Ernest Rushton of Hednesford: Crying Wolf?

I have recently written (and launched on Wyrleyblog) the first in a series of cheerful articles on how the mental health issues of melancholia, depression, stress and anxiety were seen during in World War One (see ).

Whether you did or didn’t read the first part of ‘Driven to Despair: The Dark Side of the Cannock Chase Camps’ – and it would help to give some context to this article if you have – the original aim was to write a three-part article: the first part, now published, uses contemporary evidence to draw-up an all-round introduction to the subject, while the second and third parts will, when written, centre on incidents involving the soldiers stationed at the Cannock Chase camps between 1916 and 1918.

This is still the plan, only this story cropped-up and I wanted to include it. Ernest Rushton, a Hednesford man, was never stationed at Cannock Chase which is why I can’t include him in the main article, however, his story involves a significant and stressful incident (rather than melancholia) that did seem relevant and so he has sort of become an unofficial part 1½!

At first sight Rushton seems the ideal patriot: he was a volunteer that joined-up within a month of hostilities commencing, getting himself passed as fit to serve despite there being evidence that suggests he was not. He was placed into the 10th (Service) Battalion South Staffordshire Regiment and during his training at Tavistock his family went through a trauma – the painful death of his eldest child over some weeks – which left him, understandably, petitioning the officer-in-charge to be able to go home. That permission was refused, leaving more than a feeling that he had been repaid shabbily for his patriotism by a military machine unsympathetic to stress and melancholia in general.

The truth is of course never that straight-forward, as Rushton had a history that somewhat complicates the issue. This past may be indicative as to why he was described as of ‘bad’ character by the Army, and it may also have led them to suspect that he was ‘crying wolf’ over his pleas to be allowed to go home in the January – April period of 1915.

The point of this article is not to poke fun at or to judge Rushton – indeed, he has my deepest sympathy over the loss of his children; nor is to bash the military as unsympathetic and heartless. The aim is to examine the Army’s own, and in my opinion outdated, attestation procedure that left them, arguably, with the ‘soldier’ they deserved.

Ernest Henry: Let Him Without Sin…
Ernest Henry Rushton was born on 2 October 1888, being baptised at St Peter’s in Hednesford on 28 October. His father was William Rushton, a coal miner born in Sedgley in 1862; his mother was Sarah Ellen Wyke, born in Dawley, Shropshire, in 1864.

William was the son of a miner, also called William; we know from the census that by 1881 he and his family had moved from Sedgley to Church Hill, Hednesford, where they worked in the pits.

Sarah was the daughter of Robert, also a miner, and was with her family in Hawarden, Wales, in 1871. In 1881 she can be found as a domestic servant for a tailor in Edgbaston, Birmingham. Sarah wouldn’t stay in domestic service much longer as she and William were married at St Peter’s, Hednesford, on 23 December 1883.

The 1911 census stated the couple had fourteen children in all, ten of them still being alive that year. I don’t think this is accurate, as a newspaper account of William and Sarah’s golden wedding in 1933 states that the couple had two sons and four daughters. I suspect the couple had ten children in all, of which six survived in 1911 (and two of the deceased children I can trace), but I can’t be fully sure as it seems that the couple were either ‘chapel’ – as the children in general did not appear to have been baptised at the Anglican church of St. Peter’s – or they simply did not have their children baptised.

Ernest Rushton and family at Church Hill, Hednesford, 1891. (National Archives)

Ernest Rushton and family at Rawnsley Buildings, 1891. (National Archives)

The first of the children I can trace is Robert, I assume named after Sarah’s father, who was born late in 1884. Ernest is the next child I can be certain of, and he was born in 1888. Ernest is the only child that appears to have been baptised at St. Peter’s. The couple’s third child, William, was born in 1890. By 1891 the family were living at 11 Rawnsley Buildings (yes, in Rawnsley).

1892 would be a mixed year for the family: it opened with the birth of Lily in the early months but ended, I believe, with the death of William junior. William, aged just 23 months, was buried at St. Peter’s.

Ernest’s mother, Sarah Ellen, was also called Nellie as a nick-name. We know this as that was her name on the baptism entry for Ernest. In the early months of 1894 Sarah gave birth to the couple’s next child. The child was registered as Nellie Rushton on her birth certificate and yet seems also to have gone under the name of Daisy as well, as this was how she was recorded on the 1901 census.

The family were to move back to Hednesford proper by 1897, with William returning to Church Hill. We know this as on 4 February that year the family were to bury their eldest son, Robert. Described as 12½ years of age in the register, he too was buried at St. Peter’s. This would leave the 8-year old Ernest as the eldest of the children. Having lost two brothers, Ernest would get some sibling comfort with the birth of Harold in 1899.

