Sappers Gretton, Bickley and Lockett: Cheslyn and Wyrley’s Darkest Day

Introduction and Identification
13 October 1915 is a date locally – to borrow a phrase – that will live in infamy. So now, a century on, I feel it is time to tell the brief story of three of our local lads all of whom joined the 2nd North Midland Field Company (Royal Engineers) and would go on to die on the same day and at the same place. Two of these men, Walter Bickley and John Lockett, are commemorated on the Cheslyn Hay war memorial, while the third, William Gretton, appears on the Great Wyrley memorial gates.

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

Cheslyn Hay’s War Memorial, prior to its cleaning in 2014. Remember to click on photos to enlarge.

I always check the names prior to embarking on the biographical detail, as the Great Wyrley gates been proven to have so many errors – indeed, the purpose of the articles is to get something done about it. While this article is a little different to most I have done in that there are entries for Cheslyn Hay, I intend to do the same as I believe I have spotted one error on Cheslyn’s memorial already.

Walter Bickley on the Chezzy Hay memorial. 2015.

Walter Bickley on the Cheslyn memorial. 2015.

I checked and verified Bickley and Lockett against the Cheslyn Hay entry for the Staffordshire Roll of Honour: this was compiled in February 1926 by the Staffordshire War Memorials Committee and contains all the Staffordshire war memorials and the names upon them. As I trawled through the general military and family history sources, the identifications were simply confirmed.

John Lockett on the memorial - Joseph Masters, former station-master, is also on the Wyrley gates (and on Wyrleyblog). 2015.

John Lockett on the memorial – Joseph Masters, former station-master, is also on the Wyrley gates (and on Wyrleyblog). 2015.

Alas, the same could not be said for the Wyrley gates. My suspicions were instantly aroused when three initials appeared after the name of Gretton, they being WMH.

WMH Gretton on the Wyrley Gates. 2014

William Gretton on the Wyrley Gates. 2014

A quick check with the Staffordshire Roll of Honour showed that this was likely another one of the split first name errors that have plagued the gates. The Roll has two initials for Gretton, he being a WH. An examination of the plaque that Gretton is on will show an EDA Benton and an HY Griffiths: both of these are errors where a shortened first name has been split into two initials – they should be Ed A Benton (Edward Aulder Benton) and Hy (Harry/Henry Griffiths). Gretton is another mistake, he should be Wm H Gretton, as shown by his entry for the Great Wyrley Roll of Honour in 1917.

William Henry Gretton's enrty for the Wyrley Roll of Honour,1917. (Staffordshire Record Office)

William Henry Gretton’s entry for the Wyrley Roll of Honour, 1917. (Staffordshire Record Office)

William Henry Gretton
William was the eldest child of George and Lucy Gretton and was a Brownhills lad by birth. Father, George, was the son of Thomas Gretton, himself a son of a Shropshire farmer. George had moved around Shropshire with his father and ever growing family until 1880, when they turn up in Shenstone. The following year the family arrive at Wilkin Road, Brownhills, where Thomas sets up as a milk dealer. Wilkin Road at that time led to one of the Coppice Colliery pits, now long gone, and it is plausible that that was the mine that George was working in at the age of 15.

The baby-face William Gretton, likely 17 when the photo was taken. (Walsall Local History Centre)

The baby-faced William Gretton, likely 17 when the photo was taken. (Walsall Local History Centre)

Curiously, we lose the Gretton family for a while. It is likely they stay in the area, but we can’t be sure. What we do know is that George meets and marries a Lucy Perry. Lucy was born in Brownhills in 1870 and she had an all too real childhood: her father was a coal loader on the canals and she grew up on Wolverhampton Lane, in sight of the Tommy Shop. The family had moved near to the Yew Tree in Norton by 1881, but then, like Gretton, we also lose her and her family until the couple marry.

William Henry Gretton was born on 10 November 1896 and was baptised at Pelsall Church in the January of 1897. The timing of his birth is crucial, it shows that he was in fact that he was just 18 when he was killed.

In 1901 the family are living on the Chester Rd, seemingly around the Catshill area. George Gretton, now 35, is still a miner, as too is his brother, Edward, who is living with them. William is down as being 4 years of age and he now has a couple of siblings: Lucy who is 2 years and George who is a few months. It is interesting to note that William is incorrectly named on this census – he is William Henry, not William Thomas. It is also interesting that George’s father, Thomas, is now living with his son; he is described as married, but I cannot trace wife Mary Ann alive or dead.

