This blog posting has been contributed by one of our volunteers, Lisa Gibbons.
Following the end of the First World War Bilston Town Council formed a War Memorial Committee. They raised funds to erect three memorials, one each in Bilston, Bradley and Ettingshall and to purchase a suitable property and grounds to provide comradely solace to ex-servicemen.
The intention was to set in stone the names of the Fallen Heroes, who had joined up and made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
The Laburnums, a large house in Bilston, was purchased and converted, with billiards room and grounds in which old soldiers could spend time with their comrades who understood the horrors that had been seen but, for the most part, were discussed with wives and families.
The names were collected by a variety of methods, local churches and chapels sent in members of their congregations who were being mourned, St Leonard’s Church published names of fallen soldiers in the parish magazine. Street surveys were made, knocking on doors and collecting the names from each ward (High Town, Town Hall, New Town, Bradley and Ettingshall). This exercise demonstrated heartbreakingly how many families had lost more than one son, The War memorial Committee also took out advertising in the local paper.
Lists of these names were collated and these formed the content of the Record and programme of the Unveiling of the War Crosses on Friday 11th November 1921. The programme cost three pence.
Following the dedication of the memorials the names and details of several Bilston men who had not been included, for various reasons, were forwarded to the Town Hall. They were presented on scraps of paper, the backs of old invoices and in letter form.
Among the papers held in Wolverhampton Archives is a letter dated 21st November 1921, just ten days after the dedication services. It was written by John O’Neill, who lived at 22 Cambridge Street, but who in 1911 was living in James Street, Bilston with his wife Daisy Maud Williams and young sons John and Leslie. In 1911 he was Bilston’s Town Postman, I wonder if he delivered the letters from the Front and maybe the telegrams that no one wanted to receive?
Page 1 of letter
I should be glad if you would include in your list the name of 5527 Pte. Michael O’Neill, 2nd Battn. South Staffs Regt., who was killed in action at Givenchy, France on May 17th 1915 & who is a Bilston man & who was born and raised in Temple Street.
John explains that he was the youngest in the family and had left this “part of the business to the others who unfortunately must have overlooked it”.
Michael was born in Bilston to Thomas and Bridget O’Neill. Bridget had been married before and was widowed. In 1871 Thomas had married Bridget and the girls were noted as his step daughters, Mary, Honor and Bridget Coyne. They lived at the time in Oxford Street. Michael was the second son born to the couple, he was baptised at Holy Trinity Church on 18th August 1878, (the records show the name O’Neal).
By 1881 our Michael was two years old, with older brother Thomas being nine. Their father was a labourer at a coal mine and he would follow the coal mining occupation until 1901. The family lived at 6, 6ct Temple Street, they had moved to 1 keys Yard in 1891 and the family had been joined by Ellen and young John. In 1901 Michael was not living with his parents only the two younger children were still living in Temple Street. Michael had moved out of his parent’s home but in 1911 was lodging with Widow Dabbs and her family at 15 Pipes Meadow.
Page 2 of letter
Michael O’Neill’s service records are not available; there is a record of his death which states he died on the 18th May 1915 as opposed to his brother’s recollection of the 17th May 1915. He is commemorated at Bethune Town Cemetery (here his name appears as “M. O’Neil”), but I can find no record of his name being included on his home town’s memorial.
On the last page of the Memorial Unveiling Record and Programme it says
Every possible effort has been made to get a correct list of the fallen prepared. Anyone who sees that a name has, after, not been supplied or any other particulars are lacking, should at once communicate with the Hon. Secretary, Mr. Joseph L Arlidge, at the Town Hall, Bilston, who will see that enquiries are made and the names are properly recorded in due course.