Friday, December 22, 2017

Christmas on the Western Front: WW1 Christmas letters of Oscar Holt of Sheffield (1891 - 1948)

A sketch done for the Hallamshire's Christmas card
by J.H. Dowd, 1915 (y06152)
With Christmas nearly upon us, and as we look ahead to 2018 and the centenary commemorations of the end of World War One, it is an opportune time to reflect on how Sheffield soldiers out on the front line spent Christmas during the First World War years.

Images of a Christmas Day truce, with British and German soldiers laying down their weapons, clambering out of the trenches and temporarily turning ‘no-man’s land’ into a friendly meeting place (singing carols, playing impromptu games of football together, sharing cigarettes, gifts and stories of home) is imprinted on the popular imagination. Certainly, there is evidence that such unofficial Christmas Day ceasefires, followed by amicable exchanges with the enemy, were fairly widespread along scattered sections of the Western Front during the Christmas of 1914. But, what was the reality of life for a typical soldier at the front at Christmas time? And, in particular, what happened at subsequent Christmases after 1914, as the war dragged on, and high command on both sides made it clear they would not tolerate future fraternising with the enemy (fearing it might dampen the resolve of troops to return to battle)?

Corporal Oscar Holt of Sheffield (MD6063)
Various collections of letters and diaries of individual First World War soldiers from Sheffield can be found at Sheffield City Archives which provide fascinating personal insights into life in the trenches and on the front line and also give an indication of how soldiers marked events such as Christmas. One such collection is a long series of letters written by Oscar Holt (1891-1948) who, whilst serving as a Corporal (and later Sergeant) with the Royal Field Artillery (RFA) in France and Belgium, corresponded throughout the war with his sweetheart back in Sheffield, Alice Whitehurst (1886-1941). Some of the letters in the collection are also addressed to Alice’s sister Jane Whitehurst who lived with Alice and their grandmother Sarah Gibson at 92 Vale Road, Parkwood Springs, Sheffield. Prior to the war, Alice worked for a local silverware manufacturer as a ‘wrapper up of spoons and forks’.

Oscar Holt was born in Sheffield in December 1891, the son of Tom Robert Holt, a grocer and ‘provision dealer’, and his wife Annie Maria. The Holt family lived at 120 Bernard Street, Park, Sheffield. Although they were both from Sheffield, Oscar and Alice actually met in the unlikely setting of Douglas, Isle of Man in 1913, whilst both were on separate Summer holidays there and happened to find themselves staying in the same guesthouse.

Their relationship was still in its infancy when war broke out the following year. In September 1914, Holt was working as a clerk for the Sheffield steel firm of Hadfields on Newhall Road, when he enlisted and joined the Royal Field Artillery. Holt’s letters to Alice form a wonderfully vivid and more-or-less weekly record of his life in the army over four years (subject to the usual constraints of censorship). On Christmas Day 1914, Holt was back on leave in Sheffield (from his training barracks in Deepcut, Aldershot) so his first Christmas on the Western Front was not until the following year 1915.

Alice Whitehurst (MD6063)
Holt’s first taste of action ‘in the firing line’ on the front came in France in August 1915. By December 1915, things had quietened down a little for Holt’s brigade and he was stationed with an ammunitions’ column where he led (in his words) a largely ‘idle existence’ in the run-up to Christmas. In a letter written to Alice on 17th December 1915, Holt looks ahead with eagerness to Christmas but, more importantly, to a future with Alice when the war is over:

‘…Wish that parcel would turn up…Am longing to see what’s in my stocking this Christmas. Think I shall hang my stocking up on Xmas Eve always. Will you be nice dear and put nice things in them? Not sawdust or cinders but something nice. Have so much time on my hands I often think of the days to come Alice when we’ll be spliced and all our worries and troubles will be over…and it makes me simply long for this war to finish soon…’

The following week, Holt wrote to Alice on Christmas Day, filled with excitement of news of forthcoming leave and the expectation that he will be back in Sheffield to bring in the New Year. In the letter he explains how his Christmas Day feels largely like any other day with guns still ‘blazing away’ on both sides. He also bemoans how there were no signs of the fabled Christmas truce activities he had heard troops enjoyed the previous year. However, Holt’s letter does describe how his brigade were able to make some effort to mark Christmas, having been supplied with turkeys and plum puddings for dinner and a tot of rum for each man’. He also describes how they enjoyed a very memorable ‘merry’ Christmas Eve with music, singing and dancing (accompanied by a violin, mandolin and mouth organ!) deep into the early hours. A full transcript of Holt’s Christmas Day 1915 letter follows:

Christmas Day 1915

Dear Alice,

Received your letter and Blaines(?) the other day. Thanks for Blaines(?) – but what a short letter kid. Yes, I too hope we won’t be apart next year, or any others, at this Time(?), still I hardly expect the war will be over even next Xmas. I sincerely hope it will but don’t see any signs of a quick ending.

I’m simply bursting to tell you though Alice I expect to start my week’s furlough next Thursday. Of course we never know for certain about these ‘leaves’ until we are actually on the way home, but I am the next to go from the Brigade staff, and in the ordinary course that would be about next Thursday (Dec 30). As far as I can say I should reach Sheffield about 9 o’ck on Saturday or Sunday night. I  don’t suppose I shall be able to let you know definitely as it takes four days or so for the post to reach you and don’t think I shall know myself for days in advance. I can hardly realise(?) it dear, another week and I shall see you again, it seems too good to be true. I’ll try and send you a wire from London.

