Since the start of the First World War, Bolton cotton mill worker Alice Thomasson had watched the young men she knew join the Colours and go off to fight for king and country. Alice felt that she too wanted to ‘do her bit’, but as the eldest of four, her wage as a cop packer was needed at home, particularly as her father Edwin, an iron driller, was not in the best of health.
Indeed responsibility had come early in life to Alice, who was born on 2nd March 1897 in Moses Gate on the Bolton-Farnworth border. Her mother Sarah Alice had died in 1909 at just 33, leaving the 12-year-old Alice to ‘keep house’ for her father and siblings, John, then aged 10, Edith, eight, Doris, six and Ernest, just three.
Finally, in late 1917, Alice decided to join the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (later Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps) and by late April 1918, she was undergoing training before sailing from Folkestone to France on the 9th May 1918. On 26th May, Alice was posted to a camp, hospital and army supply depot at Abbeville on the road from Paris to Boulogne in Picardie, where she was to serve as a general domestic worker.
Just three days later tragedy struck. During the night of May 29th-30th, the Germans launched a bombing raid on Abbeville and one of the bombs fell into a protection trench where Alice and her QMAAC colleagues were sheltering. Eight women, including Alice, were killed outright, whilst another died later of her wounds. Seven other women were wounded, but survived, thanks largely to the efforts of three women who attended to them – Dr Phoebe Chapple of the Royal Army Medical Corps, Ethel Cartledge, a forewoman clerk and assistant administrator Sophy Cross. All three were awarded the Military Medal.
General domestic workers who died alongside Alice Thomasson were Mary Mclachlan Blaikley, Beatrice Campbell, Catherine Connor and Jennie Watson. Others were postal clerk Jennie Mckerral Grant, cook Annie Moores and two Officers’ Club waitresses, Ethel Parker and Margaret Caswell.
The women were all buried with full military honours at Abbeville Communal Cemetery Extension. Alice lies in Section 238c, Plot 4, Row C, Grave 8. She is commemorated on Farnworth War Memorial and in the Bolton County Borough Roll of Honour (the only serving woman listed in the book).
She is also mentioned on page 71 of a book, ‘Fallen in the Fight’ by Neil and Sue Richardson, remembering those from Farnworth and Kearsley who lost their lives in the Great War. There is a copy in Bolton History Centre.
Alice’s sad death at just 21 is not the end of the story. WWI service records held by the National Archives reveal a further tale of confusion and the impersonal attitude of the British war machine. When she enlisted, Alice had given her next-of-kin as her youngest sister, Doris. News of her death seems to have reached her family who were living in Emmanuel Street, Bolton, as in June 1918, Doris writes to the War Office acknowledging a letter and saying they would be willing to receive her belongings and will.
The next letter in the file is dated 3rd August 1918 from Alice’s father Edwin to the War Office, expressing his distress at his daughter’s death and explaining that because his illness meant she was the main breadwinner her loss and his hospitalisation has caused the family to be split up, living with relatives or in lodgings.
Edwin writes, “I need nourishment and I haven’t the means to get it, being unable to work.” He asks whether there is any sort of wage for Alice’s war service or any other payment due. The letter is acknowledged shortly after by a typed note stating that the matter is under consideration and there will be further communication ‘in due course’. Next to Edwin’s letter in Alice’s file is a scribbled note from the major in charge of QMAAC records to another section of the War Office explaining that there is no regimental paymaster for this corps and continuing, “…will you kindly inform me to whom this woman should apply for any payment due to her daughter…”. Clearly the letter from Bolton signed ‘Edwin Thomasson, father’ had been read carefully!
The next letter is a copy of one dated 10th December 1918 sent to Edwin from QMAAC Records, accompanying a parcel of Alice’s property, listed as follows:
1 nightdress; 3 pieces of soap; 1 insurance car; 2 packets sanitary towels; 3 underskirts; 1 bodice; 1 chemise; 1 pair knickers; 1 toothbrush; 1 hairbrush; 1 packet envelopes and notepaper; 1 religious book; 1 towel; 1 box of powder; 1 comb; 1 pair scissors; cotton wool; 1 disc; 1 packet needles; 2 pencils; buttons; tape; 1 photo locket; shrapnel; 1 handle and lock; 1 kit-bag; 1 haversack.
Whether Alice’s belongings ever reached her family is uncertain. Further correspondence from QMAAC Records in August 1920 is to Lancashire Constabulary, asking for help in tracing the Thomassons, as a form enabling them to claim a commemorative plaque and scroll has not been returned. The police respond that they have found Doris Thomasson and her brothers living with their aunt, their mother’s married sister Emily Lamont, in Brackley Street, Farnworth. Father Edwin died in 1919.
What became of that plaque and scroll? Does a family member still have this memorial to the short, hard life of Alice Thomasson, a brave mill girl from Bolton?
Roll of Honour – Bolton Journal, September 6th, 1918; page 6; column c. (Microfilm at Bolton History Centre)
‘Fallen in the Fight – Farnworth and Kearsley men who died in the Great War 1914-1918’, by Neil and Sue Richardson (published 1990, ISBN 1852160586). Copy held at Bolton History Centre.
Ancestry website (www.ancestry.co.uk) – UK Soldiers Died in the Great War 1914-1919 and other records.