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Joseph Denton (1852-1935) – GGF1

Joseph Denton, GGF1

Joseph Denton (1852-1935) proved to be something of an exception in our family, the menfolk for some previous generations were farm labourers or worked in the earthenware pottery business; the latter included his father Peter. Joseph however was a tailor. Sadly there is no means for me to establish just how and why that came about.

It appears he worked away from his town as the 1911 census usefully adds that he worked at ‘Cooperative House’. The history of the nearby Bishops Auckland Cooperative Society mentions that it diversified into tailoring in March 1874, commenting that while it was early days the section was proving very promising. By March 1876 it was reporting a complement of ‘one cutter, fifteen tailors, and one machinist’. The following year they opened a ready-made section. Joseph certainly looks well turned-out in this the only picture I have found.

It was my great-grandparents, Joseph and his wife Margaret (1851-1923), who introduced the name Soulsby into our lineage when they named their fourth child (second son) Robert Soulsby Denton. Our family folklore was wrong as Margaret’s maiden name was Cruddas. As mentioned above it was her mother, my GGM2 Hannah, who was the Soulsby. My first assumption was that some sort of closeness between them led to Hannah’s maiden name being used as a middle name?

But the baby was in fact named after Hannah’s brother Robert Soulsby (1822-1882), a miner in Durham for most of his life. Hannah died in 1860 and Margaret, at the age of ten, moved in with her uncle Robert Soulsby and his family in Trimdon Grange. However, it wasn’t this fact that led to his name being given to my grandfather.This story s detailed above in Soulsby-searching – see here

Robert Soulsby Denton – (1882-1946) – GF

Robert Soulsby Denton (1882-1946)

We saw how Robert acquired his middle name earlier.

In the 1901 census Robert was a nineteen-year-old, still living at home with his occupation shown as ‘machine operator’. His brother Peter was a 23-year-old ‘machine engineer’, his 21-year-old sister Mary a ‘dressmaker’ and James, a 16-year-old, was an ‘errand boy’ – all living at home. Their father Joseph was, as we learned earlier, a ‘tailor’. Their mother’s entry showed no occupation. They lived at 23 Airton Street, Stockton-on-Tees.  Airton Street is on old maps but no longer exists.

More surprisingly the 1911 census shows Robert aged 29 still living with his parents. He is described as a machinist for an engineering company. Brother Peter is now a labourer, James a painter and 19-year-old Arthur is an apprentice – all still at home. They are now living at 19 Alma Street, Stockton-on-Tees. Alma Street still exists but Google Streetview shows a car park area to one side and a high-rise set of flats to the other.

His future wife Betsy Walton was twenty-two in 1911 and living in the Grimley household, Wolverhampton Street, Willenhall. They were described as ‘house furnishers’ and Betsy was a ‘general servant (domestic)’.

There was a prominent Grimley family in Willenhall. In 1812 a John Grimley moved to Willenhall from Birmingham and used a drop hammer to start a drop forging business, primarily of keys. This became a major successful thrust for the town. Willenhall was Britain’s centre of lockmaking, and therefore keys, from the 1600s. In 1855 there were 340 lockmaking businesses there. These later consolidated, with Chubb, Eaton and Yale becoming the best-known brands. A George Grimley inherited the family business from his father, later acquiring a property called ‘The Old Hall’. He moved in with his family and two servants. He built a factory in the grounds which he called ‘Hall Works’ and part of the house became his warehouse. Perhaps house furnishing was a diversification.

In 1919 Robert Denton married Betsy Walton in Chorlton-on-Medlock, Manchester. He had moved 123 miles from Stockton-on-Tees, Durham to 115 Rusholme Road, Chorlton-on-Medlock and is described on the marriage certificate as an ‘engineer’. Betsy had moved 78 miles from Willenhall, Staffordshire and was living at 109 Rusholme Road, described as a ‘spinster’. He was 37, she was 31.

