Sapper Henry Griffiths: Harry’s Fall from Grace

Identification
As a miserable man facing a financial meltdown caused by the coinciding of the eldest Wyrleyblogette’s 18th birthday, followed by Christmas and then the new year, I decided to cheer myself up by doing another one of Great Wyrley’s fallen soldiers of the Great War 🙂 . Sadly, my cunning plan wasn’t to work, as the soldier I elected to research over the next few days would prove to be far more upsetting than the emptying of my bank account by the Blogettes.

I had decided to pick-up on what appeared to be, and did in fact prove to be, yet another error on the Wyrley gates. A Griffiths H.Y. appears on the gates, which had started my alarm bells ringing when I first saw it: mainly as ‘Y’ is not a common initial and I suspected that it should be a small ‘y’ representing Henry. This type of error would make it consistent with at least two others that I had already noted where the ‘Wm’ for William had been split into two separate initials (Wm H Simpson is W M H Simpson for example). So Griffiths it was to be.

H.Y. Griffiths on the Great Wyrley Memorial Gates - a little suspicious? (2014)

H.Y. Griffiths on the Great Wyrley Memorial Gates – a little suspicious? (2014)

As usual, the first thing I did was to check out the other local listings, and while they didn’t rule out a middle name starting with ‘Y’, they did confirm my suspicions. The 1926 Staffordshire Roll of Honour simply has a Griffiths H. and the Great Wyrley Methodist plaque has a Harry Griffiths, as does the Cheslyn Hay war memorial.

My confidence in that I was now looking for a Harry, but more likely a Henry Griffiths in the formal record, was compounded by a rather curious little entry that I had come across while nipping through the Cannock Advertiser when researching a previous soldier: it was to be found in the obituary column in late May 1916 and stated that Henry Griffiths, from Cheslyn Hay, had been killed in an accident on 15 May 1916. This led me to the following entry on the soldiers killed in the Great War database (via Ancestry).

Name: Henry Griffiths
Birth Place: Chase Terrace, Staffs
Death Date: 14 May 1916
Death Place: Home
Enlistment Place: Walsall, Staffs
Rank: SPR.
Regiment: Royal Engineers
Regimental Number: 102276
Type of Casualty: Died
Theatre of War: Home
Comments: 3rd Prov. Coy. RE.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission had Harry’s burial location as Chatham in Kent, so it looked like our Henry died on his way to the War – however, a far more tragic story would emerge…

Early Life
Griffiths seems to have gone under the name of Harry, more than Henry. He was born in Chase Terrace around February 1880. His parents, Thomas and Caroline, were around 30 when Harry was born. Thomas was an itinerant miner, who despite several claims to have been born in Brownhills, appears to have hailed from Leebotwood in Shropshire. Caroline was from Brownhills, as was their eldest child, John. John was an 11-year old scholar in 1881, so if Thomas had come from Shropshire it had been at least 11 years previously. Charlotte was the next child; she was 5 in 1881 and born in Walsall Wood. Finally, the delightfully named Elihu (3) and Harry (11 months) were both born in Chase Terrace. Be that as it may, back in 1881, the family were residing in Wilkin’s houses, which were mining cottages within spitting distance of the Wilkin pit at Brownhills West (once located around the Hednesford Rd/Wilkin Rd triangle, off Watling St, opposite the Rising Sun).

1881 Census for Harry Griffiths and family, in Brownhills. (National Archives)

1881 Census for Harry Griffiths and family, in Brownhills.
(National Archives)

The fact that the Harry was from a family of an itinerant miner is shown splendidly by the 1891 census. The family remained in Brownhills until at least 1883, as Jane (c1881) and Mary (c1883) were both born there. The family then up-sticks and move to Yorkshire, where, by 1889, Alice is born. At this stage they were living around the Fryston area, which is a few miles north of Pontefract. By 1891, the family are living in Whitwood, which is several miles away and the other side of Castleford. Thomas is still a miner, John has flown the nest and Harry, Jane and Mary are described as a scholars. Elihu and Charlotte have nothing recorded against them.

1891, the Griffiths' are in Yorkshire (National Archives)

1891, the Griffiths’ are in Yorkshire
(National Archives)

Moving on a decade and you’ve guessed it, the family have moved again: now they are in New St, Bridgtown. Thomas, now 52, is described as a hewer, but ‘ill at home’. In earlier times this could have resulted in financial catastrophe for the family, even the workhouse, as there was no welfare to turn to unless he was in a private work scheme. Fortunately, Elihu (now 23) and Harry (now 20) were now both employed as coal miners (hewers), so they were at least earning. June is the only other of the children in the house at this stage.

1901, Harry Griffiths is back in the area - Bridgtown (National Archives)

1901, Harry Griffiths is back in the area – Bridgtown
(National Archives)

This would be the last time that there would be a family home. In 1908, Caroline died. By 1911, the 62 year-old former miner would be an inmate in the Cannock Workhouse on the Wolverhampton Rd; I strongly suspect that he would be dead 10 years later, which is after Harry’s death, but he isn’t mentioned in the obituary. By 1911, Elihu had returned to the mines of Yorkshire, lodging with another family called Griffiths.

