Friday, 18 September 2020

Mary Elizabeth (Bessie) Pengelly 1900 to 1985


A few months back I researched other relatives who were recipients of the charitable work of Dr Barnado.  Another child from a different family emerged as being sent from her home in Dartmouth, Devon around 1912 to Canada. She was Mary Elizabeth (Bessie) Pengelly, one of the children of Mary Jane and Samuel Pengelly.  In 1911 she was an inmate of the Barnado’s Girls Village Home Barkingside, Essex attending school there. A little later in 1912 at age 11 she was a passenger taking the 10 day trip to Peterborough, Ontario Canada. She amongst the 153 girls aged 8-16 leaving from Liverpool on the Tunisian being sent as “farm or family servants”. I felt a little uneasy about this in view of accusations of sex and child abuse sometimes levelled against charities. More about her fate later. 


I had assumed it had come to this due to the untimely death of her father Samuel Pengelly, a navy pensioner and her mother Mary Jane Pengelly nee Ackrell living in widowhood.

Recently I was emailed some newspaper transcriptions relating to the family circumstances. Mary Elizabeth Pengelley was the last of a string of children to parents Mary Jane and Samuel Pengelley. The stories told me such sad story about Mary Elizabeth ‘s upbringing and I began to see that Mary Elizabeth might have been in a better place on that ship to Canada. No doubt the recent widow had fallen on hard times but I soon found out about her negligent and sad behaviour.

In the midst of Covid Isolation I received an email from a lovely Devon Genuki transcriber, Lindsey who said I might be interested in the sad circumstances of Samuel Pengelly’s death. The emails kept coming revealing the sad and sorry story of Mary Jane, her husband, children and her sister.

Mary Jane had been reported in the West Morning News several times, once was for drunkenness in 1903. During this time Mary Jane’s father had lived in Silver Street with his both his daughters and their families until his death in 1908. Her father‘s name was William Ackrell . 


Bake Hill at the entrance to Silver St  Dartmouth c 1906

A further article says Mary Jane had been warned of the filthy state of her house when the police advocate previously called at the house. Her husband died in July 1910 after being not right in his mind for about four years. The newspaper article reported he had been living in dirty bed clothing and suffering from chronic bronchitis and a dilated heart.  It was considered that his death was contributed to by the want of proper nourishment and lack of care on the part of the widow.

Apparently, the only food found in this hellhole was only four pieces of decomposed meat and two or three small Whiting.  The inquest into her husband’s death on 28 September 1910 was reported on and the articles wrote extensively about the state of the notorious Silver Street premises which Mary Jane had lived in for most of her married life.  Despite Samuels’s condition she had spent her last penny on beer that morning!!

Transcription from the West Morning News 30/9/1910

 Western Morning News, Friday 30 September 1910

DARTMOUTH - A Dartmouth Slum.  Doctor's Statement At An Inquest. -  At Dartmouth Guildhall yesterday Mr A. M. Davson held an Inquest on SAMUEL PENGELLY, a naval pensioner, of Silver-street.  -  MARY JANE PENGELLY, the widow, said deceased was sixty-one years of age, and had been bad for four years.  Six months ago he was attended by Dr Soper.  At 1.30 a.m. on Wednesday her husband was smoking a pipe in bed and six hours later she found him dead.  - In answer to the Coroner, witness asserted that her husband, who was not right in his mind, had had all the food he required.  -  Emma Sandford said she had heard deceased ask constantly for food and had seen MRS PENGILLY give him what he had asked for.  -  Mary Smith said that on one occasion she had heard deceased cry bitterly for a piece of bread, but his wife did not give him any.  -  Francis Blake, Clarence-street, said he had heard deceased ask for food.  -  P.S. Rogers said that on three occasions he had told MRS PENGELLY her husband was ill and had advised her to send for a doctor.  In June, on going to the house, he found deceased dirty and told his wife he did not consider she was looking after him.  -  By the Coroner:  Deceased had never complained to him.  After the death he went to the house and found everything in an extremely dirty condition.  He asked to see the food in the house and MRS PENGELLY showed him four pieces of decomposed meat and two or three small whiting.  -  Dr G. M. Soper said he saw the body.  It was emaciated and the bed clothing, mattresses, &c., were all dirty.  Death was due to chronic bronchitis and a dilated hart.  Having been given permission to say something further about Silver-street, Dr Soper said he was certain that if one went over the whole of England, including large cities and the London slums, it would be difficult to equal the condition of the street.  He thought it was an absolute disgrace to the town, and he was perfectly convinced that if something was not done it would react on the town, and the health of the inhabitants would suffer from it.  It was absolutely in a filthy state.  In conclusion, Dr Soper made it clear that he was not referring so much to the buildings themselves as to the condition of the interior of some and the way in which the tenants lived.  - The Coroner concurred in Dr Soper's remarks.  -  The Jury found that the cause of death was as given in the medical evidence and added a rider that they considered death was accelerated by want of proper nourishment and lack of care on the part of the widow.  They concurred with the remarks of Dr Soper as to the condition of deceased's house.  Addressing MRS PENGELLY, the Coroner said she had heard the opinion of the Jury that her husband's death had been accelerated by her neglect.  He did not know what her feelings must be.  She had had a narrow escape of a journey to Exeter.

