Tucked away in the grounds of St Peters C of E church at Kirby Bellars in Leicestershire stands a headstone which is a memorial to the tragic passing of three young men all from the same family some 85 years ago; each was in his youthful twenties and all three had apparently died within a matter of weeks of one another: The now-fading inscription poignantly records the sad testimony of what must have been an awful period in the life of their family:
IN LOVING MEMORY OF
THREE DEAR SONS OF
CHARLES AND ELIZABETH LITTLEWOOD
OF THIS PARISH.
DIED AUGUST 9, 1927,
AGED 29 YEARS.
DEARLY LOVED HUSBAND OF
BEATRICE MAY LITTLEWOOD,
DIED OCTOBER 28, 1927
AGED 26 YEARS.
DIED OCTOBER 28, 1927
AGED 21 YEARS.
‘IN THE MIDST OF LIFE WE ARE IN DEATH’
‘God knows the way he holds the key
He guides us with unerring hand.
Sometime with tireless eyes we’ll see:
Yes, there, up there, we’ll understand.’
ALSO, ELIZABETH, MOTHER OF THE ABOVE, DIED NOV 19 1931 AGED 65 YEARS
ALSO, CHARLES, HUSBAND OF ELIZABETH AND FATHER OF THE ABOVE. DIED FEB 1ST 1952 AGED 88 YEARS.
‘PEACE PERFECT PEACE’.
Intrigued and fascinated in equal proportions, I pondered for a while the circumstances of these time-related passings and what it might have been about all those many years ago. With my curiosity aroused I felt an urge to discover more details of what appeared, on the face of it, to be such an obvious human tragedy and perhaps to learn something of the people then involved. My enquiries were to lead me to unearth the awful events of a late summer’s night in 1927 and I was to learn of the terrible circumstances of one family’s tragic burden. The first named person, Horace Littlewood, had actually died at his family home of protracted and lingering injuries which he had incurred during his service in the Great War which had been followed by the indignity of internment as a prisoner of the enemy. The demise of his two younger brothers Sidney and Charles relates to a totally different and tragic turn of events some two months later when a violent weather incident occurred locally in which they were both struck down at the cost of their lives. The following is what I have discovered of those tragic events which unfolded during that long-ago summer.
THE LITTLEWOOD FAMILY
The father of the three young men named on the now forlorn headstone on the north side of St Peter’s church, was Charles Littlewood (1863-1952), a member of a family whose descendants had been well established in the small village of Kirby Bellars near to Melton Mowbray since at least the early part of the 18th century. Both he and his sister Hannah were born there in the 1860s to Jeremiah and Susanna Littlewood, but by the time he was 17 years of age Charles was resident and earning a living for himself just across the River Eye in the nearby village of Asfordby where he was apprenticed to the local blacksmith, Thomas Pepper and his family. It is almost certain that whilst in Asfordby he would have met and courted his wife-to-be and local girl Elizabeth Underwood, who was then living with her family at the old water-mill in the village where they processed flour for a local bakery. The couple married in 1890 and before the birth of their first child they were to re-locate to the village of Barsby – some 5 miles to the south and towards Leicester – where Charles, by now having learned and qualified in his trade, would become the local master blacksmith in a rented property which was attached to The Firs, a large dwelling house in Main Street. Between the years 1891 to 1907, Charles and Elizabeth were to produce eight Littlewood siblings, in order being; Leonard, Albert, Fanny, Kate, Horace, Sidney and Charles: one other child, Dorothy (1905-1907) failed to survive infancy.
By 1911, at the time of the ten year Census for United Kingdom, the record shows that Charles Littlewood was still working at his forge and anvil at Barsby with Elizabeth and their youngest three boys still living at home with them. By this time they had purchased a few acres of agricultural land locally, mainly for grazing purposes which consisted of a couple of fields opposite to the Baggrave turn. The older of their seven children had by now moved on to pastures new with their oldest son Leonard being employed as a gardener in nearby Saxelby, although three years later it appears that at the age of 23, he was an unaccompanied passenger on the S.S. Lusitania en route to America where he was to take up employment.
The information which I had initially gleaned from the headstone in St Peters graveyard did not include my later-found knowledge of the tragic death of Charles and Elizabeth’s first-born son, Leonard, or Leon as he was sometimes known. The circumstances of his death, apart from being calamitous news for the family back in Leicestershire, seem to have been bizarre in the extreme as this small cutting from an American newspaper of the day briefly explains.
