Sheffield family's appeal over wartime tragedy letter gets good response

Two Sheffield family history researchers have come forward in response to the tragic wartime story of one city couple.

Friday, 13th August 2021, 4:45 pm

Carolyne Shirtliff-Walker got in touch with Retro after finding a heartbreaking letter to her aunt, Ethel, while clearing out her mum Joan’s attic after she died. The letter described how Ethel’s young husband had died in World War One during the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

An army sergeant wrote to Ethel Clara Hirst describing the death in action of Sheffielder Private William Hirst (44967) of the 23rd Company Machine Gun Corps – saying he was only inches from safety when he was killed by enemy fire.

Carolyne Shirtliff-Walker said “we were knocked away” when she opened the envelope and showed it to her brothers, Michael and John Shirtliff.

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Part of the letter to Ethel Hirst, explaining how her husband William died in the Battle of the Somme in 1916

She said her mum only mentioned William once, saying that Auntie Ethel’s first husband was killed on the Somme.

They got in touch in the hope that they could trace some of William’s relatives to show them the letter.

First to come forward was Alison Hirst, who lives in Hemsworth. She isn’t certain if her husband’s family is related to William, but is a member of Sheffield Family History Society and decided to look at William’s timeline.

She uses Ancestry.com, which has a lot of information about Ethel, who crops up in many people’s family trees on the site.

Carolyne Shirtliff-Walker's Auntie Ethel in her later years

It turns out that William and Ethel had only been married a year when he was killed.

Ethel Clara Hague (her birth name) was born on August 18, 1891 in Wortley and died in June 1983. Her brothers were Bernard, Sidney, Uriah and Fred. Their father was Thomas William of Rodney Farm, Loxley and their mother was Clara (nee Rushby).

Clara’s brother, Leonard William, lived in Washington, Pennsylvania – Carolyne had mentioned that Ethel had visited the US several times in the 1930s, when it was unusual to travel abroad.

Ethel remarried to William Wood in 1920.

Jackie Fielding, who lives in Huddersfield, also got in touch after her cousin Adrian, who lives in Fox Hill, showed her the article to say that William was her grandmother's cousin, as their fathers, Arthur and George, were brothers. Their father was John Hirst.

She said: “Arthur had Hilda (my grandmother) and George had William. Or you could term it William was my great grandfather’s nephew.”

Jackie said that William was known as Willie and the spelling of the name was Hirst, not Hurst as first thought. She found out that William/Willie had siblings John, George, Martha, Nellie, Lewen and Walter. She also says that Lewen married Agnes Ellis.

William’s mother was called Ellen.

According to the 1891 Census, members of the Hirst family lived in adjoining cottages at Briars House Lane, Dungworth. William's father George is one of those listed.

By the 1901 Census, George and his family had moved to Doe House, Ughill, Bradfield. William was eight years old.

On the 1911 Census, William was 18 and working at Birtin Farm, Oughtibridge.

Jackie said: “I wouldn’t have had a clue about this connection until about three weeks ago. It’s quite strange that this cropped up in the paper.”

We have put Carolyne, who was delighted with the information, in touch with Jackie and Alison.