Welcome to the first in a new series of (not so) mini-profiles inspired by my sepulchral travels! In these pieces, I will situate the stone centre-stage in reconstructing the life and lives of the departed, making use of archival facilities and newspaper repositories. In this way, I hope to let the monuments speak for themselves, building up a picture of those forgotten, adhering to the ethos of this occasional blog in ‘unearthing the lives of the dead.’
Amidst the tree-lined copse of Sheffield City Cemetery, a grave marker lingers, standing tall amidst the neighbouring stones that peer forward at a perilous angle, as if looking down into the very earth itself. The grass around the burial site lies parched, scorched under the burning gaze of unexpected summer rays, bursting out of the azure sky prematurely, glaring at a crisp and stark April day. Emblazoned across the stone and crowned by the curvature of a Gothic ogee is a testament to the Himsworth family, residents of the wooded suburb of Heeley. Like many such monuments, the epitaph bears witness to the trauma of conflict, forming part of a complex mosaic in which the impact of the First World War on the relationships underlying a family, a community, and a city is enshrined. Indeed, the pain of the loss of the Himsworth’s ‘beloved and youngest son’ in the dust of battle is etched into the very stone itself, compounded by the deaths of father and offspring a mere year apart, the breaking of the ties that bind, tragedy in a quiet corner of this sun-washed burial ground.
William Himsworth was born on the 21st of July in 1852 into a family typifying the contemporary Sheffield industrial foundation, his father William employed as a ‘razor grinder,’ a common occupation within the ‘City of Steel.’ The latter had married Hannah Taylor in 1850, the daughter of a farmer who had grown up in semi-rural Hurlfield – now a suburb of the city. A twenty-five year age gap separated the spouses. Their son was baptised at St. Peter and St. Paul’s, a parish church in the centre of Sheffield, a building promoted to cathedral status when the diocese was formed in 1914. Life leapt along nicely, as life often does, tempered waters obscuring the whirling eddies beneath. The blow when it came, then, was all the more painful for such vengeful dissimulation. In 1856, when William was only four years of age, his father passed away at the age of 54, worn out from the exhausting labour of his profession, likely stricken with the effects of a weakened respiratory system. In doing so, the family’s main source of income was withdrawn. Fate had played its cruel hand, abandoning the Himsworths to the vagaries of the century, exposed to the erratic whims of time.
Flailing not only from grief, but also from the gnawing worry of the need to provide for her children, Hannah quickly remarried, taking as husband one Thomas Thickett, a Derbyshire widower considerably older than herself who possessed a similar agricultural background, working as a farmer. The couple lived on Cambridge Road in the township of Nether Hallam with Thomas’ daughter from his previous marriage, Elizabeth, whose assistance around the house earned her the rather diminutive title ‘housemaid’ on the census, his infant son with his new wife, also called Thomas, and his two new step-sons, William Himsworth and his brother John, both school-pupils. Another child, a daughter named Ellen, followed in 1864. At some point between the record of this household and the census of 1871, Thomas ceased his agricultural endeavours, setting up shop as a grocer and coal dealer. It is clear then that Hannah’s second husband did not shy away from his money-making duties, even embarking upon a new venture in order to turn a profit for the household.
Five years later, Hannah was dead at the age of 50. William’s relationship with both his parents had proved to be somewhat short-lived. Despite these absences, he had chosen to follow his father’s example in training in the same Sheffield industry as a cutler. A year after his mother’s passing, William himself married. His new wife, Hannah Maria Booth, bearing the same name as his own parent, was the daughter of a miner from Heeley. Looking at the pair’s signatures on the document formalising their union is an intimate experience for the genealogical researcher, opening up a window into a long forgotten world, reviving the memories of those hitherto consigned to oblivion. We are reminded that history is a living and breathing beast, a writhing creature that we can only ever strive to capture, a figure ever-receding into the distance.
Children followed quickly for the newly-married couple, bringing a son William E. Himsworth in 1877, the third male of the family line to bear that name, a physical testament to the relentless roll of the generations. A daughter, Jessie, arrived four years later and is listed as a newborn infant on the census of that year, a record attesting to the presence of two further members of the household: widowed aunt and ‘laundress,’ Ann Beswick, and William’s (senior) twelve-year old sister-in-law, Alice Mary Booth. Regular labour as a cutler manufacturing spring knives saw William take on the role of provider, a common enough gendered configuration at the time, with Hannah remaining at home to tend to the children and regulate the household at 133 Gleadless Road. Like many families of their social strata in this period, everybody pitched in, working hard to contribute to the coffers, but only ever just keeping heads above water.
The passage of a decade brought little change to the Himsworth’s way of life. Two more children joined the family – John Herbert and Clara Alice – as their father continued in his employment in the Sheffield knife industry. The house they called home was now a mile away on Cambridge Road, a street teeming with red brick terraces and shop windows proudly announcing their wares. This was an area known already to William, who had taken up occupancy of a house on this very thoroughfare with his mother and step-father. Money must have been tight for the household – their oldest son had left school and was engaged as an errand boy, perhaps even serving a nearby business, at the age of fourteen. Although pay was low, every last penny made a difference.
