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New exhibition based on coroners' reports reveals untold tragedies of WWI

Published 30/08/2015

The exhibition is the result of the examination of coroners' reports on deaths on the home front in Lancaster and Morecambe during the First World War
The exhibition is the result of the examination of coroners' reports on deaths on the home front in Lancaster and Morecambe during the First World War

A lovesick woman who threw herself off a pier and a soldier who died from a boxing bout are among wartime tragedies uncovered in a new exhibition.

Time And Tide is the result of the examination of coroners' reports on deaths on the home front in Lancaster and Morecambe during the First World War.

Those reports have been brought to life by local people in a series of creative writing workshops staged by poet Sarah Hymas in which they explored the untold stories and how they affected the community.

The death of 22-year-old Sheffield woman Eva Annie Wilcox who drowned herself in Morecambe Bay was one of the more haunting tragedies detailed in the inquest reports.

Her fully-clothed body was discovered by a fisherman in the early hours of June 6 1918.

The official record from coroner Lawrence Holden noted she was wearing a blue serge costume, a heavy blue woollen coat, a green cotton underskirt, a white blouse with blue stripes, a white cotton camisole, black stockings and garters, and low-laced shoes.

Despite her outfit, a passer-by who saw Miss Wilcox jump into the water the evening before said she thought she was bathing and "took no further notice and walked on".

On Miss Wilcox's person was a dark brown purse containing one-and-a-half pence and her bank book. Under her blouse was a postcard photograph of a soldier and on the reverse the words: "George Wallis the only boy I ever loved".

From witness statements it emerged she met Mr Wallis on previous holidays to Morecambe and they were in a relationship until November 1917 when she wrote to say she thought it best to meet a boy in her home town.

She visited the Lancaster munitions worker on June 3 the following year and they spent the day in Morecambe where Mr Wallis told the coroner that she "appeared very cheerful and made no complaint".

But two days he received a letter in the post from her in which she suggested committing suicide.

Miss Wilcox's aunt received a similar signed letter in which she confessed suicidal thoughts and she was pregnant - "in trouble" - by a soldier serving in France.

Private Ralph Smith, 23. was another wartime casualty who met his fate in Morecambe, but in a boxing ring rather than on a foreign battlefield.

Up to 60 of his comrades from the 23rd Battalion Manchester Regiment gathered at the town's former Devonshire Hall on May 24 1915 for a boxing contest between Pte Smith and Private Matthew Bennett.

The police report to the inquest noted the bout was "evenly contested up to the 19th round" when Pte Bennett floored Pte Smith with a blow to the right jaw.

Pte Smith beat a count of eight from the referee and was then knocked down again unconscious.

It was recorded that Pte Smith, from Middleton, Manchester, regained consciousness about 30 minutes later and asked the referee for a drink of water.

He was taken to the military hospital in Morecambe where he was treated for concussion and died the following day "after a restless night".

Pte Bennett stated: "It was a friendly match. We thought we could do 20 rounds with being in good condition. I fought a fair fight right through. The knockout blow was not dangerous in itself."

Coroner Mr Holden recorded that Pte Smith died of "misadventure having died from haemorrhage to the surface of the brain due to a fall while taking part in a friendly boxing contest".

Lancaster glazier John Hargreaves, 26, appeared to have war on his mind when he took his own life in June 1916.

He was found by his father lying on his back in the greenhouse of the family home in Fenton street.

Mr Holden recorded that poison was "self administered while in an unsound state of mind".

Joseph Hargreaves told the inquest that his son had been medically rejected for the army and had been working in munitions in Bradford.

He travelled to West Yorkshire on May 22 after he received a telegram.

He said: "He was suffering from a complete breakdown in health. I brought him home. He was shy and reserved and thought people were talking about him not being in the army."

The family doctor had advised him to keep his son occupied.

One afternoon he asked him to go and attend some plants in the greenhouse, he stated. Mr Hargreaves said he found his son's body after he did not return for tea.

Victoria McCann, a Lancashire County Council senior archivist, said: "Putting this exhibition together has been a great way to connect people with their local history. It may be a more macabre exhibition than usual but it does give us another perspective on life on the home front."

The reports were handed to Lancashire Archives and Record Office in 1953 by law firm Messrs Holden and Wilson and contain details of inquests in the area from 1896 to 1934.

Time And Tide runs until December 20 in various venues across the county.

People who have taken part in the project will read their work at Preston-based Lancashire Archives on Saturday November 28.

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