Driven to Despair: The Dark Side of the Cannock Chase Camps (part 1)

The Most Sensitive of Projects
Like many of my articles this one started off in one way and ended up going in another – well, more growing to be exact. The original intention was for it to be about William Usher Parnaby, a soldier-in-training who died in Cheslyn Hay in early July 1916, however, as I started to look into Parnaby, a soldier in the West Yorkshire Regiment who now lies at the edge of Cheslyn Hay’s cemetery, I became increasingly aware that he would be exceptionally difficult to talk about – even a century later – as he committed suicide.

I was going to leave the story there, however, while researching other things I happened upon the fact that Parnaby was not the only soldier stationed on Cannock Chase who committed suicide, or what can only be described as acted bizarrely, to escape their situation during the war. This fact had not gone unnoticed at the time, indeed it had actually led to a question on possible ‘bullying’ in the camps being raised in the House of Commons as early as 1916.

With this finding the size and scope of the article simply grew and grew, to the point I eventually decided to split it into three parts (and will add the links here as these parts are written and launched on the blog).

This, the first part of the article, is all about context. My investigations would show that the deaths of those men from the Chase camps reported in the newspaper were often attributed to ‘melancholia’ (depression), so, while it is clear that the concept of melancholia was understood back in World War One, I wanted to research just how well it was understood.

Just a note here: I have worked on mental health and asylum records during my time at the Staffordshire, Birmingham and Walsall archives, but I do not claim to be an expert and can only present briefly, as it is a huge topic, what my research has suggested to me. Further, I am trying to confine this article to melancholia; other mental health issues are discussed, but are so to generally give a comparison to the treatment and understanding of melancholia.

Part one concludes with the story of a local soldier, Silas Sargent of Bloxwich and Cheslyn Hay, who was not stationed at Cannock Chase, but allegedly took his own life in 1915. Silas is included to show, while it maybe obvious, that the Cannock camps were not the only camps that saw such tragedies.

I include the soldier stories not only to remember them as men, but to show how their cases either support or contradict my initial findings on the understanding of depression and stress at the time. What I also hope these stories show is how the soldiers, and their deaths, were often viewed and dealt with differently by the army and local communities alike; this sometime insouciant attitude has to be contrasted with the fact that their deaths were always a tragedy for their families – families that were left to grieve without financial support, counselling and likely under a cloud of shame.

Ironically, as the article is entitled ‘The Dark Side of the Cannock Chase Camps’, it isn’t until part two that a brief history and description of the camps appears. It is accompanied by the stories of those soldiers I know of that were at the camps and that died, or acted bizarrely, in 1916. Finally, part three will cover the camp soldiers of 1917 and 1918, with an overall summary.

Shot at dawn memorial at the National Arboretum. (Harry Mitchell)

Shot at Dawn memorial at the National Arboretum. (Harry Mitchell)

Suicide is a difficult thing to read about, never mind write about. I had to do a lot of soul-searching before I finally decided to attempt this project, due to what I saw as the conflict created by changing social mores: the more I researched the more I felt that the soldiers and their families of the day would prefer it to remain hidden (as was the then custom), whereas I felt their descendants and local communities of today would be more embracing and understanding.

This transition, and the deciding factor in writing the article, was demonstrated by the successful public call for those First World War soldiers not executed for murder or mutiny (some 306 of 346 men, mainly convicted for desertion and cowardice in the face of the enemy) to receive a pardon in 2006. Also, and further demonstrating in my view how much public sympathies have changed, a monument stands in the National Arboretum dedicated to those ‘shot at dawn’; indeed, as I started writing this article it was announced that three more names would be added to it.

There are of course no memorials to those pushed to a final act by extraordinary circumstances outside of their control. Recognition for these men is very important to me, as recently I have had my own battle to fight against such extraordinary circumstances – so I know what it takes from you both physically and emotionally. So, this series of articles is in memory of those soldiers, many only now known unto God, that fell victim this way. If it is too sensitive for you I crave your indulgence, but we cannot hide from the fact that this is what war does – and like those shot at dawn, is it not time we remembered these men for the whole of their lives, not the manner of their deaths?