With four children to be kept on William’s salary, there was no time for leisure nor room for complacency. The family worked hard, keeping their heads down in quiet regularity, ensuring that order prevailed in the household. In 1898, William the younger returned to education, attending classes at Gleadless Road Evening School, seeking to improve his prospects in undertaking an apprenticeship in metalwork. As the 19th century transformed into the 20th and the age of Victoria came to an end, such was the repetitious constancy underlining their lives that, by 1901, the two sons, William and John, were now both employed as cutlers working with spring knives, presumably in the same factory as their parent, having completed their apprenticeships. Like grandfather, like father, like sons, the familiarity of the Himsworth’s customary trade suited the uniform pulse of family life. Joining them were another daughter, Hannah Maria Edna, named after her mother, and Edwin Joseph, born 1894 and 1896 respectively.
The following year, William and Hannah’s second son John, aged twenty, married eighteen year old Jessie Corteen, whose late father, also William, had been employed as a coach builder. The ceremony took place at St. Silas’ Church in Broomhall, Sheffield, an imposing edifice in Gothic revival style. The couple would go on to have three children: Frank, Irene and Leslie. Following this happy event, the wedding bells continued to toll. The same year saw daughter Jessie wed Frank Lee, the twenty-four year old son of a successful surgical instrument manufacturer, for whose business he himself laboured as a filer. In 1904, the younger William Himsworth married one Elizabeth Wilkes, the twenty-two year old daughter of deceased hammer forger Edwin Wilkes and widowed Emma Parkes at St. Paul’s Church in Norton Lees, a building constructed between 1875-7. The new bride had herself been engaged as a cigar maker prior to meeting her husband, a tiring and ceaselessly repetitious role with relatively low pay. The Himsworth children, then, were growing up and establishing themselves both personally and professionally, expanding the family throughout the area.
A year before William’s wedding to Elizabeth, his sister Clara had entered upon a novel and innovative training scheme, joining Sheffield Pupil Training College under an apprenticeship which lasted for five years. This pupil-teacher system, introduced in the mid-nineteenth century to address the problem of poor pedagogical recruitment, admitted those at least thirteen years of age to be instructed in the delivery of education. The moral character of applicants was deemed equally as important as their academic skill. Potential candidates were required to read and write with fluency, demonstrate their knowledge of basic geography, mathematics and grammar, and teach a class to the satisfaction of the inspectors. Initially earning ten pounds per year (a sum which increased incrementally to twenty), Clara had secured a position with more than adequate remuneration. It was a far cry from the dirty industry and poorly paid occupations to which the family had hitherto clung.
By 1911, the Himsworths were on the move again, returning whence they came, relocating to their old haunt on Gleadless Road, taking on number 255 (see image below). William was now an older man and, at 59, was coming to the end of his working life as one involved in hard, physical labour. Of their six children, only three remained. The others, having reached adulthood, sought lives of their own and an independent existence elsewhere.
Clara, aged 22, still lived with her parents whilst she worked as a local schoolteacher for Sheffield Council. Hannah, at 17, is rather charmingly referred to on the census as ‘mother’s help.’ Edwin, a young teenager, has been removed from regular education in favour of life as a hairdresser’s assistant. Most moving of all is the halting and trembling hand of he who completed the census return – our William Himsworth, his hesitant penmanship perhaps proof of his ailing years and, certainly, a sign of a nervous scribe, more experienced in holding tools than a writing implement.
The coming of war shattered the still quietude of the lives of many like the Himsworths. Matrimonial merriment and the joyous births of newborn infants were overshadowed by the dark fever of a nation in conflict. Britain’s young men eagerly stormed the recruitment offices, seeking to quell their patriotic fervour in the hunting down and decimation of the enemy abroad. Armies of young women, too, gladly offered their services in non-combatant roles without alarm or hesitation. It was felt that the country had come together in pursuit of a common goal, and the notion of personal sacrifice on behalf of the homeland took precedence over the bloodinesses and brutalities of the true horrors of combat. Such collective activity in the face of the enemy encouraged potential recruits to join their chums and not be left behind, covered in shame and dishonour, at home. A lively recruitment campaign capitalised on such sentiments.
Gung-ho for combat, then, one of the Himsworth boys – Edwin – enlisted into the army. His brothers, William and John, likely found themselves in demand with the munitions industry as skilled workers in Sheffield, possibly seeing out the war employed in the city’s factories. Their younger sibling, however, was enrolled as a private in the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, a group formally founded in 1881, his army number 30277. At some point, Edwin transferred into the King’s Regiment (Liverpool), a move which may have been enacted in hopes of seeing active service, but whose motivation is not, at this stage, definitively known. This unit was originally formed in 1685 by Lord Ferrars of Chartly. Termed ‘Princess Anne of Denmark’s Regiment of Foot’ and named after the daughter of James II, the force was established during the Monmouth Rebellion to put down the militia of James Scott – the 1st Duke of Monmouth – who was attempting to overthrow the king. Edwin became part of this long history in joining the 8th battalion, under soldier number 325057. Originally a territorial force, the unit accepted more enlistees when war broke out in 1914, increasing numbers to the strength required for deployment abroad.
