I started my family history research on 13 March 2020, just before the first Coronavirus Lockdown. It was somewhat of a false start; the flashy hints that usually end up inaccurate did not help. However, one of the hints struck my attention. I remember it so distinctly. It was late on, and a photo popped up of my Great Great Great Grandparents. Next followed one of their son, surrounded by comrades, in France, with a jaunty hat and cigarette in his mouth. Then, carrying on, I saw the dreaded records with the short phrase ‘died of wounds’.
Following this discovery, I fundamentally wanted to answer one question – who was this fallen hero I shared a name with? Answering it brought home some answers and also a very tragic tale but also connected me strongly to George Alfred Dale, a lad of late Victorian York.
Mere meters from the ancient city walls of York, at 33 Duke of York Place, Long Close Lane, George Alfred Dale, the youngest son of Alfred Dale and Mary Jane Fell, was born on 7 March 1898. His parents had married some nineteen years previously. Mary Jane’s mother was a regular in York’s courts, sentenced for mainly petty crimes. Alfred’s father was a Composite Printer at a local York Paper, and his uncle was a Hairdresser by trade but also the Swordbearer of the City of York; therefore, their match was somewhat surprising. Criminality and the hairdressing gentry don’t really mix – perhaps then this is indicative of a real match based upon love?
The Dale family moved to 33 Duke of York Place by 1881. Alfred worked as a Glass Blower, and the York Glass Works was just down the road, so it is likely to explain why they moved to that address. They were a typical working-class family of York, and by George’s birth in 1898, the family comprised George, the youngest, his two older brothers and three older sisters. In 1885, another brother, Edward Dale, at only a few hours old, passed away in infancy.
George was baptised likely at St Deny’s Church, near where the Dale family lived, on 27 March 1898, a date which bears significance twenty years later. Just a year after George’s birth, his eldest sister, Frances Lily Dale, married George Garnett and moved out. Therefore, in 1901, his eldest sisters living at home were Mary Jane and Ada, who both worked in York’s famous confectionery business. They left home over the coming decade, being married in 1904 and 1909 respectively. Albert Victor was slightly younger but still aged ten years older than George. Perhaps George got up to more mischief with his youngest older brother Arthur, who was also my Great Great Grandfather. They only shared a five-year age gap, so especially in the coming years, one can imagine the boys running around the streets of the ancient city they were born in.
This rather innocent Edwardian childhood was, however, contrasted with the brutality of what was to come.
Alfred Dale, likely down to the processes of his work as a glass blower, or a specific type of pipe he smoked, or another factor, became gravely ill. It was Cancer – a death sentence in Edwardian England, especially so for someone of his class. The Cancer was based in his tongue, and although we do not precisely know how long Alfred was ill, one can only imagine him slowly fading away in agony. With his youngest child, George Alfred, aged 8, did he try to hide his illness from him? Or was it simply apparent from the beginning? Alfred may have been unable to work, and luckily there were other sources of income for the family, but times will have become much harder for the Dales as they waited for the inevitable.
The inevitable came on 30 August 1906, and by the description of his death certificate, the actual moment of his death was even grimmer than the months preceding it. Alfred Dale, son, brother, father to seven, and “beloved husband” to Mary Jane, was dead. His body was buried in a public grave at York Cemetery a few days later. In spite of her precarious economic situation after her husband’s death, Mary Jane erected a memorial kerb to Alfred’s memory, perhaps as a testament to their love.
Focusing on George, not only had he just lost his father, but soon he lost his home. Mary Jane Dale, George’s mother, now a widow and the family’s matriarch, had to find a way to survive her husband’s and breadwinner’s death. Sensibly to find work, she moved her family to Dewsbury, one of the prosperous West Riding Heavy Woollen towns. Likely travelling by train, one can only imagine how the Dale family felt, especially little George, as they boarded their train and said goodbye to their friends, family and most importantly, home.
They moved to what was at the time one of the grimmest parts of Dewsbury, the slums of Eastborough. George likely adjusted quickly to this new environment and replaced running around the ancient streets of York with the more modern, industrial streets of prosperous Dewsbury. Furthermore, he gained a new father figure as his mother married a Mr. George Marshall at the now-demolished St. Phillip’s Church on 22 August 1908. The family moved to Primrose Hill, Soothill, by 1911, although with the marriages of Ada and Mary Jane, only the boys, Albert Victor, Arthur and George Alfred, remained at home.
