Tag Archives: John Hunter

Far from Home

The news from home gave John Hunter, my great-grandfather, a jolt. Usually letters from home to the troops during WWI were full of the joys of everyday life, encouraging the soldiers that the war would end soon and that the family back home awaited their return with anticipation.

For many months now, John Hunter had been getting bad news. John knew that his wife, Mary Hynd, had become seriously ill. Then John got the news that she was in the hospital, and then that she had died.

Luckily for John, he at least received news regularly from home in Scotland.  All mail going to France, where John was stationed, first had to reach Regent’s Park in England. From Scotland, this would have taken a bit of time. Nevertheless, the government consistently delivered letters to the troops as they felt that the letters helped with the troops’ morale. Nineteen thousand mailbags crossed the Channel every day and arrived at one of three stations in France: Le Havre, Boulogne, or Calais.1

John, a sapper with the 326th Company of the Royal Engineers, worked as a miner by trade back in Scotland. Sappers, sometimes called quarrymen or tunnelers, mined the quarries and built the tunnels essential to the Allies in their battles against the Germans.

The 326th Company was formed at Buxton, England and it landed at Le Havre on May 23, 1917, consisting of four officers, 264 men, and two horses.2 They moved to Marquise on May 27, 1917.  By this time, Mary, back home in Scotland, had been diagnosed with liver and intestinal cancer. Mary died on October 14, 1917 and her death certificate states that her husband, John, was out of the country in Rinxent, France. Rinxent is about 3 km from Marquise. The significant quarrying operations in Rinxent provided the stones for the laying and maintenance of roads by the Allies.3

It was in a document on October 27, 1918 that the request was made to the war office in London to release Sapper John Hunter, 326th Company, Royal Engineers from his war duties and to transfer him to the reserve. Permission was granted:

“…. Provided he can be spared, you will issue the necessary instructions for him to be despatched to the Scottish Command Discharge Centre, East London Street Schools, Edinburgh, with a view to him being transferred to the reserve and returned to his home.”

This permission was based on “compassionate grounds” and “due to his domestic situation.” Mary had left behind two children, my grandmother, Grace, 17, and Thomas, 12.

The Deputy Adjutant General signed off on the transfer of John Hunter to his home. He was transferred to Calais and then shipped to England, and then transferred to Scotland.4

By the time he actually arrived back home in Scotland, the Armistice had been signed, essentially bringing the war to an end. Nevertheless, as part of a quarrying company, he would have still needed permission to return home as the companies continued to mine in France until late 1919.

 

  1. BBC, “How did 12 million letters reach WWI soldiers each week,” http://www.bbc.co.uk/guides/zqtmyrd, accessed April 21, 2019.
  2. https://www.longlongtrail.co.uk/quarry-companies-of-the-royal-engineers/, The Long, Long Trail” or “The Long, Long Trail: the British Army in the Great War” or “Chris Baker’s site The Long, Long Trail” as title in addition to the URL, accessed April 21, 2019.
  3. https://www.longlongtrail.co.uk/battlefields/gazetteer-of-the-western-front/gazetteer-of-the-western-front-rinxent/, The Long, Long Trail” or “The Long, Long Trail: the British Army in the Great War” or “Chris Baker’s site The Long, Long Trail” as title in addition to the URL, accessed April 21, 2019.
  4. Document to the Commandant, Scottish Command Discharge Centre, Edinburgh, ref. Z1/B, signed December 13, 1918 by Lieutenant R.E. for Lieutenant Corporal, Troops Base Depot.

John Hunter, the Sapper

By Sandra McHugh

As we all know, genealogical research is never-ending.  Facts need to be checked and re-checked.  Leads must be followed. New research beckons. Research on-line can also quickly add up to quite a lot of money.  So whenever a site offers free access, I try to take advantage of it as much as possible.

Last year, I found out that my great-grandfather, John Hunter, enlisted in World War I In November 1914 when he was in his late forties. I was actually looking for him as potentially serving in the Boer War because I could not find him in the 1901 census of Scotland. So it was quite a surprise to learn that he had enlisted in World War I.  I also learned that he was honourably discharged in March 1915 as he was then unfit for service. It would appear that he was injured.1 This year, when Find My Past offered free access to military records during the Remembrance Day weekend, another surprise was in store.  John Hunter reappeared in the military records in 1917. He had another service number, but it was cross-referenced to his old number.

