“THE grave being filled in, and the wreaths laid on it, the vast concourse of people slowly filed past the grave of a loving son and brother, a kind friend, a true Englishman, and a young hero,” said the South Durham and Auckland Chronicle on March 12, 1908. “Many were saying as they passed: “May God bless him.””
Thomas Barton was the young man in the grave. He was a coalminer, killed at the coalface by a stonefall.
His pet dog had loyally followed his hearse through the Willington streets which were lined by hundreds of people; his fiancée, who he was due to marry that summer, had thrown a bunch of lilies into the grave as the coffin was lowered; the king and queen had written letters of condolence to his grieving parents.
Because just weeks before his death, Thomas had become a hero, and later that summer, a monument was erected in his honour.
A postcard of the unveiling of the memorial is included in the book that featured in Memories last week – County Durham: A Rare Insight by Araf Chohan – and so we set out to uncover the story. We were helped by Willington historian Olive Linge and her son, Ken.
At 4.30am on January 16, 1908, Thomas was awoken in 12, Railway Terrace in Willington by noises and cries outside. He dashed from his bed to find No 14 well ablaze, and his neighbour, Mrs Ward, at an upstairs window shouting: “Save my bairn! Save my bairn!”
Her husband, James, had gone to work at 4am at Brancepeth Colliery, leaving his wife and four children, aged five to 14, sleeping safely in two rooms upstairs – and a fire in the kitchen burning.
Mrs Ward was awaken half-an-hour later to find the ground floor well alight and the stairs choked by smoke. Her three older children had managed to tumble out of their bedroom window, leaving her and her son James – 11 days short of his sixth birthday – trapped at jammed window.
Thomas, 23, dashed in through the front door. “I rushed up the stairs, but it was just like a blast furnace and I had to retreat,” he said.
Mrs Ward was still shrieking from her window.
“With remarkable presence of mind, he climbed up the tree outside the house and rescued Mrs Ward,” said the Chronicle.
Then he went in search of young James.
“Barton made a most gallant effort to save the child, entering the now furiously burning house, and though almost choked by the smoke, he succeeded in reaching the bedroom where the child was,” said the paper.
The Durham Advertiser takes up the story: “Barton climbed into the upstairs window, got the child, and was crossing the floor again to the window when the floor collapsed.
“In such a predicament, Barton threw the child, as he thought, out of the window, but unfortunately it struck the windowboard and rebounded into the floorless room and perished in the debris below.
“Barton himself rolled out of the window in flames and lay unconscious for a while, his clothes being extinguished by some of the crowd.”
It took another hour for the fire brigade to dampen the blaze enough for them to be able to enter the house.
“The whole of the bedroom floors had given way and fallen into the kitchen, with the exception of a portion about 4ft by 2ft, upon which the dead body of the child was found,” said the Auckland Chronicle. It was “burned in a most terrible manner”.
Thomas appeared at the inquest the following day with his arm in a sling and burns visible on his skin.
The south Durham coroner, JH Proud, told him: “The jury appreciate your efforts to save the child’s life and we are sorry you did not succeed; the will was there at any rate.”
It took Thomas until mid-February to recover from his injuries and return to work at Brancepeth Colliery where he was a hewer.
On March 2, he was working at the Brockwell Seam when he was crushed by a fall of stone in what the inspector said was “a pure accident, consequent on unseen danger”.
At the inquest, Coroner JH Proud agreed, and noted that only six weeks earlier it had been his “pleasurable duty to express their appreciation of any act of bravery. It was very sad that so good a man should have lost his life in such a way, in so short a time. He was sure his parents had the sympathy of everyone”.
Members of the inquest jury, led by Luke Conlon, donated their fees to buy a wreath for the funeral. “They mourned the fact that so noble a man had thus lost his life and one who had proved himself a hero,” said the Chronicle.
The Bishop of Durham, the queen and then the king and the Prince of Wales were among those who wrote letters of condolence to Thomas’ parents.
He was laid to rest three days after his death amid extraordinary scenes.
“The heroism he displayed, and the nature of his own death, brought hundreds of people to the cemetery to pay their last tribute of respect,” said the Chronicle. “Blinds were closely drawn and all along the route to the cemetery were masses of sorrowing people.”
The coffin, draped in a Union Jack, was rested on two chairs outside the family home – he was one of ten children – in Railway Terrace, where a short service was conducted by Mr WA Ingledew of Cleasby. It was then carried shoulder-high by eight men along the terrace, followed by hundreds of people, who lifted it onto a horsedrawn hearse in the High Street.
Five hundred people then followed it through the town – as the procession passed the station the street was so crowded it was difficult for the hearse to get through – to the cemetery beside St Stephen’s Church.
“Perhaps the most touching incident during the funeral procession was the deceased young man’s faithful dog following immediately behind the hearse,” said the Chronicle.
His plot in the graveyard was only a few feet from the resting place of James, the young boy he had been unable to save.
“A very touching little incident occurred just as the coffin was being lowered. The young lady to whom the deceased was to have been married in July next lovingly laid a bunch of arum lilies on the coffin. This little act of love moved many to tear, while the lady herself was heartbroken.”
His fiancée appears to have been a Miss Hawkey.
Perhaps there the matter would have ended, only Mr Ingledew wanted to do more to commemorate Thomas.
Mr Ingledew, who came from a small village to the south of Darlington, had no obvious connection with Willington or the Barton family. He just seems to have been so affected by Thomas’ heroism that he raised money for a 9ft memorial, which he designed in the shape of a Saxon cross, to be made in Newcastle out of white Carrara marble, from Italy.
Perhaps it was his influence that ensured that the memorial was unveiled in the cemetery on July 22, 1908, by the mayor of Darlington, Charles Starmer. Mr Starmer was the managing director of The Northern Echo who briefly became a Cleveland MP and and has a crescent named after him in Darlington.
A large procession of bands and banners made its way to the memorial beside Thomas’ grave. The occasion was so significant locally that several photographers reproduced it on souvenir postcards.
Mayor Starmer said the monument was “to display their appreciation of a gallant act by a gallant man, and for it serve as an inspiration to others to do the same should it ever be in their power to render such a service”.
Over the decades, the memorial became overgrown, but, stirred by the John North column in this paper written by Mike Amos, it was tidied and cleaned in time for the 100th anniversary of Thomas’ death in 2008.
l With huge thanks to Olive and Ken Linge. Araf Chohan’s excellent book is in shops and online now for £14.99, and available from the destinworld.com website. And who was Mr Ingledew? If you can tell us anything about him, or any other aspect of this story, please email [email protected]