William Henry Simpson: King’s Bromley, Landywood and the Tug of War

A Picture Speaks A Thousand Words
I thought I would start this biography off a little differently, as William Simpson is the first soldier I have covered bloggy-wise that has appeared in a newspaper – in this case the Walsall Observer.

Soldiers from the in-betweeny lands tend to fall sparingly under the loose sphere of both the Cannock papers (Advertiser and Courier) and the Walsall papers (Pioneer and Observer). The Walsall papers are available at the Walsall Local History Centre and for those interested in family or War research, Sue Satterthwaite has produced an index to the Observer (which is available at the Centre to view or to buy) and J Elson has produced one for the Pioneer (available to view). The Cannock papers are available to view at Cannock Library. Saying that, Simpson’s family were from King’s Bromley – which is covered by the Lichfield Mercury and available at the Lichfield Record Office.

Anyhow, to the people of Great Wyrley, Harrison’s Club and to the people of King’s Bromley, I would like to introduce you to William Henry Simpson – you pass his name on the Wyrley memorial gates, each time you nip in for a pint at the club, or when you pass the King’s Bromley memorial – where he is present along with two of his brothers.

Corporal William Henry Simpson, Walsall Observer, 21/7/1917.

Corporal William Henry Simpson, Walsall Observer, 21/7/1917.

William Henry Simpson: Yoxall to King’s Bromley.
I would hazard a guess that William Henry Simpson came to Landywood for work: he was in fact a native of Yoxall, well, Hadley End – a place so small it could only muster three pubs in 1878, which was the year of his birth :-). All three have now gone 😦 .

William Henry was the eldest child of recently married parents, William (28) and Maria nee Bott (20). William was a labourer and a farm hand. In 1881 the three of them can be found visiting Maria’s parents in Stowe Street, Lichfield; however they were still living in the Yoxall area as John, the next child, was also born there three years later. Maria’s father, Abraham Bott, had risen from being an agricultural labourer to becoming a gardener by 1881 – and was wealthy enough to keep domestic help. A quick check on the 1871 census showed that Maria had received some schooling – something that would be compulsory for William Henry Simpson by the time he turned 5 years-of-age in 1883.

The 1881 Census for William Simpson (National Archives)

The 1881 Census for William Simpson
(National Archives)

By 1891 the family had removed themselves to King’s Bromley. In fact the family must have moved there in 1883, between the births of John and Annie. The family had had five more children since William; John, Annie and Matilda being scholars and Albert and George being, as yet, too young for school. What is interesting is that William Henry had turned 12 and was now a fully fledged worker – being an agricultural labourer. William started school the year the family moved to King’ Bromley, so I can only think that he and his siblings must have attended the Richard Crosse National School on the Lichfield Rd.

1891 census for the Simpsons - King's Bromley (National Archives)

1891 census for the Simpsons – King’s Bromley
(National Archives)

As we move into the 20th century, William has left the family home and is working as a porter in Horninglow, Burton-on-Trent. It is interesting to note that John, George and two further Simpson children named Frederick (7) and Edward (4) are all in the King’s Bromley Isolation Hospital in 1901. This must be the old Council operated one at Wood End Farm, near Curdborough (yes, I was born in Lichfield!). Isolation Hospitals would treat conditions such as scarlet fever – and school log books show just how frequently these conditions arose in a period before antibiotics. Matilda was still with her parents (described as a ‘domestic servant now out of employ’) and Annie was married and was stopping at her in-laws in Lichfield.

William Simpson Snr. died in 1912, aged 62, and is buried at All Saint’s Church in King’s Bromley. On the 1911 census, George is still at home, but there is also the 9-year-old, Alice. This shows that despite being 44, Maria was still having children – and indeed, the family had lost one child. Matilda is a ‘domestic servant’ for a widow in Lancashire; Frederick is a farm labourer at Orgreave Farm, Alrewas and Edward is a labourer at Echills Farm, King’s Bromley.

The Grade II listed 1922 memorial at King's Bromley.

The Grade II listed 1922 memorial at King’s Bromley.

Out of curiosity, I visited the Grade II listed war memorial at King’s Bromley – somehow I felt that William’s brothers may have served – and yes, they did.  The memorial was unveiled in April 1922 and has three Simpson names on it; so does the the roll of honour housed in the Church – although not the same ones. The war records for the Simpsons no longer survive (William has pre-war military records) but I have enough from various sources to piece together the basics of the four Simpson brothers that served and of which three died.

