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Category: Local History

  1. Ada Woodley - First World War Nurse

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    On 10 January 1918, a nurse named Ada Woodley died at Littlebury in Essex. She's not a famous woman in history, but when me and my fiancé stumbled on her grave two years ago while visiting this beautiful old village, I decided to research her. It's rare to find a war memorial grave in a local cemetery, and I'd certainly never seen one dedicated to a woman before. But researching Ada's story reminded me that women who worked hard for their country during the war weren't really treated with the same amount of respect as their male counterparts.

    Home in Littlebury

    Ada was born around 1886 at Littlebury. Woodley was her mother's maiden name, and as such Ada appears to have been illegitimate. She can be found on the 1891 census living with her mother Sarah, her maternal grandfather George Woodley, and her step-father Daniel Perrin, as well as a 2 month old half sister named Elizabeth. Ada had kept the Woodley name, but obviously I don't know if that was her mother's choice, or if Daniel didn't want her to take his name.

    By the 1901 census Ada was out making her own way in the world as a servant for the Pryke family in Saffron Walden. Her employer, Charles Edwin Pryke, is noted as "Superintendent of Police", so Ada may have been working in quite a nice house. Saffron Walden isn't too far away from Littlebury, so she may have been able to return and visit her mother quite frequently. Sarah and Daniel had increased their family, Elizabeth had been joined by Annie, Mabel, Harry and Frederick, and were still living with George Woodley.

    Nurse WoodleyAda Woodley © IWM (WWC H19-4)

    In 1911 we first see Ada as a nurse. The census for this year shows her in Dearnley near Rochdale, where she was employed by the workhouse as a hospital nurse. Evidently at some point in those ten years Ada decided that being a servant wasn't the career for her, and made changes in her life that enabled her to train as a nurse and find employment further away from home. The workhouse at Dearnley still stands, with a grand imposing red-brick façade and clock tower. The infirmary, where Ada would have worked, was built in 1902 and appears to be tucked away in the north corner, possibly where it could be better isolated during serious epidemics.

    Three years later, war broke out. As it became clear that it wouldn't be "all over by Christmas", more people were expected to show their commitment to war work. In the case of women such as Ada, there was a need for them to work in the military hospitals that had sprung up in both Britain and across Europe. On 21 June 1915 Ada Woodley joined the Territorial Force Nursing Service. Maybe she hoped to be sent abroad, some nurses were sent to work on hospital ships in the Mediterranean, others were dispatched to France and Belgium to serve in casualty clearing stations and hospitals near the coast. But many more were required to stay in Britain, and look after the men who were invalided "back to Blighty". In Ada's case she was sent to the 2nd Western General Hospital in Manchester.

    Ada appears to have settled in well at the hospital. The matron in charge of her clearly tried to help fight her corner when she became ill, something she may not have done for a nurse she rated less highly. The TFNS also wrote to her mother after her death stating that "The council have placed on record the cheerful and willing service she rendered to her country, which was so appreciated at the 2nd Western General Hospital".


    The first incidence of serious illness appears in Ada's nursing records in July 1917, when she was granted two months sick leave. At a time when the country was under great strain from the war effort, and injured men were being sent back from the front lines with increasing frequency, 2 months of leave suggests quite a serious illness. She travelled back home to her mother at Littlebury, and sought treatment there. In September 1917 a further two months sick leave was granted, but this is where war time bureaucracy really starts to show it's less helpful side, something that Ada's mother would have to deal with after her death.

    A series of letters kept in Ada's file detail the sudden decline in her health. A letter from 14 September, sent to Ada, informs her that she is only eligible to receive three months sick pay as her illness is not caused "in and by" the service. Therefore, despite her sick leave totalling four months up to October, she will only receive three months pay. The letter also informs her that once her four months is close to expiring she'll be required to attend another medical board meeting, presumably to show them that she has recovered.

