Welcome to my blog......

The purpose of this blog is to remember the fallen heroes of the Great War, whose names are recorded on the memorial plaque situated in St Barnabas Church, New Whittington, Chesterfield.

To mark the centenary of World War 1 I aim to research all of the men on the memorial. I hope to ensure that the brave men who gave their lives for their country 100 years ago are remembered and each man's story told.

I would love to hear from anyone who may have information regarding the men; photos, letters or passed down memories. Any descendents are most welcome to contact me and I will provide copies of the research that I have undertaken.

"They shall not grow old, as we that are left to grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them"

For The Fallen,
Laurence Binyon September 1914.

Sunday, 21 February 2016

THOMAS O'BRIEN

THOMAS O'BRIEN

Rifleman S/9128

The Prince Consorts Own Rifle Brigade

Killed in action - 27th February 1916

Thomas and his two sisters Mary and Catherine O'Brien were the children of Thomas and Mary O'Brien.  Thomas was born circa 1895 at New Whittington.  His two sisters were older than him; Mary was born in 1891, then came Catherine in 1892. 

Mr & Mrs O'Brien....

Thomas snr was born to Irish parents John and Mary O'Brien in Chesterfield on 20th June 1865.  The O'Brien family lived in the Whittington area and Thomas found himself employment with the railways.  He worked his way up the ranks from railway stoker in 1891 to railway engine driver by 1901. 

Mary was born in Ireland sometime around 1865.  She died aged only 34 years old in 1899.  Thomas jnr would have been around 4 years old at the time.

Thomas snr remarried in 1900, his new wife was 14 years his junior, born in 1880 her name was Alice Gertrude Needham.  Alice was 20 years old when she married Thomas snr; she became stepmother to three young children.  That same year Alice gave birth to a son named William. 

On the 1901 census the reformed O'Brien family were living at 16 Bamford Street, New Whittington.  The new addition William was aged 9 months old, sadly he may have died that same year or the year later (death certificate would be needed to confirm which entry is correct).

Thomas' childhood.... 

It appears that Thomas may have had a rather unsettled childhood.  His father and his step mother were the topic of gossip in 1903 when they appeared for three consecutive weeks in the newspaper; the Derbyshire Times. 

The first article on 18th March 1903 tells how Thomas snr complained to the police after Alice had been "very violent and threatened to murder all in the home.  She ill used his daughter Mary who was a child by his first wife.  She threatened also to cut the girls throat with a razor".  Poor little Mary would be around 12 years old at this time, she was called as a witness and told how "her stepmother had frequently ill used her and struck her with a stick, leaving black and blue marks on her body".   In her defence Alice told of the cruelty to her by Thomas snr, her mother Mrs Needham was called and told that Alice would not have married Thomas if he had "not got her into trouble".

The two further article's tell a story of an unhappy marriage, Thomas and Alice both took out a complaint against each other.  Thomas snr told how he arrived home one evening to find two men leaving via the back door.  He was asked "Can you bring evidence to prove how your wife has been carrying on?" to which he replied "Yes my child first told me.  I can bring witnesses.  Its the regular talk of New Whittington". 
The week later Alice asked for a separation order, stating "her husband had turned her out of the house in all sorts of weather and repeatedly struck her".  Thomas snr's reply was "I've been a good husband to you.  There's not been a better husband in New Whittington than me".
The judge agreed to allow a separation order, so long as Thomas snr paid Alice 5 shillings weekly maintenance.

1911....

How long the O'Brien family were at odds is not known, however Thomas snr and Alice were still living together at the time of the 1911 census.  They were residing at 116 Crown Yard, New Whittington.  Their were three children from this marriage; Annie born 1902, Margaret born 1909 and baby John aged only 5 months old.

Thomas jnr was still living with his father and stepmother.  He was aged 16 years old by now and worked as a colliery pit bank labourer.  Thomas' siblings Mary and Catherine were not recorded as living with the O'Brien family.

I am unable to locate Mary on the 1911 census but Catherine was working as a domestic servant at Creswell.  She was employed by Alfred Haywood who was a sweet confectioner. 

Thomas' war....
Entry from war diary, showing T O'Brien D Coy
Thomas enlisted on 18th March 1915 at Southend on Sea, he was aged 20 years and 1 month old.  He joined the 15th service battalion of the Rifle Brigade - the Prince Own Consorts Rifle Brigade.  He was attached to the 11th Battalion Rifle Brigade, Rifleman S/9128, D Coy.

His address at the time was 85 South Street, New Whittington.  His next of kin was noted as Mr Thomas O'Brien (father) of 50 High Street, New Whittington.

Thomas was a young man of 5ft 5 inches height, he had blue eyes and light brown hair and his religion was Roman Catholic. 