Ernest Rushton: Casting the First Stones
Having had a couple of minor incidents before for the same offence, those being brushed under the carpet by the police due to his age, around the time of Harold’s birth the 11-year old Ernest would have his first serious run-in with the law.

On 27 November 1899 Ernest was loitering in Church Hill when he witnessed a Mr. Biddlestone, in charge of a covered cart, pull-away from outside a house. Ernest threw a large stone at him which struck him on the head. He was hauled before the Cannock Petty Sessions in the December, there he was warned as to his future conduct and fined 6s 6d. Interestingly, the magistrates sitting that day (although we are not sure if they heard Rushton’s case) were Lord Hatherton and FD Bumstead – both would get to know Ernest a lot better in the future.

The Rushtons at Blakemore St, Hednesford, 1901. (National Archives)

The Rushtons at Blakemore St, Hednesford, 1901. (National Archives)

By 1901 the family had relocated, moving just around the corner to Blakemore Street (today, Blakemore Street lies under the extended St. Peter’s School). On 25 March that year, just around the time the census was taken, Ernest was again in front of the magistrates, this time for theft of newspapers. Declared guilty, this appearance would see a fine of 2s 3d.

By the end of the following year the family had grown with Violet’s arrival, however, Ernest had found himself in more serious trouble.

The 13 year-old Ernest was in the cells and up before the same magistrates in February 1902, this time for a series of petty thefts and pawning, or attempting to pawn, the fruits of his labour. His spectacular failing in all three crimes was likely due the fact that they were spontaneous thefts. This is shown by his choosing of local victims that knew him (and you have to admire his nerve in his later choice of wife, as two of his victims were her father and brother), his being somewhat blaze about the thefts and his using a local pawn shop that everyone knew as his place to attempt to fence the items.

It appears that on 10 February Ernest had either been invited into or had gained illicit entry into the house of Henry Jukes (spelt Jewkes in the Lichfield Mercury newspaper report) on Blakemore Street. Here he stole a silk handkerchief belonging to Henry, worth 5s 6d, which he pawned at Vaughan’s Pawnshop on the Cannock Road for 2s 6d (via an unwitting accomplice, Maria Timmins). Henry Jukes identified the handkerchief on the 14 February and Hannah Bickley, manageress of the shop, identified Timmins to the police as the pawner. She, in turn, identified Ernest.

At the same time as he ‘acquired’ the handkerchief, he also helped himself to 4s 7d that he found in William Jukes’ trouser pocket. He admitted as much, along with the handkerchief theft, when he was arrested by PC Cook on 16 February. Ernest said he spent the money, which he believed was just 4s, on a trip to Walsall Theatre.

While in the cells – it was actually on 18 February – Ernest was again approached regarding a recent theft and, again, he admitted involvement.

The coat and neckerchief of 5-year old schoolgirl Emily Ann Shaw had been stolen from the Catholic School at Hednesford sometime before 3.30 pm on 14 February. Valued at 5s, Ernest had unsuccessfully tried to pawn them at Vaughan’s for 2s, claiming it was for his mother who was ‘bad in bed’. Emily’s mother, also called Emily, went straight to Vaughan’s shop as soon as she discovered the loss around an hour later. Mrs. Bickley again fingered Ernest.

Ernest’s first confession had been to Mrs. Shaw, in which he stated that he and a boy named Joe Wilkes had taken the items and threw them under a hedge – presumably when he failed to pawn them. Wilkes, who was arrested on the 19 February, also admitted having them and that they eventually threw them into the school playground. The items, it appears, were never found. Wilkes was sentenced to twelve strokes of the birch for his part; Ernest was sentenced to five years at a Reformatory School, with his father having to contribute to his upkeep.

We cannot imagine just how thrilled William Rushton would have been to have to pay for Ernest’s upkeep, but he and Sarah would have the last of their surviving children in mid-1906 when Doris May was born.

We can surmise that after his release from whichever Reformatory School he was sent to that Ernest returned home. This would be in 1907, assuming he stayed the full five years. In the latter half of that year he had also kindled a relationship with Alice Jukes, in fact the relationship wasn’t the only thing growing – as Alice was pregnant.

