First World War: Catherine Kimble was a young woman with many sorrows to bear

D Company of the 9th Battalion, The Suffolk Regiment, which includes John Kimble... somewhere!

D Company of the 9th Battalion, The Suffolk Regiment, which includes John Kimble... somewhere! - Credit: cont

The stories of the First World War are almost exclusively about the men in uniform.

The military funeral of John Kimble passes through Ipswich.

The military funeral of John Kimble passes through Ipswich. - Credit: cont

Today, we have several – centred on a woman back in Suffolk whose life was marked by tragedy. Steve russell reports.

She could only have been in her very early 20s, could Catherine Kimble, when she and husband John strolled to the photographic studio near Christchurch Park in Ipswich. They were dressed in their “best”, to have their picture taken as a happy and optimistic young family.

Catherine – Kate, as she was known – looks a little startled and stiff as she poses. The picture could only have been taken about three years after the death of Queen Victoria, hence Catherine’s “proper” style of clothing.

With the couple is daughter Alice, born in 1903. They couldn’t have known what fate had in store.

Walter Willis proudly wears his late son Alfred's war medals. With him are Alfred's sisters Martha,

Walter Willis proudly wears his late son Alfred's war medals. With him are Alfred's sisters Martha, Maud and Sarah. - Credit: cont

In fact, Kate had already been visited by tragedy. In November, 1896, when she was a teenager, older brother William Willis was killed in an industrial accident.

The building labourer, who lived in Cox Lane, Ipswich, was working with colleague Walter Hearsum to construct a chimney at the Xylonite factory near Manningtree. They plummeted to their death when scaffolding gave way inside the shaft.

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Just over a month later – and just a week before Christmas ? widow Jessie gave birth to their son. William junior – “Billy” – would never know his father.

He was less than five years old when aunt Kate married John Kimble at the end of May, 1901.

William 'Billy' Willis and an unknown woman. His relatives would love to hear from anyone who can id

William 'Billy' Willis and an unknown woman. His relatives would love to hear from anyone who can identify her. - Credit: cont

In the early 1900s John was a stoker – a ship’s fireman – on vessels sailing between Harwich and the Hook of Holland. A relative, the captain of a lightship, had worked for Trinity House. When his family moved to Ipswich, John worked as a furnace-man in a foundry in the Duke Street area near the docks.

The coming of war saw him enlist in 1914 as part of “Kitchener’s Army”, joining the 9th Battalion The Suffolk Regiment.

Sadly, while living under canvas at Brighton, he fell ill and for some time was a patient at a military hospital in the town. John died at home in Ipswich at the end of November, 1915. He was 36 when he was claimed by tuberculosis, possibly caused by or worsened by the conditions in which he’d worked.

The private was given a funeral with full military honours, according to a report in the EADT. His polished elm coffin, with black fittings, was covered by the union flag and carried on a gun carriage supplied by the artillery from the local barracks.

A portrait of soldier Billy Willis.

A portrait of soldier Billy Willis. - Credit: cont

A service was held at Holy Trinity Church, after which three volleys of blank cartridges were fired by a party from the 2/8th City of London Post Office Rifles.

He has a white headstone, bearing the Suffolk Regiment badge, at Ipswich’s old cemetery and details are recorded by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Kate was left with four children: two boys and two girls.

Their domestic circumstances were pretty challenging. The family lived at Stone Court, between Fore Hamlet and Duke Street ? about where the Travelodge stands today.

An evocative picture from the early 1900s of Wilf and Eileen Haggar's maternal grandparents: Catheri

An evocative picture from the early 1900s of Wilf and Eileen Haggar's maternal grandparents: Catherine (Kate) and John Kimble, with daughter Alice. - Credit: cont

On the Fore Street corner was a baker’s. Daughter Sally would take a prepared dinner for the baker to cook in his oven. Stone Court itself had a communal wash-house and a piece of common land.

There was more tragedy for Kate less than eight months later, when younger brother Alfred was killed at The Battle of the Somme in July, 1916. He was 28. Alfred was laid to rest at the burial ground at Flers in north-western France.

