William Richard Parsons

12th November 1895—3rd April 1917

Private William Richard Parsons, 22227 of B Company, 1st Battalion Dorsetshire Regiment, was killed in action on 3rd April 1917.

Family Life

We start the family with William’s parents: Benjamin Richard and Emily (née King). We know little of Emily. She was born in 1866 at Woodlands St. Mary—a scattering of a few homes in the countryside near Lambourn, Berkshire, mid-way between Swindon and Newbury. The family is absent from the 1871 Census and by that of 1881 she had moved away from the parental home and is recorded as a domestic servant in Tottenham, London. 1891 sees her still in service but as a cook to a surgeon at 24 Saville Row, Westminster. She married Benjamin two years later, in Portsmouth. He was a merchant seaman, born in Itchenor, a small village on Selsey Bill, near Bognor Regis, Sussex, and was the son of a master mariner.

Portsmouth Harbour, Circa 1890, with HMS Victory and Duke of Wellington. Copyright unknown

Benjamin and Emily had five children: four boys and a girl, all born in Portsmouth. In order, they are: William Richard (1895), Charles Gordon (1898), Ethel Miriam (1901), Henry Cecil (1903), and Ernest Alfred (1906). William’s extended family was large, with eight bloodline aunts and uncles on his father’s side.1

By the time of the 1911 Census, the family are living in the Newtown area of Gosport. This is separated from Portsea Island (the main island of Portsmouth, where they had lived previously) by the mouth of Portsmouth harbour. Benjamin, as head of the household, is listed as ‘Mariner on Yacht’. All the children are simply recorded as ‘School’. William is 15 and if he were to become a Pupil-teacher, he would presumably have done so at the end of the 1910-1911 academic year, before turning 16.

A different war but an unchanged view: a photograph of WWII evacuees taken from Newtown Boys School. Copyright unknown.

We don’t know for certain which school the children attended but for William and his brothers the only school within easy walking distance was Newtown Boys School, Joseph Street, with a capacity of 290 children and average attendance of 240.2 Frank Edward Gregory was the headmaster from 1900 to 1934. It can’t have been an entirely pleasant school for the staff as it was in ‘a condemned, unsuitable building, with the monotonous clang of the anvil and the pungent smell of burning hoof from the smithy on the opposite side of the street.’ 3 However, the latter observation is made from an adult’s perspective; often such distractions, sounds and smells are exciting diversions for a child and the stuff of potent and happy memories.

After the assumed period as a Pupil-teacher, William would have passed a number of exams to secure a scholarship to train. Formal full-time training at a recognised institution of higher education was required for full professional teacher status (Certification) and examinations for entry were many and rigorous. At the age of eighteen, William had secured his place and so he prepared to start student life at Winchester Training College.

Winchester Training College

Exeter, 1914-1916

Britain declared war on Germany at 7pm on the fourth of August, 1914. William’s expectations of study at Winchester were thrown in the air and the start of his first term’s study at Winchester, less than one month off, was in doubt.

Those students already studying at the College and who were part of the College Territorials (a group that would have probably represented the majority) had already been mobilised for war and would not return. Others would have enlisted in the Army while at home. Martial Rose’s history of the college recounts the disruption to training during the Great War and the future of the remaining students:

‘During the first year of the war six second-year students and four certificate (one-year) students were sent to Bede College, Durham. In 1915 the Principal was able to visit Durham where there were then 22 Winchester students. Also in 1914 24 first-year students were sent to the Exeter Diocesan Training College,4 and three members of staff… went with them… No teaching… took place in the college throughout the war.’ 5

The College Student Register for September 1914 is headed, ‘The College being closed these men spent their First Year in the Exeter Training College and their Second Year in the York Training College.’ There follows the list of the new students, including William. All of these were still Winchester Training College students and under the College’s care. As we don’t know the date of his Army enlistment, we don’t know if he continued into his second year at York.

The College buildings were empty, and plans were in-hand to use the campus as a military hospital or for accommodating troops.6

Because of this disturbance of College life, the student publication, The Wintonian, ceased to be published and therefore we have no window on William’s life at Exeter. There was a special War Supplement published in 1916 which mainly carried details of students in military service. It lists William amongst the 1916 leavers7 as simply ‘Pte., 3rd Hants Battalion, Portsmouth’. Brief as this is, it is welcome piece of information.

William’s War

We are hampered in tracking his Army service by the dearth of documentation. It is quite usual for a soldier’s main bundle of papers to be missing: most were destroyed in the Second World War when an enemy incendiary device landed on the storage warehouse during the Blitz. However, ledgers and indexes existed elsewhere, which often helps reconstruction. But all we have for William is some information from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and a Medal Index Card which simply gives his Regiment.

As already stated, William enlisted in the 3rd Battalion Royal Hampshire Regiment. This was not a front-line unit but a Reserve Battalion. The men were held in England where they were trained and then dispersed to strengthen depleted front-line Battalions as needed. It is therefore no surprise to find that William is listed as having been active in a second Battalion: 1st Battalion Dorsetshire Regiment. As we have no firm dates for his enrolment, transfer to his new Regiment, or entry into the theatre of war,8 it is impossible to know where he fought.

