Friday 14 October 2022

Clevedon's Own Lancashire Lads

One day in May 1915,  twenty or so young women from Clevedon took an excursion to Tidworth in Wiltshire.  Their trip was not without purpose, for it is no coincidence that men from the 56th Infantry Brigade had moved to Tidworth to complete their military training having spent three months in Clevedon from January of that year. It is very likely that one of the day-trippers was Rhoda Cooper of Old Street. After a whirlwind romance, Rhoda had married Private John Stainton of the 7th King's Own, Royal Lancaster Regiment just a few weeks before. Sadly, as will be come apparent as this story unfolds, Rhoda's new found happiness was to be short lived.

7th L.N. Lancs, Clevedon - (Phil Curme Collection)

The 56th Infantry Brigade was raised in August 1914, shortly after the outbreak of the First World War. It's four Battalions - each about 800 strong - were composed of 'Kitchener' volunteers from Lancashire (mainly) and the North of England, part of the second tranche of 100,000 green recruits known for obvious reasons as 'K2 men'. Many of the men had joined with their workmates -  a typical example being Company D of the 7th (Service) Battalion of the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment who were colloquially known as the 'Preston Businessmen & Clerks' Company).  On the reverse of the photo above, which was taken at the bandstand on Clevedon seafront in April 1915, the sender has written "do you rcognize Cecil on the front, he is bound to be in it?". 

Photo from 'Clevedon's Own' by Rob Campbell

Given that the population of Clevedon was approximately 6,000 in 1915 the arrival of almost 4,000 Lancashire lads in the town will have made quite an impact. The Brigade HQ was set up at No.2 Bellevue Terrace - until recently an HSBC bank branch. The Battalion HQs were all within a short walking distance from this main hub - the 7th East Lancs at St Gabriel's Convent on Marine Hill, the 7th South Lancs at 'Caer Leon' in Princes Road, the 7th North Lancs at Duncan House on Chapel Hill and the 7th King's Own Royal Lancaster Regiment at 'Hawkesbury' in Linden Road (all of these properties still stand, albeit some have different names now). The men were billeted in households across the town - often four or five in a single property.

Kings Own Regiment Museum Archive, Lancaster

Kings Own Regiment Museum Archive, Lancaster

The top picture above, shows four officers outside the Brigade HQ at No.2 Bellevue Road. As the sign says, part of the building served as the Officer's Mess. The photo was taken by 2nd Lieutenant Charles Roberts of the 7th Battalion, Kings Own Loyal Lancashire Regiment. The four officers pictured are all Captains - Openshaw, Nunn, Bradbury and Dawson. Training in Clevedon consisted of various exercises such as live firing at The Butts, bridging and trench construction on the Land Yeo and route marches up to Cadbury Camp or through the surrounding villages. The bottom picture shows machine gun practice on what looks like Wain's Hill (given the ship visible on the horizon).

The Triangle - Clevedon - Imperial War Museum Archive

When the Brigade departed Clevedon by train for Tidworth Camp and then onwards to the Western Front in May 1915, the town must have seemed very quiet. Happily, the Brigade's departure was captured on a Pathe News film which has been digitised by the Archive team at the Imperial War Museum and is available online here. One of the Lancashire lads remains in Clevedon though; that is Rhoda Cooper's husband John Stainton who is buried in the consecrated ground at St Andrews Church in the shadow of a Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstone - albeit mysteriously showing the initial 'T' instead of 'J'. 

Private John Stainton (CWGC) - Phil Curme Collection
Men of the King's Own (Lancs) in Clevedon - Phil Curme Collection

John Stainton was born in Ambleside Westmoreland and enlisted in the 7th King's Own, Royal Lancaster Regiment at Barrow-in-Furness on 31st August 1914. The 1911 census shows him to have been married to a woman called Mary. Stainton was an agricultural labourer and he and his then wife were lodging with a workmate and his family in Barrow. Intriguingly, when asked whether he was married when he signed-up, Stainton answered "no". It's not known whether he was a widower or whether he was being 'economical with the truth'! Private Stainton's service record also shows that he had served in the 2nd Battalion of the same Regiment during the Second Boer War and had seen action at the Battle of Spion Kop in 1900. It seems that Private Stainton was a bit of a rogue - he was pulled up three times during his training for 'dereliction of duty' and in one baffling incident was accused of 'losing' a pair of handcuffs.

La Boisselle - German Defences

Private Stainton's date of death is recorded as 11th August 1916 by which time his Regiment had been overseas for over a year. So why is he buried in Clevedon? The answer, of course, lies in his love for Rhoda Cooper in that Stainton's mother was insistent that her son should lie in the town where he had married fourteen months previously. 

7th East Lancs in Hill Road, Clevedon (Bob Turner)

A lovely example of the ways in which the Lancashire lads connected with local girls can be found in an autograph book originally owned by Miss Catherine Horwood (now in the Clevedon Pier & Heritage Trust Community Archive). Private R.G. Burton (7th Battalion, East Lancs) wrote "Wherever I may always be, my thoughts shall always be with thee'. 

Pte Burton's entry in Catherine Horwood's autograph book

After completing training at Tidworth the 56th Brigade were transported to France - as part of the 19th (Western) Division (known as the Butterflies on account of their rather pretty Divisional emblem). The Brigade's War Diary (National Archives - WO/95/2075) records that 'Clevedon's Own Lancashire Lads' were active on the Western Front from the 24th July 1915. The Brigade saw some involvement in a diversionary action during the Battle of Loos in September 1915 but the real baptism of fire came on the 4th July 1916 where the 19th Division were asked to take the strongpoint of La Boisselle. The 34th Division had failed to take the village on the 1st July, and sustained massive losses trying to do so despite the detonation of two huge mines under the German defences. The crater left by the larger mine known as 'Lochnager' is still very evident today and its eastern lip served as a jumping off point for some of the men involved in the 4th July attack. The 19th Division took the ruins of La Boisselle that day - with the 7th King's Own on point. 

Lochnager Crater, La Boisselle

John Stainton suffered a fatal wound a couple of months later. The Somme Battle had developed slowly and by the end of July the Battalions of the 56th Brigade were rotating in and out of the lines near High Wood. Like the majority of First World war battlefield casualties, Stainton was hit by the burst of an artillery shell which left him wounded in the shoulder, face and thigh. Treated in a Casualty Clearing Station he was transferred to a base hospital on the coast before being repatriated to the English General Hospital in Cambridge. John Stainton succumbed to his wounds on the 11th August 1916 and now lies to the north west of St Andrew's Church. A poignant reminder of the lads from Lancashire who spent three months in the town readying themselves for their participation in what was then known as the Great War.

Main Sources: The National Archives, Kings Own Regiment Museum, The imperial War Museum Archives, The British Newspaper Library, 'Clevedon's Own: The Great War 1914-18' by Rob Campbell.