library was not far to tap into the local newspaper, I decided to research into Albert just to see who he was and simply for something to do. Mrs Blog just rolled her eyes.

King's grave in the rather unkempt churchyard at Chalford.

King’s war grave in the rather unkempt churchyard at Chalford – note the slope. 2016.

There was a second reason. Albert had been a soldier – he had a Commonwealth War Grave Commission headstone – and the disappointment over the slightly unkempt nature of the graveyard he lay in can leave one with feelings that such a state seems to make a mockery of the familiar verses we associate with the war and the remembrance service: ‘Lest we forget’, ‘We will remember them’ and ‘Have you forgotten yet?’. The fact is that Albert didn’t have to be a soldier, such similar sentiments are found on near all gravestones – and the graveyard was unkempt for them too.

Appearances can be deceptive and things are never that simple, therefore I wanted to extend the article to encompass through local examples, Great Wyrley, Cheslyn Hay, Walsall, Birmingham, as well as Chalford in Gloucestershire, the role of graveyards and funerary art (including headstones, statues and war memorials) in local communities. It is not meant to be exhaustive, but a brief look at the history and responsibilities that go with them.

Graveyards: General Local Background
Burial and cremation are the two modern main-stream practical solutions as what to do with the dead. Both have their origin in ancient practices, yet cremation disappeared for centuries only to re-emerge in later Victorian Britain. While facing opposition from church and state, a Cremation Society had been formed in 1874 that advocated cremation on a number of grounds (mainly sanitary – as bodies were being buried in saturated graveyards just inches under the surface).

The Society built a crematorium at Woking, but were not able to operate it until after a high profile court case in 1884: this seminal case saw the unhinged ‘druid’ William Price being tried over his attempts to cremate the remains of his 5-month-old son, Jesus Christ. He was found not-guilty, as nothing in law forbade it as the cremation caused no nuisance to anyone. Cremations then started in 1885, slowly at first. Further crematoria opened, mainly in the cities. The status of cremation was finally enshrined in law in 1902 – Perry Barr being the first crematorium in the midlands, opening in 1903.

Burial on the other hand has continued unabated. Time Team is full of prehistoric, Roman and Saxon graveyard excavations, after which, with the rise of the parish system (as opposed to the Minster system), local churches were established that became a focal point for community burials.

Christ Church, Chalford - like St Mark's, Wyrley, it became its own parish in the 1840s - with an attached school and a graveyard - despite the slope of the land.

Christchurch, Chalford, became its own parish in 1842 – with an attached school and a graveyard despite the slope of the land. 2016.

As the parish burial system came under pressure due to population rises several things happened. New parishes were carved from existing ones with new churches being built (sometimes with graveyard space) – St Mark’s at Great Wyrley (1846) is a good example of this, as is Chalford, which was enlarged (with a graveyard) and became separate parish in 1842. Next, private graveyards became increasingly established – Hockley in Birmingham (later taken over by the Council) is an example of this, although some were religious based and finally, after the 1853 Burial Act, local authorities (County, District, Borough, City and Parish) founded cemeteries – locally these include, Queen Street, Walsall, 1857; Cannock, 1882; Great Wyrley, 1896 and Cheslyn Hay, 1901.

A view across Cheslyn Hay Cemetery, showing a typical scattering of unmarked and marked plots - some with monuments rather than headstones.

A view across Cheslyn Hay Cemetery, showing a typical scattering of unmarked and marked plots – some with monuments rather than headstones. 2016.

Tombs, charnel houses and headstones have been used in this country since the Roman period to the establish identity and, more often, the status of the dead. In the medieval and post-medieval world grave slabs, tombs and, later, headstones would be the preserve of the wealthy elite or for those with special significance (abbots and priors for example). The Victorians took funerary art to a new level with their obsession over class, order and symbolism, and as the affordability of such filtered down through the then social scale – although it wouldn’t be until the 20th century that working folk could afford headstones en masse.

Graveyards, Headstones and Monuments: The Problem of Responsibility
If one takes Rupert Brooke’s poem ‘The Soldier’ and its sentiments that his grave would be ‘forever England’, then one gets the feeling that there is something comforting about a grave, especially in a recognised graveyard and when accompanied by a headstone, in that there is a sense of permanence for those at peace. Sadly, the burden of responsibility of graveyards and graves can expose this myth – it is the case that one party is responsible for the upkeep of the graveyard (usually church or state), while the family is responsible for the grave and headstone (or funerary art).