In general terms, we know that his Battalion was in action from July 1916 in the Battle of the Somme near Authuille Wood. Fifty-one men died on the first day and, over the first three days of the offensive, 501 men of the Battalion were killed, wounded or missing.9 After several more days of heavy losses, they were withdrawn until they were back to strength in October. November 1916 saw them again engaged on the Somme, near the close of the Battle, fighting near Beaumont Hamel.

They were then withdrawn to Nieuport for an extended period before being sent once more to the front-line; this time it was to be to the St. Quentin area, near the village of Holnon. An attack had been launched at 5am on 2nd April and, by 6am, the objective of taking the village had been achieved with minimal losses: 1 killed and 14 injured. The Battalion was then tasked the next day with consolidating their position. The extract from the diary records that during this work they lost one officer and one ‘other ranks’—William had been killed in action.10

His body lies buried at Chapele British Cemetery, Holnon, Departement de l’Aisne, Picardie, France.

 

Researcher and Author: John Vickers

Footnotes

[1] As intimated above, the extent of Emily’s family is unknown

[2] Kelly’s Directory of Hampshire, Wiltshire, Dorsetshire, The Isle of Wight and The Channel Islands, 1911

[3] Christ Church, Gosport, A History[4] Founded 1839 in Cathedral Close, Exeter. Moving to Heavitree Road in 1854 it became known as St. Luke’s College it was eventually incorporated into Exeter University in 1978.[5] A History of King Alfred’s College, Winchester 1840-1980 by Martial Rose. pp.77-78[6] In the early months of the War, the College Company was billeted there, followed by various Battalions, through to November 1915. Thereafter the Army Pay Department occupied all of the buildings apart from the Principal’s Lodge, the Library and the Chapel[7] This refers to the expected year of completion of study, not actual. It is dated June 1916, which is before the end of the 1916 academic year. There are students listed still in their ‘Leaving Year’ group who had enlisted part-way through their course.[8] This last date is usually carried on the Medal Index Card. It was not recorded on William’s.[9] A typical infantry Battalion would consist of around 1,000 men, including 30 officers[10] The death or wounding of Commissioned officers was often recorded by name. Non-Commissioned Officers and Privates were rarely accorded such honour.

 

Sources

Ancestry (2018). Home page. [online] Available at: www.ancestry.co.uk [Accessed 2018].

Civil, G. (2009). Christ Church, Gosport, A History. [PDF] Gosport: Kemp Brothers and Wootton, Ltd. Available at: http://www.christchurchgosport.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/christ_church_history.pdf 1/3/2018 [Accessed 2018].

Commonwealth War Graves Commission, (2018). Home page. [online] Available at www.cwgc.org/ [Accessed 2018].

Erger.co.uk (2018). Ships in portsmouth Harbour, Gosport, around 1890. [online] Available at: http://www.erger.org.uk/pics/Ships1.jpg [Accessed 2 March 2018].

Gosport Society (2018) Newtown Boys School. [online] Available at: https://www.gosportsociety.co.uk/Batch%204%20117.jpg [Accessed 2 March 2018].

The Keep Military Museum (2018). The 1st Battalion The Dorsetshire Regiment in World War One. [online] Available at: http://www.keepmilitarymuseum.org/history/first+world+war/the+dorsetshire+regiment/the+first+battalion [Accessed 2018].

Kelly’s Directory (1911). Kelly’s Directory of Hampshire, Wiltshire, Dorsetshire, The Isle of Wight and The Channel Islands, 1911. [online] Available at: http://specialcollections.le.ac.uk/cdm/landingpage/collection/p16445coll4 [Accessed 2018].

National Union of Teachers. (1920). War Record 1914–1919. A Short Account of Duty and Work Accomplished During the War. London: NUT.

Rose, M. (1981). A history of King Alfred’s College, Winchester 1840-1980. London: Phillimore.

Vickers, J. University of Winchester Chapel Memorial Rail image.

Wikimedia (2014). File:The Exeter Diocesan Training College. Wood engraving by W.E. Wellcome V0012649.jpg [online] Available at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Exeter_Diocesan_Training_College._Wood_engraving_by_W.E._Wellcome_V0012649.jpg [Accessed 2 March 2018].

 

 

University of Winchester Archive – Hampshire Record Office
Reference code Record
47M91W/ P2/4 The Wintonian 1899-1900
47M91W/ P2/5 The Wintonian 1901-1902
47M91W/ P2/6 The Wintonian 1903-1904
47M91W/ P2/7 The Wintonian 1904-1906
47M91W/ P2/8 The Wintonian 1905-1907
47M91W/ P2/10 The Wintonian 1908-1910
47M91W/ P2/11 The Wintonian 1910-1914
47M91W/ P2/12 The Wintonian 1920-1925
47M91W/ D1/2 The Student Register
47M91W/ S5//5/10 Photograph of 5 alumni in Mesopotamia
47M91W/ Q3/6 A Khaki Diary
47M91W/ B1/2 Reports of Training College 1913-1914
47M91W/ Q1/5 Report and Balance Sheets 1904- 1949
47M91W/ R2/5 History of the Volunteers Company 1910
47M91W/ L1/2 College Rules 1920
Hampshire Record Office archive
71M88W/6 List of Prisoners at Kut
55M81W/PJ1 Managers’ Minute Book 1876-1903
All material referenced as 47M91W/ is the copyright of The University of Winchester. Permission to reproduce photographs and other material for this narrative has been agreed by the University and Hampshire Record Office.