A few days later more transcriptions were received. These were for an earlier incident. On 4 October 1895 she and her husband had been charged with neglecting their infant son Alfred Pengelley. He despite his father‘s earnings (pension plus coal lugger) was terribly emaciated and starved looking according to neighbours. Mary Jane was said to have left the child crying and alone while she went dancing and drinking in pubs with her widowed sister Betsy who lived two doors down. The doctor was aware of the child’s weight after visits for vaccination.

By the 8th October 1895 little Alfred had died and the coroner found that his death was due to insufficient feeding and want of proper care. The coroner found a verdict of manslaughter against Mary Jane and severely admonished Samuel for not seeing the child receive the proper care he needed. The paper says the parents were fined a combined 5 pounds. Were they claiming insurance  on the little soul’s death?

Western Times, Friday 4 October 1895

Dartmouth, Neglecting A Child. - On Tuesday at the Petty Sessions, MARY PENGELLY and SAMUEL PENGELLY, Silver Street, pensioner, her husband, were charged with neglecting their infant son, ALBERT,  [Note; In another paper, Exeter and Plymouth Gazette,  it gave the child's name as Alfred]    aged five months.  Defendants pleaded not guilty.  -  Mr O. S. Bartlett, appeared for the N.S.P.C.C. and, opening the case, said a very black feature was that the child was insured in the Prudential Insurance Company.  The male defendant was in receipt of a pension of 17s. per week from the Navy and he earned a good deal of money by coal lumping as well.  Inspector Ashby (Torquay) said he visited the house on September 16th and saw the child in a perambulator wrapped in a dirty blanket.  It was terribly emaciated and looked as though it was starved.  -  P.S. Stentiford was able to prove that the female prisoner left the child in the house alone, crying and screaming while she went dancing on the New Ground, or visiting public-houses with her sister.  -  Dr J. H. Harris said when defendant brought the child to be vaccinated on July 16 he warned her of its state.  When he saw it on September 16 it appeared to be starved.  It only weighed 7 3/4 lbs, whereas the normal weight of a child five months old should be 14lbs.  Two neighbours of the defendants testified as to the woman frequently going out and leaving the child alone.  -  Defendants had very little to say and the Bench fined the female defendant £3 inclusive and the male £2. They were granted until Thursday to pay the money. 

To make matters worse sister Betty got in on the act.

 BESSIE SALISBURY(sic), sister of the previous female defendant, was charged with assaulting Kathleen Harris, one of the witnesses.  Mr O.S. Bartlett who prosecuted said the N.S.P.C.C. were determined that those who came forward to give evidence should be protected.  After hearing the evidence, the Board convicted the defendant and fined her 21s. inclusive.

Next appeared another article mentioning Mary Jane’s sister Betsey Soulsby. It seems Mary Jane’s sister had had similar tragedies and bad habits. Betsey ‘s husband was also a naval man. Betty and he lived a few doors down in the same notorious Silver St. He had mysteriously gone missing from the scene several years before maybe through illness (asylum), desertion or death at sea.  

 Express and Echo, Tuesday 15 October 1895

Another Child Dead At Dartmouth. - At five a.m. today BESSIE SALISBURY (sic), married, residing at Silver-street, awoke to find he seven weeks' old baby, William Percy, lying dead by her side.  The woman has been living apart from her husband for nearly five years.  It is a singular coincidence that she is a sister of MRS PENGELLY who is at present in Exeter gaol awaiting her trial on a charge of manslaughter of her five months' old child, ALFRED, by neglect.  Mrs Salisbury's child has not been ailing in any way.  The Coroner (Mr R. W. Prideaux) will hold an Inquest probably tomorrow.

A couple of years later another child called Alfred was born to the Pengellys and died. After these events another baby Mary Elizabeth Pengelly was born in 1900. She was the last and eighth child that I know off.

The scenes of the state of Samuel’s living conditions remained in the minds of the police and soon after his death little Mary Elizabeth (Bessie) aged 10 was removed. So again in 1910 the recently widowed Mary Jane was in trouble for child neglect.

