The Story of Charles Edmondson

While researching at the Durham County Records Office, I came across mention of Charles Edmondson, Head teacher of Whorlton School. During the early weeks of the First World War he was to be found serving with the Expeditionary Forces in Belgium. He wrote weekly letters back to his family in Whorlton, where his father was a church warden. His parents gave permission for extracts from his letters to be published in the monthly Parish Magazine, and here is one of those extracts from 7th November 1914.

“We landed at Rouen, August 20th and left on 22nd for Amiens which we reached at 9pm and on 23rd had orders to proceed to La Cateau, and got there just in time to catch the shells coming over, and proceeded at once with the ammunitions towards Mons, from which place we had to retreat as soon as it was dark: what a sight it was, enough to turn anyone grey. I do not know how many cars we had lost. We reached St Quentin on Tuesday and we stayed there all night. The next day we were sent with four wagons to find and feed a regiment at Guise, but we could not find them. Next morning, we found a Battery of the Royal Field Artillery with only two men left! That day the Battle of St Quentin was fought, and we had to retire to Hain, from which we were ‘shelled out’, and retired during the night.

At Amiens, the Germans dropped on us unawares and we lost over 30 cars, together with two workshops and repair vans, and the column generally was so severely handled that they sent us to the Headquarters at Relun…I think the nearest shave I had was at a place near Hoblis in the forest of Crepy, where we had been ordered to stay the night, and had only rested for quarter of an hour when an order came to start the engines, each man to have his rifle, and to clear out as soon as possible. We had not proceeded more than half a mile when we were furiously attacked, but the drivers kept on going until one of the wagons stuck in the side of the road and we could not get past, so we took cover behind the wheels, and finally beat off our assailants, and reached safety at 4am.

We were at the Battle of Compiegne and the Marne, and at Soissons, and now we are having breakfast in one country and tea in another… It is good of the Vicar to have prayers for us…

We see some lovely scenery and some awful sights on the field. Anyone who has not seen them cannot realise how awful war is nowadays, but all the same I should not like to come back until I have seen it through. We must have got the worst over, for nothing could be worse than the scenes at Mons, at La Cateau and the retreat to Hain”.

Unfortunately, the Records Office do not possess a full set of the Parish magazines, and this extract is the last personal contact that I have been able to trace. How I wish I could have read more about his life, and personal thoughts on the battles he was involved in.

Looking back now in 2016, and knowing how long the war continued, the most poignant aspect for me of his letter is the thought that ‘we must have got the worst over’. How sad to reflect he had no idea of what was still to come.



Teesdale School’s WW1 Research Project

We recently kicked off a new project with students and staff from Teesdale School, aiming to equip them with the research skills to be able to uncover stories from their home communities across the Teesdale area. One of the significant factors of Teesdale is that it has relatively “static” communities – meaning that the names we find on the War Memorials across the area are the same that appear on the registers in school today. This gives us a great starting point from which to work from, with participants able to not just explore their own family roots – but helping to map those of their classmates too.


Kicking off the project, we were joined over a Thursday lunchtime by Major Chris Chapman from Catterick Garrison. Chris was able to give a fantastic presentation to the students focussing on the key dates of the First World War, as well as the creation of the Pals Battalions by Lord Kitchener – that were to have such devastating consequences for small communities like those in Teesdale – as in some cases whole villages were wiped out in  single offensive, particularly at the battle of The Somme.IMG_5890

It also provided the students with the opportunity to handle a variety of objects including medals and a decommissioned Lee Enfield rifle, as well as seeing how some military technologies had advanced over the last 100 years – particularly the design (and effectiveness) of helmets! IMG_5909



Evaluating your First World War Centenary project

We recently received the following:

‘The Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research (CRESR), Sheffield Hallam University has been commissioned by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) to conduct an evaluation of its First World War Centenary activity. An important element of this evaluation is understanding the experiences of people who take part in project activities. In order to do this we are conducting a participants’ survey.

We would appreciate your help in identifying people to complete this survey, by collecting the email addresses of those taking part through volunteering, receiving training, attending events or participating in activities.’

We do not give out the contact details of anyone connected with the Museum’s First World War project without first getting permission. If you agree that your contact details can be handed to Sheffield Hallam University for this evaluation, please let us know by emailing


The Fallen Servicemen of Southwest County Durham


As a local historian and contributor to The Bowes Museums own on-going research into the First World War, Kevin Richardson was a huge support as we first began our project – offering guidance and advice – as well as countless names and pieces of personal information that he had uncovered in the creation of his first book, Evenwood Remembers exploring the lives of the men of his village in WW1.

