Long Lane to the Long, Long Trail: The Walkeden Boys of Newtown (Essington)

Newtown is in Essington. The heart of this ‘newtown’ sprang-up opposite the Cannock Lodge Colliery (now where the Lakes nursing home now stands) just north of what was then an intersection of the Stafford Road and the Lord Hay’s Canal.  A second area of settlement also began to appear at the crossroads of Stafford Road, Walsall Road, Hobble End Lane and Long Lane. This too was outside of a colliery, in this case the Norton Cannock Colliery. Both the Cannock lodge and the Norton Cannock were, by the point of their closure in 1910, owned by the same company. The closure, due to flooding issues, you would have thought would have killed off the small settlement on Long Lane, but it didn’t; although judging by the date-stones and building styles, house-building stopped until the expansions of the 1930s.  So small as this community was, it still managed to send some of its sons to war and four of them didn’t come back. Newtown would be no ‘thankful village’.

The plaque to the four 'Newton Lads' in Essington St John's Church. 2014.

The plaque to the four ‘Newton Lads’ in Essington St John’s Church. 2014.

The Walkden family moved into Long Lane sometime between 1901 and 1911, but for father, Thomas, it was a simply return to an area he knew as a child. Thomas Walkeden was born in Colton, near Rugeley, around 1864. Thomas was the son of an agricultural labourer also from Colton (and also called Thomas) who in 1871 was working in Newtown. It seems like an extended family moved into Newton, as Thomas’ uncle, Charles, was also in the village working as a miner. The father of Charles and Thomas (senior), Sampson Walkeden, stayed in Colton.

A decade later and Thomas junior is in his home village of Colton, working as a farm labourer. He disappears for a time before re-emerging in Blithbury, where he meets and marries a local girl, Betsy Bevins, at Mavesyn Ridware church on 28 December 1896. Betsy was born in Blithbury in 1873 to parents Jacob and Eliza. Jacob was a bricklayer.

The family settled in Blithbury where, by 1901, the 35 year-old Thomas (actually 37) had become a ‘road man’: a road man literally meant a local authority employee working in what was likely the Public Works Department. The couple, with Betsy now 29, had already got three children. The two eldest were the boys that would eventually go to the front. Thomas Jacob was the eldest, he was 3 and named after the fathers of both his parents. Next, and over a year younger, there was William Sampson: Sampson also being a family name. Finally, just months old, was Emily Elizabeth. She was named after the mother of her father.

1901 census for the Walkeden family, then living in Blithbury. (National Archives)

1901 census for the Walkeden family, then living in Blithbury.
(National Archives)

The family continued to grow at a pace. In 1903 Ernest George arrived and was followed in 1905 by another daughter, Winifred Irene. In 1907 Eliza Bevins was born, who was named after Betsy’s mother and carried her maiden name.  The family then moved to Ashdown Cottages on Long Lane, Newton, sometime around 1908/09, as the final child, Alfred James, was born there in 1909. The 1911 census shows, somewhat refreshingly, that all of the Walkeden children born were still alive; indeed, it took the War to break the family. Thomas was still a road worker, at this time employed by Staffordshire County Council. None of the children were listed as ‘scholars’, although they would be attending a school; which one is difficult to say as Newton had no school, but it must be either Landywood, Bloxwich National or Essington. Saying that, at 13 years of age, Thomas Jacob had left school and was working in a brickyard as a clay carrier.

1911 census for the Walkeden family living in Long Lane, Newtown. (National Archives)

1911 census for the Walkeden family living in Long Lane, Newtown.
(National Archives)

As the country moved into war, the family remained at Ashdown Cottages. Thomas Walkeden was of course too old to serve in 1914 and Thomas Jacob, the eldest of his children, was too young. He would be 16 at the time the War started and could not have signed-up until he was 18 (and serve overseas at 19) even if he wanted to; although many did as, believe it or not, proof of age was not required when attesting. Conscription would start in early 1916 for those aged 19, but this was dropped to 18 in the May. Strangely, it would be William that tried to join-up first. In October 1916 he attested at Hednesford, but put down that he was 17 years and 10 months on the form. His paperwork must have been put into abeyance, as it was re-used (and the age changed) the following year. William described himself as a surface miner at this stage.

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

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

Thomas Jacob Walkeden had also become a surface miner. Unlike his brother he was drafted on his 19th birthday, on 18 December 1916. Thomas Jacob was drafted into the 5th Training Reserve. After conscription soldiers didn’t sign-up to a regiment as the mechanisms could not cope with the influx of men: instead they were placed in training battalions for basic training and assigned to a regiment after. Thomas’ European adventure started when he as posted to undertake his basic training – he managed to get as far as Rugeley.

