Death after a Night at the Woolpack and other Great War Stories resulting from A Guide to the War Memorials of Stroud and the Five Valleys
1. Sheepscombe and Slad:
I am indebted to Karen Frank who put me onto this tale of truth and woe – Karen gave me a lift to Zeta printers to pick up my booklets on local war memorials and, in exchange, I gave her two copies, one of which Karen gave to the Sheepscombe Local History Society.
Elizabeth Skinner, Sheepscombe historian, asked Karen if I knew of the war grave in Sheepscombe churchyard, for the grave contained the remains of the man killed after a night out at the Woolpack, as imaginatively recounted in Cider with Rosie. This seemed improbable to me: how could the dates be reconciled? A winter’s night in the 1920s in Slad is a long way from the Western Front or Gallipoli, in both time and space. I received this email on holiday in Spain and decided that I would bike out to the church on my return.
I visited the churchyard in early August and the verger said he knew nothing of a war grave. I recounted the story; he said there is ‘often a modicum of truth in these tales’. He directed me to the other graveyard beyond the war memorial and across the road, and suggested that I try there.
I noticed for the first time that the memorial itself had a sundial on each of the four sides of its column, before wandering through the long grass over the road. The gravestones were resolutely non-military and I trudged despondently down the slope until I reached a yew tree: there, hidden in shadow, was a war grave.
I took a picture and recorded the details in my notebook: 121577 Corporal AV Birt Royal Air Force 10th April 1919. I bicycled home through Painswick, pondering on this conundrum: how could this be the rich, boastful, colonial returning boy? There are names of antipodean aircraftmen recorded on the Amberley war memorial, so I began to wonder if Corporal Birt had been stationed locally…but the date…
Karen had emailed me to say that: ‘There is a detailed inquest report which states that the man was murdered by person or persons unknown after walking part of the way home from the Woolpack.’ But was ‘the man’ Corporal Birt? Would I have to contact the Imperial War Graves Commission to discover the context of Corporal Birt’s death?
I decided to contact Sheepscombe Local History Society first (saying the tale seemed improbable) and was delighted to receive a speedy reply from Ron Paterson: ‘Improbable but true! The grave is of Albert Victor Birt who lived in Longridge and died aged 42 on 10th April 1919. As a former serviceman, he qualified for a war grave even though he had not been killed in action (This applied to all who had served in the armed forces between the outbreak of WW1 and 31st August 1921.)
His death resulted from injuries sustained in an assault on his way home and the subsequent inquest (which was reported in the Stroud Journal) concluded that he had been murdered although the killers were never found or prosecuted.’
Ron pointed me in the direction of a booklet about Sheepscombe’s war dead written by the sadly deceased Tony Reeves. At the time of writing, I have asked Karen to get me a copy and I want to look at the Stroud Journal report myself – but there seems little to add to this…apart from the fact that it seems impossible that anyone was allowed to get away with this crime.
Update: visit to Stroud Library, August 6th, 2014; here is the transcription from the printout of the Stroud News and Journal, April 11th, 1919, microfiche:
‘A man named Albert Birt, a discharged soldier living at Longridge, Painswick, died at Stroud Hospital at 11.45 on Thursday morning. The deceased was admitted to the hospital on April 1st, suffering from severe injuries to the head and in an unconscious condition. He never recovered, and died as stated. The police are making inquiries concerning the case. It appears that Birt and a companion left the Woolpack Inn, Slad, on the night of March 29th. They were both sober, but the next morning Birt, who was 42 years of age, was found lying in the road in an unconscious condition. He was taken to his home and medically attended, and later he was removed to the hospital on the advice of the doctor.’
It doesn’t matter to me that the account in CwR doesn’t tally with the historical reality; the book, after all, is a mixture of genres: autobiography, historical recreation, non-fiction-fiction-faction, prose-poetry, oral history, testament … And surely we read this book for recreation, and how can I forget my first head-teacher, worried that I was working too hard when a young teacher:’ Stuart, never forget the true meaning of the word recreation. It’s re-creation.’
Nevertheless, one question remained about this literary re-creation: was Mr. Birt a ‘wild, colonial boy’? I re-contacted Ron Paterson with a final question; did Mr. Birt appear on the 1911 census? Ron made the 1881, 1891, 1901 and 1911 Sheepscombe census returns available to me, and we see the following:
Albert Birt aged 4, Longridge, 1881; 14, wood turner, Stroud and Slad Road, 1891; 24, wood turner, Longridge, 1891; 34, wood turner, Longridge, Bull’s Cross, 1911.
He married Elsie Hogg in 1918 and was killed a year later, after a night at the Woolpack.