Our Projects

Ghosts of Heroes

What we found

During 2016 we looked at the War Memorials in Whitby and in some of the surrounding villages. It gave us an idea of how many men died fighting in the First World War from these small communities and we tried to imagine the effect it would have had on the neighbourhoods and the families they left behind.

These are some of the War Memorials from the area:


St Mary’s Church, East Cliff near Whitby Abbey. There is a large memorial listing the names of everyone from the area who died


St Hilda’s Church, West Cliff. Small brass plaque with some names.



A marble plaque inside St Matthew’s Church which includes the name of Thomas Henry Sellers

Castleton and Danby

War Memorial located on open ground between the two villages which includes the name of W. Percy Ness-Walker.



Village War Memorial which bears the names of nine men.


Shepherd’s Memorial high up on the moor dedicated to two men, Robert Leggott and Alfred Cockerill.



War memorial overlooking the village which included the names of four members of the same family – ‘Scarth’.


A granite cross in the centre of the village with the names of 32 men who died in the First World War, including Hugh Godfrey Brooksbank.



The church organ in the Methodist church bears a brass plaque with several names including that of VAD Nurse, Margery Anderson.


A stone War memorial situated in front of St James’ Church, it is interesting as it also lists the names of the men from the village who fought and survived.



An imposing stone memorial which includes a clock. The inscription reads:
Pass not this stone in sorrow but in pride
And live your lives as nobly as they died


Our Local Heroes

Whitby town and all of the local villages lost young men (and some women too) to the Great War. Thousands went away leaving their families to manage without them, and hundreds were killed in action, or by illness and disease, and never returned.


Private Thomas Henry Sellers MM

Pte Thomas Sellers was one of three brothers, the sons of E Sellers, a platelayer of Tunnel Cottages, Grosmont. All three served in the Green Howards during the War but only the youngest, Joseph, survived it.

Thomas Sellers went to France as a member of the wiring section. Wiring duties were extremely hazardous as the work was done in No Man’s Land, under cover of darkness, in strict silence and in fear of enemy flares.

He was awarded the Military Medal on 23 April 1917 for taking messages on the battlefield while under fire.

Later he was captured and held in Heilsburg Prisoner of War Camp, where he died on 2 November, 1918.

Major William Percy Ness-Walker MC

Percy Ness-Walker was the son of Mr William Ness-Walker JP of Danby. He was educated at Richmond Grammar School, ‘The Lime’, Greenwich and Fettes College before becoming a solicitor in Whitby.

In 1912 he took a Commission in the Royal Field Artillery (North Riding Territorial). He was in command of his Battery when War was declared and went out early to France. It was here he died of wounds on New Year’s Eve, 1917. He was awarded the Military Cross as: ‘By his splendid example he exercised an excellent influence over all those under his command at a very trying and critical time.”


Transcript of the article in the Whitby Gazette about Trooper Alec Rathmell

Whitby Gazette, Page 7, Friday 11th December 1914 WHITBY’S SOLDIER PATRIOTS DIE FOR THEIR COUNTRY. Another Whitby soldier-patriot has given his life for his country, the sad news being received in Whitby, on Friday, that Trooper Alec Rathmell, of the 8th Hussars (who was attached to the 1st Life Guards), had been killed in action on November 1st, on the Allies’ left wing.

This brave soldier was the son of Mr. Samuel Rathmell, of Marwood’s Yard, Flowergate, Whitby, and was well known in the town for his exemplary conduct and highly admired for his soldierly qualities. Trooper Rathmell served seven years in India, first in the 15th and then in the 8th Hussars. During that period, at the Delhi “Assault-at-arms” at Lucknow, he won a sword v. sword (mounted) contest, in a competition open to all British troops. Trooper Rathmell had then been in the Army about five years, and the contest was referred to at the time in this journal.

