From Brownhills to Brandwood: Thomas William James and the Pity of War

Now You See Him… Now You Don’t
This article follows on from that of Thomas Jones. Jones was listed in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission as being from Great Wyrley, but in truth he wasn’t as his widow moved to Wyrley sometime after Jones was killed on New Year’s Eve in 1915. In turn, Thomas William James doesn’t appear on the War Graves Commission’s listings and I initially started to wonder if the two had been confused somehow. When I investigated Jones, as his war record partially survives, I quite swiftly discounted him: so who was James? And why is he so elusive?

The name of Thomas James appears on both the Harrison’s Memorial and the Great Wyrley Memorial Gates, however, he is not on the 1911 census for the Great Wyrley area nor is he on the Great Wyrley Methodist Church plaque (dated 1928).

The Harrison's Memorial to the club fallen - the families were invited to the unveiling. 2014.

The Harrison’s Memorial to the club fallen – the families were invited to the unveiling. 2014.

Harrison’s seemed to be the place to start, but their records simply added to the lack of clarity. I knew that Harrison’s invited all of the families of the fallen to their memorial unveiling ceremony in July 1921, so the likelihood of them making a mistake and getting one of the four names wrong seemed to me to be remote. The trouble is there is a surviving initial draft that was compiled by the committee for those to be included on the tablet, but it contained just three names, and yes James is the one missing.

The initial draft for the Harrison's Fallen, 1921. (Staffordshire Record Office)

The initial draft for the Harrison’s Fallen, 1921.
(Staffordshire Record Office)

So, was he a club member? Well, at this stage of my investigations I had no proof that he was even in Great Wyrley, but there is a T James from the Walsall Road that is listed in the club’s membership records for 1913.

Member 34, 12 Feb 1913 - T James of Walsall Road (yes, it is a T)

Member 34, 12 Feb 1913 – T James of Walsall Road (yes, it is a ‘T’, see R Turner, member 27)

In 1917 the Great Wyrley Parish Council decided to start a roll of honour and asked the parishioners to complete forms for those men currently serving, or that had served and had been killed. A return was made by someone for a Thomas William James, which stated somewhat emphatically that he had been in the 8th South Staffordshire Service Battalion and that he had died of wounds.

The emphatically completed 'Roll of Honour' form for Thomas William James (Staffordshire Record Office)

The emphatically completed ‘Roll of Honour’ form for Thomas William James
(Staffordshire Record Office)

This seemed to be the proof I needed, but frustration was again to creep in when a search of the roll of honour for the said 8th South Staffs did not list a Thomas James at all. Several possibilities buzzed through my head, chief of which was that he may never of lived in Wyrley or only as a child and that he was on the memorial to make his parents feel better. Another, and the leap of faith that I eventually made, was that he didn’t die directly – and this would lead me to his surviving war records and then ultimately to a tragic story that I actually found quite painful to research.

Thomas William James
Thomas James was born in Brownhills, allegedly in the September of 1887: I say allegedly as all the census records indicate 1886, but his attestation suggests 1887. I can’t find his baptism and I am too mean to pay for the birth certificates in order to prove it 🙂 . His father was Henry, a coal miner originally from Stirchley in Shropshire, which ironically is now a suburb area of Telford and somewhere I lived for a short while. His mother was Clara (nee Thomas), who was from just up the road in Leighton. Both were born around 1850 and the couple married in Madeley, also in Shropshire, in 1881.

In 1891 the family were living on Wolverhampton Lane in Brownhills: this is now the Pelsall Road that links the miner’s statue at the main Brownhills island to Pelsall. The family lived near to the junction of this road and Clayhanger Lane, which is also near what is still called the Jolly Collier Bridge (named after the former pub that stood adjacent).

The 1891 Census of the James family. (National Archives)

The 1891 Census of the James family.
(National Archives)

By 1901, the family had relocated to near the Wesleyan Chapel at the junction of Watling Street and Chapel Street in Brownhills. This was close to the White Horse and Prince of Wales pubs, the former St Thomas’ Church and the Watling St School. Thomas has been joined by a couple of sisters, Caroline (9) and Clara (3). I suspect that Caroline, then later Clara attended the Watling St School. Thomas could have left school at the age of 12, but by 15 years he was employed at a local colliery as a horse driver ‘on top’. Henry James was described as a coal hewer, ‘below ground’.

