17 June 2016

An Aldridge Echo - secrets of my childhood

As you walk over the railway bridge on Dumblederry Lane towards where the BRD once stood, you may notice on the right hand side, a small gap between the bridge and the shrubs that line the road. Two, now rusty, dilapidated and downright dangerous iron bars preventing motorcycles from gaining access, stand at the top of a steep embankment. If you check out an OS map there is clearly a footpath right of way down there. When I was a child that embankment was the entrance to a mythical land, a land of enchantment and fairy tales and also of very scary monsters.

Of course, back then the embankment had not been worn away from years of use, it was a gentle little run for small legs to the bottom, nor had fly tippers dumped their unwanted rubbish encouraging rats to set up home in desirable sofa's with a ready made food source from rotting rubbish in their garden. There was just the footpath leading through the long grass and alongside the forbidden world of The Swamps where gruesome creatures could rise up from the black depths, so keep to the right and keep walking. Following the path through the forest that was there in my head would lead to a gravel pathway, which ran alongside the railway line and then past the old mortuary, where one had to be careful of the ghosts for they would reach out in even in daylight to take possession of a young child and there at the end was a gap in a fence where a gate had once been, and Anchor Road and the railway bridge were there.

Everyone I knew on the Redhouse called that fairytale playground 'Echo'. I do not why and I do not know how the name came about because it was not a place an echo could be heard, not unless it was echoes of the past and of those long gone, who knew the area as a very different place.

My siblings and I were born within four years of one another, which may explain why I never remember being pushed anywhere as I was the eldest. My sister lay or sat, in the enormous pram, the sort now associated with Norland Nannies, then she was ejected following the birth of our brother from that comfort to sit on a tiny seat on top of the pram, just behind the handlebar and I walked. There had been no little seat for me! Every day my Mother would take us from Bonner Grove, via the 'big garages' (so called to distinguish them from the 'little' garages - the garages were all the same size, it was the number of them that determined the description) turn right into Dumblederry Lane, left onto Station Road and then the long slog down to Anchor Bridge and then on to the village. The one bright spot of this interminable walk was stopping by the station to watch the steam trains stop at the station. I loved watching them refill their tanks with water from the enormous water tank right by Anchor Bridge. Often there were people I knew standing on the platforms waiting for a train to either Walsall or Sutton Coldfield and I would shout and wave to them much to my Mother's consternation. The station closed on 18th January 1965, three months before my third birthday and yet these memories are vivid to me and full of colour and steam and a thirsty mouth and tired legs.

Photograph taken by D J Norton of Birmingham.The bridge in the background is Dumblederry. Echo would grow to the right of the bridge
After the station closed and the line became goods trains only, the buildings associated with the station were demolished as were the sidings and the sheds. The old line that once branched off and ran over Middlemore Lane and had once serviced the collieries in the northern part of Aldridge and Walsall Wood, was taken up and the bridge over Middlemore Lane was dismantled. Nature slowly started to reclaim the area. The 'Swamps' were already established, their blackness a  reminder of Speedwell Mine that had closed around 1880 although the venting apparatus and an opening to the shafts can still be seen on the site of what was Greenhams. Gradually the whole area became a green corridor from the Redhouse to the Village and a playground for a generation of children.

By 1970 'Echo' was established and my mythical land took root inside my head. There were imaginary games to be enacted down there where we would be chased by monsters rising from the Swamp, hiding behind the old spoil heaps now overgrown with grass and shrubs, making our way through the enchanted forest (in truth small willows and silver birches) and never ever entering the old mortuary for we knew that only death dwelt there.

Echo was also a place of natural discovery. I caught my first tadpoles there, saw my first field mice and newts there and wonder of wonders watched the first kestrel I had ever seen. I pulled apart horsetails and then put them back together again, collected wild flowers and grasses and then decorated the garden shed at home with them. As I got older explorations Dr Livingstone style would take place into the darkest depths of the swamp, wellies smuggled out of the house so that mom wouldn't know what we were intending to do but all we ever found were the secret dens the boys didn't want the girls to find and further on, the railway line. We never sank into the old underground mines as we warned would happen if we carried out such follies. We just got very wet and extremely dirty and then had trouble explaining to parents how this had happened if we had only been playing around 'the block' of Bonner Grove.
The Swamp