The Simpson brothers; William is on the Great Wyrley and Harrison's Club memorials

The Simpson brothers; William is on the Great Wyrley and Harrison’s Club memorials

In May 1917 we know that four of the bothers were serving in the military, as a casualty report is in the Lichfield Mercury for Edward – who was the youngest and the first to be killed. He had signed-up to the South Staffordshire Regiment in Lichfield and was serving initially in Egypt and the Dardanelles before going to France in 1916. He was wounded on the Somme later in the year. He returned to the front after recovering only to be killed on the 28th March 1917. According to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission he is commemorated on a special memorial at the St Leger Cemetery, near Bapaume – as his body was one of several that was destroyed by shell-fire.

Lichfield Mercury, 21st May 1917 - Edward Simpson's obituary.

Lichfield Mercury, 21st May 1917 – Edward Simpson’s obituary.

William was the next to be killed, on 8th June 1917 – which was only two weeks after Edward’s notice appeared in the Mercury.

The third of the brothers to be killed was Frederick. Frederick may well have been a territorial; he signed-up at Rugeley to the North Midlands (Staffordshire ) Heavy (Royal Garrison Artillery) Battery – Territorial Force. He was a gunner. He later seems to have been a part of the 277th RGA Siege Battery, which were equipped with howitzers to destroy enemy artillery and other strategic targets. Frederick was killed on the 31st May 1918. He is buried in the St Sever graveyard in Rouen, which suggests he may have died of wounds in hospital.

Medal card for Frederick Simpson showing that he served in France from 1916 onward. (National Archives)

Medal card for Frederick Simpson showing that he served in France from 1916 onward.
(National Archives)

The fourth brother to serve and the only one to survive was George. I have yet no evidence as to his war record. It isn’t clear as to what became of the fifth brother, John – although I suspect he was in Newton Solney (near Burton-on-Trent) in 1911.

William Henry Simpson: The Landywood Years.
It is my opinion that Simpson moved to Landywood for work – and he becomes a miner. I would hazard a guess this would have been around 1902, as he meets, courts and marries local girl Alice Ada Heafield at St Mark’s Church on the 1st June 1903.

When exactly Simpson becomes a miner ins’t clear, but he is enthralled to Colonel Harrison by July 1908. On the 14th of July he attests to join Harrison’s 2nd North Midland Field Company, Royal Engineers. He lists his occupation as a miner and his residence as Bentons Lane. Interestingly, he states that he had once served in the South Staffordshire Regiment.

William Simpson's Attestation, 1908 (National Archives)

William Simpson’s Attestation, 1908
(National Archives)

William spent six years in the Norton Engineers, being discharged on the 1st June 1914.  In that time he had been promoted to 2nd Corporal in June 1909, then to full Corporal in July 1911. Simpson had also been to the annual training camps at Towyn, Wales, 1909;  Hindlow, 1910 (see http://derbyshireterritorials.wordpress.com/1910-2/ ) and Abergavenny, 1911. What Mrs Simpson thought of his playing soldiers isn’t recorded 🙂 .

Simpson had also gained a formal military acceptance of his work skills in June 1909: Thomas Cook, Colliery Manager for Harrison’s, described his abilities as ‘very good’. Cook’s house, Ashleigh, which was then on Slackey Lane, now Hazel Lane, is still there and still named the same – it is right by the former colliery.  Simpson also passed an examination at the in Chatham School of Military Engineering in October 1911. We also know the Simpson took a course on mines rescue at Hednesford, gaining a certificate.

William Simpson's Attestation, 1908 (National Archives)

William Simpson’s Attestation, 1908
(National Archives)

William Simpson stood 5′ 6″ tall in 1908, but his physical development was described as ‘very good’ and this was perhaps shown by the fact that he represented the Norton Engineers in the ‘tug-of-war’, and in which he won ‘gold and silver medals’. This of course didn’t stop our William from enjoying a beer – he was one of the first to join the newly-founded Harrison’s Club in 1909.

William Simpson became a member of Harrison's in 1909.

William Simpson became a member of Harrison’s in 1909.

By 1911 the family had moved to 21 Gorsey Lane (opposite Wharwell Lane, Landywood) into what were generically called the Harrison’s Buildings. There were four children by this time, although William and Alice had lost another. The eldest was Alice (7), followed Annie (5), Albert (3) and William Henry jnr (1). Alice would have likely been at Landywood School.

The 1909 Census for the Simpson family. (National Archives)

The 1909 Census for the Simpson family.
(National Archives)

As the War approached, Alice gave birth to Jessie at the tail end of 1912 – some consolation for William for losing his father. William was discharged from the Engineers in June 1914, but the tug-of-war was too strong and he returned to the colours on the 1st September 1914. A few months later, Ruby was born – she would never really know her father.