The Gretton family near Catshill, 1901. (National Archives)

The Gretton family near Catshill, Brownhills, 1901. (National Archives)

George, Lucy, William and family remained in the Brownhills area until around 1905. Albert was born in 1902 and Nellie in 1904, prior to their move away. We know that the family moved to the Great Wyrley area and by 1911 they are in Streets Lane, Landywood. Two more children had followed after their arrival in Wyrley, Thomas in 1907 and Joseph in 1910. We sadly, but not unusually, learn that by 1911 the Grettons had lost two of their children. I believe they went on to have Horace in 1912 and Harry in 1915 and Horace would pass away in 1916.

William must have worked in some capacity for Arthur Snape of Landywood Farm in March 1910. PC Baker saw William in Bloxwich High St, where he was in charge of a heavy spring cart that Baker knew belonged to Snape. Snape was summoned to the Police Court on account that his name was not painted clearly on the cart – clearly a mis-demeanour at the time. Snape was find 2/6d.

The Grettons in Sreets Lane, Landywood. 1911. (National Archives)

The Grettons in Streets Lane, Landywood. 1911. (National Archives)

Interestingly, George’s father is still living with them and he is still described as married, which can only mean Mary Ann, his wife, is still alive and they are estranged. William is serving in the mines, as his father continued to do. We know he is still a miner when he goes to War in August 1914. It maybe that he is working at the Harrison’s Colliery (Great Wyrley Colliery no3, on the now Hazel Lane), as we know that William joins Colonel Harrison’s territorial force around the outbreak of the War ‘with a chum’. He was either mustered or joined as the War broke out and we know by September he was in camp with them near Luton – he was not yet 18 years of age…

Walter Edwin Bickley
Walter Bickley was born in early 1895 to parents Charles and Harriet, being baptised at Shareshill Church on 24 February that year. Charles was from Tong is Shropshire. Born into an agricultural family in 1853, he was educated in Tong and was, by 1881, working as a farm labourer in Great Wyrley. Harriet too was from an agricultural background. Her father, Walter, was from neighbouring Newtown and her mother, Mary Ann (Astbury), was from Brewood. They had married in 1861 and Harriet was their eldest child, being born in Bloxwich around a year later. The family then moved to Spring Hill. By 1881, it appears she was working as a domestic servant over near Brewood, possibly a place secured by her mother’s connections. By the end of that year she and Charles were married.

Sapper Walter E Bickley, likely at the age of 20 years. (Walsall Local History Centre)

Sapper Walter E Bickley, likely at the age of 20 years. (Walsall Local History Centre)

The family settled in Cheslyn Hay. Annie was born in 1882, William Edward in 1885, Ernest in 1888 and Winifred Harriet in 1900. By 1901 the family are living in Low St, Cheslyn Hay. Charles has switched from agricultural work and is now a basic colliery labourer. The eldest children are at school.

The family remained in Cheslyn Hay for a few more years, Alice is born there in 1892 and then Walter in early 1895 – although he is christened in Shareshill. The family then move to Saredon and it is likely that they were there prior to Walter’s birth. They moved to Holly Bush cottage, very near to Holly Bush Hall (Farm) on the way towards Laney Green. Walter would have another three siblings born here, by 1901: Bertha, Francis and Leonora. Walter’s father and eldest brother are in the mines, Charles is a night collier above ground and William is a driver below ground. The family have left the cottage by 1903, as their last child, Laura, was born in Cheslyn Hay.

The Bickley's at Holly Bush Cottage in 1901. (National Archives)

The Bickley’s at Holly Bush Cottage in 1901. (National Archives)

So the family return to Cheslyn Hay and the 1911 census places them at 121 High St. We learn through this that the couple had had 12 children in their 29 years of marriage although two had passed away. Further, Harriet’s father is now living with them and he is a widower, he was, at the age of 74, one of the ‘new’ old age pensioners; this means that from January 1909 he would have been receiving 5 shillings a week as a pension, as long as he didn’t claim any workhouse relief and tried for work if he was able to do so.

