Edward Williams, 1890-1918

This blog post was written by Jean Swift, about her grandfather, and was originally published in Past Forward – Wigan’s local history magazine.

My grandfather, Edward Williams, was born in St Helens in December 1890. He was the third child of Edward and Elizabeth Williams. His two older sisters were Margaret and Annie and after Edward was born there were four more children, Moses, Edith, Elizabeth and Catherine (Kitty).

Some time between 1905 and 1911, Edward senior went to work at Golborne Colliery and the family moved to Edge Green Street, Stubshaw Cross. When my grandfather left school he joined his father working at Golborne Pit, a job he hated.

In 1912, Edward married a neighbour, Mary Coombes. They lived with Mary’s widowed father in Dawber Street, Stubshaw Cross and that was where their first child, Ann was born on 17 December 1912. Soon after this they were offered a house of their own to rent, 68, Golborne Road. This  house was next door to an outdoor license. The owners of this shop, the Hodkinson family, owned the house my grandparents lived in, as well as quite a lot of property in Stubshaw Cross.

Edward was still very unhappy working at the pit. His ambition was to become self-employed. One day he told his new neighbours about his ideas and they offered to lend him the money to buy a bicycle, a bucket and a ladder. He was able to leave the pit and on his newly acquired bicycle he rode round the area calling at the newly built larger houses offering to do any odd jobs, window cleaning, gardening, cleaning the drains. He gradually built up a good business and Mary was vey proud of the fact that they were one of the few couples in Stubshaw Cross who could afford to buy a daily paper. When Edward had finished reading the paper he went out and gave it to a group of men who every evening gathered under the gas lamp on Golborne Road and one of them who could read would keep the rest up to date with what was happening in the rest of the world.

When war was declared Edward’s younger brother, Moses, was one of the first to volunteer. He joined the Lancashire Fusiliers as 9745, Private Moses Williams. Years later Moses admitted to me that like so many young men at the time, he saw it as a way out of working down the pit, which he too hated. Edward, however, did not want to leave his new job and his young family. Mary was pregnant with their second child and on 28 January 1915, Edward and Mary’s second daughter, Edith, was born.

By 1916, by which time thousands of our young soldiers had been killed and fewer were volunteering, it was decided to introduce conscription; Edward was called up to serve in the Royal Field Artillery as 164802, Gunner Edward Williams. He did has training on Salisbury Plain and was able to go home on leave a few times. His oldest daughter, Ann, remembered that on one occasion, when he was on his way home for a short leave, he called in at St Luke’s school and asked her teacher if he could take her home for the rest of the day. Naturally permission was given. He was also given compassionate leave to see his youngest daughter, Olive, when she was born on 2 April 1917. On his last leave, when he knew that he was going back to France, he left home with a very heavy heart. When he arrived at the bus stop at the Ram’s Head he realised that he’d left his rifle behind. At that time soldiers going home on leave had to take all their equipment with them. He was forced to turn back for it and Mary saw this as a very bad omen.

Edward fought in France and Belgium with 267 Company Royal Field Artillery. On one very memorable occasion he was able to meet with his brother, Moses, in Ypres when both were allowed rest from the battlefield.

On 11 November 1918, great was the rejoicing in Stubshaw Cross when the Armistice was declared. Mary remembered joining in with the rest of her neighbours dancing round the gas lamps on Golborne Road that night. It was to be more than a week later when the fateful telegram arrived telling Mary that Edward had died of wounds on 9 November. One of the ladies from the outdoor license saw the telegram boy about to go down the path of number 68, guessed what it was about and was able to intercept him and take the telegram to Mary herself.

I can’t begin to imagine how my grandmother must have felt. A widow at 24 with three little girls to support, Ann aged five, Edith, three and Olive, one.

Later through letters from two of his officers, both written on 15 November 1918, Mary found out that Edward had been wounded on 8 November, almost the last time 267 Company had come under fire. Although his companions did what they could for him Edward died the next day in a field hospital. They were near the village of Wannehain on the France-Belgium border and Edward as buried in the churchyard there.

In early 1919, relatives of those who had died were informed by the War Office that they could request a photograph of their loved one’s grave. Mary filled in the necessary form and in due course the photograph arrived of a simple wooden cross in Wannehain Churchyard. When the government set up the Imperial War Graves Commission, it was decided to make large cemeteries as near to the battlefields as possible and to bring to them the bodies of those soldiers who lay in scattered graves. Before a body could be moved the consent of the relatives had to be given. Mary gave her consent and received a letter telling her that Edward’s body had been reburied in Arras Road British Cemetery, Roclincourt.

Mary requested to have a personal inscription on Edward’s gravestone, as did many other relatives. She then received a form from the Imperial War Graves Commission asking her, ‘to be so good as to forward to the Finance Department the sum of 11 shillings and 8 pence in payment for the following personal  inscription: Gone but not forgotten, from dear wife and children’.

When my grandmother died in 1980, we found a shoe-box at the bottom of her wardrobe. In this she had kept all the correspondence relating to Edward’s death, photographs and postcards, many of them beautifully embroidered, which Edward had sent to her and his children.

Sadly, Mary was never able to visit Edward’s grave but in October 1984, I accompanied my mother Edith and her two sisters Ann and Olive to Arras and we were able to lay our own poppy wreaths on Edward’s grave. It was a very emotional moment.

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