Ashdown Cottages, Long Lane, Newtown. Home of the Walkeden brothers. 2014.

Ashdown Cottages, Long Lane, Newtown. Home of the Walkeden brothers. 2014.

By the time that Thomas had finished his basic training, William had finally singed-up officially. Thomas had been assigned to the 3rd Battalion of the Machine Gun Corps on 3 March 1917 and on 27 March 1917 William was placed in the tender hands of the 88th Training Reserve Battalion and sent to do basic training at their camp at Blythe, Northumberland.  Thomas would have undergone further machine gun training. By this stage, the Machine Gun Corps had replaced the old Maxim guns they had used with a new Vickers model; indeed, this would be on Thomas’ dispersal certificate as a ‘skill’ learnt in the army.

MGC troops ussing a Vickers MG at the Somme, July 1916. (Imperial War Museum)

MGC troops ussing a Vickers MG at the Somme, July 1916.
(Imperial War Museum)

Thomas Walkeden embarked for France on the 25 April, sailing from the port of Folkstone. He arrived in Boulogne the same day. He then made his way to the Machine Gun Corps base camp, which was at Camiers, just north of the huge British base at Etaples. He remained at the base for a few weeks before going into the field, serving with the 107 MGC Company. This company, a part of the 36th Division, became involved in the Battle of Messines between the 7-14 June. Messines was a part of the Ypres Salient and its heights were of strategic importance. June 1917 would not end so well for Thomas, as on the the last day of the month he was hauled-up before Lieutenant Barker on a charge of ‘talking on parade’ and was given three days ‘confined to barracks’ as punishment.

July and August 1917 would be difficult times for both of the brothers, but for different reasons. William had been assigned to the 4th Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry. This was an Extra Reserve Battalion and undertook garrison duties at Seaham Harbour while also providing the DLI service battalions with new recruits. It isn’t clear when William was posted to Seaham, but on 30 July 1917 he lost a day’s pay after he was found guilty of outstaying his pass by over 12 hours. A few days later he was given 7 days ‘confined to barracks’ after inappropriate conduct in the barrack room.

The charge sheet for William's offences. (National Archives)

The charge sheet for William’s offences.
(National Archives)

Thomas, on the other hand, fell ill. Late in July, he was sent to the hospital from the field suffering from ‘PUO’, that is Pyrexia (a fever) of unknown origin. He rejoined his company after a week, but was readmitted with ‘exhaustion’. He was moved to the 30th General Hospital in Calais, where he was admitted with an illness described as ‘NYD’, in other words, not yet diagnosed. He remained at the hospital for a while before returning to Camiers in later August. In early September he was posted out to the 115th MGC Company, which was a part of the 38th Division. He returned to fight in the campaigns that made-up the 3rd Battle of Ypres.

Thomas' movements in and out of hospital, August 1917. (National Archives)

Thomas’ movements in and out of hospital, August 1917.
(National Archives)

It is now we turn our attention back to William. Now approaching is 19th birthday, he is finally moved to France. William, being William, doesn’t go without one more misdemeanor. On 3 January 1918 he again overstays his pass, again by under 24-hours. This was more serious, as he knew he was under orders for embarkation. This time he was fined three-days pay. He sailed from Seaham on the 9 January and was posted, on his arrival, to the 2nd Battalion DLI; although this seems to have changed and on the 13 January he was posted to the 15th Battalion who were, it appears, at Liéramont undergoing training. In March, this battalion was in being held in reserve and used for working parties.

William's will, made upon landing in France. It names Betsy as next of kin. (National Archives)

William’s will, made upon landing in France. It names Betsy as next of kin.
(National Archives)

Sadly for them, they were right in the way of the German push towards Amiens that started on the 21 March 1918. Reinforced by troops from the now defunct eastern front, the Germans sought a knock-out blow and started to sweep all before them. The 15th Battalion managed to thwart the German advance south of the Heudicourt – Vauceletter Farm road, only to receieve orders to withdraw to Templeux-la-Fosse. The battalion fought a continual rearguard action and had to keep falling back. This was a desperate period of the War, as the Germans launched offensive after offensive. On 25 April, William Walkeden was killed in action. His body was never recovered and he is commemorated on the panels at the Tyne Cot Cemetery, which means that he must have been moved to the Ypres region at this stage. I have visited this cemetery, it is an immense place.