Betsy Walton when I knew her – as Nanny Denton

They remained in Chorlton where they had a daughter Margaret in 1920 (my Auntie Peg) and a son Robert Soulsby in 1921 (my dad). At some date before WWII that I cannot establish the family moved to Bristol.

Aunt Peggy (Margaret) and Dad

Major employers in Bristol were the cigarette maker W D & H O Wills (my Uncle Bill worked there), Mardon Son & Hall printers and the aerospace companies based at Filton.

My grandfather Robert was described as an aircraft engineer while living in Bristol. Filton had become an airfield in 1911 when the owner of Bristol Tramways began to make aircraft. It expanded in WWI to build thousands of Bristol fighters. Between the wars the site became the Engine Division of the Bristol Aeroplane Company (aka BAC) after the acquisition of Cosmos Engineering in 1920. By 1929 it was an RAF base. In 1935 the Rodney Works and East Works on Gypsy Patch Lane expanded its aero-engine manufacturing. By 1939 the RAF was flying Hawker Hurricanes from there but later moved the base to France. The Germans bombed Filton and a squadron of Spitfires was based there to protect the factories. The BAC went on to produce Blenheims, Beauforts, Beaufighters and Brigands aircraft throughout WWII. Post WWII the operation transformed into two large employers – the BAC (British Aircraft Corporation) and Bristol Siddeley Engines.

Presumably one of these operations attracted Robert to Bristol and presumably his involvement in aerospace would have influenced my father’s decision to enlist in the RAF when war broke out, although I seem to recall that he told me he went to Park Street in Bristol to sign up and the RAF recruitment office was first he came across.

The BAC would become the employer for three of our (Jane and my) parents – my wife’s father Ivan Allen for much of his post-war working life, my Mum for a spell and my Dad, after retirement from the Fire Service.

ASIDE: I went to Bristol Siddeley at fifteen years old (1963) to discuss becoming a computer programmer. They showed me their current computers with thousands of hot valves making for a harsh environment and gave me a glimpse of a new generation they were constructing. This was a huge rats’ nest of cabling under the floor, around the walls and across the ceiling. They advised me to do my O-levels first which I did. By the time I passed these (1966) their recruitment policy had changed to insisting on A-levels. By the time I had completed these they were only recruiting graduates. However, just five years after this I was working in Stockholm on the very first Intel 4004, 4040, 8008 and 8080 microprocessors, each able to do more than the one they showed me.

There is a mystery concerning my grandfather. My father was believed, in the family, to be a confirmed bachelor before he met my mother. Like many of his generation he was a steady, reliable guy but there was a suggestion that this was in part because he had looked after his mother who had been a long-term widow. But this was not true as Grandad lived until January 1946 and my Dad was married by July 1947, so not that long a widowhood for him to help out with.

However, I vaguely recall other family mumblings that my Grandad had come home from work one day and simply chosen to stop working, effectively declaring himself an invalid. I have no idea as to when this was, but this my only picture of him must be when he was close to his death, given the setting and age of Dad and Peggy. Grandad would appear to be quite healthy in this shot.

Aunt Peg, Grandparents and Dad

I guess you have to suspect depression given their description but I have no means of establishing more detail. I do have his death certificate and it offers a choice as to cause (a) Myocardial degeneration (b) Hemiplegia (c) Cerebral thrombosis – however this was not a doctor’s opinion but recorded as that of PC M B Joscelyne? The heart and blood supply is clearly the Denton weak point, with Nan dying of a cerebral haemorrhage (certified by a doctor in her case) and Dad having a series of strokes that progressively took him away. My brother John and I have stents in our coronary arteries. Hopefully this will remedy our design fault.

What I also find remarkable was that when I was a child we all lived at 14 Ludlow Road, Horfield which was a small three-bedded mid-terrace council house. Aunt Peg, Uncle Bill and my cousin Edwin in one room, Mum, Dad and I in the second and Nan with my eldest cousin Beryl in the third. I recall we were bathed, not that regularly, in an aluminium bath placed before the living room fire and topped up with kettle-heated water. For washing clothes there was a boiler in the back garden with a washboard and a rubber mangle. On the window sill was the ‘blue bag’ containing chemicals to whiten the laundry.