In February 1908 Ernest was again in trouble: he was charged with stealing three fowl from a Charles Nixon (likely of Littleworth, Hednesford) and interestingly Ernest was placed on remand as he wasn’t trusted to be at liberty until his court appearance. Ernest, true to form, pleaded guilty and the magistrate, our Mr Bumstead, sentenced him to three months in prison adding that it was ‘evident that the lad wished to be a gaol bird’ – no pun intended I am sure. Alice delivered the couple’s child, named Beatrice, around the time of his release from prison. She was christened with Alice’s surname and lived with the Jukes family in Blakemore Street.

Ernest moved away after his release – heading into Derbyshire. In January 1909 he was employed as a miner at the Shirebrook Colliery, however, he was also employed in further nefarious activities. He was caught housebreaking and sent for trial at the Derbyshire Quarter Sessions. Rushton, described as near 5′ 5″, with light brown hair, fair complexion and green eyes, having an anchor and cross tattoo on his left forearm and scars on his right wrist and right thumb, was sent down for six months hard labour. He was released on 5 June 1909 and it appears he returned home.

It becomes clear that Ernest liked a drop or two and because of this he didn’t stay out of trouble for long: on 4 December 1909 he was arrested for being drunk and disorderly in Hednesford, going on to be fined 5s by the magistrates just before Christmas.

Ernest Henry Rushton just before his marriage in 1911. (National Archives)

Ernest Henry Rushton just before his marriage in 1911. (National Archives)

Amazingly it appears that Ernest kept out of trouble in 1910, either that or he wasn’t caught for once! In early 1911 he was still at the family home, working in one of the local pits as a miner (below ground).

It would be drink rather than petty theft that now caused problems, and it did so for the next few years. In March 1911 he was arrested and fined, nearly a guinea with costs, for assaulting Samuel Hodgkiss in Market Street, Hednesford. Rushton admitted to striking Hodgkiss twice in the eye, claiming that he had been ‘using disgraceful language about his sister’, who may well have been present and also struck by Ernest (the newspaper report appearing a little confusing). Hodgkiss denied this.

Market Street, Hednesford - scene of Rushton's altercation in 1911. (Cannock Chase District Council).

Market Street, Hednesford – scene of Rushton’s altercation in 1911. (Cannock Chase District Council).

He married Alice, born 28 August 1890, in mid-1911 and the family, with Beatrice remember, settled down in Blakemore Street – possibly living with Alice’s parents – and early in the following year Alice became pregnant for a second time. Bertha Emily Rushton was born on 20 August 1912.

On 1 September 1912, with Alice trying to recuperate, Ernest was again arrested for drunk and disorderly, this time in Bradbury Lane. After a couple of appearances before the magistrates, he was fined 5s and ordered to pay 10/6 costs.

A few months later and Ernest was again making an appearance at the Petty Sessions – this time, however, as a witness.

A watch and chain, valued at £1, had been stolen from the Anglesey Hotel, Hednesford, on 7 November by an Albert Millington of Church Hill (who played for Hednesford Town). Millington must of known Rushton and he testified that Millington had tried to get him to to pawn the watch at Vaughan’s. Rushton refused, no doubt aware that it was stolen and that with his reputation he may well be implicated in the theft. He was right not to get involved as the police were waiting for the watch to turn-up. Millington was fined £7 overall.

1913 would be a quiet year for the Rushtons, although around the December time Alice would become pregnant for a third time.

Ernest Rushton: 1914
Rushton’s position as a miner appears not to have been threatened by his numerous court appearances. Rushton was no Territorial, so he would leave the mine and his home at 2 Heath Street in order to volunteer for the army on 31 August 1914. I have the opinion that Rushton would have signed-up on the day Britain declared war, but as Alice was heavily pregnant he waited for the birth. Alice obliged around 23 August and after a few days grace Rushton attested at Hednesford.

Ernest's attestation, denying that he had ever spent time in prison. (National Archives).

Ernest’s attestation, denying that he had ever spent time in prison. (National Archives).

The simplistic attestation process was open to exploitation by either party, as the Army always wanted recruits and sometimes a man could use the military machine to escape his life. Exploitation was easy because the prospective soldier was only asked to give a series of ‘declarations’ about himself, non of which had to be proved. The process was a remnant of pre-compulsory education days, when many men could neither read or write. The best example of these declarations, and one we particularly associate with World War One, was age – as we have all heard stories of young kids and old men lying in order to serve.

As far as we know, Ernest seemed perfectly honest on his attestation papers until he was asked if he had ever spent time in prison – and he said no.

The British Army in 1914, desperate for recruits, were not going to let health be a barrier to a man attesting unless it was clearly obvious that he could not serve. The Army asked no questions on mental health, unless one takes a man’s declaration on being free from ‘fits’ as being so (epileptics were often committed to asylums). As long as a recruit could see ‘the required distance with either eye: his heart and lungs are healthy: [and] he has the free use of his joints and limbs’, he was passed fit.