The one thing about Echo that made a difference to my life in terms of time, was that if you walked swiftly along Echo you could be in the village well inside ten minutes instead of what seemed like years if you walked along Station Road. That walk would have saved my tiny legs miles when I was not even of school age but alas it's birth came later. To have walked there then would have proven impossible unless dodging trains was something your Mother enjoyed doing! When I was 21 I moved back into my parents home for a few months whilst I was working in Birmingham. The 357/8 bus stop by McKechnies was closest for me but many a morning I would walk over Dumblederry Bridge only to see the bus rising over the canal bridge just before the bus stop. I discovered that if I ran like the wind down Echo I could beat the bus to the stop by Portland Road. Only one morning did I come a cropper when unbeknown to me someone had been working heavy machinery at the part of Echo that is directly at the back of Greenhams. I ran in the dark until I hit the mud and lost my shoes. Not recommended. The Swamp monster nearly got me that morning!

Echo is still there, just follow the pathway through Westfield Drive, head across the wilder part of Anchor Meadow, taking time to glimpse at the real forest now growing on what was the railway embankment leading to Middlemore Lane diagonally to your right and you will see a gap in the shrubs and trees. There you will discover the Swamps. Don't try getting down from Dumblederry Lane unless you are young and nimble. I am neither!


16 June 2016

Aldridge Remembers the Great War - A Whistle Blow

I have written many times about the wonderful work that The Aldridge Great War Project has and continues to do, to commemorate the contributions made by the people of Aldridge, men and women, to the First World War 1914 -1918. Sue Satterthwaite has managed the project and the volunteers with amazing results.

I have also written about my own personal journey in researching my own family members who were involved in the war. For me, remembering World War I is deeply personal but then it is for so very many people as there is scarcely a family in the land, who do not have a connection to someone who fought and perhaps died in that war.

Photograph courtesy of The Aldridge Great War Project
On 1st July 2016 it will be 100 years to the day that the Battle of the Somme began. A devastating battle that raged for 141 days claiming the lives of 420,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers, 200,000 French soldiers and 500,000 Germans. 

Aldridge will remember the anniversary of the commencement of battle in two ways.

Firstly at 7.15 am on Friday 1st July at The Aldridge War Memorial, there will be an act of remembrance followed by the blowing of trench whistles at 7.30am, the time the battle started and then two minutes silence. I sincerely hope that Aldridge will turn out at this early hour for this. 

A little later in the morning at Aldridge Library at 10.30 am, there will be a talk and powerpoint presentation from The Aldridge Great War Project featuring 'Voices from the Past'  read by pupils of Aldridge School. The presentation will use words, archive film, images and music to remember those who died, those who survived, the effect on the military convalescent hospital at the Manor House and the day the whole village came together to watch Geoffrey Malins' film of the battle. Original items will be on display. The event is free but booking is essential either by calling 01922 655569 or emailing  aldridgelibrary@walsall.gov.uk . Refreshments will be provided.

Again I sincerely hope that this event will be fully booked. I am only sorry that I cannot make either event due to prior commitments.

23 May 2016

The Birmingham Book Burnings

Birmingham is rightly proud of its new library. Opinion on its design is divided but I like it. The library opened on 3rd September 2013 and people come from far and wide to see it and use it. It has become an award winning visitor attraction in a city that is full of wonders,  and is, these days, proud of itself and so it should be. 

Not only is the library there for lending purposes but it also houses an amazing reference library and the city archives, both jewels for those who study and research academically and for those like me, who research their own interests there and also for family historians.

Not long after the library opened cutbacks were announced, opening hours were reduced from 73 to 40 hours per week and the staff of 188 was cut more or less in half. The cuts are hardly the fault of Birmingham City Council who have a massively reducing budget to juggle and were mildly embarrassed to say the least that their brand new beautiful library was to suffer so publicly but can be laid firmly at the door of the austerity politics of our government.

It seems though that the library has now been left in a perilous position and due to the cuts in staff numbers the City of Birmingham is in danger of valuable reference books being disposed of, in the dark with nobody watching to witness the secret bonfire of profanity.