 Western Morning News, Wednesday 2 November 1910

Child Neglect. Bad Case At Dartmouth.  At Dartmouth yesterday MARY JANE PENGELLY widow of a naval pensioner, was charged with neglecting her daughter, Bessie, aged 10, in such a manner as to cause her unnecessary suffering and injury to her health.  The Magistrates present were the Mayor (Mr J. Brown), and Messrs. A. H. Bridson, T. Wilton, W. P. Ditcham, W. H. Angel, L, Karslake, G. Clift and Dr F. A. Davson.  -  Mr P. H. W. Almy prosecuted and explained that the proceedings, being taken under the Childrens' Act, it was not necessary to prove that the child had actually suffered in health, it being sufficient if it was shown that the conditions under which she lived were such as were likely to cause unnecessary injury to her health.  Physically the child had not suffered to any great extent.  Defendant's husband died some time since under circumstances within the recollection of the Bench.  With the child and a son, aged 25, the woman lived in Silver-street, a locality which was somewhat notorious in the district.  The son was a coal lumper and his average earnings were about 15s. a week.  The case had been under the observation of the society for several years.  So long ago as 1908 the inspector visited the defendant's house and found things in a very bad state indeed and things did not improve later.  On October 7th last, the house was found to be in a shocking condition of filth.  There was no complaint that the child was ill-nourished, but that the conditions under which she lived were injurious to her health.  A fortnight later the inspector again visited the house, and, if it was possible, the condition of affairs was worse.  The rooms had the appearance of not having been cleaned for the 16 or 17 years that defendant had occupied the house.  It was alleged that the real cause of the neglect was defendant's drunken habits and if she were sent to prison for a time it would be good for her, for the child and for the community at large.  -  Inspector Jones, N.S.P.C.C. confirmed the statement as to the dirty and verminous condition of the child and her clothing and the filthy state of the house, and also as to finding defendant under the influence of drink.  -  P.S. Rogers, who accompanied the Inspector on two of his visits, corroborated.  He added that when he was in the house on September 28th, the day on which the husband died, defendant admitted that she had spent her last penny in beer that morning.  At the Inquest the next day defendant was censured by the Coroner and Jury because of the filthy state of the house, but from what he saw subsequently she took no notice of these warnings.  -  Dr J. H. Harris said on October 21st, after the visit of the Inspector, he went to defendant's house with P.S. Rogers.  The woman had scrubbed the floor of the living-room, but everything else was filthy.  In his opinion the conditions under which the child lived were detrimental to her health.   -  "A Bad Case."  -  In reply to the Bench, Dr Harris said he would not say it was the worst case he had ever come across, but it was a bad case.  The sanitary appliances for the houses were very good for tenements;  but this was superficial filth.  The best thing to be done was to pull all these houses down.  -  The Mayor differed, saying he knew that in many of the houses there was every appliance and that water was laid on.  - Dr Harris said there was water laid on;  it was obtained from the conduits.  -  The Mayor said water was laid on in four or five of the houses, as he had examined them.  -  Dr Harris said there was no water laid on in defendant's house.  -  Mr Wilton pointed out that they were only dealing with this particular house.  -  The Mayor said when Dr Harris stated that none of the houses had water laid on he said that some of them had.  Statements like this made it very bad for the community.  -  Defendant said she had lived in the house for 25 years and it was very old.  She suffered from bad legs and had done her best to keep the place clean.  -  The Mayor said the Bench regarded the case as a very bad one and sentenced defendant to four months' hard labour.  -  Upon the application of Mr Almy, the Magistrates granted an order for the removal of the child to the Workhouse pending other arrangements being made by the society and they also remitted the costs of the prosecution.

Well it seems Bessie was not malnourished but the house was in such a state as to be injurious to her health. Twenty five years of filth had accumulated and while Mary Jane had access to water there was no water laid into the house. Perhaps the age of the premises, poverty Mary Jane’s drinking habit and subsequently corresponding ill-health did not allow her to keep up with keeping the place clean. Little Bessie was moved to the work house pending other arrangements being made by the Childrens’ Society. 

Both Mary Jane and Betty are the sisters of my husband’s great grandmother Alice Ford nee Barter (Ackrell). She certainly dodged a bullet when after being sent away to work as a servant when her sisters were young, she married a young sailor named George Ford previously Wilks. Alice and George had 9 healthy children and a seemingly happy life living in various locations around England and Ireland while George worked on Coastguard locations.

Mary Jane and Betty’s history is not a glamorous one. What it highlights is the importance of social housing, the fate of the renter and in previous times the difficulties of widows or separated partners. Age old vices of alcohol abuse, mental illness and the poverty that comes with it are perhaps reduced by built in social assistance in modern economies.  Development of the Children’s Society in the late 19th century by the Church of England and places like Barnados and which spread across the world are still important in today’s society.

Other support services in place in our society today are available because of cases like this which highlight alcoholism, sickness and mental illness.

Thanks to those taking the time to transcribe the newspaper articles of Devon /Dartmouth and to Lindsey from Devon Genuki who intrigued by the case she was transcribing checked the family out on Ancestry and supplied the details to me. I’ve done a little transcribing – without transcription by volunteers there would be far fewer supporting records for those pursuing family histories.

Mary Jane lived until Jan 1924. Three of her children out lived her-Margaret May until 1928, George until 1930 and Mabel until 1964.  Two others I discovered -William Samuel died 1899 and Phillip died 1891. It seems Betsy may have teamed up with another man, James Bryan as her daughter is living with a step father in the 1911 census. No sign of Betsy after that.


Bessie Pengelly's marriage to Ernest Grant

What was the fate of little Mary Elizabeth? We see Mary Elizabeth in 1911 in the census as an inmate of the Barnado’s school at Barkingside. Her travelling to Canada on the Tunisia was part of the Barnado’s homes schemes to provide servants, labour and wives to settlers. Fast forward to 1921 Census in Canada. She is married to Ernest Grant and living in Mersea, Ontario After working as a servant she had married a farmer where she had a boy and two girls.  

Working as a volunteer in Welfare areas I see lots of sad cases like this. Thank goodness for social services, charities and free education which scoops up the most vulnerable to help them lead a better life.