1902 25" OS Map for the Watling St, Brownhills, The James family had moved here by 1901. (Walsall Local History Centre)

1902 25″ OS Map for the Watling St, Brownhills, The James family had moved here by 1901. (Walsall Local History Centre)

The family are still around the same area in 1911, although they may have moved to a different house. Thomas is, by 1911, a coal loader, which is most likely a surface worker that loaded the coal into wagons and barges for transportation from the pit. It is from this census that we get the first inklings of the tragedy that seems to have dogged this man and those that are close to him. This census reveals that Henry and Clara had seven children that were born alive, but four of which had later died. This rate of child mortality is hard for us to reconcile these days, but it is a time when sanitation and public health were in their infancy, free healthcare simply a pipe dream and using the word antibiotics would get you hauled before the bishop under accusation of being a devil-worshipper.

1911 census for the James' family (National Archives)

1911 census for the James’ family
(National Archives)

By 1913, Henry and Clara James had relocated to number 4 Plants Buildings, Great Wyrley. Henry appears on the draft electoral register. None of the other family members appear, as at this point we are far from living in a democracy: voting rights were only given to men, over 21 and owning or renting property of sufficient value. This enfranchised around 60% of householders. Democracy was something that the War achieved, even though neither the soldiers at the front or the women and men on the home front actually fought for that. Henry retained his Brownhills property, as this was stated in the electoral register and whilst Thomas James may have resided there, the Harrison’s membership list from 1913 does have a T James from Walsall Rd, which is where the Plants Buildings were located.

Henry James appears on the draft electoral register for 1913. (Staffordshire Record Office)

Henry James appears on the draft electoral register for 1913.
(Staffordshire Record Office)

Things seemed to be running smoothly enough for Thomas and I don’t think, as the storm clouds gathered in 1914, he would have faced them with anything other than optimism. Thomas’ pension records survive and these show that, presumably swept-up with the patriotic fervour, he attested at the tail end of 1914. James enlisted at the Birmingham Municipal Technical School on Suffolk Street, which was being used as a recruitment office.

Thomas joined the South Staffordshire Regiment. On his recruitment form, James described himself as a miner with no previous military experience and having resided with his father for the last three years, which means he was definitely in Great Wyrley. As fate would have it, James was a close neighbour of Patrick Downey, who resided at 2 Plants Buildings in 1913/1914. Downey was also a Harrison’s member and also lost his life. The must have known each other.

A copy of Thomas' attestation, November 1914. (National Archives)

A copy of Thomas’ attestation, 9th November 1914.
(National Archives)

If there was any doubts that the H James in the electoral register was not the father of Thomas, they were to be dispelled by his war records. Thomas was required to give the army details of his parentage: he named Henry and Clara James, both being at 4 Plants Buildings, Great Wyrley.

Plant's Buildings, Walsall Rd, Landywood. (Great Wyrley LHS)

Plant’s Buildings, Walsall Rd, Landywood.
(Great Wyrley LHS)

The fact that Thomas attested in Birmingham struck me as a little odd, but not out of the ordinary. The reason he attested there may be that he had struck-up a relationship with a Mary Ann Williams from Balsall Heath in Birmingham. Thomas attested in November 1914, and clearly the couple had strong feelings because a week before Thomas was due to be shipped to France, the couple wed. I suspect is was a fairly summary decision, as the couple married at the Kings Norton Register Office on the 5 July 1915. The witnesses were members of Mary’s family. With this wedding, Thomas had reached the zenith of his fortunes.

Optimism - Thomas marries Mary Ann Williams in July 1915. (National Archives)

Optimism – Thomas marries Mary Ann Williams in July 1915.
(National Archives)

Mary Ann Williams was born on 5 November 1889. She was the daughter of Frederick Williams, a carter from Hall Green, and his wife Caroline. The family lived at 12 Leopold St in Balsall Heath, but by 1911 were on the neighbouring Emily St. Mary had become a silver-ware burnisher by that time and she was the eldest of five children. In 1915, at the time of the marriage, she was living at 51 Woodfield Avenue, Balsall Heath. It is unclear as to whether the family were living there or just her, but I suspect the family. The Avenue has now gone, but it was off Woodfield Road, which is still there.

The 5′ 4″, light-brown haired and grey eyed Thomas had enlisted in the 8th Battalion, South Staffordshire Regiment in November 1914. Part of Kitchener’s 2nd Army, the battalion had been raised in Lichfield in the September of 1914. They were a service battalion, which mean’t that they were the first ‘volunteer soldier’ battalions, as opposed to regular or the territorial battalion. Many of these battalions would take the name of the place where they were formed and come to be known as ‘pals’ battalions. The 8th South Staffordshire Regiment trained locally before moving down south and by June 1915 they were at the Flower Down Camp near Winchester, Hampshire; indeed, this was the address that James put on his wedding certificate.

