Harrison’s Fallen: Introduction and Ernest Thomas

What’s in a name?
The memorial tablets at Harrison’s occupy a significant place; they are on the wall just inside the entrance to the club. They were moved there from what was the old stage area some years back when the main room was renovated – and I think befittingly as everyone now has to pass them whether after a game of bingo, a pint of Golden Glow or watching Alan attempt the ‘twist’ on disco nights 🙂 . Saying that, I do wonder though just how many people pause a moment to reflect on the names of the fallen and on the roll of honour? Certainly the British Legion do, the Club being the headquarters of the Great Wyrley branch – but what is it they are reflecting on – the people, the war or both?

Harrison's tablet to the fallen members of the Club. 2015.

Harrison’s tablet to the fallen members of the Club. 2015.

If anyone has ever been, as I have, to Thiepval or the Menin Gate where between them over 126,000 names are recorded on tablets, I defy them not to be humbled and not to reflect. Should it be any different because there are just four names, or worse, ignored because the 76 survived? Well, perhaps many don’t reflect because the memorials are always there, perhaps the events they relate to are just too distant or perhaps the names have no personal meaning – after all, many people have moved into the area over the last 100 years.

Well, I want to help just a little; I want to try giving a touch of humanity back to those names. The following are certainly not exhaustive biographies (after all, many service records were destroyed in WWII), but if they make you pause for a moment and reflect, then they maybe deemed detailed enough: after all, you literally are standing in their footsteps.

Ernest Thomas, Army Service Corps
When Ernest attested (joined-up) on 3 May 1915, his age was recorded as 35 and 50 days; this gives a birth-date of mid-March 1880. This is wrong. Thomas was in fact born a year before, so either Ernest felt his age and lied (proof of age wasn’t required) or it is an error by the the chap filling in the attestation form – which is perfectly possible as his residence was written as Lower Langley Wood instead of Lower Landywood. He attested at Wolverhampton, need I say more 🙂

Ernest was born to parents John Wesley Thomas (with a name like John Wesley, you wont be surprised to learn that John’s father, also called John, was a local Methodist preacher back in 1861) who was from the Great Wyrley area and Cannock lass, Rosa Ann Savage. Whilst they were from the local area, their marriage for some reason was registered in Aston, Warwickshire (now Aston, Birmingham) in 1877. By 1881 the family are living in Norton Lane, Great Wyrley; although we can’t tell where exactly. John is a ‘stamper’ by profession, while Rosa is a housewife already dealing with a flourishing family; Amy was three years of age, Ernest two, and little Clara was just a babe in arms.

Ernest Thomas, 1881

Ernest Thomas and family on the 1881 census (National Archives)

By 1891 the family had moved to what is described on the census as Chapel Road in Landywood. This is the area around the now demolished Wesleyan Methodist Chapel (replaced in 1925 by the one on the Walsall Road), bounded by what is now Bentons Lane, Gorsey Lane, Hilton Lane and Shaws Lane. It appears the the family moved into John’s former childhood home.

John is now described as an Edge Tool Maker – and it appears that he worked at Gilpin’s works down at Churchbridge. Rosa appears to be looking after the children, as many women did, although she may have done other work too. The family seems to be happily growing as Ernest has been joined by new siblings; Julia Maud aged 8, Thomas Seymour aged 6, Ada aged 3 and Norah, who is 1. Sadly this was not the case. Winter night was to descend on the Thomas’ in 1883 when they lost both Amy (then aged 5) and Clara (aged 3) in one stroke – both were buried in the same grave on 27 April. Without the death certificates it is only possible to suggest a cause, but in an age prior to antibiotics, some infectious disease would seem likely.

Ernest Thomas on the census, 1891 (National Archives)

Ernest Thomas on the census, 1891
(National Archives)

The family seemed to have pulled through. Ernest would have left school aged 12 – we don’t know which school he attended, but as Landywood wasn’t built until 1908, I suggest it was the Great Wyrley Board School on the Walsall Road. By 1901, Ernest is 22 and a baker by profession. The family have been blessed with four new additions; Edgar (aged 9), Arnold (aged 7), Alma (aged 4) and Clarence (aged 2). Julia Maud and Thomas Seymour have disappeared – and again, tragedy was to strike the family – these two siblings died a few months apart in 1893. This means Ernest lost 4 brothers and sisters, and at her death in 1933, Rosa had been preceded into the grave by her 5 eldest children.

Ernest Thomas, Census 1901 (National Archives)

Ernest Thomas, Census 1901
(National Archives)

So, what else do we know about Ernest prior to his joining up in May 1915? Well, the first thing is that he marries the very appropriately named Ada Baker on 1 May 1908. In July 1909 they have their first child, Marjorie; a second, Dorothy Ann was born on Christmas Day, 1912. Ernest also had a son: John was born in July of 1915, so when he joined-up in the May, Ada was heavily pregnant. I assume Ernest saw his son before he was posted from England in the December of 1915.

The second thing is his job. We know he is a baker in 1901 and it appears that he was employed at some stage at John Baker’s Model Bakery in Norton Canes, as there is a reference letter on pre-printed stationary in his war records which is very difficult now to read. John was in fact Ada Baker’s older brother.

This is what I love about a blog as opposed to a book – you can add to a blog – and I have added a little here since this was first written. While reading-up on the Great Wyrley ‘outrages’ it became clear that Ernest Thomas was an all too unwillingly participant in the events in and around Great Wyrley in 1903. In fact, 1903 turned out not to be the best of years for Ernest.