The Washington Herald of Wednesday September 20th 1916 also ran the syndicated piece, interposing the extra information that although Leonard was an employee at the iconic Bethlehem steel plant in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, his home was in fact at Winnipeg, Canada: This is a distance by road of some 2,450 km, a journey of at least 26 hours today.
Imagine being in Elizabeth Littlewood’s shoes at her little home in Barsby when she received the shocking news from so far away and this all the greater to bear at the time that another son, Horace, had just entered the infernal theatre of the Great War in Europe on reaching his 18th birthday and even worse, though she wasn’t then aware, that she would soon be receiving him back home from the custody of the German authorities, all decent life having been smashed out of him, to nurse him through the remainder of his days with the lingering pain of his wounds.
Albert William Littlewood
Albert Littlewood at the time of that Census was shown as being employed as a footman at Mickleover Hall in Derbyshire and would have been just 19 years of age and it is very close to this period when Albert is known to have joined the Staffordshire (now West Mercia) police force as a constable and then, just three years later whilst serving at Whittington, he was persuaded to do his bit for Queen and Country in the early days of the Great War. On the 3rd December 1915 he was attested (‘short service – duration of the war’) at Aldershot Barracks and became a temporary member of the Military Mounted Police. In 1922 with the war ended and by then serving back with his police force at Stafford police station, he belatedly became the recipient of a Belgian Croix de Guerre [a highly respected service medal] in recognition of some act of bravery or exemplary service in that country. I am not aware of the circumstances of this award, but it is apparent that they were not handed out purely for service alone, or just for being there.
Albert continued to serve as a police officer at divers locations in Staffordshire – like many policemen of those days he was regularly transferred from pillar to post, usually with the minimum of prior warning. Amongst probably many others of his postings he was known to have served at Dudley and Wednesbury. In the Spring of 1921 he married Ella Storey at Cockermouth – then in Cumberland, now Cumbria. In the years up to 1937 the couple would produce five children – 3 boys and 2 girls – following which Albert was to die prematurely and unexpectedly in 1939 at the age of 47, of a cerebral haemorrhage following a routine cataract operation presumably saddling Ella with a handful of problems.
Fanny and Kate Littlewood – the sisters
Albert’s sister Frances (Fanny) Littlewood who was born in 1894 was employed as a housemaid at the Manor House in Kirby Bellars – which still stands and was probably then owned by the Manners family of Belvoir – was destined to marry Charles Cope of Melton in 1917; like her brother Albert, she was to raise five children. Her sister Kate worked as a scullery maid in the nearby village of Grimston and seems to have remained unmarried. A current member of the family mentioned to me only recently, that:
‘… the whole generation was riddled with tragedy. Only Fanny survived until a decent age. Kate had Multiple Sclerosis and died aged 64. Their beloved mother Elizabeth, seemingly died of a broken heart after all the tragedy she had endured with the progress of her family.’
Return to Kirby Bellars.
With four of the children having now flown the nest, Charles and Elizabeth Littlewood’s three youngest sons were to remain in the bosom of the family in Barsby; they being Horace, Sidney Thomas, and Charles Bertram, who, being the last-born of the family was, at time of the 1911 Census, just 3 years old. The outbreak of the Great War in Europe was imminent and in 1914 Horace would have been just 16 years of age, but like many young men of his time he was to tell a fib about his true age and to sign up for duty with King and Country and be shipped off to France at some time in 1916 – just in time for the massive debacle of the Somme offensive that summer. Somewhere amidst those foreign fields and so far from his comfortable little home in Leicestershire, Horace was badly wounded and to add to his horror, he was taken as a prisoner-of-war by the Germans. Eventually, at the end of hostilities and together with many hundreds of other brave young men, he would be transferred back home to undergo a painful period of rehabilitation at a variety of overcrowded hospitals and sanatoriums. In the later stages of his hoped-for rehabilitation Horace was to return to the care of his parents who by this time had re-located to his family’s birth village of Kirby Bellars. By the middle of the 1920’s Charles Littlewood retired from his Blacksmith’s work at Barsby and about the same time he and Elizabeth moved back to Kirby Bellars having by now, as the first-born son of his family, inherited the family home there. As the recipient of lingering and debilitating wounds sustained in action, Horace’s deteriorating and wretched condition necessitated dedicated treatment and regular nursing which his greatly suffering mother was to dutifully provide.
