Great Sacrifice: Researching ‘Old Boys’ of the Great War

Great SacrificeFirst-time author Jane Ainsworth explains how her passion for researching her own family tree led her to examine the lives of 76 ‘Old Boys’ from Barnsley Holgate Grammar School, killed in the Great War.

Having retired to Barnsley from Cambridge at the end of 2012, I wanted to do a research project for the district where I was born for the centenary of the Great War. The war memorial to the 76 ‘Old Boys’ of Barnsley Holgate Grammar School on display in the Cooper Art Gallery, in the original grammar school building, seemed the ideal subject.

The centenary of the opening of the art gallery, after the Holgate had relocated to larger premises, was only a few days before the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War. I had seen a couple of Memorial Books in Barnsley Archives and I wanted to produce one with a different emphasis and in much greater detail. I wanted to tell the men’s stories so that they could be remembered as individuals with so much potential to be fulfilled, had they survived the war. I felt that where they died and the resting places for their bodies, identified or not, should not be the main focus but rather their roles as much loved sons, brothers, husbands, fathers, friends, colleagues and comrades. I was fortunate to have access to the Holgate Collection in Barnsley Archives and obituaries in digitised editions of the Barnsley Chronicle to flesh out my biographies and provide photographs of the men.

Up until taking on this project, I had only researched my own family history. I had been doing this fairly obsessively on a self-taught basis for about 10 years, having started when my father, John Charles Hardy, died in 2002. Dad ‘escaped’ his family tradition of coal mining and was a History teacher with a passionate interest in his Yorkshire roots; he maintained contact with his siblings and their families, keeping the Hardy family tree up to date. As we had moved from Hoyland to Chorley in Lancashire when I was three years old, I didn’t know my cousins who were much older, but I contacted them about dad’s death and agreed to keep in touch. I felt that if no-one else took on the role my father had played then contact would be lost and the family tree would come to a halt, so I decided to take this on in tribute to him.

Once I had updated the living tree, I started checking the ancestral bloodline and I became endlessly fascinated by broadening the tree for siblings and spouses since, being a woman, I feel the female line is as important as the male line. I also set out to find a branch of the Hardy family where there had been a falling out before I was born and to find my grandmother’s Bailey relations, with whom dad had inexplicably not maintained contact after her early death in 1945.

I had never been interested in military history or battles and was fairly ignorant of the World Wars, not having covered these properly at Chorley Grammar School, where I stopped doing History at 14 (although I studied the wonderful poems of Wilfred Owen for A-Level). However, we came across various items for a great uncle when going through dad’s treasured possessions and my curiosity was piqued about this extremely handsome young man with a wistful face, wearing uniform…

Lance Corporal Charles Robert Hardy, whom I later learnt was known as Bob, had died on 3 May 1917, aged 20, while serving with the 2 / 5th Battalion of the York and Lancaster Regiment. He was initially posted as missing and, despite appeals in Barnsley Chronicle, his parents only received confirmation of their beloved son’s death an agonising 10 months later in an insensitive proforma letter.

I discovered how to find my way around the various Great War records and other sources of information and was also able to learn more about another great uncle, who was buried in Baghdad Military Cemetery. Private George Sheriff Bailey was a stretcher-bearer in the RAMC and died of disease, aged just 21. I had no idea what he looked like until I made contact with Bailey relations after moving to Barnsley. Luckily, one of my father’s cousins had a highly-valued photograph of Sheriff in uniform, surrounded by his large family.

My passionate interest in the Great War developed from finding out about my great uncles; they were family tragedies and it became personal and relevant.

I had joined several Family History Societies, who were constantly requesting contributions from members to their quarterly journals. I enjoyed writing short articles for them and Memories of Barnsley magazine about my family and places related to my Yorkshire roots. I had written longer essays while at York University (I read English and Related Literature), and had to write reports during my 30-year career in local government in Cambridgeshire. I had never anticipated that I would one day actually write a ‘proper’ book!

I donated my only copy of my Memorial Book on the 76 Holgate men to the Cooper Art Gallery on 31 August 2014 in two display books; I then revised these with new information I had researched for Barnsley Archives in December 2014. Mainly thanks to family trees on Ancestry, I was in contact with a number of relations – some of whom knew quite a lot already but others who knew almost nothing. We shared details and photographs and they fully endorsed my project, being keen to have copies of my book, so I embarked on the soul-destroying task of finding a way to do this. Barnsley’s local publisher rejected my book twice so I didn’t approach any other publishers and I was turned down for any financial assistance from many sources because I had carried out the research as an individual volunteer and not as part of a community group or charity.

I would have given up if two relations hadn’t offered to share the cost of getting 100 copies printed for sale and I was in the process of finalising my Word files to do this when serendipity intervened. A chance exchange of emails with Duncan Rogers in August 2015, led to my contract with Helion & Company Ltd and it took some time for me to believe my incredibly good fortune. I redoubled my efforts to find as much new information and photographs as possible before my deadline, which included emailing a wide range of educational institutions and employers.

My first experience as an author was made very positive and as easy as possible thanks to Duncan’s support and flexibility. I am indebted to him for producing such a high-quality publication, which has being well received by all who have purchased copies since its launch on 20 March 2016. I just wish that my parents had been able to enjoy my achievement.

Great Sacrifice. The Old Boys of Barnsley Holgate Grammar School in the First World War by Jane Ainsworth is available for purchase here

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One Response to Great Sacrifice: Researching ‘Old Boys’ of the Great War

  1. Jenny Greene says:

    This is a truly impressive piece of research which recounts the lives of the 76 Old Boys and also gives the history of the grammar school. It is a book to dip into, learn from and enjoy. A very real tribute to the 76 men who lost their lives in the Great War.

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