I believe the year opened with John Wesley Thomas serving on the Great Wyrley Parish Council. Then, on 2 February, a horse belonging to a Joseph Holmes was ripped open and so started a series of animal mutilations that would bring so much calamity to the village and for which it has been remembered ever since. Things were to calm for a few months. On Wednesday 8 April, I believe that John Wesley Thomas was elected as Vice-Chairman of the Parish Council. Whether or not this appointment was a trigger to somebody, it appears that a few days later – on what was in fact Good Friday – someone stole into a Landywood field in which Ernest had let his horse into the night before and sliced it open. It was even worse than the Holmes attack. The horse was a little cob – one used for driving carts. The loss of the horse created little attention until further attacks the following month and by the end of the year George Edalji had been convicted in a mockery of a trial.

Cannock Courier, 18 April 1903 - a brief coverage of the slaying of Ernest's horse

Cannock Courier, 18 April 1903 – a brief coverage of the slaying of Ernest’s horse

I have no idea if Ernest’s horse was insured, I also have no idea if he had any other horses, but if not he had to get a replacement. I have a theory that he had to replace it and this with a new cob that may have been a little fiery. On Sunday 5 July, at 9.25pm, Ernest was involved in an accident between Newtown and the Bell Inn, Bloxwich and fined 10s by the police. Ernest’s horse(possibly a new one) bolted on him and was judged by the police to be  travelling at around 16 miles per hour. It stuck a waggonette, damaging it, and several people were tipped into the street although they managed to avoid serious injury. In the October, Ernest was taken to court by George Harrison of Ryecroft. Harrison was the driver of the waggon, which had lost both of its back wheels as well as its passengers. Thomas paid over £12 in costs and damages.

Next, it appears that Ernest started a business himself. By 1911 he had moved out of the family home – setting-up all of next door – although the census seemingly describes in in 1911 as a coal miner. We know from an article written by Ernest’s nephew in the Great Wyrley Millennium Book that Ernest set-up a bakery at the rear of these houses sometime before the war – although he may still have been employed at Baker’s. The extended family operated the bakery through the war, with brother Edgar taking over the business which eventually moved to what is now Old Hall Lane. The bakery that Ernest knew was demolished, I believe, when the old Wesleyan Chapel was knocked down in the early 1920s. It may also have suffered from subsidence as the chapel and Sunday school did.

Also, when Ernest attested, he stated that he had served in the army previously – being in the Staffordshire Yeomanry, D Squadron. The Yeomanry were in fact a cavalry regiment, being formed (re-formed) as a part of the territorial force established under the army reforms of 1908. So, Ernest was already a part-time soldier and may have been called-up – this would explain why perhaps he left a heavily pregnant wife and bakery business. D Squadron were based at Wolverhampton.

Lastly, we have one or two snippets of his private character. Ernest’s nephew wrote, in 2000, that he was a prankster and unpredictable (and this could also be the reason for his joining-up). The other fact, sadly supplied by his obituary in the Cannock Advertiser, reports that he was a ‘capital vocalist, being in frequent demand at concerts in the area‘. Finally, an E Thomas from Landywood is registered as a member of Harrison’s club from 1910 onward.

E Thomas, registered as a member of Harrison's Club from 1910

E Thomas, registered as a member of Harrison’s Club from 1910

Whatever the reasons, Ernest joined-up in May 1915 at Wolverhampton. As a baker, Ernest joined the Army Service Corps and within the week he was at Aldershot and being tested in the ASC bakery where he was adjudged to be a ‘2nd Hand Baker‘. He then remained in England until the 6th December, when he sailed for Egypt on the Empress of Britain. While in England, Ernest had been promoted to Corporal.

Ernest's attests, 3rd May 1915 (National Archives)

Ernest’s attests, 3rd May 1915 (National Archives)

The ship docked at Port Said on 22 December and Corporal Thomas was to be sent to the 50th Field Bakery, as a part of the 23 Line of Communication Company and the 147th Depot Supply Unit. A Field Bakery was operated by an officer and ninety or so other ranks and apparently could produce bread for 20,000 men. They were located behind the lines of course.

http://www.britishpathe.com/video/army-bakers Field Bakery (British Pathe News)

Within weeks Ernest had reported sick – in fact he is in hospital, likely in Alexandria, and has reverted back to being a private rank. By 8 March, he is transferred to a rest camp at Abbassia (which is in Cairo). Finally, around the middle of May he returns to active service. In June 1917, Ernest is back in hospital in Alexandria suffering from blood poisoning.

BMH Alexandria, where Ernest likely died in August 1917 (photo credited)

BMH Alexandria, where Ernest likely died in August 1917 (photo credited)

After undergoing surgery for abscesses caused by the scepticaemia, Ernest was left with a weakened constitution. After two months further complications arose and he died on 3 August 1917 and was buried at the Cairo War Memorial Cemetery. In time he was awarded the British War Medal, the Victory medal and the 1915 Star. Ada would receive over £16 in compensation for the loss of her husband.

Cannock Advertiser, August 1917.

Cannock Advertiser, August 1917.

A look on the memorial gates will show that, as the Advertiser says, Ernest’s father, John Wesley, and his brothers; Arnold, Clarence and Edgar all served too.

My thanks to:
The Staffordshire Record Office
Cannock Library
National Archives
Cannock Advertiser
British Pathe News

  1. […] Harrison’s Fallen: Introduction and Ernest Thomas […]

  2. Brian says:

    Thanks Paul enjoyed reading that

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