Kevin’s current website can be found at and within its pages you can find a huge range of detailed information, allowing you to explore individual communities and villages as well as come face to face with the past as he uncovers photographs and documentation of those men who died in serving their country during the Great War.

As Kevin himself says “There are 266 names on these village war memorials, some of whom are commemorated on more than one memorial,  Behind every inscription there is a man who was a son or brother, husband or father and the purpose of this website is to tell their story.  It is hoped that many will be able to connect with these men which will go some way to ensure that they will never be forgotten.”

Much like our own work here at The Bowes Museum, Kevin’s work is on-going, reliant on the clues and contributions of members of the public who might have old photographs or documents that help us to piece together the puzzle If you have any information relating to families or individuals from Southwest County Durham, particularly near Evenwood, Hamsterley, West Auckland etc – we’d love to hear from you via  

In Memoriam

As part of our on-going student internship with Northumbria University, participants Gavin, Katie and Hannah were tasked with exploring the grounds of The Bowes Museum – and to give voice to the war memorials that lie within the gardens. 

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The cold November wind whipped against my pale stone. I didn’t feel the cold, I just knew from those who came to visit me that it was. They said so. It was all they ever seemed to say to each other, ‘It’s a cold one today, isn’t John?’ Their coats and scarfs wrapped tightly around their bodies and yet they still seemed to hug themselves as a shield against the weather. Occasionally I would see people in the summer months, scantily dressed these days, unlike when I was first born.

When I first came into this world people came to visit me every day, and more than just one or two stragglers. Some would cry sad tears, some almost proud tears and some would just read the names carved into my body solemnly. I watched as the days passed, seasons changed and the years brought in new generations who did not know how to react around me. I’m not sure when it happened. Or even when I noticed it. At some point though, I realised that those who did visit, far and in between, had no reaction at all. They were more fascinated by the building I was erected in front of. Of how many names were still prominently carved into my body. Of going to get a coffee and cake in the café. Few wept when they came to visit anymore.

Every November though, I was the centre of attention once again. A glorious poppy wreath set at my base. Some said kind words, some whispered prays and almost everyone watched me solemnly, with respect. This year was no different. I was more distinguished now though. I knew what had happened. Over one hundred years and I finally understood. The names carved into my body were the names of men, some young and some old, who had died. Humankind had killed one another in a war. All that was left of some of these men were the names I held up. Some families never had a body to bury. I was a sort of grave for them to grieve at.

I was always made to look nice for those families in the month of November when they all gathered. That was when the war had ended. It amazed me that even still after all these years they still had a celebration. It must have been a horrible war. How many of me were there. The names I held could not be the only dead men. Not according to those who came to visit me. Some talked about a place called France, of Belgium and England. I wasn’t sure where I was, but I knew that I could not be alone.




I remember you, sitting in a bog.                                                                                                                                                                    
I remember you, crying into the night.                                                                                                                                        
I remember you, ready to fight.                                                                                                                                                        
I remember you, awake at first light.

I remember you, holding back your tears.                                                                                                                                  
I remember you, choking on dust.                                                                                                                                                        
I remember you, your fears of the dark.                                                                                                                                                  
I remember you, speaking to God with distrust.

I remember you, holding your wedding ring.                                                                                                                                  
I remember you, as shell shocked voices started to sing.                                                                                                                  
I remember you, shakenly holding your gun.                                                                                                                                  
I remember you, them shouting for you to run.

I remember you, sitting in the trench.                                                                                                                                          
I remember you, sitting with your friend.                                                                                                                                                            
I remember you, promises you made.                                                                                                                                                                
I remember you, as watch his body in the ground to be laid.

I remember you, holding your wife.                                                                                                                                                            
I remember you, thanking God for your life.                                                                                                                                      
I remember you, proud until the end.                                                                                                                                                            
I remember you, God blessings we send.

We remember you, as heroes in the field.                                                                                                                                      
We remember you, as men who fought for your country come rain or shine.                                                                          
We remember you, as the men who left behind a legacy like no other.                                                                                                  
We remember you, as men who fought and died side by side together.

We Thank You, for fighting for the next generation.                                                                                                                    
We Thank You, for saving the freedom of our nation.                                                                                                                    
We Thank You, for being willing to give so much.                                                                                                                              
We Thank You, for giving us the life we now live.