This is a long introduction to explain why I find my great-grandfather’s service record so interesting.  It is because he was a Sapper. He came from a long line of miners in Scotland that can be traced back to the 1600s.  In World War I, he was part of the Royal Engineers. Their military history is long and honourable. Royal Engineers can claim over 900 years of service to the Crown, dating back to the era of William the Conqueror.2 As a Sapper in the Royal Engineers, his duties would have included “bridge-building, laying or clearing minefields, demolitions, field defences and general construction, as well as road and airfield construction and repair.”3 In civilian life, he was a coal miner, so it is a safe assumption that he was a tunneller. “Royal Engineer tunnelling companies were specialist units of the Corps of Royal Engineers within the British Army, formed to dig attacking tunnels under enemy lines during the First World War.”4 Mining and tunnelling were so important to the British offensive positions that they enlisted experienced coal miners, even those who would not normally have been recruited.  “The desperate need for skilled men saw notices requesting volunteer tunnellers posted in collieries, mineral mines and quarries across … Scotland.”5 This policy explains why John Hunter, working in a coal mine in Scotland, and already in his late forties, would have volunteered.

When John Hunter returned to active service in 1917, he was part of the newly formed 326th Quarrying Company.6 As part of this Quarrying Company, he would have received his training at Buxton and then sent to France, to work in the quarries around Marquise, near Calais.7

 

Sources:

1 John Hunter: Enlistment, Medal Card, Attestation for Short Service, Dependents, Territorial Force for Pension

2 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal_Engineers

3 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sapper

4 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tunnelling_companies_of_the_Royal_Engineers#Request_and_proposal

5 Idem.

6 John Hunter: British Army Service Records 1914-1920 Transcription

7 http://mountsorrelarchive.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/Mountsorrel-Quarrymen-and-Qu arry-Companies-RE.pdf

 

The Coal Miners of Scotland

By Sandra McHugh

There it is in the 1881 census:  John Hunter, age 13, coal miner.  John Hunter, my great-grandfather, is the last in the line of almost three hundred years of coal miners.1 He was able to change collieries and, later in life, his job.  This was possible because, by the time he was born, the servitude of the coal miners had come to an end.

The generations of coal miners in my family can be traced back to the birth of James Hunter in 1621.  He was a coal miner, born in the town of Alloa, County of Clackmanannshire, Scotland.  Alloa nestles at the foot of the Ochil Hills and has thrived over the centuries because of its location on the Firth of Forth and the many industries that were powered by coal. Today, Alloa’s economy is based on leisure and retail. 2

Coal became an important commodity in Scotland in the 1600s. 3 The rural areas were agricultural communities and coal mining provided employment. Entire families worked in the coal mines. While some children started working in the mines as early as four years old, the usual age of employment was around eight or nine years old.  Both male and female children worked in the mines. 4

As a result of the economic importance of coal in the 1600s, new collieries opened up and, having no skilled workers, attracted workers from other collieries.  The colliery owners who lost workers petitioned Parliament to take action.

The Parliament of Scotland in 1606 passed an Act whereby coal miners were bound to the collieries’ owners:

“no person should fee, hire or conduce and salters, colliers, or coal bearers without written authority from the master whom they had last served.”

This Act effectively ensured that coal miners and their families were bound to the colliery for life.  A collier who deserted was considered to be a thief and punished accordingly. This Act also gave the coal owners and masters the powers to apprehend “vagabonds and sturdy beggars” and put them to work in the mines.  A further Act of 1641 extended those enslaved to include other workers in the mines and forced the colliers to work six days a week.5

The process of emancipation only began with the Colliers and Salters (Scotland) Act of Parliament in 1775, which defined how the colliers could be freed by age-group. Once the father of the family was freed, the entire family was freed.  But still, the process of complete freedom was only achieved with another Act of Parliament in 1799 that declared the colliers “to be free from their servitude.”6 For almost two centuries, colliers and their families had been legally bound to the colliery owners.  Even after the Act of 1799, it was common for the children of coal miners to work in the mine.  It was expected that sons and daughters would follow in their father’s footsteps, as their families needed the income that the children would bring.

In 1842, the findings of the Children’s Employment Commission outlined the dismal conditions under which children worked in the mines.  It was a shocking discovery to learn that children, as young as five or six, worked as trappers, opening and closing the ventilation in the mines, and other jobs, such as carrying coal. The conditions were deplorable and there was a public outcry. On June 22, 1842, Parliament passed the Mines and Collieries Act 1842 (c. 99) with the objective of improving employment conditions for both boys and women in the mines.  Males under the age of 10 were forbidden to be employed in the mines and boys who were not yet 13 years old were limited to 12 hours of consecutive work.  In addition, these boys could not work more than 3 days a week, nor for two consecutive days.  These rules applied even if a boy worked for different owners.  With this Act, women were also forbidden to work in the mine. Women were then employed to work at the pit head, therefore not in the mine.7 The growing public consciousness of the miners’ conditions was a significant step to ensure that mining conditions improved, that working conditions were fair, and that safety became a prority.

1 Family tree in Ancestry.  Common ancestor is William Hunter, coal miner, father of John Hunter.

2 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alloa

3 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economic_history_of_Scotland

4 https://www.museumwales.ac.uk/2191/

5 http://www.scottishmining.co.uk/8.html

6 http://www.scottishmining.co.uk/8.html

7 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mines_and_Collieries_Act_1842