Who was Davenport? by Dr D A C McNeil

At the front of the St James churchyard in Birstall, facing out across Front Street and flanked by rows of conifer trees, stands the war memorial. It is a tall cross at the foot of which are the names of the fallen in the two world wars of the 20th century. 

Using Michael Smith’s excellent book on Birstall’s history, Eight Ounces of Gold, it is possible to trace a silent revolution at the end of the 19th and into the early 20th centuries which occurred in this hamlet and which may be illustrated by the 17 names of the fallen in the first world war. Early Birstall, as with many small places, boasted a church and a water mill. The church was a chapel of the parish of Belgrave, at that time a village just outside Leicester. Also, much may be deduced from the location of Front Street – for a start it was nearer the river Soar than Back Street, which is now the main Birstall Road into the village. Visitors these days may forget that in days gone by a river was a better form of transportation than a road for most of the year. Even the position of the church shows that Front Street is the more important road, leading as it did to the water mill. 

Sadly for Birstall, both the lords of the manor who owned the land, and the Belgrave church did little for the hamlet. To start with, the lords did not live there so had little interest in investing money – as long as their rents were paid they were happy. Worse still there were Roman Catholic families in their number who had an antipathy to the St James church and its protestant congregation. What of Belgrave? As the ‘mother’ parish it collected the tithes – a tax meant for the church’s upkeep - used part of it to employ a curate (often incompetent) and the rest for their own purposes. So the church fabric disintegrated and the church – the centre of so many a village life – fell apart. 

The enclosures did nothing for the population either; the commoners lost their common land, the small land-owners were left with a pittance and the industrial revolution called. In 1801 there were only 285 inhabitant left. The events of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries passed Birstall by. No industry, no influx of people, only an exit. So what has changed? 

By the 1880’s there were four ‘big houses’ which owned the lands of Birstall – Birstall Hall, The Lawn, Goscote Hall and Netherhall. The ownership of these estates was in flux, as was often the case. However there were other troubles. Their money was tight. The old financial structures which paid for their upkeep were being replaced by ones which supported industry. To pay their way the big houses started selling off parts of their estates, sometimes to each other, sometimes to builders. After all, the workers had to have somewhere to live, and class divides tended to move the richer ones out of the city anyway. Then, in 1899, came the Great Central Railway. The commuter age had begun. 

Some time in the 1890’s a parish councillor had written “Birstall...village...in reality a purely agricultural one.” So, who would want to live there? Probably only farmers and people employed by the big houses. If, then, the Germans had been totally random in who they killed, on the 1914-18 war memorial one may have expected soldiers from these two professions to predominate. But they do not. To start with, only two families seem to have any history in Birstall, and their sons had moved on, one enlisting in Liverpool, the other in Sheffield. Of the 3 families that moved to Birstall and had a son there, one father was a farm worker, whilst the other two had sons ‘in service’. 

Eight families move to Birstall after the sons were born. One of the sons had an agricultural occupation, one was a gardener, whilst the others all seem to work in industry, be it hosiery or clerical work. There were also two from the upper stratas of society, one’s father having bought Goscote Hall about the time he was born, the other living at The Holt, a new house built apparently to replace Birstall Hall. He was the son of the occupant. Significantly, the addresses of three of those eight are given as ‘Birstall Hill’, in other words near the railway station. Were they the first commuters? 

There is one name which is out of alphabetical order on the memorial. This often happened when the soldier named died of his injuries at a later date. The web has several candidates for this person, but there are few clues to which one he is. Two have no army records apparently. And there is J William H Smith. I hope readers will forgive my not pursuing him; he is not recorded in the 1911 census and though he was born in Birstall of farming stock the thought of ploughing through 1,200 John Smiths and not be certain of an outcome...... 

It may be of some interest to know which regiments they joined. Ten went to the Leicestershire, and one each to the Sherwood Foresters, Coldstream Guards, Royal Engineers, Durham Light Infantry and the Medics. One died in 1914, two in 1916, and four in each of the remaining years. 

So the big estates broke up between the 1880’s and 1920’s; most of the big houses had been demolished by the end of the 1960’s, and quietly the commuters move in to what today is commuter-ville.  

Readers of a mathematical bent may have noticed that the above statistics add up to 16 soldiers, yet there are 17 names on the memorial. This leaves the mystery; Who was Davenport?