Although it’s Christmas day now, there seems no difference in generally throughout the night the guns have been blazing away harder than usual. I remember reading last year about our chaps and the Germans stopping firing and swopping fags & cigars between the trenches, but just round this quarter there’s no sign of anything like that, at the moment of writing this I can hear them blazing away at each other.   

At any rate though, we are making an effort today to uphold Xmas a bit, the captain has provided Turkeys and plum puddings for dinner, and a tot of rum for each man. Last night (Xmas Eve) I’ll remember for a long time. I’m at the Column still and in the Corporal’s room (there’s six of us chaps in a little barn apart from the main barn) four of them turned in about 8.30 in a decidedly merry condition (no dear – really I was ‘not guilty’) accompanied by half a dozen of their pals in the same state. We had a violin, mandolin and a mouth organ and kept it up till 3 o’ck this morning, singing and dancing. Funny thing was, Christmas carols were the favourite songs.

I’ve been informed that I’m to return to the Brigade tomorrow. I’ll be sorry in a way to go back, as whilst down here I’ve had the softest time since joining the army. Two and a half hours parade a day.

Still though I forget all about the army, Christmas festivities and everything when I think of you dear and that I’ll be with you again in a week’s time.

Can’t tell you how I’m looking forward to coming home, simply counting the hours. Don’t forget Alice, you’ve got to stay at our house again all the time till I have to come back.

Yours always for ever & ever & ever

In the run up to the following Christmas of 1916, Holt endured a torrid year of bitter fighting. He was involved in the Battle of the Somme from Summer through to November as part of General Haig’s ‘Great Push’ forward. In one letter to Alice dated 26 September 1916 he writes, for example:

‘…For the past few weeks have had an awfully rough time, many a time slept out in the open, once or twice to wake up in the early hours to find the rain passing merrily down. At present living in German dugouts 30 feet deep. The late occupants were still in here when we arrived; still I won’t say anything about that, it’s too gruesome. Any rate they are decently buried now...up to now it has been impossible to bury the dead and clean things up. Both Germans and English are lying about in hundreds, the smell is frightful…you can hardly turn over a shovelful of earth without digging up somebody or worse still a part of somebody...’

Amongst Holt’s collection of letters is a souvenir he retrieved from the enemy dugout - a German pocket book of English phrases, labelled in Holt’s hand as having had a ‘bullet passed through’.

German pocket book which 'had a bullet passed
through' retrieved by Oscar Holt from an
enemy dugout in 1916 (MD6063)
Considering the restrictions imposed by censorship, Holt’s letters are remarkably candid in relaying the action in which he was involved. In October 1916, he describes ‘dragging the wounded into shell holes’ during a bombardment, sleeping in shell holes and subsisting on ‘a few biscuits and water tasting of petrol’. He often alludes in his letters to the many casualties his brigade has suffered, and in one letter includes a description of the death of a fellow Sheffielder, his ‘old chum from Hadfields, Teddie Hill’, who was killed whilst ‘going over the top’. In a letter dated 22 November 1916, Holt describes a heavy enemy attack as ‘like Hell let loose’ and gives a graphic account of fellow soldiers suffering from shell shock.

Unsurprisingly, given his experiences that year (and how, as with the previous Christmas, there was no sign of any cessation in hostilities over the festive period) Holt’s letter to Alice written on Christmas Day 1916 is markedly gloomy in tone, His mood was also darkened by recent news of his leave being postponed. He writes:

‘…Been a rum sort of Christmas Day up here. Both ourselves and Germans have been banging away all day like the deuce. At any note there’s been none of that Christmas Time idea round here (supposed to have happened two years ago). I expect lots of the chaps behind the line have been feasting today on Turkeys, plum puddings, etc. We’ve dined – as per usual – stew and onion, not even potatoes (haven’t seen potatoes by the way, for weeks now). Our Xmas tea consists of dry bread and jam…’

Although he goes on to say in the letter how later on that same Christmas Day his unit managed to ‘scrounge eight bottles of champagne’ between twenty of them, which prompted them to break out into a brief spell of ‘rejoicing’ and ‘singing around the dugout’, the festivities didn’t last long and Holt explains how:

‘…things fell a bit dull about eight thirty so we shuffled off to bed. Honestly I think every one of us was thinking of other Christmases before the war, I’ll admit I was. I sincerely hope we’ll spend all the other Christmases to come as civilians, today on the whole has been a miserable failure among us, no fun as festivities go, in fact if it had not been for the letters from home, I wouldn’t have noticed it was Christmas...Of course though Alice my one thought at present is of coming home to you for a spell. I don’t think you can imagine what it means after a year of this, the thought that you are going home in a day or two...’

Caricature of an army medical officer enjoying a hearty Christmas
dinner in a Christmas edition of The Leadswinger (a far cry from
reality for most troops!) (MD2071)
Holt’s third and final Christmas spent on the Western Front (1917) was again prefigured by months of further fierce fighting. This time, Holt was caught up in the Battle of Passchendaele (Third Battle of Ypres) from summer up until November 1917.

In a letter dated 2 October 1917, Holt breaks the news to Alice that he has been wounded by an enemy shell (although he is quick to emphasise how his wounds are not too serious):

‘At last Alice, after 27 months out here, Fritz has got me, though it isn’t quite a Blighty...It happened five days ago, it wasn’t much..’.

After being treated for septic poisoning in a wounded ankle, Holt was soon thrust back into the fray. A letter to Alice dated 26 November 1917 includes an intriguing account of him mixing with captured German prisoners as the British army advanced:

‘…the other night I slept in in a dugout with about thirty or forty other ‘strayed or lost’ troops, waiting for daylight to find our way ‘home’. It was a mixed collection, among us were infantry, artillery, cavalry, tank chaps, engineers, RAMC and a couple of Fritz prisoners, and although we were well within machine gun range had quite a merry evening, even the two Fritz laughed and tried to join in some of the singing but they wouldn’t speak English so it might have been the ‘Hymn of Hate’ they contributed to the entertainment. Anyway nobody quarrelled with them and they shared our bully and biscuits and we their fags and they seemed quite happy...’