St Peter's RC Church, St Peter's Square off Broad St Birmingham in 1967 shortly before closure in 1969 and demolition in the 1970s. (University of Birmingham)

St Peter’s RC Church, Birmingham in 1967, shortly before closure and demolition in the 1970s. (University of Birmingham)

Graveyards don’t disappear do they? Well, yes. St Peter’s Roman Catholic Church once stood just off Broad Street in Birmingham. The Victoria County History states it was the oldest Catholic church in the city, being built in 1786, extended in 1802 and 1825 (prior to Catholic emancipation) and renovated in 1871. It had a graveyard, with its first burial in 1786 and its last in 1873, which appears on the 1:500 OS map of 1888. It also had an attached day school, likely opened in 1834, and it appears that some time after the closing of the graveyard the headstones must have been cleared and part, if not all of the yard, was used as a play area for the school. I suspect this was somewhere between 1912 and 1923. The church was closed in 1969 and it, along with the school, were demolished by 1974 in the first round of redevelopment of the area.

The digging-out of St Peter's and the graveyard around 1986. (Birmingham Mail)

The digging-out of St Peter’s and the graveyard around 1986. (Birmingham Mail)

For those that remember, Broad Street in Birmingham was redeveloped during the late 80s/early 90s with the building of the ICC, Indoor Arena and such like. At that time I worked in Broad Street and remember how much of the area was used as an NCP car park.

As a part of the redevelopment, the old church and graveyard site was dug-up. The old graveyard seemed to take the Council and developers a little by surprise – amazing, as a simple examination of the OS mapping history would have made it clear (see for Birmangham Mail’s article and on-line gallery). Anyhow, what amounted to the remains of 1,163 people were exhumed and reburied in a ‘mound’ at New Oscott in 1986.

This is not the only case of a whole church and graveyard disappearing in Birmingham. As some churches and chapels fell into disrepair and their graveyards, often already closed, fallen into decay, they became valuable as real estate in a rapidly expanding Birmingham.

The Domesday scenario is the most extreme, but there are levels towards it. The first is the responsibility of the graveyard owner and entails a change of use for the graveyard, often with it becoming a quiet space or garden. Two examples can be found in Walsall, Bath Street and Queen Street.

Bath St Cemetery, early 1900s, now devoid of most of its headstones and funerary art. (Walsall Local History Centre)

Bath St Cemetery, early 1900s, now devoid of most of its headstones and funerary art. (Walsall Local History Centre)

In 1751 land was gifted by the Corporation (the forerunner of the Council) on Bath Street to a set of trustees for a burial ground, as an over-spill for the parish church of St Matthew’s. It was consecrated in 1756 and was St Matthew’s responsibility. The Victoria County History states the a church inquiry of 1854/55 revealed not only gross overcrowding but its use as ‘a playground for children, a pasture for sheep, and a resort for dissolute characters, who actually converted the tombstones into gaming tables’. It was closed in 1857 except for interments in vaults and brick graves, and completely in 1954. It was subsequently laid out as a public garden, with most of the stones and funerary art removed – either toppled and buried or completely taken away.

The Harvey obelisk in a 'wild' area of the former Queen St Cemetery, Walsall, 2011. (abandoned-angel, )

The Harvey obelisk in a ‘wild’ area of the former Queen St Cemetery, Walsall, 2011. (abandoned-angel, )

In 1857 the Council, having been constituted a burial board, opened a 13-acre cemetery off Queen Street. Overcrowded by 1894, it was replaced for general burials by Ryecroft, although burials, especially from the workhouse, continued. It finally closed in 1969. In 1972 it was converted into a public garden, which was revamped in the 1990s, I think. Some headstones have been preserved, including Sister Dora, but many have had flattened and grassed over. Part of the former cemetery (including areas with funerary art/headstones) seems to have been left to grow wild, which isn’t unusual for former and, indeed, current graveyards.

Bloxwich All Saints, where the gravestones have been removed en mass and placed around the perimeter of the graveyard. 2016.