Whilst a number of the King’s battalions were mobilised immediately upon the declaration of war, Edwin’s group, the 8th, did not arrive in France until May 1915, landing at Boulogne. At first, they and the rest of their division were used to bolster forces under heavy assault at the Second Battle of Ypres, before being reassigned to assist in the Battle of Festubert and the Second Action of Givenchy. The group’s first taste of real and prolonged combat came in July 1916 during that fatal Battle of the Somme. In the meantime, those left behind in the United Kingdom read eagerly of progress on the continent, scouring the newspapers for information as to troop deployments, hoping that their loved ones were safe amidst the bombardments. Away from home and with access to only infrequent and erratic modes of communication, Edwin’s absence must have been the source of ineradicable anxiety for the Himsworths, separated by so many miles from their youngest boy, unaccustomed to residing far from any member of the family as people local to their district of Sheffield.
As the months flew past and the in memoriam section of the newspaper began to scream ‘killed in action’ every other word, Edwin’s parents and siblings must have been permanently apprehensive, unsure of their relative’s fate, waiting for that doomed telegram from the British War Office: deeply regret to inform you. Living amidst the news that the husbands, sons, fathers, uncles, brothers, cousins and friends of their neighbours had perished, the Himsworths must have almost expected the worst, interpreting every extended period of silence as an admission of Edwin’s demise – their son, the former hairdresser’s assistant. Worse still for the family, in the very same month that Edwin was caught up in combat in France, his father William died very suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 64. It must have been devastating for his son to hear the news, away from his loved ones, likely long after the dreadful event, powerless to assist his grieving mother, deployed instead in the valley of the Somme.
As is well-known, this offensive was one of the bloodiest campaigns in the lives of man. Field Marshal Douglas Haig termed the contest ‘the greatest battle in the history of the world.’ The Liverpool King’s, including Edwin’s, spent time on the front line, relieving other troops near the village of Guillemont.
Towards the end of the year, the 8th, crossing the northern border, made their way into Flanders, again occupying the front line between Wieltje and Railway Woods. The men were involved in a number of offensives in the area, participating first in the Battle of Pilckem Ridge, the opening assault of the Third Battle of Ypres. A couple of months later, this was succeeded by another surge at the Menin Road Ridge, an infantry advance characterised by the ‘bite and hold’ method. This strategy denoted the achievement and consolidation of small objectives, rather than pushing forward and pressing on before full command of the area had been obtained. As the troops prepared for this major push, the mood was one of increasing optimism. The dry weather, having improved considerably from the rains and muds of previous action, enabled the readier transportation of supplies and the movement of soldiers. Visibility was enhanced on the battlefield. On the 20th of September, very early in the morning, the attack commenced and was quickly successful. German counter-attacks were easily repelled. The British and ANZAC forces gained land with relative ease.
Yet this favourable outcome was not without its own fair share of adversity and disaster. On this very day, the first of the assault, Edwin was killed in action. The details of his end are unavailable, lost to the passage of time. What we do know, however, is that the majority of the King’s territorials, assigned to the northern end of the line, had begun the offensive from their position dug in at Wieltje, capturing a number of machine gun posts and even pressing on towards the second German position. Edwin, however, died following the main attack, as the 8th battalion left the trenches behind their counterparts at 8:30am in order to mop up surviving pockets of enemies. Progress was slow across the pitted and pockmarked battleground, assailed by heavy shells from the German Artillery and under constant attack by snipers. Losses were substantial. Many fell alongside Edwin. He was 21 years old.
All told, in the course of the action at Menin Road Ridge, the Allies suffered over 20,000 casualties, men who were wounded, killed or missing. It was an anxious time for those back in the United Kingdom, waiting to hear news of their loved ones, waiting for that telegram to be handed over to the next of kin. In Edwin’s case, it was likely his parents who first received the news, plunged into immediate grief just as so many others during that unyielding and pitiless war. Their son was buried in Tyne Cot Cemetery, the largest such burial site for Commonwealth forces in the world, located near Zonnebeke in Belgium. He was listed first as an unknown soldier before subsequently being named on the graves registration form.
From Sheffield to Belgium, the Himsworth name had travelled a long way. In the loss of their beloved son, the quiet rhythm of their lives was broken, never to be renewed, an unspeakable absence. His remaining relatives remembered Edwin on their family stone at City Road Cemetery, choosing an epitaphic quote from the Song of Solomon, a phrase whose context reflects painful separation, a wish that their boy would return: ‘until the day breaks and the shadows flee away.’ A month after his death, a notice was taken out in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph conveying their ongoing anguish. Both father and son were lost during those years of the war, a family decimated by events beyond their control, events governing the fate of nations. The brutal outcome of those actions were felt in every town, village and city throughout the land. Those places would never be the same again.
Edwin lies now far from home, resting where the uniform white stones stand like sentinels on the rise, watching over this land where the blood of men was shed in perpetuity, brothers in arms, a generation lost, in death together once again.
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