Monday, 14 September 2020

Escape from Schweidnitz POW Camp……….. What we know so far


In late February 2020 I was asked a question from a New Zealander about one of my distant relatives who was a Prisoner of War in World War I. I had previously researched Mark Strelley Fryar in a previous blog and also posted his story on The Lives of World War One Imperial War Museum memorial site. I think this was how I was found. blog link He was one of 24 who escaped through a tunnel they had excavated at Schweidnitz POW camp on the night of 19th March 1918. All were re-captured and sent to the much more notorious Holzminden POW camp ("Hellsminden") to serve solitary confinement and then to wait out the rest of the war.  

It seems many of the men returned to their families and did not talk about their time. They moved on and lead their lives in a variety of different ways and sometimes didn’t disclose the story until much later in their life, if ever. My research into Mark was limited to a few ancestry records and family photos and I had glossed over the mention of being a POW.

Soon, my new NZ friend introduced me to the others who were in on the research. There were a brother and sister from Canada, two researching in England and me from Australia. Who would’ve thought that their lead and their teamwork would bring about a concerted effort to conserve, preserve, honour and retell the story to future generations?

Transcribed Report by Mark Fryar

#CovidProjectSorted………. There was my COVID lockdown sorted- such an interesting story. I found there was more to Mark’s story when I was sent Court Martial documents to hook me in. My Kiwi contact baited me with a few names and a spreadsheet. Five of the POWs were from Oz and the rest of them from England , South Africa, Canada and New Zealand.  

Talk about baiting me and reeling me in.  I researched each person on the spreadsheet to get my head around them and formed up little trees to build a story about these men. Another member had done similar for another project. A tree attached to Ancestry attracts hints, collects and holds data, more family members through the message button  and is an excellent data base for the whole team to view.

We also recognised how important it was to link up with current family members. We all know that trees are great “cousin bait” and although we’re are not related it’s is an important tool in this project. The project is important – oral family history will be lost in three generations and it’s already been 100 years. How many generations have the papers, photos and medals been passed through? (not to mention the skip bins, fires, family breakups etc.

As Anzac Day was near, I decided to write the story from an Aussie perspective. Blog writing is my one skill I find suits my research and opens my eyes to what’s out there and what’s missing.Anzac Day Blog here There's more to come.

First Blog story about the Anzac Escapees


I tackled a couple of POW books such as “The Real Great Escape” by Jacqueline Cook and “I Escape” by J.L.Hardy. #covidreadingsorted A few months later it’s given me a feel for the kind of information that might be ideal to collect and the similarities in stories. For example, Jacqueline Cook’s book included back stories- things like what did our POWs do before and after the war?  Military records, war histories, medals awarded to them can sometimes elicit an interesting story of circumstance, bad luck or sheer rat cunning. Newspaper accounts of the time recorded stories in a far more human way than today and usually gave lots of insight into the family and how those at home longed for snippets of information about the details of the battles and injuries of their loved ones. She also highlighted the role of the Red Cross in supplying parcels of food and letters. Hardy a multiple escapee from several Camps gave details of the devious preparations and comradeship in helping fellow officers (mostly himself) to escape.

We are all very different researchers with different interests, motivations and expertise. Whether its military research or genealogical now is the time to take advantage of free offers too. Access to places like The Australian War Memorial is closed or limited during Covid. Resources such as digitised resources of the National Archives of Australia and Trove newspapers are most invaluable. (and free in Australia) Resources such as the National Archives in the UK are being offered free for the Covid period. Ancestry is allowing the library subscriptions to be viewed from home. Some subscriptions have been offered at discount or trial rates. All the usual free births, deaths and marriages sites get a workout.

#becomingastalker For the Aussie POWs we’ve extensively used the Ryerson Index, Trove and Newspaper archives to build family trees to the present day. This in combination with consulting Ancestry public trees, Electoral rolls, Google searches and social media such as Facebook and Linked in has been invaluable in chasing down current living relatives. This has paid off in unearthing treasured photos, memoirs and medals. Can I say that relatives have been wholehearted in their enthusiasm for the project as we have been able to give them some context. Let’s face it it’s an amazingly unknown story.  Even though we’ve passed the Centenary Celebrations there’s a lot of willingness to be kept informed by the current generations.

Part of Eric Fulton's memoir

#masteringDropbox Setting up an effectively sorted Dropbox and shared Cloud based repositories is crucial to sorting, sharing and retaining the findings. Besides the trees being repositories of information we needed to record/organise the plethora of information found in the searches for all to share.  To minimise the number of emails and repetition we created a file for each man with subsets of files recording all information pertaining to each sub-category.

Sub-categories included

·         Births Deaths and Marriages
·         Capture and Pow
·         Census
·         Photos
·         Family research
·         Red Cross Records
·         Service Records
·         Newspaper articles
·         Other Docs

One of our members devised a template of record files and another set up about collecting all the information from Ancestry, emails and archives into Dropbox files for us all to have access which is especially good when we are researching in different time zones.

The end result is a comprehensive set of records and the ability to cross check stories, prisoner movements and definitely to build up the story of the escape. #we’reorganised

Basically, between this organised and comprehensive share drive and the Ancestry trees we have a Genealogical database recording these military history and tracking their relatives and descendants


As we are all working in different time zones something is always happening.
Emails fly across the world backwards and forwards celebrating the successes of our research. So far we’ve got almost a complete set of photos of each of the individuals.