Aside: I was amused to learn that Horfield is Anglo-Saxon in origin. It derives from ‘horu’ and ‘feld’ and means ‘filthy open land’. Possibly this had something to do with the fact that historically when it was a very rural place it became lawless. Horfield Wood was the haunt of thieves and vagrants. It wasn’t that improved when I grew up there, regularly mentioned in the Bristol Evening Post as someone local was sent off to Horfield Prison for a spell.

Twentieth Century family losses to war

Of course in living through the twentieth century our family had to negotiate two World Wars. We appear to have had good fortune in that I have found just one Denton who actually died in action in WWI, Jane’s family fared a tad worse.

James Denton (1884-1916) – great-uncle

James served with the 1/6th battalion Durham Light Infantry (DLI), part of the Territorial Force (TF), and not the Regular Army which has long been disbanded. 120,000 to 132,000 served during WWI with estimated battle and non-battle casualties being between 54,000 and 70,000 men, and 4,726 becoming prisoners of war. The battalion earned the unenviable distinction of having more men sentenced to death by field general courts martial during the war than any other infantry regiment in the British Army.

James is recorded as ‘killed in action’ on 14 July 1916 at Flanders, France; James was thirty-one. This would have been during the TF’s engagements at the Battle of the Somme. By this time the British Army had given up on attacks seeking a general breakthrough. Instead they set smaller objectives. From 14 to 17 July the DLI was involved near Longueval with other units from all over the UK. They were ordered to take the Bazentin-le-Petit Ridge and High Wood (Bois des Fourcaux). Before the engagement one French commander scoffed that this action was ‘an attack organized for amateurs by amateurs’; yet it succeeded. This was the classic dawn attack made behind a creeping barrage of artillery. British losses in July on the Somme were 158,786, the French lost 49,859 and the Germans 103,000.

James’s sole beneficiary was Elizabeth Lamb who received £3 7s in 1917 and a further £8 10s in 1920. I can find no record of their having married or there being issue.

William Charles Allen (1898-1917) – wife’s uncle

In WWI my wife’s uncle and her father’s eldest brother (though they never met) was William. He died on the 20 Sep 1917 and was laid to rest in Tyne Cot Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery at Ypres. I believe P090S117 is the location of his remains.

William was a private No.55834 in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers 9th Battalion, although he lived in Bath and I have seen a record somewhere that he joined up in Taunton. He was therefore part of Sir Douglas Haig’s Third Ypres battle, planned to breakthrough in Flanders.

Battle of the Menin Road Ridge

This battle started on 31 Jul 1917 and was sustained through a series of battles until 6 November 1917 when Passchendaele was finally taken. Lloyd George said Passchendaele was indeed one of the greatest disasters of the war … No soldier of any intelligence now defends this senseless campaign. Brigadier-General J. E. Edmonds put the official British casualties at 244,897 and estimated the German losses at 400,000, both probably underestimates.

Given the date of William’s death it would appear that he was involved in the battle of the Menin Road Ridge. This was the third British general attack of the third battle of Ypres. This attack used a new approach of ‘leap-frog’ where one wave would have an objective and consolidate on reaching it, the next wave would pass on beyond them to the next objective and so on. It proved no more effective and certainly was not a case of third time lucky for William.

William was just nineteen. His father Walter received his son’s ‘soldier’s effects’ two years later on 11 Jul 1919 – the sum of £4 4s 9p.

Siegfried Sassoon wrote of this battle:

Squire nagged and bullied till I went to fight,
(Under Lord Derby’s Scheme). I died in hell—
(They called it Passchendaele). My wound was slight,
And I was hobbling back; and then a shell
Burst slick upon the duck-boards: so I fell
Into the bottomless mud, and lost the light…

However, one of my wife Jane’s great uncles was Reginald Herbert Allen who as the picture below shows also served in WWI, and survived.

