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Members' Stories

RAYMOND THOMPSON : Jack Wick - Seaham Tenor

PAT BRUCE :  My pilot ancestor

FRED COOPER:  My uncle George's final resting place

CAROLINE OGDEN: One Pitman's Life

Raymond Thompson :            Seaham Tenor  Jack Wick         1898 -1970

Jack ( christened John)  was the third son of coal hewer Jabez James Wick and Martha Jane Wick.  His childhood was steeped in Methodism as his father Jabez was a well known Primitive Methodist Lay Preacher and Circuit Steward and many baptismal entries in the Circuit Registers can be seen endorsed with his signature.  

It should be noted however that his father preferred to be known as James Wick  as he felt the name Jabez was associated with sadness and sorrow.


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Jack Wick Concert Photo.

In his youth, Jack had shown a great deal of promise as a footballer and cricketer. Along with his brother Fred, Jack played cricket for Seaham Harbour, both lads showing a great deal of promise but like many other young men of his day his boyhood dreams were shattered when the shadow of the Great War loomed. 

He joined the Royal Fusiliers 50th Northumbrian Division under age, giving a false date of birth as many young men did at that time. Tragically Jacks service to his country ended in 1916 when following an incident on the field of battle his leg was amputated and his shoulder badly damaged.  He was found on the battlefield coincidentally by another Seaham man who carried Jack back to safety.  

Back in England he spent a considerable time in Liverpool Hospital recovering from his wounds.  Due to his disability the remainder of Jacks working life was in the ‘stores’ at Dawdon Colliery.

Shortly after his discharge from hospital Jack made an impromptu visit to Centenary Chapel.  The family recall the occasion when the congregation were singing a hymn when from the back of the chapel above their united voices came the powerful singing voice of Jack.  His rich tenor voice was immediately recognised by all and not a dry eye was to be seen as Jack was welcomed back to his own.


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When Jack was in hospital at Liverpool following the amputation of his leg, he made the acquaintance of Kingsley Lark one of the finest bass singers to tour with the Carl Rosa Opera Company, Britain’s oldest operatic company.  

Jack was to sing with Kingsley Lark on many future occasions and he was introduced to some of the world’s finest operatic singers of the time including Joseph O’Mara the famous Irish tenor and to John Coates renowned as the greatest English tenor of the day.  In 1918 Jack was a member of a concert party which performed at Seaham Hall before the Marchioness of Londonderry. At this time Seaham Hall was being used as a convalescent home for the war wounded. The Marchioness was so impressed with his voice that she expressed the wish to accompany Jack at the piano and did so at an event at Erskine House, Glasgow. 

 In 1924 the Marchioness was Jacks sponsor at the national ‘Webber Douglas’ music competition for tenors.  He was second in the competition, beaten only by one point.

Jack went on to take an active lead in community functions giving lectures on a variety of themes such as the "Songs and poems of Robert Burns" or "How music came into the Churches"  His reputation as a singer grew and he became a princpal performer and much loved entertainer in the North East.


Such was Jacks standing as a tenor that he performed a number of times with one of Britains principal sopranos Miss Isobel Baillie.  She was known to the country through her many B.B.C. concerts.  Jack also performed with the acclaimed contralto Kathleen Ferrier who had an international reputation as a stage, concert and recording artist.

Seaham born Sir Thomas Boaz Allen remembers Jack Wick when he recalls the early days of his own career.  Jack introduced him to a number of audiences in the North East. He goes on to say that Jack must have had a considerable reputation to appear alongside artists such as Kathleen Ferrier and Isobel Baillie. To perform in this company Jack must have been one of the most prominent tenors in the North of England.

A member of Dawdon Church Choir, Jack is remembered by Sir Tom to have had a “sweet voice.” He had however a persistent cough and a penchant of the odd cigarette (Woodbines) often seen hanging from his mouth. He recollects that Jack always had his trusty walking stick to hand remarking to Sir Tom it was the stalk of a Brussels Sprout plant he had bought on a visit to the Channel Isles.

Lady Londonderry took a keen interest in Jacks career and Sir Tom recalls someone telling him that she offered to pay for him to study in London.  Jacks mother told him that it wasn’t for him and as Sir Tom puts it “the rest is history.”

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Jack had married the then Winifred (Winnie) Henderson from Silksworth, Co Durham in 1931.  Their home for most of their married life was at number 1 Beaumont Street, Dawdon.  Later, Jack was to move to Union Street.   There were no children from the marriage but Val Challiss remembers well how Jack and Winnie doted on their nieces and nephews.  