Bloxwich All Saints, where the gravestones have been removed and placed around the graveyard. 2016.

At All Saint’s Church, Bloxwich, the headstones have been removed, with one or two exceptions, and placed around the perimeter of the graveyard. To do this the church would have needed the permission of the Bishop of Lichfield. St Mark’s, Great Wyrley, did the same. Sometime around 1950 the church petitioned the Bishop to remove all but four of the headstones and funerary art: two, including Rev. Edalji (d 1918), are hidden in a wild area in the corner of the graveyard, while a third is overgrown and the last, the first laid to rest in the cemetery, and in the centre of the graveyard, is now covered by a very large bush. I cannot yet say what the fate of the stones were (it has been said that some churches sold them for road aggregate).

The grave of Rev Edalji at St Mark's, now in a wild area. 2016.

The grave of Rev Edalji at St Mark’s, now in a wild area. 2016.

So, the owners of a graveyard are responsible for its upkeep – they can close it (say, under the Open Spaces Act, 1906), but while it is open they should maintain the pathways, walls and overall condition; sadly, many don’t as rising costs and a lack of volunteers, especially younger volunteers, mean that churches, chapels and Councils struggle. Saying that, the responsibility of the grave and headstone or funerary art rests with the owner of the grave, not the graveyard owner.

Two graves in Great Wyrley Cemetery, now neglected. 2016.

Two graves in Great Wyrley Cemetery, now neglected by their owners. 2016.

It really doesn’t take long before the weather starts to destroy a grave, so why are so many neglected? The first possibility is that the family, after a generation or two, don’t know that they own the grave. Then, many don’t know that they are responsible for its upkeep. I think, more often, it is due to a disengaging with past family especially after the grandparent stage, perhaps because the family move away from the area.

Whatever the reason, the owners of the graveyard have a duty of care to the public to remove or make safe (e.g. by toppling headstones) anything that could constitute a danger. Unfortunately, this can leave the graveyard looking messy – with broken pieces lying in their graves or stacked in corners. Both Wyrley and Cheslyn Hay cemeteries have such broken pieces, it cant be helped.

Wallace Lawson's grave in Great Wyrley's cemetery - the cross from the headstone has been removed, the headstone must have been placed before it was given war grave status in 1930. 2016.

Wallace Lawson’s grave in Great Wyrley’s cemetery – the cross from the headstone has been removed. 2016.

Funerary Art: War Memorials
There is one kind of funerary art that is a little different: here I am talking about communal memorials that record specific events and locally these include the Pelsall mining disaster, the Willenhall cholera victims and, up and down the region, war memorials. Today it seems that war memorials are problematic in that some interpret them as ‘celebrating’ war, whereas the victims of a mining disaster are seen as just that, victims. Further, it seems that, other than for Armistice Day commemorations, they have become simply a part of the scenery and, indeed, I have even heard accusations that such memorials can be seen as gaudy or mawkish.

Cheslyn Hay's War Memorial. It makes no mention of Wallace Lawson. 2014.

Cheslyn Hay’s War Memorial before recent restoration. 2014.

I don’t think this is true. What has happened is a natural distancing of the current community with the actual people named on the memorial, as the understanding of who they were becomes lost. Saying that, in my opinion, this loss of the individual has been replaced by a wider symbolic meaning to the memorial as a whole. Memorials are not just a part of the scenery, as many memorials have been repaired or maintained since their erection; locally, Cheslyn Hay have cleaned theirs recently and Great Wyrley rebuilt the supporting gate piers to their memorial gates back in the 1980s. Further afield, Chalford repaired their memorial after it was damaged in 1982 – affixing new plaques.

Chalford war memorial - unveiled 6 June 1920, repaired and rededicated in 1982. 2016.

Chalford war memorial – unveiled 6 June 1920, repaired and rededicated in 1982. 2016.

Secondly, there was been a re-engaging recently, likely due to the centenary of WWI and the wider availability of records on-line, with identifying and understanding the individuals on the memorials. Local History Societies, individual researchers and, fantastically, people that are simply curious are driving this and putting flesh back on the bones of those that went before them.