Christmas Day 1917 for Holt’s brigade was evidently a somewhat jollier affair than the previous year but Holt was not able to indulge in the merriment as much as his fellow troops due to having to take his turn ‘on duty’ that night. In his letter to Alice describing his Christmas Day (dated 27 December) Holt writes:

‘…Well that’s another Christmas Day we’ve spent apart kid, and sincerely hope it’s the last. I often wondered during the day how you were spending it Alice. Tell me, will you. Mine was spent in a dugout. We had a decent spread for dinner, Roast Pork and Christmas Pudding, followed by many toasts (how many I don’t know – but enough to give me a headache). Still had to be fairly moderate during the evening owing to the unfortunate fact that my turn of duty came at midnight for four hours. When I left the company though they seemed to be in jolly spirits, enlivening the occasion by singing (the selection ranged from Xmas carols to Ragtimes – rendered with great gusto the vocalists numbering about 20) and accompanied by a violin. The evening seems to have been a great success though, too much so I think, as when my four hours was up, my relief hadn’t arrived and on enquiry, I found the two gentlemen concerned fast asleep in bed, fully dressed, boots and everything, and as I couldn’t waken them there was nothing for it but to stay on the next four hours too. However it was Christmas so nobody worried. On Boxing Day we were on the move again, not far though, and are still in action. Six of us are living in an isolated place on our own, working a forward exchange. Our worse trouble is getting water. Been here two days now and all the water we’ve got has been by melting dixies full of snow. All right just now during the snowy weather, but if it thaws our only hope will be muddy shellhole water. Still not particular nowadays, am afraid Alice you’d get a shock if you saw our cooking arrangements sometimes. Bit of mud (outwards or inwards) does you no harm though out here...’

As well as giving a detailed sense of the excitement, struggles and even horrors of the war (in spite of the threat of censorship), Holt’s letters are also notable for his moving descriptions of how much he misses his home town and in particular how much he misses Alice. The letters frequently articulate Holt’s longing to return to ‘dear old Sheffield’ and mostly to return to the comfort of his lover’s arms. The letters also illustrate the vital role women like Alice (and family and friends back home) played in helping to keep up the morale of soldiers fighting on the front line.  Letters and parcels (of provisions) sent from Alice back in Sheffield out to Holt in France and Belgium were in his words a ‘godsend’. As Holt says in a letter to Alice written on 1 July 1917: ‘It’s just thinking of you Alice that keeps me going many a time’.

Oscar Holt's letters sent home to Alice Whitehurst (later his wife)
Having repeatedly expressed his yearning to wed his sweetheart Alice in four years’ worth of letters sent to her throughout the war, on 1 September 1919 (after leaving the army), Holt’s cherished wish finally came true. Oscar Holt (then residing at 198 Crookesmoor Road) and Alice Whitehurst were married at St Michael and All Angels Church, Neepsend. The couple set up home at 646 Barnsley Road, Sheffield. Holt became a commercial traveller in the iron and steel trade and later managed a Sheffield firm. In January 1941, the couple (having remained childless) relocated to 4 Heather Lea Avenue, Dore, along with Alice’s sister Jane. Sadly, Alice died just a few months afterwards of cancer on 19 May 1941, aged just 54. She was buried in Dore Parish Churchyard.

After the death of his beloved Alice, Oscar Holt moved away to Oldham, having set up his own business as a travelling iron and steel merchant. He eventually remarried his housekeeper in Oldham, Viola Brierley (born 1902), in 1943. Tragically, for a man who had survived bloody First World War battles such as the Somme and Passchendaele, by a particularly cruel twist of fate, Holt met his death at a former military base in peacetime England some thirty years after leaving the army. He died on 2 June 1948, aged 56, whilst working as a demolition engineer, supervising demolition of buildings at an old RAF site at Faldingworth, Lincolnshire. In a freak accident, a 12-foot high wall collapsed on top of him, killing him instantly.

Holt was buried in Lydgate near Oldham but he is also remembered locally in an inscription on his wife Alice’s grave-stone at Dore Churchyard. In 1955, Alice’s sister Jane presented Holt’s First World War letters to Sheffield City Libraries. The letters now reside at Sheffield City Archives on Shoreham Street, alongside personal records of other First World War servicemen from Sheffield, where their remarkable individual stories of courage and sacrifice can be preserved and remembered forever. 
Oscar Holt's letters are at Sheffield City Archives (ref. MD6063).

Monday, December 4, 2017

Family history course now booking for 2018

Sheffield City Archives and Local Studies Library are again running their popular six-week family history course led by local family history expert Suzanne Bingham.

The course is aimed at beginners and will explain the process of researching your family tree and how to find and use essential records such as birth, marriage and death indexes, certificates, and census records.  You will learn how to use the Find My Past website effectively, and how to access records in archives and libraries that haven’t yet been made available online.  Each week, you will get to look at original documents from the Archives.