On 1 June 1918 a photograph appeared in the Walsall Observer. It isn’t clear who placed it and no write-up accompanies it as with many other photographs, but there is an obituary from ‘old pals’ Dot and Charles James. Dorothy and Charlie were from Sunnyside Cottages, just a little further up the Long Lane. Charles, it was stated, was in the Royal Garrison Artillery (somewhere in France). A miner before the War, he signed-up in March 1917, aged 18. He went into France in August, being posted into the 95th Siege Battery. These employed howitzers to destroy German artillery, communications and other strong-points. He fought at the Third Battle of Ypres, later being deployed in many of the battles that the Walkeden brothers were involved in after the German offensives in March 1918. As he was a miner, he was demobbed in December 1918. He returned home.

William Walkeden in the Walsall Observer, 1 June 1918. (Walsall Local History Centre)

William Walkeden in the Walsall Observer, 1 June 1918. (Walsall Local History Centre)

William’s effects would be returned to his mother on 11 September.

William's effects are returned to Betsy, 11 September 1918.  (National Archives)

William’s effects are returned to Betsy, 11 September 1918.
(National Archives)

Thomas had been fighting in Ypres, but after the launch of the Kaiser’s Battle, his division would eventually be moved onto the Somme. They fought at Albert, then Bapaume in August and early September. After Bapaume, on the 5 September, Thomas was promoted to temporary Lance-Corporal. Thomas’ division (the 38th) were a part of the relentless pursuit of the Germans after their offensives had finally petered-out. Through September and October, Thomas fought at Havrincourt, Epehy, Beaurevoir and Cambrai; these were part of a set of battles collectively known as the ‘battles of the Hindenburg Line’. After the breaking of the Line on 29 September 1918, Thomas became a part of the ‘final advance into Picardy’. The first of these battles was that of the River Selle, where the Germans had regrouped. After resistance was broken on the 25th October, the last engagement of Thomas’ war would take place. Surely nothing could go wrong now, but it could and did.

The Second Battle of the River Sambre would open on the 4th November and would be the last action the British Army would see. The Germans attempted a desperate stand on the banks of the Sambre-Oise Canal, where, enveloped in mist, the initial allied attacks met with heavy resistance and heavy casualties were taken. Whatever his exact involvement, Thomas received a gun shot would to the face. Luckily it wasn’t too serious and he was soon back with his unit, but he did receive a wound stripe. By the time he returned to his unit the armistice had been agreed and, in good old British tradition, Thomas was returned to the rank of a private on 15 November.

Thomas was moved to the 62nd MGC Battalion on the 27 November. On Christmas Day the 62nd (West Riding) Division, to which he was attached, was in Schleiden, Germany. Be that as it may, demobilisation was under way and Thomas was returned to England in January 1919. He was finally given his dispersal certificate while at Clipstone Camp, near Mansfield, on 19 January.

Thomas' Dispersal Certificate issued at Clipstone Camp, near Mansfield (National Archives)

Thomas’ Dispersal Certificate issued at Clipstone Camp, near Mansfield
(National Archives)

And so it was over. William appears on three memorials within St John’s Church at Essington and is the only soldier to do so. He appears both on the Newtown plaque and the main Essington memorial. Interestingly, there is a third memorial. The churchwarden took me to a stock room where a roll of honour lies. It has the names of the fallen from Essington and Hilton. Its origins are a little unclear, but it is believed to have come from a mission church; as a roll of honour it lists the names of those that served not just those killed, so Thomas Jacob is there too.

The Essington War Memorial at St John's Church. William is on it - the only one of the Newton boys to appear on both. 2014.

The Essington War Memorial at St John’s Church. William is on it – the only one of the Newton boys to appear on both. 2014.

Thomas Jacob Walkeden would go onto marry his local sweetheart, the same Dorothy James that sent in the obituary for his brother.  The couple married in 1921 and went on to have one child, Frederick, born in 1926. Dorothy died in 1975; Thomas would pass away in 1980. The parents of the brothers most likely would have been present at the unveiling of the monuments. Thomas senior passed away in 1940, with the country again in the grip of war. Betsy died in 1950.

Sunnyside Cottages, Long Lane - home of Dorothy James. 2014.

Sunnyside Cottages, Long Lane – home of Dorothy James. 2014.

The houses on Long Lane once occupied by William, Thomas, Dot and Charlie are still there. It would be nice if the current occupiers of Sunnyside and Ashdown manage to read this and see if they can feel the echoes of those families, the miners, the loves and yes, the loss.


As ever, my thanks to:

The National Archives
Walsall Local History Centre
St John’s Church, Essington
Imperial War Museum

Great War Forum and http://www.1914-1918.net
Cannock Chase Coalfields and its Mines: Dean, Drury and Lucas

This article is dedicated to my mate Gary Smith, himself an old campaigner – for local history.

  1. Flanders Field says:

    Excellent article sir!

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