It also needs to be remembered, regarding war memorials and rolls of honour, that they have always been problematic: anyone who believes they contain every name that could or should be on then will be sorely mistaken. Take Great Wyrley’s memorial gates: they represent a hotch-potch of men, with some born in the Wyrley area, some not, with some that attest while living in the Wyrley area, while some have already moved away – indeed, Thomas James was born in Brownhills and had married a Brummie before going to serve, while Herbert Higgs may never have set foot in Wyrley.

What this shows is that memorials were really for the living and not the dead: some families chose not to have their loved ones on any memorial (perhaps not to be reminded of the war), while some men appeared on several, depending where wives, parents and siblings lived (William Simpson appears on the Harrison’s Club memorial in Wyrley, the Wyrley gates and on the Kings Bromley memorial, as that is where his mother lived).

While the families may have struggled with the concept of war memorials, so did the communities that raised them – and by ‘communities’ I don’t just mean geographic communities, but churches, clubs, companies and schools, for example, which struggled to come to terms with the losses of the First World War and so felt driven to record it. It would be wrong to believe that all communities managed to raise the funds to complete a memorial (Cannock took some years, while Chadsmoor have just unveiled one some 100 years later).

The opening of the Gt Wyrley Memorial Garden on Saturday 8 April 1922. Note the avenue of lime trees - one for each of the 25 fallen soldiers - but also that there are NO plaques on the gates. Thanks to the GWLHS.

The opening of the Gt Wyrley Memorial Garden on Saturday 8 April 1922. Note the avenue of lime trees – these were vandalised and offered to the families of the fallen. Thanks to the GWLHS.

It would also be wrong to believe that people treated such memorials or rolls of honour with respect. Take Great Wyrley again. In 1917 the village looked to compile a current Roll of Honour, which was unveiled in February 1918. Housed in a wooden shelter, its accompanying flowers were stolen on several occasions. When the memorial garden was opened in 1922, the internal avenue that led from the gates was lined with 25 lime trees, one for each fallen soldier. The trees were quickly vandalised and so offered out to the families of the fallen by the Parish Council.

So, our brief sojourn into the issues of graveyards and memorials, I hope, has shown that nothing is straight-forward. In general, people have a plethora of different views on such issues and always have had, but in my opinion, the current upkeep of cemeteries and graveyards, the question that came to my mind when encountering Albert King’s grave, owes more to the failure of grave owners, health and safety and financial constraints than a lack of want.

Albert Edward King: I Just Want to Live in Peace and Quiet
Chalford’s economy had been based on cloth, but by the later 19th century this had passed over more to silk-throwing and stick-making (for walking sticks/umbrellas etc). It was into this economic climate that Albert King was born on the 5 February 1879 (being baptised at France Lynch Church on 30 June 1879), to parents Charles and Sarah Ann nee Jones. I suspect they met through silk throwing, as on the 1871 census Sarah is listed as a ‘visitor’ at the King’s house – with Sarah, Charles’ sister Ellen and his mother Charlotte all being listed as ‘silk factory hands’. Charles was a labourer in a saw mill at this time.

Charles and Sarah went on to marry in mid-1871 and would later have two children before Albert – Frances arriving in 1873 and Rosina in 1875/6. Saying that, Sarah seems to have a back story and we know this as three children were in fact all baptised retrospectively on 2 August 1878 at France Lynch Church – the two King children and a Florence Louisa Jones. Florence had been born in 1868, but her parents had been listed as a William Jones, a pattern maker, and Sarah Ann. Florence was living with her grandmother, Mary Jones, in 1871 – who lived just around the corner from King in Chalford. Whatever the relationship between Sarah Ann and William, and it is a little difficult to discern without more information, Florence was being brought-up in a family home in 1881.

The King family, 1881. (National Archives)

The King family, 1881. (National Archives)

The 1881 census shows that the new King family home was now one based on ‘stick-making’, with Charles listed as a ‘stick worker’ and Florence as ‘varnisher in a stick mill’. Sarah, around 5-years Charles’ senior, is not listed with a profession, so she is looking after the children. Frances and Rosina were listed as being at school.

By 1891, Florence had left the household; she had married Frederick Bryer, a sub-postmaster, in 1890 (with the surname of King on the marriage form), and had subsequently moved to Greenwich. Albert, I assume, was at one of the the local schools – possibly the British School at Chalford Hill – where he may have started to acquire his later Baptist sympathies. Frances and Rosina had started work; both were ‘bone workers’, which likely meant fixing bone handles to walking sticks for example.