Course start date: Thursday 18th January 2018

Time: 2pm - 4pm
Venue: Sheffield Archives, 52 Shoreham Street, S1 4SP
Cost: £60 (for 6 weeks)

To book a place contact Sheffield Archives (0114 203 9395) or Sheffield Local Studies Library (0114 273 4753) or email:



Thu 18th Jan
Week 1
Getting started - organising your family trees.
Useful websites for family history.
Civil Registration - births, marriages and deaths.
Thu 25th Jan
Week 2
The census and what it can tell us about our ancestors.
Useful resources for accessing the census.
Thu 1st Feb 
Week 3
Detailed look at Parish records, why they were kept and how to access them.
Religious denominations, the differences in the records.
Thu 8th Feb
Week 4
Records relating to deceased ancestors:
Churchyard or cemetery?
Monumental Inscriptions.
Causes of Victorian deaths
Did they leave a will?
Thu 15th Feb
Week 5
Social welfare and health records.
Records relating to the Poor Law - workhouses, poor relief, bastardy orders, settlement certificates, Sheffield Scattered Homes.
Records relating to health - hospitals and asylums.
Thu 22nd Feb
Week 6
Understanding where your ancestor lived.  
What was the area like?
How to use the following resources to identify the location of your ancestor’s home:
  • Trade directories
  • Electoral registers
  • Local area photographs
  • Maps
This session will take place at Sheffield Local Studies Library (Central Library).

Friday, November 24, 2017

Explore your archive 2017: the big picture finale!

Special shelters provided for staff at Blackburn
Meadows Power Station, 1939 (s03584)
We hope you’ve enjoyed our week of blogs from the archives highlighting some of the incredible documentary treasures we have right here in our city.  To round off our week of all things archival, we thought we’d show you some of the brilliant photographs from the Local Studies Library’s vast collection.  Over 75,000 photographs have now been scanned and uploaded to our image website:  Hundreds of new photos are added each week and we owe a great debt of gratitude to our team of industrious volunteers who come in, without fail, each week to scan more and more content for the website.  We present here just a small selection to whet your appetite; you can discover more by browsing Picture Sheffield

Fungus the Bogeyman scares children at Woodseats Library, Sheffield, 1985 (s30246).
In addition to photographs, we’ve also added a series of historical maps (including Ralph Gosling’s amazingly detailed 1736 map Sheffield), newspaper images, advertisements and archive documents.  The breadth of subject matter is endless; a quick browse often turns into hours!
Women's Liberation protest against a beauty contest
Sheffield, 1973 (s35350). 
If you’ve got any old (or not so old) photographs of Sheffield people or places that you’d like to donate or loan to the Local Studies Library, do get in touch.  We rely on people’s personal photographs to give breadth to the city’s pictorial record.  These might be old school or work photographs, pictures of the street where you live or events that have taken place in Sheffield.  Drop us a line if you’ve got something that might be of interest:
Gas mask drill in Sheffield during the Second World War (s02562).

Workmen at the English Steel Corporation, Sheffield, cheering Queen Elizabeth II on a visit, 1954 (s02325).
Clara Hayball on a velocipede in the yard of her father's wood-carving works on Cavendish Street, 1875 (y00516).

Gymnasium team work at Sheffield Twist Drill
and Steel Company, Summerfield Street,
1940s/1950s (y03003).

The herbalist stall, Sheaf Market
(Rag an' Tag), 1973 (s01955).
Joseph Chapman, tailor of Hillsbrough survived the Great Sheffield Flood of 1864 by getting in this box (s08751).

Picture Sheffield:

Sheffield Archives and Local Studies Library website:

Our new shop selling prints, gifts and other items:

Love archives: the story of Arthur Fisher and Painted Fabrics, Sheffield

The men of Painted Fabrics (Arthur Fisher middle), [1920s]
Painted Fabrics designs for clothing, cushions and tablecloths
made by the men.
Painted Fabrics Limited was a luxury textiles company set up by Annie Bindon Carter in Sheffield during the First World War to offer employment to wounded ex-servicemen.  The men acquired a wide range of new skills very different from their pre-war occupations including hand stencilling using specially adapted brushes and tools, screen printing, block printing, spray painting and garment manufacture.  Mrs Carter's motto for Painted Fabrics was 'Work not Charity'.  The Painted Fabrics archive is at Sheffield City Archives; among these papers are the personal effects of Arthur Fisher, including photographs and letters, which were donated to Sheffield City Archives in 2009 by his granddaughter.  They tell of an extraordinary life lived on the battlefield and later at Painted Fabrics resulting in the ultimate of love stories.

Gunner Fisher, World War One.
Arthur Fisher was born on 22 June 1884 at 17 Court, Scotland Street, Sheffield.  His father was William Henry Fisher, a table blade grinder, and his mother was Ellen Fisher (nee Duke). He worked for Robert Slack who owned a confectionery works in Scotland Street.  At the beginning of the First World War, he transferred to munitions work at Hadfields Limited where he stayed until he enlisted on 10 December 1915 and joined the Royal Garrison Artillery.  He enlisted as a Private and was promoted to Gunner. When he enlisted, he gave his mother as his next of kin and stated his address was 1/7 Albert Terrace Road.  He was badly wounded during the 1918 offensive when both legs were blown off by a shell.  His life was saved by a transfusion of three pints of blood freely given by an unknown Scottish soldier who was wounded at the same time.

The collection of papers contain two particularly poignant letters, one from Arthur breaking the news of his wounds to his fiancée and her reply both of which give a unique insight into how the couple dealt with his injuries.  In April 1918, Arthur wrote:

‘Well Dear, I am so sorry to tell you that I got wounded on Sunday 21st and do not let it worry you. I am so sorry to say that I have got both my legs off one up to the knees but I thank God that I am alive.’

In response, his fiancée Annie Bell wrote:

Part of Arthur's letter home to Annie Fisher, telling of the terrible
injuries he had sustained on the battlefield in 1918.
‘Well dear you must not think I shall turn against you in any way through it [the amputation of both legs] NO dear I shall only love you and honour you all the more for it, and I am going to marry you dear as soon as it is possible’.

