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Fig.1 Brigadier-General J W Sandilands From The History of the 35th Division in the Great War. L-C H.M. Davson
Brigadier-Gneral Sandilands decorated Jack Wilson with the Military Medal – ‘in the field’ along with three others. He received the Military Medal. Jack described the scene as ‘a square’ with a table in the middle.
There are a couple of likely times for the week long stop in a pill-box without relief – around 11th October when the Steenbeck flooded, after the initial attack on Houthulst Forest when the heaven’s opened, or in November when once again the Broembeck was flooded. He describes the Steenbeck as a ‘lake of mud’ and to reach Egypt House at one time as requiring you to wade through ‘the puddle’.
Fig. 2. A studio photo taken soon after joining the Durham Light Infantry, March 1915 at Billy Wilson’s Photography Studio, Consett before transfer to the Machine Gun Corps or ‘Suicide Squad’
This picture used in the Consett local paper when Jack Wilson was awarded the Military Medal
Fig. 3. Clip from the Consett Gazette in late 1917
(This photograph from a faded original cutting from the paper originally kept by Jack’s mother Sarah Wilson nee Nixon)
Fig.1. Jack Wilson’s identity tag. He had it made while training in Grantham.
“We were put on parade one Saturday morning in early 1916, which was unusual”.
The next thing I know the Sergeant’s running up and down the line with the Red Cap picking out people’s names. He was a bit of a raw Geordie lad.
Afterwards I asked Quartermaster Sergeant Barwick what it was all about.
“What’s this?” I ask.
“You’re going to the suicide squad on Monday.” He replies.
Then he added.
“You’re off to Grantham.”
“What’s that?” I ask.
“On Monday, you’re off to Grantham. You’ve got to go”.
I had no choice in the matter.
And that’s how I was transferred to the Machine Gun Corps, 35th Division, 104th Brigade Machine Gun Company (formed 27th April 1916).
I got a few days leave from Grantham before and then I didn’t get any leave whatsoever while I was out there through the Battle of the Somme and the Battle of Passchendaele – about two and a half years. It was only when I came back to join the RFC that I got a week’s leave. Then I went back to Grantham. And of course I finished up on the RFC aerodrome at Crail, Scotland.
Fig.2. Machine Gun Training. I believe these are Canadians. Or could they be American?
“They were picking suitable looking fellows. They were copying the Germans”.
They went around all the infantry companies looking for suitable men. It was a heavy gun. The Vickers weighed over 28 pounds; the tripod 20 pounds and the water to cool the gun another 10 pounds.
They took about twenty from the Durham Light Infantry. The 7th Division was a Geordie regiment.
Billy Wrangham, who was 24, from Urpeth, Anfield Plane. His father was a Colliery Winding Engineerman – he was gassed. It could catch you on the hop. Billy had this gun and they had their masks on all day. He took his off in the afternoon being the corporal.
George Toward lived behind the Royal Hotel; he was a regular billiard player. He was a year younger then me, only got in by a squeak. He was eighteen. He lied about his age. George lived at 19 Consett Rd, Castleside just along the road from us. His father was gas producer at the steelworks. He was the youngest of four. I remember his sisters Elizabeth and Jennie and his big brother Robert a married man of 28.
Sergeant-Major Barwick; he was a funny one.
If he felt happy he’d get up and have a little jig and a sing song. He was from Teams, Gateshead. They had four lovely kiddies. He’d bring them down to watch us parade and we’d carry them on our shoulders. We’d give them pennies and sweats. He was killed on the 6th October 1918 age 28. Son of Joseph and Maria Barwick from Teams, Gateshead. His wife went by the name of Theresa.
Tommy Collinson, was another one.
Tommy was a big strapping lad. He had a brother who was shot in the knee before the war; it got gangrene and was lost. Tommy was killed on the 5th November 1917 at Passchendaele – he was only 18.
And Billy Soulsby all from Askew Road, Gateshead.
He was a storekeeper by trade so they made him the quartermaster.
Those are some of the names I remember.
The rest of the company was made up from North Yorkshire, Lancashire, Cumberland, Birmingham and Northumberland.
Grantham was a camp for transport and machine gunners.
“Even to get into your hut you were up to your knees in mud”.
Interviews conducted by his grandson Jonathan F Vernon from 1989-1992. Recorded on digital audio tape and transcribed. Jack then reviewed a manuscript of large font printouts and added further notes, some in his own hand, some added by his grandson.
The 103rd Brigade was formed on 27th April 1916 and joined the 34th Division.
- They Called it Passchendaele (machineguncorps.com)
- Irish Somme (insideview.ie)
- Anniversary 30th/31st July 1916 – III Platoon 17th Manchesters (17thmanchesters.wordpress.com)
- Online archive will reveal the poignant wills and personal letters of 230,000 WWI soldiers (dailymail.co.uk)
I got a letter at home to say report to a certain place so I had time to say cheerio.