The next decade or so would see Albert thrust into the real world, as his home life would break-up around him. First, in 1892, sister Frances married Christopher Gardiner. The couple moved to Peckham in London, where Christopher became a tram conductor and where they had had five children by 1901. In 1901, for some reason not clear as yet, though possibly just to visit both sides of the family, Frances was back in France Lynch with her children – and Rosina was staying with them – but she would be back in London in 1911.

Albert’s mother, Sarah, passed away in 1898 (I think being buried at Chalford on 16 December); she was followed by his sister, Florence. She passed away at the tender age of 31, in Greenwich, in 1899. Rosina married Henry Mills in 1902. The couple moved to Frampton Cotterall near Bristol, where Henry became a postman. The couple had two children by 1911.

So, other than Frances’ sojourn back around 1901, this left only Charles and Albert in Chalford. Charles, still working in the stick industry, was living as a lodger in the house of farm labourer James Gardiner – likely some relative of Christopher. Charles can be found as a 64-year-old stick worker as an inmate of the Stroud Workhouse in 1911. We know, at some stage, he was moved to the County Lunatic Asylum in Gloucester and this was where Charles died. He was interred at Chalford on 3 July 1915.

Albert King on the 1901 census (National Archives)

Albert King on the 1901 census (National Archives)

Albert had had to make his own way in life. After leaving school he may well have taken a carpentry apprenticeship, as in 1901 he is described as a cabinet maker. At that time he was a 22-year-old lodger in Chalford Hill with the Boultons; without children living at home, William Boulton was a 51-year-old gardener.

By 1911 Albert had his own property on Randalls Green, Chalford Hill – likely Providence Cottage – as this was listed as his home in 1918. His profession was described as ‘cabinet maker, maker of tables, chests of drawers, wardrobes etc in deal [coniferous] and hard woods’. This description suggests that Albert was an artisan, however, he is also described as a ‘worker’ and not as ‘own account’, so it appears that his property was not a shop.

Albert Edwards living alone in 1911. (National Archives)

Albert Edwards living alone in 1911, possibly in Providence Cottage, Randalls Green, Chalford Hill. (National Archives)

We know that Albert was a Baptist before the war, indeed, not only were some of his coffin bearers from the Chalford Tabernacle Men’s Own Brotherhood but he was also described as a ‘useful member of the Brotherhood’ in the Stroud News’ account of the Tabernacle meeting when hid death was first announced. Thanks to Camilla Boon and the Chalford Local History Society, we know that King was later described, in the Tabernacle Annual Report of 1919, as having ‘by his quiet, consistent life won his way into our hearts’.

The first mention of King's death at a meeting of the Chalford Tabernacle Men's Own Brotherhood in a report of the Stroud News on 13 September 1918. (Stroud Library)

The first mention of King’s death at a meeting of the Chalford Tabernacle Men’s Own Brotherhood in a report of the Stroud News on 13 September 1918. (Stroud Library)

It is extremely likely that Albert King was also, if not a teetotaller (this means total abstinence, not a reference to tea!), then a partial abstainer. We know, from the write-up of his funeral in the Stroud News on 20 September 1918, that he was a member of the Valley Lodge of the International Order of Good Templars. Originally an American movement of the 1850s, the Order spread world-wide promoting abstinence and still exist today.

Albert Edward King in Lodge regalia. (Chalford Local History Society)

Albert Edward King in Lodge regalia. (Chalford Local History Society).

So, Albert was clearly chapel. His name appears on the Baptist war memorial as well as that of the parish. All this does leave a little puzzle though: if Albert was such an ardent Baptist, why is he not buried in the chapel’s graveyard (as other soldiers were) rather than the Anglican graveyard at Christchurch? We know his parents were interred in the Anglican cemetery and this may be a reason (they could be in the same grave, but I would need to see the church grave plan for that).

The Chalford Bpatist memorial - with King's name. ( )

The Chalford Bpatist memorial – with King’s name. ( )

So, what do we know of Albert’s war? Well, his war record doesn’t survive but we can still piece some things together through what does exist and by placing him in the context of his regiment and the war as a whole.

