John's real-time WW1 blog: Clergymen who both lose sons face the ultimate test of their faith

John Dilley
John Dilley

June 18, 1918

In a cruel twist of divine fate, this week sees both Market Harborough’s vicar and Little Bowden’s rector suffer the grief of losing a son to the slaughter in France.

Gunner Geoffrey Stafford

Gunner Geoffrey Stafford

The June 18, 1918, edition of the Market Harborough Advertiser reports the deaths of Private Ewart Owen, son of the Rev D Owen of Market Harborough, and Major J Hugh Jerwood, son of the Canon T F Jerwood of Little Bowden.

Major Jerwood gets the biggest headlines – partly because of his rank and also because he had won the Military Cross in 1915.

He had been listed as missing but this week the family received a letter from a fellow officer to confirm ‘there is no doubt he was killed’.

There is a long list of his early accomplishments: educated at Oakham School and captain of the rugby and cricket teams before proceeding to Jesus College at Cambridge University where ‘he distinguished himself in rowing and was stroke of the Head of the River Boat’.

Corporal Victor Marshall

Corporal Victor Marshall

Only seven words are deemed necessary to describe his widow. The report concludes: “He was married only a few months ago.”

Private Owen, who it appears had a troubled past, ‘was killed instantaneously by a shell whilst in a communication trench’.

The report says Owen finished his education at Northampton Town and County School but then suffered ‘a nerve breakdown and was sent to Australia for his health’.

He apparently tried to enlist in the Australian Army several times and was eventually accepted in 1916.

Anxiety will be mixed with anguish for Canon Jerwood – he still has one son fighting in France and another is a German PoW.

There are reports of other deaths too – among them 26-year-old Gunner Geoffrey Stafford of Caxton Street, Market Harborough.

Stafford, who used to work as a cutter at Messrs R and W H Symington, not only leaves behind his parents and family but a fiancée, Miss C Plowright of Great Bowden.

There is a brief story about Stafford which is written almost to a template: cause of death, brief highlights of pre-Army days, a cursory mention of loved ones, and a big focus on any comments from an Army representative praising the men’s part in this great crusade.

The remarks in Stafford’s case come from a chaplain, who says in a letter to his mother: “Your son was at the battery position last night when a shell exploded by him and he was killed instantly.

“I took the funeral today. We laid the body side by side with a comrade. You will be thankful your son was spared from all suffering and you may rest assured that he bravely gave himself in his country’s service.

“Let us hope and pray that our country may prove herself worthy of all the noble lives which has been spent for her.”

There is also news of Private F Hall of Highfield Street, Market Harborough, who has been killed in action. Hall, who had been employed at the Dairy Company and was a member of the Baptist Choir, leaves a widow and two children.

And in one Marston Trussell home there is a sense of cautious optimism as Corporal Victor Marshall from the village is reported as wounded but a prisoner of war in Germany. He is one of five brothers who were all sent to the fighting in France. His youngest brother Private W Marshall was killed in action last November and he has three other brothers still serving.

- This column is published every Monday by John Dilley on the Newspapers and the Great War website and will continue until the 100th anniversary of the final armistice in November 2018.

- My fellow researcher and De Montfort University lecturer David Penman is conducting a similar real-time project with the Ashbourne Telegraph. Check out his Great War Reports.

- Check out this week’s Harborough Mail for current news from the Market Harborough area.