It began with a locket owned by my great grandmother, Mary Ann Williamson Rowles, nee Fox. And it began with a long ago memory of her daughter, my grandmother, Lilian Shorrocks, telling me of a much loved younger step-brother. She said that he had died during the Great War, that he was shot while getting off a boat.
I was seven or eight at the time and did not understand what she was talking about, but I registered the sorrow at a young man pointlessly lost. I pictured him walking down a gang-plank from an ocean-going liner. For some reason I imagined he was wearing a brown suit as someone shot him. Perhaps grandmother had said the word Gallipoli. I can’t be sure, but all my life its utterance has somehow resonated, though without my knowing why.
Recently, I did find out why, and still find myself astonished that I can discover more of this forgotten ancestor’s too brief life by simply trawling the internet. Of course, as Su Leslie so often shows on her excellent family history blog, Shaking the Tree, discovering one nugget of information often raises a dozen other mysteries. But then that only makes the search all the more beguiling.
The locket is now mine and it contains the plaited hair of all Mary Ann’s five children, including her step-son, Robert Shorrocks. The other children are my grandmother and her two siblings, Mary and Tom, born from great grandmother’s first marriage to Thomas Shorrocks of Farnworth, Manchester. And finally there is Giles, the youngest. He was born in 1896, a year after Mary Ann married widower, Charles Rowles, a master mariner and captain of a pilot boat on the Manchester Ship Canal.
It is Giles’ photograph in the locket. He is an impressive looking boy. The direct gaze, yet self-contained. I find myself wondering if he looked like his father, for we have no photo of Charles Rowles. My grandmother did not care for him, keeping only his big seaman’s chest which I also have. Otherwise, she threw out most of the family memorabilia that came down to her. She kept the locket though, and Mary Ann’s fine collection of miniature Shakespeare’s plays and poets. There is also a single faded photograph of my great grandmother, taken some time before she was married. My own mother always said that she had eloped.
Mary Ann Williamson Fox was a farmer’s daughter, her family having been yeoman farmers for generations. In fact they claimed to have lived on the farm called Callow since the 11th century. Family mythology also had it that a Fox ancestor was employed by the Eyre family as steward, the Eyres having been given land in Derbyshire for services rendered to William the Conqueror. Later the Duke of Devonshire from his grand house at Chatsworth became the landlord, and Mary Ann, at seventeen, is said to have opened the Chatsworth tenants’ ball with the Duke, she being the daughter of the oldest tenant-family on the estate. For a long time the buttons of the dress she wore were fondly kept. Blue silk-covered ones, I was told. I don’t know what happened to them.
Mary Ann Williamson Fox in her late teens c. 1880
Callow Farm, Hathersage, Derbyshire where the Fox family lived from at least the 1700s, and where Mary Ann was born. This photo was taken in the 1970s.
How it was that country girl Mary Ann came to fall for a spindle manufacturer from Bolton, Manchester is the first of many mysteries. My grandmother said that her mother fell for the first townie she saw in a stove-pipe hat. Maybe he was in the area on business. In any event, Thomas Shorrocks was a widower, ten years older than Mary Ann, and with a young son, Robert. Mary Ann was 22 and they were married by special license at St Michael’s church, Hathersage, with her elder brother, Robert and his wife, Edith, as witnesses.
Thomas took his young wife from the wilds of the Derbyshire peaks where she was used to riding at will, and jumping farm-gates on her pony, to live in the gloomy streets of Farnworth. There, the ever darkly clad mill women regarded Mary Ann’s country print dresses with deep suspicion.
The Shorrocks lived in a modest terraced house on Kildare Street, although Mary Ann did have a servant, a girl she had brought from Hathersage. Soon there were three more young children, offspring whom Thomas Shorrocks apparently made a point of avoiding, staying out of the house until they had gone to bed. My grandmother said she did not know him. Then disaster struck. In 1893, only seven years into the marriage, Mary Ann was left a widow. Not only that, in the same year, the Shorrocks family company that, in 1861 had employed 32 men and 22 boys, was declared bankrupt. Perhaps it was this that finished off poor Thomas at the age of 39.
It is not clear where Mary Ann was for the next year or so, but in 1895, Warrington licensing records show that she had taken over the running of the Old Red Lion inn in Hollinfare, (also called Hollins Green) a farming village near the Manchester Ship Canal. The inn, as was common in rural areas, had also once been run as a farm. It thus came with pasture, cow sheds and stabling.
The Old Red Lion today has seen extensive alterations in the 1960s and 1980s. It was one of the oldest inns in the village, and already in existence by the 1670s. Although Giles was born there in 1896, I’m not sure he would quite recognize it today.
Family legend says that the Fox family arranged for Mary Ann to take over the inn so she would have a roof over her head and an income to support her family. In fact it seems she took over the license from one George Fox who had been landlord there since 1894. This could have been either her father, George Brayley Fox, or her younger brother, George. Her father had sold up the farm stock in 1892 due to a depression in agriculture, and then given up the tenancy on Callow Farm. After 1893 there were no more Foxes at Callow, a circumstance that made the local and regional press in that year.