Reginald Herbert (Bertie) Allen (1884-1957)

Dennis Roy Allen – wife’s 1C1 – (1910-1944)

Bertie’s son Dennis Roy Allen (my wife’s 1C1) was a sergeant navigator in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve in WWII. In 1944 he and his Wellington Bomber crew were assigned to 50 squadron on 11 June 1944.

They flew missions in June: to Watten 19th June, Gelsenkirchen on 21st, Limoges on 23rd, Prouville on 24th, Vitry on 27th and Beauvoir on 29th. After an eight day break, in July: to St Leu de Esserent on the 7th, Thiverny on the 19th, Courtrai on the 20th, Kiel on the 23rd, Stuttgart on the 24th, St Cyr on 25th, Givors on the 26th and their thirteenth mission to Stuttgart on the 28th.

Dennis Allen’s Wellington VN-D – the one pictured in the foreground

They did not return from their fourteenth operation on the 29 July. After bombing Stuttgart and were lost over Huchenfeld.

Sgt Dennis Roy Allen beside a Wellington Bomber

I owe all this fascinating detail to Dennis’s daughter Mary who had been told nothing about her father’s death but tenaciously delved into the records to establish this material. Her mother had remarried and discussion of Dennis became suppressed but she still had the desire to know what happened. Flying Officer Thomas Curphey who was also lost was her godfather.

Dennis Allen’s crew: FO Thomas Curphey of Canadian Air Force (CAF); FO Gordon Sholte of CAF; FO Lloyd Lovering of CAF; Sgt. I W Lewis of Glamorgan (flight engineer); Sgt. Dennis R Allen of Bath; Sgt. Herbert Lambert of Leeds (wireless operator/gunner); Sgt Robert Wilson RAF of Midlothian.

Dennis had prepared a note to be sent upon his loss to advise that ‘he wanted his family to know that he went with a very brave band of men, and was honoured to do so’.

Quite recently Mary received a letter from a local German Jeorg Mezger, who had been at the crash site and she travelled to meet him. She was shown the indentation in the forest where VN-D had come down. Jeorg had a metal detector and they collected these pieces of the aircraft.

Bomber fragments that Mary discovered

The site is a national forest which was the reason it remained undisturbed although many ‘treasure hunters’ had removed larger souvenirs of the wreckage.

She obtained eye-witness accounts (in German) provided by someone described as the ‘grave-digger’ and learned that the aircraft had broken up. The tail had broken away and the tail gunner was found attached to it by his parachute; he was nineteen. Bizarrely she met the grave-digger and shook the hand of the man who had removed her father’s corpse from the wreckage.

Finally she went to the war cemetery at Durnbach, Gmund am Tegernsee, Miesbacher Landkreis, Bavaria (Bayern), Germany

D R Allen’s headstone
Plot: Coll. grave 9. G. 23-28

The memorial says ‘sweetly sleeping, in God’s safekeeping, always in our thoughts’ – Dennis was just 25 years old.

F (Father) – Robert Soulsby Denton – (1921-1982)

This is the toughest person to write about. It is all too personal and therefore impossible to establish any academic distance. But then who else is better placed to comment about my father? I was his eldest child and as such I may have had more adult conversations with him than my siblings. It is strange when you look back over a father-son relationship. Most of what is learned is subliminal, through example and osmosis. There were probably only a handful of meaningful conversations between us that I can recall.

Robert Soulsby Denton – Dad

I have no information as to what my Dad was doing before the war. He was eighteen before he joined the RAF. Where did he work? Did he have an apprenticeship, if so what? Certainly while I was growing he and my Mum keenly proposed I should take an apprenticeship so I would one day earn a £1,000 a year and be made for life. Dad once drove me from Bristol to Luton to the Vauxhall factory to discuss an apprenticeship there and around the same time I went to Birmingham to meet Lucas Industries for the same reason. Thankfully nothing came of either application; my heart certainly wasn’t in it.

On the declaration of WWII Dad joined up promptly in Sept 1939, opting for the RAF as ground crew. Presumably this involved a period of training but the first thing he mentioned was two years later.

