South Yorks wartime tragedy of soldier who never saw his son
A new book by Barnsley writer Jane Ainsworth looks at the 76 old boys of a Barnsley grammar school who died during World War One.
Jane, who was born in Hoyland, was inspired to write Great Sacrifice – the 76 Old Boys of Barnsley Holgate Grammar School in the First World War after doing some family history research.
She decided to go further when she saw the war memorial at the old school building, which is now the Cooper Art Gallery, and decided to research all the men named on it.
Jane said: “I went into it naiively, not knowing it was difficult to find details of people who are only names and initials.”
Barnsley Archives provided the school admissions register and Jane managed to contact some of the men’s families.
She had enough to publish her research privately but then a chance meeting with the publisher gave Jane the chance to write the book that she is launching at a Barnsley History Day in March.
Some statistics give an idea of the potential that was lost,
Out of the 76 men, 25 were teachers, including headteachers. Two taught at Holgate.
Most were professionals, such as bank or office clerks, plus a GP, an engineer, an architect and a newspaper reporter, while some worked in family businesses.
Ten men were married, five were engaged and four had one child. Two babies were born after their father had died and another was not seen by his dad.
In all, 27 were commissioned officers, 14 rose to ranks above private and six men were awarded medals for gallantry.
Six old boys joined the Sheffield City Battalion (12th Battalion of the York and Lancaster Regiment) while seven joined one of the two Barnsley Pals Battalions (13th and 14th Battalions of the York and Lancaster Regiment).
Nine were killed in action on the first day of the Somme, on July 1, 1916.
Others were wounded on this day and died in subsequent battles. Nine were called up, aged between 17 and 19, five of whom were still studying at Holgate or at university; all had died by the age of 20.
There were 42 brothers of the men, plus at least four brothers-in-law, who also served in the First World War and 7 of them died.
Here Jane gives short biographies of two of the 76 men.
John (Jack) Normsansell was born in 1889 to Joseph and Sarah Jane Normansell.
Joseph was a glass bottle manufacturer’s representative and they lived at 7 Cavendish Road, Barnsley.
Jack’s grandfather, John Normansell, had been the first general secretary of the South Yorkshire Miners’ Association.
Jack had two younger sisters, Dorothy Mary and Kate (Kitty). Another sister had died in 1897, aged seven months.
Dorothy Mary Normansell married William Arthur Lowrance in August 1911 and they had one daughter, Margaret Anne Lowrance. Kitty Normansell married Cyril Alfred Miers in June 1921.
Jack attended Holgate Grammar School for six years until 1906, when he worked for Qualter, Hall and C Ltd for two years, learning the engineering trade, before winning a mining scholarship at Sheffield.
He joined Old Silkstone Colliery at Dodworth as a student and was preparing for his final certificate as colliery manager when war broke out.
Jack was engaged to Ruby Cook, daughter of Charles Richard and Annie Cook. Her father was a dental surgeon at Huddersfield Road, Barnsley.
Jack enlisted in September 1914 in the newly-formed 13th Battalion (First Barnsley Pals) of the York and Lancaster Regiment.
He quickly rose from being a second lieutenant to captain. Assisting the Royal Engineers, he led a group of miners with the skilled and dangerous tunnelling work on the Somme.
Jack received wounds to the face from a rifle grenade in the Somme of July 1916. He was invalided home with septic poisoning, which was almost fatal.
He returned to France in January 1917 but was wounded again and died the next day, March 10, 1917, aged 27.
Jack was buried in France but there are a number of memorials to him locally, including a special stained glass window from his family in St Mary’s Church, Barnsley.
James Stuart Swift was born in 1885 in Barnsley to James and Sarah Swift.
James was manager at the Midland Bank in Market Hill, Barnsley, and his family lived at 2 Beech Grove, Barnsley.
Stuart’s older sister Muriel Morton Swift married ironmonger Percy Guest Wadsworth. Their mother, Sarah Swift, died in 1911.
Stuart went to Holgate for about three years from 1895 then attended Ackworth School near Hemsworth.
He worked as a bank cashier in Wath on leaving school until 1907, when he transferred to the Barnsley branch, where his father was manager.
Stuart enlisted at the Corn Exchange, Sheffield in September 1914 as a private in the 12th Battalion (Sheffield City) of the York and Lancaster Regiment.
He served in Egypt before his battalion were transferred to the Western Front in France.
Stuart married Alice Maude Watkinson in April 1915. Maude was the daughter of engineer George Henry Watkinson of Woodhouse.
They had a son, James Stuart Morton Swift, on March 27, 1916 but, tragically, Stuart never saw him as he was not granted leave to go home and was killed in action on July 1, 1916.
Stuart was buried in France but is remembered on memorials locally and on the HSBC War Memorial in London.
Maude got married again in 1918 and had two more children. Stuart’s son served as a lieutenant in the Royal Navy in the Second World War.
After his death, a lot of material was donated to Barnsley Archives and this includes many love letters between Stuart and his wife Maude.
n The book, published by Helion and Co, is being launched at Barnsley History Day on Sunday, March 20 from 11am to 3pm in Barnsley Town Hall.
The book will be for sale there at £20, with an introductory discount that is also available on orders directly from Helion. Jane says that she will be donating all money she makes from sales at the event to Barnsley Archives.
Jane said she would be delighted to hear from anyone related to any of the Old Boys of the Holgate plus anyone who had relations who served in the Somme battles of 1916.
Contact her on 01226 217195 or email [email protected]
The History Day is an annual event organised by Barnsley Council. Local groups set up displays with leaflets and volunteers are available to explain more about their projects.
This year three speakers will give talks on wide ranging subjects: Vikings in Yorkshire, The life of Maurice Dobson of Darfield and Pre-Raphaelite links in Barnsley.