Mental Health and the State: 1774 – 1914.
Today, while under-funded, mental health is treated with respect: terms such as ‘lunatic’, ‘madhouse’, ‘mental deficiency’, ‘lack of moral fibre’, ‘idiot’, ‘imbecile’ and ‘moron’ have long since been consigned to history (although used here as a historical piece) and are more likely now to be used as minor forms of abuse rather than as grading of mental capacity or the diagnosis of a condition. This wasn’t always the case of course.

In the later 18th century ‘lunatics’ were housed in prisons, pre-union workhouses, public hospitals (like the London ‘Bedlam’ Hospital) and private institutions and ‘madhouses’, although it was more about segregation and confinement (even with chains) than actual treatment.

In 1774 parliament attempted to regulate private institutions for the first time and in 1808 an act for the building of twelve county asylums was passed. These asylums, including St Georges in Stafford (opened in 1818), took time to build and in 1815, as conditions elsewhere were so appalling in general, a House of Commons inquiry into asylums took place. This, and following inquiries, eventually led to the setting up of the ‘Lunacy Commission’ in 1845, which would have power over all asylums. This Commission, and the setting up of Local Authorities after the passing of the Municipal Corporations Act in 1835, saw standards within institutions slowly starting to rise.

Winson Green Asylum - planned by the fledgling Birmingham City Council in the 1840s and opened in 1850. (http://www.winsongreentobrookfields.co.uk/)

Winson Green Asylum – built by the fledgling Birmingham City Council and opened in 1850. (http://www.winsongreentobrookfields.co.uk/)

Over the next decades patients were transferred to these asylums from prisons and workhouses, so capacity was soon reached. This in turn required the building of more asylums such as that at Burntwood, which was opened in 1864. These were not cheap to build, Burntwood Asylum was a complex of buildings with its own infirmary, chapel and graveyard.

Burntwood’s graveyard, and the over 3,000 former patients buried there, provides an insight into how the Asylum and the families of those that died there viewed mental health. Today, few grave markers remain; those that do are not in situ and an examination of those left show that the convention at Burntwood was to bury the dead anonymously.

The photograph below shows the marker for the male grave (as denoted by the M) 390. This grave contained the bodies of three former patients – who were identified not by name but by their patient number: 8475 was William Kent (d 18 February 1919), 8487 was John Arnold (d 27 February 1919) and 10945 was Ambrose Rose (d 4 March 1919).

Anonymous grave markers, now divorced from their graves, at the Burntwood Asylum graveyard. 2016.

Anonymous grave markers (for William Kent, John Arnold and Ambrose Rose), now divorced from their graves, at the Burntwood Asylum graveyard. 2016.

Lets get this clear, these people were not executed criminals destined for an anonymous burial within the confines of a prison, but people with an illness. If it wasn’t due to cost, the only explanation I can think of is that those buried there (and I would also hazard that this included those with melancholia) were buried anonymously to protect their (and their families) identities due to social stigma. We know the son and daughter of the 77 year-old Ambrose Rose were present at his burial as ‘10945’, so must have accepted it.

Referral to these institutions was made via a doctor, and as the understanding of mental health was in its infancy prior to WWI, these doctors would only make a judgement only if the patient exhibited ‘obvious’ behaviour – for example, starting fires, talking to themselves, deep morose and even epilepsy – or they took the word of a family member, and I have read some shocking accounts of women confined for being disobedient to husband or father. It was a system ripe for abuse.

Depending on how severe their illness, and seen very much as a therapy, patients were offered education and training: for children this could be schooling; for women, domestic work in the laundry or cooking; for men, tailoring for example. Most asylums, like workhouses, had farms attached. These farms, which helped the asylum to be self-sufficient, were operated by all patients that were considered able to do so.

Back in 1910, Winston Churchill had proposed the forced sterilisation of 100,000 ‘moral’ degenerates –  the proposal was thankfully not adopted by Asquith. After the 1913 Mental Deficiency Act, patients could be interned for ‘moral’ reasons – and I have come across cases of women institutionalised for having children out of wedlock. In my view, the 1913 Act was the zenith of the stigmatisation of the mentally ill. The Act looked to turn asylums (or build new institutions) into ‘colonies’ where the ‘mental defectives’ could be housed together and kept out of the general population.

