Mirfin Brothers

William and Barker Mirfin are amongst the 28 men listed on the Great War memorial at Oulton St. John’s church.

Two of the men commemorated on the Oulton and Woodlesford war memorial were brothers from the large extended Mirfin family. By marriage through the generations they were also related to many other families in the area.

The eldest of the brothers was William Mirfin. Born in Oulton in 1882 he was the fourth child of joiner William Mirfin and Ellen Barker who came from Stamford in Lincolnshire. After living in Carlton and Oulton by 1891 they had moved to Scholey Hill in Methley where young William grew up. He was still with his parents, aged 19, in 1901 and working as a bricklayer. Two years later he married Methley born Polly Chatham, the daughter of a labourer and carter on Lord Mexborough’s estate.

William and Polly set up home in Castleford and their first child, Winnie, was born in July 1904, followed by Jim in 1907. At the time of the 1911 census they were at 6 Richmond Street along with Polly’s younger sisters, Ada and Lydia. Another baby, Fred, had been born in 1910 but died within a few months. After Edwin Mirfin came along in December 1911 tragedy struck the family again when baby William also died within a few months of his birth in December 1912. Perhaps in his memory their last child was also named William after his birth in February 1913.

The family had moved just down the road to 12 Pretoria Street in Castleford when William Mirfin joined the army a few months after the start of the Great War. He signed up or “attested” at Pontefract “for the duration of the war” on Wednesday 6 January 1915. For some reason he knocked a couple of years off his age which was given as 30 years and 24 days whilst all the other records (apart from the 1911 census) indicate he was actually 32. He had a 36 inch chest measurement and his height was 5 feet 2 3/4 inches.

The army records, now on the Ancestry website, show that William was recruited as a sapper into the Royal Engineers and given the number 61971. He had presented himself at Pontefract Barracks a week earlier on New Year’s Eve 1914. Army bureaucracy required that his skills as a bricklayer should be tested before he could sign up but as there was no facility to do that at the barracks he had to take the test at his place of work. This turns out to have been Allerton Bywater colliery where he was employed underground as a byeworkman and bricklayer. He had probably been working there for a number of years. So the following day, New Year’s Day 1915, William was certified at the pit by his boss, the colliery’s manager and qualified mining engineer, Hugh Fentiman Smithson. From a choice of “Very Good,” Good,” “Fair,” and “Indifferent” he was designated “Good.” (Hugh Smithson was born in Leeds in 1880 and had been working at Allerton Bywater as a surveyor before he was appointed manager in 1907. He later became joint managing director of Airedale Collieries after the New Silkstone and Haigh Moor Coal Company at Allerton Bywater was amalgamated with Fryston and Wheldale collieries in 1919.)

William Mirfin.

Five days after he attested William Mirfin was posted to the 81st Field Company of the Royal Engineers, one of 48 such companies raised as part of Lord Kitchener’s New Armies. In December 1914 the 81st had moved from a base near Salisbury to two camps at Weston and Clevedon in Somerset and so William would have travelled by train to one of them for a brief period of army training. In March 1915 they moved again to Tidworth Camp in Wiltshire. On Sunday 18 July 1915 they embarked from Southampton heading to the frontline in France.

The unit was part of the 19th (Western) Division and would see action in a number of battles across France and Flanders including Loos (25 Sept to 5 Oct 1915), Albert (1 -13 July 1916), Pozieres (23 July – 3 Sept 1916), Ancre Heights (1 Oct – 11 Nov 1916) and Ancre (13 – 18 Nov 1916). The field companies were there to support the fighting forces and William would have been close to the frontline digging and building trenches. As a bricklayer he probably built more substantial fortifications as well as bridges, roads and narrow gauge railway lines. Much of the work was done under the cover of darkness to avoid sniper fire.

