A Man, a War, a Harp and a Monkey: The Frederick Wray Story

Forgive me: I am not a great writer and too often tell a good story, badly. This may appear as one of those tragic First World War tales in which nothing good can be found – and I can understand that view, only having rebuilt just a little of this man’s life – but, in saying that, it is also true that if you only look for tears, tears is all you will find. I was wading through some of my own darkest hours of doubt when I started to look into Wray and, likely because of this, I met it with a need to find the positives: so, while things happened to Fred that were clearly outside of his control, and we all will sympathise, we mustn’t let that overshadow his entire life.

The Prologue
The title to this story is a little bit different and I am sure the mind is boggling as to just how a man, a war, a harp and a monkey could all fit together. Well, the first link is easy: the search for the man, Frederick George Wray, started with a bit of a mystery that arose from the war memorial in Hednesford. What happened then was that the mystery was partly solved through a moment of serendipity, however, the answer that moment of serendipity provided only served to take the story on – and to try to answer a question posed by a harp and a monkey! Confused? I will explain.

Hednesford War Memorial - unveiled 9 November 1922. 2016.

Hednesford War Memorial: it was unveiled 9 November 1922. 2016.

Last year, I wrote an article using the Degg family of Hednesford as a way of looking at the First World War through the eyes and experiences of a local family. As a part of that article I photographed the Hednesford war memorial – as John Degg was on it – and investigated a little of its own history. The monument was unveiled on 9 November 1922, and as the names were on cast plaques and not cut into the stone (as names can be added) then clearly the decease of those on it were collated in one go and had to predate that.

Our man, Frederick Wray, on the plaques of the Hednesford war memorial. 2016.

Our man, Frederick Wray, on the plaques of the Hednesford war memorial. 2016.

The last name on the memorial stone plaques, a fact I only noticed for that reason, was that of a Frederick G Wray. It was while researching Degg that I came across a local website that said ‘nothing further was known’ of Wray and so my intrigue grew and I took a moment out to follow it up: while the original programme for the unveiling (which has been put on-line by the Burntwood Family History Group) had Wray as being from Church Hill, Hednesford, and a soldier in the ‘Worcesters’, a quick check on my part showed that there was no Commonwealth war grave that was attributable to this man.

I intended to leave it there for the time being, however, just a few days later the moment of serendipity occurred: as I worked on Degg, I found an entry in the local newspaper for 1916 that detailed, in few lines, the fate of a Private Frederick Wray of the Worcestershire Regiment.

The Lancashire (we don't hold that against them) folk trio Harp and a Monkey. (http://www.harpandamonkey.com/)

The Lancashire folk trio Harp and a Monkey. (http://www.harpandamonkey.com/)

Enter the harp and a monkey, or more exactly a Harp and a Monkey. These abstract nouns, that should never really be used together, are in fact a favourite band of mine.

The fact that they are a folk group is perhaps betrayed by their 1971 Open University Sociology lecturer dress and that they still use a car powered by 4-Star petrol 🙂 – oh! And the fact that they can all play a plethora of instruments is taken for granted – however, while they mix traditional with an electro-modern style, there is little in the way of ‘Cushy Butterfield’ dum-dee-diddly-dum about this group.

The band have recently completed an album, supported by the Arts Council and the Western Front Association, called ‘War Stories’; this album comprised of ‘new material and re-worked traditional songs (which strive to challenge stereotypes of the conflict)’. I particularly found one song on the album, entitled ‘Broken Men’, quite haunting (you can listen to it by clicking the link below, and I am grateful to the band for allowing me to use it).

The song blends the traditional black-humoured trench song ‘Bombed Last Night’ with the experiences of a soldier that loses his leg ‘in an old shell-hole’ in the early days of the war (in Belgium). The soldier is at first apprehensive of coming home and nervously reminds his wife of their wedding vows, for better or worse. It then jumps on four years and to a state of estrangement between them due to his ‘broken nature’, before ending, almost pathetically, with all such men asking their wives if they will ‘still love us’ on their return.

I could not ignore the similarities between this fictional soldier and Wray; and it was this that provided the inspiration to investigate Frederick Wray’s story further. At the end of the day the question raised is unanswerable, as each man’s experiences will be different, but I would like to see if I can at least try to answer if Frederick George Wray was shunned on his return.

Frederick Wray: Early Life
Frederick’s father, Francis, was born in Dawley, Shropshire, in 1866. He was the son of an ironstone miner and from a large family, one of at least a dozen children. In 1881 (and listed under the surname spelling of Ray), Francis was employed as an errand boy in Madeley (which is in the Ironbridge/Telford area), but by 1891 the family had relocated to Rugeley Road, Hednesford. Francis, around 25 years of age at this point, became a painter and decorator.