At the time of the 1901 census he’d been an errand boy living at the Post Chaise pub in Ipswich. It was at the bottom of Woodbridge Road, where the redundant Odeon cinema stands.

Some time before 1911 he enlisted as a regular soldier, and that year was stationed in India with the 2nd Battalion The Worcestershire Regiment.

Meanwhile, Kate’s nephew Billy – the infant born fatherless following that fatal chimney accident – had answered the call to fight for his country. He served as a private with the 8th Battalion The Suffolk Regiment.

Sadly, Billy was killed in action in October, 1917 – apparently in France. He wasn’t even 21 years old. The soldier is buried at the Tyne Cot Commonwealth War Graves Commission burial ground in the Ypres Salient, on the Western Front in Belgium.

His mother, Jessie, received notification on the rather impersonal Army Form B 104-82, the officer in charge of records writing that “It is my painful duty to inform you that a report has been received from the War Office notifying the death of:-” and here was a blank space in which he wrote Billy’s name.

“The report is to the effect that he was killed in action. By His Majesty’s command I am to forward the enclosed message of sympathy from Their Gracious Majesties the King and Queen.”

Billy’s mother was later awarded a war pension of five shillings a week.

Jessie had remarried late in 1900. By odd coincidence her new husband’s younger brother was Arthur Saunders. Arthur was the first soldier from Ipswich to earn the Victoria Cross – the highest award for gallantry in the face of the enemy. The award followed the Battle of Loos in France in 1915.

John Kimble, Billy Willis and Alfred Willis are all commemorated on the war memorial in Christchurch Park, Ipswich.

The piecing together of these stories, all this family history, is largely the result of hours and hours of digging by Wilf Haggar and niece Jo Leek.

Jo became hooked on the tales of the past after starting an evening class on family history at Suffolk College more than 25 years ago. Wilf, who was in the Royal Navy and is a former BT engineer, was able to devote more time to research when he retired in the mid-1990s.

John Kimble and Catherine/Kate (she died in 1947) were his maternal grandparents – mother and father to his mum, Sally, who was born in 1908.

For Wilf, much of the information uncovered has been a revelation. As with many families, curiosity about the past wasn’t encouraged when he was young.

“We were brought up in the days when children were seen and not heard. When you think there’s 1,001 questions we’d love answered…” he muses.

“We never broached the subject about people. Later, mum used to let little snippets out” – Sally died in 1974 – “but it wasn’t until we started researching family history that all this came to light.”

Wilf’s sister, and Jo’s mother, is Eileen Haggar. “At the start, I said to my daughter ‘Ooh, you don’t know what ghosts you’re going to find there. It might be horrendous!’ But it isn’t. It’s fascinating – and frustrating at times, because sometimes you’ll come up with a link and it’s just a dead-end and you can’t get any further. Then many months later a snippet will come along.”

Sally and sister Alice went to work at a hospital in Nayland at one point. Alice would stay in service all her life, working into her 80s. Her last job was as housekeeper to Sir Martin Gilliat, the Queen Mother’s private secretary, who lived at Clarence House but also had a country cottage in Hertfordshire.

Sally went to work in the moulding shop at Ipswich engineering firm Cranes, where she met her husband to be, a wheelwright engineer.

So what has it been like to learn – bit by bit – all these details about their ancestors’ lives?

“It’s been so interesting, and there’s still an awful lot out there. We’ve barely scratched the surface,” reckons Wilf.

Eileen adds: “It’s been very emotional at times. You think of the loved ones left behind, like our mum. She was only eight when she lost her own father. Nan remarried. They had a reasonable life, but it wasn’t the best for the children. Once they reached a certain age, they all moved on very quickly.”

Eileen finds the emotions welling up when she recounts a story about her grandson going to the Western Front battlefields on a school trip. Pupils were asked if anyone had a relative buried at Tyne Cot. He said he had, and teachers took him to find young Billy Willis’s grave.

That kind of experience brings it home.