On coming on the Reserve, after a brief visit to his native town (his comrade who conveyed the sad news was with him at the time) he came to Sheffield, and, nearly three years ago, having exemplary character from the Army, he experienced no difficulty in obtaining employment at the armament works of Messrs. Vickers. He remained in that employment until he received his country’s call to join the colours, which occurred while he, along with his wife and his child, were spending a few days’ holiday at Whitby with his parents.

He went to the front at the latter end of August, being attached to the 1st Life Guards, and had fought in several severe engagements. During the time he was in Sheffield he was very popular with a wide circle of friends in the Grimesthorpe district, where he resided, his home being at 22 Skelwith road, Grimesthorpe, Sheffield. The deceased was a prominent member of the Earl Marshall Lodge (No. 1,000) of the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes, and was held in the highest regard by the brethren. To the sorrowing relatives of this brave soldier we offer our respectful sympathy, nor from the gallant trooper himself while be withheld the tribute of honour which is his due. His parents have sustained a double loss, inasmuch as a young seaman named William McLean, who made his home with them, was lost when H. M. S. Hogue was sunk a few weeks ago.

Appended are extracts from two letters received from his friend, showing how Trooper Rathmell sold his life dearly in fighting for his country. His comrade, writing from the front under the date of November 2nd, and received in Sheffield on November 11th, said:- “I have very bad news to tell you this time, but still it can’t be helped. We were in the trenches from Friday morning till Sunday morning, and the Germans were about one thousand yards in front attacking us. They made night attack on Saturday night about eleven o’clock, and it lasted till about three o’clock on Sunday morning. They charged our trenches with fixed bayonets, and, worst of all, my poor old pal was killed. , both bayonet and shot in him, and Lord Crichton in command of us was captured. It was awful; the bullets came over us like rain, but still we whacked them. Our casualties in my squadron were twenty-two, but on the field the next morning there were eight or nine hundred dead Germans, all ready to shove daisy roots up. ” In another communication informing a friend of the sad occurrence, he said: – “You will be sorry to hear that my poor old pal Alec was killed. He sold his life dearly, having accounted for a good dozen Germans before he went under. I picked him up, but he was dead. ”


Private Harry Lawson

Pte Lawson was the youngest son of Sir John Lawson, Bart, the Master of Whitby Workhouse. With his elder brother, Philip, he joined the Grenadier Guards early in the war.

Twice in 1915 he had pieces of his rifle shot away and once he was saved by his steel helmet from serious injury from a piece of shrapnel, and was only hurt in the cheek. On another occasion a shell fell as they were about to sit down to breakfast and ‘scattered all the eatables’.

He was eventually killed in action sometime between 14-17 September 1916.

Harry Lawson was noted as having a rich bass voice. When on leave he sang in the choirs of the Parish Church and St Michael’s. He was also a member of the Whitby Bohemian Male Voice Choir and a member of the Boy Scouts.


Captain Wilfred Readman

Capt Readman was at one point a Lance Corporal in the 4th (Royal Irish) Dragoon Guards, before being commissioned into the Kings Own Royal Lancaster Regiment as a Second Lieutenant.

In 1917 he was wounded when a fragment of shell went through his left hand and later died on 30 September 1918 of wounds received on 28 September. He was 24 years old.

Wilfred left his widowed mother, Ann, of Langdale Terrace, Whitby, £455.3.10d. He is remembered at Boisleux St Marc and at St Hilda’s Roman Catholic Church, Whitby.


Miss Florence Smales VAD Nurse

Miss Smales, the daughter of a shipowner of Magdala Place, Whitby, died of dysentry at Alexandria, where she was nursing wounded soldiers.

She had previously been a teacher of infant children at Cholmley Sunday School. Nurse Smales died in October 1915, aged 38 and is buried at Chatby Military Cemetery, Egypt.

Robert Leggott and Alfred Cockerill

Shepherds and boyhood friends, in 1914 they both went to London together and joined the Grenadier Guards. Robert Leggott lied about his age; he was only 17. He was killed in 1916 on the Somme aged 19 and his body was never found. His name is on the Thiepval Memorial in Flanders.