The Bickley's in High St, Cheslyn Hay in 1911. (National Archives)

The Bickley’s in High St, Cheslyn Hay in 1911.
(National Archives)

The three men left at home that were classed of working age were all involved in mining – brother William Edward we later find out had emigrated to Canada . Charles, his father, was now working as a ‘road repairer’ below ground and by this I assume he worked on the mineral railway. Ernest, significantly, is a straight-forward coal hewer below ground. Walter is a ‘haulage rope man’ and at 16 years of age was also working below ground.

Walter was still in the mines when the War arrived and we know it was in a Great Wyrley pit – so every chance that it was also at Harrison’s, bearing mind he joined the 2nd North Midlands. Brother, Ernest, would also go to the War; he would serve in a tunnelling company and, thankfully, survive. Just after they left, sister Winifred married and moved to Birmingham…

John Lockett
Some people, take George Gretton for example, seem to crop-up in different places and with different occupations on successive census returns but this is far from the case of John Lockett, whose family lived on Queen St and on High St in Cheslyn Hay for generations. Lockett would be no baby-faced boy when he went off with the 2nd North Midlands in 1914, he would in fact be around 34 and he seemingly lied about his age when he signed-up to make himself appear younger.

John Lockett, actually aged 34 at the time. (Walsall Local History Centre)

John Lockett, actually aged 34 at the time. (Walsall Local History Centre)

John Lockett was born, I believe, on the 29 March 1881 to parents William and Sarah. William was born in Cheslyn Hay around 1848 and grew-up on Queen St – in fact half of the street seemed to be Locketts or Whitehouses, the families seemingly inter-married on more than one occasion. William’s wife was to be Sarah Whitehouse and they had clearly grown-up a few doors apart and had known each other all of their lives when they married in 1869.

The 1871 census indicates that they immediately settled into a house in Jobs Fold, which was, yes you guessed it, a part of Queen St. William was then 25 years of age and was a miner, Sarah was a couple of years younger. The census also shows that little William had been born in 1870. I suppose, other than they have a tramp listed as being next door in 1871, things seemed to have settled down to the start of a new, yet ordinary, family life.

The Locketts on Queen St, 1881. (National Archives)

The Locketts on Queen St, 1881. (National Archives)

The family continued to grow, but slowly; we know that through their entire marriage the couple lost one child, but William would be 6 years old before brother Thomas came along. John was the third child and it says on the 1881 census that he was 6 days old – which would have placed his birth as 29 March. Again, this would be some five years after Thomas. The family have moved up the road by 1881, but are still on Queen St at this point. A little unsurprising is to find that Locketts live on either side of them. William has become a carter at this point.

Again, the family grows and John would end up with two further siblings; Joseph was born in 1887 and Lydia in 1890. In 1891 they are still living on Queen St. William has changed trades again, he is now a bricklayer and it seems that both of his eldest sons, William and Thomas, have become bricklayer’s labourers. A monumental decision took place sometime over the next decade, when the family up-rooted and moved all the way to the High St – I wonder if they got lost 🙂 . It is interesting to note, in 1901, that all of the men in the house are bricklayers or bricklayer assistants; one wonders if they all worked together and whether William was self-employed. There were of course several tile and brick manufacturers around the Cheslyn Hay area.

The Locketts, 1911. (National Archives)

The Locketts, 1911. (National Archives)

Things didn’t really change that much over the the next decade, and yet that is surprising in itself. The family were at 129 High St, just a few doors away from Walter Bickley. William was now 66 years of age and he had eventually retired from bricklaying, so he was surviving on his pension, savings and the somewhat strange fact that none of the five children had yet left home in order to marry and set up their own families. William, the eldest, was now 41 years and now become a clay miner in one of the local brickworks. Thomas, now 35, was still a bricklayer’s labourer. John, now 30, had gone into the mines where he had become a hewer’s loader. Joseph, now 26, was also in the pit, being a horse driver underground.

Lydia would marry James Farrington a few months after the census and would go on to move to Cross St, Cheslyn Hay. John would lose his father around the June of 1913. As the War approached Joseph did move out, going back to Holly Bush and we know that John Lockett was employed at the Old Coppice Colliery in Cheslyn Hay when he left to serve…

The Lads at War
The 2nd North Midland Field Company were a part of the Royal Engineers. They were in fact a territorial force that had been raised from 1908 onwards (when the territorials were formed) by Captain Harrison, owner of the Cannock Chase Colliery Company and so the Great Wyrley Colliery no3 (known locally as Harrison’s). Indeed, he raised the company, by hook-or-by-crook, from his own employees and other local, willing participants. He used one of his properties, Norton Hall (in Norton Canes), as the drill hall. The Field Company were comprised of ‘artisans’; saddlers, carpenters, wheelwrights, bricklayers and miners. All three of these lads were miners, although Lockett had experience of brick work as well.

