Friday, 2 October 2015

A Tale of Two Sisters

In March 1915 an application was made for two little girls to be admitted to St Stephen’s Orphanage in York.  Contrary to its name, those admitted to St Stephen’s were not necessarily orphans in the accepted sense of the word, the rules of admission required only that girls had lost at least one parent, that they could supply a baptism certificate, and that someone was willing to pay a weekly sum for their care. 

The rules for admission to St Stephen's, as printed in the application form of Winifred Brooks.

In this case their father Albert Brooks made the application, undertaking to pay 4 shillings and sixpence a week for each of his daughters.  The application forms are otherwise perfunctory; both girls were examined and found to be in good health, six year old Winifred had previously suffered from measles, four year old Hilda had not. 

Winifred Brooks' application.

In many cases an application form, and perhaps a baptism certificate, are all that survives for the residents of St Stephen’s.  However, for Winifred and Hilda a particularly tragic set of circumstances has left what amounts to a small family archive among the orphanage papers that tell of the impact that war and disease could have on an ordinary York family in the early years of the twentieth century.

The children’s applications were accompanied by two letters of support which provide a succinct account of the difficult situation faced by the Brooks family in March 1915.

‘The case of the Brooks is a sad one,’ the vicar of St Lawrence in York, Reverend Hutchings, wrote to the orphanage, ‘the wife quite young died of consumption and left the 2 children.’   Another supporter attests to the children’s good character, ‘I knew their mother and visited her for 2 years before her death and constantly saw the children, who are nice & well behaved, and are very bright.’  Both give a positive account of Albert and his wife, one writing of the ‘great regard’ they held for Mrs Brooks, and the other calling Albert ‘a decent fellow’, although he didn’t know ‘where he works or what his work is.’

A letter sent in support of the application by an 'R. Birch' of St Saviourgate, York.

Fortunately the St Stephen’s papers answer this question, including as they do Albert’s marriage certificate which describes him as a ‘confectioner’ as well as a later letter signed by D. S. Crichton, head of the Social Department at the Cocoa Works, the chocolate factory set up by the Rowntree family on Haxby Road in York.  It was perhaps there that Albert met his future wife Jane, or ‘Jennie’ Wytcherley, who was employed in the factory’s Cream Department.  The notice of their marriage appears in the firm’s Cocoa Works Magazine, dated 27th March 1907. 24 year old Albert Brooks of the packing and stores department was presented with a ‘beautiful over-mantel’ to mark the occasion, while 22 year old Jennie received the firm’s wedding gift, their fellow workers wishing the couple ‘much happiness and long life.’ 

They were married three days later at St Lawrence Church.  In March 1908 their daughter Winifred was born, followed by Hilda two years later in November 1910.  The 1911 census finds the small family living at 5 Apollo Street; 28 year old Albert, a ‘confectionery packer,’ 26 year old housewife Jane, 3 year old Winifred and the infant Hilda. 

Sadly this happy family life was not to last.  By 1912 Jennie was already suffering from the tuberculosis that was to kill her.  The York Tuberculosis Dispensary, later York Chest Clinic, opened its doors in 12th December 1912 and its records show that Mrs Jane Brooks of 5 Apollo Street applied for treatment for the disease just four days later.  She was treated by ‘open air ward’, possibly at Yearsley Fever Hospital which had opened in January of that year, but sadly died in February 1915 at only 30 years of age. 

On the 22nd February Albert paid for the interment of his wife at York Cemetery in a burial plot that would later be shared by her parents.  The burial certificate recording the grave number and cost is included among the orphanage papers.

The certificate issued by York Public Cemetery for the burial plot of Jane Brooks.

Exactly one month later, on the 22nd March 1915, Albert placed Winifred and Hilda in St Stephen’s Orphanage.  It’s possible he enlisted in the army immediately afterward, certainly by November he was a Private in the 4th Battalion of the Grenadier Guards stationed in France.   

We do not know if Albert wrote to his daughters at the orphanage or visited them during the following year, the minute book of the orphanage committee covering the years 1911-1918 has unfortunately not survived.  However we do know that Albert’s army career, like that of so many others, ended at the Somme. 

The orphanage records include an official notice from the War Office stating that Private A. Brooks of the Grenadier Guards was posted as wounded and missing after the engagement ‘at Overseas’ on the 25th September 1916.  

The notice stating that Albert Brooks had been reported 'wounded and missing' in action in September 1916.

