Saturday, November 11, 2017

The story of two John Alfreds, part 1

Nine Elms British Cemetery, Belgium
As I've mentioned before, my great great grandfather Alfred Pearson Bentley (b 1849) had two sons named John Alfred, one born to his wife Annie Reed in Salford in 1873 and the other born, through a bigamous marriage to Annie Jane Smith, in Boston in 1884. Despite sharing the same name and the same father, the two John Alfreds led rather different lives. In this post I'll tell the story of the older of the two half-brothers.

The first John was only four or five years old when his father left for America. He and his four siblings grew up in Salford, surviving on what their mother could earn from taking in laundry and renting out a room. When he was old enough to leave school he found work as a bricklayer's labourer and added his earnings to the family income.

In March 1897 John married Elizabeth Ann Brown, a girl from Stalybridge, a few miles east of Manchester. They were married in the Registry office in Salford. Their first child, Thomas, was born in August that same year while they were living at 20 Arthur St in Seedley, Manchester. 

St Ambrose Church, Salford,
where most of John and Elizabeth's children
were baptised.
Two years later, in August 1899, a daughter, Annie, arrived. By this time the family had moved to 49 Mayor St in Pendleton, and they remained at this address for several years, adding John Alfred (1902) Ernest (1905) and Elizabeth (1908) to their family. Two of the children, John Alfred and Elizabeth, died in infancy.

When the census was taken in  1911 John and Elizabeth had moved with their family to 11 Hodgson St. It was a four roomed house, but besides their family they had two single men from Stalybridge, both labourers, and apparently brothers, boarding with them. John was working as a contractors labourer.

John and Elizabeth's eldest son Thomas was 17 years old when the war began in August 1914. Like many young men, he enlisted as soon as he could, joining the 2/7th battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers. He was given regimental number  281894, and after a long period of training was sent to Le Havre in France early in 1917.

This must have caused his parents some concern, but worse was to come. On 12 March 1917 John Bentley received a letter from the Borough Engineers Office in Salford. It didn't even address him by name, but read:

Dear Sir,  
Road Service in France 
I enclose a form from the War Department which you are requested to present to the recruiting officer at the Town Hall, Broad St, Pendleton on an early day between the hours of 9.00 am and 5.30 pm on Saturday between 9.30 am and 2.00 pm. 
Yours truly 
Ernest B Martin.
At the age of 43 John Alfred was being conscripted to build roads across other men's fields in France. Conscription had been introduced in 1916 and anyone under the age of 51 who was not a widow with children or a Minister of Religion could be called up. In reality, many of those called were rejected as unfit, or claimed exemption on the grounds that they were doing work of national importance or their absence would cause domestic hardship. However, like Thomas Henry Ward, John Bentley received no exemption.

He was enlisted on March 16 in the Royal Engineers, 338 RC (Road Construction) company as a "pioneer", regimental number 25500. He was later transferred to the 303 RC company. The army doctor who examined him noted two tattoos, one on his right arm saying "E A Brown", and the other a pair of butterflies on his left. After spending time at Salamanca Barracks in Aldershot, John was sent to France. 

With both her husband and a son on the front line, and a ten year old child, Ernest, to care for alone at home, Elizabeth must have been beside herself with worry. Her fears were not unfounded.

Street corner, Poelcappelle, Belgium 1918
Twenty year old Thomas was injured, probably at the Battle of Poelcappelle in Flanders on 9 October, and died of his wounds on 12 October 1917. He was buried at the Nine Elms British Cemetery in West Vlaanderen, Belgium. The cross on his grave bears only his name and regimental details. 

In his brief will, written on 8 April 1917 on a standard issue form provided by the army, he left all his possessions to his mother "Mrs E. Bentley of 5 Swan St, Pendleton." He apparently was aware of his father's enlistment.

John Alfred was admitted to hospital on 12 April 1918, for reasons unknown. He was discharged on  the 19 April. He arrived "TTBD" on 26 April and was released from "TTBD" on 6 May 1918. (The most likely explanation I can find of this abbreviation is "Temporary Transfer Base Depot" but if you can improve on that, let me know.) He was officially demobbed in 1919 while on home leave.

He returned home to Elizabeth on 26 December 1918. They were still living at 5 Swan St when their daughter Annie married the following year. When he died at the age of 59, in March 1933, he left an estate of £278 4s to his widow Elizabeth.

My next post will cover what I know of the younger John Alfred.

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