By Judith Phillips
In a previous newsletter, I asked for information about Teesdale men involved in the fighting at the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele). There will have been many Teesdale men who fought in that battle, and many who died, including two of the Smith brothers of Barnard Castle, as described in Colin Young’s account in a previous newsletter of a trip to commemorate them and others. In response to my request, I was reminded by a relative of another Teesdale man with Cockfield and Staindrop connections. Here’s the outline story of Gordon Priestley who died almost exactly a hundred years ago.
Gordon was the son of Emmanual and Mary Ann Priestley of Fell Houses, Cockfield. Gordon joined the Durham Light Infantry and served in the 1st/6th Battalion with the service number 250165. When he died on 26th October 1917, aged 24, he had advanced to the rank of sergeant. He is commemorated on the Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing at Zonnebeke in West Flanders, Belgium.
That’s the brief outline of his life, military service and death from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website www.cwgc.gov.uk. But we can find out a little more.
The 1901 census returns list the Priestley family living in Wackerfield. As well as Gordon (then aged 8), there were his older brothers George, Fred and Andrew – all miners, as was their father Emmanuel. By 1911 the census returns list the family at Fell Houses, Cockfield. Gordon, aged 18, was a colliery putter working underground. None of his older brothers was living with the family but there was a younger brother and two sisters. Interestingly, Gordon’s birthplace changes from Wackerfield in the 1901 census to Sun Cottages, Staindrop in the 1911 census.
Gordon isn’t recorded in Rachel Wood’s very informative work on the men recorded on Cockfield School Roll of Honour, so he probably went to the Church of England School.
Church magazines are frequently a valuable source of information about individuals, as well as local war effort activities. Cockfield was covered by the Staindrop Anglican parish magazine, and Gordon Priestley is mentioned twice during the war. Described as one of the ‘veterans returning to the front,’ Sergeant Gordon Priestley is mentioned in a short report of a Cockfield “send off” on 16th August 1917. ‘A number of soldiers on “last leave” [before going to the Front] …… were entertained to supper by the kindness of a number of friends. ……After [the toasts] a Social Evening was thoroughly enjoyed by our soldiers and friends.’ The evening ended with everyone invited to join in singing ‘Will ye no’ come back again’. That strikes me now as sad and ironic as many of the soldiers there, veterans and soldiers fresh from the Training Camps, wouldn’t come back again.
The parish magazine published in January 1918 reports that Gordon was missing, presumed dead. ‘Information has been received that he met his death in a gallant endeavour to attack a German Sniper who was picking off our men. Sergeant Priestley had already won distinction for his splendid courage and energy.’ His body was never found, which is why his name is recorded on the Memorial to the Missing. His name also appears on the Cockfield Village Green Cross.
I checked Ancestry for Gordon’s military service. I found a medal card, recording the Victory medal, which also gave two service numbers – 2197 and 250165. I didn’t find his service papers, so they were probably among the thousands destroyed during the London blitz in the Second World War.
If you look up Gordon Priestley on the project Roll of Honour at www.thebowesmuseumww1.org.uk, you will see images of his photograph and two embroidered cards Gordon sent back to his family. One of the cards is addressed to his brother, wishing him a happy birthday. His family kept the photograph and cards which eventually passed to his great-nephew who lived in Staindrop.
I am grateful to Gordon’s great-niece by marriage who has sent this information. If you have any story, artefacts or images of Teesdale men caught up in the fighting at Passchendaele or involved in the war in any way, we would be delighted to hear from you. You can email firstname.lastname@example.org, post to The Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle DL12 8NP, telephone 01883 69060 ext. 208 (answerphone) or leave material for me at Reception in the museum.