Well, that was unfortunate…

Peter ‘Pedro’ Cutler continues his patient, thorough research into the Harrison empire. This was, of course, the local industrialist family that owned mines in South Staffordshire, and particularly the Grove Pit and others locally.

There has been a good deal of speculation over the manner in which Lieutenant-Colonel W. E. Harrison earned his titles, and the nature of his service to the military. Peter has found the following, somewhat interesting article.

To put this into loose context, in 1912, the old man Captain W. B. Harrison died at Aldershawe, at which juncture W. E. Harrison was living at Orgreave Hall, near Alrewas. It is thought that soon after, his gentrification was complete after he became the custodian of the Wychnor Estate.

Wychnor Park

I can think of worse places to return to… the Wychnor Estate is relatively unchanged today, and it now a country club and hotel. Photo by Mig_R and posted in their Flickr photo stream. Click on the image to visit the original image and read a great potted history of the Hall.

It seems likely that the Lieutenant-Colonel contracted tonsillitis on a training camp in Wales, and was thereon restricted to a training and recruitment role, one he apparently executed so well that it earned him the OBE.

For a man of his stature, to be laid low by illness severe enough to limit his military endeavours must have been very frustrating. One can only imagine W.E. Harrison faced his unfortunate limitation with the stoicism and grace one would expect from a man of such standing.

The above is a work in process, but seems to be the case from evidence so far.

Untitled 3

Lichfield Mercury local notices, Friday, November 20th, 1914. Thanks to Peter ‘Pedro’ Cutler for the spot.

From the Lichfield Mercury, Friday, November 20th, 1914:

Lieutenant-Colonel W. E. Harrison, the officer ommanding the North Midland Division of Royal Engineers (Territorial Force) who some weeks ago returned to Wychnor Park suffering from tonsilitis, has been granted three months’ sick leave after having been examined by a board of medical officers at Whittington Barracks. Col. Harrison also consulted a London specialist, and it was found that he had strained the muscles of his heart. At the present time he is in the hands of his medical adviser (Dr. Armson), and he has been ordered to spend as much time as possible in the open-air. Colonel Harrison is naturally keenly disappointed at having been compelled to return home, but we understand that he has been given command of the Territorial Engineers Reserve unit for home and foreign service, and is now busily engaged in recruiting. Recruits are urgently needed for the 2nd North Midland Field C0., both sappers (carpenters, bricklayers, blacksmiths, saddlers and miners) and drivers for the mounted section. The company is generally recruited from Brownhlils, Pelsall and Norton Canes, and it is to be hoped that the young men of these districts will realise their responsibilities and join the ranks as speedily as possible.

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26 Responses to Well, that was unfortunate…

  1. david oakley says:

    Thanks Pedro, what a little gem ! a very worthy addition to the Harrison research. Looking at the date of the publication which in all probability would be shortly before the Division was mobilised for France, I can understand the gallant Lieutenant-colonel’s ‘keen disappointment’ that he had hunted for a London specialist to provide evidence that would keep him out of the firing line for the duration, something a little more serious than the tonsilitis diagnosed by the military authorities. I am confident that he would have much preferred to be with his men, fighting and dying on the battlefields of France.
    “Spend as much time as possible in the open air” ordered the doctor. That must have seemed like a death-knell to the gallant officer, as he thought of the dreary months or years of ‘hunting, shooting and fishing’ in front of him, together with the ordeal of persuading local young men to
    ‘realise their resposibilities’ and sign up. As Eric Morecambe used to say “Ee, it’s tough at the top”
    For years the press was known as the ‘Fourth Estate’ of the realm, which was a measurement of its power and responsibility, it’s a great pity that in those days the agrandisment of the rich and powerful was one of its prime objectives. Thank goodness we’ve come a long way since then.

  2. Pedro says:

    Looking again at the clip throws up many questions, one being how the 2nd North Midland Field Co fared in the war…

    “On 31 August 1914 the War Office issued instructions for all units of the Territorial Force to form a reserve unit. The men who had agreed to serve overseas were separated from the rest. Those left as ‘home service only’ were formed into ‘second line’ units, which would be this reserve. They were joined by many new recruits from September 1914 onward.”