After the First World War, and due to the sheer scale of cases, attitudes to mental health began to slowly change – although it took time and was not a smooth path. New attitudes were evident in a new terminology: asylums became hospitals and ‘mental deficiency’ became ‘mental health’. Self-referral arrived with the 1930 Mental Health Act and the National Health Service arrived in 1948.

Diagnosis: 1844 – 1914
Diagnosis was very much in its infancy in 1844, as shown by a report by the Metropolitan Commissioners. While the full report falls outside the nature of this article (available at http://studymore.org.uk/xmad1844.htm#Melancholia), there are two sections within it that I believe are fully relevant: Melancholia and Intermittent Mania. On Intermittent Mania, the 1844 report said…
‘Intermittent Mania or Madness attended with lucid intervals is by no means so frequent as might be inferred from the writings of authors on medical jurisprudence. Some medical writers, of considerable note, have denied the existence of lucid intervals altogether. The fact is, that in all large asylums, there are patients subject to occasional paroxysms of raving madness, but who have intervals of comparative tranquillity and rest… Recurrent Insanity differs from Intermittent Mania… it is a name applied to any form of mental disorder, when the patient recovers perfectly, but suffers from relapses after considerable periods of time’.

I looked into the question of ‘intermittent madness’ when I wrote an article on George Loake, and the murder he committed in Walsall in 1911 (see https://wyrleyblog.wordpress.com/walsall/tales-from-the-walsall-coroner/a-state-of-mind-george-loake-and-the-butts-murder-walsall-1911/). Loake was hanged as a sane man, but the doctors at his trial were forced to discuss his mental condition and opinion was divided. The doctors conceded that a man could be sane, then commit a murder while temporarily insane, before recovering his wits; what they couldn’t agree on was the age old question of how to be certain. Loake, I am sure, would have been sent to an institution today, but things were different in the 1910s. Loake shows that little had changed in this grey area since 1844.

Melancholy is today what we call depression and the 1844 report shows that, even then, it was understood to have levels of severity, it could be intermittent (manic depressive state), it could be difficult to see as a form of ‘insanity’ and the link between it and suicide was apparent. The report stated…
‘A considerable proportion of the inmates of all extensive lunatic asylums are the Melancholies… Some patients display merely lowness of spirits, with distaste for the pleasures of life, and a total indifference to its concerns. These have no disorder of the understanding, or defect in the intellectual powers, and, however closely examined, manifest no delusion or hallucination. This state often alternates with an opposite condition of the mind, namely, one of buoyancy of spirits, and morbid activity. It is thus frequently very difficult to determine in what degree Melancholy, when it exists without delusions, constitutes insanity. A great number of persons whose disorder is precisely that which is above described, and who betray no particular error of judgement or hallucination, are confined in lunatic asylums as a precaution against suicide, to which they are prone, in many instances, from a disgust of life… Melancholy patients require particular care and constant inspection, on account of the frequency of suicides among persons of this class’.

This was all known back in 1844 and yet prior to the outbreak of war in 1914 little had changed medically regarding depression, specifically the question of when someone exhibited enough symptoms to require hospitalisation. This fact is shown clearly through the Coroner’s inquests reported in the newspapers. If one examines a copy of the Walsall Observer, Cannock Advertiser and the Lichfield Mercury from any week prior to the war there would be a high likelihood that one would contain a report of an inquest resulting from the suicide of some unfortunate person who was described as ‘depressed’ for one reason or another (health and employment figuring highly). The verdict was usually ‘suicide while temporarily insane’, or while the ‘balance of the mind was disturbed’.

Again, it would be the wake of First World War that saw advances in the understanding and diagnosis of mental health disorders. This, in part, had to be a practical response to the number of cases the war produced.

The Military’s View
The Military have always faced the problem of soldiers suffering from what would later be called depression, combat stress, post-traumatic stress disorder and war neurosis, however, they had never encountered the scale of cases that World War One produced; further, the military had never faced such numbers of volunteer and conscripted recruits that, whether they wanted to be there or not, had no idea what they were actually heading for.