One relative has offered group shots of the men awaiting their release after Armistice at Holzminden POW. Not content to stick to the 24 we are now investigating their mates and their POW stories! 

 I can’t speak highly enough about how important it is to document stories from the older generation. We’ve turned up memoirs long and short, letters, medals and historical details of planes, battles and POW life.

This project is uniting families, honouring those who bravely put their name forward to fight in the Somme and even learn to fly in those early days of flight.


Who’s the last man standing? #findingthepersonwiththeknowledge

The task now is to bring the family trees forward to 2020. We still feel the need to investigate who is holding the medals, photos, snippets and memories. Photos inherited or saved by the families and others are now crucial to the preservation of the story of courageous men. Some of our men died young with little or no offspring not to mention what  happens in families to disrupt the inheritance of memorabilia such as rifts, immigration, divorces, skip bins etc. Armed with my family trees and their hinting leaves we have resorted to stalking uncles, aunts, sisters, brothers, nephews, nieces. Sometimes 5 generations to today of these 24+ men #thenetisclosingin

It is more difficult moving forward generations than going backwards with copyright issues, privacy limitations on newspapers, birthdays and marriages and privacy provisions on Ancestry trees. You don’t appear on an online tree until you are dead.  

Ancestry's messenger gets a work out

The Ancestry message service is getting a workout and bringing results. Up-to-date contacts have been made on a number of the men and some others we have been found to be associated with them.

Some cemeteries have been cooperative in passing on our emails to their confidential clients with pleasing results. Facebook searches have even allowed us to make contact. Oh and we can be quite innovative – enquiries with historical societies, churches, clubs, school and work archives- we stop at nothing. #feellikeastalker

Some have found “us” through the blogs and our trees and through messages on forum type webpages and Facebook groups.

Where to from here?

Someday this information may be found in  a documentary, a book, a film or an exhibition. Perhaps it will just be information given to a child for a school project or the provenance attached to some military medals or memorabilia.  Some more of the men have been written about in my Robyn and the Genies Blog #Schweidnitz POW escapees

We are building up the stories of each man through from their childhood but then we are tracing them though their Military or Flying Service to their capture, their experiences in camp, escape attempts and their repatriation. We’re interested in their career experiences and family. By hook or by crook we will gather little snippets of their memoirs, letters etc to give us insight into camp life conditions, the mindset of the prisoners, their thoughts and their fears and how it maketh the man.

When you’re full on into a Covid-19 project suddenly it’s been six months and we’ve come such a long way.


Sunday, 13 September 2020

More About the Escape from Schweidnitz POW Camp

Schweidnitz POW Camp 1918


Since I wrote of the six Aussie and New Zealand POWs in my Anzac Day tribute Blog link I’ve been introduced to the rest of our “international“ research team- all relatives of the tunnel escapees at  Schweidnitz POW camp. Several others want to be kept in the loop and are eagerly supplying their own bits of memorabilia.

 Ruve from New Zealand, is the granddaughter of George Tarn Harker, John and Gail from Canada are the grandchildren of Arthur Harold Madill Copeland and James from England, is the nephew of Aubrey Robert Maxwell Rickards. My relative of course is Mark Strelley Fryar a third cousin. We have been helped along by an historian, Roger who has previously looked into the story and done some pretty decent research.

A rapidly growing collection of records, memoirs and stories are making our POWs come alive and we’ve started to see how their previous experiences make them candidates for escape. For example, Mark was a serial escapee.

The POW camp held Australian, New Zealand, Canadian and British officers some from infantry and many who had been shot down. The life in the camp is dreary and they long for food parcels. Days are long. They are frustrated that others are fighting in the war without them and that they have let others down. These men are officers of the British forces. They are smart and often have a mechanical or hands-on backgrounds.  It’s a long time between letters and Red Cross parcels. Boredom and being housed with others who are multiple escapees lets their minds tick along with ideas of escape….

 In addition, building on experiences of fellow POWs, they acquire skills in making saws and rubber stamps, forging papers, clothing alteration and generally how to outsmart the Germans with elaborate escape plans. Precision planning was required.

 The story continues with our team member’s stories of 4 more POWs….


Lieutenant George Tarn Harker 1894- 1983 (Contributed to by Ruve Baker)

When George Tarn Harker was born in April 1894 in Nutfield, Surrey, England, his father, Henry, was 33 and his mother, Marianne, was 22. Tarn had an older sister Mabel born Sept 1892. They had a younger brother, John Gordon Harker born in January 1898. John served in WW1 and died on September 28, 1918, in France at the age of 20, and was buried in Pas-de-Calais, France.

George Tarn Harker 1915

  Tarn originally began his war service in the Honorary Artillery Company. His first overseas posting was to France in 1914. During leave he applied to the Royal Flying Corps as pilots were desperately needed and after six weeks training in England Second Lt Harker returned to the front in April 1917. By 23 June 1917, while returning from attacking balloons he was shot down over Belgium 10 miles behind enemy lines. His engine was shot in the benzene tank which forced a landing behind the first and second line of German trenches near Dovai. Tarn’s short memoir of his time as a POW was recorded by his wife before his death in 1983.

