Barnsley soldier's moving letters about son he never saw
Sheffield Star Retro published the sad story of James Stuart Swift on January 23 as '˜War baby that a proud soldier dad never saw'.
I had researched Stuart in detail for my book Great Sacrifice: the Old Boys of Barnsley Holgate Grammar School in the First World War and had just discovered that two boxes containing many love letters between Stuart and Maude, as well as their wedding photographs, photos of their son, Stuart’s medals and other memorabilia, had been donated to Barnsley Archives.
Readers might be interested to learn what has happened since.
Stuart attended the Holgate for three years before being admitted to Ackworth School in Hemsworth, where his family paid full boarding fees for three years because they were not Quakers.
When he left school in 1907, Stuart worked for the Midland Bank, following in his father’s footsteps.
He enlisted in the Sheffield City Battalion on September 11, 1914, aged 28.
Stuart married Alice Maude Watkinson of Sheffield in April 1915 and he became a father to James Stuart Morton Swift on March 27, 1916.
The Swift Collection confirmed my fear that he never saw his son before he was killed on the first day of the Somme.
Stuart had not been given leave to return home since going to Egypt in December 1915.
Even becoming a father did not give him any special privileges while the Army were preparing for the Big Push on the Somme.
Stuart wrote: “I so long to see the little chap myself, everyone seems to think he is a fine specimen.
“It is nice to think of our little love being of such a happy disposition; I am glad he has such winning ways. I can see he takes after his little mother in those respects.”
In his last letter to Maude, written on June 27, 1916, he wrote: “ I am eagerly looking forward to getting your next letter as I expect to get the promised photo you are sending of your dear self and our little darling. Of course I have tried to picture him to myself but have no idea what he is like.”
Tragically, the proud new father did not receive it.
Serendipity inspired Peter Swift, whose grandfather was Stuart’s cousin, to buy a copy of The Star that week in January and he was amazed to see my article with photographs of Stuart.
We have been able to share more information since then as he has been researching the Swift family for some time but had not previously known about Stuart’s education or seen any photographs of him.
Peter’s children planned to take him to the Somme for the centenary commemorations for his 70th birthday present.
In a very poignant gesture, Peter took a print of the photograph of Maude with their son to place on Stuart’s grave in Luke Copse British Cemetery, reuniting them after 100 years.
Celia Wolfe, the archivist at Ackworth School, was very helpful to me while researching my book, allowing me to use their information about Stuart and letting me copy photographs of him as a schoolboy.
She also visited the Somme for July 1 as her husband Ray’s grandfather was one of the many men killed in action that day and she was visiting the graves of several old scholars of Ackworth to leave tributes.
I exchanged emails with Celia while she was in France and was able to tell her about the wreath and photos left by Peter, who had seen the wooden cross she had left. Celia paid a return visit to Luke Copse to see them for herself and was very moved.
I organised a Somme centenary commemoration for July 1 at Silverwood Scout Camp in Silkstone (originally Newhall Camp where the Barnsley Pals were billeted and trained).
I am very grateful to Paul Unsworth and his team of scouting volunteers, who allowed me to use the site free and provided practical help.
I paid tribute to Stuart along with many Old Boys of the Holgate and other local men who died in the Somme offensive on my display in the Billingham Centre and by laying photographs of the men on the altar in the beautiful outdoor chapel, where I held a Remembrance Service.
Celia and Ray had responded to my publicity, asking if anyone would like a relation to be remembered, and Christopher Gascoigne, father of eight young children, was one of 12 stories read by students from Horizon Community College and relations of three of the men.
Music played included Reveille and The Last Post on bugles sounded by twin brothers from Horizon and two popular songs from the First World War sung by Class 5 from Silkstone Primary School, to the delight of all attending.
On July 17, I received an email from Claire Marr from Cheshire, who had been shown the Retro article. Claire hoped that I might be able to help her fill in some gaps in her own family history or even have a photograph of her grandfather.
She shared some interesting details from her own family history research and reviewing my own highlighted the sad story of Stuart’s older sister Muriel Morton Swift, his only sibling.
She had married Percy Guest Wadsworth in 1911 but they did not have any children, although according to Stuart’s letters they had wanted them.
After Muriel died in 1921, aged only 40, Percy got married again to Alice Mary Beckett and they had two sons.
Percy died in 1928, aged 52, when Claire’s father was only three years old, so he didn’t remember her grandfather. Alice remarried and she never discussed her background or how she had met Percy – there were no family photos.
I wondered if Muriel and Percy might be on Stuart and Maude’s wedding photos.
I asked Peter if he had a copy of their wedding certificate to find out if Muriel had been a witness because Stuart had been for her.
Unfortunately, she wasn’t and, since the men in the photos are wearing uniform, they must be friends of Stuart’s rather than one being Percy.
I wish I could have found a photograph for her as I know from personal experience how precious it is to know what our ancestors look like.
If anyone reading this article is related to the Swift, Morton, Wadsworth or Beckett families, I would love to hear from you to fit some more pieces of the extended family puzzle together.
We will continue to remember them all.
*Jane’s book is published by Helion and Company. Website: www.helion.co.uk