It is from this point that the elements of this Greek tragedy begin to play themselves out. Whatever moments Thomas and Mary had to themselves that week, before he was shipped out, were all the couple would ever have together. A week after the wedding Thomas took ship, landing at Boulogne on 15 July. The 8th South Staffs were a part of the 17th Division and after a period of trench training they were moved into the Ypres salient, occupying the southern front-line trenches around Voomezele, Sanctuary Wood, Hill 62, Hooge and Railway Wood.

The salient was a dangerous place, yet the first bad news for the James family would come from the home front. Thomas was to learn that his mother, Clara, had died at the age of 55 and had been interred in an unmarked grave at Great Wyrley Cemetery.

However long Thomas James actually served in the front line is unclear, but the fighting in the Ypres salient was continuous and we know from a later medical report that the incessant fighting took its toll on him.  On 30 October, just weeks after arrival in the salient, he took a bullet to the head and although he survived, he was from this point on as good as dead.

James was taken to a field hospital where he underwent an operation, which was to leave him with a 5 inch scar on his head. Thomas had a Blighty ticket, little good it would do him. He was moved to the Northumberland War Hospital, by way of the port of Newhaven, arriving back in England on 4 November. James’ condition gradually deteriorated, both physically and psychologically. He underwent some kind of brain surgery while at the Hospital, where he remained until May 1916.

In true doctor's handwriting style, a few notes on Thomas' time at Northumberland War Hospital (National Archives)

In true doctor’s handwriting style, a few notes on Thomas’ time at Northumberland War Hospital
(National Archives)

Thomas James was suffering from a ‘general paralysis’ and transferred to the Red Cross Military Hospital at Maghull, Liverpool. This hospital was formerly the Moss Side State Institution and included a specialist neurological unit. WHR Rivers, famed more for his work at Craiglockhart with poets Sassoon and Owen, began his war career there. Mainly for rank and file, from April 1916 it was used for severe or protracted cases only.

On 9 August 1916, James was formally discharged from the Army with a pension of around 20/- per week. The Board described him as a ‘total disablement’ case and ‘no longer physically fit for war service’. His situation was summed-up in a few words…
Originated previous to Dec 1915, France. Sustained bullet wound of head in France, returned to England and has gradually deteriorated since. Causation… gun shot wound of head – war strain. Emotional memory defective… Aggravated by active service – stress of campaign – and wound of skull. Permanent. Totally Prevents.

With his discharge, Thomas James was transferred once again. He would finally come home, not to Brownhills or to Great Wyrley, but at least nearer his wife. James was sent to the Birmingham Asylum on Lodge Road, Winson Green, which was also known as All Saints. Around six weeks later, the bullet fired nearly a year ago finally ‘took’ its target. The suffering of Thomas James ceased on 30 September 1916.

It took sometime to find him: once I discovered that he wasn’t in Great Wyrley Cemetery, I expected him to be close to the Asylum, but in fact Mary Ann purchased a grave and he was buried on 5 October, without a headstone, at Brandwood End Cemetery, near Kings Heath.

The death certificate for Thomas William James, proving it was our Thomas that died in the Asylum... and what killed him. (Birmingham Register Office)

The death certificate for Thomas William James, proving it was our Thomas that died in the Asylum… and what killed him.
(Birmingham Register Office)

Mary Ann James went on to try and rebuild her life. In 1920 she married a Thomas Boulton in Birmingham. Hope it seemed sprang eternal, as the couple had a daughter in 1921. Sadly she was thwarted, which I suppose in keeping with this awful tale. Mary Edith, their only child, was just 9 when she died in 1930. Mary Edith was buried with Thomas James. Thomas’ father, Henry James, passed away in 1932. It isn’t clear when Thomas Boulton died, but Mary Ann Boulton died at the age of 80 in November 1969. She too is buried in the grave with Thomas, finally getting to spend a quiet hour with him.

The Move for Recognition
It is at this point that my thoughts returned to the ‘roll of honour’ form completed back in 1917. I felt a little angry, it was as though whoever it was that completed the form had to justify the Thomas James had died of his wounds. If you look elsewhere on this blog thing you will find the story of Harold Mitchell. Mitchell was discharged from the army after contacting an illness that eventually led to his death. Strangely, he is listed on the Wyrley Memorial Gates as a survivor of the War, yet he was buried in October 1918 and later received a type II Commonwealth war grave as his death was exacerbated by his war service. Clearly, the evidence from Thomas James’ death certificate and his pension records show unequivocally that he is entitled to the same consideration. This man did die of the wound he received, no justification was ever necessary.