I am a member of a wonderful Facebook Group called Birmingham History Group. If you want to know anything about Birmingham, it's history, and it's people, it is a one stop shop, especially for the amazing photographs. My attention was drawn to a post by Jan Ross made today. It said:

"As some of you will have read I have been searching for a set of books, in the new reference library that I used to access in the old Birmingham Library. They were not in the catalogue. After writing and emailing and actually visiting the library, I was informed that they had been "dumped" in a skip in accordance with Birmingham Council Criteria. 
I pursued this, and eventually the books were found. 
The facts apparently are that a large number of historical books could not be placed in the library due to the vastly reduced amount of shelf space. 
Those historical books are not catalogued and are in the basement of the library. The library has no librarians available to catalogue them and the hope is that they will be forgotten and then thrown out. 
This will be an enormous loss to the people of Birmingham and beyond.
I ask that each and every person write or email Birmingham Library and c.c. Birmingham Council to save these books. 
Don't let them go in a skip!"

There has been quite a discussion about this and Jan has since added:

"The problem is achieving communication of the problem. It needs to be highlighted. All media likes to show off the new building but what is the point of having a fantastic new building if massive amounts of historic books are lost"
"The Man in Charge did not want to acknowledge the books were even there. He told me they had been put in a skip and gone. 
This applies to many historical books. We can't ask for the books to be fetched as we don't know which books are there, we don't know how many there are. They are not in catalogue. It's appalling and the people of Birmingham need and should do something about it.
I have written a letter of complaint and I'm asking every other person to do the same.
Thank you"

All of the above is reproduced with Jan's very kind permission and also that of the Group Administrators. 

So OK, I exaggerated, Birmingham Library is not burning its books just yet but disposing of them,  without giving people the opportunity to volunteer to catalogue them or perhaps offer them to other libraries for safe keeping, is akin in my opinion, to book burning.

If you live in Birmingham I urge you to contact your local councillor and ask them to look into this. Everyone who has a connection with Birmingham whether you live there now or not, should email Birmingham Library and ask that this problem be dealt with by not disposing of the uncatalogued books that are currently stored in the basement. They and their value is not forgotten.

The library email address is  enquiries@libraryofbirmingham.com

Local councillors can be found here http://www.birmingham.gov.uk/members

From the group discussion it seems that there is an army of volunteers out there who would be more than happy to help with this problem.

19 March 2016

Regret, grief and care

Five years ago this very night my Mother spent her last night at home. The next morning she was taken to hospital with breathing difficulties and died there just fourteen hours later.

The GP had earlier in the week diagnosed a chest infection when reluctantly attending her at home. She said she didn't want to go to hospital and he didn't insist. A few days later she could not resist. Hospital treatment had become a necessity.

Mom was so very poorly. She barely ate during her last week of life, nor barely moved. I did my best trying to make her comfortable but it was not enough. She must have been in agony what with all her existing difficulties and with what we discovered afterwards to be multi organ failure. Slowly throughout the week her vital organs all began to shut down one by one.

When I left the ICU late on Sunday evening with my Dad and Brother I knew I had said my last goodbye to her. I would dearly have loved to stay but as a single parent of two, one only eleven years old, I could not. Regrets.

Mom had been ill for eight years and although I tried on many occasions, she would not let me fight for her; for better care, better pain relief, better everything. She insisted that all was fine. It was never fine and I always felt so helpless and now I feel that I let her down. Hindsight is indeed a wonderful thing.

Dad wouldn't let me fight after Mom had died and there was an inquest. The Coroner did adjourn to ask more questions of those who were supposed to have cared for her in a medical sense but when it came to the second hearing Dad wanted peace and he wanted closure and so I let it all go for his sake.

The frustration and regret I have is difficult to live with but I do as you do.

My daughter suffered an accident nearly five months ago now and remains seriously affected by that event. If anyone wants to know why I fight so hard for her to get the treatment and consideration she needs and deserves, they only have to look to my past experiences plus the love a Mother has for her child. I let Mom down. I will not let my daughter down.

Don't judge me. You haven't walked in my shoes and I judge myself far more harshly than you ever could. I cannot change the past but I have learned from it.

6 February 2016

Life threatening

It was my unfortunate experience last night to spend some hours at the local A&E at The Manor Hospital in Walsall. It is the third time in as many months. A loved one experienced an accident three months ago that has left her with brain injuries. We were told last time she was discharged from hospital that there should be no hesitation in calling 999 should another incident occur. There was no hesitation.

