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58792 Bombardier William Henry Bentley of the Royal Field Artillery 1 month 2 weeks ago #88463

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This article in the Smethwick Telephone of 8th March 1902 allowed me to add to my list of Smethwickians who fought in the Second Boer War.

THE BENTLEY CONCERT – There has been very liberal support accorded to charitable objects in Smethwick, and perhaps this has been particularly noticeable in movements for the benefit of the dependents of army reservists. A concert held at the Town Hall, on Monday, for the benefit of the widow and three young children of the late W. H. Bentley was proof of this. Soldiers wearing their medals were the stewards, and when the Mayor thanked the audience for their kindly support, they marched on the platform to the sounds of a martial tune. The deceased was a non-commissioned officer in the Royal Field Artillery, and the special necessities of the case prompted Lord Roberts to send a donation of two guineas, while other gifts had been received from other sources.

The article then details the organising committee and the artistes who contributed their talents to the concert before continuing:

The Mayor pointed out the deserving nature of the case. W. H. Bentley, he said, joined the Royal Field Artillery fifteen years ago and at the commencement of the Boer War was called with his Battery to the front, and about sixteen months ago he returned home an invalid unable to follow any employment. He died last Christmas Day, leaving a widow and three young children totally unprovided for. The War Office had expressed regret at being unable to make an allowance for the widow and children. Both the deceased soldier and his widow were natives of Smethwick, which town had done its duty and shown its patriotism by supplying a large number of volunteers for the war.

I have now fully sorted out the life and times of William Henry Bentley and his wife/widow and children but, as it runs to over 6,000 words and two-thirds is post William and nothing to do with the Boer War, not really suitable for posting here. So, below is a potted version regarding the last two-thirds, but first a question.

Did Boer War widows receive a pension from the State and what were the conditions and who qualified? I have found an on-line article by a lady from Leicester University which looks at the matter but is rather discursive and seems to concentrate on the philanthropic and charity assistance given to Boer War widows. It estimates there were nearly 5,000 of them and claims for the first two years of the conflict they received nothing from the State. During the second half of 1901 (i.e. just before William died), owing to public pressure, the Government did start to issue widows’ pensions on a selective basis. Does anybody know more on the matter or can point me to another useful source?

Samuel Smith (Iron Foundry owner) and the recently appointed second Mayor of Smethwick, was a bit wide of the mark in describing William as a native of Smethwick although he was entirely correct in the case of his widow, who started out life in Smethwick on 2nd May 1877 as Eliza Elizabeth Yarrow.

William was born on 26th September 1866 in no less than Dover Castle where his father was stationed as a Bombardier in the Royal Artillery. William had an itinerant childhood living in Cork in Ireland, then in Cornwall just across the Tamar from Plymouth and somewhere indecipherable in Lanarkshire, Scotland. Following his father’s retirement from the army, the family first moved to Birmingham but by the time of the 1881 census when William was 14 were living at 25 Ballot Street, Smethwick. His father had found employment as a “Nightwatchman” and William was working as a “labourer” in a local ironworks. Four years later his mother died and at the time the family were living in Price Street, Smethwick.

On 31st December 1886, 20 year old William attested in Birmingham and followed in his father’s footsteps by becoming a member of the Royal Artillery. By the time he attested the family had moved back over the Smethwick border into the neighbouring Winson Green area of Birmingham and he gave his widowed father as next of kin and his address as 38 Aberdeen Street, Winson Green.

(Social history digression – We now have 4 addresses for the Bentley family in the 6 years they had lived in the West Midlands. In my experience is typical of many working class families in the last few decades of Queen Victoria’s reign – were they escaping the rent collector and/or the tally man? I am also looking at Old Boys of my Smethwick GS who served in WW2 and finding them and/or their families on the 1921 census & 1939 Register – in nearly every case they have not moved in 18 years. On the 1921 census the numbers out of work are frightening.)

When he attested William’s medical showed that at 20 years of age he measured 5 ft 5½ inches (i.e. average height for the time), weighed 9 stone 1lb and his chest measured 34 inches. He was of fresh complexion with grey eyes and brown hair and professed to follow the ways of the Church of England when worshipping. He did not have any tattoos but had a scar “over nose and between his eyes” from which we can deduce he was of normal appearance. He also had three scars on the back of his neck.

The Royal Artillery did not seem to think William had travelled enough and he was posted to Newcastle-upon-Tyne where he commenced his basic training on 5th January 1887 with the regimental number 58972. Eight and a half months later, on 20th September 1887 he was posted to India where he was to remain for just over 7 years. On 30 December 1894 he stepped foot again on the soil of England and on 10th January 1895 was transferred to the Army Reserve. On 30th December 1898, exactly 12 years after he had attested, he was fully discharged. Although in 1886 he had attested for 7 years active service and 5 years in the Army Reserve he had actually done 10 years of active service and only 2 years in reserve.