Apart from a wound to his wrist, just before Christmas 1915, William Mirfin managed to survive for over 21 months but then on 22 April 1917 he was at a rearguard base at Bailleul when his unit was bombed by German planes which had flown over the frontline. William was hit by shrapnel and was treated by 76 Field Ambulance but according to the unit’s war diary he “died of wounds” shortly afterwards. Normally only officers were identified in the diaries so the use of William’s name suggests it must have been an unusual incident. Five days later by telegram Polly Mirfin received the news of her husband’s death. It had been sent from the Royal Engineers headquarters at Chatham in Kent. From November 1917 Polly received a pension of 28 shillings and nine pence a week for her and the children. It would be worth approximately £80 today.

After the war William was awarded the 1914-15 Star, British War and Victory medals, which were sent to Polly along with a scroll and death plaque. As well as the memorials at Fleet Lane and in Oulton St. John’s church William’s name is also recorded on the roll of honour of the 110 men who worked at Allerton Bywater colliery. After the pit closed in 1992 the plaque listing the names was placed in the village’s Methodist chapel.

In the summer of 1918, about a year after William died, Polly married Norman Lalley, a miner born at Bowers Row, the colliery village between Swillington and Allerton Bywater which was demolished in the 1950s. Norman too had served in the war. He enlisted first in September 1914 into the Durham Light Infantry but was discharged as medically unfit two months later after being hospitalised with a painful inflammation of his joints. He attested again in July 1915 and served for five months with the 1st Garrison Battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment in Malta. On his return his poor health meant that he avoided being sent to fight in France. He was placed on the reserve in October 1916 but died in 1921 leaving Polly a widow twice over.

Joseph Barker Mirfin in his army uniform in 1915. This photograph is believed to have been taken at the back of the houses on Eshald Lane in Woodlesford.

Joseph Barker Mirfin was William’s youngest brother. Born at Scholey Hill in Methley in April 1896 he was known by his middle name. When the 1911 census was taken he was living with his parents who by then had moved to a house on Eshald Lane in Woodlesford. It was close to his father’s joinery workshop on land rented from the Armitage quarry company. The location suggests John may have had a contract to supply planks and other wood used in the construction of two new shafts at Water Haigh colliery which were started in 1908. Also still at home was Barker’s brother John, who worked with his father and other employees in the joinery contracting business, and their sisters Maria and Polly. In 1907 Maria had married Albert Crowther, a sadler and harness maker from Wike on the northern outskirts of Leeds. By 1911 they had two young children so the four room terraced house must have been quite cramped. Not long after that the Crowthers went to live at West Melton near Rotherham and the rest of the family moved to 2 Aberford Road in Oulton just along from the New Masons pub.

Four weeks after his 19th birthday, on Monday 17 May 1915 in Leeds, Barker enlisted in the army. A medical examination the same day stated he had been working as a joiner, most likely with his father and brother. He was 5 feet 3 1/4 inches tall, weighed just over 8 stones and had a chest  measurement of 35 inches. He’d been vaccinated as a baby and his physical development was described as “fair.” He was given the number 10695 and sent to the 6th (Reserve) Battalion, Rifle Brigade, a depot and training unit based at Sheerness in Kent. 

After training Barker was posted to the 9th (Service) Battalion of the Rifle Brigade, formed in August 1914 as part of Kitchener’s First New Army, K1. The battalion had already landed at Boulogne in May 1915 and had been at the Battle of Hooge near Ypres in Belgium at the end of July when flamethrowers were first used by the Germans.

Barker sailed for France on Thursday 7 October 1915 and from entries in the war diary it’s possible he was among 40 new men joining the battalion on the 17th and 19th of November. Early in 1916 the battalion moved back to France where it prepared to take part in the offensive on the Somme which started in 1 July 1916. There Barker would have been involved in the heavy fighting during the Battle of Delville Wood which went on for seven weeks.

After a break of only about a week they were next lined up for the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, the first occasion when tanks were used in combat by the British army.