So what of Harry? Well, in 1911 he was lodging at a house in Landywood Lane, Cheslyn Hay. The house belonged to an illiterate 76 year-old man, with no occupation, named Henry Kingston. Kingston was a widower, and no doubt ‘retired’. He lived with his 50 year-old son, Harry, who was a coal miner and his 27 year-old daughter, Susannah, who acted as the house-keeper. Griffiths was also a miner and it isn’t hard to understand why the Kingstons’ would have took in a lodger, but it may not be so straight-forward. Harry may have been romantically involved with Susannah at this stage, but the fact his birth was recorded as being in Yorkshire perhaps shows that at this point it was more of a pecuniary relationship.

1911 sees Harry Griffiths in Landywood Lane, in the house of his bride-to-be (National Archives)

1911 sees Harry Griffiths in Landywood Lane, in the house of his bride-to-be
(National Archives)

Involved or not before he lodged there, Harry Griffiths and Susannah Kingston got married to the sound of the bells of St Mark’s at Great Wyrley on Boxing Day, 1912. The couple remained at Landywood Lane, with her father, Henry (who lived another decade) and Harry (who would pass away as the storm clouds of WWII approached). The couple remained childless, even as the Kaiser marched into Belgium and the Christmas truce came and went.

Harry’s Game
My initial suspicions that Harry was conscripted and died before he could get to the front were to be proved to be complete tosh, as his badly damaged and bleached war records do survive. Griffiths was not in the Reserve or in the Territorials, as his attestation papers would show, but he did join-up in May 1915. Griffiths was to be a part of Kitchener’s Army and likely responding to the appeal for ‘tunnellers’, which took place from February onward (in response to the initial and devastating mining operations of the Germans). The 35 year-old’s initial attestation into the Royal Engineers was at Hednesford, where the 5’8″ miner was passed and on the 3 June he was formally approved in London. The need for miners is perhaps shown by the fact that he received little, if any basic training, as he was shipped to France within a few days.

Harry's attestation at Hednesford, 29 May 1915. (National Archives)

Harry’s attestation at Hednesford, 29 May 1915.
(National Archives)

And so Harry, a tunneller’s mate on 2-/2d per day, embarked for France on 7 June 1915. On landing, the same day, he was transferred to the 177th (Pioneer) Tunneller Company. Just out of interest, there is a list of clothing and equipment issued to Griffiths on his attestation in his war records – remember, click on the image to enlarge.

Clothing and equipment issued to Harry on his attestation. (National Archives)

Clothing and equipment issued to Harry on his attestation.
(National Archives)

These companies were employed in digging deep dug-outs, but principally mines and counter-mining. Harry and the 177th were moved to the Ypres salient in Belgium, to Wytschaete (near Messines). It would be here, in October 1915, that Harry was raised to a full Tunneller rate of pay. In November 1915, the 177th were then moved to Railway Wood (in the Salient, but north of Hooge and the Menin Road) and it would be while working in this area, on 26 February 1916, that Harry took a shrapnel wound to his nasal area and was sent to hospital behind the lines.

From what I can make out, Griffiths was back on duty within a few days, yet, on 4 March he was returned to hospital: this time it was described as bronchitis. Whether exacerbated by his shrapnel or not, his bronchitis was severe enough for him to be returned to England. He spent 21 days in the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital (Gt Portland St, London), being discharged on the 8 April 1916. He was then transferred to the 3rd Provincial Battalion, RE. This was, in effect, a posting to the Chatham camp, presumably to recuperate further. It would be Harry’s last posting.

Harry’s Fall From Grace
It is worth remembering that prior to the terrible events that were to unfold between the 12-14 May, Harry Griffiths had an exemplary discipline record; but like so many, he would fall foul while on home service. At 4pm, on 12 May, Harry left the St Mary’s barracks with a friend, Sapper Edward Beck. The two had served together in France and were on a pass, but were due to be back that night. The two men were out until 9pm, when they parted at the Gibraltar Hotel, near the railway station. Beck admitted that they were both drunk, which was a rarity for Griffiths. Beck returned to the camp successfully.

Around 11pm, local resident, Harry Wray jnr, was walking along Chalk Pitt Hill. The road is still there, and yes, there was a chalk pit off it that was some 50-60ft deep. He later testified at the inquest that he saw Griffiths lying at the edge of the pit. There was a 9ft fence around the pit, but some of the rails were missing. Wray jumped the fence and approached Griffiths, who was fast asleep. He woke him to tell him of his predicament, only be told ‘I’m all right, leave me alone’. Wray dragged him back to the fence and told him to stay there while he got help. Griffiths simply rolled back, drunk; scorning the danger, he told them that ‘I might just as well die here as anywhere else… I am absent; I don’t care.’ Wray, now he claimed assisted by a passing sailor, tried once again, but Griffiths fought them off, adamant that he was going to spend the night there. Wray left him, claiming the sailor (never named) said he would get the police. It was the last time Harry Griffiths was seen alive.

