Sapper Harold Mitchell: A Bridgtown Lad in a Wyrley Field

This article follows on from that of Wallace Lawson and the WWI Commonwealth War Graves found in Great Wyrley Cemetery. Lawson was a Cheslyn Hay soldier that appears on their memorial, despite the fact that he died in 1919 in Nottingham, because he was still a serving soldier (and thus is buried in the Great Wyrley Cemetery). Harold Mitchell is the second WWI Commonwealth War Grave in the cemetery. This is his story and it also begs the question, when is a soldier a soldier?..

Great Wyrley Cemetery pass the graves of Sapper Mitchell and Sapper Lawson to the IWGC, 1930

Great Wyrley Cemetery pass the graves of Sapper Mitchell and Sapper Lawson to the IWGC, 1930

Sapper Harold Mitchell
Harold Mitchell was born in Bridgtown around September 1889 to parents Willie and Mary (nee Garner). Willie was a bricklayer’s assistant from Oldham in Lancashire. The couple likely met but certainly married in Oldham in the middle of 1886. Further, Willaim their eldest son was born there. The family could only have arrived in Bridgtown a year or two before Harold’s birth, as William is only two years older than him. In 1891 the family are living in Park Street, Bridgtown.

1891 Census for Harold Mitchell. The family are in Park St, Bridgtown. (National Archives)

1891 Census for Harold Mitchell. The family are in Park St, Bridgtown.
(National Archives)

By 1901 the family have moved in with Mary’s father, Edward. He was living in North St and was back in 1891, showing the Mitchell likely family moved to Bridgtown as they had family connections. Further, Edward was a bricklayer – a trade picked up by Willie, William and later, Harold Mitchell. The family had grown, with new additions; Bertram (b1893), Florence (b1895), Lily (b1897) and Constance (b1900).

1901 Census for the Mitchell family, Bridgtown. (National Archives)

1901 Census for the Mitchell family, Bridgtown.
(National Archives)

By 1911 the family are at 13 North St. Sadly, Constance has passed away and the census makes it clear that Harold had lost another sibling. Joy as well though, as Frederick and James joined the brood. What this shows, as with other soldiers I have covered (Ernest Thomas comes to mind), is just how precarious life was in an age before antibiotics and especially for the young – so much so that in 1915 Councils up and down the country formed Child Welfare and Infant Mortality Committees in an attempt to address the issue.

William had left the family home, but Bertram had followed his family trait and become a bricklayer. At this point, Harold is a stamper in an edge tool works – possibly Gilpin’s at Churchbridge. Florence is a ‘servant’, but this could simply mean she helped in the family home rather than working in someone else’s house.

1911 census for the Mitchell family, Bridgtown. (National Archives)

1911 census for the Mitchell family, Bridgtown.
(National Archives)

Things were to change massively for Harold Mitchell in the later part of 1911 when he dared to cross the frontier and pinch himself a Cheslyn Hay bride. The 20-year-old Martha Hall was employed as domestic help at Fisher’s Farm and the couple married at St Luke’s Church in Cannock on the 3rd December. Martha presented Harold with Harold junior the following year, delivering the child in North St, Bridgtown – so they returned to the bosom of the Mitchell family at this vulnerable time it seems.

Harold was conscripted in July 1916. Little survives of his war record, but he gave his address upon attestation as being Landywood Lane near Fisher’s Farm. At this point, he gives his occupation as a bricklayer and stipulates that he would like to serve with the Royal Engineers. A note was made on his form ‘bricklayer proficient’.

Harold Mitchell's attestation, July 1916. (National Archives)

Harold Mitchell’s attestation, July 1916.
(National Archives)

Mitchell was attached to the 289th Army Troop Company, but he only served at home. He went into basic training, but it appears that on the night of the 7th November 1916 he fell ill while at his home in Landywood. He recovered, but it seems it left him with a weakened constitution. He was still considered fit to serve and on the 17th February 1917 he was posted to the Royal Engineers Training Corps, based at the RE Training Centre at Coddington Hall, Newark. One assumes he instructed on bricklaying. The camp catered for up to 3000 men and was used for recruitment, training and as camp for those waiting to be detailed overseas.