After such a rigorous examination Ernest was passed fit to serve, but this was shown-up for the theatre that is was as just nine months later he was to be medically discharged.

On 2 September Ernest was down in Plymouth, with the 3 (Reserve) Battalion South Staffordshire Regiment. Within a few days of his arrival he would be faced with his first deeply stressful incident.

Ernest’s attestation papers would show that as of 31 August the couple had not named their third child, however, she would go on to be called Lily. Sadly, Lily would pass away aged just 20 days; she was buried on 15 September in St. Peter’s graveyard. Ernest was down in Plymouth at the time and there is no mention on his service record as to whether he asked for or was granted compassionate leave, so it seems likely that he was not at the funeral or able to comfort Alice.

On 31 October he was moved into the 10 (Service) Battalion, which was being formed that month from the Plymouth based soldiers. In the December the Battalion moved to Tavistock.

Ernest Rushton: Pain and Pain
It would be in Tavistock where Ernest heard the news of the shocking events of 23 January 1915.

2 Heath Street, Hednesford.Home of the Rushtons and scene of the tragic fire. 2016.

2 Heath Street, Hednesford.Home of the Rushtons and scene of the tragic fire. 2016.

After giving her a bath, Alice Rushton had left the 7-year old Beatrice at home (along with a neighbour’s child) when she left to go shopping to Hednesford. Being a January there was a ‘beautiful’, unguarded fire raging. Beatrice, who was wearing flannelette and woollen nightclothes, went to poke it and her nightclothes caught fire. Her screams roused neighbour Arthur Leah, who found Beatrice a ‘mass of flame’.

Flames extinguished, Beatrice was taken to the Hednesford Accident Home. Here she was tended by Nurse Blakemore, who later gave evidence that she had never seen a child so badly burned and which survived so long. Beatrice died on Friday 2 April, after two months of what must have been perpetual agony.

Hednesford Accident Home, scene of the death and inquest of Beatrice in 1914. (Unknown)

Hednesford Accident Home, scene of the death and inquest of Beatrice in 1914. (Unknown)

An inquest was held on 6 April at the Accident Home. The verdict would be accidental death, but rumours of neglect were clearly circulating and questions were raised in the court. Alice felt compelled to deny that she had gone out that day to ‘the picture house’ and that it wasn’t true that she used to leave her children at home, sometimes until 2 am, while she went dancing. Leah supported her, saying that he was of the opinion that she was a good mother, however, the Coroner was scathing and stated that leaving her child dressed in flannelette by a fire was ‘practically inviting the death’. Alice must have carried that hurt for the rest of her life.

Ernest in front of Mr Bumstead over his absconding from the Army. (Cannock Library)

Ernest in front of Mr Bumstead over his absconding from the Army. (Cannock Library)

Ernest had obviously been told of the accident and Beatrice’s subsequent death some weeks later. He later claimed that he had approached his Officer-in-Charge for compassionate leave prior to 6 April ‘to see his child buried’ and that leave was turned down. On the day of the inquest he could wait no longer and absconded. Beatrice was buried at St. Peter’s on 8 April and I really hope he made it back to be present.

Beatrice's entry in the St Peter's Burial Register. (Lichfield Record Office)

Beatrice’s entry in the St Peter’s Burial Register. (Lichfield Record Office)

Ernest did not hand himself in after the Thursday burial, but neither did he run. On Wednesday 14 April he was arrested at home by Police Sergeant Ledward, Rushton simply uttering that he had been expecting him. He was in front of Bumstead the following day. Ledward confirmed to the court that Beatrice had died. The clerk defended the Army, saying that likely ‘doubted Rushton’s word as a good many soldiers had obtained leave on all-sorts of fraudulent excuses’, but Bumstead sympathetically added ‘and others suffer for it’.

Rushton was returned to his regiment. There is no mention of any of this in his war record, but the fact that his offence simply merited the forfeiture of pay for his absence – from the 6 April to 14 April (the day he was returned to the military) – suggests they did not want to press it as they knew they had been inconsiderate.

In April 1915 the Battalion became a Reserve Battalion and moved north to Harrogate, Yorkshire. Rushton would only be at Harrogate for just a few months before his military career came to an abrupt end.

On 15 May, while still at Tavistock, he was medically assessed by Lt. Stansfield R.A.M.C. in the wake of an operation that saw Ernest have five teeth removed. The report recommended that Rushton was discharged as permanently unfit and his service was duly terminated on 23 June.