Following Winnie’s death, Jack met Greta Pattison from Sacriston they married on 9th May 1970 at St Peters Church in Greta’s home town but tragically on the wedding day Jack was taken ill and died on the way to the reception. Jack was 72 years of age at the time of his death.  

J Wick by Raymond Thompson
Click here to read the full account

Pat Bruce - My pilot ancestor in the post war Royal Air Force

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In October 2012 Pat Bruce of SFHG was reseaching her family history and asked Tony Popham of the Biggin Hill Heritage Centre for information about a flying accident near RAF Biggin Hill in the early post war period. Her familiy ancestor was Sergeant Pilot John Branthwaite who was stationed at Biggin Hill and killed in a flying accident at East Sutton Hill on 19th August 1951, aged 27 years. Tony was able to pass on the request to researcher Peter Osborne at Biggin Hill who carried out the research on Pat's behalf.


Peter visited the Public Records Office at Kew and consulted Biggin Hill's Operations Record Book which is held there. Against the date was a rather brief entry which gave few details of the accident. Peter then contacted the RAF Museum at Hendon where a helpful reseacher forwarded an extract from the book "Last Take Off: A Record of RAF Aircraft Losses 1950-1953" by Colin Cummings. The following details were given in the book.


"19 August 1951 Gloster Meteor T Mk 7 WF790, 41 Sqn, East Sutton


Pilot Sgt John Branthwait and Passenger Aircraftsman 1st Class Peter Bangs

Whilst performing aerobatics, the aircraft emerged from cloud at about 900 ft in a fully inverted attitude. It then flicked both ways and dived steeply into the ground. The aircraft had stalled at the top of a loop and the pilot had not ascertained the cloud base before commencing the loop."


Now knowing the identity of the aircraft the Museum researcher was able to find the accident card which fortunately was reasonably legible. The card details are given below.


 "19-12 hrs Local Flying

Whilst performing aerobatics, a/c emerged from cloud in a fully inverted position at about 8000 ft and at low speed, flicked both ways and dived steeply into the ground. Pilot unable to recover from stall at top of loop - did not ascertain actual height of cloud base before commencing to loop a/c below cloud - entered cloud at top of loop with subsequent loss of horizon - possible that passenger may have hung onto control column top of loop so causing the spin.

412- - Aerobatics should not be carried out on a passenger first flight - probable that the passenger froze on to the controls."


The altitude at which the pilot seems to have lost control is at odds with the 900 ft given in the book extract. The accident card is difficult to read in places and it could be 8000 or 9000 ft but it certainly is  not 900 ft.

A check with The National Memorial Arboretum record which has data of most post war servive deaths, showed Sgt Branthwaite to be buried at Biggin Hill and AC1 Bangs funeral to have been at Enfield Crematorium.


As a last piece of information Pat received a photograph of Sgt John Branthwaite's headstone which did misspell the name but was confirmed as his by the service number. More information may be forthcoming but this enquiry allowed everyone to peel back another piece of post war RAF history relating to Biggin Hill and Pat's family.


The Meteor T Mk 7 in which Sgt Branthwaite was killed was an early post war RAF jet trainer widely used in the 1950's on many squadrons including 41 Squadron at Biggin Hill. Compared with today, flying accidents were much more common. For example in 1951 alone there were 38 Meteor flying accidents which resulted in 28 fatalities including of course Sgt Branthwaite. The photograph below shows such a Meteor T Mk 7, WF787. The weblink to the video shows a flying display in 2013 at Fairford by a Meteor T Mk 7, performing very similar aerobatics to those which sadly led to the death of Sgt Branthwaite and his passenger.


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Photo - left of a Gloster Meteor - from The photo was taken in 1960 and shows a TT Mk7 aircraft representative of many Meteors which ended their service life by being converted to target tugs. This particular aircraft was used by Coltishall Target Tug Flight. In most respects it is similar to WF790 as flown by Sgt Branthwaite.

Photo - right shows the memorial headstone for the grave of Sgt Branthwaite at Biggin Hill Cemetery.

Fred Cooper    -     Flanders Fields and The Somme Battlefields.