I have to say that I find the Manor a curious place. I have seen examples of both the best and worst of care there. I will never forget the attitude and care my Mother received when she was an inpatient in HDU and ITU. You knew instinctively that she was receiving the best of NHS care. Nor will I forget the care she received again during her last day of life, from the staff in A&E to one particular ward for a few hours and finally, ITU. Exemplary. Experiences like this demonstrate what a wonderful thing we have in our NHS and how a small local hospital can give the very best.

Sometimes though staff are encountered who are stressed for whatever reason, have an attitude lacking in empathy and sympathy, communication is difficult between both staff and their colleagues and staff and patients. Perhaps it is the stresses and strains that are put on certain services. The over work, the lack of full staffing levels, a lack of fully trained staff, a lack of fully rested staff. Sometimes these problems are all down to local issues, mostly I blame the government and their deliberate policy of downgrading the NHS, outsourcing services to profit making companies, ensuring that people perceive the NHS as not to be working  thereby meaning that less of a fuss is made when one day in the not so distant future we wake up and the NHS as we know it, no longer exists. Don't be fooled.

Back in November we endured two nightmare experiences in that A&E, the first lasting over 7 hours and the second nearly 6. The department was full to bursting, not even standing room, ambulances backed up to the West Wing and a line of patients on trolleys down the corridor waiting to be admitted, paramedics stranded. The entrance waiting room was totally packed. Clearly there were too many people using a service for which there are not sufficient staff. Or maybe something else was happening? I ask because part of the problem with the back up in A&E was that there were no beds available in the hospital. Patients and potential patients could not be moved on and there was something else too, something that until last night I could not put my finger on.

The controller who took my 999 call was superb. She sensed the distress I was desperately trying to control. She spoke to me on a very personal level. Towards the end of the conversation she asked me if I thought my loved one's condition was life threatening. I am not medically trained. I really cannot answer that question with any expertise but in my gut? Loved one may have been having a brain hemorrhage. I didn't know and so I answered that in all honesty it could be life threatening.

The paramedics were brilliant, just like the previous two occasions, efficient, patient, caring and soon we arrived at A&E. This time there was no line of trolleys down the corridor, no backup of ambulances, the entrance area was not packed, booking in was efficient and the receptionist was pleasant adding a personal touch that is needed when you are stressed. The department itself was busy but not full. Different.

I cannot comment on the care at the moment apart from the fact that communication is still not right but I will comment about what was said and what it was the staff were prepared to do. A few hours after admittance we were told to go home as the condition was not life threatening. Apparently so we were told, A&E staff are there to deal with life threatening conditions. They are not there to refer a patient on for further treatment unless there is to be an immediate in patient admittance and despite the problem being exactly the same as the previous two occasions when in patient treatment was deemed appropriate, this time it wasn't life threatening enough for consideration for admittance. Go and see your GP on Monday for the continuing care that is both required and needed. We are life threatening care only There is, it seems no one NHS, there is no streamlining of care. There are separate entities and n'er the twain shall meet.

The fact that the phrase life threatening was used by different people from different parts of the NHS made me see what has changed and why there were no delays or queues and possibly no delays in getting a bed if thought necessary. Unless your condition is life threatening you will be despatched as quickly as possible to become a burden elsewhere within the NHS. Our underfunded and understaffed emergency services may just be able to tick along and meet targets if this is done. Perhaps you've fallen off your cycle and are lying in the road with a broken leg, unable to move, in enormous pain and also in shock. You do not have however, a life threatening condition so you may wait for your ambulance and when it does arrive and they deliver you to A&E, you may be treated quickly but observation will not be a consideration and you will be left to become a problem for someone else but not them.

Maybe I am seeing things in the wrong way here and no doubt there are massive holes in my thought process that will be pointed out but I strongly suspect that word has come from on high, from our political masters who have interests galore in private healthcare provision and therefore less of an interest in an expensive National Health Service, streamlined to meet the needs of the patients as opposed to the needs of the staff, department, hospital, government, that unless it's life threatening, you pass the buck on or not at all but leave it with the patient and let it become a problem for someone else, somewhere else, where perhaps the immediacy and the importance is not quite as sexy for reporting upon when there are problems. Let's face it, it's the beds and A&E that get the vast majority of the reportage. This was my sense last night. It was different. Something had changed and in a very short period of time. The language was very different and language is at the heart of what is to be conveyed for public consumption and perception.