A Littlewood presence did remain in Barsby after the exodus of Charles and Elizabeth to Kirby Bellars, as their two youngest boys Sidney and Charles stayed on to work and maintain a smallholding on their recently acquired small plot of about two acres in the parish. By 1925 Charles was still a bachelor but brother Sidney was courting a Staffordshire shopkeeper’s daughter. Employed locally in service, Beatrice May Edwards, a girl who was one year his senior had come to his particular notice and in the summer of 1925 they were married in the bride’s home town of Newcastle-under-Lyme in Staffordshire. Beatrice was the fourth child of five siblings and was born in 1900 to Thomas Edwards and his wife, Mary Ellen (Judd). With two sisters and two brothers, her father was the proprietor of a grocery and general stores shop at Newcastle-under-Lyme for several years. In the summer of 1926, Beatrice and Sidney welcomed their daughter Margaret Elizabeth Littlewood into the world; a new generation of the family had arrived and life at Barsby appeared to be promising an exciting future.
In 1927, in its edition of Friday August 12th, the Melton Times carried the following notice:
‘Demise: After a long and painful illness, the death took place at Kirby Bellars on Wednesday morning of Mr Horace Littlewood, son of Mr and Mrs Charles Littlewood. The deceased, who was only 29 years of age, served with the 2nd Battalion, Leicestershire Regiment during the war. He was badly wounded and taken prisoner by the Germans.’
So Charles and Elizabeth Littlewood had not only outlived their first-born son, but they had been made to endure the lingering final ten years of Horace’s wretched young life which was to so gradually and painfully ebb away. The funeral must have been a very sad affair, but in the light of the suffering which had been apparent, there was a slight possibility that the moment might have brought just a tinge of blessed relief all around. On that summer’s day as she made her way through the sadness of the funeral service surrounded by family and friends, Elizabeth would not have been aware of yet another shocking tragedy which was awaiting her, as within just two months she and Charles were to suffer yet more grievous personal pain and anguish.
In connection with the circumstances of the delayed and lingering death of Horace Littlewood, I have been driven to question the position of those servicemen who gave their lives on behalf of their Queen and Country but who were not officially recorded as ‘killed in action’ during that conflict. Many were to die long after the event and frequently bearing the frustration of suffering gnawing and agonising pain from weapon wounds and pernicious gases. Horace duly volunteered along with his fellow compatriots – or Pals – from the working stock of the Leicestershire area and took his place on the battlefield. But he was unfortunately severely injured and worse, was captured by the enemy as a prisoner of war. Only after the passage of time was he eventually returned to the bosom care of his family back in England and then to suffer and to share his suffering with those who cared, during his remaining few years of life. I can also confirm that there is no reference to Horace on the official Melton Mowbray Town Memorial list of those who were properly remembered as being killed in action. I have enquired locally and received the following reply:
“Thank you for your enquiry, unfortunately Horace’s name does not appear on any of the memorials in Melton. A few servicemen that died later from wounds etc. received whilst serving, do appear. Lt. Owen Bramwell died 1926, he is on the town memorial – but his father was a member of the Town Estate and responsible for the names of the fallen. Sorry I cannot be more helpful.”
Late comment: In this anniversary year of 2014, it seems that this anomaly for soldiers such as Horace Littlewood is now in the process of being addressed by the authorities, so there is the possibility that his efforts and those of his ‘pals’ will be remembered, albeit so late in the day.
THE GREAT STORM OF 1927
On Monday, October 31st, 1927 under the heading, ‘THE GALE’, ‘The Times‘ reported on a remarkable weather event:
The gale on Friday night was the most severe experienced since January.
(From Our Weather Correspondent.)
The severest gale over the country generally since January was caused by the deep depression which reached the West Coast of Ireland on Friday.