One must ask, if the experts could not differentiate between genuine and feigned ‘madness’, or when a melancholic state overpowers an individual, then what chance would the military have? I would have some sympathy for this view had it not been for the fact is they didn’t look in the first place: examine the attestation papers for a soldier of the First World War and it is clear that it was only about the individual signing the agreement and a doctor passing them as physically fit rather than concern for the potential soldier – everything was a declaration, nothing had to be proved (their age through a birth certificate, for example).

William Walkeden's attestation, note aged 17 years 10 months. It wasn't signed-off until March 1917. (National Archives)

An example of an  attestation, 1917. (National Archives)

While attesting soldiers were asked whether they had ever been guests of His Majesty’s prisons, doctors were not instructed to obtain declarations regarding mental health history. This means that any concerns they had regarding the attesting soldier could only be made during a short consultation and if they exhibited ‘obvious’ symptoms during it – a near impossible task if the man suffered form ‘intermittent’ or ‘recurrent mania’, or a form of melancholia.

Having once suffered from a form of depression did not make a man useless to the army, but by not asking questions men like William Parnaby, discussed in part two, never had to disclose the fact that he had spent a year in York Asylum, and so lost the protection and understanding afforded by not having written into his military record.

So what of the soldiers that did exhibit ‘obvious’ symptoms? Well, there was a process to follow.

A view of the graveyard at St Matthews Asylum in Burntwood will show nine war-graves, one of which belongs to Sydney Ager. Ager, the son of a railway tool fitter, was born in Wednesbury in 1882. The one-time biscuit packer and bioscope operator had moved to Reading with his family when he was around 5 years-old, and it was here that he married Florence Higgs in 1913. Ager would be called-up for military service, only to eventually die in the Burntwood Asylum on 11 March 1919.

Deemed to have enlisted on 24 June 1916, Ager was placed into the Somerset Light Infantry on 8 May 1918. Ager was then a 36 year-old grocer. Although declared fit to serve, it was clear that he had mental health issues quite quickly and by 23 May he had been sent to the Norfolk Military Hospital in Thorpe for observation and an overall medical assessment.

Initial observations were recorded and it was said that he appeared strange in manner, restless and confused; it went on to say that he talks to himself, wonders aimlessly around the hospital only to find that he was then unable to find his way back to his ward. Later, and worryingly, he set fire to his bedclothes and filled his pockets with grass, saying it was to put on a grave. ‘Mania’ was diagnosed.

Pte Sydney Ager, at rest in the former Burntwood St Matthew's Asylum graveyard. 2016.

Pte Sydney Ager, at rest in the former Burntwood St Matthew’s Asylum graveyard. 2016.

As was the system then, Ager’s case was placed before a tribunal. The medical reports declared him as permanently unfit and he was formally discharged on 19 July. He received a pension of 22/- a week for 13 weeks. Interestingly, his condition was decreed as not being the result of, or exacerbated by, his military service – which would mean he was not entitled to the war-grave that he eventually got. Further, the military clearly wanted to wash their hands of him; shockingly, the medical report recorded the doctor’s belief that no further treatment was necessary – including referral to an asylum.

Ager was discharged and dumped because he showed ‘obvious’ symptoms of ‘mania’. Other ‘obvious’ conditions included epilepsy, general paralysis of the insane (a form of syphilis) and the infamous condition known as ‘shell-shock’- which had visible effects that varied from minor trembling to complete bodily shutdown. The truth is the military were inundated with cases of ‘shell-shock’ as soon as the conflict started and simply could not cope. They became terrified by the effect on morale and the loss of manpower, so, with little real understanding of war neurosis, they painted the condition as a physical one instead of a nervous disorder.

Magnull - a specialist neurosis centre in WWI. (Unknown)

Magnull – a specialist neurosis centre in WWI. (Unknown)

It was originally accepted that in certain cases men had been affected by bursting shells near to them, which had caused the problem – but slowly they came to accept that there was more to it than that. Specialist neurosis centres, like that at Magnull in Liverpool, were established, but for most they were for patching men up and returning them to the front. Those men that did not respond to treatment would go through the same tribunals as Sydney Ager.

