Private Wilfred North: Finding Family

Introduction and Identification
I have took some time off the writing, as I am currently sitting at home nursing a chest infection. Bored by daytime TV, I knew I had to get back to it, but I needed to make sure I had accrued the evidence for my next article already as I didn’t have the energy to go out and get it. This means that I have promoted my next soldier article (forgive the pun) as I have all that I need already on several soldiers, having done the research a while back. Lacking a little direction as to which soldier to chose, I thought that Wilfred North seemed apt :-); so I gathered together what I had on him.

Wilfred North on the Wyrley Gates, one of the few names that appears in full. 2014.

Wilfred North on the Wyrley gates, his is one of the few names that appears in full. 2014. Remember to click on photos to enlarge.

Due to my scepticism over the accuracy of the plaques on the gates, my first task was, as always, to confirm the name in question. North is one of the rare entries that does in fact give both his first and surname, rather than initials; and a quick cross-reference to the Great Wyrley Wesleyan Methodist plaque and the 1926 Staffordshire Roll of Honour showed that they supported both the name and the spelling. Reassured, I pressed on; and while he would have no surviving war record, all further evidence would support that the gates did reflect the correct name and spelling – well sort of: Wilfred’s birth certificate has his name as Wilfrid, but on everything else he is Wilfred.

Early Life
Wilfred’s early life is surrounded by a little mystery. We know from his casualty record that he was born at Albrighton: which is still in Staffordshire, but just the other side of Wolverhampton to Great Wyrley. He was born on Christmas Day, 1892. Although his birth record ties him to Albrighton, everything else ties him to Bridgtown, Cheslyn Hay and Great Wyrley. His first appearance on the census at the age of 8, in 1901, has him living not with his parents, but with his grandparents in Station St, Cheslyn Hay. They were to raise him, so it is that family we shall follow.

Grandfather Edwin was born in Penkridge in 1841 and was the son of a local publican. By 1859 he had moved to Walsall, where he met and married Ann Bowrin. The couple were in Burntwood by 1860, where their first child, Annie, was born. Edwin was a carpenter at this stage and Ann was described as a dressmaker. The couple returned to Walsall around 1864, where their second child, Josiah, was born, but by 1868 the family had settled in Wednesbury.

The family were in St James Rd by 1871, where Edwin was described as a carpenter and a beadle. Daughter Annie has disappeared by this stage – she may have been one of the three of nine children the couple were to lose. Whatever, the couple now had Henry Allen and Thomas James as the 1860s drew to a close. The 1870s would see Esther (1872), Tertius (1874), Edwin (1877) and Ann (1879) complete the family.

By 1881 the family have moved again, this time to Broad St in Bridgtown. Edwin is a carpenter and joiner, and may well have apprenticed Josiah to the trade. The rest of the children are scholars. This is the last census on which Josiah can be traced with certainty. In 1891 the family have moved to ‘The Lott’ in Cheslyn Hay: this was the set of houses on that census listed between Chapel Square and Station Rd. There are five children at the house, Esther now also having left. Ann is 12 and still at school. Edwin, now 14, is a butcher’s assistant. Tertius, now 17, is a coal loader. Both Henry, now 23, and Thomas, now 22, worked as lamp cleaners at a local colliery.

It isn’t clear when most of the now adult children left the home, but by 1901, and Wilfred’s arrival, the only two left were Henry and Ann. Henry had become a carpenter like his father, and we can assume that his father was teaching him. Ann had become a nurse. There were also two children from the Adderley family from Cannock stopping with them, the eldest, Ruth, being 11 and described as a general domestic servant. Having domestic help would normally be a luxury in such a property at this time in Cheslyn Hay, but I am not convinced that there is much to this.

1901 census for Wilfred North - living at the home of his grandparents in Cheslyn Hay. (National Archives)

1901 census for Wilfred North – living at the home of his grandparents in Cheslyn Hay.
(National Archives)

By 1911, Edwin, Ann, Henry and Wilfred were in Bentons Lane, Landywood. Edwin has finally become a pensioner (old age pensions now being paid to those 70 and over, which Edwin was, at up to 5s per week). The man later described as ‘Uncle Henry’ has become a railway wagon repairer, although this appears to be in a coal mine. Wilfred is also described as a colliery worker, above ground. The final member of the household is Edwin Allan North; later described as ‘cousin Allan’, this Great Wyrley born boy was also a grandchild of Edwin and also seemingly raised by them.

1911 census for Wilfred North, now at Bentons Lane, Landywood. (National Archives)

1911 census for Wilfred North, now at Bentons Lane, Landywood.
(National Archives)

And so the move towards war. The next few years seem to be a mixed bag for Wilfred. We know that he met and married Ethel Fryer towards the end of 1913. I would need the marriage certificate to be certain, but I suspect that she was the daughter of a brass caster from Willenhall and a few years Wilfred’s junior. The couple settled down in Great Wyrley, as by 1917 they were living on the Walsall Road. Their first child, Esther, came along in 1914. We know that prior to his joining the colours Wilfred was working at the Harrison’s pit, but he doesn’t appear to have been a member of the club. 1915, his last year as a non-combatant, would see his grandfather pass away.

1916 would have opened with some optimism, as Ethel was carrying their second child; indeed, Francis was born in the first few months of the year. Saying that, the threat of conscription had become a reality and in the February, either by hook or crook, Wilfred attested into the army at Cannock. He would have gone into a training battalion and while he was there, Ann, his grandmother, passed away.

