In March 2015, Gold Hill Museum was awarded a £6,700 lottery grant to research the WW1 dead listed on 23 Shaftesbury area war memorials. Alfred heard how the project has evolved to study the stories of returning survivors.
Gold Hill Museum’s Chris Stupples is rightly proud of his detailed investigation into the Shaftesbury area residents who served their country during the Great War. “It’s beginning to build up a rounded picture of what happened in the First World War,” Chris said.
It’s two years since the Shaftesbury Remembers team of Chris, Ann Symons and Claire Ryley presented the findings from their two-year research project to provide an online snapshot of the lives of the soldiers, the people they left behind and of the town of Shaftesbury during WW1. Chris researched for between five and seven hours each day for two years to present details of 329 men named on the memorials.
Over the last two years, Chris has focused on the Shaftesbury area men who came home. “We have now added another 200 names. The website includes 550 names in total, which covers those who passed away and a lot who came back,” he said.
The area of research covers Shaftesbury and the surrounding villages. “We included all the war memorials down as far as Iwerne Minster. We’ve been out as far as Ebbesbourne Wake. We go as far as East and West Orchard and St Margaret’s, up to East Knoyle because they are considered to be part of the Shaftesbury enclave. They come shopping to Shaftesbury, in other words,” explained Chris.
His toughest challenge was to trace locally born men who moved away from Shaftesbury before they were called up and those soldiers who returned to new locations after the conflict. “They were born here. They lived their childhood here. They went to school here. The war memorials are correct, but those that were missed had moved away. I’m trying to bring them back into the fold,” said Chris.
“They have to state on their enlistment papers where they were born. It’s a good starter to find them,” he said. But even so, some of the details are sketchy. “That’s because of the ‘burnt records’, as they are called – service records from the First World War being burned in the Second World War by air raids. There is relatively little information which we can research.”
Chris says the medal records are one of the few resources that are almost complete. “You’ve got to know what regiment the guy was in, what his number was and what name he was known by in the army. Once you get that you can begin to build up a picture. You can make assumptions.”
Chris says that could provide enough information to produce a ‘potted history’ and he has provided a snapshot of each person’s life on the museum’s project website. “What his name was, when he was born, who his parents were, where he lived in his childhood, what he did in his service period and what happened to him.
But many Shastonians moved. Chris says that around half of the members of a local family named Brickell went to Abertillery in the Welsh Valleys, to become coal miners. He has uncovered a Shaftesbury area-born Brickell who signed up to fight from his new town of residence, Tredegar in South Wales. “He had gunshot wounds. He was gassed three times, and he lived until he was 85. I don’t think that’s bad,” said Chris.
Chris has also had to weed out inaccurate and misleading records. He realised that some men listed as being from Ashmore were not from our local Dorset village but were born across the Irish Sea. “It was Ashmore in Ireland. I’ve had Morecambe put down by the researchers as Motcombe. With the burnt records, you’re having to read what is very poor writing on burned paper. These are written records. They’re all online. But you have to interpret them and look at them. After a while, you can say, ‘Aah I can see where he’s made the mistake’.”
Some entries that Chris had thought were local turned out to be from elsewhere, albeit in Dorset. “It is not James’ parish. It’s James in Poole,” he sighed. Each of those blind alleys eats into Chris’ research time. “It takes about two to three hours for each record to be teased out and put right. If I spend an hour finding one which is not related to us, but it looks as though it is in the initial stages, it’s an hour wasted,” said Chris. And there have been many of those. “I have a pile of rejections at home which are as thick as my hand. It’s incredible.”
Chris has relied on some anecdotal evidence and family records from locals to start some of his lines of enquiry. “One of my very good friends, who was a farmer, knew of people in his area around Guy’s Marsh. He gave me a list of names and a scrappy piece of paper. I’ve looked at the six people and I’ve managed to put those on,” he said.
There’s also been feedback after the Gold Hill Museum project was featured in specialist publications. “Because we’ve had it put in the national family history magazines, we’re getting a lot of hits from people who are just interested in researching, which is good,” said Chris.
After researching hundreds of life stories, Chris says the fate of one family has moved him greatly. “There is only one family who can bring tears to your eyes and that’s the Bennetts. They were based in Tollard Royal and Farnham. They had seven children – two girls and five boys. The five boys all went into the army. Only one came back,” said Chris.
“One of the eye-openers was a letter that I found concerning one of the chaps who was killed. His wife had written to the commanding officer of his unit to say she hadn’t heard from him. ‘Was he all right?’ That letter was written a fortnight after he’d been killed. The communication was pretty bad. She said in the final part of her letter that, ‘It’s the not knowing that’s the most worrying bit’. I read this out in the church in St James’s when we had the commemorative service. I must admit, I had great difficulty reading it without tears in my eyes.”
Chris has since heard from a member of the Bennett family. “The great-granddaughter of the one who survived, Frederick, lives in Canada. She got in touch with me having seen it online. Now he is on the list because he’s one that came back. So of the 200 I’ve put on, Frederick is one of those. I’m very pleased to do that.”
And Chris is pleased that his careful research and checking has ironed out mistakes and discrepancies. “Only two people, to my knowledge, have disputed the information we’ve put in. We’ve agreed to differ on a couple of occasions, but at the same time, I think I’ve proved to be right and I’m pleased about that,” said Chris.
This project has occupied Chris over the last four years. He started the research because he wanted to better understand the area that he had moved to. “It’s my life’s work now, to a certain extent, apart from my work at the Abbey,” said Chris, who is captivated by his research.
“I would not call it fun, but it is engrossing. I find out people’s lives. I’m living in their area. I can go and see the farms where they worked or the shops that they worked at. I can say, ‘I knew someone that was there. I knew someone who lived in that house’. It is gratifying to be able to walk around Shaftesbury and say, ‘I know what happened there’. I wanted to get to know Shaftesbury,” added Chris.
Even though the centenary of the Great War has now passed, Chris doesn’t think that the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice will be forgotten. “Let’s face it, every Armistice Day comes around. The First World War and even the current wars and conflicts are still being remembered. And people will still stand around the war memorial. People will look at those names and wonder. I’m hoping that what I’ve done, and what the museum has done, will answer their questions. That’s all I want to do, to leave a legacy. Even if the war memorials fade and become unreadable, like the one at Alvediston, at least there’s a record.”
Chris says his project is far from complete. He estimates that there are additional records to uncover and research. “I’m looking probably for another 300 names if I can find them,” he said. “If anybody has got any information – grandparents or great grandparents who served that they know, please let us know through the Gold Hill Museum.”
If members of your family came from the Shaftesbury area, served in the Great War and you can’t find their listing on goldhillmuseum.org.uk/great-war-project, you can get in touch with Chris at firstname.lastname@example.org.