Or perhaps it's all to do with being classified by the CQC as failing and being put in special measures. I do hope whatever it is, medical staff are being allowed to do their jobs properly with due care and attention, rather than with an eye on targets.

15 January 2016

An Afternoon to Remember

The crowd along with the media begin to assemble
Today I had the pleasure along with a substantial crowd of local Aldridge people despite the freezing cold, miserable weather, of witnessing a little bit of Aldridge history. The unveiling of the Blue Heritage Plaque at The Manor House. I've written an awful lot about The Manor. You may have noticed. It's because for a myriad of reasons, that old house means a lot to me, as it does to many residents both past and present of Aldridge. It is a house that has been used for community purposes for a very long time, starting 100 years ago today when it opened as a military convalescent hospital for soldiers of the Great War.

The unveiling today was the culmination of a lot of hard work by several people but in particular Sue Satterthwaite and Len Boulton of The Aldridge Great War Project. Sue and Councillor Tim Wilson did the actual unveiling and Tim also acted as the host, introducing three speakers. It took place at the same time of 3pm where  100 years earlier residents had gathered for the opening of the hospital.

Alison Beardwood
First to speak following prayers, was Alison Beardwood who gave us a fascinating background to the history of blue heritage plaques.

Next was Sue Satterthwaite, local historian and author of several books about Aldridge including the book that led to todays event "A Patriotic Endeavor - Aldridge Manor House as a Military Hospital". Sue took us through the Manor House journey in community use; from the hospital to Doctor's surgery to library and in her words, as the legendary Manor House Youth Club. She also spoke of what a magnificent achievement it was for the people of Aldridge and in particular the women of the village to raise the money in order to open the hospital and furthermore to fund its continuation throughout the war. Sue pointed out that at the time Aldridge was a village of around 3000 residents and yet it saw over 900 men pass through the hospital as patients.

Sue Satterthwaite
Sue introduced the final speaker. A very special and most welcome visitor to our village; Marilyn Preece who had travelled a long way to be with us all. Marilyn  is the granddaughter of Matthew Nell who was the only soldier patient that died whilst the hospital was operational. You can read the full story in the book. Marilyn spoke movingly about the Grandfather that she never knew and of the effect that his death had on her Grandmother and her Mother, who was only 11 months old when she lost him. I have to admit to having a tear in my eye when Marilyn finished her speech.

Sue and Councillor Tim then did the honours with Len standing close by. It was a proud moment for everyone there and I hope that it is a moment that Sue and Len hold dear to themselves for always. You have both done Aldridge proud and we are grateful for all your hard work, dedication and the love that you have for Aldridge.

Marilyn Preece

Following the ceremony I was delighted to be able to chat with Marilyn Preece over a cup of coffee inside The Manor House. I was also happy to be able to swap village memories with Fionna, the daughter of former village GP Dr Boyd Stirling. I don't think I have ever had the pleasure of speaking with Fionna before but it was interesting how many 'joint' village memories we shared. It was Fionna's family that were able to offer all the wonderful records that they had kept from their time at The Manor that meant Sue's book could be researched and published.  

In 1916 Aldridge was a small village but it had a huge heart and with the plaque this will never be forgotten.

Sue Satterthwaite and Councillor Tim Wilson

Len Boulton

The Plaque

13 January 2016

A Story of Survival

This is a long piece about a man who made Aldridge his home, married an Aldridge woman thus continuing a long association with the Village for my family. It is my homage to a Grandfather I never knew and is perhaps therefore not of interest to many people but is important for me to record.

My search for my paternal Grandfather John Mason has been a long one and nothing has ever come easily, just as one breakthrough is made, someone comes along with a mortar and trowel to build yet another brickwall and then there are the anglers with red herrings. I will never truly know him, as he died when my Father was such a young child and he has only ghostly memories of John.