    This letter wasn't what Ada was expecting. There's a gap of a month in the records, but a letter written by Ada herself dated 9 November 1917 appears in her file. In it she defends herself against what's clearly a basic box-ticking exercise, highlighting in her letter that she can't attend the medical board as directed, as she's confined to her bed. She also states that "I refuse to accept this statement" about her work not contributing to her illness. She highlights that when she first joined the TFNS she had a certificate confirming her good health, and in the two years she's worked at Manchester she hasn't had a single day off sick. She also points out that since returning home she's been under medical supervision, which has included being seen by a specialist. The conclusion she's received from her doctors is that even if her illness hasn't been caused by the hospital, then the strain and hard work has helped it develop.

    Throughout the record I couldn't see anything indicating what was wrong with her, only that it was serious. At one point a note states that she's being treated by radium, which was used for a number of illnesses at the time. Given her job involved helping injured men, it may be that helping lift those heavier than herself led to a hernia or internal haemorrhage, something that was difficult to treat properly, and which could lead to a serious infection.

    Sadly Ada's condition went downhill quite quickly, and it became obvious that she wasn't going to get better any time soon. One letter from her former Matron-in-Chief encourages the War Office to deal with her discharge from the service as quickly as possible as she was seriously ill. The Matron had already tried to help, asking for a medical board to be convened at Ada's home as she was too ill to travel to the necessary meeting. Given that the Matron was still up in Manchester, it's quite likely that she and Ada were keeping up correspondence, checking on how her former colleague was doing and becoming increasingly concerned when she heard about how Ada was being treated.

    Ada was finally invalided out of the TFNS on 28 November 1917. This at least meant that she no longer had to worry about being summoned before a medical board to prove she was unfit for work, and probably came as a relief to her and her mother. A gratuity was then paid of just over £24, the letter confirming receipt of the money was written by the Reverend Ernest Edgeley, the vicar of Littlebury. The letter was dated 7 January 1918, Ada died three days later on 10 January. Given that we know from other letters that we was literate, with a lovely clear handwriting, she was clearly too sick to manage this last task herself.

    Fighting the War OfficeAda Woodley - Littlebury churchyard

    Reverend Edgeley proved to be a good friend to Ada's mother Sarah. The rest of the file contains letters written by the Reverend on Sarah's behalf, it's quite possible that unlike her daughter, her literacy was limited. Sarah had to pay for her daughter's funeral out of the money Ada had left in Sarah's possession. Ada had no will, and the War Office held on to the money for such costs as part of her Estate. Sarah had to apply to the War Office for the funeral expenses to be reimbursed, but the reply from the Office, dated June 1918, refused. "As the deceased was of illegitimate birth Mrs Perrin has no legal claim to the amount due to deceased's estate from Army Funds".

    This must have been the last kick in the teeth for Ada's mother. The letter goes on to inform her that if she writes in, stating that if she had supported Ada in her childhood, then they would reconsider her application. Reverend Edgeley became involved again at this point, you can almost hear the anger in his letter; "I can certify from my own knowledge as vicar of the Parish extending over nearly 30 years, that Mrs Perrin supported the deceased during her infancy, childhood, provided her with a home in instances of holiday and finally nursed her through her last illness".  Soldiers were encouraged to make their wills before they left for the front line, evidently such legal niceties weren't encouraged for those serving in the services at home, including nurses. Or perhaps Ada's end came too suddenly for it to be a consideration.

    Ada's mother chose the quote she wanted on her daughter's headstone, it simply reads "She hath done what she could".

    The picture included is from the Imperial War Museum collection (© IWM (WWC H19-4)), it was submitted to the war museum in 1918 following two letters written by Reverend Edgerley. The grave photo was taken by me. 

  2. Charles Langhorn - "Treachery and infidelity to his master"

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    In the late 1700's, Charles Langhorn appears to have had a decent enough life for a village labourer. He was married with two young children, living in or near the village of Ashwell in Hertfordshire, and apparently on good terms with his neighbours and well-liked by the community at large. Like many men in rural areas he worked for a prominent local family, in this case he was employed as a shepherd by Elias Fordham.

