War and families

As with many people my family has been sadly touched by war with consequences that have stretched down through the generations. My research journey into the First World War began because of my Great Grandfather, Harry Blackman (Figure 1). I had always been fascinated by family tales of him being lost, killed in action, during the First World War, and because of this my Grandmother, May Roberts, nee Blackman (Figure 7) had only ever met him once, whilst her sister, Alice, never did meet her father. My father had always been very vague about the details and even as a child I had always felt it must have been a sensitive subject for my Grandmother so I was always hesitant about bringing up the topic – hence the snippets of information.

Figure 1: Harry Blackman, front row far right. Date unknown, presumably taken prior to enlisting. The suits worn by all the men appear to have the same seamed cuffs and buttons and they all have the same buttonholed small flower with two leaves. Harry, out of the four wearing straw boaters, wears his at a jaunty angle and displays an impressive pocket watch in his waistcoat.

Years later I endeavoured to find out what I could about Private Harry Blackman and my father’s side of the family. In 2009 I found his name commemorated on the Menin Gate (Figure 2) as he had been killed in action on the 31st July 1917 at the Third Battle of Ypres, also known as Passendale. As so many before us, my father and I went on a pilgrimage to Ypres to see Harry’s name carved, like so many other missing soldiers from the battles around this Belgium town, on this imposing memorial. It is not until you stand at the foot of such memorials that you begin to comprehend the scale of the loss of life. Luckily it seemed for our family, Harry’s name is within reach so we can touch his name carved in the stone, which strangely seemed to bring us closer to the man we had never known (Figure 3). Sadly this experience was replicated throughout many families across the globe and continues to this day.

Figure 2: The Menin Gate, November 2009. Author’s own photograph. This memorial, designed by Sire Reginald Blomfield, commemorates about 55,000 names from the battles of Ypres with no known graves. https://www.cwgc.org/visit-us/find-cemeteries-memorials/cemetery-details/91800/YPRES%20(MENIN%20GATE)%20MEMORIAL/
Figure 3: Panel 53 with Harry Blackman’s name within reach.

Harry Blackman was born 22nd June 1889 in Ancoats, Manchester, to parents Thomas and Alice Blackman. Thomas was a packing case maker and journeyman and was born in Bermondsey, London in 1854. On the 1881 census he as a bassinette maker and journeyman carpenter. As a journeyman he presumably travelled up from London to obtain work, finally settling in Manchester, where Harry followed him into the packing case making ‘profession’ when he was old enough. On the 4th May 1913 Harry married my Great Grandmother, Dorothy May Sanders (Figure 4). They both resided in Middleton, Lancashire and were 23 and 18, respectively. A mere five months later on the 27th October 1913 my grandmother, May Blackman, was born! Harry joined the 19th Manchester Regiment in 1915, (Figure 5) most probably with ‘pals’ from the local area and returned home only once before leaving for the Front, which is when Alice, my Great Aunt was conceived. Alice was born on 17th June 1917 and one hopes that Harry heard about his second daughter’s birth before his death. Private Harry Blackman, no. 48680, was killed in action on the 31st July 1917 at Pilkem Ridge on the outskirts of Ypres. His body was never found, although he had apparently been shot by a sniper. The truly awful reality of the battle meant that his body may have been blown up in the shelling, or just as horrific, run over by a tank. The notification of his death (Figure 6) reached the records office in Preston on the 25th August 1917, thus the family, like thousands of others, would not have been aware of his fate for almost a month. My Great Grandmother never remarried and died in 1956, aged 62.

Figure 4: Dorothy Sanders, my Great Grandmother, again date unknown. However, judging by the large bow tied in the back of her hair, this picture would have been taken before she was married, as was the fashion of this time. She wears a high necked lace blouse with a locket necklace and a tulip which is resting on a jewelled brooch.
Figure 5: Harry Blackman, first on the left, pictured with two of his fellow soldiers, possibly from the original photograph (Figure 1). He seems relatively unscathed whilst his friends hold walking sticks and the soldier on the far right has a bandaged head and right eye.
Figure 6: Official notification of Harry’s fate, killed in action 31st July, 1917.

My Grandmother, May, (Figure 7) met my Grandfather, Walter, (Figure 8) when Walter was a bricklayer. As their courtship deepened he reconsidered his profession. During this period if you joined the police force one of the perks of the job was that it came with a house. This was a consideration for my grandfather when he proposed to my Grandmother. As a result of this decision, when war was declared in 1939 my Grandfather would not be called up as being a policeman he held an essential position – something I am sure my Grandmother was relived about because of her own father’s fate. My father was born in early 1939 and had 3 younger siblings.

Figure 7: May Blackman wearing an abstract patterned blouse with bow at the left hand side of the neckline. Date unknown.
Figure 8: Walter Roberts, my Grandfather. Date unknown.

In 1939 my Great Aunt Alice is registered as being a tripe dresser in Salford and living with her mother. At some point between 1939 and 1944 she left Manchester and travelled down to Cornwall to work as part of the national women’s Land Army. There she met and married the son of the farmer she worked for, according to family legend, in July 1944. Her husband William A. C. Stephens was born on 11 January 1920, two 1/2 years younger than Alice and in 1939 was registered as a farm labourer. In 1939 he lived in Helston, Cornwall, with his father, William J Stephens, mother, Annie J Stephens, brother Terrance B Stephens (16), and sister Mabel A Stephens (18). On the 1939 register the Stephens family resided at number 20 Nettles Hill, a tiny terraced cottage. In later life my grandmother often rode down to Cornwall on her motorbike to visit her sister but I never met my Great Aunt Alice. The photograph shows Alice and William (Figure 9) on their wedding day. She wears a tailored pin stripe suit and blouse, a light coloured hat and holds a pair of gloves in her left hand. Alice is also wearing highly polished laced shoes. William’s suit seems not to fit properly or is slightly crumpled with what appears to be something heavy in both pockets.

Figure 9: Alice and William Stephens pictured on their wedding day July 1944.

One can see the striking family resemblance between the two sisters. I have often wondered if their choice of husband, besides the obvious attraction, was perhaps guided by a subliminal need for security as neither of their husbands were called up to serve in the Second World War because of their professions. Their father had perhaps looked for the adventure associated with romantic notions of being a soldier encapsulated in Lord Kitchener’s earnest ‘Your Country Needs You’ campaign of the First World War. It does not seem foolish to suggest that Alice too, inherited her father’s sense of adventure and desire to escape the industrial monotony of factory work when swapping her tripe dressing job for the fields of Cornwall.

For further information on Land Girls see Amy de la Haye’s book Cinderella’s of the Soil https://www.selvedge.org/blogs/selvedge/the-cinderellas-of-soil or for specific details about the Land Army in Cornwall see https://museumofcornishlife.co.uk/2021/07/27/ww2-a-cornish-story-land-girls/

1 thought on “War and families”

  1. This is a lovely, considered piece, personal to me, but probably a similar story to so many families.
    Having seen similar records of former students, signing up at the outbreak of war, from the school where I work – many lied about their age and joined up not much older than 16, it is comparatively lucky that Harry managed to have a family, and for that we are thankful.


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