Thursday, 7 January 2021

First World War Soldier's Story: Riley Willerton from Willingham by Stow

Over the Christmas and New Year period I have myself two weeks off from my PhD studies - however as my main hobby is family history it was inevitable that I would come across some First World War (FWW) connections eventually. 

I am currently researching several friends' family trees alongside my own and my husband's (the OH). I have a theory, often mentioned on these pages, that if a person can trace their family history back to the 19th century in Barnsley then the chances are very good that they are related to the OH. This sometimes makes me wander off down branches that I might not otherwise have researched in the search for FWW associated men and women. When I do discover FWW servicemen in our friends' trees they are often unaware of the connection - for example in a tree I did last year I found five men killed, including two brothers from Barnsley who were the subject's great-uncles on her mother's side.

The OH's tree currently includes 139 men who served in the FWW and of those 42 lost their lives. Ten of the men who died are close enough relatives for my family tree software (Family Historian) to have defined their relationship automatically. Forty-three of the men who survived also have a close relationship which has been automatically calculated and displayed, for the others I can find their relationship (usually some complex mixture of cousin and marriage connections) by using Family Historian's built in 'How Releted' tool.

Using the 'How Related' tool in Family Historian

Yesterday I added another man to the roll of honour of the OH's relatives who were killed or died in the war. Riley Willerton is the OH's first cousin three times removed. This is quite a close connection but I had not found it previously as most of the Willertons had not moved to Barnsley. His aunt, Charlotte Willerton was the OH's great, great grandmother (see above) who was from Lincolnshire and who had moved here to Barnsley between 1884 and 1887 (based on the birth places of her children). 

Riley Willerton was born in Holton Beckering in Lincolnshire (which lies between Market Rasen and Wragby) on the 13 April 1893. His parents were Thomas Willerton and Eliza Sheppard who had married in Langriville Chapel in Lincolnshire on 11 January 1876. The OH's great, great grandfather Joseph Croft was one of the witnesses to their marriage, although he could not write his name and signed the register with a X, as did Thomas Willerton. The bride and the female witness Elizabeth Willerton (presumably Thomas and Charlotte's sister) signed the register and both had quite nice handwriting. Does that say something about education opportunities for girls in nineteenth century Lincolnshire, or the lack of them for boys? At a guess the latter, for boys were probably expected to start work on the farm at a young age and may have missed a lot of school as a consquence.

Riley was the eighth of Thomas and Eliza's eleven children. 

Thomas and Eliza Willerton's travels plotted on Google Maps

Thomas and Eliza moved around Lincolnshire a great deal after their marriage, presumably following the availabilty of work. In 1911 the family are living Greetwell Hollow, which is on the outskirts of Lincoln itself and Thomas is a horseman on a farm, Riley, aged 18, is a ploughboy which sounds as if he might be an assistant to his father. Two of his brothers are listed as labourers on the farm - whether or not they all work on the same farm is impossible to tell from the census return.

By the time Riley enlists in the Lincolnshire Regiment, on 9 November 1914, not long after the outbreak of the war, he is 21 years of age and gives his occupation as waggoner. Fortunately his Army Service records have survived, if in a damage state, and we can see lots of detail of his enlistment and service. He was 5' 5.5" tall and his physical development was good, he had a 39 inch chest and perfect vision. He gives his next of kin as his parents, Thomas and Eliza, who by this time are living in Willingham by Stow which is near Gainsborough. He gives his own address as Kir(k)by Green which is over 25 miles away from his parents' home and close to Sleaford, and states that he has been living away from his father's house for over three years.

Active Service page from Riley Willerton's Army Service Records (from Ancestry)

Riley left England at the end of February 1916 and was assigned to the 2nd Battalion on 13 March 1916, but in July 1917 he was transferred in the field to the 25th Trench Mortar Battery. It looks as if he had leave to the UK between 4 and 14 September 1917. He was killed in action on 24 November 1917. His records say 'Place not Stated', but as he is remembered on the Tyne Cot Memorial he must have been in the Ypres area when he was killed, and he either had no known grave or it was lost before the end of the war. The Long, Long Trail website notes that the 2nd Battalion of the Lincolnshire Regiment were involved in some of the battles making up the Third Ypres, but not in any particular action at the time of Riley's death. I have not yet found the War Diaries for the period.

Willingham by Stow from War Memorials Online

Riley Willerton is remembered on the war memorial in St Helen's church in Willingham by Stow, which is a small brass plaque commemorating eleven men. As he was living with his parents in Greetwell Hollow near Lincoln in April 1911 and stated he had lived at Kirkby Green, near Sleaford for at least three years in late 1914 it might be suggested that he was not a resident of Willingham by Stow, but his parents were obviously able to get the local war memorial committee to include his name on their plaque. He is not named on the plaque in the church in Kirkby Green. 

I have just noticed that the name above Riley's on this memorial is Arthur Willerton - could he be Riley's brother - if so how dreadful for Thomas and Eliza. I will investigate tomorrow.

Lest We Forget

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