                                                        My search for Uncle George’s final resting place


My father’s older brother George William Cooper was born in Seaham in 1896. He was nine years older than my father and he enlisted aged 18 at the Sunderland recruiting office in early 1915. His chosen regiment was no surprise. Seaham Harbour had a reputation of training the finest artillery soldiers in the army since Lady Frances Ann, Marchioness of Londonderry, instituted the Seaham Artillery Volunteers in 1860. Almost every family in Seaham would have had a father or son enlisted in the 1,000 strong Seaham Artillery Volunteers equipped with full uniforms and training regularly with horses, gun carriages and heavy artillery gun practice. 

George enlisted with 92nd Brigade, Royal Field Artillery and after three months intensive training he was posted to the Ypres area of Belgium (Flanders) in July 1915. The area around Ypres had taken the brunt of the German offensive since 1914. For four years the town of Ypres (now renamed Ieper, pronounced “Eeper”) and the surrounding area was completely flattened with artillery shells as the Western Front moved backwards and forwards between successive British and German offensives. However, the Belgian’s proudly state that the German army only ever occupied the town of Ypres for one day over those four years.

The 92nd Brigade of the RFA (Royal Field Artillery) was a howitzer unit which were very heavy artillery pieces and George was a driver in “D” Battery. A driver was not someone in charge of a motorised vehicle. He was one of two horsemen sitting on a team of six horses pulling a 6” howitzer artillery gun and a gun carriage with shells. 

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The Cooper family were living at 11 Frederick Street, Seaham when they received the tragic news that their son George William had been killed in action on 29th September 1917.

From the Commonwealth Graves Commission I was able find that he was buried in the Welsh Cemetery (Caesar’s Nose) Grave Ref 11.A.7. which is at Ypres (now Ieper), West Vlaanderen, Belgium. From the National Archives I was able to find his medal card. He was awarded the Victory Medal, the 1915 Belgium and France Star and the British Star.

I recall my dad talking about his older brother George when I was very young. Dad was part of the 6th Armoured Brigade during WW2. His outfit landed at Normandy on “D” day + 3 and moved through France into Belgium and then on to Holland and over the Rhine into Northern Germany. He regretted that whilst he was in Belgium he was not able to visit his brother’s grave but then he had no information at that time about where his brother was buried.


Visiting the battlefields of WW1 has always been on my “things to do list” but whenever a tour was advertised I always found some reason or other not to go. That was until I saw the itinerary for this particular tour advertised for “Flanders Fields and The Somme Battlefields”. The itinerary included, amongst other things, a visit to The Essex Farm Cemetery. I knew from my research that Caesar’s Nose Cemetery where Uncle George was buried was only about 6 kilometres from Essex Farm Cemetery. I could not miss this opportunity of visiting the battlefields particularly when it would be going so close to Uncle George’s grave. I rang my brother Phil and when I told him about the tour we both agreed we should not miss this opportunity.


We picked up the coach on 12th October 2014 at Park Lane, Sunderland and travelled to Hull where we caught the overnight P&O ferry to Zeebrugge. After disembarking the ferry on the next morning the coach took us to the town of Ypres and we arrived mid-morning. The tour included entry to the Flanders Fields Museum. The Museum is housed within the re-built cathedral of Ypres and contains artefacts, photographs, war memorabilia etc. showing the devastation of the town and the surrounding area during WW1.


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                  The cathedral at Ypres before WW1                                                       The cathedral at Ypres after WW1 

On the coach from Ypres to our hotel, The Royal Astor at Ostend, I asked the driver if it would be possible on our planned visit the next day to Essex Farm Cemetery if he could drop Phil and me off at Caesars Nose Cemetery. He said he would check it out on the satnav that evening and tell us the next morning. Just after breakfast he gave us the bad news that our cemetery was “in the middle of nowhere” and he wouldn’t be able to get the coach anywhere near it.


However, Phil and I were not going to give up. When we picked up our guide for the day (Simone from Ypres) I asked how we could get to the cemetery and to our delight she offered to take us in her car after the days tour was finished.


The tour that day started with a visit to Essex Farm Cemetery where we saw the grave of VJ Strudwick of The Rifles Brigade who was the youngest soldier to die in WW1 aged 15. 

We continued on to the field dressing station. First aid medics scoured the battlefield and shell holes even under fire searching for injured soldiers. They made the life-or-death decision whether to leave a soldier in the field because in their opinion his injuries were beyond help and move on to carry another soldier back to the field dressing station.  Here surgeons amputated damaged limbs in seconds without regard to whether the limb may have recovered with proper nursing and hospital care. 