While Gretton doesn’t have a surviving War record, the others do and it seems likely that they all officially attested at Norton Canes. The 5 ft 7″ Bickley attested on 6 August 1914, giving his true age, while the 5 ft 4″ Lockett went on 8 September and fabricated an age of 28 years and 6 months when actually 34 years. Bickley departed with the Company, moving to a military camp at Limbury, near Luton, in mid-August. Lockett met them when they were already there. We have no idea when Gretton arrived, only that he was on the September roll call.

Lockett's fancifully aged attestation, 8 September 1914. (National Archives)

Lockett’s fancifully aged attestation, 8 September 1914. (National Archives)

The Company remained there until the November, when it took a meandering path down to Southampton over the next few months. The Company had split: all three had agreed to service overseas, which the territorials were not bound to do, and so they embarked with the rest of the Company that elected to do so, as well as with other Royal Engineer units, on the steamer the Glen Shamrock on 26 February 1915. They were renumbered as the 1/2 North Midlands Field Company from this point. Many of those that elected to stay did serve overseas once conscription forced it in 1916 – they became the 2/2 North Midlands Field Company.

Lockett's agreement for overseas service. 1914. (National Archives)

Lockett’s agreement for overseas service. 1914. (National Archives)

I do not currently have access to the 1/2 North Midlands Field Company war diary. It is housed at the Royal Engineers Museum in Gillingham. I intend to go very soon, as the last soldier to die with the outfit did so in 1918 and I want his full story – as well as to update this and the Patrick Downey stories. I do have access to the 2/1 unit’s diary and this will at least provide some understanding as to the role of such units.

Off-duty life in the unit was one of moving from billet to billet, training and parades; on-duty, often being split into smaller detachments, the Company would nip in and out of the line. Out of the line they did engineering work on general defences, bridges and roads, as well as sinking wells; while in the front they worked on the trenches (front-line and communication), their dug-outs and machine-gun emplacements, as well as sandbagging and so forth. They also supervised working parties from infantry regiments. What was clear from the War diary I had access to was that casualties were often reported – it was no safe existence.

I believe our lads made their way to the Ypres area after disembarkation.

Bickley's wounding in July 1915 (National Archives)

Bickley’s wounding in July 1915 (National Archives)

It was on 12 July that the unfortunate Walter Bickley received gun shot wounds to both thighs. He was moved to the 20th General Hospital, then onto the 5th Casualty Clearing Station. The following day he boarded the No 1 ambulance train. He would be out of action for a couple of months, showing that the would was not especially serious. He returned to base camp on 4 September 1915 and rejoined his unit on 7 September.

Bickley's experience of a hospital train, possibly? (National Railway Museum, York)

Bickley’s experience of a hospital train, possibly? (National Railway Museum, York)

Life for Lockett and Gretton had continued in much the same fashion. We know that at some stage they were redeployed to France were they joined the Battle of Loos, which had been raging for a couple of weeks. During the battle the Hohenzollern Redoubt had been captured and then lost. On 13 October the British were going to assault it again using troops from the Staffordshire regiments, they eventually failed and took heavy casualties.

An aerial view of the redoubt (centre left) and supporting trenches. (Imperial War Museum)

An aerial view of the redoubt (centre left) and supporting trenches. (Imperial War Museum)

The Field Companies were armed and could act as infantry that provided immediate engineering support (securing captured trenches for example), although many of the 2/1 Midland Group did in fact act as water bearers to the front line troops that day. As I was not currently clear as to the role that the 1/2 North Midlands played in the attack I asked the oracle on the Staffordshire territorials, Andrew Thornton, and he has allowed my to quote him…

‘Two sections from 1/2nd North Midland Field Company advanced with the third attack wave of 137th Brigade. Although it had been intended that they would be carrying out engineering tasks related to consolidating any captured positions, and the sappers found themselves mixed up in the chaotic conditions of the first line trench as a member of the Company, Sapper Aarron Foster, recalled: “When one of our chaps got hit, me and another chap bandaged him up as well as we could under rifle fire and shells, and we carried him into a trench, where he died. Just then a little bit of shrapnel hit me in the head, and then a shell came and knocked the parapet over me and scarred my face.”