So important to record memories before it's too late


 He was taken to Schweidnitz POW camp.  Being an officer, he was afforded freedom to do at will provided he attended roll call in the morning and afternoon.  He was one of the instigators of digging the tunnel using a spoon and a shuttle of mugs to carry the dirt. 

 On 19th March 1918 Tarn made his escape with Atkins and 22 others. He had escaped through the tunnel. Lt. Atkins was entombed by the tunnel collapse after the first 23 went through. He was saved by the gallant effort of an Air Force POW Lt. Harker, who was small enough to crawl through the collapsed tunnel and bring Lt. Atkins to safety. They travelled in pairs with the intention of escaping through Austria to Switzerland, travelling part of the journey on foot and part by goods train.

 This is from a report by Mark Strelley Fryar “They took the following route :- SCHWEIDNITZ to CHARLOTTEN BRUN, over very hilly ground across the frontier.” “They travelled via :- JOHANNESBURG, JOSEPH STADT, BRANEAU, NACHOD,KONIGRATZ. “ "Lieutenant Harker was caught here and taken to a men’s camp at PARDUBITZ, where Lieutenant Athius(Sic)  joined him. They declared themselves to be officers, but the authorities would not believe them, as they were in civilian clothes, and told them they would have to remain where they were until they received confirmation from Schweidnitz, which would probably take about three weeks.”

 “Whilst at this camp they were told by Frenchmen in the camp that the French working on commandos & c. in southern Germany were going across the frontier in twos and threes because of the better treatment they received. There was plenty of food in the camp and the ‘Checks’ in the district were friendly towards the Allies. The camp was fairly easy to escape from so they decided to try and go back to Germany when they heard they were going to be detained. They escaped and recrossed the frontier and had to give themselves up at GORLITZ owing to running short of food.”

 They planned to travel in pairs and after being captured once, escaped again to return from Austria to Germany. They gave themselves up. So, after three weeks on the run they were taken prisoner again. Like the others Tarn was sent into Holzminden POW until Armistice and their repatriation to England.

 Tarn and his family lived at Mercers Farm in Nutfield, Surrey, UK and were farmers. Tarn, together with his parents, Henry and Marianne, departed England on 13 August 1926 and immigrated to New Zealand. They settled on a dairy and beef farm in the Otorohanga County. Tarn's fiancĂ©, Enid Gabrielle (nee Wood) arrived in New Zealand in 1927 and married Tarn a couple of days later. Enid was 24 years old. Tarn and Enid had four children during their marriage. Tarn's mother, Marianne died in 1931 aged 58yrs. His father, Henry died 28 years later in 1959 at the age of 98yrs. 

 Tarn developed his dairy and beef farm and when he was 40 years old, sold the farm to his two sons - Peter and Graham, who continued farming in partnership. Tarn enjoyed tender to their large garden and grew amazing vegetables in his garden plot. Tarn's passion was fishing mainly in the Kawhia Harbour. Tarn died on January 14, 1983, in Te Awamutu, New Zealand at the age of 88 years.

George Tarn Harker in RFC uniform


Lieutenant Arthur Harold Madill Copeland 1889-1984 (Written by John and Gail Copeland)

Arthur Harold Madill Copeland was born in Winnipeg, Canada on August 27, 1889. He was the middle of three children; his sister the eldest and a younger brother. He was twenty-six when he enlisted in the Canadian Army in 1915. At first, he was rejected because he didn’t weigh enough, however, he knew a major who was able to get him a commission and he accepted. He trained, drilled and passed his exams with flying colours. He started out with the Canadian Army Service Corp and then took a mechanical transport course.

Arthur Harold Madill Copeland

 On December 31, 1915, he sailed from Canada to England. The British were short of truck drivers and Arthur was selected to be a driver. He picked up new recruits and delivered them to Whitley Camp in the beautiful Surrey, England countryside. It was there where many new recruits received their initial military training. When his training was completed, he was sent to France with the Motor Transport unit and while there, in March 1916, he contracted red measles and had to spend some time in the hospital. In April 1916 he switched to the Third Ammunition Corp. where he drove supplies and ammunition close to the front lines. Men on foot carried them into battle. In mid- summer of 1916, after talking to members of the air force, he decided he’d like to join the air force as well. He went for an interview while in France and lied about having machine gun training. On Aug. 26, 1916, he joined the R.F.C. - 25th Squadron as an observer. This squadron was a Reconnaissance and Bombing unit. It soon became apparent that he lacked the machine gun experience so he was sent for a one-week training course. Pilots were given estimates of six to eight weeks to live while on active duty. The pilot that Arthur Copeland was teamed up with had had a total of six flying hours under his belt.

 On October 10, 1916, as part of the 25th Squadron was returning from a bombing raid, they saw what appeared to be a German observation balloon. Since no German planes were sighted, one plane decided to get rid of the sausage.