We then moved on to the Yorkshire Trench where a group of Belgian archaeologists nicknamed “the diggers”  had discovered and excavated a lost trench system only fourteen years earlier and uncovered 155 bodies of British soldiers.

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My brother Phil on the sniper step

We then visited the Langermark German cemetery and the enormous Tyne Cot Cemetery. The difference between the cemeteries of Germany and the British and Commonwealth were striking. The Belgian Government gifted the land for British and Commonwealth cemeteries for “ever” but they only granted the land for German dead for thirty years. As a consequence there is a full grave for every British soldier whereas the German dead had to be exhumed after thirty years and they were buried on land the German Government purchased. They were re-buried in multiple graves with perhaps six to eight names on each headstone. 

We arrived back at Ypres about 5.30 pm and as the rest of the coach party looked for a restaurant for dinner Phil and I went with Simone in her car. From Ypres she drove for about five kilometres, turned off the main road for about one kilometre and onto a farm track.
 At the end of the farm road was a farmyard gate and at the side of the gate was a grass path maintained by the farmer and leading 200 metres to the cemetery. The farmer’s wife met us at the gate and told us that we were very welcome and that about 6 or 7 people per day visit the cemetery and that we should just knock if we needed anything.

The cemetery is in a lovely setting and well maintained. The sun was low in the sky and it felt very tranquil and most unlike any of the larger cemeteries we had visited that day. My brother and I planted two British Legion wooden crosses and gave our respects to George on behalf of our family. I said a few words at the graveside to tell Uncle George that although he had been lying in a foreign field for nearly 100 years his family in Seaham had not forgotten him.


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 It was comforting to know that he is buried with 7 of his comrades from D Battery all killed on the same day. I have tried looking for War Diaries for 29th Sep 1917 for 92nd Brigade RFA to find out how they were all killed together but unfortunately the war diary for September is missing. However I have uncovered the 20th Division HQ orders which show that “D Battery” was expected to advance to Essex Farm ready for a major offensive just two days after Uncle George was killed. So in my travels that day I must have covered much of the same ground that Uncle George walked on in his final days.

Caroline Ogden  -  One Pitman's Life

A glimpse into the working life of Caroline's father   -    George Robson Glenhorn 1897 - 1934

George Robson was known  to his family as Ropsy.   He was born 10th March 1897 at Seaham Harbour and came from a long line of miners dating back to 1765.


At the age of 14 Ropsy and his best friend Alan Vickers started work together at Seaham Colliery.  They began as trappers, moved on to drivers and after two or three years they were both putters.  In their youth they played handball at the ball alley next to the pit yard.  It was a stone wall about 30ft long and almost as high.  It was the scene of much gambling during handball matches between local champions and those of nearby collieries. It was also used as an outdoor meeting place when men were in dispute with the colliery management.

The friends did everything together and were both in the Territorial Army when WW1 began.  When the war ended they returned to Seaham Colliery and worked as marras hewing coal.  In 1919 Ropsy married Jenny and in 1925 the family with two children, Frederick and Georgina moved to 5 Summerson’s Buildings.  They now had two rooms upstairs with a small landing shared with a neighbour.

In earlier years the medical officer for County Durham reported Seaham as having the highest death rate in the county, brought about by families being herded together in dark , damp, unhealthy, overcrowded buildings.  Summerson’s Buildings was typical: 25 tenants (72 human souls) using one large disgusting ashpit into which 7 privies were emptied.  Several houses and the common wash-house were in close proximity to this filthy structure, one tap in the centre of the yard for all. 

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It was here, after a still birth, that two more children were born, Caroline in 1926 then Surtees in 1930.  The three eldest children slept in the dress-bed in the living room come kitchen.  During the day it folded up to look like a cupboard with two doors in front.  Life was hard, both for the men working long hours down the pit, and for their wives bringing up large families in these terrible conditions.  A lot of work was lost by the pitmen over the next few years owing to the pits being idle.  Ropsy kept himself occupied at these times at his allotment about a quarter of a mile from his home where he grew plenty of vegetables for the family.  He also loved growing roses.  The family spent many summer days there, both working and playing and picnicking on jam sandwiches and water to quench their thirsts.  He also helped at home and made lovely brown bread.  To help out with money he was a bookies runner, which was against the law then but the local police turned a blind eye to it, knowing how hard hit the miners were and no doubt liking to place a bet themselves.