The War
Prior to conscription in early 1916, soldiers were attested into regiments; now with the increase in recruits, soldiers were sent to generic training battalions for basic training and then assigned to fill gaps in serving battalions as they passed out of training. In this way, soldiers from Great Wyrley could find themselves in the Durham Light Infantry for example; not only that, but they could then be transferred on and this is what happened to Wilfred. We know he was in the Worcestershire Regiment, but he found himself at some stage transferred to the 10th Battalion Lincolnshire Regiment. The 10th Battalion were the old ‘Grimsby Pals Battalion’ of 1914, but there were not many ‘pals’ left in 1916.

Wilfred North in uniform (Cannock Library)

Wilfred North in uniform
(Cannock Library)

Sometime around August 1916, Wilfred was sent to war. It is impossible for me to say at this time whether he was in the Worcestershire or Lincolnshire Regiment, so rather than guess, let us just say that in the following months, wherever he was, he saw out the last of the Somme campaign, Christmas, the German withdrawal to the Hindenburg line in March 1917 and American entry into the War on 6 April. We do know that by this stage he was with the Lincolnshire Regiment and stationed, as a part of General Allenby’s Third Army, near Arras.

As a part of the Allied strategy, 1917 would see attacks on all fronts in order to drain the German reserves, bring about a break-through and engage the Germans in open ground. Arras was chosen as the launch-pad for the British assault, with a coordinated French assault (the Nivelle Offensive) taking place about 50 miles to the south. The initial object of the Arras assault, which was on a scale like that of the Somme the year before, was two-fold: The First Army would attack the German-held high ground, infamously known as Vimy Ridge (The Battle of Vimy Ridge), while the Third Army would attack the Arras – Cambrai road, the village of Feuchy and Devil’s Wood amongst other targets  (The Battle of the Scarpe).

Preparations for the assault had commenced months back, including a massive mining and tunnelling undertaking that saw munitions tramways, hospital areas, assault tunnels and traditional mines dug to within meters of the German lines. Postponed for a day, in the hope of better weather, the attacks were launched at dawn on the 9 April – during a snow storm. The snow both hindered and helped the attack, as the Germans couldn’t see what was happening and, by the end of the day, most objectives had been seized in what was a very successful campaign opening; that is successful for the army, but not for Ethel North.

Wilfred was killed, in the snow, as a part of the Scarpe operation. Hopefully it was quick, as his body was never identified. The first Ethel really knew was when Wilfred’s company captain wrote to her stating that Wilfred was a ‘thoroughly reliable, brave and efficient soldier that was held in high esteem throughout the company, and would have died as he wished, fighting for king and country in a righteous cause.’ Whether this was jingoistic clap-trap or not, the truth is that he appears on the Arras Memorial, the Wyrley gates and his British War Medal and Victory Medal were packed off to Ethel, now married to someone else, along with £2 10s 7d.

A part of the write-up on North's death in the Cannock Advertiser (Cannock Library)

A part of the write-up on North’s death in the Cannock Advertiser
(Cannock Library)

It was the family aspect of this story that interested me. I think it would be easy and somewhat superficial to see Wilfred as a tragic figure: seemingly unloved and abandoned by his parents; dumped with a set of grandparents that had their own family to feed; isolated, as his adopted family were all much older than him; and the loss of his own family within a year of his death, as his wife remarried and the small memory left of him in the mind of his eldest dwindled as she grew up in a household usurped by another man. Dramatic, but wrong. Wilfred’s tragedy was that of many others, in that he was simply killed in the War – but not that he was unloved.

In a period with little in the way of welfare, Ethel did what many war widows did – part out of necessity – which was to remarry, and remarry quickly when a young family was involved. Ethel placed a poem in the obituary section of the Cannock Advertiser in April 1917 saying just how she felt. She had two more children with her new husband, Alfred Horden, but Wilfred’s children grew up with North as their surname; Esther married in 1940 and Francis in 1946. Sadly, Wilfred lost his grandparents within a year of each other just as he went into the army. We can get some understanding of how his adoptive family felt for him from the poem and obituary that was placed by ‘Uncle Henry’ in the same edition as that of Ethel.

The obituaries from wife, Ethel and Uncle Henry in the Cannock Advertiser, April 1917  (Cannock Library)

The obituaries from wife, Ethel and Uncle Henry in the Cannock Advertiser, April 1917
(Cannock Library)

The final question is that of him being ‘abandoned’ at his grandparents by uncaring parents. Well, it isn’t quite that simple, as you may have guessed. Like the practicalities that Ethel faced, Esther Elizabeth North also faced them. She had left the family home in Cheslyn Hay and became a domestic housemaid, presumably in the Albrighton area. She became a single mother, and the practical solution was to return home. Esther went on to marry Abraham Goldman in 1896 and this may have been when Wilfred was placed with her own parents. All we can trace after this was that she was up in Gateshead visiting her brother in 1901; a bother that doesn’t seen to fit into the established chronology. After this she steps out from easily traceable history. It isn’t possible to know how her marriage affected things, but I believe the evidence is clear that there was still a loving relationship between the two: firstly, Wilfred calls his first child Esther after her and secondly, she also placed an obituary to her lost son.

Esther remembers, April 1917 (Cannock Library)

Esther remembers, April 1917
(Cannock Library)

In memory of Wilfred… and Esther

With Thanks to:
Cannock Library
National Archives

  1. Graeme says:

    Morning Paul,

    His widow married Alfred W. Horden at Cannock in mid 1918.



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