It was on the opening day, Wednesday 15 September 1916, of this attempt to break through the German defensive positions that Barker Mirfin died. His service record has no details apart from stating that he was reported “missing” then “killed in action.” His body was never recovered. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial and was awarded the same three medals as his brother. Nicknamed the Pip, Squeak and Wilfred, they were sent to his father in Oulton in 1921. 

Barker Mirfin before the war.

The war must have been a horrible time for William and Barker Mirfin’s mother. Not only did she lose two sons in the fighting in France she must also have been worried sick about the fate of her only other son who also joined up as did two of her sons-in-law. 

Born in Methley in 1891 John Mirfin was the middle son, four years older than Barker and eight years younger than William. He was three months short of his 25th birthday when he signed the “short service” form at Pontefract on 16 March 1916. He expressed a wish to join the Royal Flying Corps but that wasn’t to be and like many of his contemporaries in the district he was posted to the 2/5th Battalion of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. At 5 feet 4 inches he was slightly taller than his brothers and a few pounds heavier. He spent the rest of 1916 in training at camps in Wiltshire, Suffolk and then Wellingborough in Northamptonshire. He must have done well and been regarded as a good soldier because he rose first to unpaid then paid lance corporal. It was a promotion officially confirmed the day before he sailed from Southampton to Le Havre on 14 January 1917 along with 976 other soldiers and 34 officers in the battalion.

They were taken by train to Frevent in the Somme area and after a route march were given more training and instruction at Bus. According to Colonel Reginald Copleston Bond’s history of the regiment they suffered their first losses on 20 February when two officers and one soldier were killed as they occupied wet and cold exposed shell holes on the frontline. They then received their “baptism of fire” on 25 February as they joined in an advance towards Serre and Puisieux.

Nothing of note was recorded in the battalion’s war diary during March but from his record it’s known that John Mirfin was promoted again to corporal on the 9th of March. At the start of April the battalion were engaged in the construction of a railway line from Miraumont to Arras and then a tramway at Achiet Le Grand. After marching to Ervillers they remained in reserve for a few days. On 16 April battalion headquarters along with A and B companies went in to the frontline south west of Bullecourt. They were only there for a couple of days before they were relieved and placed in reserve again.

John Mirfin.

Then on the 24th of April John Mirfin was diagnosed with appendicitis. The following day he had his appendix removed, probably in a field hospital or casualty station by Captain Alexander James Will of the Royal Army Medical Corps who had joined the battalion as medical officer about a week earlier. Even in a civilian hospital at that time it would have been a dangerous operation to undergo with the possibility of complications and infection, even more so in the muddy and dusty conditions near the frontline. Only 23 at the time Captain Will had graduated from Aberdeen University in 1914 and served throughout the duration of the war. Afterwards he practised in Leicestershire and Coventry and served again as a major with the R.A.M.C during the Second World War.

With hindsight the appendicitis proved to be a lucky break for John Mirfin and may have saved his life because a week later 2/5 K.O.Y.L.I. suffered heavy losses in their most disastrous operation of the war. It took place on 3 May at Bullecourt as they tried to break through the German defences on the Hindenburg Line.

The attack started in the early hours with an artillery barrage on the German trenches. What happened next is summed up by R. C. Bond: “The night was pitch dark and a strong wind blew the smoke and the dust of the barrage back in the faces of the attacking troops. It became most difficult to keep direction, and there was consequent confusion when the enemy frontline was reached. In the places the wire had not been cut by the gunfire, and masses of men were moving laterally to find a passage where the wire was cut.”

In all the confusion the 2/5th’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel William Watson, who was severely wounded, tried to rally his men but was killed at about 4.20am and most of the officers with him became casualties. After other officers rallied the men another attack was attempted a few hours later. They succeeded in reaching the enemy wire but were pinned down in shell holes by machine gun fire. Finally at 8pm that night the order was given to retreat to their original line with the attack ending in failure. In total four officers and 35 other ranks were killed, 156 were wounded and 69 were reported missing.