Dad’s WWII service

This was when he served on HMS Indomitable, an Illustrious-class aircraft carrier. She was commissioned in October 1941, carried between 45 and 48 aircraft and could travel at a maximum speed of 30 knots. She was charged by Winston Churchill to be part of ‘Force Z’ despatched to defend Singapore. They were to join up with the 1916 Renown-class battlecruiser HMS Repulse, the new King George V-class battleship HMS Prince of Wales and destroyers Electra, Express, Tenedos and HMAS Vampire.

HMS Indomitable – head on and camouflaged

However, in November 1941 Indomitable ran aground near Jamaica and had to leave the convoy for repairs in Virginia USA. This proved fortuitous as she would otherwise have been at Singapore when the Japanese invaded.

Both Repulse and the Prince of Wales docked at Singapore on the 2 December 1941 and were sunk by Japanese aircraft on 10 December while attempting to intercept Japanese troop carriers heading for Malaysia. These were the first capital ships sunk entirely by aircraft. 508 men were lost on Repulse and 307 on the Prince of Wales. Maybe Indomitable’s aircraft could have swung the balance, or perhaps it too would have been lost.

My father indicated that Indomitable was headed towards Singapore when they learned of its fall; they turned around and headed instead for East Africa. His life afloat was terminated as he was posted to an RAF base in Eritrea at Asmara. Our family photo collection included lots of photos of the area. I am frustrated that there had also been a large number of photos he took at this time showing rows and rows of aircraft on the ground. They have been lost at some stage.

My father said he was psyched out by the insects that abounded there. Of course he slept in a bed with a mosquito net but he also sat the four legs of the bed in containers of petrol and even soaked his bedding in fuel in an effort to dissuade them. Little did Dad appreciate that our ancestors, according to my DNA test, had travelled out of Africa some 70,000 years earlier, crossing the Red Sea from Eritrea to the Yemen – see more here.

By Christmas 1943 he had moved to Egypt. I have a special RAF greeting card that he sent back to his parents from Abu Sueir confirming that once again he would not be home for Xmas. This RAF base served a number of purposes during the war. In mid-1943 it stopped being a Wellington bomber base and was used by Liberators and Lancasters.

Churchill visiting RAF Abu Sueir

For the rest of his RAF service I have no recollections to draw on from our conversations. He was demobbed at the rank of Leading Aircraftman – No. 629845.

Mum and Dad, Trafalgar Square, soon after marriage

When he returned to civilian life he tried to join the police force and apparently failed because his chest expansion test was insufficient; he joined Bristol Fire Brigade instead. He was not particularly ambitious and at the time of his obligatory retirement at 55-years-old he was Leading Fireman No. 357. Like all fireman of his era he was a good snooker player and he had pursued a plethora of part-time jobs – chauffeur-driving, hearse-driving, tent and shelving erection, furniture removals…

Lorraine, John and me

I thought we should end this story by referring back to what started all of this – the name Robert Soulsby Denton.

My most surreal experience was when I stood at my father’s graveside during his interment at Greenbank Cemetery in Bristol in a family plot. My grandfather Robert Soulsby Denton was buried there in 1946, before I was born. My grandmother Betsy (née Walton) was buried there in 1965 just after my seventeenth birthday. My father died on my wife Jane’s 34th birthday. His interment was in December 1982. It was the conventional cloudy and rainy day. I recall there were also the obligatory caws from crows at the site. I stood beside my Aunt Peg steadying her a tad. She had stood right there on two previous occasions. The plot had been purchased for four burials, hers planned to be the last. I recall the garishness of some green pseudo-grass sheeting that was hiding a pile of earth.

I was standing beside my first namesake’s grave watching my second namesake’s coffin, with my name inscribed on the brass plate, as he was being lowered in on top of his parents. I threw in some soil and can remember the thud as it partly concealed my name. Do try to pause and ponder just how that felt.

The name lives on in me, my son and grandson.

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