We were all issued with free tickets and took the train down to Gateshead. There were twenty odd from Consett. There are names of fifty five men killed in action from the Benfieldside alone whose names are remembered in St Cuthbert’s Church, Benfieldside.
They brought two girls in at the office.
Ernie Caldwell, an area manager brought a girl in called Lily Amiss to assist. When I left for the army Bill Baron brought his brother’s daughter in as an office girl, Ella. There were more changes after that.
They put five bob in the kitty for me every week.
When I got back I got about £80 bonus. I had to work for six months before collecting it. I spent it on a motorbike. It was a 41/4 B.S.A. Cost me £105.
Percy, my elder brother, was a bit lame, so they wouldn’t take him. He had a crippled knee. They made him work on forestry work during the war. He was foreman of a group called Bowes-Whitfield in the forests during the war.
Billy joined the Royal Flying Corps in 1916. He became a bomber pilot.
The medical was a disgrace.
It was arranged in these schools. There were no cubicles or anything you just went into a room.
There were no curtains on the windows – you just took your clothes off and threw them on the floor.
You went to a doctor in the nude.
People could look in the window and see you; they were wide-open. There were no curtains – it was absolutely crude
Bob Ritchie was the manger of the pub downstairs.
He’d just turned fifty when I started because they had a bit of a do for him. He had a wife, Beth, and a daughter Jane.
The pub would be packed on Mondays, but the hotel itself was never busy.
I had Bob Ritchie and his wife convinced the place was haunted
There was this telephone in a wooden booth. It was down the passageway from the office. You could just get in and close the door and get yourself sat down. There was a ledge you could lean on to write messages and that. There was this missing panel underneath with a piece of canvas across that was probably put in to service the bell-pull strings that came in from the various rooms, but it seems everyone had forgotten about that. There were all these strings coming from all the rooms. I’d be in there waiting for a phone call for someone to put their order in and I’d fiddle on with these strings. House telephones would often exploit the wiring previously provided for the bell pushes which summoned servants … or in this case the hotel manager or his wife. This access point must have been created when the Hotel and Offices had the wiring carried out with many of the pull strings for the guest rooms remaining. The telephone was known as butter-stamp receiver, because of its shape.
Beth Ritchie was so terrified by all these bells going off that she wouldn’t go to bed.
I kept it going for some time and I never let on. I wasn’t aware I was doing anything. It would die down then Muggins would be in the box waiting for someone to make a call and it would start up again. Bob Ritchie died at the Royal Hotel, Blackhill, on January 19th, 1911. I’d just been there six months. He had a heart attack. When I heard someone suggest it was to do with the torment of the bells going off I worked it out and thought I might get the blame.
Theatres and Pubs
J.G. used to build a theatre and a pub together.
He had the ‘Three Masons Arms’ and the ‘Globe’.
In those days there was nothing else, no cinema, just these theatres. I remember Gracie Fields was pelted with tomatoes at Stanley with the miners; she was a Rochdale girl and my age. She was in ‘Our Towers of London.’ She started out in Music Halls and became a film star in the 1920s and 1930s. The cinemas helped to black the music hall artists out.
The cellars held two gallon jars of gin and Irish etc:
The cellerman had an office which had a speaking tube running up to the first floor; you had to whistle down it to get your attention. Wagons would come in by these big double doors round the side. There were steps down in the cellars.
The manager of the Globe would ring his beer order down.
I’d run down to the phone in the corridor to take it down. I was just a boy and the man, a Cockney, asks for “Three barrels of oil.”
I went back to the office and asked.
“Where can I get some oil?”
They all laughed.
“Ale” they said. “He wants three barrels of ale.”
One day J.G. had my father carry this ‘Blick’ up from the car; it was a German typewriter.
J.G. tried to show me how to use this Blickenfurentstater. It was a portable affair with a wooden case. The top row of letters began ZXKGB so it came in before QWEERTY when they had to slow the action down on account of the metal keys getting jammed if you typed too fast. I did all the typing after that, up until the war. We started doing the letters with carbon copies. After the war they had girls in doing that job.
There were no girls in the office before 1914.
The Royal Hotel
The Royal Hotel was a huge stone built building with these five massive windows.
It was built for business; it’s all finished now. There was a station near by and next door the Mart for all the Blackhill farmers round about Lanchester. There was a huge yard. The station took all the deliveries for the Paper Mill and Flour Mill in Shotley Bridge.
There were six in the office above the bar and taproom.