Firstly, we know that Albert, possibly because of his religious beliefs, was not caught up in the wave of volunteering hysteria that greeted the declaration of war. We know this as his medal entitlement means he could not have served abroad before 1916, and his obituary stated that he had been in France for about two years (making an earlier 1916 and therefore a conscription date likely).

Albert's medal card, showing that he was entitled to the Victory and War medals - showing he was in service from 1916 onward. (National Archives)

Albert’s medal card: showing that he was entitled to the Victory and War medals, indicating he was on active service from 1916 onward. (National Archives)

Further, as the war progressed and the need for men became more acute, he also staved-off the peer pressure to enlist. I cannot say what it was like in Chalford, but peer pressure came in the form of a increasing newspaper and poster (government) campaigns against ‘shirkers’, constant recruitment campaigns in towns, along with the active encouragement of women to issue ‘white feathers’ to men deemed as fit enough for service. This would get so bad that silver war service badges were issued from September 1916 to men no longer fit for active service (having served) and to those in reserved occupations to signify as such.

Albert stayed out of the war for as long as he could, but as a single man under 41-years of age he would have been one of the first called-up after conscription was introduced in January 1916. For Albert, this could have been as early as March, but it is clear that he, unlike some, answered the summons. The British Army could be accused of wasting lives, but it seemed they didn’t waste Albert’s talent as an artisan carpenter. He was drafted into the Royal Engineers and found himself in the Chatham area, in the 2nd Reserve Battalion, while he underwent training.

Postcard of Chattenden Barracks - Albert was either here or down the road at Chatham in 1916. (Kent History Forum)

Postcard of Chattenden Barracks – Albert was either here or down the road at Chatham in 1916. (Kent History Forum)

Training would have consisted of three months basic training: involving drill, physical fitness, shooting and so forth. After this, there would likely have been a period of similar duration encompassing more specialised training – as a Sapper in the Royal Engineers (an equivalent to a Private rank in an infantry regiment), this would include well digging, railways, bridges, communications, trench building and fortifications. Albert would also have been tested and graded on his carpentry skills.

After this period, which appears to be around September 1916, Albert was transferred to an operational unit – this would be the 202 County Palatine (Lancashire) Field Company. Part of the 30th Division, the Company were currently active on the Somme. We have no idea if Albert started as a woodworker, but we do know that, according to his death certificate, he became a signaller.

At this point we need to pause a moment. At some time during his training Albert made a major, personal decision. With no parents, his two sisters married and so taken care of, he decided to make is will out to a certain Frances Clara Mason. If the 1916 date is accepted, and I suggest this as he is listed as being of the 2nd Reserve Battalion, then prior to call-up he was listed as being of Providence Cottage, Chalford Hill. So, who is Frances Clara Mason?

Albert's will made out to Frances Clara Mason - this must have been made in 1916 as he he described as being of the 2nd Reserve Battalion. (

Albert’s will made out to Frances Clara Mason – this must have been in 1916 as he is described as being of the 2nd Reserve Battalion. (

Frances Clara Mason: A Special Friend
Frances was born to parents George Mason and Mary Ann nee West. The couple had married at Oakridge church on 7 June 1879 and settled to live there. George, who could write, was a labourer, Mary, who could not, was the daughter of a labourer. Neither of the couple’s witnesses could write, suggesting that Frances, the couple’s eldest child, was not born into luxury. I believe she was born on 5 January, but I know she was baptised as a Methodist on 20 March 1881 – one assumes at Oakridge Wesleyan Methodist Church. On the 1881 census the 24-year-old George was described as a carter; Mary, of the same age, was originally from the Isle of Wight.

Oakridge Lynch Wesleyan Methodist Church. (Gareth Rees)

Oakridge Lynch Wesleyan Methodist Church. (Gareth Rees)

The couple had a second child, Henry George, who was baptised in the Anglican church at Oakridge on 7 September 1884. A third child, Rose Adelaide, was born on 5 August 1887. She was privately baptised in the December, which suggests she was sickly. Rose died in 1890, aged just 2. Sill in Oakridge Lynch in 1891, George was described as general labourer on the census. In 1901, the two children were now gainfully employed in the stick industry. George was still a general labourer and yes, the family were still in Oakridge.

