Last February, I was moved to write a poem about my mother’s cousin, killed soon after his 20th birthday on the Somme. I had found out quite a lot about Cousin Willy, but the image that haunted me was of a bright-eyed young lad eager to get out of the choking dust of the coalmine and see something of the world. Enlisting promised adventure, foreign travel, and glory on the battlefield. Instead, less than a year later and after serving at Gallipoli and in Egypt, he was one of 430 British “other ranks” of the 34th Brigade butchered in one day in the Battle of Thiepval Ridge. His body lies in an unmarked grave, but his name is carved on the Thiepval Memorial.
A couple of days ago a comment was made on this post by someone called Tim, so I replied to Tim’s e-mail address, thinking perhaps he was a relative. No, he isn’t family but the story is interesting nevertheless. Tim has recently purchased some medals in an auction, one of which is a memorial plaque for William Musgrave.
The Internet linked him to my poem. Luckily, another cousin who is an expert on WWI had done some research for me, so Tim now has the full story behind that plaque as I filled him in on the details I have about Cousin Willy’s brief army career and death. In return, he sent me photographs of the medals in question, the death announcement in the local paper and the War Memorial in the local church where Willy is commemorated.
The medals are interesting for various reasons. They were awarded in the early years of the twentieth century by the City of Sheffield Education Committee to William and his younger brother Walter for “punctual attendance and good conduct” over 4 years, and another one to Walter for 5 years. That is some record. This site gives some background information on these medals, showing how difficult it was to achieve this award:
Regular and punctual attendance
The precise definition of regular and punctual attendance varied slightly over the years but in their conception the requirements were very strict. The 1902 School Management Code, for example, stated that ‘a medal is to be awarded to every full-time scholar who has attended punctually on every occasion on which the school has been open during the educational year ending July provided that absence on not more than four half-days or two whole days in a year shall not debar any child from receiving a medal if at least two days’ notice of such absence has been sent by the parent or guardian’. It went on to say that ‘By punctual attendance it means attendance at school at 9am in the morning and 2 p.m. in the afternoon’. These were, of course, the standard starting times in the days when virtually all children went home to their midday meal. As a proviso, the Code stated that ‘No child may receive a medal who has not satisfied the head teacher as to his or her cleanliness, tidiness and good conduct throughout the year’. For some years after 1908, a restriction of not more than six medals per class or form at any school was made.
These two brothers were obviously keen, industrious lads doing well at school. Their father was a colliery labourer and not able to pay for William’s education so he had to leave school and go down the pit at 14 as a pit-pony driver. Walter, however, gained a scholarship to the prestigious King Edward VII School, apparently the only working class boy to do so in 1910, and went on to gain another scholarship which enabled him to obtain his university degree.
He was then ordained as a clergyman in the Church of England. He spent some time in Africa as a missionary, then worked as a Prison Chaplain at HMP Dartmoor and Bedford before going back to Yorkshire and becoming the Vicar of Knottingley; eventually he was made a Canon, and finally, a year before his death in 1966, Master of Readers at Holgate Hospital, Hemsworth, where his ashes are buried in the wall of the Chapel of the Holy Cross. He left a widow, Monica Violet, whom he had married in 1931, and two daughters. His memorial plaque is very modest and unassuming, like the man he was.
I met Uncle Walter when I was a little girl, visiting him and his elderly mother – my Great-Aunt Polly – at the Rectory in Knottingley. Aunt Polly and my mother corresponded regularly, in spite of Aunt Polly being blind. She didn’t dictate, but wrote her letters herself in pencil on folded sheets of paper, following the fold-lines with her finger to keep her writing straight. It wasn’t easy to decipher, but my mother usually managed to figure it all out.
After her death in 1952, we lost touch with Uncle Walter and his family, so I have no idea whether he has any living descendants or not. The fact that these treasured medals have appeared on the market would suggest that there are no relatives, or at least, none who care about family ties.
I am pleased that Tim has them now, and is interested in finding out about the boys who earned them. And I am very pleased that we have been able to help each other in this quest. What he needs now is to find the other medals that William would have been awarded: 1915 Star, British War Medal and Victory Medal, and the Memorial Scroll signed by the King issued to next-of-kin. That would be quite a valuable little collection for him.