I contacted the Friends of Brandwood End Cemetery Group. I explained the background of the story and my initial enquiry revolved around the grave itself and a tentative request for support from the group in gaining CWGC type II status for the grave. Step forward the fantastic Barrie Simpson. Barrie supplied the details regarding the other occupants of Thomas’ grave and from this point on, as Barrie is the driving factor, it seemed only fitting that I requested that he set out how we have arrived at the current position…

Paul’s research in to Thomas James’ story led him from Great Wryley to Birmingham where he established Thomas was buried by his wife Mary Ann in Brandwood End Cemetery.

Birmingham had several war hospitals located at: first, the University of Birmingham, which was planned for use as a military hospital in event of a war since 1908. As the First World War ground on and the number casualties increased, the Birmingham Asylums were also converted in war hospitals and a large number large houses formerly occupied by the Victorian and Edwardian ‘great and the good’ became temporary hospitals known Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs), staffed by St. John’s Ambulance and the Red Cross.

Private Thomas William James was just one of those military casualties brought to UK and to Birmingham, having been wounded in head on 30 October 1915.  As a direct result of the head wound he was paralysed; at least his wife Mary Ann and his family would have been able visit. He died in All Saints Asylum,  Winson Green, Birmingham, on 30th September 1916 and buried 5th October 1916 by his wife, in local Birmingham City Council, Brandwood End Cemetery.

Paul having this found this information of this apparently ‘forgotten soldier’ contacted, ‘The Friends of Brandwood End Cemetery’ (FBEC), to ask if was possible for one ‘The Friends’ to visit the grave to see if there was any memorial that recorded Thomas James.

What Paul did not know since inception of ‘The Friends’ one their first projects was to identify war related graves in the cemetery; identifying them and every November they place a Poppy Cross on every war grave to remember the sacrifice they made. First World War and the Second World War, military personnel and civilian victims of the Blitz during the Second World War.

The Commonwealth War Grave Commission (CWGC) are easy to spot being a simple white stone inscribed with Service Badge and the name, rank and serial number of the serviceman.  As the Friends discovered not every war grave has CWGC distinctive headstone, as a lot of families opted for family memorials on the grave of their loved one and are not so easily to spot.  These are also maintained by the CWGC and records maintained.

The Friends began to walk every row of graves examining the memorials inscriptions; this is ‘weather dependent ’activity, as the seasons change some inscriptions appear more readable – we are still discovering more war related graves each year.  We also discovered the names of war casualties inscribed on the family memorial but buried elsewhere in the world where they fell in combat; these families wanted a local memorial to their loved one; these too get ‘Poppy Cross’ each November.

When Paul’s enquiry was received the Friends checked their records – no trace any Thomas William JAMES or any combination his names – not many people have three names that could all be Christian names or Surnames.

A physical search of the cemetery, for specific grave that Paul’s research had revealed as the last resting place Private Thomas William JAMES was disappointing – the Section where the grave was located is area private burials but the specific grave plot identified by Paul’s research was unmarked grave.

Enquiries with the Cemetery Records revealed that the grave contained two further burial since Thomas James was laid rest. This sad story does not relent – a 9 year old child, Mary Edith Boulton buried on 6th June 1930. That leads to assumption Mary Anne re-married after death of Thomas.  Finally, Mary Ann, now 80 years old, was buried with Thomas and Mary Edith, her daughter, on 25 November 1969.

The Friends could not find any details of any relatives of Mary Ann – the trail goes completely cold after her death.

With Paul’s, permission The Friends contacted the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, being as one Friends is a CWGC Volunteer, under the ‘Adopt a Grave’ scheme – he has adopted all 200+ CWGC graves and is most anxious to assist Paul’s splendid research to the hoped for end result of a CWGC headstone, on this Coal Miner from Great Wryley grave.

‘Watch this space’ – as the all the evidence has been sent to the Ministry of Defence for consideration by the ‘War Grave Adjudication Team’.

The cemetery has a Cross of Sacrifice, identical similar to ones erected all over country, in recognition of the supreme sacrifice of the First World War, which now has a ‘Friends’ organised annual Remembrance Sunday Service every November – the playing of the ‘Last Post’ and the laying of wreaths, in addition to marking individual grave with a ‘Poppy Cross’.

Hopefully, thanks Paul’s efforts we may have a new CWGC Headstone – but I can assure you there will be ‘Poppy Cross’ placed on Private Thomas William JAMES’ grave this November, along with the 37 former comrades of First World War who lie at rest in the same Section of the cemetery; and, his immediate neighbour is a 23 year old Sapper from Royal Engineers killed in first weeks of the Battle of the Somme.

Whatever the result from MOD – he is not forgotten anymore – thanks to Paul’s research – 

‘We will remember him’.