    At some point in late 1800 or early 1801, Charles' brother returned from "the sea" (he may have been a sailor or could have been transported for a few years). This brother encouraged Charles to take two of Elias' sheep and sell them to a man named "Bull", a local farmer. By claiming that the sheep were his, Charles would keep the fee, and presumably split it with his brother. Unfortunately for him, Charles was caught and arrested. His case was heard at Hertford by a judge named "John Heath". Rather than argue the case, Charles admitted his crime, and as a result Heath sentenced him to death.

    I stumbled on this sad little case while doing some research on Ashwell at The National Archives. Langhorn was from a lower class than his employer and the judge, but he wasn't completely without friends, and the people of Ashwell lodged an appeal on his behalf. Their surviving petitions, along with a letter from Heath, form the record HO 47/25/43, which is digitised and available to view on FindMyPast.Ashwell church

    One of these petitions is a letter from the Reverend Townsend Andrews (who had been the vicar of Ashwell for thirty years at the time of this appeal and so clearly knew the family), to his nephew George Baillie, the MP for Berwickshire. The letter dates from 9th March 1801, and states that Charles Langhorn's case has affected the "whole Parish of Ashwell", as Langhorn was "naturally honest, virtuous, sober, industrious and most affectionately attached to his wife and children". Clearly there isn't much time, as Langhorn is due to be executed "on Thursday next". Andrews asks his nephew to speak to "Mr Pitt", and try to get the sentence commuted to transportation.

    A second petition was written by Andrews and another man named Samuel Lewin, laying out fully Langhorn's case. They say that he was coerced in to his crime by his brother, who had returned from sea but has since run away. Langhorn's good nature is emphasised frequently; this is his first offence, and he confessed "freely". They also state that he had a chance to escape and didn't take it, while two Constables were escorting him across the fields, they were unable to cross a ditch. Langhorn had already managed to jump over, and instead of running away he came back and helped them across. Their letter ends with an appeal for any kind of clemency; he could be pardoned, he would willingly volunteer to serve in the armed forces, or he could be transported.

    Finally a third petition states the same as the second, only this time signed by a series of men from the local community. Right at the top is the man in charge of Langhorn's prison, who states that he has "behaved very soberly and orderly since he has been in my custody". This is followed by the parish overseers; William Barber and John Bull (possibly the same Bull that Langhorn tried to sell the sheep to), as well as two churchwardens, and a selection of Ashwell inhabitants including the chief constable, and a man called Edward Bailey whose name is followed by "the constable who took the prisoner to gaol". Lastly Elias Fordham, the victim of the theft, has also stated that he wishes the prisoner's life may be spared.

    The judge though saw things a little differently. His own letter, apparently addressed to the Duke of Portland who was Home Secretary at the time, gives his side of the case. While Heath acknowledges that Langhorn confessed the crime, to him this shouldn't lead to any leniency in his case. His letter states that "it appeared to me that the Prisoner whose crime was aggravated by treachery and infidelity to his Master, and who was not tempted by the [???] necessity of a starving family to perpetrate the offence, was of all the prisoners the most proper object of exemplary punishment". Perhaps if Langhorn's children had been starving, it could have been considered as an acceptable reason for the theft. Heath's letter almost sounds as if his "treachery and infidelity to his Master" is the real crime here, despite Fordham's apparent desire to not see his former servant executed.

    Heath further notes that sheep and cattle stealing is "rife" in the area, there are another five men also due for execution for the same crime. In this case he wants Langhorn to be used an example to the people of Hertfordshire; even if it is your first offence, even if you are otherwise a good person - you will be executed for it. He further argues that he can "see no reason to change my opinion. In case of transportation for life he would be equally lost to his family and his country as in the case of his being executed, and the example is not the same".

    The actual date of Langhorn's execution is not known. The front of these appeal papers is marked as "unfavourable", and the Capital Punishment website suggests that he was indeed executed, although again the date isn't known.