The military attitude took time to change after the war – indeed, some Second World War senior officers had come from the First World War generation and still held that period’s view of ‘moral fibre’. Veterans of the Great War that needed assistance would end-up receiving help not from the military directly, but from the military-based voluntary organisations that arose after the war: the Ex-Servicemen’s Welfare Society (now the Combat Stress charity) was formed in 1919 and in 1921 the British Legion was formed from four smaller organisations.

The Soldier’s (and Public) View
Treatment for officers was kinder than that for the rank and file, who faced painful electro-therapy, being filmed for medical purposes or being exposed to intrusive dream-therapy. My research has led me to believe that men not only feared this therapy, but distrusted and resented the tribunals that adjudicated on them. These feelings mean’t men tried to hide symptoms or turned to all kinds of self-help treatments, including nerve tonics like Senophos, advertised in Cannock Advertiser, in desperation to avoid breakdowns and nervous exhaustion.

Nerve tonics sold aplenty. (Cannock Library)

Nerve tonics sold aplenty to help avoid ‘breakdown’. (Cannock Library)

It wasn’t just the threat of undergoing the treatments or experiencing the tribunal system that pushed men into these homeopathic (at best) or quack (at worst) remedies, but the underlying and very real fear of the social stigma that accompanied mental illness and acts of cowardice. As is often the case, nothing even had to be proved; often the accusation or suspicion was often enough, as the case of Private W Kimberley shows.

Kimberley, then living in the Chase Terrace area, fought with the 2nd Staffordshire Regiment at Mons in August 1914. The British held the German advance, but were outnumbered and the battle is famed for the tactical withdrawal made by the British. Kimberley was injured during that withdrawal – breaking his foot after scaling a wall. Clearly there were whispers and Kimberley issued a denial of cowardice via a small article in the Cannock Advertiser. Anxious to return to the front, he went on to be killed on 20 April 1917.

Pte Kimberley's . (Cannock Library)

Pte Kimberley’s rebuttal over his cowardice, 1914. (Cannock Library)

So, what did the soldier think of men that did breakdown? Well, the evidence I present is actually supplied by the war poets, who, while drawn from the officer ranks, I suspect distil the thoughts of all the men that experienced the front-line.

Wilfred Owen was a victim of shell-shock and had spent time at Craiglockhart Military Hospital in 1917. While there he wrote Mental Cases, a disturbing poem about those suffering like himself. Talking of those ‘men whose minds the dead have ravaged’, it is very descriptive of the sufferer’s physical and mental torments and certainly does not accuse them of being malingerers.

In Does It Matter, Siegfried Sassoon gives a stanza to those post-war soldiers that continue to suffer from nightmares; he sarcastically and patronisingly tells the ‘victim’ that his dreams do not matter, as he could drink to forget it and people won’t think he is mad as they know he fought in the war.

In what I think is his most powerful poem, Suicide In The Trenches, Sassoon confronted the issues of overpowering depression and suicide:
I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.

In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.

Whether the subject of the poem was real person known to Sassoon, or he gave form to an experience that was tacitly witnessed by many soldiers, we do not know. What we can tell from it is that the immense change in conditions from his former to his current situation (which ‘smug-faced crowds’ would not appreciate) drove the anonymous youth to put ‘a bullet through his brain’. What is sad is that, despite the author’s expressed sympathy, ‘No one spoke of him again’: one explanation of this would be that he was perceived, sympathy or no, to be ‘lacking in moral fibre’ in some way. The fate of this ‘simple soldier boy’ mirrors that of Albert Walton, a Cannock camp soldier, who took his own life in 1916.

And the public view? well, I mentioned the Burntwood Asylum burials (Ambrose Rose, his son and daughter) earlier. One story I encountered, which happened to involve a soldier, mental health and the conflict between heartbreak and social stigma for his family, took place just prior to the outbreak of World War One and was reported in the Cannock Advertiser.

An unnamed soldier of the Worcestershire Regiment was placed by the military in an asylum, where he died. He had signed-up a few years previously under an assumed name, but was eventually tracked down by the grieving family and they petitioned the Home Secretary to have him exhumed so they could bury him at home – some 30 miles from his original resting place. This was done and the newspapers carried a report as it was a somewhat unusual case – yet the soldier’s name was redacted – which I would guess would not have been the case if he had died anywhere else but the asylum.