John Mirfin must have been aware of all this as he was recovering from his operation not far away. Friends of his would have been amongst the dead and wounded. On 12 May, a week after the attack he was taken, probably by train, to one of the base hospitals 60 miles behind the frontline at Abbeville. Five days later, on 17 May, he travelled back to England on the Warilda, a liner that had been converted into a hospital ship. Just over a year later on a similar run from Le Havre to Southampton the ship was hit and sunk by a German torpedo. 123 men died.

On his return John Mirfin was probably sent to a hospital or convalescent facility for a few weeks. At the end of July 1917 he was posted to the 4th Reserve Battalion, K.O.Y.L.I., based at Rugeley in Staffordshire which then transferred to Clipstone Camp in Nottinghamshire. At the beginning of October he was home on leave when he married Emma Isabel Coope, the daughter of the Oulton postmaster, Thomas Arthur Coope. The service at St. John’s church would have been at least a moment of hope for his grieving mother and father who by then had lost their two other sons. More good news was to follow as John appears to have been allowed several weeks at home resulting in the birth of a son in the summer of 1919.

After his exertions in Oulton John rejoined his unit about the second week of November 1917, but soon afterwards he had to be admitted to a military hospital again, at Cannock Chase near Rugeley, complaining of pains in his abdomen. After 29 days of rest and a restricted diet, what the doctors described as “colic” disappeared and he was discharged just before Christmas and given a B2 medical classification.

The top grade was A1, defined as “able to march, see to shoot, hear well and stand active service conditions.” B2 meant “free from serious organic diseases and able to stand service on lines of communication” as well as being “able to walk 5 miles and see and hear sufficiently.” This didn’t prevent him from being sent back to the fighting on the Western Front but, for whatever reason, he appears to have avoided returning to France during 1918. Finally, just over two months after the Armistice was signed in November, John Mirfin was demobilised.

Still technically in the army for about another month each soldier was sent home on leave and given a “protection certificate” to prove their identity. John’s certificate showed he had the slightly better medical grade of B1 indicating he’d fully recovered from his appendix operation. It was issued at North Camp, Ripon, and dated 27 January 1919. His mother had just died at the age of 68 and that was also the date of her burial. It’s unknown whether she knew she had a grandson on the way or indeed whether John made it back to Oulton for her funeral.

John Mirfin with his wife Isabel and their son Ernest.

After the war John Mirfin rebuilt his life in Oulton and established a business as a carpenter and undertaker from his home at 16 Calverley Road, known as Ivy House or Ivy Cottage. His only son, Ernest Reginald Mirfin, was born on 6 August 1919. As a boy he would have got to know his grandfather Mirfin who lived until 1928 when he died at the age of 80. 

He would also known of his six Mirfin aunts. The eldest was Edith. In 1899 she had married Edgar Audin, a colliery wagon repairer, and they had gone to live with their children at Barnsley. Next came Annie who lived in Hull with her husband, Joseph Henry Fawcett, a painter in the car industry. Martha, born in 1880, married George Westmoreland, a miner from Methley and they moved to Monk Bretton near Barnsley. He too had served in the war with the 14th Battalion of the Yorkshire and Lancashire Regiment.

As already mentioned Maria was married to Albert Crowther. He enlisted at Wath-on-Dearne and served with the 231st Field Company of the Royal Engineers. He too survived the war and from his occupation it’s pretty certain he would have worked in the mining industry making harnesses for pit ponies. Clara Mirfin, born in 1887, married butcher Arthur Pottage in 1909. After the birth of a daughter in 1912 they emigrated to Canada where they brought up a large family near Montreal. Finally came Polly who was young Ernest’s closest aunt. In 1919, at the age of 27,  she married Stanley Cross, a labourer at Armitage’s quarry and brickworks in Oulton. They brought up their family in a house at 38 Aberford Road overlooking the quarry next to Ernest Lee’s newsagent’s shop.

From the Wakefield Express in 1928.