The storm reached its greatest intensity on Friday night and early on Saturday morning, when the depression began to take a more easterly course across Scotland, after having moved nearly due north up the Irish coast. At Holyhead there was a gust of 85 miles an hour, and at Cranwell and Sealand (near Chester) about 80 miles an hour was reached. At Valencia, in the south-west of Ireland, the wind had been almost equally strong a little earlier. At Kew Observatory and at Croydon a speed of 50 miles an hour was reached in gusts, which is rare in the neighbourhood of London. After crossing Scotland the depression passed away to Scandinavia, and became less deep and the weather soon moderated.
There seemed a possibility on Saturday that another depression, approaching from the Azores, might prove as intense as its predecessor, but up to last night, it had failed to produce any very strong winds, although it caused nearly an inch of rain to fall at Blacksod Point and Stornaway during the day. It should soon pass away to Scandinavia, but yet another disturbance is approaching from the Atlantic, and unsettled weather is likely in all districts for two or three days.
This newspaper went on to report on events over a wide area of the whole of the United Kingdom and told of more than a hundred violent and tragic deaths in the wake of the storm across the country. These included more than 40 fisherman who perished when their boats were blown out of the sea along the west coast of Ireland. Much physical damage was also caused during the blow to the cost of many millions of pounds, including the total destruction of a sanatorium in Lancaster together with the tragic deaths of many of its patients and residents; there was further massive destruction along the seafront at the pleasure resort of Blackpool.
In the East Midlands of England the landlocked county of Leicestershire, specifically the area around Melton Mowbray to the northeast, was not to escape the effects of this massive and pernicious gale and the ‘Melton Times‘ of Friday, 4th November 1927 produced the following account of local events:
A TERRIBLE GALE.
‘Not for many years has a gale of such ferocity been experienced at Melton Mowbray as that which swept over the town and district on Friday night, and widespread damage was caused. A huge portion of one of the large trees in Egerton Back Park fell across Park-road. When the crash occurred an Asfordby and a Long Clawson bus were standing on either side of the tree but fortunately the timber fell between them, missing both vehicles. The road was completely blocked and a considerable number of the Urban District Council’s employees were kept busily engaged for several hours in sawing up the timber and removing the obstruction. A tree in Woodland-avenue was uprooted, and a number of others fell across the roads in various parts of the district, including at Ab Kettleby and Leesthorpe with the result that traffic was considerably impeded. A chimney stack in Egerton-road was blown down, and several people had narrow escapes from slates and tiles hurled from the roofs of dwelling houses and business premises. Much damage was done to telephone and telegraph wires throughout the district, and great inconvenience was caused the following day.
Mr. Robert Salt, of the Market Place, Melton Mowbray, was driving his motorcycle from Oakham to Melton with Miss Savidge on the pillion seat when he ran into a tree which had fallen across the road on the Three Steps Hill. By swerving suddenly he managed to miss the main stem and turn into the branches, but both riders were thrown off. Mr Salt sustained a severe gash to his head which struck a four inch branch and snapped it off. Miss Savidge was more severely injured, her elbow and knee being very badly cut, and it is believed that her thigh is dislocated at the hip. They were both conveyed home in Mrs. Salt’s car. As Mr W. Salt was on his way to fetch his brother and Miss Savidge, he made the discovery that another accident had occurred near the Leesthorpe crossroads. Mr Ollerenshaw was driving a motor cycle combination towards Oakham with a lady passenger, and when he swerved to avoid an object in the road the machine was caught in the wind and overturned. The lady was badly cut and taken to Oakham Hospital.
The gale was responsible for a terrible tragedy at Barsby, whereby two brothers lost their lives. They were Sidney Thomas Littlewood aged 26 and Bertram Charles Littlewood, (21), who carried on the occupation of graziers and whose father is a retired farmer living at Kirby Bellars. Owing to the unusually strong wind they left home about 9.15 on Friday night on a motor cycle in order to ascertain if a fowl house was alright in a field on their farm situated about a mile and a half from their village. Mrs Littlewood, the wife of the older brother, prepared supper in anticipation of their return and towards midnight she naturally became anxious considering their non-appearance. It happened that there was a dance in progress at the village hall and she looked in to see if they might have been there, but her enquiries elicited the fact that they had not been seen. In vain, Mrs Littlewood waited up all night and thinking that they had stayed at the farm because there was something the matter with the animals and that they would not be able to get home to breakfast before milking, she got some food together and took it to the farm. On arrival she made the shocking discovery that the fowl house had blown over on her husband and brother-in-law and that both lay dead underneath it. When the news of the tragedy became known it caused a great sensation in the village and neighbourhood.