The snowdrops are here and the daffodils are trying to flower, but the trees are still bare. I have seen this a hundred times, and I will see it many, many more times. Today a man approaches me, with a quizzical expression on his face, his hands in his pockets to guard against the spring chill. Like everyone who comes to see me, he is trying to think about me, but he is preoccupied with something else. In this case he is thinking about a story he wrote about a girl he loved and perhaps will always love, and he is frustrated because he believes the words he has written do not do the thing justice. He worries he will struggle to find the words about me, too, when the time comes. What am I to him, after all? Something important certainly: a reminder of something very far off through the veins of history. He is tired and thinking about coffee when he begins to read the names etched onto me. He doesn’t recognise any of the individuals. How could he? They were all killed nearly a century before he breathed his first breath. But some of the surnames strike him. They are names he knows rarely occur outside of this part of the world: the part of the world where he grew up, that will always be home. There’s the surname of the boy from primary school who was sick in the big hall during PE. There’s the surname of the girl in the year below who was related to the teacher, and wore it like armour. His best friend who stopped being his best friend when a girl got involved, and a fight broke out on the playground. The boy who he didn’t get along with, but who added him on Facebook anyway. The bully who always said he wanted to fight him, but never did. The blonde from the next street. Were these their relatives? He wonders, and he imagines roots running down from my foundation, dispersing all over this countryside, and something perilously close to resembling a connection to me.

War and Peace

Last week we were visited at The Bowes Museum by Jennifer Sterland. Having travelled north to us from Nottinghamshire – it just goes to show how far spread relatives with Teesdale connections have travelled. 

Jennifer was very keen to introduce to the stories of her two maternal grandparents Roy and Alice Helmer. Roy’s family, though having had an international existence prior to their arrival, chose to settle in Romaldkirk.



Having had such a multi-linguistic childhood, Roy was equipped with a number of languages including French and German – which when it came to war were of great use – bolstered by his experiences in the recently created Boy Scouts movement meant that he was a natural selection for the signals division, first with the 45th Infantry Brigade and the 15th Artillery.

His war was a lucky one – and as he returned home he was committed to tracking down a girl he had once met in the grounds of Barnard Castle at the age of 15. A young girl named Alice Sevier, visiting English relatives who worked as a Doctor in the town.

This might have been a harder task than Roy expected – but for the fact of Alice’s attempted escape from Russia to Finland with her family resulted in being captured by German Forces! Exchanged alongside her sister for German Prisoners of War, we are fortunate to see an exchange of letters between Alice and her brother, Richard.


Separate to being an incredible story of two individuals personal experiences through war and peace – the amounts of valuable informatio that has been presented to the museum in this unique collection of ephemera.

We shall be processing and posting more stories in the coming weeks – so stay tuned for more news about Roy and Alice!

You can find Roy’s profile on our Roll of Honour here.

As always – if you or anyone you know has any information, objects or images relating to families from Teesdale during 1900-1920, we would like to hear from you! Please make contact via

Volunteer Dialogues

Friday 11th December saw a group of volunteers come together from across County Durham at Beamish Museum. With representatives from Beamish  Durham Cathedral and The Bowes Museum, the subject of the day was simply to explore the role of  volunteers within a multi-faceted cultural organisation / museum – considering best practice, initiatives and how, across the region we can look to support each other both as organisations and as individuals.


As all three organisations move forward into unchartered territories – with the rebuild of Beamish, the creation of the Hidden Treasures galleries at Durham Cathedral and this year seeing The Bowes Museum host its largest ever exhibition and series of events for YSL – there is great opportunity to examine and explore the dynamics of each work force, to identify the true value of our volunteers (because we certainly couldn’t do it without them!) 

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The day was a fantastic opportunity for our volunteers to share their experiences, and for us as staff members to sit in on the discussions, as well as getting some fantastic ideas for how to work more effectively as the WW1 Project (as example) continues to develop and grow. Most importantly, there was a resounding decision that more of this was needed (!) by  staff and volunteers alike – and we’re now looking at some really exciting prospects including shared training and development, an idea of establishing cultural ambassadors between organisations and for further ways for us to continue to contribute to the value and worth of our amazing volunteers.

Sam Sweeney’s Fiddle: Made in the Great War

Sunday 13th September saw renowned folk musician Sam Sweeney arrive in Barnard Castle to perform his fantastic show Sam Sweeney’s Fiddle: Made in the Great War.

The show tells the simple story of the life of Sam’s fiddle, bought in Oxford, 2009. It had all the appearance of a new instrument but the label inside gave the date 1915 and the name Richard S Howard. Research revealed that the violin had been made, but never finished, by a luthier and some-time music hall performer from Leeds called Richard Spencer Howard.  He had signed up in 1916 at the age of thirty-five and less than two years later fought at the Battle of Messines in West Flanders, Belgium.  His violin had been left unfinished in his workshop. The carved pieces of the fiddle lay in a manila envelope for nine decades until they finally made their way into the hands of Oxford luthier Roger Claridge who set about finishing the instrument in his workshop.  Over ninety years after Richard Howard began working on the fiddle it was finally finished and placed in Roger’s shop.