Second-Corporal Thomas Adams repaired the parapet of the fire trench in full view of the enemy, despite their trenches being only 40 yards away from him, until he was wounded by a bullet which fractured his right arm. For this act of courage, Adams, who came from Brownhills, was later awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

1/2nd North Midland Field Company lost 27 killed, wounded and missing, and 13-15 October 1915 was the costliest action of the war for the company.’

None of the men have known graves, although Bickley’s body must have been found – and they would in time be etched upon the Loos memorial. All three were awarded the 1915 Star, the British War and Victory medals. George Gretton received over £8 from the military, as did Sarah Lockett; Harriet Bickley seemingly received a little less. There was also some delay in returning Walter’s personal effects, indeed, Charles had to write a desperate letter to secure them. In February 1916 the family received his pocket-book, photos, letters, soldiers disc, handkerchief and metal cigarette case.

Charles Bickley's desperate letter seeking Walter's effects, December 1915. (National Archives)

Charles Bickley’s desperate letter seeking Walter’s effects, December 1915. (National Archives)

That really concludes this short account of the darkest day in the War for Great Wyrley and Cheslyn Hay. Three men died and at least one other, Aaron Foster, was wounded. I assume from the entry on the Roll of Honour below that this was the Aaron Foster that attained the rank of Corporal and saw out the rest of the War and, at some stage, was awarded the Cross of St George – this was a multi-level Russian gallantry medal, so I assume it was a lower level one equivalent to a Military Medal. The allied countries swapped some awards, it wasn’t that he was fighting with the Russians!

Aaron Foster's Roll of Honour entry, giving his distinction as Russian St George. (Staffordshire Record Office).

Aaron Foster’s Roll of Honour entry, giving his distinction as Russian St George. (Staffordshire Record Office).

Lockett shaved some years off his age as he probably feared he may be rejected, whereas Gretton added a year or two on as he was under the required age to serve abroad. A microcosm of war, really. In memory of William H Gretton, Walter E Bickley, John Lockett and Aaron Foster.

With thanks to
Walsall Local History Centre
Staffordshire Record Office
National Archives
Imperial War Museum
National Railway Museum
Trinity Mirror
Ancestry and findmypast
and especially to Andrew Thornton

  1. […] Sappers Gretton, Bickley and Lockett: Cheslyn and Wyrley’s Darkest Day […]

  2. Jo Wainwright says:

    Wow, thank you. William was my Great Uncle. A fascinating read.

    • wyrleyblog says:

      Thank you, i write the stories for the guys themselves (especially when names are wrong on the gates) but makes my day if a family member reads it and maybe helps with thier own history! Cheers.

      • Jo Wainwright says:

        I read it to my mom over the phone. She knew most of the info but is looking forward to seeing the photos of the census. I’ll show it to her when I’m down in Cheslyn Hay in a couple of weeks. She keeps threatening to get an ipad to research the family history some more, maybe this will encourage her. Thanks again for the article.

  3. Les Foster says:

    Thank you. Aaron Foster was my Grandad, he never talked at all about the war, and it has been difficult to trace where he went during the war. I have the Russian medal he was presented with, along with his two campaign medals. I also have his notebook of all the names of his platoon. He was also presented with a watch by the people of Gt Wyrley, in 1918, which I keep wound up. My Dad who is 94 and still alive, will be really interested in this article. If you want to see the items let me know.

  4. Les Foster says:

    Hi Again,
    Sorry for the delay in getting back to you. How do I arrange to meet you. My Dad and his brother
    Would also like to be there.

  5. Arthur Cockayne says:

    Every Year we attend a memorial service on the site of the the battle of Loos near Auchy les mines,
    where the 46th midland Div TF went against the Hohenzollern Redoubt on the 13 Oct 1915,It was in this action that my uncle fell. He also has no known grave. mainly because this line never moved for three years so where they fell they stayed, they are on the memorial at Dud Corner. If anyone wants a word placed there I will glady take it

  6. Jo Wainwright says:

    Thank you. I will let my mum know.

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