Derbyshire Times & Chesterfield Herald 25 March 1893
When Mary Ann took over the inn in Hollinfare she called herself Mary Ann Williamson using her Christian names, and dropping the Shorrocks. Perhaps she wanted to escape the taint of bankruptcy. A year later she was getting married to Charles Rowles. Perhaps, when he was not piloting cargo ships into Manchester, he visited the inn. Again, he was considerably older, this time a widower with two grown-up daughters. According to my grandmother, the existence of these two young women was a surprise to everyone. They apparently came and ruled the roost for a time.
In 1901, Mary Ann exchanged inns with another woman licensee, and moved to the Bowling Green Inn at the top of the village. The inn no longer exists, and Hollinfare’s community centre now occupies the site. The reason for such a move is unclear, but perhaps the premises had more living accommodation. By now Mary Ann’s rather simple-minded younger sister, Louisa, was living with her and helping with household duties. It is likely,too, that their father also came to live there at some point, since he is buried in Hollinfare’s little cemetery, along with Mary Ann.
And so we come to Giles. In 1903, when he was seven, his father died. In 1909, when he was thirteen, Mary Ann died. Her death certificate suggests she was by then living with her step-son, Robert Shorrocks in Moss Side, Manchester. He witnessed her death from heart disease. She was 46.
What happened to Giles at this point is another mystery. The 1911 census shows the four Shorrocks siblings living in Moss Side. Robert is head of household and Aunt Louisa is still taking care of household duties. By now Robert is 28 and an insurance agent. My great aunt Mary and grandmother Lilian are in their early twenties and listed as ‘blouse finishers’. The youngest brother, Tom, was 19 and a railway clerk. Giles, though, is not with them. He is now 15 years old and trainee clerk with a shipping broker far away in Cardiff. He is living with his father’s widowed sister-in-law, Louisa Rowles and her two adult children. In 1912 there’s the possibility that he took passage to Halifax, Canada on the SS Hesperian, but there is no conclusive evidence.
When he appears again it is 15 October 1914. He is 18 and 7 months and enlisting in the Australian Imperial Force in Melbourne, Australia. He calls himself a sailor (all the Rowles men had sea-faring connections). AND he has changed his name to Victor. The enlistment papers give Louisa Rowles of Cardiff as his next of kin. He specifically denies ever having served an apprenticeship. (Did he run away to sea to escape being a clerk?)
But why the change of name? My own guess is that Giles seemed too soft a name for mariner. His military papers show he was 5 feet 5 inches. Perhaps a little on the short side too, so may be he felt he had something to prove. We’ll never know. There is no one left to ask.
He joined the 14th Battalion AIF and would then have gone to Broadmeadows for training, before embarking for Egypt on the Berrima in December 1914. After further training in Egypt, the 14th took part in the April landing at Gallipoli. So began the gruesome, fruitless, bloody siege. All we know is that he survived to take part in the August Offensive. This involved the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps moving up the coast to attack two peaks of the Sari Bair range while the British and French forces defended Helles.
Giles was presumably wounded while trying to land for the second time in 5 months on this torturous, wretched shore. The next record is 8 August 1915 when Private Victor Rowles no. 1402 is admitted to the hospital ship Devanha with gunshot wounds. He died at 10pm on 10 August and was buried at sea, 2 miles east of Mudros Harbour, Lemnos.
An inventory of his effects was made in 1916. It comprises “one brown paper parcel” which includes a cigarette case, pipe, letters, photos and a handkerchief. These were apparently sent to Aunt Louisa Rowles. Later, in 1919, official records say she received a memorial plaque and scroll. It is not clear what happened to his medals: 1914-15 Star, British War medal and Victory Medal.
Giles is commemorated in his ill-fated name of Victor at Lone Pine Memorial, Turkey and on the Australian War Memorial at Canberra. In the quiet little cemetery at Hollinfare, his passing is marked under his given name of Giles. Perhaps his step-siblings added the inscription to his parents’ and grandfather’s stone. It commemorates “Pte Giles son of the above Charles and Mary A Rowles, who died of wounds received at the Dardanelles on August 1oth 1915 aged 19. He hath done what he could.”
But in the end, and despite all the family tragedies, I would like to think that Giles had some happiness in his short life: when he went to sea; or in his early days in Hollinfare. My grandmother adored him, and her older sister Mary was said the kindest soul. I feel sure they would have ‘mothered’ him, probably beyond a boy’s endurance. Step-brother, Robert Shorrocks also appears to have been everyone’s rock, including his step-mother’s. Certainly in old age he was still very close to my grandmother and grandfather.
Of her childhood days, grandmother told of how they used to raid the inn pantry for tinned fruit, and eat it secretly out in the garden. Then they would slide down the steep banks of the Manchester Ship Canal, getting their knickers green. There were annual visits by the dancing bear and his man whom Mary Ann allowed to stay in the inn stables.
I would like to think that this photo of Hollinfare boys around the Coronation Tree included Giles. In the background is St. Helen’s chapel where Mary Ann could well have married Charles Rowles in 1895. These propositions, along with many others, remain to be verified. The search for Giles/Victor Rowles continues…
© 2013 Tish Farrell