JOHN DILLEY’S WWI BLOG: Remembering the cheekie chappie of Harborough’s Pleasure Resort

Ex Harborough Mail editor John Dilley with a copy of the Market Harborough Advertiser.
Ex Harborough Mail editor John Dilley with a copy of the Market Harborough Advertiser.

February 20, 1917 – The cheeky chappie of Harborough’s Pleasure Resort is dead – after only four weeks at the Front.

Ted Hill was a man well known in Market Harborough. He used to run the Harborough Pleasure Resort, known as The Boathouse on the banks of the town’s canal, and everyone enjoyed ‘his cheery presence’. He also had a young wife and a very young son.

But four weeks after being called to the Front for the very first time he was killed.

His story is told in the February 20, 1917, edition of the Market Harborough Advertiser. It is a sad tale that sums up the tragedy of war where a huge personality who is a key member of a community can be reduced to a statistic by the mince-making war machine of the Western Front.

The reporting of the Private E P Hill’s death in the Advertiser is interesting for other reasons too.

Only 12 months earlier the readers of Market Harborough’s paper would be given unvarnished accounts of life and death in France and other battle fronts despite the Government’s censorship laws. The stories, sourced from the letters written by the common Tommy, were remarkable for their eloquence and insight into what was really happening.

But in early 1917 there is no detail or articulacy in the newspaper’s stories. We don’t know why: perhaps the censors have clamped down on the small weekly papers that were regularly flouting the Defence of the Realm Act; perhaps the soldiers themselves were so sickened by the depravity of war that they dare not speak the truth anymore; or perhaps the Advertiser’s editor knows that his readers do not want the detail – gloss over the reality so they can pretend their loved ones are not in hell.

Whatever the reason, the Advertiser’s account of Ted Hill’s death is a superficial one, focusing on the times that people want to remember rather than the reality that was probably a gory and macabre ending.

“Needless to say the deepest sympathy is extended to Mrs Hill and her little boy in their loss of so gallant a husband and father,” says the story.

“Patrons at The Boathouse will miss Ted Hill’s cheery presence, cordial welcome, and willingness to do anything to promote happiness, and pleasure.”

A similar, superficial approach is taken to reporting the deaths of two Lubenham soldiers – Private Ernest Meacham and Private Robert Durrant.

Meacham, of the 6th Leicesters, was officially pronounced dead after being reported missing more than six months before. A photograph of him in uniform – a similar pose struck by many thousands of other young soldiers – is reproduced along with these scant details

There is more information in the account of Durrant’s death. The youngest of four boys living on The Green in Lubenham, he ‘was rather badly wounded’ in October 1915 but ‘recovered and returned to the fighting line’.

There is also more detail about his family who are well known in the village. “He has three brothers serving – two in France and one in Egypt – and a brother-in- law a prisoner of war in Germany,” says the story.

Life, of course, goes on and this is evident in a remarkable ‘first’ – a photograph of a couple celebrating their 65th wedding anniversary.

The picture of Mr and Mrs John Driver of Woodfield House, Medbourne, includes their dog – who is not named! – and plenty of detail about their family life.

Mr Driver is Medbourne through and through – ‘his forefathers being tanners in the village’ – and his wife is from Rushton.

They had THIRTEEN children and the newspaper’s account duly shows its surprise that ELEVEN are still alive – quite an achievement in the days when infant mortality rates were so high.

All their offspring are given a name check as well as three grandchildren they also brought up. The celebrations ‘were of a quiet nature’ but when the war is over they hope to have a ‘big anniversary rejoicing then’.