Sadly his service record, lacking any medical records, gives us no idea where William was based in India. He was ranked as a Driver when he went out to India in the autumn of 1887 but became a Gunner at the start of 1891. On 2nd December 1893 he was promoted to Bombardier. When discharged as time expired in 1898 his conduct was classed as “Good” but he did not keep an entirely clean record sheet. After two years’ service he was awarded his first Good Conduct badge and pay rise but forfeited it four months later. It was restored a year later and on the 6th anniversary of his attesting he was granted his second Good Conduct Badge and pay rise.

On being discharged to the army reserve in early 1895 he obviously returned to Smethwick where he married Smethwick born and raised Eliza Elizabeth Yarrow the next year. They married in the Church of St Michael’s & All Angels, Corbett Street, Smethwick on 5th April 1896.

Nearly three years after he married, in January 1899, William attested for a further 4 years in the Army Reserve. Was this to supplement his income with a growing family? - he and Eliza already had two children. In October 1899 his Country went to war and, when things went rather badly, Queen Victoria proclaimed a national emergency and Reservists across the country were recalled to the colours. I wonder if 33 year old father of two, William now regretted his decision to attest for a second time?

William’s service records are a bit confusing at this point but it appears he received his recall notice on 20th December 1899 and reported for duty with the 87th (Howitzer) Battery, Royal Field Artillery on Boxing Day 1899. On 27th January 1900 the 87th Battery boarded troop ship No. 59 SS Canning at Albert Docks and set sail for South Africa the following morning. On 4th February the Canning arrived at Las Palmas, Canary Islands for coaling and subsequently arrived at Cape Town on 21st February 1900.

After they disembarked at Cape Town the 87th Battery joined General Norval’s forces and proceeded to Bloemfontein which they reached during April 1900. There they formed part of the town garrison and did not move on until August 1900 but William did not move on with them. His service records show he was back in Blighty on 24th July 1900. They give no reason for his apparent early return after only 6 months in South Africa and neither do the medal rolls he appears on. He would not have been considered “time expired” as it was only 18 months since he had re-attested for 4 more years of service. We have to rely on the Smethwick Telephone article of March 1902 that he was invalided home. My original version then went into some speculation but eventually I succumbed to expenditure and ordered a copy of his death certificate. He died on Christmas Day 1901 at 60 Middlemore Road, Smethwick of “phthisis pulmonalis” or put another way, pulmonary tuberculosis.

When he returned to Blighty in July 1900 he was not fully discharged from the army until June 1901. The reason for his discharge was given as “Medically Unfit”. However, he appeared on the 31st March 1901 census as an apparent civilian living at 61 Middlemore Road. Living with him were Eliza, their now 3 children (William Henry junior, Gladys & Harold), his father and one of his younger brothers. Despite what the Mayor said a year later, he was working, as a “metal annealer”.

His service records show William was awarded a War Gratuity of £7 10s and medal rolls that a Queen’s South Africa Medal with the “Cape Colony” & “Orange Free State” clasps was issued. Written across one page of his service records in red ink is “Died in Smethwick 25th December 1901”.

So there we have William’s story. Eliza was obviously left in dire straits but perhaps we should not judge the War Office too harshly. At the time the predominating view was that tuberculosis was hereditary so I suspect in the pension stakes Eliza’s name was at the bottom of the list especially as it was well over a year since William had left South Africa before he died. The two guineas sent by Lord Roberts is interesting. Medical research was challenging the generally held view of tuberculosis and indicating it was a contagious disease which would account for outbreaks amongst the military living cheek by jowl. One of the campaigners for war widows’ pensions was convinced of this “modern” view and aware of the difficulties caused by their womenfolk having to nurse sufferers for what could be a protracted illness. She wrote to Lord Roberts in an attempt to get him to support her campaign – perhaps she had more effect than she realised.

Eliza was never to take the option of remarrying to ease her situation. The challenge she faced was actually even greater than apparently realised by the Mayor – at the time of William’s death and the concert she was pregnant and Herbert Edward Bentley entered the world in Smethwick on 1st May 1902 or just under two months after the concert – presumably dresses of the day did a good cover up job or perhaps the Smethwick Telephone was too polite to mention the matter.