When he was discharged from hospital, Arthur and his fiancée, Annie, were married at Walkley Parish Church in Sheffield in 1919.  Hadfields offered Arthur a post for life with the Sheffield firm.  However, he went to work at Painted Fabrics, a company set up to offer employment to disabled ex-servicemen who had suffered physical and psychological injuries during the War.  Annie and Arthur lived at 3 Painted Fabrics, Meadowhead, Norton and their daughter Nancy was born there in 1923.

Annie and Arthur on their wedding day,
Walkley, Sheffield, 1919.
Many years later, Annie wrote a response to a letter which had appeared in an advice column of a newspaper during the Second World War. The letter spoke of a man from Bristol who had been wounded while on Air Raid duty - he had lost both his legs and his face was badly scarred.  He was reluctant to marry his fiancée, despite her protestations, as he believed her to be marrying him out of a sense of duty or pity.  Annie, (using the pseudonym ‘Happy from Sheffield’) wrote:

Arthur, Annie and daughter Nancy
(and friend) on holiday in Blackpool.
‘I had to face the same problem 23 years ago. My husband and I were engaged during the last war. He was severely wounded in France in 1918 and had to have both legs amputated. We were married when he came out of hospital and as that was before he got his artificial legs he had to be carried in and out of the church and sit by my side during the service. You see, I loved him too dearly to forsake him when he needed me most. He had lost his limbs fighting for me as well as for his king and country….We have had our share of trouble, but we have faced it steadfastly together, so I can say, after nearly 23 years, that I don’t regret one day of it…So I would say to the Bristol couple, I am sorry about the scarred face, but the beauty that counts most is the beauty of heart and soul.’ 

Arthur Fisher died 29 Nov 1957 aged 73 and Annie died in April 1985 aged 91. Both are buried in Abbey Lane Cemetery.

Arthur Fisher’s papers include many photographs showing various aspects of his work and life at the company, war documents including a diary, photographs showing his recuperation in Lincoln after being wounded and his wedding announcement in the local press.  They complement the official company records and give a personal portrait of one of Painted Fabrics’ most well-known men.

The Painted Fabrics archive (official company records) (ref. PF) and Arthur Fisher’s personal papers (ref. X210) can be viewed at Sheffield City Archives.  A number of photographs are on (search for ‘Painted Fabrics’).  A selection of fabric samples created by the company (including clothing, altar hangings, leather goods and tablecloths) are safely housed at Museums Sheffield.  All images © Sheffield City Archives/Picture Sheffield.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Archive science: the remarkable life of Leonard Doncaster, geneticist of Sheffield

The study of genes, genetics and inheritance dates back to the mid-nineteenth century.  The origins of genetics lie in the development of theories of evolution - in 1859, Charles Darwin published ‘On the Origin of Species’ which described the process of evolution and how natural selection occurred. He did not, however, know the role genes had to play in this phenomenon.  Around the same time Gregor Mendel’s experiments on sweet pea plants demonstrated that the unit of heredity as a particle does not change and is passed on to offspring (‘Mendelian inheritance’). His work forms the basis of our understanding of the principles of genetics today.  Much work was done in the early 20th century to understand DNA and chromosomes and in 1909 the word ‘gene’ was coined.  The history of genetics is an absorbing topic, and many eminent geneticists have playing an important role in our modern understanding of this complex subject.  One of the early pioneers in this field was Leonard Doncaster (1877-1920), a Sheffield-born geneticist.

Leonard Doncaster was born on 31 Dec 1877 at 95 Hanover Street, Sheffield.  He was the eldest son of Samuel Doncaster, iron merchant and steel manufacturer, and Emma Doncaster (and grandson of Daniel Doncaster, steel manufacturer and merchant of Sheffield).  The family were living at Wood Lane, Ecclesall Bierlow in 1881.  A note in Leonard Doncaster's 1893 diary states his address as Fernwood, Abbeydale, Sheffield and Leighton Park School, Reading.

Leonard was a 'founder boy' at Leighton Park School (founded on Quaker principles) in Reading, and was admitted as a scholar at King's College, University of Cambridge in 1896.  He was a Walsingham Medallist, 1902; gained his M.A. in 1903 and Sc.D. in 1913.  He became Assistant Superintendent at the Museum of Zoology in 1902.  He was a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) Lecturer in Zoology at Birmingham University from 1906-1910.  He returned to Cambridge in 1910 to become Superintendent of the Museum of Zoology.

The 1911 census records Leonard Doncaster (aged 33) married to Dora Priestman Doncaster, with a child, Gertrude, at 'Whinfell', Whirlow in Sheffield (along with his parents, siblings and five servants).

He was awarded the Trail Medal of the Linnaean Society in 1915.

During the First World War he acted as bacteriologist to the First Eastern General Hospital, Cambridge, and afterwards joined the Friends Ambulance Unit at Dunkirk.   He was Professor of Zoology, Liverpool University, 1919-1920.  He was a prominent worker on the problem of heredity from the cytological standpoint.  He was the author of The Determination of Sex (New York: G. P. Putnam's sons, 1914).

Throughout his life, he travelled extensively throughout Europe and kept diaries (from the age of 13) of his observations on natural history during his travels, which he illustrated profusely with colour-wash drawings and photographs.  These diaries survive at Sheffield City Archives (from 1892 through to 1920) and chronicle not only Doncaster’s early interest in the world of biology but also an interest in the local area (with many illustrations, photographs and references to Abbeydale, Beauchief, Whirlow and the Peak District).