The details of the tragedy were outlined at the Inquest held in the Village Hall, on Monday afternoon before Mr. A.P. Marsh, Coroner.
Mrs Littlewood told the Inquest that the brothers had told her that owing to it being a very windy night they would go over on the motor cycle and have a look at the fowl hose.
“I waited all night,” continued witness, “and they did not return home. As they sometimes stayed in the barn all night. I thought that there was either something wrong with the cattle or that they might have dropped off to sleep in the barn.”
“About six o’clock on Saturday morning I got some tea and food and went to the farm because I expected they would be milking before coming home to breakfast. When I got to the field near the footpath I saw the fowl house upside down. When I reached it I saw my brother-in-law Bertram pinned by his head underneath the side of the overturned structure. On looking under the fowl house I could see my husband. I went at once for assistance.” Witness said that the fowl house had blown over previously.
Stanley Burgin, a farmer’s son, living at Barsby, told the Coroner that about 7.15 on Saturday morning he was cycling from Barsby to South Croxton, in company with his brother Robert, and from what they were told he went to the Littlewood’s fowl house near the Baggrave turn.
“When I arrived there,” he proceeded, “I saw the fowl house upside down. Bertram Littlewood was lying face downwards, with his head and shoulders pinned underneath the structure. I helped to prise the fowl house up and got him from underneath: He was dead.”
“We then saw Sidney Littlewood lying face downwards under the middle of the fowl house. By prising it higher we were able to get him out, and found that he was also dead. I am of [the] opinion that owing to the very rough wind the fowl house had blown over on the deceased.”
Coroner: From the position of the fowl house the deceased would be on its lower side. There was nothing unusual in the structure of the fowl house.
Dr. Herbert Ellison, of Syston, stated that about half past seven on Saturday morning he was summoned to Barsby and found the two deceased men lying in a field near the village. Both had severe bruises on the head and body and their faces were very swollen and livid. There were no signs of them having struggled on the ground where they were found. In his opinion, death was due to asphyxia whilst they were lying unconscious.
P.s. S.P. Jones, stationed at Great Dalby, said about 7.40 on Saturday morning, from what he was told, he went to a field on the Baggrave turn, in the parish of Barsby and there saw in the corner of the field two fowl houses, which were joined together, upside down, as if they had been blown over by the wind. They measured 14ft. each in length and 9ft. in width. He could see impressions on the ground made by the heads of the deceased. The fowl house had been blown a distance of nine yards. At the back of the structure was a hurricane lamp which was smashed. In his opinion the deceased men had examined the fowl houses, and, finding they had moved, were trying to put them in their position again when an extra gust of wind blew them over on to the top of them. The men fell face downwards and were pinned down and helpless. The brothers were examined by Dr. Ellison and afterwards witness conveyed the bodies by motor van to their home at Barsby.
The Coroner observed that it was a particularly sad fatality. The brothers were very hard working and were highly respected in the district and the circumstances were made even more regrettable, owing to the fact that it was not so long ago that another brother of the same family had died.
A verdict of accidental death was recorded in each case.
‘The funeral of the deceased brothers took place at Kirby Bellars on Tuesday afternoon and most of the inhabitants of Barsby turned out to pay their last respects when their remains left their home for Kirby churchyard. There were numerous wreaths
The Reverend Pitt Hunkin, the vicar of Ashby Folville-cum-Barsby, accompanied the cortege to Kirby Bellars. As the cortege reached the Church the Rev. J.H. Pallister was waiting at the gates. When all were seated, the Vicar said that he had never known of such a distressing tragedy. These two men were good living men. They were struck down by the hand of God, and he was sure that He would not forsake them in the end. After the congregation had left the church many people went to the adjoining cemetery, where the two brothers were laid to rest by the side of a third brother, Horace Littlewood, who had died only in August following an extended and painful effort at recovering from serious wounds received in the Great War and a period on internment by the Germans.’