John was the son of Henney and her second husband William Mason, a coal miner and occasional colliery horse keeper. He was born at Christmas in 1882 in Littleworth, Cannock, Staffordshire. He had three older sisters and in the summer of 1884 was joined by a younger brother Charles. During that year the family moved to Aldridge and so began the long association I spoke of, with Aldridge and its surrounding villages, that lasted until death.

A month after his third birthday John and his family found themselves in perilous circumstances when William died succumbing to a fever following a leg injury. William is buried in Aldridge Cemetery and it appears that the family stayed in Aldridge for a number of years before the scandal of Henney's relationship with the local blacksmith Thomas Robinson became too much and the family started a trek around the local area and the Black Country. In 1891 the census records them as living in the centre of Wednesbury and by 1901 there had been a move to the colliery at Hamstead where John's now Stepfather Thomas, was a shoeing smith at the colliery and Henry, John's brother was a striker there. John is described as a soldier, a private and must have been visiting the family on the night the census was taken, as he had enlisted to fight in The Second Boer War.

John's records for his Boer War service are unfortunately lost but his service is referred to in his World War 1 service papers. He was a militiaman serving with the 4th Battalion, South Staffords, a reserve battalion that was actually armed, trained and had arrived in South Africa whilst the 1st Battalion Regulars were still mobilising. He was just 18 years old. Perhaps the five pounds gratuity paid to militia volunteers acted as an inducement?
Map courtesy of Buzzle.com
The 4th Battalion of the South Staffords were part of Paget's 20th Brigade who were in turn part of Methuen's 1st Division. It is clear that John would have seen a lot of action during the advance through the Transvaal and The Orange Free State, indeed the Militiamen were known for their fearsome marching and fighting in what became mostly a guerilla war for his division. He also became ill with Typhoid Fever because part of his medical examination prior to service in the Great War recorded the superficial dilated veins which were as a result of Typhoid Fever during the South Africa campaign.

John would have returned home to the Midlands in 1902, not even 20 years old but already a veteran of war and extreme ill health.

On 6 March 1904 he married canal boatman's daughter Mary Ann Smith at St Peter's Church, Greets Green and nearly two years later their son and only child, named for his father, John Thomas Mason was born in Erdington. John was known as Jack, presumably to distinguish him from his father.

Sometime before 1914 John, Mary and Jack moved to Yew Tree Cottage, Foley Road on the Aldridge/Streetly border and here they stayed until after the end of the Great War. John worked as a Shoeing Smith, that is, he made and fitted shoes for horses, donkeys, ponies etc. He was well thought of. There is a reference from his employer John Joiner, a wholesale and retail coal merchant based in Wylde Green and Erdington which states:

"Sir, I have known Mr John Mason for nine years as being a Smith and he has mostly shod horses and I can thoroughly recommend him as regards shoeing. He does everything you need and (unreadable)...and I have always known him to be a sober and steady man"

Furthermore William Cooper, presumably his direct boss writes:

"I certify that John Mason has been in our employ for nine years and is (unreadable) regular and attendant to his work and diligent and industrious."

John received his enlistment letter in the early part of 1915. His service number prefix is 'TS' Transport Special. He was specially enlisted for his trade; a shoeing smith and therefore had a direct value to the war effort. He took his oath in Birmingham on 17 February 1915 and was appointed to the Army Service Corps, who in 1918 were awarded the 'Royal' prefix in recognition  of their Great War Service. The ASC were the unsung heroes of the Great War and pulled off prodigious feats of logistics. Soldiers couldn't move without horses and vehicles and the largest element of the ASC was the Horse Transport Section.

He reported to Woolwich on 20th February but was sent home again because until 14th April he was surplus to requirements. I presume this is why he was awarded a Silver War Badge just after enlisting to keep those who favoured making gifts of white feathers, at bay.

On enlistment John was 32 years old, 5' 6" tall and weighed 150lbs. He had good physical development, had been vaccinated in infancy (thank you Henney) and his girth when fully expanded was 37". John had scars on both his left and right eyebrows but his vision was perfect. He may have been small by the standards of today but he was perfectly formed!

