Uncovering the lives of the soldiers who married at Salisbury Cathedral during WWI
A blog by Assistant Archivist Hannah Whittingham
It’s Tuesday afternoon, two weeks before my own wedding, and I am sat at my desk trying to keep my mind off my never ending ‘to do’ list, deciding on what to catalogue next. My attention is caught by a bundle of special licences for weddings which took place at Salisbury Cathedral, the perfect task for a wedding obsessed Bride to Be! I never thought though that cataloguing them would lead me on such a journey, allowing me the opportunity to delve into the history of the individuals listed and to bring their stories to life.
The licences date from 1876 to 1993 and include the names of the couple, the parish they were living in and sometimes their age and professions. Fifteen of the marriages took place during either the First or Second World Wars so when I was asked if I would research the lives of these couples further, I jumped at the chance.
The licences are official documents, listing the names of two individuals who intended to marry, however the context surrounding the wartime ones is so poignant. The couple would have had to apply for the licence from either the Archbishop of Canterbury or one of his officials. Once approved it seems that they could marry without the need for the reading of banns, in any church of their choosing, within three months. The couples would have met and fallen in love during such turbulent times, with the men all actively serving, and so there must have been a real sense of urgency to get married as soon as possible as their futures were so uncertain. I decided to focus my research on the First World War licences and started by finding out whether the four men featured survived. To my great relief, all the men lived through the war to come home to their new wives.
Frederick Birkin of the British Expeditionary Force, France, a Veterinary Captain, was born in Derby, England, but emigrated at the age of ten to Canada, where he remained until joining the army in 1915. He is posted to England where he meets and falls in love with Bessie Lever. They married in November 1916 at Salisbury Cathedral, both aged 32 years. On the 22nd February 1920 they travel from London to Canada to start their new lives together. Bessie is three months pregnant when they make their journey and she gives birth to a son, Frederick George Birkin, on the 22nd August 1920.
Another tale is that of Howard Allen Brown and Elsie Eva Watts. Howard was born on 12th January 1890 in Arkansas, United States, where he lived until he joined the army as a Cook in the 117 Aero Squadron of the US Army, on the 13th December 1917. He was stationed at Lake Down, Wiltshire, and whilst there he meets Elsie and they marry at the cathedral on the 18th November 1918. Once the war is over she moves to Liverpool where Howard was stationed in the American Embarkation Camp. She applies for permission to move to America and once approved, travels alone from Liverpool on the 21st March 1919, arriving first in New York, and finally in Florida, where she makes a life with Howard. Their son, William is born on the 11th November 1919 and their daughter, Eleanor Berenice Brown follows on the 2nd January 1924. Howard lives a long life and dies on the 16th January 1980 aged 90.
A story of a local match is that of Arthur John Usher and Elizabeth Holloway. At the time of marriage, Arthur is living at 79 Castle Street, Salisbury, and is a Soldier in the Army Service Corp. He meets and falls in love with Elizabeth and they marry at the cathedral. As Elizabeth is only 20 she is considered a minor and therefore, needed her father’s consent to marry. Originally, Arthur and Elizabeth had applied to have their banns read but this is cancelled, and they apply for a special licence, presumably because there is a sense of urgency about getting married. They marry on the 11th December 1916 and build a life together here in Salisbury. Their son Kenneth is born in 1922 and they are found on the 1939 census living at 88 Castle Road with Arthur working as a House Painter and Elizabeth undertaking unpaid domestic duties.
Finally, is the licence for George Gerald Petherick and Lady Jeane Pleydell-Bouverie. All the other special licences were granted by the Dean of Salisbury Cathedral however, this one was granted by Randall Thomas, Archbishop of Canterbury and bares his seal. George was a 2nd Lieutenant in the 1st Royal Devon Yeomanry of Porthpean House. He was the eldest son of George Tallack Petherick, a barrister at law, and Edith (nee Berryman) Petherick of Porthpean House, St Austell in Cornwall. Lady Jeane was the elder daughter of the 6th Earl of Radnor. George and Jeane marry on the 21st November 1914 at the cathedral. On the 1st July 1915 George is promoted to Lieutenant and put in command of the 2nd (South Western) Brigade, Signal Troop. They embark for Gallipoli and he lands at Suvla Bay on the 7th October 1915. Whilst there he contracts dysentery and is evacuated on the Hospital Ship "Letitia" and admitted to Blue Sisters Hospital, Malta. A Medical Board was convened at the hospital to consider his case:
"Before leaving England he had 5 weeks sick leave from sciatica. His wife's health caused him anxiety. He landed at Suvla on the 7th Oct 15 feeling unwell, after a week had diarrhoea followed by nightmare and insomnia which persisted during the whole period of duty, minor difficulties with regard to equipment worried him. Extremely strong restraint was necessary to control his emotion and he had loss of mental grasp. On Nov 5th he contracted dysentery (temp 100) being sent on board the HS "Letitia". Present condition:- general condition good/fine tremors of hands. Knee jerks - hurried action of heart (120). restlessness and twitchings (muscular) Recommend return to England."
He returns to active service and is made Captain on the 12th June 1917. He dies at the age of 57 on the 1st November 1946. His will lists him as living at The Mill House St. Cross, Winchester, with the effects of £37,165 12s 1d.