UPDATE 5 March 2015
I opened my email box today to find a fantastic surprise from Barrie Simpson. It come in the form of an email that he had received from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission:

‘Dear Mr Simpson,
We have recently been instructed by the relevant Service Authority that Private Thomas William James qualifies for commemoration as a Commonwealth war casualty.’

Barrie added that:
‘Now, I move on to the next phase of pestering the City Bereavements Department to provide with me the letter that there are no known owner of the grave so I can begin final phase to get a CWGC headstone erected on Thomas’ grave before November 2015.’

So, thanks to Barrie and the ‘Friends’, we seem to be heading into the home straight and that this Brownhills and Great Wyrley man will receive the recognition due to him, however, as Barrie has pointed out to me on several occasions, ‘patience is a virtue’…

I will keep you posted.

Need more be said... (unknown)

Need more be said… (unknown)


We have some brilliant news. Thomas William James has received his Commonwealth War Grave headstone. Thanks to Barrie’s efforts he has now been recognised. I can’t say I am not a little proud that Wyrleyblog contributed to it. My last update will be when I visit the grave, shortly.

Thomas William James’ newly erected CWGC headstone (D Royle)

Dear Mr Simpson,
This email is further to your correspondence with the Commission over the past few years with regard to the burial location of Private Thomas William James, 15628, of the South Staffordshire Regiment.

I am pleased to confirm that following investigations and a site visit to Birmingham (Brandwood End) Cemetery by one of the Commission’s Regional Supervisors, it has been confirmed that Private James is buried in this cemetery. This information has already been added to our records and I have taken the liberty of including below a link to the relevant page on our website for your reference:,%20THOMAS%20WILLIAM

When our Supervisor visited Birmingham (Brandwood End) Cemetery it was discovered that Private James’ grave was unmarked, as you had suggested within your correspondence, and that he was therefore not commemorated with a suitable headstone at the location of his burial. As such, I am pleased to confirm that we have now installed a Commission Headstone on his grave. Whilst you might already be aware of this development, I wanted to confirm the outcome of your submission and provide you with a photograph showing this new headstone in situ for your records.

I would like to thank you for your continued patience with this case along with your kind assistance in providing the documentation that helped confirm his commemoration and burial. I also hope that this information proves to be welcoming and please be reassured that we will commemorate Private Thomas William James at the location of his burial in perpetuity. 

David Royle
Commemorations Officer
Commonwealth War Graves Commission

As ever, my thanks to:

The National Archives
The Staffordshire Records Office
Walsall Local History Centre
Birmingham Archives
Birmingham Register Office
Birmingham Bereavement Services
Great Wyrley History Society
Great Wyrley Parish Council
Harrison’s Club

Barrie Simpson and the Friends of Brandwood End Cemetery, to whom, whatever the outcome, this article is dedicated

  1. angvs72 says:

    I truly look forward to each addition to this blog. This post alone is an excellent example, and one of the best articles that I have read for a long time. Educational and emotional 🙂

  2. tonykulik says:

    A moving life story brilliantly researched. Hopefully this research and subsequent representation will lead to Thomas James receiving the headstone in recognition of the blood he shed, and ultimately his life, for his country

  3. […] on by my fingernails as I am at the moment, I keep meaning to push this remarkable post from the excellent Wyrleyblog – a  from Walsall Local History Centre’s top researcher and historian, Paul […]

  4. Adrian D. Duffen says:

    “Hopefully, thanks Paul’s efforts we may have a new CWGC Headstone – but I can assure you there will be ‘Poppy Cross’ placed on Private Thomas William JAMES’ grave this November, along with the 37 former comrades of First World War who lie at rest in the same Section of the cemetery; and, his immediate neighbour is a 23 year old Sapper from Royal Engineers killed in first weeks of the Battle of the Somme.”

    I came across this after searching for any one with my Surname that died in the First World War. I found a 23 year old Royal Engineer Sapper with my surname that died in July 1916. His grave is unknown and his family remember him in Brandwood End Cemetry (being from Kings Heath). Therefore I believe him to be a relative of mine (only just found the info so still to prove this), and it would seem to be the person mentioned in the above quote?

  5. […] Both Paul Ford (Wyrleyblog) and Barrie Simpson (FBEC) spent many hours of work on this search and there is a very interesting article detailing this-      to be found via this link […]

  6. wyrleyblog says:

    […] From Brownhills to Brandwood: Thomas William James and the Pity of War […]

  7. yvonnebjames says:

    A wonderful piece of history. I just wish I hadn’t read it in the hairdresser’s. I’ll just claim something got in my eye….

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