Through original music composed by Sam and his accompanying musicians Rob Habron and Paul Sartin and finely-crafted story, delivered by master storyteller Hugh Lupton – the quartet brought the story to life. Unadorned and without ego, the gathered facts of Howard’s life were fleshed out, taking the audience from his home life surrounded by family, friends, the music hall and his workshop in Leeds – to the front line, and in turn his demise.

I was lucky enough to be accompanied by The Cream Tees, Heart of Teesdale’s youth folk orchestra, who were all enraptured by the show, following the simple sounds and songs that were produced between the 3 musicians on fiddle, clarinet, harmonium and concertina. As we left the music hall (a highly suitable venue, given the context of the show), we noted there were few dry eyes in the audience – as the tale came to its unavoidable close.

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The White-Feathered Soul, by Maddy Forsyth

Upon the hill,
Frost bitten and grey
Lie the saints who eagerly
Heard their country call.
The bugles of war sounded in their ears,
Amidst the hollers of loved one’s cheers,
Who thought they’d fall so soon, but yet the tide
Still washes over them with lasting pride.

Upon the mantelpiece of an old beggar’s home,
Lies the dust smothered memory
Of a white-feathered soul.
They never speak of him nor fondly think,
Of the burden who caused their reputation to sink,
For the man who solemnly refused to fight
Was yet the villain who vanquished all sense of “right”.

Little they knew of his strong belief,
That raged through his being like wildfire.
Little they knew of his faith, like hope,
That latched itself onto each tiny cell,
And grew more powerful with each passing day.
Oblivious to this “cancer” that would lead him astray,
They placed their trust in their only son
And yet he retreated at the mention of a gun.

He spoke of a peace,
Laced with reverence and respect,
Of a world that could one day
Put aside its differences and unite.
No more war nor endless talk of death,
But a lasting harmony that required no final breath,
The hope that someday the fighting would cease
For yet to come was this impossible peace.

Alone, so alone,
Cast off and despised,
His family’s hearts forever printed with shame.
They tied him up with chains of enmity,
Upon him they rose and cursed and beat,
And jeered like animals at his feet,
But he was above the ostentation,
As yet he himself would shake the nation.

But inside his head
Vast chasms of darkness swirled and roared,
His personal battle still to be won.
This private conflict full of doubt and despair
Was the war from which he didn’t dare
To flee from precious peace disturbed,
Yet steadfast faith remained unperturbed.

Far from coward,
This “white-feathered” soul was braver, still,
Than any young jingoist with head in cloud.
For what was valour if not the endeavour
To stand out from a crowd, faltering never,
And express your belief however strange,
Though yet cynics your views attempt to change.

And stars in their eyes
Like glistening jewels
Fall, burst, flicker in the twilight
The stars, like so many before,
A sign of hope for the ever-darkening world,
Who appear like angels with wing unfurled.
Who continue regardless to promote peace on Earth
So that yet we, in turn, may rejoice in our mirth.

Upon the hill,
Frost bitten and grey
Lie the saints who eagerly
Heard their country call.
Their country was the suffering globe,
Clothed in hatred; a fitting robe
For such a careless waste of life
Yet peaceful stars may end the strife.


Finishing the Workshops

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After 3 days of hard work, students from both Barnard Castle and Teesdale School came to the end of their time here at The Bowes Museum.

Having been given the opportunity to dive into the Museum’s own archive, as well as using the online database here on the project website, each student has begun to craft their own creative response to the discoveries they have made. It was a unique opportunity for students to step away from the history books and start to uncover aspects of the First World War that they perhaps hadn’t heard of before.

Esia Forsyth chose to look at the experience of the Belgian Refugees, many of whom came to Teesdale (of which you can read more about here). Her discoveries in the Teesdale Mercury of articles relating to locals preparations for the arrival of the refugees led her to learn more about their plight.

Other students learnt about conscientious objectors, the process of conscription, the lives of men from named on the Roll of Honour and on the memorials here in the Bowes Museum grounds. There were some that uncovered information in regards to the role that both The Bowes Museum and their own school (then called The North Eastern County School) played in supporting both the local and national war effort.

In bringing the workshops to a close, many students were wanting to know if it was possible to continue using the library and archive space here at the museum throughout the summer holidays – which we of course were delighted to say “Yes!” to – and now as such these students are forming another new group of volunteers, helping to continue the project’s research whilst also completing their pieces of creative writing.