He died of sarcoma on 28 May 1920; William Bateson, biologist and geneticist, wrote his obituary in 'Nature'.

Biographical details: Cambridge University Alumni, 1261-1900; 1881 census; 1911 census.  The 16 diaries, along with a manuscript essay entitled The Migration of Birds, can be viewed at Sheffield City Archives (ref. LD2437).  Images (above) reproduced from Leonard Doncaster's diaries.  Many of Leonard Doncaster’s books, including The Determination of Sex (originally published in 1914), are still in print.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Hairy archives: memorable moustachioed men of Sheffield!

The month of November is popularly associated with the ‘Movember’ craze (the growing of moustaches to raise awareness of men’s health issues), so we have listed our Top Ten ‘Taches from the archives…and taken a light-hearted look at the men behind the moustaches who all featured prominently in Sheffield life a century ago or more from varying spheres of interest…

‘The Historian’ - Thomas Walter Hall (1862-1953), Solicitor

As well as leaving behind the memory of a magnificent moustache…Thomas Walter Hall has left us a hugely important legacy through his tireless efforts to preserve and promote Sheffield’s history and cultural heritage. He was born in 1862, the son of John Hall of Victoria Street, Sheffield, who worked as a surgeon.

In his younger days, T. W. Hall practised as a solicitor before retiring in 1910 to immerse himself in historical and antiquarian pursuits. Scouring the vaults of Sheffield solicitors’ firms and the muniment rooms of local landowners, crucially Hall helped to unearth, transcribe and catalogue hundreds of centuries-old manuscripts which now form the bedrock of key collections held at Sheffield City Archives.

Hall was a founder-member of the Hunter Archaeological Society (and its first chairman) and a longstanding member of the Public Libraries Committee. He lived at 6 Gladstone Road, Ranmoor.

Surprisingly perhaps, for such a handsomely hirsute fellow, Hall remained a bachelor. He died in Sheffield on 11 November 1953, aged 91.

‘The Architect’ – Charles Burrows Flockton (1867-1945), Architect and Surveyor

You might expect an architect pictured in the late Victorian era to have a well-sculpted moustache…and Charles Burrows Flockton does not disappoint! Born in Sheffield on 8 June 1867, he was from a well-known dynasty of Sheffield-based architects, the son of Thomas James Flockton (1823-1899) and grandson of William Flockton (1804-1864).

Charles Burrows Flockton was educated at Blidworth and was articled with the family firm of Flockton and Gibbs in 1886 and became a partner there in 1895. He succeeded his father as surveyor to the Sheffield Church Burgesses in 1899. Alongside his partner, Edward Mitchell Gibbs, he was also appointed surveyor to the Sheffield Town Trustees, Birley’s Charity and the Sheffield Royal Grammar School.

Although he worked in Sheffield, Flockton spent much of the early part of his career living in Worksop before moving back to Sheffield where he resided at Kenwood Knoll, Nether Edge and later at 67 Stumperlowe Crescent Road, Fulwood.

Flockton died in Newcastle General Hospital on 25 July 1945, aged 78.

‘The Strongman’ - William Hutchinson (1873-1949), Practical Exponent and Teacher of Scientific Physical Culture

Whilst his moustache is perhaps not his most striking physical feature…William Hutchinson was a distinctive moustachioed male who stood out from the crowd on the streets of Sheffield in the early 1900s, wearing his moustache in the style befitting an Edwardian strongman.

Hutchinson was born in Birmingham in 1873. He grew up in the Aston district of the city and was the second oldest of ten children of Thomas Hutchinson who worked as a ‘drysalter’. By the 1890s, William Hutchinson had relocated to Sheffield where he married Charlotte Ada Hunt in 1896. The couple had two daughters Violet and Lilian.

By the turn of the 20th-century, Hutchinson was a ‘Sandow medallist’ in bodybuilding (the medal named after the pioneering German body builder Eugen Sandow). Hutchinson displayed his muscular physique in various ‘physical culture competitions’ designed to find the ‘most perfectly developed man’. As a well-known ‘physical culture expert’, Hutchinson  ran a ‘Physical Culture School’ at 33 Ecclesall Road, offering tuition in health, strength and conditioning, boxing and even roller skating! He also trained wrestlers and offered private treatment ‘for the cure of nervous ailments, indigestion, constipation and obesity’. He later worked at the Grecian Gymnasium on Broomhall Road. Ever looking for new ways  to promote health and fitness, in 1936 Hutchinson came up with a pioneering scheme of establishing a ‘sun-bathing club’ in Sheffield ‘designed to meet the needs of fatigued business-men in need of a midday rest’, claiming how ‘sunshine is essential to bodily fitness’ (See Sheffield Independent 8 June 1936).

Hutchinson lived at 17 Cliffefield Road, Meersbrook and later at 61 Wath Road, Nether Edge. He died in Nether Edge Hospital in April 1949, aged 75.

‘The Brewer’ - Duncan Gilmour (c. 1852-1937), Brewery Company Head and Sheffield City Councillor

Many of the councillors serving on Sheffield City Council in the early 1900s  boasted fine moustaches (e.g. Herbert Hughes, George Addy, Robert Styring, George Luther Wood, Harry Parker Marsh, H. B. Sandford, W. C. Fenton and Wilfred Lawson Angel to name but a few…).  Arguably the finest moustache to grace Sheffield City Council Chambers was that donned by Duncan Gilmour. Gilmour was a Conservative representative of Upper Hallam Ward and later sat for St Philip’s Ward. On the Council, he was particularly noted for his contributions to the Education Committee.