The conflict between love and social stigma for one family in June 1914. (Cannock Library)

The conflict between love and social stigma for one family in June 1914. (Cannock Library)

Summary
I suppose what I have tried to show is that prior to the 1914-1918 war everyone was openly aware that there were asylums and, in historic parlance, ‘mad people’. Crudely, and unsympathetically, the Government tried to deal with it, the medical profession tried to treat it, the military tried to ignore it and the public simply feared the stigma of it as much as falling pray to it.

When it came to what we now call depression and stress everyone also knew it existed, but nobody really approached the problem at Government or medical level – tacitly accepting a plethora of ‘temporarily insane’ coroner verdicts as a result. The military completely ignored it, and in a way were supported by the Victorian mores of the time – stiff upper lip, show no weakness and so forth – and the fear of not living up to them. This was convenient for the military, as it retained manpower and resources that would otherwise have been lost and, until the end of the First World War, that is the uneasy way it would stay.

Silas Sargent: The Cheslyn Hay Hairdresser
One man that was living in Cheslyn Hay at the outbreak of the war, actually died while on military service, but does not appear on the parish war memorial is Silas Sargent. Sargent, it is said, took his own life on 3 June 1915 and it would be easy to think that Cheslyn Hay were a little embarrassed about him and so decided to discretely omit his name, but I am not convinced that this is the case.

The Cheslyn Hay war memorial has no Silas Sargent. 2016.

The Cheslyn Hay war memorial has no Silas Sargent. 2016.

Silas was born in 1880 to parents Silas and Sarah Ann (nee Holloway). Silas senior was born in Bloxwich around 1852, the son of a buckle maker. In 1870 he married Sarah at Rushall Church, who was the same age, a Londoner by birth and the daughter of a colliery labourer. The couple settled down in Church Street, Bloxwich, and we know from the census that Silas had followed his father into the buckle trade.

In mid-1871 Sarah delivered the first of the couple’s twelve children, Rose. Clara followed in 1874, Alfred in 1877, Cecilia in 1879, before Silas Henry Sargent was born in 1880. In 1881 Silas senior was registered on the census as being an awl blade maker, yet his address, still in Church Street, was described as a barber’s shop. It became clear that like many men of the time (publicans, for example) Silas would have a day job and carry on a second trade of an evening. It also became clear that Silas taught his sons the trade.

Silas Sargent, aged 4 months, on the 1881 census. (National Archives)

Silas Sargent, aged 4 months, on the 1881 census. (National Archives)

The family continued to grow. In 1882 William was born, followed in 1884 by Thomas (also called George – and a mysterious person that I cannot trace further), in 1886 by Julia and in 1888 by Leo. On the 1891 census Silas senior had declared himself a hairdresser and had also occupied the house next door to the shop. Of his children, Rose had become a domestic to a grocer’s family on High Street and was living there; Clara had also become a domestic, but she was living at home; Alfred, now 14-years, was a bridle bit fitter and at home and Silas junior would be of age and legally required to be a scholar. The last of the children I can be certain of was Sarah Ann, who was born in 1893.

The family would start to break-up over the next decade as they children grew-up and moved from Church Street. In 1900 Rose married Irishman Hugh Gallagher and settled elsewhere in Bloxwich. Later the same year, Alfred married Rose Genders and they settled also settled in Bloxwich (at the Pinfold) where Alfred became a hairdresser too. In 1903 Clara married currier James Ball, they then moved in with her parents. In 1905 bridle bit filer William married Nellie Ricketts, they were to settle in Blakenall. Finally, in 1907, Julia married William Gardener and the couple settled in Coventry where he worked in the motor car industry.

By 1901 Silas too had left home. He was residing in Willenhall at that time, at the Three Tuns public house on Walsall Road. The pub, now refaced, still survives. He described himself on the census as a hairdresser.

Three Tuns, Walsall Rd, Willenhall, where Silas was stopping in 1901. (unknown).

Three Tuns, Walsall Rd, Willenhall, where Silas was stopping in 1901. (unknown).