Harold Mitchell's medical summary, 1917. It declares him unfit for service. (National Archives)

Harold Mitchell’s medical summary, 1917. It declares him unfit for service.
(National Archives)

On 13th August 1917 Harold Mitchell’s condition was re-assessed. The panel considered him unfit to serve, stating the cause as nephritis. Nephritis was a big killer, especially prior to antibiotics. It can be caused by many things and can be acute or chronic – but it results in inflammation of the kidneys, which then shed valuable proteins. The illness was considered not to have been caused by his military service, but exacerbated by it. Mitchell was pensioned-off on the 3rd September 1917 with 52 weeks of support – which appears to be 13s 9d a week, with an extra 2s 6d for Harold junior. He also got outpatient medical treatment. One can only assume that he returned to his home on Landywood Lane – and just in time to fill in his ‘roll of honour’ slip.

Mitchell's form for inclusion on the Great Wyrley Roll of Honour, 1917.

Mitchell’s form for inclusion on the Great Wyrley Roll of Honour, 1917.

Mitchell’s support expired on the 3rd September 1918. His condition was chronic and clearly far worse by this stage as he died shortly after – on the 30th October 1918. His family must have been hit financially, after all there is no welfare state at this time. Martha would have had to work, seek assistance from the extended family, approach the workhouse (yes, they were still in operation until 1930), or seek a new husband – as many widowed women were forced to do. There was no headstone until the War Graves Commission placed one at the grave in 1930.

Mitchell's grave in Great Wyrley Cemetery. 2014

Mitchell’s grave in Great Wyrley Cemetery. 2014

Harold Mitchell has done his best to bring together our local townships; born in Bridgtown (as was his son), then marrying a Cheslyn lass, living in Landywood and finally being buried in the Great Wyrley Cemetery (ok, it is in Cheslyn Hay 🙂 ). He is on the Wyrley Memorial Gates, but in my opinion incorrectly, as he should be listed under those fallen.

Harold Mitchell appears on the list of those served, not fallen. 2014

Harold Mitchell appears on the list of those served, not fallen. 2014

Mitchell qualifies for an Imperial War Grave under category two: Personnel who had been discharged from or retired from the military before their deaths during the same qualifying periods of an injury or illness caused by or exacerbated by their service during the same qualifying period. These cases qualify only if it is PROVEN to the authorities’ satisfaction that death was service attributable (In From The Cold Project Website).

Clearly Mitchell died during the qualifying period (1914-1921) and Mitchell’s surviving records state that his illness was exacerbated by his service. Ernest Thomas’ report stated the same – only he died from an acute illness while still in khaki and is listed under the fallen – whereas Mitchell was discharged to die a slower death. Another Wyrley soldier, one currently I am researching, was also discharged and then died some months later – yet he is on the list of the fallen. I can fully understand why Mitchell appears on the list of those that served but survived, after all, he didn’t get is war grave until 1930. It is a credit to the local communities that they sought war grave status. Never the less, he now has one and rightly so – and the grave qualification itself really means his name should be added to those that have fallen.

To me, the question is no longer of should he be added, but where should he be added? Many soldiers have the right to be on more than one memorial – and are – as they are born in one place and later marry and settle in another. Mitchell spent all but the last few years of his life in Bridgtown – and their memorial is to their fallen. Perhaps he should be added there and the Wyrley gates left as they are – but I do think it needs recognising somewhere – the question is, do you?

I would like to thank:
Staffordshire Record Office
National Archives
Great Wyrley Parish Council

In From The Cold Project
The person who put the little wooden cross next to his gravestone

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Comments
  1. Pedro says:

    Don’t know if it has been mentioned, but…

    During the 1980s the brick pillars supporting the gates were in urgent need of repair. By 1987 at deterioration was such that it was decided to demolish pillars and build new ones. The two bronze plaques bearing the names of those served were removed and sent for refurbishment. The gates were removed and stored at the rear of the pavilion at the bottom of the Memorial Gardens.

    In the early hours of one morning the gates were stolen. This caused great distress to the village and despite intensive enquiries by the police they were never recovered.

    (Great Wyrley Millennium Souvenir)

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