Outside of local politics, Duncan Gilmour (born in Kingstown, Ireland c. 1852) also headed the well-known family brewery firm in Sheffield which bears his name (founded by his Scottish-born father Duncan Gilmour [senior]). The younger Duncan Gilmour also helped to found and chair the Sheffield Brewery Association. He was also a longstanding member of St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Sheffield, serving as church organist there for some 40 years.

Gilmour married Lizzie Blanche Toyne in Sheffield in 1881. They had a daughter Dorothy and a son Duncan (junior). Gilmour died at his home of Highbury, Sandygate Road, Crosspool on 12 July 1937, aged 85.

Many of the councillors serving on Sheffield City Council in the early 1900s  boasted fine moustaches (e.g. Herbert Hughes, George Addy, Robert Styring, George Luther Wood, Harry Parker Marsh, H. B. Sandford, W. C. Fenton and Wilfred Lawson Angel to name but a few…).  Arguably the finest moustache to grace Sheffield City Council Chambers was that donned by Duncan Gilmour. Gilmour was a Conservative representative of Upper Hallam Ward and later sat for St Philip’s Ward. On the Council, he was particularly noted for his contributions to the Education Committee.

Outside of local politics, Duncan Gilmour (born in Kingstown, Ireland c. 1852) also headed the well-known family brewery firm in Sheffield which bears his name (founded by his Scottish-born father Duncan Gilmour [senior]). The younger Duncan Gilmour also helped to found and chair the Sheffield Brewery Association. He was also a longstanding member of St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Sheffield, serving as church organist there for some 40 years.

Gilmour married Lizzie Blanche Toyne in Sheffield in 1881. They had a daughter Dorothy and a son Duncan (junior). Gilmour died at his home of Highbury, Sandygate Road, Crosspool on 12 July 1937, aged 85.

‘The Steel Magnate’ - Henry Barnsley (1847-1922), Steel and File Manufacturer

Henry Barnsley was born in Sheffield in 1847, the 7th child (and 4th son) of George Barnsley, founder of the steel and file manufacturing-firm George Barnsley and Sons of Cornish Works, Sheffield.

Henry Barnsley joined the family firm and was well respected in business circles. Having not taken much interest in civic affairs, he was not as prominent a public figure as his father (who served on Sheffield City Council for many years) or his older brother George (who was master cutler in 1883-1884) but he was certainly able to rival his better-known family members with his rather marvellous moustache!

Barnsley resided at Summerfield, Broomhill and later at Oak Vale, 33 Collegiate Crescent, Broomhall, Sheffield. He was twice-widowed, having married Mary Thackray in 1873 (who died in 1877, aged 30) and then Annie Tyzack in 1879 (who died in 1880, aged 37). Barnsley had three sons, George, Thomas and Percy.

Henry Barnsley died in Sheffield on 2 March 1922, aged 74.
‘The Military Man’ - Colonel George Ernest Branson (1860-1940), Solicitor and former Lord Mayor

A list of prominent moustachioed men from Sheffield’s past would not be complete without a representative from the city’s military fraternity, who were renowned for the proud displays of facial hair ornamenting their upper lips!


George Ernest Branson was born in Sheffield on 20 May 1860, the son of Charles Anthony Branson and his wife Henrietta. He was educated at Wesley College and afterwards joined his father in the family solicitors firm of Branson and Son of Bank Street, Sheffield.


Branson received his commission in the Hallamshire Rifles in 1880, being promoted to captain in 1884, and hon. lieutenant-colonel in 1900. He served as Lord Mayor of Sheffield 1913-1914. During his time as mayor, Branson oversaw the acquisition of Endcliffe Hall for use as the new headquarters of the Hallamshire Rifles, thereby saving the historic former home of Sir John Brown from demolition. Branson’s mayoral term also coincided with the outbreak of World War One, where he was instrumental in the formation of the Sheffield City Battalion.


Branson married Catherine Mary Stephenson in Sheffield in 1891 and they had four children: Maud Kathleen, Douglas Stephenson, Philip Anthony and Sylvia Gertrude.


Colonel Branson resided at 54 Westbourne Road and later Broomsgrove Road, Clarkehouse Road, Sheffield. He died in Sheffield on 14 May 1940, aged 79.


‘The Aristocrat’ - James Fitzalan Hope (1870-1949), Conservative MP for Sheffield Brightside and Central

Several Sheffield Members of Parliament in the early 1900s had notable moustaches. Whilst perhaps not having quite the finesse of those exhibited by fellow Sheffield MPs around the same period such as John Tudor Walters (MP for Brightside), the Right Hon, C. B. Stuart-Wortley (MP for Hallam) and Colonel Sir Charles Edward Howard Vincent (MP for Sheffield Central), James Fitzalan Hope certainly possessed a moustache almost unrivalled in its bushiness!”

Hope was not a native of Sheffield but was a direct descent of the Dukes of Norfolk, the historic ‘Lords of the Manor’ for Sheffield. He was born in London in 1870, the son of J. R. Hope-Scott of Abbotsford House (in the Scottish Borders) and Lady Victoria Alexandrina Fitzalan-Howard, eldest daughter of the 14th Duke of Norfolk. He was educated at The Oratory School in Birmingham and at Christ Church, Oxford.

Hope served as Conservative MP for Sheffield Brightside from 1900 to 1906 and later Sheffield Central Division from 1908 to 1929. He was later raised to the peerage and became the 1st Baron Rankeillour of Buxted, Sussex in 1932.
Hope married Mabel Helen Riddell in London in 1892 and they had four children: Arthur Oswald, Henry, Joan Mary and Richard. After the death of his first wife, Hope later married Lady Beatrice Kerr-Clark in 1941. Hope’s main residence was Heron’s Ghyll, Uckfield, Sussex. He died at St Mary’s Hospital, Paddinton on 14 February 1949, aged 78.