Chalk Pit Hill is now a community play ground (www.move2medway.co.uk)

Chalk Pit Hill is now a community play ground
(www.move2medway.co.uk)

On the morning of the 14 May, George Clogger, a butcher from Jenkins Dale (a neighbouring road), found Griffiths at the bottom of the cliff at about 10.45 am. Clogger described Harry as lying there as if asleep, with one hand over his eyes. The body had trauma to the back of the head and injury to the knuckles of the left hand. Informatively, he added that there were marks down the face showing where the man fell. Lt Scott (Medical Corps) examined the body and added that no bones were broken – the cause of death being the head trauma.

The jury considered the evidence and returned a fitting verdict – accidental death. Yes, Griffiths was drunk; Beck had served with him in France and testified that he didn’t drink much and was used to the weaker Belgian beer (ironically, it is now much stronger). He also added, when questioned, that the wound in his face had affected him. Yes, Griffiths had crossed the fence; but made no attempt to jump, simply to sleep. He may have wanted the fence to shield him from view, as he was aware enough to know that he was now absent without leave. Ultimately, being absent was not a cause in itself to commit suicide, he would have got told off, docked a day’s pay and got confined to barracks (remember, his conduct had been perfect), and had he really wanted to do that, the railway was a far surer way, and just around the corner. Further, the inquest ‘wanted’ the fence mending, as there had been several accidents there recently.

The moving tribute to Harry in the Cannock Advertiser obituary column, May 1916 (Cannock Library)

The moving tribute to Harry in the Cannock Advertiser obituary column, May 1916
(Cannock Library)

The family were clearly devastated; the obituary in the Cannock Advertiser is deeply sad. Susannah was whisked-off to identify the body and attend the inquest, she must have placed the obituary on her return. Worse was to follow of course. Harry was actually ‘absent’ at the time of his death, so he wasn’t classed as being on active service: the result was that Susannah was refused a war pension on these grounds. Susannah received Harry’s medals – his 1915 Star, Victory and War medals. She went on to marry Ernest Bird in 1926, finally passing away, I believe, in 1965.

On 3 February 2016, Mrs Blog and I visited Harry’s grave at the Fort Pitt Military Cemetery. The Cemetery is located near the Royal Engineers depot at Chatham, close to where he died. We left a little metal poppy badge, which fittingly was obtained through Great Wyrley British Legion.

Leaving a metal poppy badge - fittingly from Gt Wyrley British Legion - at the grave of Harry Griffiths at the Fort Pitt Military Cemetery, Chatham. 3 Feb 2016.

Leaving a metal poppy badge – fittingly from Gt Wyrley British Legion – at the grave of Harry Griffiths at the Fort Pitt Military Cemetery, Chatham. 3 Feb 2016.

My final thoughts are for Harry. He was simply a man destroyed by a night out on the town – and in that respect many of us can think ‘there, for the grace of God, go I’. His death was ridiculous, bizarre even, but not anything to be embarrassed about. It happens. So, to echo Susannah’s poem, ‘As long as life and memory lasts, You will remembered be’ – and hopefully this article will mean not just by family – but also by Wyrley, Chezzy, Bridgtown and Brownhills, too.

In memory of Harry and the Griffiths family. I have been waiting a good while to cover something with a Brownhills connection – this is so I can dedicate it to top blogger and supporter of this site since the day before it started… Brownhills Bob/William Roberts… who, as a Brownhills bloke, will find this story as sad as I have.

My thanks to:
Cannock Library
National Archives

http://www.1914-1918.net
Move2Medway.co.uk

Comments
    • SJ says:

      Very thought provoking, today we can’t understand or imagine what a hard world it was, no safety net to fall back on, having served in France, getting injured, coming home to get better and deciding to walk away from the army and die tragically, very sad.

      • wyrleyblog says:

        Hi SJ, I don’t think he walked away from the army, he just got ratted one night and decided to kip by a chalk pit. Wyrleyblog has thankfully only been guilty of the first part. I would hazard a guess that nobody will be more annoyed than himself.

  1. Another very sympathetic and detailed article from Mr W Blog. I too have come across some tragic stories whilst researching men from the Darlaston Memorial. The fact that they died is heartbreaking enough for their families but when they died while ‘safe’ in England it must have been even moe of a shock.

  2. angvs72 says:

    Did nobody consider murder or death by fisty cuffs?

    • wyrleyblog says:

      No, Squire – no evidence at all for such a verdict. Today it may well have been the same, or an open verdict. But I think they got it spot on.

      • angvs72 says:

        It was just a thought from the damaged knuckles, head injury and lack of any breaks.

      • wyrleyblog says:

        the head injury was sustained in the landing- knuckles could have been while sliding/falling – or to be fair, from ‘fending off’ the witness and the ‘sailor’ when they tried to drag him to safety.

  3. Griffiths54 says:

    I was a Griffiths befor marriage. My father Desmond Griffiths was brought up in Coppice lane Cheslyn hay. His father William came from byThe Central in Chadsmore, apparently there used to be a garage on the left past Cemetry RD, my grandad lived there befor getting married. I wandered if he might be a relation somewhere along the way.

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