In July 2011 a major programme of work to St James Priory was completed. As part of the project we had compiled and published information on the fascinating history of the Priory since it was founded in1129. One area we still didn’t know much about was the stories behind the various memorials within the church and we decided to try to find out more about them.
The church took part in Bristol Doors Open Day 2011 and made an appeal for volunteers to help research the monuments. One group set out to undertake research into the monuments to individuals who were buried in or connected to the church.
A second group of volunteers decided to concentrate on investigating the names on the St James Parish war memorial. To start with, the only information they had to go on was the surnames and initials of the men who died and whether they were in the army or navy.
At the outset they decided to look at both the military and civilian lives of those who died so as to give a more rounded picture of the men and a clearer impression of the impact their deaths would have had on the community. In carrying out their research they mainly used the key sources which can now be found in Researching Your Bristolian Ancestors in the First World War – a Guide. Also, being an ancient parish, the church had a long established role in distributing charitable funds to parishioners in need. At the start of the war it took the decision to use its funds to try to help those bereaved through the loss of sons and husbands. The names and addresses of those who received donations of clothing, coal and money helped confirm the identities of some of those who died.
There are 99 army personnel and 10 navy personnel listed on the parish war memorial. In all but 18 cases the Group believes it has firmly identified the individuals concerned. In 9 of the remaining 18 cases it has some information but not enough to be sure of correctly attributing it to a man with the same surname on the memorial.
At the time of the war, St James was an inner city parish with a high level of poverty. The men who died were overwhelmingly privates, some two thirds of the names, and a similar proportion were, as to be expected, in either the Gloucester or Somerset Light Infantry regiments. Amongst those who died, 19 was the most common age at the time of death and the highest monthly casualty list coincided with the start of the Battle of the Somme.
Some very interesting stories have come to light and the Group has presented its findings at subsequent Bristol Doors Open Days and its work has been covered by BBC Radio Bristol and the Bristol Times. It has also been made available on the Priory’s website at www.stjamesprioryproject.org.uk/history-and-education/family-history-research
Appeals for information have been made to the relatives of those who died and a small number have come forward and added valuable information. A few have lent us photographs of the men to add to those we have found in Bristol and the War and the Bristol Times and Mirror.
Arthur Parsons died at the Battle of the Somme. His relatives contacted us and provided this picture of him and told us how, on hearing of his death, his mother stood up in St James graveyard and denounced the tragic loss of young men’s lives. She spent the night in the police station on a charge of treason.
After the “Bristol Blitz”, the parish war memorial from the ruins of St Peters Church was relocated to the south porch of St James. The Group has gone on to research the 22 men from that parish who died in the First World War.
More recently the Group has been asked by the Churches Conservation Trust to work with its volunteers to help uncover the World War One histories of the Bristol churches in its care – the Church of St John the Baptist (also known as St John-on-the-Wall), St Pauls and St Thomas. This work is still in progress.