In July 1916 the 4th Battalion Grenadier Guards were holding trenches near Ypres. There were attacks on both sides of their position resulting in close quarter fighting and shelling. There was also sniper activity. In these actions Alfred Cockerill was wounded in the head. Alf was sent home. Back in UK, he was declared unfit for any further duty. His head wound had seriously damaged him. He now had epilepsy and would never return to the moors. He was one of the many head injuries and shellshock cases places in mental hospitals. He was sent to the Chalfont Colony opened 1894 by The National Society for the Employment of Epileptics, Chalfont St Peter, Buckinghamshire. He spent four years there, dying at the Epilepsia Colony on 11th August 1920, of Epilepsy and Meningitis.

Song : Listen to Two Shepherds, by Richard Grainger, from the Ghosts of Heroes CD.

Their memorial high on the moors where they worked, was commissioned by the Honorable Margaret Chaloner, daughter of Lord Guisborough. Robert Leggott’s ashes are believed to be scattered close by.

The effects of World War 1 at home


The First World War, which was supposed to “end by Christmas”, raged on for a further four years. There were terrible casualties and little ground was gained by either side in a bloody and harrowing stalemate that was paid for by a generation of young people who knew little about what they were fighting for.
Hundreds of thousands of young men volunteered immediately to the call to arms, totally unaware of what they were about to face.

Whilst there were many causes of apprehension for those at home, such as the fear of food shortages and mass unemployment, nonetheless the whole population was united in the belief that this war was being fought for a just cause.

Friends, neighbours and brothers enlisted together, forming Pals’ battalions such as the Alexandra, Princess of Wales’ Own (Yorkshire Regiment) and people contributed their money to the Prince of Wales’ National Relief Fund. Yorkshire folk opened up their homes to provide accommodation for the many Belgian refugees who arrived in the country. The attack on Scarborough and Whitby by the German Navy encouraged many more men to join up.

By late 1915 employers were releasing men from the factories and their roles were being taken by women on the trams, railways, in offices and on the farms.

In September 1916, nineteen fishing trawlers from Scarborough, Whitby and Grimsby were sunk by a German u boat off the coast of Whitby.

The crews were all removed before the boats were sunk in front of them and then the men were delivered safely to South Shields the following day. Although the crews were saved the act had a devastating effect upon the livelihoods of the fishermen in the affected towns.

Also in 1916 the Military Service Act was introduced which brought in conscription and made many thousands more men eligible for call up.

As the war raged on, the population experienced increasing hardships.

Taxation rose and food and other materials were in short supply. “Meatless Days” had been introduced but this was followed by more organised rationing.

In spite of the hardships they were personally enduring, women were engaged in the benevolent work of visiting and advising the families and dependants of the men away on war service. Many more were members of working parties, producing articles and comforts for use in hospitals, and to send to their men at the front.

One of the darkest times for families at home occurred at the beginning of July 1916, when news began to filter through of the Battle of the Somme. This, the first major offensive against the German army, was hailed as a victory. But it came at great human cost. The Pals’ Battalions were massively involved in the early part of the offensive. Their contribution to the battle was enormous, but few survived to recount the story. Since the most stringent censorship was in place, the real horrors of life at the front were not known at home.

The food shortage in 1917 led to many municipal parks and golf clubs being converted into allotment areas and many lawns and private gardens were used to cultivate vegetables. Hotels, business premises and municipal buildings were given over to the military or the government, and shops were closed due to the owner’s absence. Shops were forbidden to have window displays designed to entice consumers and the sign “No chocolate” became common place in many confectioners.

An important part of war work was the care of the wounded. Many of the great houses in the areas became VAD (Voluntary Aided Detachment) hospitals including Mulgrave Castle in Whitby and Chaloner Hall in Guisborough.

When finally the Armistice was declared on November 11th 1918 the people of Whitby, like the rest of the country were war weary. Victory was ours, but at what price?

More than 10% of all those who went away to fight did not survive, and of those who returned many were broken in body and spirit and were to carry the scars of those four years for the rest of their lives.

View what we did