‘The Working Class Hero’ - Joseph Pointer (1875-1914), Labour MP for Attercliffe

Joseph Pointer was renowned for being an assiduous MP and similar diligence and care and attention evidently went into grooming his moustache! His background was diametrically opposed to that of fellow parliamentarian James Fitzalan Hope above. A ‘working man’ and avowed socialist, Pointer was born (in June 1875) and bred in the Attercliffe district of Sheffield which he later served as MP. He was educated at a local council school before finishing his education at the Sheffield Central Secondary School.

Aged 15, Pointer was apprenticed as an engineer’s patternmaker. He became involved with trade unionism in 1895 when he joined the United Patternmakers Association and he also joined the Attercliffe Independent Labour movement. He struggled to obtain regular employment as a patternmaker after taking part in strike action and preaching socialism on street corners in Sheffield. In spite of his employment difficulties, he became chair of the Sheffield Trades Council and, in 1908, was elected to serve the Brightside Ward on Sheffield City Council. In 1909, following the death of the Liberal MP for Attercliffe, J. Batty Langley, Pointing stood for the Labour Party at the ensuing by-election and won a narrow victory, thereby becoming Sheffield’s first Labour MP. In parliament he became a Labour Party junior whip and a spokesman for the colony of Trinidad.

In 1902, Pointer married Jane Annie Tweddle, daughter of a sub-postmaster in Middlesbough, and the couple had a son Harold and two daughters, Dora and Ruth. Pointer’s promising political career was sadly cut short when he was struck down by sudden illness in 1914, which led to his death at his home of 84 Stafford Road, Sheffield on 19 November 1914, aged just 39. Pointer was universally esteemed by those on all sides of the political divide and Labour, Conservative and Liberal representatives joined a lengthy line of over 300 mourners at his funeral cortege in Sheffield.

‘The Scientist’ - Alfred Russell Fox (1853-1910), Medical Botanist and Chemist

Alfred Russell Fox had the immaculately styled moustache of a man of scientific precision. He was born in Sheffield in 1853, the son of Mr William Fox, medical botanist and chemist of Snig Hill and Castle Street. He was educated at Milk Street Academy and Elmfield College York.

Fox entered into partnership with his father before becoming principal partner of the business of William Fox and Sons, medical botanists and family chemists of Castle Street, Sheffield.

An ardent botanist, Fox travelled all over Europe in his studies of the medicinal properties of plants and was one of the oldest members of the Sheffield Field Naturalist and Microscopical Societies. He became president of the Sheffield Chemical and Pharmaceutical Society and also served as a Liberal Councillor for Crookesmoor Ward on Sheffield City Council. He was also past master of the Britannia Lodge of Freemasons.

Fox married Mary Shipman in Sheffield in 1877 and they had six children: Mary Violet Maud, Alfred Russell (junior), Gertrude, William, John Walter and George Shipman. The Fox family lived at Ingleton House, 360 Crookesmoor Road, Sheffield. Fox died in Sheffield on 5 December 1910, aged 57.

‘The Sportsman’ - Sir William Edwin Clegg (1852-1932), Solicitor  and Former Lord Mayor

Sportsmen pictured in the late Victorian and Edwardian period were often noted for ‘sporting’ impressive moustaches and Sir William Edwin Clegg was no exception.

Clegg was born in Sheffield on 21 April 1852, the son of William Johnson Clegg (1826-1895), respected solicitor, alderman and former Sheffield Lord Mayor of Cliff Tower, Ranmoor.  William Edwin Clegg was educated at Sheffield and Gainford (near Darlington).

Clegg, along with his older (and equally impressively moustachioed) brother John Charles Clegg (1850-1937) was a gifted athlete and both excelled at athletics, football and cricket. Both brothers played international football for England and both followed in their father’s footsteps by becoming highly regarded public figures in Sheffield. Both became solicitors at the family firm of Clegg and Sons (of Bank Street, later Fig Tree Lane, Sheffield) and both were elected to serve as Liberal members on Sheffield City Council. As a solicitor, William Edwin Clegg notably defended Sheffield’s notorious criminal Charles Peace at the trial which led to Peace’s execution for murder in 1879.

William Edwin Clegg became leader of Sheffield City Council, a J.P., Alderman, Lord Mayor and Freeman of the City. He chaired the Sheffield Education Committee and Tramways Committee and also became Pro-Chancellor of Sheffield University and a director of Sheffield Wednesday Football Club. He was knighted in 1906.

Clegg married Viola Carr in 1873 and they had three children: Ernest William, Maud Violet and Cecil Edwin. Latterly, Clegg lived at Loxley House, Wadsley. His first wife Viola died in 1910 and in 1922 he married Lucy Jonas (the widow of another former Sheffield Lord Mayor, Sir Joseph Jonas, who died in 1921). Clegg died on 22 August 1932 at Trevethicks Nursing Home, Broomhall Place, aged 80.

Additional portraits and further information about such memorable moustachioed men of Sheffield and their contemporaries can be found in the historical sources held at Sheffield City Archives and Local Studies Library. See, for example: the local newspaper collection, Sheffield ‘Red Books’, yearbooks and directories, census records, parish registers, cemetery records, and publications such as Sheffield at the Opening of the 20th Century: Contemporary Biographies  by S. O. Addy and W. T. Pike (1900) and Sheffield and District Who’s Who (1905).  Images © Picture Sheffield.