On 23 December 1894, Francis married Josephine Louisa Phipps at Moxley Church. Josephine was the daughter of a master-baker; she was actually born in Philadelphia, in 1872, during a 4 year spell in which her parents lived in the United States. By 1881 the family were in Dudley, where her father ran a small business employing two men. Described as a milliner, a decade later she was lodging, with her brother, in Attercliffe, Sheffield; she couldn’t have been there too long as she was a resident of Moxley at the time of her marriage.

The couple moved into Hall’s Buildings, which were off McGhie Street in the West Hills area of Hednesford. Two years after their marriage the couple were delivered of their first child, whom they named Frederick George (this branch of the family seemingly being spelled Wray). He was christened in St Peter’s Church on 20 December 1896. Around the turn of 1900/1901 the couple had their second child, Florence; she would be their last.

1901 census for Frederick Wray, Hall’s Buildings, West Hills, Hednesford. (National Archives)

In 1904, Frederick’s uncle, and name-sake, saw his grocery business in Market Street, Hednesford, go into bankruptcy. Unaffected, unless it caused some family embarrassment, Frederick and Florence would spend their childhood years living in the same buildings, and I would assume that both went to the West Hill schools as it was just around the corner. Florence was still described on the 1911 census as being a scholar, whereas Frederick, at the ripe old age of 14 years, had started on his path to fortune – well, he had become a ‘butcher’s boy’ at least.

West Hills School, likely where Frederick Wray and his sister attended. (Richard Law)

As the country trod its calamitous path to war, Frederick simply got on with things and earned his professional stripes. He was eventually employed as a butcher by a Mr Goodwin of Cannock Road, Hednesford.

Freddie’s War
We have no surviving war service records for Freddie, so all that we have has been pieced together from snippets from the newspapers and other sources.

A report in the Cannock Advertiser in the November of 1916 stated that Fred signed-up in ‘January last’ and an enlistment date of 24 January was given on his medal award. This then, to me, would indicate to me that he was a volunteer under the Lord Derby scheme.

The Derby scheme was the last throw of the dice regarding a volunteer army, and with it the need to avoid conscription. The numbers of recruits had fallen dramatically since the start of the war and in 1915 a survey was undertaken of potential military manpower and of those men in reserved occupations. Derby’s scheme was effectively to try to cajole and embarrass men into the services; those who attested would then be placed into groups and called-up in turn. The idea was that younger single men would precede the older married ones, however, the scheme was a spectacular failure and conscription soon followed.

If Frederick attested under the Derby scheme, he would have done so in the last months of 1915. He would, being both born in 1896 and being single, have been placed into Group 2 (of 46); Group 2 men were put on order in December 1915 and mobilised on 20 January 1916 – which would fit with the newspaper report and the medal award. There is a good chance that by this stage that he and his parents were living at 106 Church Hill, Hednesford.

Frederick’s medal roll and card have him being placed into the 1/5 South Staffordshire Regiment, before going into the 10th Worcestershire Regiment. The truth is that we have no easily obtainable evidence as to where Frederick trained, when he was in the Staffs and when he was moved from that regiment to the Worcesters. In fact, other than in the November of 1916 we can only place him in one other location – Ireland.

The laconic newspaper account simply states that Wray was in Ireland prior to his service in France. Now, bearing in mind that he only went into the army in January 1916, it seems likely to me that he was one of those half-trained and raw recruits that were shipped to Ireland on 24 April to help quell the Easter Rising.

The problem is that I cannot trace anything to suggest that the 1/5 Staffordshire Regiment nor the 10th Worcestershire Regiment were ever involved in Ireland – they were both already in France – but the 2/5 and the 2/6 Staffordshire Regiment were. Whatever the truth of the situation, it is possible that Wray witnessed the infamous events in Mount Street and North King Street in Dublin, but we just do not know for sure.

And so whatever his involvement in Ireland, Frederick would eventually be on his way to the 10th Battalion Worcestershire Regiment and to the Battle of the Somme. This battle was actually a collection of engagements and the dates for it assigned after the war. As everyone surely knows after the centenary, the offensive started on 1 July; it wasn’t to officially finish until 18 November, with the Battle of Ancre.

The aim of the attack astride the Ancre river was the elimination of the German salient around Beaumont-Hamel. The assault was launched on Monday 13 November, in poor weather, and facing strong retaliation. Partially successful, a further assault was ordered for 18 November.