 Here is what happened in Copeland’s own words "...we were ordered to bomb Oppy. Two flights, or sections, detailed for this raid. Both Hayne (Moreton Hayne, his pilot) and I were scheduled to go in first section...dropped bombs on the marshalling yard and turned back for home when the leader of the section, Capt. C. H. Dixon, saw a German balloon and went to strafe it; both FE's (25 Squadron flew FE2b aircraft) followed him. Richtofen's (Fighter Ace, Manfred, also known as The Red Baron) squadron were up top in the sun. Three of them came down on us. I was sitting on the usual petrol can working the front Lewis which immediately jammed, so I stood on the can end, got up to work the second Lewis. I fired several bursts at an EA (enemy aircraft) which had made a pass and got several bursts at him; then, this gun also jammed. While I was trying to clear second jam, a plane dived from behind and above and fired a burst which killed Hayne and hit me in the left knee and left arm. The dead pilot immediately fell forward on the stick and the FE started to dive fairly steeply in wide controlled circles. I couldn't get into the back seat as the pilot was slumped forward on the controls, but managed to push the limp body back and pull the 'joystick' back. Realizing the aircraft could land in the town of Vitry, I pushed the stick forward to reach the ground before this occurred...pulled back stick, levelled off to complete stall, pulled up nose, dropped 20 feet and did a pancake landing! I couldn't move and waited until the pilot of the German machine landed and shook hands. He said, "you hit me with one burst!"

 Through the reading of many historical documents, it is believed that Baron Von Richthofen fired the first shots but had to veer off to avoid a plane on his tail. The credit for the downed plane was given to Fritz Gustav Kosmahl.

 Arthur was taken to a hospital in Vitry. It was two months before he was located and reported to be a POW. He spent time in several different camps and by late fall of 1917, he was imprisoned at Schweidnitz. This is where he made his first escape. Initially he was part of a group of eight who decided to dig a tunnel starting from a hole in the barracks floor and ending up outside the fence. In the end, twenty-four men left through that tunnel on the night of March 19, 1918. Arthur was recaptured and spent two weeks in solitary confinement. On April 16, he and the other re-captured escapees were sent by train to the Holzminden POW camp. Arthur and one of his buddies decided to try another escape and asked the guard if they could open a window to let some fresh air into the train car. Later, when the guard fell asleep, the two of them jumped out the window to freedom. They managed to avoid capture for two weeks until they reached a bridge across a river. They were four or five miles from the Dutch border. They watched many people cross the bridge without being stopped so they set across. There was a sentry on the other side who had been hidden and they were stopped, detained and ended up in Holtzminden anyway. They were court martialled and spent the rest of the war there.

Part of a letter back to Hilda- he talks of "barbedwireitis"

During Copeland’s time as a POW, he regularly wrote and received correspondence from his future wife, Hilda Reeve Lailey. They married April 28, 1920 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. It is unknown whether they were just friends before he went to war or more than that. From the tone of their letters it appears that they were not romantically involved until after the war. In Dec 1918, after the camp closed, he wrote home and said he was “full of emotion and thoughts of the future.”

 Arthur had three sons and his eldest fought in World War II with the Canadian Army. His middle son followed in his footsteps and trained with the RAF to be a pilot. He received his wings just as the war was coming to a close and they no longer needed pilots overseas.

In 1921, after the war, Arthur worked for Laidlaw Lumber Company in Toronto, as their accountant. He rose to General Manager and V.P. and retired at age 70. At that time, he went to work as an accountant for his youngest son who had started his own retail business called Copeland Lumber. He worked there until he was 90. He commuted by train every day and during a local transit strike, in his early 80’s, he hitch-hiked from his house to the train depot, for several weeks.

Arthur is on the left

During the Second World War, there was a critical need for planes–and for trained young men to fly them. The Air Cadet League was established in 1941, to train young men for overseas service. Arthur was involved with training the Air Cadets in Toronto with the Mosquito Squadron.

According to his son, Don Copeland, Arthur was quiet, patient, laid back, tolerant and optimistic. He loved nature and fly fishing. Every year he would go into the remote, densely wooded areas north of Toronto to fish. He would often fly in by small float plane, sometimes taking his sons with him. The war for him was left far behind.

 He died in Toronto, Ontario, Canada on October 18, 1984, at the age of ninety-five.



Wing Commander Aubrey Robert Maxwell Rickards 1898-1937 (from extracts from the archives and memoir of Rickards supplied by James Offer)

When World War I broke out Rickards was an agriculture student at the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester. He enlisted in 1915 when he was 17 and trained as a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps before being sent to France March 1917 for his two-week career as a pilot!

Rickards was the much older brother of team member James’s mother Stella. After landing in France in March 1917 the Second Lieutenant an “exceptionally courageous young pilot” was wounded in action. When he’s captured Major MJ Christie of the 100 Squadron RFC writes in a letter to his mother “I feel sure our enemy will treat him well and with the respect he richly deserves.”

After he was shot down, he became a German POW for the rest of the war until his release in 1918.

He described the prison….

