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Desmond Family Canoe Trail
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Chris Chambers, a lock keeper from the North Wales & Borders waterway team, gives us a small insight into the men and women who worked at Ellesmere Yard as they answered the call to arms in 1914.
When the call to arms came in 1914, the men and women of Ellesmere in Shropshire reacted as you might expect, and went to war, remembering their homes and families, fondly looking forward to returning to their town. However 67 of them never came home. Beneath the spire of St Mary’s Church is a memorial cross made of Runcorn stone that celebrates those from this very local area that fell defending both their country and the once bright future of their families.
As with the railways, the Shropshire Union Canal Company was a significant employer in the town. At the outbreak of hostilities in 1914 over 120 men were working locally on the cut. 36 of these men joined up to defend their country. Whist the majority had returned to their families by 1919, two of the lads did not.
Larnell Woodville was a single lad of 17 when he enlisted at Shrewsbury. He initially joined up with the Cheshire Regiment. He was born in Ellesmere and lived with his grandparents in Birch Row, no more than three hundred yards from the canal company’s Ellesmere Yard . He was a striker and fitter, which suggests he worked in the blacksmith’s workshop. He was mortally wounded and died of his injuries on 13th November 1914 at Authuile in France, where he is buried. He had two brothers Ambrose and Benjamin.
William Chidlow was a carpenter at Ellesmere Yard, repairing and making lock gates. On the call to arms he too enlisted in Shrewsbury and joined the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry. He was killed in action in Belgium in January 1918. Although born in Llanbrynmair in Montgomeryshire, he had moved with his parents in Brownlow Road in Ellesmere.
These two lads went to war, never to return. However what became of those that did return? The clerks, bricklayers, painters, strikers, bank-tenders. The lads that would have run for cover if the forge struck up or the yard fire bell was rung. The guys that only had one arm or were blinded? These same lads came from Ellesmere, Coptiviney, Lyneal, Tetchill, Frankton, places and villages on the canal that we might recognise today.
We do know that typically the canal company was a very paternal and responsible employer and all those that came home had the opportunity to return to their old jobs, to their familiar and secure surroundings. We also know that these men suffered badly abroad, certainly psychologically as well as physically. Research has revealed that if the men were not able to sustain the levels of strength required to, say, work in the blacksmith’s shop, then they were able to undertake less strenuous duties. Some were unable to ever work again. We cannot begin to imagine the challenges these men faced on their return from war.
Next time you are in Ellesmere, take time to wander down Birch Row, Wharf Street, Sparbridge, Brownlow Road or Watergate. Walk in the footsteps of those canal men that gave their lives and those that returned scarred, in the hope of rediscovering the security and hope that they had left behind. Today the canal is a wonderful, calming place to spend some time away from our perceived stressful lives. I wonder if the returning, damaged, soldiers derived the same solace from the waterways? It would be nice to think so.
Chris Chambers, North Wales & Borders Waterway Team
War on the waterways
Find out more about the stories of our waterways during wartime here.
The work carried out by the heritage team is extremely varied, covering all sorts of structures and a wide variety of projects. Not one week is the same and we keep learning all the time, meeting some fascinating people and visiting stunning places along the way. We are hoping that through our blogs we can share some of our passion for the amazing industrial heritage of the inland waterways.