Simpson’s records for his re-attestation do not survive. What we do know is that he was around 36 and originally signed on for the South Staffordshire Regiment – and his medal card has him listed as a Sjt – presumably a serjeant – an alternative spelling for sergeant in some regiments. We know he landed in France on 15th July 1915, but he may have been a Royal Engineer by this time. This entry date qualified him for the 1915 Star.

If he wasn’t an Engineer by this time, it is likely he was ‘moved’ in October 1915 when the 184th Tunnelling Company were formed in Rouen, and of which Simpson became a part. He was a second corporal in the Royal Engineers. Thanks to the Long, Long Trail website (http://www.1914-1918.net/tunnelcoyre.htm) we have some basic understanding of where he served. The 184th were moved immediately to the Somme area, for work at Maricourt. By Spring 1916 the Company was active at Vimy. Before the attack at Arras in April 1917, the Company were engaged on Fish Avenue Tunnel and in helping construct emplacements for heavy mortars. They moved to Nieuport in June 1917 – however this may have been after the 8th June, which is when William Simpson died of wounds he received a few hours earlier.

I recently examined the war diary for the Company to see if any more can be gleaned on his death – this is held at the Royal Engineers’ Museum, Gillingham – and does give a little more. It states that the Company were engaged in dug-out work around Arras on 1 June 1917. There was heavy German shelling on the 6 June. on 7 June 1917, ‘German attack failed astride the railway – artillery below normal during day – rain fell today – no 79258 Cpl Simpson wounded by shell fire admitted to hospital’.

William's obituary in the Walsall Observer, 21/7/1917

William’s obituary in the Walsall Observer, 21/7/1917

Simpson was buried at the Aubigny Cemetery, possibly as he was attended to at the 42nd Casualty Clearing Station. He left behind Alice and six children. So, how did she cope? Well, one answer seems to be that she took to cleaning Harrison’s Club – the very club she would attend as a guest at the unveiling of its war memorial in 1921. I am very confident this is Alice (I found no other Simpsons in Wyrley) and I dare say helped the family out enormously.

Alice Simpson is the Harrison's club cleaner after the war.

Alice Simpson is the Harrison’s club cleaner after the war.

This has been an interesting journey for me personally. I started off with one man in Landywood and ended-up in King’s Bromley looking at a family. As I always say, these few pages do no life justice, but if it does stop and make anyone take a second – whether at Harrison’s, the Wyrley gates or at King’s Bromley, then they have at least, however fleetingly, done something.

As ever, a big thank-you to:
The Staffordshire Record Office
The Lichfield Record Office
Walsall Local History Centre
The National Archives
Harrison’s Club

Lichfield Mercury
Walsall Observer
Long, Long Trail Website
Derbyshire Territorial’s Website

  1. Pedro says:

    RIP William Henry Simpson.

    Enthralled to Colonel Harrison indeed!

    1908 was the time when the Captain used his novel method of recruiting for the Territorial Force. “If you want a job in my Colliery, you join up.”

    Regards Pedro

  2. Clive says:

    Nice one. a name is just a name until someone finds out the history of that person. You have done him and his family credit.

  3. Alan Kelsey says:

    Brilliant. What more can I say the time and effort you put in to these blogs is just Brilliant.

  4. Hilary Hughes nee Simpson says:

    This is my great grandfather. I can tell you that Alice Ada went on to remarry their best man. I have a portrait photo of William if you would like me to forward you a copy of it. He must have had leave at some point because I have clarinet from a bombed house in France. I’m so touched to read your blog and intend to visit his grave for Armistice, along with Edward and now Fredrick (I wasn’t sure which were the other 2 brothers). Thank you so much 🙂

    • wyrleyblog says:

      Thanks for the comment Hilary, it justifies the effort I put into the blog. You can send photos and comments, as the glory of a blog is that it can be updated, unlike a book. Finally, if you do get to the graves, could I beg that you leave a little poppy from ‘Wyrleyblog’, it would mean a lot.

  5. Shirley Brown says:

    Thank you so much for this article !! Jessie was my Mother ,i cant tell you how emotional and enlightening it has been readind this,i have Photos of Albert and his Siblings i can forward to you,i have never known much about Mom`s side of the Family apart from Granny,and Aunts and Uncles so to read this is fabulous !! Hilary is my Cousins Daughter (Albert was her Grandad) once again Thank you ..

  6. Hilary Huges ghes says:

    Ada went on to marry the best man from their marriage. I have a beautiful portrait photograph of my great grandad William ‘Bill’Simpson in uniform.

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