    A quick search of the 1841 census shows several Langhorns still residing in Ashwell, and even more in the wider Hertfordshire area. Although Charles' wife and "young" children aren't named in any of the petitions, it wouldn't be hard to believe that if he was indeed executed, then the community that had appealed on his behalf rallied around to support the bereaved family. The 1841 census shows one John Langhorn of Ashwell, born in 1796, and who would have been five at the time of Charles' execution. It's tempting to wonder if he was Charles' son, still living in the community forty years later.

  3. Burradon Mining Disaster

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    On the afternoon of 2nd March 1860, the village of Burradon in Northumberland was shaken by an explosion underground. As residents ran towards the nearby colliery, they would all have been aware that something terrible had happened.

    In the 1800s safety in such mines was terrible. The coal miners were men from poor families, the mine was their only chance of a wage, coal was the only economy in the area. Small agricultural communities were transformed on the sinking of a mine, they were paid more than working in the fields, but still not much. This meant that the men wouldn't complain about conditions too loudly, in case they were told to leave the mine and never come back, which would push them and their families in to poverty.

    burradonThis was slowly being balanced off by the development of Unions. But for the men of Burradon, this was still a long way away. Instead they were supported in their efforts by a local newspaper, The Daily Chronicle. In particular they were keen to start a fund that would help the widows and orphans of men who died down the mine. Before the disaster the men were trying to come to an agreement with the coal company, each man would pay 2d a week in to the fund, they wanted the company to contribute a further 1d per man each week. However the coal company was reluctant to take part.

    For several weeks before the disaster, the miners had been complaining about the build-up of firedamp. This gas, found in coal mines, is primarily made up of methane and highly flammable. Once ignited it can cause massive explosions, and is followed by the presence of afterdamp, composed mostly of carbon monoxide. Those miners that survived such explosions often died shortly after, suffocatedby the carbon monoxide. This would prove to be the case at Burradon.

    A small explosion had taken place around 2:30 in the afternoon. Those that had realised what had happened tried to flee, with one of the overseers trying to stop them leaving, assuring them that it was over and the mine was safe enough to continue working. The second explosion happened around twenty minutes later, and knocked them all flying. Several groups of men managed to escape, bleeding from minor wounds or suffering concussion and the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning.

    Seventy six men never made it out alive. It took several days for all the bodies to be brought back to the surface. They found one group of men had tried to escape, but had been blocked by debris, their bodies were found huddled together. One body found close to the source of the explosion could only be identified by a mark on his cap.

    It's probably the aftermath of the disaster that put Burradon on the map, rather than the disaster itself. With seventy six men dead, many wives and mothers suddenly found themselves with no income to support their families. The colliery owner paid for the funeral, but his contribution towards a relief fund was considered to be nowhere near enough to support so many people. Instead a public outpouring, led by the newspapers in Newcastle, helped the bereaved families cover their living expenses without having to resort to the dreaded workhouses.

    The inquest that followed also received scathing comments from the newspapers. The owners of the colliery lied in court about the procedures in place to help ventilate gas, and in the end the jury never drew a proper conclusion.

    I grew up with the occasional mention of the Burradon Mining Disaster, because my grandad Avery was a coal miner from Burradon. For him, his brothers and his Dad, they would have gone down the mine every day knowing that disaster had struck there once before. Sadly my grandad died when burradon2I was eighteen, and I never got round to asking him if any of his family had been living in Burradon at the time. One of the deceased was a Francis Smith, and a Thomas Smith is listed as one of the survivors, but Smith is a very common surname and I can't prove if they were related to my grandfather's family at all.

    In 2011 a memorial was created in Burradon-Camperdown to commemorate the disaster. Today marks 155 years since it happened. There's also a further memorial (shown on the right) dedicated to all the men and boys who died during the years the mine was in operation.

    If you're interested in reading more about the disaster, most of what I've learned has come from the fantastically detailed account written by Alan Fryer, you can find the shorter version here and the longer version here. There's also a list of the deceased and their families available on the Burradon-Camperdown community website