Frances Clara Mason on the 1911 census. (National Archives)

Frances Clara Mason on the 1911 census. (National Archives)

Further tragedy struck in 1906, when Henry died at the age of 21. The 1911 census actually shows that the Masons had had four children, but only Frances was still alive. Sadly, I can’t be certain of the fourth child’s name. George was now a farm labourer, Frances a stick painter. Clearly both Frances and Albert had lived near each other all their lives and I can only believe that either they were really good friends or, more likely, they were a couple and intending to marry at some stage.

There are a couple of issues though. Firstly, Frances is not recorded as being at the burial service by the Stroud News, which doesn’t mean that she wasn’t there. Secondly, why didn’t they marry before he went to war, as many did? Albert must have known that he would be called-up and, indeed, his call-up would have been delayed had he been married as the draft was only extended to cover married men in May 1916. Finally, thanks to the Chalford Local History Society, we know that Albert came home on leave in November 1917, and this would have afforded them a chance to tie the knot – but they didn’t. Whatever their reasons, whatever the depth of their relationship, we will pick-up Frances’ story later.

Albert King in France

Signallers using a Lucas lamp. ( )

Signallers using a Lucas lamp. ( )

Albert’s war in France is problematic. I have three sources that put him in the 202 RE, one of which describes him as a signaller. I have gone through the war diaries for both the 202 RE Group and the 30th Divisional Signal Company (providing signalling for the Divisional HQ) and he isn’t mentioned in either – this isn’t unusual, as while some non-officers are mentioned on occasion (awards of medals, being killed or wounded) often they are abbreviated to ‘ORs’ – other ranks. So, we can’t say if he was transferred to the 202 from the 2nd Reserve Battalion or another RE Group and if so, when; if he was attached to an infantry regiment also in the 30 Division; if he started as a woodworker and became a signaller out of necessity; when he left the front-line and why. All this means that I can only offer suggestions as to what King may have witnessed.

A signaller testing the telephone lines. (

A signaller testing the telephone lines. (

Albert would have undergone specialist training for being a signaller either when in England, or he would have been pulled from service to do it while at the front. He would have been trained in visual communications: flags, heliograph and the use of lamps for example, but it was the telephone that was king by the time our King got to the front. Quite simply, a signaller would be employed in providing (manning and laying lines) or supporting (repairing lines) communications between two points – usually involving the front-line. It was dangerous work – front-line signalling posts were targeted for obvious reasons and the Royal Engineers could often be found trying to lay telephone cables as the infantry advanced around them during an attack.

Working on telephone lines - note the armband. (

Working on telephone lines – note the armband. (

Albert, if the September date is accurate, joined the 202 north of the River Somme. The 202 were comprised of four sections, each of which were able to act independently. On 11 October, five of his new ‘OR’ colleagues were killed and three injured while working on Turk Trench and Goose Alley at Montauban. The rest of the year was spent in the Berles-Aux-Bois area, in and out of the line, undertaking repairs, making signs, completing water and railway schemes, erecting huts etc. Christmas saw a dinner and concert, ‘both greatly enjoyed by the troops’.

The opening months of 1917 were spent in the Arras area, where five men were wounded by an enemy shell on 3 March. Just after, the Germans retired to the Hindenburg Line (a shorter, better defensible position) and the 202 were employed in making repairs on what had deliberately been sabotaged by the Germans and building anew as the front-line moved-up. April saw the 202 involved in the Second Battle of Arras, which was co-ordinated with a French attack to the south. It ended in the May, and the 202 would take several casualties. At the end of that month the 202 found themselves in Belgium, at Ypres.

June saw several casualties in what seemed to be a case of ‘shelled last night, shelled the night before, going to be shelled tonight if we never get shelled anymore’. July saw the opening of the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele) and 31 July saw three killed and 10 wounded when the 202 were shelled at Sanctuary Wood. In August, four men were awarded Military Medals for bravery. The battle continued until November and the 202 were more out of the line for the last few months, indeed, it seems that Albert had returned to England for leave around 9 November. By February 1918 the 202 were to be back on the Somme.