Thomas would undertake his basic training before joining the British Expeditionary Force (B.E.F) on 17th September 1915.  The 11th Battalion had already joined the theatre of war, landing in Boulogne on 22nd July 1915.  In those early days there were not enough rifles for the men to train with, the war dairy tells how the men would share the rifles, taking their turn at a practise shot.  On 19th September at 4pm the war diary states "Draft of 30 other ranks arrived from 15th Btn Rifle Brigade". 

The timing of Thomas' entry was at a very crucial time; the Battle of Loos commenced on 25th September 1915.  At the time the 11th Battalion were in reserve at Laventie, they remained there until December when they moved back to the village of Sailly for Christmas.  Little would the men know but on that Christmas Day of 1915 in the front line trenches near to Laventie the B.E.F were living the true meaning of Christmas; the men were shouting over to each other from the trenches and eventually the two sides united in no mans land and showed peace to each other.  The accounts of two men present state that they played a game of football, but a British Sergeant Major became aware of the events and ordered the B.E.F to return to the trenches "We are here to kill the Hun, not make friends with him".

Exceptional duty....

On 31st October 1915 the following men belonging to the 11th Battalion Rifle Brigade were awarded medals for their exceptional conduct -


Captain G H Gilbey - Military Cross

Sergeant M Toole & Rifleman A Holmes -

Distinguished Conduct medal
"for gallantry rescuing comrades of a mine full of gas"


2nd Lieut A L Cope - Military Cross

Rifleman G Judkins - Distinguished Conduct medal

"for gallant offensive action when on patrol"
1916 dawned....



At the beginning of 1916 the 11th Battalion Rifle Brigade were moved on to the Ypres Saliant.   In the early days of February 1916 they were camped at Poperinghe until the night of 13th February when they marched to the train station.  The men had not been marching long when they were bombed by a German aeroplane; luckily the bombs fell short about 200 yards away from the men.  Whilst they began to board the train the station was also being attached by the German pilots.  The journey commenced, at a slow pace they eventually arrived at Asylum from where they marched to Ypres.  Despite the days bombardment only one soldier belonging to the 11th Battalion was injured.

On 22nd February 1916 Thomas and his comrades relived the  2nd Yorks and Lancs Regiment in the trenches.  For the next few days work was carried out on the front trenches "joining up posts and reclaiming trench wiring", however snow fell and the artillery action on both sides was strong. 
On the day of 27th February the battalion was successful to cut the wire, however the Germans soon retaliated and responded using heavy artillery fire at the garrison; the result was "heavy casualties".  Later that day the battalion were relived by the 10th Battalion Rifle Brigade. 


Daily casualty record 11th Battalion Rifle Brigade

Rifleman T O'Brien S/9128 was killed in action on 27th February 1916.  His fellow comrades also fell on that day; Corporal S Lillywhite and Rifleman J Willows.




Thomas was buried at Essex Farm Cemetery in Belgium.  He has a simple headstone with a cross and his name and rank.  His grave reference is I.T.1.




Thomas was awarded the British War Medal, Victory Medal and 15 Star for his service.

Thomas' fiancée....

Register of soldiers effects - entry for Thomas O'Brien


The "register of soldiers effects" is a record of to whom the deceased soldiers money owing was awarded.  It was most often given to the widow of the soldier, or in the case that the soldier was single then the parents or the siblings.  In Thomas' case however, he has nominated his fiancée to be the beneficiary.

He also wrote his soldiers will before he went of to join the B.E.F.  In this will he leaves his possessions to Miss M Foster of 85 South Street, New Whittington (the same address Thomas had given for his home address when he enlisted in 1915). 

Miss Mary Agnes Foster was a local girl, born in New Whittington in December 1892.  She was the daughter of Ralph Foster who was also employed as an engine driver on the railways.  The family moved to the neighbouring village and lived on Traffic Terrace in Barrow Hill.

Poor Mary would only be around 23 years old when she found herself with the heartbreaking news that her beloved fiancée Thomas had been killed whilst serving his King and Country.  Thankfully, Mary did find happiness again and married Fred Whitehead in 1918.  They went on to have a son and a daughter; Fred and Phyliss.  On the 1939 register Mary and her family are living at 142 South Street, New Whittington.  She died a year later in 1940 aged 47 years old.

Mary would be remembered by locals as the lady who ran the sweet shop in New Whittington.  Her obituary also states that she had two sons and one daughter, the second son may have been born in 1938.

Life went on....

Thomas O'Brien snr remained in the area, he can be found on the 1939 register living in the Markham Municipal Hostel on Hipper Street South, in the centre of Chesterfield.  He was recorded as a general labourer now, not a locomotive engine driver. 