So what of Eliza and the four children? As far as I can ascertain they all passed away in Smethwick in the 1950’s with the exception of William Henry junior whose death was registered in Birmingham in 1960. Eliza herself just outlived her two younger sons but failed by a few months to help Smethwick celebrate the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. So one might think nothing of interest to relate but that would be very far from the truth.

The 1911 Census found them all living in at No.51 Middlemore Road, Smethwick – nine doors away from where William Henry senior had died 10 years earlier. Also living at No.51 were Eliza’s favourite and youngest brother, George Yarrow and the mysterious Samuel Neale. 20 year old George would have been contributing to the household finances but Samuel, aged 6, would presumably have been a drain on them. Also living in Middlemore Road were two of Eliza’s married sisters and their families along with the Millward & Griffiths families.

Sadly war was not done with Eliza. George was killed in action during the Passchendaele Offensive of 1917 and one of his comrades described him as “one of God’s best”. He was not only publicly mourned by Eliza and her sisters but also by his fiancée, Sarah Jane Griffiths who signed herself off in the Smethwick Telephone as “Sweetheart Sarah”. Sarah was to suffer a double blow as a year later her younger brother Noah was killed in action during the start of the advance towards the Hindenburg Line.

Eliza and children are missing from the UK June 1921 Census but can be found on the Canadian June 1921 Census. The Millward family started things and in May 1920 Eliza’s three eldest children went out to reside with them in the township of Galt in the state of Ontario. Before Eliza went out to join them in early 1921 both Gladys and Harold had married, not to Canadians but to John Wall & Lily James who were both born and raised in Smethwick. Canadian marriage records are wonderfully informative.

When Eliza travelled she did not go alone. With her were her youngest son, Herbert Edward and Samuel Neale but the latter was passing himself off as her son. Also on the manifest were Sidney Ball (the Ball family had moved into Middlemore Road sometime after the 1911 Census) and “Sweetheart” Sarah. Sarah’s name had been crossed out and the UK 1921 Census tells us why she did not travel – she had been taken seriously ill and at the time of the census was languishing as a patient in Birmingham’s General Hospital in Leadenhall Street.

Five months after the Canadian census Eliza returned to Smethwick taking Herbert Edward, Samuel Neale and Sidney Ball back with her. 18 months later in September 1923 Eliza, possibly feeling a little seasick, returned to Canada once again taking with her - Herbert Edward & Samuel Neale but also the whole of the Ball family and, this time successfully, “Sweetheart” Sarah.

By now the focus of attention in the New World had moved to Windsor, Ontario and the City of Detroit just over the border in the USA – there is evidence that both William Henry junior and the husband of Gladys worked in “auto- plants” in Detroit.

On 9th August 1924 in Windsor, Ontario, William Henry Bentley junior married Sarah “Sweetheart” Jane Griffiths. The witnesses were his youngest brother, Herbert Edward and a Lily May Wallace and you can imagine Eliza sitting in the church with a smile of satisfaction on her face and furtively crossing an item off her “to do list”.

During the 1920’s Eliza gained several Canadian born grandchildren but there was one exception. At the end of April 1926, accompanied by Gladys & her daughter (also Gladys), “Sweetheart” Sarah departed from New York on the way back to Smethwick. Four months later at the end of August 1926 they returned to the New World but the party had grown by one, Doreen Bentley aged 2 months old. My maths tells me Sarah was about eight months pregnant when she first sailed past the Statue of Liberty. Whilst in Smethwick Sarah had stayed with her sister-in-law, the widow of her brother Noah, and Gladys had stayed with her in-laws.

During October 1932 Eliza, William Henry junior, “Sweetheart” Sarah and their now two daughters retuned to Smethwick. I am not sure when the rest returned but return they did and they can all be found in the September 1939 Register living in Smethwick. Except for Gladys & John who were living in the former home of John’s parents they had all moved up market and were to be found in either Merrivale Road or Linden Road in the residential area of Bearwood and well removed from the industry of Smethwick. The houses were Edwardian terraces rather than the mid Victorian ones found in Middlemore Road and hence had better amenities. Interestingly one of the roads making up this Edwardian development is called Belmont Road.

Tragically “Sweetheart” Sarah cannot be found on the 1939 Register as she passed away just after a year after she returned to Smethwick at the age of 44. Grief stricken William Henry junior erected an ornate headstone over her grave in Uplands Cemetery, Smethwick. Twenty years later her mother-in-law and, I suspect, best friend Eliza Elizabeth Bentley joined her. A place of pilgrimage for me when I visit Smethwick in May hopefully to obtain a better photo and a story to entertain and move the good people of Smethwick in a future edition of their Heritage Centre magazine.


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