Promise extinguished – how a Waifs and Strays’ Society lad fell on the Western Front

In commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme we have a post written by one of our Archivists, Helena Hilton, that reflects on the life and death of a former ‘Waifs and Strays’ lad who fell in this corner of France.

Twenty thousand dead on the first day, the worst day in the history of the British Army; eighteen weeks of slaughter that left over a million men killed or wounded on the two sides of the line; all for a scant few miles’ advance (Google Maps calculates that one can cover the whole distance advanced, at its widest extent, in sixteen minutes).  The Battle of the Somme has seared itself onto the national memory as emblematic of the First World War in all its horror.  But sheer numbers can deaden the impact of the story and sometimes to make it real it is better to concentrate on an individual story, one of the names on a war memorial, to stand as an emblem of all the many others.

As we mark the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, we focus on one of those names carved in stone, a child who was in the care of The Waifs and Strays Society and ended his life in that corner of Picardy.

John Bashforth 1916 004

Sadly many of the Society’s ‘old boys’ were killed or injured on the First World War battlefields, but thanks to the efforts of Martin Bashforth we know a bit more than usual about one of them, John Francis Cuthbert Bashforth (who was known as Frank).  Despite sharing a surname Martin is not related to Frank, but his curiosity was piqued by seeing his name on a memorial and he set about investigating his story.  It is remarkable how much can be assembled from the public record, and our enquiry service at The Children’s Society played a part in fleshing out the picture by providing a summary of Frank’s case file.  (This, of course, is a demonstration of the power of records and the value of keeping archives.)  As a result of Martin’s work piecing together various sources we now know about the entirety of Frank’s life: his article setting out his research and sources can be read in full here.

John Bashforth 1916 005

Frank’s background was slightly out of the usual for applicants to The Waifs and Strays Society.  His parents, Amy Barwis and John Bashforth, were from different social classes and they married against the wishes of Amy’s middle class father.  Amy was the daughter of a well to do clergyman, Revd William Cuthbert Barwis, who at the time of her marriage was the vicar of St John the Evangelist, Hoylandswaine, South Yorkshire.  John Bashforth was the son of a nail maker and had worked as a miner and as a labourer at a local ironworks.  They had to run away to Sheffield to marry in July 1879, such was the opposition of William Barwis: he felt the shock so keenly that he moved to another church as a curate.  The young couple returned to Hoylandswaine and had five children.  Frank was the youngest, born on 5 February 1889.

Tragedy precipitated the application to The Waifs and Strays Society.  In November 1897 when the family was living in Headingley, Leeds, Amy died of a heart attack.  Life would have been extremely difficult for John: becoming a full time father for any length of time was not an option for him in those pre Welfare State days, and provision would have to be made for the children.  Frank was only eight when his mother died, and a few months afterwards, in March 1898 he entered the Society’s Bede Home, Wakefield.  The application form, which was completed by his godmother Frances Annie Booker, revealed continuing tension following his parents’ socially unequal marriage.  She suggested Amy’s ill health was in part due to lack of food “as the father of the boy drinks and is a good for nothing man.  The mother was a gentlewoman, the daughter of the Reverend Cuthbert Barwis, for some time Vicar of Hoylandswaine, Penistone.  Owing to his daughter marrying such a man he gave up the living.”  Miss Booker promised to pay 5 shillings a week towards Frank’s maintenance.

Shortly after arriving at the Bede Home Frank became an orphan: John Bashforth died of pneumonia in April 1898.  Frank remained in the care of The Waifs and Strays Society until September 1902.  He had gained a scholarship to Wakefield Grammar School in September 1901 and the following year his godmother took over responsibility for him.  It was unusual for children in the Homes to continue their education beyond the usual school leaving age, and perhaps this indicates that Frank was seen as being of a higher social class with greater aspirations.  The school archives record that he remained there until July 1907 when he left to take up a post with the Bank of England in London.

Martin Bashforth has managed to construct a picture of Frank’s time in London using the limited sources available.  It appears that alongside his employment at the Bank his strong religious beliefs drove him to work with the poor.  His elder brother was a curate in a deprived part of the city.  Frank found time to go to night classes and in 1912 he left London for St John’s College, Oxford where he studied theology, gaining a degree in 1915.  He apparently intended, in due course, to become a clergyman, but since 1909 he had belonged to the Territorial Army and once his studies were completed and the War was underway he applied for a commission in the Regular Army.

John Francis Cuthbert Bashforth. Photograph from the archives of the Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, Wakefield

John Francis Cuthbert Bashforth. Photograph from the archives of the Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, Wakefield

Frank was sent to France on 4 February 1916 as a Second Lieutenant in the 9th Battalion, the Norfolk Regiment.  He features in letters written by a colleague, Lieutenant Cecil Upcher, who survived the War and left his personal records to the Royal Norfolk Regimental Museum, and it is these together with the battalion war diary, that have helped Martin flesh out Frank’s time on the Western Front.  At the beginning of August 1916 the battalion was moved to the Somme Front.  On 14 September they moved into the front line trenches.  Frank was killed the following day during an attack on a German strongpoint known as the Quadrilateral.  His body was recovered from the battlefield and personal possessions returned to his family; however his final resting place is not known and his name is recorded on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme.

Frank was also remembered by other institutions including The Waifs and Strays Society.  On 10 October 1916 the Secretary of the Ripon-Wakefield Branch of the Society, Lieutenant Colonel Beresford-Peirse sent a newspaper cutting about Frank’s death to the supporter magazine “Our Waifs and Strays”.  In his letter he recalled that Frank was at the Bede Home “where he had a great influence for the good.”  His family circumstances had been sad, as both his parents had died, but he had overcome these difficult beginnings and had worked hard to rise from them while doing his best for others.  Lieutenant Colonel Beresford-Peirse was well acquainted with his history since leaving the Bede Home.  The Society liked to keep in touch with the children it had helped, tracing their achievements and in some sad cases like this one adding their names to the Roll of Honour recording those who died in their country’s service.

One name on a war memorial; one life snuffed out with all its potential.  The work that Frank would have done as a clergyman never happened.  Multiply it by thousands and we have an idea of the seismic impact of the Somme, one hundred years ago.

3 thoughts on “Promise extinguished – how a Waifs and Strays’ Society lad fell on the Western Front

  1. Thank you to Martin Bashforth for researching and writing the original article, and to Helena Hilton for writing this blog. The story is a poignant reminder of the tragic loss of so many lives. Martin and Helena’s articles might be about Frank Bashforth, but they stand as a fitting memorial to all of those lives.

  2. A very moving blog which humanises so eloquently the horrifying statistics associated with of the Battle of the Somme.

    • Helen, thank you for your comment. We agree, that the blog helps to bring into clear focus the immensity of the tragedy of the Somme.

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