    Mor info see here….

    http://www.1914-1918.net/59div.htm

  3. David Evans says:

    Hi Bob
    a big thank you to Pedro, please. I am losing my touch.I have just spent a happy hour trawling through Military Records to try to find this good high ranking officer, without any success, I am afraid;I even checked the Citations of the Distinguished Conduct Medal section. No success. Found lots of Harrisons who lost their lives in action, though., but no W E Harrison, Lieutenant-Colonel, officer commanding the North Division of the Royal Engineers. I wonder if other readers can help, please.I put it down to my screws.

    cheers
    David

    • pedro says:

      David,

      On the death of WE in 1937, amongst other things, the Lichfield Mercury said…

      “Colonel Harrison, like his father, took a prominent part in the Territorial Army movement from its inauguration in 1908. He formed a field company of Royal Engineers, recruiting the company, with the exception of the drivers, from his own colliery. In 1912 he was appointed to command the Royal Engineers of the 46th North midland Division and was then given the rank of lieutenant-colonel.

      When war broke out he went with the Division to Luton, but suffered in health, and was transfered to Deganwy, to command the Royal Engineers Training Battalion of the New Army. From Deganwy he was transfered to Plymouth to command a special brigade of the Royal Engineers. He was twice mentioned in despatches, and for his war services was awarded the OBE…”

  4. pedro says:

    Should also add that we have already seen from a thesis by Andrew Thornton…

    “To overcome this problem (recruitment) the officer commanding the 2nd North Midland Field Company, Royal Engineers, Major William Harrison, began his recruiting among the employees of his family’s collieries. Among the first men who joined the Company were miners employed at the Cathedral and Grove Pits at Brownhills. Harrison also used the novel technique of ensuring that any men seeking work at one of his collieries would only be employed on condition that they enlisted in the Territorials.”

  5. morturn says:

    This is interesting stuff. ‘He was suffering from tonsillitis, and it was found that he had strained the muscles of his heart’.

    You don’t think that this guy had actually contracted Rheumatic fever, how old was he when he died?

    • pedro says:

      Hi Dave,

      The Colonel was born in 1875 and died in 1937, and so would be around 39 in 1914.

      He must certainly have been quite fit prior to this date, and I have not seen anything to suggest that he had any long-term illness, although my searching to date has been mainly up to 1910.

      After the War in 1925 he became Alderman, 1927 became High Sheriff of Staffordshire, and in 1927 became Deputy Lieutenant of Staffs. He was president of many concerns in sport, horticulture and livestock. He supported The South Staffs Hunt, but not sure if he actually rode. He must have been very active around the Wychnor farmland and his cattle were shown all over the country winning several prizes and commanding very good prices!

  6. Dave Fellows says:

    The reason the British army fared so badly in the first couple of years of the war, was due to situations such as above. Because you were an employer/ public school educated etc, it was automatically assumed that you would make a competent commander of men in battle. I should imagine Harrison’s rank of Lt, Colonel wasn’t based on any great military experience or knowledge. Perhaps he rode a horse well (I’ve seen that as a recommendation to make an 18 year old public schoolboy an officer in 1914!)
    The price of the tactical incompetence of many of these officers when faced with the proffesionalism of their counterparts in the German army would unfortunately be paid by many of the men under their command.
    In some of the researching that I’ve done, quite a few of these “gentry” suddenly developed “illnesses” when push came to shove.
    Dave

    • Pedro says:

      David,

      Andrew Thornton also writes…

      “On the formation of the 2nd North Midland Field Company, Royal Engineers, in April 1908, the three officers appointed to serve with the unit had no previous military experience but all had connections with Captain W.B. Harrison, who had agreed to raise the Company for the Territorial Force Association. Captain Harrison’s son William filled the role of officer commanding the new company and was immediately appointed to the rank of Major despite having no previous military experience…”

    • Andrew Thornton says:

      Hello Dave. I strongly disagree with your comments regarding British officers during the Great War as it is based more on perceptions drawn from “Oh What a Lovely War” rather than fact. With regard to W.B. Harrison, Chris Hatton, James Selby Gardner and the other officers who were commissioned in the 2nd North Midland Field Company on its formation in 1908, they were fulfilling what they felt was their obligation to public service within their local communities. They took their military roles seriously and regularly attended courses at the School of Military Engineering at Chatham, as well as annual camps and weekend training. Their knowledge of the engineering complexities of mining was also very relevant to their military roles. Based on my research on 2nd North Midland Field Company, and speaking to relatives of members of the company, Chris Hatton in particular was held in high regard by his soldiers as a professional officer and leader. I can recommend some books which provide a more balanced assessment of officers of the British Army from this period which may alter your perceptions.

  7. Andrew Thornton says:

    Hello

    I just came across this thread. I am Andrew Thornton who wrote about the Thesis that you have quoted from. With regard to 2nd North Midland Field Company, about 20 years ago I researched the war history of the “Norton Territorials” and still have extensive files on individuals who served, many of whom came from Brownhills as you probably already know. If you want any information, please contact me.