In the immediate aftermath of this string of tragic events and the unforeseen loss of three more of their grown-up children, it is difficult to imagine how Charles and Elizabeth Littlewood would have coped with their awful passage of grief and devastation during that late summer of 1927. Elizabeth was in fact to die herself some four years later at the age of 65 years and according to the family, as I have mentioned elsewhere, her early demise was said to be related to the trauma and heart-ache she had endured with the sudden and premature loss of so many of her offspring. Charles was to live through yet another World War, eventually passing away in 1952 at the grand age of 89 years and fittingly, within the walls of the family home in Kirby Bellars where it had all started those long years ago before.
It is also interesting to delve a little further into the life of Margaret, the only daughter of Sidney and Beatrice Littlewood. When her father was tragically torn away from her during that dreadful night in Barsby, she would not have known too much about it. As it turns out I have learned that, with the possibility of life in the Union Workhouse at Melton Mowbray looming large, her future was to be secured in the safe surroundings of her mother’s place of birth in Staffordshire. In those straitened times there was little hope of her obtaining parish or other support in her adopted county of Leicestershire, together with a new born fatherless child to raise and no hope of finding suitable employment. Thus, when Beatrice and baby Margaret inevitably and finally bade farewell to the Littlewoods home at Barsby, I would guess that they never ever expected to return and it is for sure that the events and circumstances surrounding Sidney’s tragic death would be passed on over the ensuing years by those who were to bring her up in Staffordshire and it is in this context that I have a sad little epilogue to relate in relation to Margaret, the details of which I was to discover only very recently.
A Nostalgic Return
Whilst researching the now mostly forgotten facts behind this sad little story I made it my business to visit the house in Barsby where the Littlewood family once maintained their home and earned a living at father’s forge. ‘The Firs’ is a still-imposing Georgian house of local red brick and lies now within a preservation area of the present local County Council. For a few years past, the incumbent resident at this house has been Mrs Jackie Jesson and when I spoke to her at home she was to recall a moment which she was to relate to me, about the wistful tale of a visitor – a total stranger to her – whom she had briefly met in Barsby some 15 years earlier. Jackie possessed a vague knowledge of the existence of the Littlewoods and the blacksmith’s shop at her house in the village, but as this was mainly from local hearsay and legend, her meeting with this stranger had at the time, made little impression on her. When I was to explain to her the terrible circumstances of the awful family tragedy brought about by the visitation of a great storm of 1927, she told me that she was now beginning to comprehend the rationale and purpose of the stranger’s visit. She explained how at the time she had been at the front gate of The Firs doing nothing in particular when she became aware of a vehicle driving along the street towards her; she mentioned that the car had then slowed down and stopped, right in the middle of the road and close to where she was standing. She then noticed that there was a man driver and a woman passenger in the car and that the driver appeared to be a little aggressive in his attitude. She said that the woman, who appeared to be about 70 years of age, appeared to be in quite an emotional state and somewhat distressed and even dithery with possibly with a few tears present, but that she stayed long enough to enquire of Jackie from the passenger seat of the car, as to whether this was ‘the house with the blacksmiths forge attached.’ Being satisfied that she was in fact standing at the place of her birth the woman is said to have gone on to speak of the 1927 moment. She confirmed to Jackie emotionally that she was indeed born in this house which stood in front of her and that her father had died a terrible death in the village when she was but one year old. She went on to say that her her mother Beatrice (Littlewood) had told her the story several years later, explaining that as a result of their loss they had little choice but to return to Newcastle-under-Lyme.
So the ‘stranger’ moved on, apparently having achieved her objective in revisiting the place of her birth. I have traced the family of Margaret and Eric to a certain extent on paper but have not been able to confirm the later evolution of Margaret’s later life until very recently when one of their daughters, Ann (Birchall) Mason, confirmed that in 2014 both of her parents are now in their 80’s.
More About The Croix de Guerre (Cross of War) – Belgium
The Belgian Croix de Guerre (Cross of War) was instituted on the 25th October 1915 as a means of formally recognising acts of heroism performed by individuals of any of the Allied Powers during the First World War. It is also King Albert I. The medal was awarded by differing levels of command; depending upon the awarding command level the appurtenance worn on the ribbon differed. The ribbon, red in colour with five green stripes, was officially awarded to recognise a period of at least three years of front-line Belgian service and could only be earned by foreign nationals for acts of heroism conducted whilst on Belgian soil. Comprising a bronze cross the medal featured crossed swords and a disc bearing a rampant lion, this all suspended from a bronze crown.