Throughout the service records John is described as a shoeing smith and yet on his medal record card his rank is given as "Driver (Acting Farrier Corporal)". I have learned through experience that many military records are only as good as the person who wrote out a particular entry and furthermore people were expected to be flexible. I have also learned that attempting to understand something as complex as the British Army in The Great War, is virtually impossible and can land you in all sorts of trouble! Whatever job John was doing, be it shoeing smith or farrier (and yes there is a difference) having reported once again to Woolwich on 14th April 1915 he then faced a long journey in double quick time to Avonmouth where he embarked the following day and set sail to Egypt, arriving in Alexandria on 27th April. 13 years after he had left South Africa he got to see the magnificent continent of Africa in the Northern Hemisphere. This is where John's work and war began.

As a 'driver' John was considered to be a soldier who was trained in the management and use of horses. He would have 'driven' wagons and looked after the horses and donkeys. It appears also that he was their shoeing smith too. Having been given a few days to acclimatise to the heat John was transferred to an advance supply depot and there he stayed for 5 months. He would have been in Egypt just a short while when he learned that his brother Charles had died. Charles had enlisted in Walsall a little earlier than John and had become a Lance Corporal in the 4th Battalion Kings Royal Rifles. He died of wounds at Ypres on 10th May 1915.

It seems that if you were in the ASC flexibility was necessary as transfers were a regular occurrence. At the end of September 1915, John was transferred to the Local Transport Depot at Imbros and arrived there 5 days later. Imbros now known as Gokceada and the largest island in Turkey, was then under Greek control but in 1915 it was an important staging post for Gallipoli. There was a field hospital, an airfield, administration blocks and stores buildings all constructed for the British Army. Presumably John's job there was to ensure that horses were in good condition and were cared for prior to being shipped the short hop across the water to Gallipoli.

Map courtesy of Mapco
The campaign at Gallipoli had been  continuing since April of 1915. By the end of August it had turned into trench warfare, conditions were worsening from the awful that they already were and dysentery was on the increase. By October the advantage of a continuing campaign had become doubtful but despite this on 6 October John was transported to Carpe Helles and by the 6th November was transferred to the the Corps Transport Depot there. When John arrived in Gallipoli the weather was warm but wet. It was soon to change. During the period 26th to 28th November Gallipoli experienced its worst storm and blizzard for many years. Starting with heavy rain in which the trenches were flooded, so badly flooded that water came up to men's shoulders and many drowned, there then followed snow and then a long frost. 10% of the men on Gallipoli lost their lives to the cold through frostbite and exposure. 280 actually froze to death. The only good thing to come out of this tragedy was that the dysentery stopped and finally a decision was made to evacuate forces from Gallipoli.

Carpe Helles was the last place to be evacuated and John left for Mudros on 6th January 1916, a morning described by Major John Gillam as lovely and calm. I was happy to see the date that John left because the following day they started shooting all the horses and donkeys on Gallipoli in order that they did not fall into the hands of the Turkish Army. I think it would have broken John's heart to shoot the horses he cared for. By 4am on 9th January 1916 Gallipoli had been abandoned and all were gone.

Mudros was and still is a small port on the Greek Island of Lemnos and John joined the Local Transport Depot there awaiting shipping to become available before departing to return to Alexandria and the Base Horse Transport Depot where he arrived on 14 January 1916. There he stayed shoeing and looking after his horses  and continuing his association with the 42nd (East Lancashire) Division, begun at Carpe Helles, for the next 13 months.

On 23 February 1917 John embarked the SS Transylvania in Alexandria and disembarked a few days later in Marseilles. The SS Transylvania was a steamship launched on 23 May 1914. It was originally ordered as a passenger liner for the Cunard subsidiary Anchor Line and was designed to accommodate 1379 passengers however, she was taken over as a troop ship on completion. The Admiralty fixed capacity at 200 Officers plus 2860 men and crew. It would not have been a comfortable cruise! On 3rd May 1917 just two months after John had undertaken his journey to Marseilles, the ship departed that port to return to Alexandria. The following morning at 10am she was torpedoed by a German U boat and sank. 412 men lost their lives.