According to the report Rushton had been suffering from ‘dental caries’ – that is tooth decay – for the past three years. We cannot be certain of the state of his teeth upon attesting, but they must have been in a poor state as it was only some nine months before. I suggest it was noticed and simply ignored. Since his attestation we do know that after the five teeth were extracted he only had ‘two sound teeth’ (opposing molars) left in his head.

Ernest's medical report 15 May 1915. (National Archives)

Ernest’s medical report 15 May 1915. (National Archives)

Discharge was sought as he could no longer chew ‘ordinary food’ and the Officer-in-Charge would not not approve the provision of artificial teeth. Added to this, and I think the possible cause of his overall ‘bad’ military character evaluation, was the fact that Rushton was ‘continually on the sick list for dyspepsia’ (indigestion). He was formally discharged on 23 June and returned to both Heath Street and to coal mining – one assumes with a set of false teeth or he would have starved to death! At the end, you can’t help but feel that both Rushton and the Army were mighty relieved.

Ernest Rushton: Same Old, Same Old
So, did his experiences change him? In short, no. On 26 July, a month after his release, Ernest was back in the Police Court under a charge of drunk and disorderly. He was found guilty and fined 12s. On 29 May 1916, Rushton was back in court and fined 15s for the same offence. This was the last time I could trace him being fined for his drinking.

Ernest and Alice had one surviving child at his discharge, Bertha. In 1919 the couple had their first son, William, presumably named after Ernest’s father. In 1926 the couple had their second son, whom they named Ernest Henry.

Events of 1933 would suggest to me that despite not appearing before the courts it is more than likely that Rushton continued to be known to the local constabulary. At the time he was working in the West Cannock Colliery.

Rushton was charged with loitering in Market Street with the intention to commit a felony. At 10.55 pm on 22 January he was spotted by PC Machin at the rear of the Co-op in Market Street, Hednesford. Rushton fled, but the 44-year old was pursued and caught by Machin. Rushton denied any wrong-doing, claiming he was just ‘looking around’ and then refused to listen to any charge issued by Machin, but charged he was.

In court Rushton said he that while talking to two friends – saying ‘goodnight’ – he saw Machin go down an alley and, as he seemed to take some time, he followed. He claimed this was more for Machin’s benefit, presumably in case he was hurt, than any intended illicit action. His cries of ‘wolf’ fell on the same deaf ears as those back in 1915: the court chairman laconically summed up with, ‘I am afraid your character is not very good. You will go to prison for 14 days.’

The Rushtons: The Curtain Falls
I can currently trace no further indiscretions committed by Ernest and, to be honest, it isn’t really that important as the purpose of this tale was to highlight the limitations of the attestation process in 1914. Saying that, it is always nice to know what happened to the major players.

On 23 December 1933 Ernest’s parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. They met up with Mr and Mrs Roadway, who were married in a simultaneous ceremony on the day, to celebrate. William and Sarah now lived at 26 Simcox St, Hednesford. William was now 72-years old and had retired from the Cannock and Rugeley Colliery Company two years before. William died in 1940, possibly in Simcox Street. Sarah died in 1954.

All that remains of Simcox St, Hednesford, today. In 1933 it was the home of William Rushton. Blakemore St ran adjacent to it, but has now gone. 2016.

All that remains of Simcox St, Hednesford, today. In 1933 it was the home of William Rushton. Blakemore St ran adjacent to it, but has now gone. 2016.

By 1939, Ernest and Alice were living at the newly built 15 Mary Street, Hednesford. Ernest was still a miner (a cutter on the coal face), while Ernest junior was at school. At some stage prior to 1952 they moved to Birmingham, as it was there that Ernest died in 1952 and Alice in 1971.

In 1935, Bertha Emily Rushton married Thomas Clarke at St. Peter’s, Hednesford. Her father, Ernest, was a witness. Thomas passed away and Bertha would go on to marry William Grimley in 1981 – she was nearly 80 (and he a little older). She passed away in 1994. I suspect William passed away in Birmingham in 1983, while Ernest junior died in Weymouth in 1989.

While the business of this article was to highlight the basic level of the attestation process, I cannot help but be drawn to the human side, to the events of 1915 and the loss of those that go too early. As such, this article is dedicated to Beatrice Jukes (Rushton) but also in memory of my uncle Christopher McMahon (who died aged 2 months in 1940) and actor John Nightingale (Tom Seaton in ‘When The Boat Comes In’).

With thanks to:
Lichfield Record Office (and Anita thereof)
National Archives
Cannock Library
Cannock Chase District Council
Findmypast and Ancestry.Co.Uk