Thomas Albert Stead came from a large Rothwell mining family which had its roots in the area going back to at least the middle of the 18th century. Tom, as he was known, joined the King’s Royal Rifles Regiment on 14 October 1914 as a private and was given the number R5968. He served in France from May 1915 but was discharged at the end of July 1917, “no longer fit for military service,” after being wounded. In common with those who fought and survived the war, he was awarded the Victory Medal, British War Medal, and the 1915 Star.
Research by one of his grandsons reveals that he served with the 7th (Service) Battalion of the King’s Royal Rifles, raised at Winchester in August 1914 as part of Lord Kitchener’s First New Army. They trained at Aldershot, Grayshott and Bordon before landing at Boulogne on 19 May 1915. A few days later they were on the front line in the Battle of Bellewaerde in which chlorine gas was used by the Germans. A year later they were on the Somme seeing action in the Battle of Delville Wood and the Battle of Flers-Courcelette. In 1917 they fought in the German retreat to the Hindenburg Line, the First and Third Battle of the Scarpe at Arras, the Battle of Langemark and the First and Second Battle of Passchendaele, but it’s not known where Tom Stead was wounded.
Tom Stead was born in 1892 at Low Grange in Middleton where his father worked at one of the three pits nearby owned by the Middleton Estate and Colliery Company. By the time of the 1901 census the Steads had moved to live on Commercial Street in the centre of Rothwell. On Saturday 1 April 1911 Thomas married Mabel Moore from Oulton. The Moore’s too could trace their ancestry in the area back to the early 1500s. Mabel’s father, William Henry Moore, was a mason at one of the Oulton quarries. Immediately after his marriage Tom Stead moved in to live with his in-laws in their cramped single storey cottage on New Row at the bottom of Quarry Hill. By that time Tom was a fully fledged miner himself working as a hewer at the coal face although it’s not known which pit he was at.
Tom was not the first member of his family to serve in the military. His father, Wright Stead, had also been a soldier. Born in 1858 he joined the army when he was 19 years old, enlisting at Pontefract Barracks into the 105th Regiment of Foot, the forerunner of the Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. After being transferred to the 94th Regiment of Foot Wright was in the expeditionary force which sailed on the SS China to South Africa in February 1879 to fight in the Anglo-Zulu War. There he was in the battle which defeated King Cetawayo at Ulundi in Nataal province in July 1879. Later that year the regiment was involved in further fighting in the Transvaal. In 1880 they fought in the First Boer War against Dutch settlers for control of the diamond rich Transvaal and Orange Free State. Heavy losses were incurred during fighting at Bronkhorst Spruit.
Whilst he was away Wright wrote a number of letters home to his brother describing in graphic detail his experiences in South Africa. Many of them were published in the Rothwell Times. One of them, dated 20 November 1880 and written from the Transvaal filled more than a column of the paper with an account of Wright’s part in the fighting since he landed at Durban on 3 April 1879. Describing a battle with men from one of African tribes on Friday 28 November 1879 he wrote: “We attacked old Secocoeni himself and we had plenty of work to get about him for we were fighting for 8 or 9 hours with his army before we could see them getting any thinner, but at last they showed us their heels and ran to their stronghold, so we had it hot again, for our guns were playing heavily on it for a time, and their heavy fighting did not cease, so we had to take it by force of arms, and that we did not do without loss of a few of our men and a good few few wounded. At this battle I was 20 hours under fire and never had a chance to get five minutes rest and the rain falling in torrents all the time. Since then we have been laying up in the Transvaal up to a few weeks ago, when we marched to Wakkerstroom, where we are expecting more fighting with the Boers.”
After sailing back from South Africa Wright was based at Fermoy near Cork in Ireland. He was transferred to the reserves in 1884 which allowed him to return home to Rothwell after six years service. Within a few months he married, Alice Flockton, the daughter of a Rothwell stone mason. The Flocktons were also a well established local family. Alice’s grandfather, John, had been a basket maker and was the sexton at Rothwell church.
When he celebrated his golden wedding on Christmas Day in 1899 Tom’s grandfather, Joseph Stead, was still working at J & J Charlesworth’s Beeston Pit on Rothwell Haigh and had spent 52 years in the industry. He was born at Thwaite Gate in 1830 and had started as a pit boy near Bradford Moor when he was just 7 years old. Ten years later he moved back to the Rothwell district where he married miner’s daughter Sarah Ann Wood in 1849. She was born on Rothwell Haigh in 1827 and was only 8 when she started work at the cloth mill at Spring Head in what is now Rothwell park. She moved to mills at Farnley and then Hunslet in the mid-1840s when the Rothwell mill was shut down, apparently on the orders of John Calverley who, it is claimed, disliked smoke from the chimneys drifting over his grand house at Oulton.
Before he went off to war in 1914 Tom Stead had two children with Mabel, Albert born in 1912, and Joseph, a year later. Albert also joined the army but died in a swimming accident in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1936.
After the First World War Tom Stead returned to pit work and lived at Lower Goslem near Stourton with his paternal grandmother, Emma Burnell, nee Wilkinson. It’s not clear what had happened to Mabel. She may have died but there appears to be no death registration for her. When the census was taken in June 1921 Tom was living with Rachel Pedley, nee Rosbottom, from Great Harwood near Blackburn. She was separated from her husband, who she had married in Lancashire in 1916. The census states Tom was working as a miner at Water Haigh colliery. About a year after the General Strike and the six month long stoppage by miners in 1926 he had a third son with Rachel.
For a while Tom and Rachel lived in one of the council houses on Fourth Avenue on Rothwell Haigh, but in about 1934 they moved to the Kent coalfield where Tom got a job at Betteshanger colliery near Deal. He was very active in politics and union work and had many letters published in the Kent Times about the conditions miners worked in. When the 1939 Register was compiled it indicated he had been working as a ripper but by that time was “incapacitated.” A few years later Tom, Rachel and their son moved back to Yorkshire where they lived near Doncaster. He died in 1949. Joe Stead followed his father “down ‘t pit” and went with him to Kent. He also became a soldier and served in the Second World War. He was 88 when he passed away in 2003.