In mid-1910 Silas married Ada Taylor, curiously in the Cannock area. Ada’s family were originally from Smethwick, but we know they (excluding Ada) were living on Lichfield Road, Bloxwich by 1911. Her father and her brother (and she may have) worked in the lock industry, so it is possible that they met either in Willenhall or Bloxwich, although it may also have been in Cheslyn Hay.

On 1911 census, Silas senior was described as a hairdresser, yet we know that from at least 1908 he was also running a grocer/fruiterer business in High St, Bloxwich – in fact it he had taken over the business where Rose had worked as a domestic years before.

Silas, like most in Victorian/Edwardian Britain, would be no stranger to death. We know Silas had had eleven siblings by 1911, and we also know that six of those had died by then. Two siblings I cannot be certain of without ordering certificates, and so could have passed away anytime between their parent’s marriage and 1911. A third, the mysterious Thomas or George was born in 1884 and cannot be traced, but as I can trace the other siblings after 1911 means he must be one that passed away as well. Of those we know of, Leo died in 1894 (aged 6-years), Cecilia in 1900 (aged 21-years) and his youngest sister, Sarah Ann, died in 1909 (aged 16-years). Add to this, Silas’ eldest sister Rose had lost six of her twelve children and his brother Alfred two of his six children by 1911.

If he wasn’t working as a hairdresser in Cheslyn Hay before he was married, he certainly was after. On the census of 1911 the couple were living at 8 Station Street, Cheslyn Hay. Silas, described as a hairdresser, was likely doing as his father had done, in that he had a day job as well; subsequent evidence would show that he was a miner too. A few months after the census was taken Ada gave birth to Alfred, the couple’s only child.

Silas and Ada Sargent, at Station St, Cheslyn Hay, 1911. (National Archives)

Silas and Ada Sargent, at Station St, Cheslyn Hay, 1911. (National Archives)

War was declared in August 1914, but Silas made no attempt to sign-up despite being within the prescribed age. Silas’ war record does not survive, but we do know that he was one of hundreds locally, and several from Cheslyn Hay, that answered the call, around May 1915, when the Army came calling for miners to form Tunneller Companies for war service in France.

Tunneller Companies did not undergo the riggers of training that the infantry did, after all they were simply required for their experience in digging. The Tunneller Companies were needed quickly and Silas was on his way to the Royal Engineers’ St Mary’s Barracks at Chatham within days.

St Mary's Barracks, Chatham, scene of Sargent's suicide. (Kent History Forum)

St Mary’s Barracks, Chatham, scene of Sargent’s suicide. (Kent History Forum)

I would guess that sometime around 1 June 1915 Silas’ RE Company were informed that they would be heading out to France on 4 June – and this maybe the reason that Silas drank heavily on that night. Whether that influenced what would happen next we cannot say.

At 11.15 am, on the morning before departure, Sapper William Shute noticed blood coming from under a door into a NCO latrine. Shute had to force the door as Silas was sitting on the floor with his back to it, but found Silas alive though bleeding profusely from the neck. Silas’ razor lay in its case nearby. He obtained assistance from Sergeant Ernest Bradfield, who tried to stem the blood-flow by leaning his head forward (to close the wound) and covering it with a wet towel. Shortly after the arrival of Lt Spoor (a doctor), and some 15 minutes after discovery, Silas died.

Lt Spoor (later Captain) who attended Silas. He was later killed in France 13/12/17. (Findagrave.com)

Lt Spoor (later Captain) who attended Silas. He was later killed in France 13/12/17. (Findagrave.com)

An inquest was held. Silas’ wound went from his left ear to his throat and was deep, but Spoor had no doubt it was self inflicted. Silas himself made no attempt to convey otherwise. Spoor suggested that Silas used his razor, despite being in its case (a fact that both Spoor and the Coroner acknowledged – and no mention was made in the report to whether it was blooded or not), as the implement used. A verdict of ‘suicide during temporary insanity’ was recorded.

Whether it was old age or for another reason, the family were represented at the inquest not by his parents but by Silas’ brother-in-law James Ball. James gave no evidence to suggest any past mental health issues and could offer no reason for Silas’ suicide, save that he thought that the change in circumstances from his ‘free and easy life’ to one of a ‘service life’.