Further enquiries were evidently made, at least in part by D. S. Crichton at the Cocoa Works, and the resulting letters, kept by the orphanage, allow us to piece together what may have happened.   “I was told by [Private] Brake,  4th Company, 4th Grenadier Gds. that he saw [Private] Brooks wounded at Les Boeufs on September 25th on the way over,’ wrote Private Adams of the 4th Battalion in April 1917, a reference to the principal offensive in the capture of the French village of Les Boeufs that took place on that day, resulting in heavy casualties.

The reply to D. S. Crichton at the Cocoa Works reporting the account given by Private Adams.

It seems likely that Albert was shot during his battalion’s initial advance.  In a letter dated March 1917 a Private H. Weekes described how the Grenadier Guards made a charge on the 25th and ‘when we had got half way over, I saw Albert Brooks making his way back to the dressing station with a bullet wound in the arm.’  Whether he made it to dressing station or not, Private Weekes couldn’t say, ‘the Germans were shelling very heavily at that time.’  Poignantly, he added, ‘I am very sorry indeed to hear that he is missing as we were the best of pals right from our early soldiering up to the afore said date.’ 

 Page 1 of Private Weekes' letter. 
Page 2 of Private Weekes' letter.

‘I fear that this must be one the many cases,’ read a subsequent response from The Red Cross enquiry department to D. S. Crichton, ‘where a second and fatal casualty has occurred on the way to a dressing station.’  As this letter was still being written a final typewritten note came in from a Corporal Shenton that appeared to confirm his theory.  It said simply, ‘At Ginchy he was killed by a shell in the communication trench.  I was told this by a stretcher bearer who was a man who had just joined us from a Labout Batt[allio]n.’  

The report passed on to D. S. Crichton by the British Red Cross in 1917.

Albert’s body was never found and his name is now commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial in France, one of the 72,000 soldiers who were lost, presumed dead, at the Somme before March 1918.  More than 90 per cent of that number died, like Albert, between July and November 1916.  At home in York he is commemorated in the King’s Book of York Heroes, one of the 1,443 men (and two women) from the city who were killed in the First World War.

Private Albert Brooks in The King's Book of York Heroes.
Copyright Chapter of York: Reproduced by kind permission.
What then became of Winifred and Hilda?  The lost minute book means we do not know when or what they were told about their father’s fate, although they, like so many families, received an official memorial from Buckingham Palace. 

The next reference to the girls comes two years later, in 1918, and brings us full circle back to the Cocoa Works where the story of their family began.   A bundle of correspondence sets out arrangements for the trustees of Rowntree’s Death Benefit Scheme to pay Albert’s pension fund over to St Stephen’s for the maintenance of the two girls.  A further £50 was also given on the condition that the trustees of the scheme were permitted ‘at any time to see the children’ and to receive yearly reports of their progress; reports which we know, from a later entry, were duly forwarded ‘from time to time.’

In 1920 Mr Crichton wrote again on behalf of Rowntree to offer  payment for the continued education of Winifred, an offer that was gratefully received, and in 1925 another lump sum was paid by Rowntree ‘for the Brooks children’ out of the Rowntree War Memorial Fund. 

Sadly, Hilda disappears from the orphanage records after this date, but ‘Winnie Brooks’ appears again in June 1926 when she was taken on as a staff ‘probationer’ at St Stephen’s. However her ambition was not to remain at St Stephen’s and in the same entry it is added that ‘Miss Marshall also said that Winnie Brooks much wished to become a missionary and she hoped that Messrs Rowntree would give assistance for her training.’ Perhaps they did, for in March 1927 the committee minutes note that she had left to begin her training at St Brigid’s and staff were pleased to hear ‘excellent accounts’ of her progress over the following year.

The story of the Brooks family, as told by the orphanage records, appears to end there. Spanning twenty years in all, it is just one example of the many thousands of personal stories that can be found in the Borthwick’s collections, and one of millions in archives across Europe that tell of the human cost of the First World War. If you would like to explore the records of St Stephen’s for yourself, the collection is fully open to the public (although records that are less than 100 years old are subject to data protection).  Alternatively, perhaps you know what happened to Winifred and Hilda Brooks after they left St Stephen’s? If so, we would love to hear from you. Our contact details can be found on our website at

Many thanks to Mr and Mrs Poole for their help in searching the York Public Cemetery records.