Death of a conscript who should never have gone to war

Joseph Blackburn was tragically sent to war despite twice being exempted from military service, writes David Hewitt

Friday, 24th March 2017, 5:13 pm
Updated Saturday, 25th March 2017, 11:49 am
Joseph Blackburn should never have been sent to war

Joseph Blackburn must have thought he would not have to fight in the First World War, at least for a time.

In May 1916, and then again in January 1917, he had been made exempt from military service by a committee of councillors sitting in Thornton, near Blackpool, where he lived.

The councillors accepted Joseph was a market gardener and they decided his work was therefore essential to the war effort.

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Joseph’s home was Rose Cottage, which stood on Raikes Road, close to the Wyre and at the edge of a patch of ground where vegetables were grown. The 30-year-old shared it with his wife, Jessie, and their two children – Elizabeth, who was around three years of age, and Joseph Junior, who was not yet two.

Now, Joseph’s exemption had been confirmed by the appeal tribunal in Preston, which agreed with the councillors in Thornton.

The tribunal system had existed, in an abbreviated form, since late 1915, but it really came into its own with the introduction of conscription in early 1916.

Tribunals had the power to make a man exempt from war service and to do so either absolutely, temporarily or on conditions. The usual conditions included that a man remain in his present occupation or that he do some form of work towards the war effort.

There were three tiers of tribunals – local, county and central with more than 2,000 local tribunals and around 80 county appeal tribunals.

The grounds for an exemption included conscientious objection, but they were comparatively rare and in Thornton there were none.

It was more common for a local tribunal to grant exemption because of the adverse effect a man’s service might have on his home of his business, or – as in Joseph’s case – because his work was considered essential to the war effort.

Lancashire’s appeals were held at County Hall and chaired by James Openshaw.

Mr Openshaw was a judge and a farmer, and he lived at Hothersall Hall, Ribchester, the Victorian Gothic house he had inherited from his father. Within a few years, he would be knighted.

The Preston tribunal also accepted Joseph was a market gardener, in a business which was his own inheritance, and that his work was essential to the war effort.

The tribunal’s other members included James T Travis-Clegg. (The hyphen was a late addition and the ‘T’ stood for Travis as well.) Chairman of Messrs John Clegg & Sons, the cotton company founded by his father, Mr Travis-Clegg would soon chair the county council as well and receive a knighthood of his own. His home was Whalley Abbey, a country house built in the ruins of an ancient monastery, whose last abbot had been executed for daring to challenge King Henry VIII.

The members of the appeal tribunal also included Sir Frank Hollins, the first Baronet of Greyfriars, who was head of Horrockses, Crewdson & Co, the celebrated cotton concern based in Preston.

Horrockses received a great honour in 1913. On the afternoon of Tuesday, July 8, its factory on Stanley Street played host to King George and Queen Mary, whose motorcade swept into the yard under an arch of cotton-bales and a sign proclaiming, “May health and happiness attend our King and Queen.”

Despite its decision, the Preston tribunal allowed a further appeal – Joseph’s case would be considered by the Central Tribunal, which was the final authority in matters of this kind. It sat in far away Westminster and was led by the fourth Marquess of Salisbury.

In May 1917, Lord Salisbury and his colleagues took away the exemption which had been granted in Thornton and confirmed in Preston and within days, Joseph was putting on a khaki tunic and joining the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment.

The Central Tribunal decided that Joseph was not a market gardener at all, but a “mere hawker” of fruit and veg.

That decision no doubt surprised Mr Travis-Clegg and Judge Openshaw, and it will have had a similar effect upon Sir Harcourt Everard Clare. He was the clerk to the Preston tribunal, and also to the county council, and he had recently been knighted.

Sir Harcourt, too, lived in an impressive home – Bank Hall in Bretherton – and he too had received a royal visit. He had been unwell in the summer of 1913, and on their way to Preston, their majesties stopped at the gates of the hall to inquire after his health.

Whatever its effect on the Preston men, the decision of the Central Tribunal enraged the Thornton councillors. They suspected that it had been influenced by evidence they had not been shown and they promptly went on strike.

Joseph, meanwhile, had been transferred to the Royal West Kent Regiment and set off on a journey into the heart of the fighting, being sent, at first, to Italy, where he joined the battle to save Venice from the Germans.

The strike in Thornton dragged on and on, through the summer of 1917. It was not, however, the only strike during the war. It was not even the only one in Lancashire.

Several months earlier, in Clayton-le-Moors, in the east of the county, a similar committee of councillors had taken action of its own. But that was where the similarities ended. The councillors’ strike was much shorter than the one in Thornton would be, and their complaint was not about an exemption that was taken away, but that a man they decided should fight had still not gone to war.

We cannot know, a century later, why the Thornton councillors decided to go back to their judicial work. What is clear, however, is that their suspicion – that the decision of the Central Tribunal had been influenced by entirely new evidence – was correct.

In the surviving records of the Central Tribunal, I found something to suggest Lord Salisbury and his colleagues did see evidence about Joseph that had not been produced before. What I saw was a brief memorandum, written in response to Joseph’s case and the Thornton strike, in which the tribunal said that in future, it would always make sure that new evidence was shown to the man concerned. Joseph never got to see the new evidence in his case and he never had the opportunity to challenge it.

By the end of May 1918, Joseph had found his way to the huge British military encampment at Étaples in the very north of France. He had been suffering from ‘trench fever’ for several weeks and it seems he was now being toughened up for the Western Front.

On the night of May 31, 1918, the Étaples camp was the object of a brutal attack from the air, and a number of people, both soldiers and civilians, lost their lives.

A volunteer nurse from Lancashire was caught up in that attack. Dorothy Bateman Clare was stationed at one of the hospitals in the camp and this would, in fact, be her last involvement in the war.

Dorothy was the daughter of Sir Everard Clare, the clerk to the Preston appeal tribunal, and although I don’t know that they ever met, it is a strange coincidence that on that terrible night, as May turned to June, she and Joseph Blackburn were in precisely the same place at precisely the same time.

After the air-raid, Dorothy Clare returned to Bank Hall.

By then, Joseph was dead. On August 24, 1918, as he scrambled over open farmland to the north of the Somme, he was killed in action, probably by machine-gun fire from retreating German troops.

Sir James Openshaw, Sir Harcourt Everard Clare and Sir James Travis-Clegg are the subjects of portraits that hang to this day in the city of Preston: the first two in the Crown Court and the third in County Hall, a matter of feet from the room in which the appeal in Joseph’s case was first heard.

He has no portrait of his own, and the name of Joseph Blackburn appears in only two public places – on the war memorial in Thornton and a panel in the military cemetery at Vis-en-Artois.

That and other panels there commemorate British soldiers who died in the three months before the Armistice. For the most part, they are men who have no known grave. The memorandum I saw suggests not only that the Central Tribunal made a mistake by keeping the new evidence from Joseph Blackburn, but also that its members realised very quickly what they had done.

It is sad, then, that despite the controversy and the strike it produced, no Westminster man saw fit to call Joseph home.

l David Hewitt is a lawyer and a writer. His book about this case – Joseph, 1917 – is published by Matador and costs £8.99.

He is giving a talk about Joseph Blackburn at Blackpool Central Library on Monday, April 24 at 3pm. Tickets are £2 which includes refreshments.