An inquest takes place in open court, hence the newspaper report, and Silas’ inquest was presided over by a civil coroner and not military personnel. It is difficult to say just how encompassing the news report was of the inquest events, but if accurate as to witnesses and questions raised, let’s say I feel it wasn’t as thorough as it should have been.

Firstly, other than from James Ball, who had not seen Silas for weeks, there were no questions asked about Silas’ state of mind at the time. I believe he was a stranger to all those that attended him (certainly Bradfield), so they could offer no insight. I assume his Company had left for France as per orders, but no statement was reported in the newspaper that had been taken from any of the officers or men of his Company either. No note was found of course.

Secondly, while I believe it likely he took his own life, the question of foul-play was not ventured into. The razor is the key to this. Spoor said the wound was inflicted ‘by such a weapon’. The razor was in its case and no mention was made of blood upon it – although Silas’ wound was described as ‘gushing’. If blood had been found on it, surely a positive identification would have been made. The fact is he must have cleaned it and returned it to its case while bleeding. Believe it or not it is possible, I have encountered with such a case before where the razor had been place carefully down after making a fatal self-inflicted wound. All-in-all, I can’t help feeling it was all brushed over.

A word on camp life. I have investigated a number of soldiers and those that fell foul of military discipline often did so not at the front, but when in camp. Often, this was small offences – overstaying passes, gambling in the barracks etc – as the men sought to relieve the boredom of camp life. It seems no accident to me that a number of men, opposite to those ground down by the the continual wearing of the front-line, committed suicide soon after joining-up, when the shock to the system was at its greatest and the rumours from the front circulating in the camps was at its most unnerving.

No evidence can be found in the public domain as to whether the military could have helped Silas or not; the timing and nature of his death suggests a spontaneous deed and with the lack of willing to be pro-active with melancholia, I suspect not. The military closed the book on Silas. He would never receive any medals as his service did not merit it; nor did his family receive any gratuity or financial help, for the same reason. As with many men that died at home, he was buried in a local cemetery near to where he died – in this case the Fort Pitt Cemetery, Rochester. He would later get a Commonwealth War Grave Commission headstone.

Silas at rest, Ford Pitt Cemetery. (Findagrave.com)

Silas at rest, Fort Pitt Cemetery. (Findagrave.com)

Two years after Silas died, his mother passed. Silas senior became a tobacconist as well, until his death in 1921. I suspect Ada took Alfred to the London area. Here I believe she remarried in 1920 – she would then have been 50-years of age. Albert Houghton, her new husband, died in September 1932. The couple were then living in Clapham, I believe. An Ada Houghton, born in 1880, passed away in Hendon in 1941. An Alfred A Sargent, born in mid-1911, passed away in Hendon in 1971.

I opened the story of Silas by saying that I do not believe Cheslyn Hay were embarrassed by Silas and so omitted him from the war memorial – and I stick to that. I cite two pieces of evidence.

First, Harry Griffiths does appear on the memorial; Harry also lies in Fort Pitt Cemetery, after falling to his death while intoxicated while on Blighty-leave recovering from a wound received at the front (see full story https://wyrleyblog.wordpress.com/wyrley-landywood/great-wyrleys-fallen-wwi/sapper-henry-griffiths-harrys-fall-from-grace/). Although given a verdict of accidental death, Cheslyn Hay’s war memorial (sub)committee would have been aware of Harry’s fate as his inquest too had been reported in the local newspaper.

Second, most war memorials required written submissions for names to be included. Such requests usually came from the family, but it is my belief that by the time names were being collated for inclusion Ada Taylor and young Alfred had left Cheslyn Hay. Someone could have put his name forward, but sadly they didn’t and as a consequence he is mainly forgotten to the village today.

A soldier can appear on more than one memorial. Silas was born and grew-up in Bloxwich and, as their war memorial in anonymous, I would like to think that their Remembrance services have embrace him every year. Named or not, if anyone from Cheslyn or Bloxwich reads this, attends their local service and thinks on him for a moment – then he is remembered.

My thanks to:
National Archives
Cannock Library
Findagrave.com
Harry Mitchell
Winsongreentobrookfield.co.uk
Kent History Forum
Staffordshire Record Office
studymore.org.uk

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