Amberley Publishing - Transport, Military, Local and General History

The Bravest Little Street in England by Karen Cliff, Trafford Local Studies and The First World War Volunteers

The view of a volunteer by Richard Nelson

The original telegram from George V, 1919. (c. George Cogswell, The Bravest Little Street in England, Amberley Publishing)

Chapel Street has long signified the fighting spirit of the ordinary residents of Altrincham. It is regarded locally as a shining example of what can be achieved by such people in times of the nation's greatest need. Many families in the area have strong memories passed on by word of mouth about the individuals who lived in the street and they share pride in its achievement in sending so many men to fight in the First World War. After the conclusion of the fighting a group of residents formed a committee to commemorate those who had served in the conflict, many of whom were of Irish descent. In 1919 this committee succeeded in erecting a street shrine, the Chapel Street Memorial, at the end of the street.

In 2014 a decision was made by Trafford Local Studies to research for a book that would chronicle the lives of as many of the individuals on the memorial as could be located and document them in the social context and history of the street. The big question was how to go about producing a book which would do the subject justice.

Celebrations on Chapel Street on 5 April 1919. The Chapel Street Roll of Honour is visible on the right of the image. (c. Trafford Council, The Bravest Little Street in England, Amberley Publishing)

The work force was already in place. An advertisement in July 2013 for volunteers to work on a First World War research project produced a small team with wide and varied experience and expertise. Local Studies staff set us to work on extracting information about the war from resources in the collection, primarily newspapers and local council minute books. Each item was recorded on record cards and transferred to a database.

It soon became obvious that there was a vast amount of material to consider. Labouring through the newspapers produced hundreds of references to Chapel Street from the war years and more from the pre-war and post war years. This research had to be done in short bursts as each edition contained so much information and the small print was hard to read. It took over four years to extract the data and additional material was still emerging up to the final stages of producing the book.

The reward was that the names on the memorial became real people as so many interesting stories about the residents were discovered, especially from the reports of the Petty Sessions. The street contained large families and several lodging houses and were full of colourful characters. Cases of drunkenness, fighting, domestic violence, poaching, and theft, highlighted the extreme poverty in which many residents lived. Some were sad stories, others were amusing, as the case of two of the soldiers who, when they were boys, stole a horse, cart and harness, intending to go to Macclesfield to look for rags and bones.

Private Harry Johnson. (c. Harry Johnson, The Bravest Little Street in England, Amberley Publishing)

One volunteer used his expertise to record the history and the development of Chapel Street from the earliest evidence to its demolition. Reports and minutes for the local Board of Health provided much detail about housing conditions. Other volunteers used family history programmes and other search engines to research individual lives. The records of birth, marriage and death, parish records, the censuses, the 1939 Register, street directories, army service records, electoral rolls and absent voters' lists were our main sources. Contact with surviving family members produced more information.

Voluntary work already undertaken to locate and document the lives of Trafford men who had been awarded medals for gallantry had given me experience of interpreting First World War military records. I used this to develop a spreadsheet to record key facts on each soldier so that some statistical analysis could be undertaken once the research had been completed. This work formed the basis of one of the chapters of the book.

Some information was located by pure serendipity. It was proving difficult to identify Harry Johnson. Elimination of Cheshire Regiment soldiers of that name had narrowed the field down to one, but there was no conclusive proof. A chance discovery on Facebook of a slide-show of images of the street, with a comment by a friend that her grandfather, Harry Johnson, had lived in Chapel Street, provided the evidence. Her relatives provided a picture of Harry, an honourable discharge certificate, medals and family stories. The medals and certificate confirmed him as the soldier suspected, his obituary was located and it was now possible to write a much less speculative piece about him.

The Altrincham Boer War Memorial. (c. Trafford Council, The Bravest Little Street in England, Amberley Publishing)

During the course of the research there were discoveries which surprised all who worked on the project. These included evidence that the street had a lengthy history of being an important source of recruits to the British armed services which predated the Boer War. Strong proof was located that the memorial did not include the names of all the men from the street who had taken part in the conflict. More will be revealed by reading the book.

The project was expertly managed to ensure consistency. Regular monthly meetings determined the direction of the project and kept us all on track. Folders were created for storing the evidence for each soldier on the memorial. Standardised templates were completed by the team to ensure that all available evidence was collated. These were scrutinised two or three times by different researchers to check the evidence and fill in any gaps. Guidance on style and use of terms, accompanied by model examples, was produced to assist volunteers in writing up the soldiers in a standard format. The resulting biographies were checked to ensure that there was evidence for each conclusion drawn and checked again for consistency in language and format. As each soldier was completed his details were transferred to the fledgling book which rapidly started to grow. Photographs were chosen from the fine Local Studies collection, captions produced and additional chapters written and inserted and, hey presto, the book was completed!

The writing of “The Bravest Little Street in England” has been a most rewarding experience and a fine example of how, with expert direction, volunteers can work together effectively to meet the rigours of publication.

Karen Cliff, Trafford Local Studies and The First World War Volunteers new book The Bravest Little Street in England is available for purchase now.