According to the 10th Worcestershire’s war diary, one company joined the 8th North Staffordshire Regiment, half a company joined the 10th Royal Warwickshire Regiment and one and a half companies joined the 8th Gloucestershire Regiment – all with the purpose to help ‘mop-up’ after the initial advance (clearing dug-outs and over-run trenches). One company also remained in reserve. We do not know where Frederick was assigned, but he must have been involved.

Mopping-up is what they did, and didn’t seem to meet much opposition according to the diary. It went on to say that after the mop-up the men then sheltered in shell-holes and trenches, sniping at targets, until they returned to headquarters. It was only on their return that it was noticed that casualties had in fact been heavy, with the ‘other ranks’ losing 5 men dead, 41 wounded and 50 missing – one of the latter must have been Frederick George Wray. With poor weather closing in, that was to be the last official day of the Somme.

Two days later and Freddie was to be found alive, lying in a shell-hole, with his left leg in pieces; it seems a miracle that he survived. He was picked-up and, as his battalion marched away the following day, he would have been evacuated through the Casualty Clearing Station to a hospital near base camp. ‘Life goes on, regardless’, as Harp and a Monkey would say. In time, Wray would return to England; he was sent to the Huddersfield War Hospital, where what remained of his left leg was amputated.

Huddersfield War Hospital, where Wray had his leg amputated. (robmcrorie)

Wray’s war was now and truly over. His recuperation would have started in Huddersfield, although he could have been moved closer to his family when safe to do so; how long this took is anyone’s guess. He would then have been moved to one, or a series of Convalescence Homes; here, he would have built up his strength and learn to understand and live with his injuries under medical observation. He would have been offered an artificial limb and be trained in how to fit it and manoeuvre in it, but these were made in wood and were heavy and uncomfortable – see the snippet of film below from British Pathe (via You Tube). The war led to improvements in artificial limbs (lighter and more flexible) and increased manufacture, but there was a shortage in general: it took Oliver Degg some years to get prosthetic feet fitted after he lost them to frostbite in Gallipoli.

Freddie’s Peace
Another aspect of convalescence was an attempt to retrain those ‘broken men’ that had once been miners (for example) into a more suitable line of work, so they could support themselves and their families. Freddie was a butcher before the war and he returned to it, becoming a butcher and the manager for Eastman’s butchers shop in Market Street, Hednesford.

Thanks to excellent https://buildingourpast.com blog we know Eastman’s had quite and empire of butcher’s shops, although by 1917 it was on the decline. The British company had been established in 1889 and by 1896 it owned shops locally in Walsall (several), Willenhall, Wednesbury, Wolverhampton, and West Bromwich. By 1903 it had over 200 shops nationally, and this grew to a peak of around 1400 by 1912 (by which time the Hednesford branch had opened).

So, Freddie had a job – and an important one. We have no idea when he returned fully to civilian life, but he was formally discharged and awarded his Silver Medal by the Army on 14 August 1917 – so around this date seems likely.

In February 1918 rationing started in the Cannock region and meat was one of the things that began to be rationed. Supplies and sales were disrupted and the rationing process caused more administration. The war hit Eastman’s hard and it lost a third of its shops nationally; this must have put pressure on Freddie, although he clearly was successful enough as manager to keep the Hednesford branch going.

The Cross Keys, Hednesford, where Freddie attended the John Wesley lodge of the RAOB, not long after the picture was taken. (HeathHaysHistory)

So, Freddie had a job, but Freddie also had respect: we know from later newspaper accounts that he was a ‘valued’ member of the John Wesley lodge of the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes, which met at the Cross Keys Hotel in Hednesford.

I suppose this goes part-way to answering a Harp and a Monkey’s question with regard to Wray being shunned; however, as the crux of the song was ‘to love and be loved’, to answer it fully we need to look deeper.

On 1 April 1918, Frederick Wray married Catherine Beddow at St Peter’s Church in Hednesford. Catherine was from a local Hednesford family, her father being a miner. She, herself, was a ‘tailoress’ according to the 1911 census, but was described as a ‘munitions worker’ according to the marriage record.

The timing of this marriage is important in my opinion: bearing in mind that Frederick had gone to war in January 1916, suffered the loss of his leg in the November, had gone through a lengthy rehabilitation, possibly only returned to Hednesford around the August month of 1917, then I would suggest that Catherine and he were in a relationship prior to his attestation.

If this is the case, then it is a resounding ‘yes’ to Harp and a Monkey’s question about still being wanted. If it is not the case, then he still seems to have found new love despite his injuries. Either way, it perhaps shows that his experience had not radically changed him as a person which is also suggested by position with Eastman’s and his role in the Buffaloes.

Freddie and Catherine, likely when setting-up their marital home, moved to 191, Littleworth Road. Seven months after their wedding and the war would be over, an event which was met with street parties everywhere; whether Freddie joined in is another question. Just over a year after they married, on 27 June 1919, the couple had their first child – Dorothy Maud.