  8. David Evans says:

    Hello Andrew,
    I shall be pleased if you could kindly give any details of service in France, or any other posting abroad during WW1 of the good Lieutenant Colonel W.E.Harrison, (officer commanding,46th North Midland Division, Royal Engineers,?) from your files.
    kind regards
    David

    • Andrew Thornton says:

      The information that you have on Lieutenant-Colonel W. E. Harrison confirms that he did not serve overseas due to illness. I am not sure what conclusion you are trying to draw from this, but perhaps it should be made clear that he had volunteered for “Imperial Service”, that is to serve on active service, and did not elect to stay on home service, as 57 other members of 2nd North Midland Field Company had done in October 1914. The Territorial Force was set up originally for Home Defence and its members were not obliged by their terms of service to volunteer to serve overseas. The 57 men I mention were Sappers and Drivers and mostly miners and of humble origins. I am not sure that you would be making the same comments about their motives for wanting to stay in Britain serving their country while their comrades were in France and Flanders, unlike Colonel Harrison.

      • Hi folks

        Can I just point out that none of us are gatekeeper of history. In that sense, questioning received wisdom is no bad thing and that’s exactly what this blog exists to do.
        There are interesting and relevant questions here, and it’s good that they are being asked, however unpalatable they may seem.

        cheers
        Bob

        • Andrew Thornton says:

          Thanks Bob. I agree with you totally. I just feel there was an element of trying to portray Colonel Harrison as finding himself a cushy position at home instead of going to fight, almost as if because of his social standing and class, he was able to wriggle out of going to France while the ordinary Sappers did not have an option.

          • Andrew
            I think, considering some of the history of Harrison, and his treatment of his own employees – effectively pressing them to volunteer – it’s a pertinent question and point of view.
            We form opinions on the history we gather. My jury is still out on this one. Harrison was clearly somewhat of a character.
            If you feel differently, put your case. It will be assessed by the readers along with the other information here.
            Cheers
            Bob

  9. Pedro says:

    Andrew, thank you for your involvement and valuable source of information.

    I can understand the arguments both for and against David’s and your own points of view, and that further reading could only enhance knowledge of the subject. However, many would look for facts that would back up their already entrenched view.

    My interest is in the more particular area around Brownhills, and the particular Harrison family. You comment that WB Harrison, known locally as the Captain, was fulfilling what he felt was his obligation to public service within his local community. This begs the question as to just what he considered his obligations, and to which local community.

    The Captain was born in Stafford Street, Walsall where his father was lime master, before moving into coal in 1849. His father purchased Norton Hall around 1851, and had acquired enough finance to move to Eastland House in Leamington before his death in 1877, leaving the Captain and family at the Hall. The rise in wealth, I believe, allowed the Captain more time to concentrate on his sporting activities including shooting. In the 1890’s the Captain moved to the ancient Aldershawe where his rise in class allowed him to entertain the Sheriff on his ride, spend time in London with the Owners Association, and to visit Kruger in South Africa. Also to complain about the smoke drifting over the Estate from Sandfields Pumping Station, and rats from Femley Pits infesting his crops. He could give the young lads a penny for shooting half a dozen rats or a few sparrows.

    In 1910 the Captain was living at Aldershawe, and the L Col WE was at Orgreave Hall.The reference to Norton Hall as the ancestral home is quite amusing, it must have had much surplus space available for use. At the time of the above article in 1914 the Captain had died and both Aldershawe and Orgreave had been sold; Wychnor Estate is now the family residence.

    I am of the impression that the continuing rise in fortunes of the family, and from a position of wealth and power, allowed them to take part in the military scene over the years; in fact it seems that it could have been a great source of pleasure and prestige. This of course would no doubt be very valuable at the moment in time, but what of other obligations and the local community, not in Albershawe, Orgreave or Wycnor, but around Brownhills?

  10. Andrew Thornton says:

    Hello Pedro

    The Harrisons were not unusual in being involved in the Volunteer movement. If you refer to my thesis you will see that a lot of the major industrialists and landowners were involved in raising and recruiting for the Volunteers and later the Territorials. Their motives were many and varied, and there is no doubt that increasing their prestige was one of them, as I refer to in my research.