In June 1930 Seaham Colliery Pit was laid idle for many weeks.  Jenny was a very frugal housewife, as were most miners wives, and she fed her family as well as possible.  She did all her shopping at the Co-op.  She said it was the dividend from the Co-op and all the home grown vegetables from the allotment that kept them fed during the 1926 General strike when she was pregnant with her 4th child.  With a few bacon bones begged from the bacon counter and a whole lot of fresh vegetables she would make a big pan of broth.  A rabbit could be bought quite cheaply from men who went out rabbit catching when out of work, so the family would have a rabbit pie on a Sunday and the bairns would ask if it was their turn for a kidney.  All bread and pies were made at home but cakes were only made for special occasions like Christmas, Easter or birthdays.


Ropsy had been on the colliery housing list since he married in 1919 and in 1932 he got the key to  a colliery house at 38, Doctor Street, Seaham Colliery which of course was rent free.  It was nearer the pit and had the advantage of a large garden.  There was a coalhouse in the yard and the old ‘netty’ had just been removed and replaced by a water closet.  The disadvantage was that the communal tap was six doors away outside  No. 44  so there was quite a walk to carry all the water needed by a busy household.  The kitchen range was in the large living room and the fire only went out once a week when the stove was black leaded and polished.  All the baking, boiling and frying was done on this stove: even the clothes were boiled on the fire in a very large cauldron.  The floor downstairs was flagged with thick, square red tiles and was covered by clippy mats.


Bath time for everyone was in a large enamel bath in front of the fire, the boys having to go upstairs while the girls had their bath and vice versa.  The middle of Ropsy’s back was never washed as the pitmen believed it weakened the spine.  The pits were working again in 1933 and many weeks Ropsy worked 5 shifts so things seemed to be looking up for the family. 


By April 1933 however it was back to 2 days work a week and sometimes none.  On May 11th many men, including Ropsy were given 14 days notice.  Then on May 20th the cavils went in and 5 hewers out of 8 were wanted.  Then it was only odd days of working.  At this time if the pit was to be idle the next day the ‘Crake Man’ would come round the streets and wave his crake in the air.  On hearing this everyone would hurry out in the street and he would shout “Seaham Colliery Pit idle tomorrow” and everyone would moan.  The pits hardly worked that year and in August Ropsy had to start paying rent for the first time in the colliery house.


The pit worked no more that year but in the middle of March the following year 1934 Ropsy was among 50 men who were given work.  He resumed work on Monday March 19th in first shift which meant leaving the house at 2.30am and descending in the cage at 3.00am.  On the 3rd day Wednesday 21st March Ropsy left the house at the usual time, calling up the stairs before leaving ‘Don’t forget that corn is needed for the hens Jenny.’  Caroline aged 7 heard his last words as she lay in bed.  At 8.15 there was a fall of stone at the coal face where Ropsy and Alan were working together.  It caught Alan then fell on top of Ropsy trapping him underneath.  Alan and the other men working there helped to lift the stone from his neck and shoulders.  He was taken from the coal face and went up in the cage where the ambulance was waiting.  Alan went with him to Sunderland Royal Infirmary and he managed to speak to his marra on the way but died later that day with severe head injuries.  The family and Alan were devastated.


Ropsy’s funeral was held on Sunday March 25th at Christ Church where he had been married just 15 yrs before.  His coffin was carried by Alan and three other men he worked with, and placed in a horse drawn hearse.  This was followed by 4 horse drawn cabs for the family, then hundreds of colliery pitmen, their wives and families following behind.  The distance from Ropsy’s house to the church was about a quarter of a mile and the funeral procession was almost as long.  Jenny, Ropsy’s mother and mother-in-law and Surtees (then aged 4) stayed at home.  It was usual those days for widows not to attend their husbands funerals.   After the solemn service Ropsy was buried in the churchyard of Christ Church.


The next day, Monday March 26th,  young Fred, now aged 14, started his career in mining at the same pit as his father was killed just a few days earlier.  On the same day the ‘Keyman’ as he was called, knocked on the door of No. 38 and told Jenny that she and her family would have to vacate the tied house as her son Fred, the man of the house, was not old enough to claim rent and coal. The miners union, however, fought the case for her, and as the council was soon to take over the houses which were condemned to make way for a new council estate, she was allowed to stay.

                                                                       "Our lives hang by a single thread

                                                                         It soon is cut and we are dead

                                                                         Then boast not reader of the might

                                                                         Alive at noon and dead at night."


Found with the papers of George Robson Gleghorn after his death.