Picture courtesy of  Wikipedia of SS Transylvania
Once in Marseilles John was formerly attached to the 1st East Lancs Field Ambulance 42nd Division and then travelled north to the Western Front with them. The Field Ambulance was a mobile frontline medical unit (not a vehicle) and ASC Drivers like John were attached to the divisions who relied heavily upon horses for transport. Each division had 14 riding plus 52 draught and pack horses who worked 23 wagons, 2 water carts,  forage carts, 6 general service wagons, a cooks wagon and 10 ambulance wagons. John would have been kept busy as he travelled first to the front line at Epehy and then Havrincourt where he stayed, witnessing what I do not wish to imagine until July 1917. John then suffered a 'fever' and following his recovery was finally granted 14 days leave after over two years of service, all undertaken abroad.

On his return from leave John joined the Horse Transport section at 15 Reserve Park, GHQ Troops in France. These units were responsible for heavy artillery (siege) ammunition columns and were expected to hold and maintain sufficient supplies for an infantry division for 2 days. There were 59 general service wagons and 358 horses so once again, John was kept busy. He stayed with this section until the end of the war and was even granted another 11 days leave in March 1918.
Image courtesy of HistoryToday

Armistice Day arrived and John remained in Northern France for a little longer until he succumbed to the Spanish Influenza that by then was claiming so many victims. He was first invalided to Guildford Castle Infirmary on 13 November and then admitted to the Casualty Clearing Station at Eastleigh suffering influenza on 14 November 1918, leaving on 25 November when he was granted 14 days furlough to be residing with his wife and son at Yew Tree Cottage on Foley Road. John was finally discharged to Class Z Army Reserve on demobilization at Woolwich Dockyard on 11 February 1919. He claimed no disability and had an exemplary conduct record.

John also left the army with his Post Office Savings Bank account of which 20 pounds had been deposited during his service. John was a diligent saver and before the balance was transferred to another book in 1925 he had managed to accumulate 58/16s/3d. Perhaps he held dreams of working for himself. Whatever dreams John had at the end of the Great War, they were to be cruelly dashed.

On his return home John, Mary and Jack moved first to Rose Cottage in Stonnall and then in the early 1920s, to a cottage on the Walsall Road in Aldridge. The cottage is still there, behind a hedge by the old mile post just by the junction with Paddock Lane. In its original condition it would have been tiny. His neighbours were the Plants. John got a job as a shoeing smith at one of the Aldridge Collieries, I've never been able to ascertain which one and life continued. John clearly wanted something different to the hard life of labour that he had endured, for his son Jack and Jack trained and became  a weight and scales tester. For a while life was quiet but then in February 1925 John's mother died and it was not so long afterwards that Jack became ill. John and Mary's only child died of a brain tumour on 3rd November 1928 at that tiny cottage on the Walsall Road surrounded by his loving and bereft parents. His gravestone (no longer extant) was inscribed in a simple manner:

"Sacred to the memory of Jack, the beloved son of John Thomas and Mary Ann Mason who passed away November 3rd 1928, aged 22 years. We cannot Lord thy purpose see, but all is well that's done by thee"

Just 12 months later John was standing at that same grave once again, this time burying his wife.

Next door to John my Grandmother Lily, had returned home. She was a tiny, pretty, blonde young woman who had known her own troubles in her short life. She was 20 years younger than John. I like to think that she brought him some happiness and comfort in the dark times that John was enduring. Clearly there was a spark between them but life was a little complicated for them in that Lily was awaiting a divorce. This was finalised in January 1931 and a few weeks later they married. Later that year their daughter was born and a year later my father was born in that same tiny cottage.

And that would have been it for a while had fate not decided to turn her dark hand one last time for John. All his life John had been a survivor. He had survived the extreme poverty and bad luck of his childhood, losing his Father at just three years of age. He survived fighting as a militiaman in the Boer War, not even sustaining injury. He survived Typhoid Fever. He survived Gallipoli. He survived the German U Boats. He survived the Western Front. He survived the Spanish Flu pandemic. He survived the heartbreak of losing his son and wife within 12 months of one another. Unfortunately for John when he contracted bronchitis in September 1937, his poor body that had laboured hard and long all of its life, weakened by Typhoid and Spanish Flu and all the other privations endured, survival was no longer an option. He was just 54 years old. I celebrate my own 54th birthday this year. That brings it all home to me.

There is so much still to be discovered about John but for now, this is his memorial. Another ordinary man, who lived through extraordinary times, who saw places that hadn't even existed in books for him as he was too poor to own them, who witnessed unspeakable horror and who died a long time before I was born but is after all my Granddad.