    As for the relevance to the local community in Brownhills, 2nd North Midland Field Company would not have survived if local men hadn’t joined and continued to serve with the company. The example of employing men at Harrison pits only if they joined the Territorials was only used in the early days of the Company. After that, the company was recruited by word of mouth, by workmates joining together. They felt pride in the unit, and its activities were a focus for the people of Brownhills before the war. For example, regular sports days were held at the Hussey Arms by 2nd North Midland Field Company which the villagers attended. Other social events also took place in Brownhills and at Norton Hall. If the miners who lived in Brownhills and Norton Canes, Cheslyn Hay, Great Wyrley and Pelsall were not interested in serving in the Territorials, then the Company would have been disbanded, as happened to other units around the country where local support was not forthcoming. The men were paid for their service and this came in handy when times were hard, as I found out when I talked to relatives of members of the company twenty years ago. W.E. Harrison used to pay his employees while they were at camp, which was unusual as not all employers did this, causing Territorials to lose money if they chose to serve. The members of 2nd North Midland Field Company were not conscripts or “press-ganged” into some sort of private army of the Harrisons, but became a unit which the local area were proud of. The scenes outside Norton Hall when they left to march to their mobilisation station at Burton on 10 August 1914 are testimony to this local feeling.

    I lived in Norton Canes and Cannock for 18 years so know Brownhills very well and also know the history of the Harrisons and the local mining history. My Great-Grandfather was a miner (at Kingsbury Colliery) and was also a Territorial, so that is why I became interested in the Territorial Force in Staffordshire. I am therefore very aware of the harsh conditions they worked in and also how the pit owners prospered, My Great-Grandfather was sacked for trying to start a union during the 1920’s and had to travel to Doncaster to get work. However, I do not subscribe to the “Lions led by Donkeys” arguments about the officer class, as this does them and the soldiers who served with them a great disservice. With regard to the German Army, their officer class was just as rigidly composed men from titled, landed and upper-class social backgrounds as in the pre-war British Army, and the argument that they were more “professional” just does not stand close scrutiny. This is my opinion of course, but it is based on many years of research of primary sources.

    • Pedro says:

      Having read again your reply I must say that I was aware that a lot of the major industrialists were involved in the Volunteers and later the Territorials. That W.E. Harrison used to pay his employees while they were at camp, is something we can add to the plus side!

      Correct me if I am wrong, but in the thesis did you not say that the recruitment by Harrison was a novel technique? This suggests that it was particular to Harrison, although I believe he should not be given credit for it.

      I am delighted that you know the history of the Harrisons and the local mining history, as on the Blog we have been trying to piece it together. Please feel free to correct any mistakes that I have made in the short eighteen months of my amateur research.

      • Andrew Thornton says:

        There is nothing amateur about your research Pedro and I am not having a dig. I have enjoyed reading your articles and look forward to reading more. It was indeed a novel recruitment technique used by the Harrisons when the company was being formed and I haven’t come across references to other units using it, but the majority on recruits to the 2nd North Midland Field Company came forward without this inducement.

  11. Pedro says:

    Thank you Andrew for your reply, and on first reading my attention is caught by…

    “the company was recruited by word of mouth, by workmates joining together. They felt pride in the unit, and its activities were a focus for the people of Brownhills before the war.”

    I could not agree more, and it is these men who should be held in esteem!

  12. Pedro says:

    Further information has come to light from our David Evans who has managed to see notes from the Norton Canes History Society in 1975. It confirms that at the time Norton Hall was offered it was in the hands of a caretaker, the family being at Aldershawe and Orgreave. Also that it remained the headquarters of the TA until 1932 when they moved to Cannock due to the Hall having problems with mining subsidence!

    From the Newspaper Archives… The new HQ was opened by Brig Gen CB Wingfield Stratford (79 at the time) who had taken command of the RE in October 1914…”the 46th Division were one of the star divisions in France.”

    WIKI…Wingfield-Stratford was commissioned into the Royal Engineers as Lieutenant in 1873. He ultimately retired as Brigadier-General in 1909 after being Chief Engineer in Ireland since 1906, without seeing any campaign service. However he was recalled from retirement to serve in World War I in 1914 and held command on the Western Front, taking part in the Battle of Loos in 1915, the capture of Gommecourt on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916, and was Commander R.E. of the 46th Division when it broke the Hindenburg Line in 1918. He was mentioned in despatches four times and awarded the C.M.G. in 1916 and C.B. in 1918.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cecil_Wingfield-Stratford

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  15. Pedro says:

    A comment by David Evans on a later article, and the present interest in the Great War, caused me to look back at the comments above.

    “When war broke out he (WE Harrison) went with the Division to Luton, but suffered in health, and was transfered to Deganwy, to command the Royal Engineers Training Battalion of the New Army. From Deganwy he was transfered to Plymouth to command a special brigade of the Royal Engineers. He was twice mentioned in despatches, and for his war services was awarded the OBE…”

    I am unable to find exactly why the OBE was awarded. The Special Brigade seems to have been involved in Gas warfare.

    Perhaps someone can shed light on the reasons for the award.

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