J.G. had a private office across the passageway. I was the office boy. Joe Trones was on the sales ledger, Bill Barron, was the principal ledger clerk (tenants, free trade). Tommy Morland, who came from Medomsley, was the cashier; he held the bank cash book. He was 38 when I stared. Then there was Ernie Caldwell, the estate agent and local brewery area manager. Mr Gardener was General Manager of the branch and stores. Mr Gardener was in his fifties. He’d been with the North Eastern Breweries for 26 years. I got to know his son later on. John Gardener was just a year older than me. His mother lived into her eighties as did John. I must have been the Spa water we were used to drinking!
Bill and I used to do the column.
We’d sneak out of the office and go down the corridor to the billiard room that overlooked the spirit store and bottling factory.
There were two tables. We’d slide in and keep the door from the office locked. We’d sneak back as if we’d come back from the telephone. We got to know Tom Brown who worked for the Consett Iron Works. He used to play billiards when it was open. Tom and Bill were a similar age. Tom was from Wokington. He was nearly 30 when I started at the North Eastern Brewery. He lived at 7 Constance Street, Consett . They were a five of them, there was Bill, Dick, George and his sister Florence. His father, George was from Yorkshire. His mother, Mary was from Durham. Tom was a big strapping lad. Before the war his brother was shot in the leg and he lost it from gangrene.
Bill had a brother called Ridley who was a good footballer.
Just before the War Bill got a message to say his brother had been killed in a fall of stone in the mine at Busty Pit, Medomsley. Ridley had started out as a coal hand puller ‘underground’ at Busty Pit when he was 14. He was killed on 8th October 1912. He was kirning in a longwall gateway in a seam 2 feet 2 inches thick when a large stone fell between slips canting out some props and crushing him.
Bill was broken hearted. In those days all the mines were going: Hunter, Busty and Derwent interlinked with their own railway with iron ore from Spain.
Ernie Caldwell used to count all the coins, it was all gold then.
He had this desk next to a massive iron safe. When the figures didn’t add up he’d put it down to petty cash. When they came to move the safe they found all these coins stuck down the back. Ernie Caldwell came to me one day.
“John, I’ll show you how to work a pub stock out.”
And he put this pub stock sheet in front of me.
One of my jobs was to take all the coins down to the bank.
With it being the brewing trade a lot of them got sticky. I remember once the bank manger got fed up with getting sticky fingers and handed me the bag back.
“Go and wash them; I’m not handling them like that.”
So from then on before I went to the bank I’d take the coins into the lavatory and wash them in the sink.
There were three joiners and two horse keepers for the twelve Cleveland Dray Horses. The pop factory was run by Tommy Blackburn. There were six bottling girls and a bottler we called ‘The Dummy.’ They bottled Bass, Guinness, Wheatley Hops and their own beers.
Crossley Gas Engines ran the machines – there was no electricity. That factory was sold to the Venture Bus Company, now the Northern.
All the letters were hand written with copying ink.
You put an oil sheet in, damped the blotting paper, put your letter in and squeezed it to make a copy – that was before the typewriter.
Shotley Bridge and Benfieldside School
Shotley Bridge was a metropolitan, a proper town, a thriving place.
The War and the recession and the rest put paid to that; it’s never been the same. Never will be. Can’t be. Consett and Shotley Bridge drew in workers right up to the outbreak of the War in 1914 for the iron and steel works, the paper mill, saw mill, market gardens, mines of course and the manufactories. Then there were the railways, and shops and theatres of course. And the market every week that filled the town.
I remember taking Billy up to the infant school, Benfieldside School at Highgate and him crying.
Children started school aged six and stayed on until Standard VII. On our when 14th birthday we got a job. There was no staying on unless you had the money for the Grammar School. Lads from the big houses would be sent into Newcastle or they’d be away at boarding preparatory schools from the age of 7 or 8.
The school was divided into two, girls and boys
There was a separate block for infants with the schoolmaster’s house next door and a playground behind where I left him and went back for him. It was a mile walk. There was a two hour break for lunch as most children went home to eat. So back and forth we’d walk six miles a day. There were no buses and no bikes.
There was no gas or electricity either, just paraffin lamps.
The headmaster was Frank Allan; he was a little chap. He signed up, no need, he lied over age, said he was 37, in fact he was 43. He encouraged a lot of boys to lie about their age and got them killed, 14 year olds saying they were 19. Billy did that and joined the Royal Flying Corp when he was 15.
Frank was killed in the Great War.
Jack walks down from Consett to Benfieldside with his mate Steve Barron. Its been a busy day as poor weather has delayed some order making it to the various pubs of the Northeastern Brewery. For much of the morning Jack sat by the phone taking calls and relaying messages to the office. He’s 14 and a half, he’s been at the Royal Hotel since August. He lives at home with his father, the Chauffeur and general factotum to JGMurray at Benfieldside House and his mother and his younger brothers Billy 12, and Spencer 7.
- Vital Statistics from 1912 and some other thoughts… 2012. (nupepa-hawaii.com)
- This Day in 1912 in The Record: Dec. 24, 1912 (troyrecord.com)