Your article: Surprise over recordings of the brave Pocklington war veterans

Billy at camp in Alnwick
Billy at camp in Alnwick

Harry Patch was the last surviving fighting Tommy that took part in World War One and died in 2009 aged 111.

There are now no survivors of the Great War that can tell us of their experiences. If only we had recorded the memories of one of the 300-plus Pocklington and district war veterans, before they had passed on.

Imagine my surprise when I recently discovered that a handful of recordings of Pocklington veterans had survived. The story of their discovery is remarkable. Dr Alf Peacock was a Cambridge man, a historian, who had settled in York and was warden of the York Settlement, a centre for further education in the city. He had talked to his own father (though had not recorded it), also called Alfred Peacock, about his time in World War One. This gave Alf a real interest in the war. He decided to do some recordings relating to the Somme, and so he advertised for men who had been on the Somme and he got such a response that he extended this to experiences of the war as a whole.

His book was written, and the reel to reel tapes with 285 interviews were then deposited into Cambridge University library and they lay in a cupboard for 30 years, un-catalogued or referenced. He died in 2004, and his widow, by chance, mentioned to a member of the York Oral History Society about the existence of these tapes. After much searching, the Society finally tracked them down. Because of their valuable importance, in 2012 they were awarded a National Heritage lottery grant to digitise them and transcribe them. A book was written by Van Wilson entitled ‘These Were Earth’s Best: Voices of the First World War’ and describes the project and comes with a free audio CD.

On 19 November, The Pocklington and District Local History Group are to play the recordings of five of the veterans from the Pocklington area. The recordings will be accompanied by pictures and films of World War One with illustration from some background documents found on the men themselves. The recordings describe in vivid detail their memories of the trenches in France, the battles and comradeship of the men. Their loyalty and bravery is without question. Some experienced horrific injuries and had to have limbs removed. One of them, Thomas Flint, describes his memories of early working life in Pocklington working for Stubbs as an apprentice wheelwright. He also relates his father’s memories of working for Admiral Duncombe at Kilnwick Hall and subsequently working at Young’s brewery in Chapmangate. Thomas joined the Royal Engineers in 1915 and helped to build billets for the soldiers, and describes ‘going over the top’ alongside the infantry and then having to rapidly dig trenches after their advances. He eventually lost his leg to a shell which landed and killed many of his comrades. He survived it, and was brought back to England for a long recovery, and was awarded a war pension. He lived to be 97 and died in 1983.

Others featured on the night will be Stanley Robson an officer whose father Thomas Robson was a solicitor in Pocklington and he describes how his family suffered many tragedies including the loss in action of two of his brothers, after which he was recalled from the front. After the war he became full time organist/musical director at Grimsby, but he retired to Pocklington and was an organist at All Saints. He lived on Algarth and is buried in Pocklington cemetery.

Hawksworth (Oxy) Barker served in Mesopotamia and fought in Egypt and Gaza and describes his experiences of fighting the Turks, and suffering injury himself. He lived after the war for many years in Victoria Road in Pocklington.

Charles Richardson was born in Kirk Deighton but in later life lived in Pocklington and took part in the battle of the Somme.

Billy Harrison was from Nunburnholme and was a character remembered by many in the area playing his violin in the Gate Inn at Millington. His family were threshing machine proprietors who had their business operating from Pocklington and Stamford Bridge. Billy describes his family business and goes on to explain in vivid detail being a machine gunner in the trenches and having to cope with the strafing from German biplanes.

Because of the limited seating in the old courthouse, on George Street, Pocklington, early attendance is recommended. It is due to start at 7.30pm next Thursday (19 November) and entry costs £2. The photographs are by kind permission of Peter Halkon who was editor of the biography of Billy Harrison called “Bill’s Book” printed by Hutton Press.