In August 1920, Eastman’s were purchased by the Vestey Brothers chain (now Vestey Foods) and became part of a wider empire – although it seems the shop name was retained.

In 1921, Catherine became pregnant for a second time. The couple’s second child – Francis Douglas – was baptised on 27 January 1922 and this would mark the zenith of Freddie’s fortunes, for as the presence of his name on the war memorial suggests, things were swiftly to turn sour for both him and Catherine.

On Thursday 9 February Freddie turned-up to work, but he was clearly ill and was sent home. On Valentine’s Day, Freddie succumbed to pneumonia.

Freddie’s burial took place on the following Sunday (the 19th), and the service was described in the newspapers as a ‘striking manifestation of public sympathy’. Over 90 members of the lodges of the Buffaloes attended in full regalia, including the Grand Primo of Walsall, ‘to pay their last mark of respect to one who was highly esteemed’. Sadly, his wife was seriously ill too so she could not attend the funeral. He was interred in the churchyard. The grave is now in a dilapidated state; I left a poppy badge.

The dilapidated Wray grave in Hednesford St Peter’s churchyard. 2016.

And so that is how Frederick George Wray ended-up on the Hednesford war memorial, and why there is no Commonwealth war grave for him.

The question posed by Harp and a Monkey was an interesting one. My other articles on World War One have shown me that men did return to a war-weary public, but this manifested itself in the disinterest in displaying war trophies, the struggle to finance many war memorials and hiding from society of the mentally damaged rather than shunning the physically wounded soldiers.

Whether I have answered a Harp and a Monkey is for you to judge, but I hope I have and in a positive way. I hope I have shown that with his family, work and the Buffaloes, Freddie was not shunned or unloved, he just had bad luck. The sad thing about it is that if the word tragedy is to be used in this story then it should be reserved for what was yet to come, as the family faced life after Freddie.

Catherine Wray: A Brave New World
The world Catherine would face on 15 February was scary: Catherine had a three year-old child and another just weeks old, and as Frederick had made no will we do not know what property and money he left for her. There was no Welfare State for her to fall back on just some public assistance and the workhouse, so she may have had to return to tailoring. She probably knew that she would have to do like so many war widows had done to protect their families, and remarry. This is what she would eventually do, but I stress that this does not mean love was lacking.

She, herself, was ill when her husband died. Things would not improve: on 2 June 1922, Dorothy Maud, the couple’s eldest child, died aged just 3 years. Dorothy passed away from what was another scourge of the time, tuberculosis; she could have been suffering since birth or it may have been a swift onset, sadly it wouldn’t give the poor little thing much of a life. She too was interred in the Wray grave in St Peter’s.

It is more than likely that the house on Littleworth Road had already been vacated by Catherine and the children, as we know Dorothy died at 106, Church Hill – the home of Freddie’s parents.

Dorothy Maud, Frederick’s eldest child, who followed him to the grave by weeks. 2016.

On 7 October 1923, Catherine married George William Tranter at St. Peter’s. Tranter was born in 1900, so was a little younger than Catherine. He was local, from Florence Street, and a miner from a mining family. I believe they settled down in Huntington – at 255 Stafford Road – and started their own family (although this was not free from pain). Catherine would at least see her two children married before she died in late 1949, aged 53 years; George, I believe, died in 1968.

The last Wray tragedy was to be played out in May/June 1929. Francis, now 7 years old, developed an infection of the middle ear called Otitis Media. It is difficult to know how long he suffered with it, but likely it caused him pain. In all likelihood the condition wasn’t diagnosed and remained untreated, as the infection spread into the mastoid region behind the ear. Severe swelling ensued and the condition must have been spotted by this time, as he was referred to the Royal Hospital in Wolverhampton.

Francis’ memorial, added to the based of the now collapsed headstone of the Wray grave at St. Peter’s. 2016.

The condition, described as acute, was operated on to drain the puss: this may have been via an insertion in the eardrum, or by removing a piece of the skull behind the ear. Sadly, what would today be cured by antibiotics, proved fatal and Francis died on 3 June – seven years and a day after his sister. He was also interred in the family grave.

This article is in memory not only of Freddie, but of Catherine, Dorothy and Francis Wray. It is dedicated to a Harp and a Monkey, because they care enough to keep such things alive and, after all, they asked the question in their song that pushed the research on. I hope they feel they got an answer.

Thanks to:
Cannock Library
Burntwood Family History Group
Lichfield Record Office
National Archives
Richard Law
British Pathe (via YouTube)
Heath Hays History Group

and of course, A Harp and a Monkey