All hell started in March. The 202 were at Roupy and actually took-up battle positions on the 21 March, as the Germans commenced a heavy bombardment – their opening gambit of ‘Kaiserschlact’, a series of offensives aimed at destroying the Allies before the Americans appeared in numbers on the battle front. Within days the 202 lost one killed and several wounded, as positions were continually over-ran by German storm-troopers. By April the German offensives had petered out and the 202 were moved to the Ypres area, where they were immediately hit with a gas attack which caused several casualties. They remained there until August, when the Allied counter-offensive was launched – and they supported it. I think Albert was back in Blighty at this stage.

Albert King at Home
Albert died on 6 September 1918 from endocarditis. Endocarditis is a bacterial infection of the lining or valves of the heart; bacteria may be allowed in due a congenital heart defect or from local infections such as pneumonia, via wounds, bowl conditions (including cancer) and even the brushing of ones teeth. It is degenerative, often hits in middle age and is now treated with antibiotics – to which King did not have access. It is pure speculation as to whether Albert had an underlying condition, had been wounded at some stage or had contracted flu (Spanish?), but I suggest that Albert was diagnosed and repatriated, possibly considered fit enough for home service, as early as the July. He continued to decline and was hospitalised at the military hospital at Gosforth, Northumberland, where he remained until his death.

Albert's stone, carved by J Cottle of Chalford. 2016.

Albert’s stone, carved by J Cottle of Chalford. 2016.

Albert’s body was sent to Chalford and was interred on 14 September. Described in the Stroud News as having a ‘quiet, unassuming nature’, the chief mourners were his sisters and some friends. The coffin, draped in the Union flag, was carried by friends, including E Peacey of the Volunteer Training Corps (the Home Guard of the day), and members of the Brotherhood. The Valley Lodge was also represented in force. Albert was buried with full military honours – including a three volley salute and a bugler playing the Last Post. Later, a stone was carved by J Cottle of Bliss Cottage, Chalford, and erected by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Albert's entry in the Soldier's Effects Register, with Frances Clara Mason named as beneficiary. (National Army Museum)

Albert’s entry in the Soldier’s Effects Register, with Frances Clara Mason named as beneficiary. (National Army Museum)

As I said, Frances Clara Mason was not reported as being at the service. It is possible that for whatever reason she wasn’t, however, I think it more likely that the newspaper reporter did not know that she was anyone significant to Albert. On 25 October 1918 Frances received over £94 from Albert’s will, and she went onto receive over £54 from the military during 1919 as his appointed heir. She went on to marry Edmund Hill, a journeyman cabinet maker from Randwick (the other side of Stroud), in late 1920. I wonder if he and Albert knew each other?

This isn’t the end of the story. A glance at Albert’s medal card will show that his medals were returned under King’s Regulation 992 (1923 is the year). Some medals were returned for alteration and 8426/adt written on the card may mean this, but I believe KR 992 actually meant that the medals were sent out by post and were not claimed – they were then returned to the military who held onto them for a while before melting them down. Confusing.

If we knew to whom the medals were sent we may have an answer: if to one of his sisters then they were likely returned for adjustment, if to Frances Clara Mason then it is possible they were refused for a very good reason – and not because she had started a ‘new life’. Frances Mason died from cancer of the intestine on 9 March 1923 at Bidcombe Cottage, France Lynch. Around the same time her father died and her mother, who I can’t trace further with certainty, was left having buried her husband and all four children. I don’t believe Edmund ever remarried and I believe he passed away in the local area in 1951. He was 81.

This article is in memory of Albert King and his family, along with the Mason family – I hope it shows that there is a story below each stone in any graveyard. It is dedicated to our brilliant friends Mat and Lou (they know why) and, without doubt, to the Chalford Local History Society, who have been researching a book on their fallen – proving not only that these were people, but they still are. Fantastic.

With thanks to:
Chalford Local History Group (and Camilla Boon)
Stroud Library
Donna Ford (Mrs Blog)
University of Birmingham
Birmingham Evening Mail
Walsall Local History Centre
Great Wyrley Cemetery
Cheslyn Hay Cemetery
Bloxwich All Saints
Great Wyrley St Marks
Chalford Christchurch
Great Wyrley Local History Society
National Archives
Kent History Forum
National Army Museum
Gareth Rees