Alice Gertrude the second wife of Thomas died in 1915 aged just 36 years old. 
Siblings of Rifleman T O'Brien
Mary O'Brien married Henry C Herbert in 1915.  The couple had at least one son and one daughter; Joan in 1916 and Arthur in 1920.  What became of Mary and her family after this date is unknown. 

Catherine O'Brien did not have an easy life, she was reported in the Derbyshire Times newspaper dated 14th January 1922.  The headline news "Young Womans Secret, New Whittington Charge Of Birth Concealment"


Poor Catherine had been walking out with a local lad named Henry Halford.  According to the newspaper article she had become pregnant and had told Henry the news.  They had planned to get married in January and had been to see a Priest to arrange the wedding.  The Priest had told them that they could not marry until the next month.  As Henry was also unemployed at the time, the wedding had not gone ahead.

Catherine was aged 25 years old and still lived at 50 High Street, New Whittington with her father Thomas and step sister Annie.  Annie stated that she shared a room with Catherine and had guessed about 3 months ago that she was pregnant.  On the day of 21st December 1921 Annie left for work and left Catherine still in bed asleep.  When she returned later that afternoon she found Catherine looking pale, but doing general household chores. 

The inquest heard how Catherine had given birth to a still born baby girl.  She stated that there was no one in the household and so she wrapped the baby in a blanket and then the next day burnt the child's body.  She wrote to Henry to ask for a meeting, which took place on 3rd January 1922 and broke the sad news to him. 

Catherine was disowned by her father "he refused to stand bail for his daughter, saying that he had finished with her".  Catherine was taken in by a married sister (possibly Mary?) to await her trial.

On 18th February 1922 The Derbyshire Courier reported that Catherine had been found guilty of confinement of birth.  She was to bound over to return for her judgement if required to do so.  At the trial Henry stood by his sweetheart and fought her corner, telling the jury how he had wanted to marry her, but as she was Roman Catholic and he was Protestant they needed to obtain a licence from the Pope.  He went on to say that he still wished to marry Catherine.  The judge and jury all felt deepest sympathy for Catherine in her time of difficulty and although she was found guilty it was with "a strong recommendation to mercy".

What became of Catherine after this date is not known, whether she was committed to serve a gaol sentence is not known at this time. Did Catherine and Henry marry? Sadly I have not found any evidence to say there was a happy ending to this tragic tale for Catherine. 

Annie O'Brien married George Weston in 1925.  George was a railway engine driver just like her father.  In 1939 the family were living at 38 St Johns Road, Staveley.  Annie died in 1989 aged 86 years old. 

Margaret O'Brien  may have married Harry Lawson in 1928 at Easington, Durham however this would need further clarification.  

Sarah O'Brien married Charles Watson at St Patricks Roman Catholic Church in New Whittington.  She was given away by her brother in law Mr George Weston and she wore a white satin beaute dress, with veil and shoes to match.  She carried a bouquet of pink carnations.  The younger bridesmaids were nieces of Sarah; Miss D Weston and Miss M Lawson wore pink ankle length crepe dresses and carried posies of pink carnations.  The marriage was announced in the Derbyshire Times 1st October 1937, page 27. 

Winifred Fowkes O'Brien  was born on 2nd April 1917.  I have not purchased a birth certificate for Winifred to clarify who her mother was.  Winifred would have never known her half brother Thomas, who had been killed in the Great War, but it is likely that she would have been raised knowing his heroic story and possibly seeing his photograph on the mantelpiece each day. 
Winifred married Kenneth Taylor in 1938.  On the 1939 Register Winifred and Kenneth were living in the O'Brien family home at 50 High Street, New Whittington.  Kenneth was employed as an iron foundry worker. 
Winifred died in 1989 aged 72 years old.
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If you may be connected to this family or have any further information on Thomas O'Brien or his family please do either leave comments via the pen icon below or drop me an email.
I hope that I have not given details of living persons, if so please advise and I will remove immediately.

Please note all information has been taken from online indexes and sources.  Due to the sheer numbers of people to be researched I am unable to purchase vital event certificates to confirm my research.


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Ref and further reading  -

Census
Parish registers

Medal rolls

Soldiers who died in the Great war

Register of soldiers effects

Newspaper articles - Derbyshire Times, Derby Courier
Derbyshire Times -  18th March 1903 page 5, 25th March 1903 page 5 and 28th March 1903 page 7.
Obituary for Thomas O'Brien - Derbyshire Courier 11th March 1916 page and 14th March 1903 page 1.

Picture of Rifle Brigade insignia badge via Wikipadia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rifle_Brigade_(Prince_Consort%27s_Own)

11th Battalion Rifle Brigade War Diary - piece 2116, 59th Brigade, 20th light Division July 1915 - May 1919.


The Christmas Truce of 1915

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/history/world-war-one/12058701/The-forgotten-Christmas-truce-the-British-tried-to-suppress.html



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