In the intervening years of 1911 to 1914, little is known regarding George’s life. For example, we do not know when he started work or where he first worked. His stepfather George Marshall worked in a local “Coke Plant”, as did his brother Albert Victor. His other brother Arthur worked in the Mill, so there were various possibilities for where he did eventually end up working. However, this is all irrelevant to some extent, as world events would soon send George Alfred Dale down a different path.
After the July Crisis and weeks of tension, Britain finally declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914, ending a century of relative peace for the British general public. Quite early on in the war, likely in its early weeks, George Alfred Dale, aged 16, enlisted, likely lying about his age by a year or two. Perhaps captivated by the early romanticism of the war, or dreams of adventure, or simply not seeing many opportunities for himself in Batley, he entered service into the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment.
His battalion was the 2/5th, which was formed in Huddersfield in September, initially serving as a home service battalion intended for home defence and other duties. Based in the UK, George’s battalion travelled far and wide, some places including Derbyshire in 1915, Newcastle in late 1915 and Salisbury Plain in early 1916. For a working-class lad like George, seeing so much of the UK must have been thrilling. However, soon it was time to go to battle, and George’s Battalion was sent to France in early 1917 when he was aged just 18 years old.
His battalion was part of the 62nd (2nd West Riding) Division and fought in a wide array of battles, centred mainly around Arras and the rural village of Bullecourt. The first battle George may have partook in was the Operations on the Ancre in February 1917. He was granted leave in May 1917, the last recorded time we know he was at home. Around this time, he also signed a will where he left everything to his mother. Despite being still such a young lad, the spectre of death haunted him and so many others on the battlefields of France and Flanders.
1918 saw a repetition of the previous year in many regards for George. His battalion fought in the same areas, in the same gruelling conditions. Yet, in spite of this, in photos, he appears to be a character, especially with his previously mentioned jaunty hat and cigarette. Perhaps the army life was for him? Or it simply was a façade for back home.
Heavy fighting began in Bullecourt on 21 March 1918, which was located on the Hindenburg Line. The village had seen heavy fighting in 1917, and the Germans would recapture the village after the 1918 battle, holding it until September 1918. It was either on or just before 29 March 1918, during this battle and ironically just one or two days from his date of baptism, when he was injured during this fighting. The nature of the injuries remains unknown, and to what degree, George suffered because of them also. On the 29th, he was transferred to a hospital in Rouen, where he fought for his life. It was in vain, however, and so far away from home and his family, George died aged scarcely 20 years old on 31 March 1918. The young lad, a loved son, brother, cousin, and nephew, with a life and future ahead of him, was dead.
He was buried in Rouen, and the family chose the inscription of ‘Thy Will be Done’ for his gravestone. It is a statement I don’t fully understand, I admit. Still, I see it as simply a statement of acceptance and confusion. Acceptance of God’s plan of taking away such a young lad full of promise, but not understanding why, except hoping it was for a good reason. The Dales from Alfred’s death, and to an extent beforehand, were dealt a rough hand in many ways. Perhaps then, it was a comment about that also.
George Alfred Dale’s death affected the family immensely, especially his mother, who is later reported to have “fretted” about his death. He missed the marriage of his brother Arthur in June 1918, but arguably the loss may have contributed to his mother’s sudden death in January 1919 – had she seen too many losses?
George Alfred Dale’s legacy continued by Arthur naming his son George in 1921. This George was my Great Grandad, a gardener who worked for many years at Batley Park and who also served through the Second World War. He was by all accounts a lovely, generous and kind man and a man I am sure George Alfred Dale would have been immensely proud to call his nephew. Unfortunately, he died in 1987, many years before my birth, and it is now myself who now carries the name George. Named after both my Great Grandfather, and by proxy, my Great Great Great Uncle, I take great pride in both legacies and also in carrying the name ‘George’ into the 21st century.
With this in mind, god-willing, and with some train tickets clutched in my hand; I will set off in the summer to Rouen and find George Alfred Dale’s final resting place. The grave, which has stood for about a century or so, is a testament to a longwinded legacy of a lad taken away from life at the young age of twenty. I am not sure how many family members have ever had the opportunity to visit the grave; I know of one, but frankly, I feel very privileged to be able to. Thinking back to 2020, I remember the first moments of finding out about George’s story, and it has taken three years to understand it fully. I see it as a calling to continue his legacy as his life, death and the war he served in fade further into the past.
Let this post, and my future detour to Rouen, be an example then, that after 125 years of his birth and 105 years since his death, Private George Alfred Dale is not forgotten and never will be.
Leave a Reply