“The Prison Schweidnitz is about 25 Km SW of Breslau on the river Weistritz. The prison itself was situated on the site of an old fortress on the west side of the town, the fort being on high ground with a moat running partly around it. The fort had been converted into a workhouse before the war, and in 1917 it was made into a prison for British Officers. Upon the North and East was the town, and on the South, and West was the moat and a river. Round the prison itself was a high wall which was covered with barbed wire, on the inner side of the wall was a neutral zone, which we called “no man’s land”. Round this zone sentries were posted, in addition to sentries in the crows’ nests, which were built upon the wall, there were four wooden huts, one stone building and a wooden Church. Officers lived in huts except W1, which was Hun headquarters. In the stone building was a dining room and living quarters for 120 officers, and not to be forgotten the cells and guard room. The Church was only used for one service on Sundays by the kind permission of the Hun. Besides these buildings there were the kitchens, bath house, rubbish house, and gate hut, but there was a little space in which to take exercise, and in this space fruit trees were growing. (I did not see any fruit).”

A sketch of the escape route and the infamous pigpen

He was one of the 24 escapees who planned the tunnel escape from Schweidnitz after attempts at two other tunnels. He escaped 10th and partnered with Captain Frank (Neville) Hudson MC. Rickards tells us that there were 48 helpers seeking to escape. The working parties went first. The 25th man got stuck and in the efforts in pulling him back they caused the very small tunnel to fall in.

As with the other escapees he was recaptured but not before, four of them out of the 24 managed to escape from the train while on their way to Holzminden, Lt. Copeland, Lt. Holley, Lt. French and Lt. Rickards, were the four who escaped from the train. All were eventually transferred to Holzminden for a stint in solitary confinement and to wait until Armistice and Repatriation to England.

Rickard’s legacy from his POW days is the survival of the sketchbook/autograph book capturing snippets of captive life.  It’s titled Skizzen which is a German word meaning sketches. His book is full of about 80 drawings, autographs, addresses and photos including those contributed by fellow prisoners. Eight of the prisoners who escaped with him are immortalised and there is an incredibly detailed sketch of the men’s’ tunnel and escape plan. After all the effort to get into the clear they came out in the middle of a pig pen! Not content with chasing up the POWs who escaped with Rickards, James is trying to find the whole 80 contributors to the Skizzen sketchbook.  In addition, Rickards left a detailed memoir of the escape attempts, preparations and recapture.

Another sketch and autographs from the Skizzen  book


After the war he got into a permanent RAF commission. He married Anna Buhler in 1929 and had two children.  Rising from Flying Officer to Flight Lieutenant, Squadron Leader and Wing Commander he had a distinguished military reputation particularly in the Middle East. He’s described as having “modest charm and unpretentious matter”.

He was awarded the Air Force Cross in recognition of his work in locating two missing men in Transjordan and was made an Officer of the Military Division of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in recognition of his work as an Intelligence Officer in the Aden Protectorate. His other post-war work entailed flying instruction, surveying and mapping, intelligence work and was Official advisor to the Sultan of Makalia.

Wing Commander Aubrey Robert Maxwell Rickards known affectionately as “the Flying Lawrence” was one of a party of three killed when their plane overturned when landing in Khor Gharim on 30 October 1937. He had been working as a liaison officer in the Middle East and had a wealth of experience there.  So ended the life of this interesting man. He was re-buried at the Christian Cemetery, Muscat, in May 1998.


Captain Mark Strelley Fryar 1892-1931

I wrote about Mark in a previous blog before I found out about the Schweidnitz escape so I’ll include a little bit more that I’ve found since. Mark's Blog



Mark Strelley Fryar

Mark the only son of Mark Fryar and Louisa Strelley was a career soldier. He trained in the OTC at Malvern College.  Part of the recently renamed Sherwood Foresters, Mark became Missing in action after the horrific events on the Somme on 1 July 1916. Mark’s mother received a telegram on August 1 saying that Fryar was a POW at Gulersloh Germany.

In a statement made at the end of the war Mark described his capture and then concluded with his POW and escape history. During his incarceration he was promoted to Captain.

“I attempted to escape from Schwarmstedt in May 1917 but got caught outside the camp and did 30 days cells and was sent to Fort Zorndorf, Custrin for 7 months.

On March 19th 1918 I escape from Schweidnitz, Silicien and got 78 kilos and was caught taking the train. I was court-martialled for mutiny for going through a tunnel this was not done till(?) Sept 27th 1918 and given 6 months after the war. I was held back awaiting this ___ 4 months from exchange to Holland. For the same escape they court-martialled me for forgery for making passports in order to help me escaping. ___ close proceedings of this __. I was fined 150 Marks. I had already done 47 days cells for the escape.” Bush had escaped with Fryar from Schweidnitz.

His war experiences did not help him when he tried to return to his father‘s business at the coal mine with all its blasting and confined spaces. A letter in April 1919 informs him that his statement regarding the circumstances of his capture by the enemy and been investigated and it was considered no blame at all on him in the matter.

 With the rumours around his capture and German court-martial persisting after the war he was known to drank a little too much. I guess this would today be treated as PTSD. In 1931 Mark had visited some friends at the pub and collided with the car on his push bike on his way home. He was killed instantly by a slither of glass which severed his artery. He survived the Great War only to succumb in such an accident. He was buried with Military Honours at Denby.

Officers of the Sherwood Foresters


The search continues…..  Information arrives in the inbox daily, a chance Google yields results, photos are unearthed which lead to further investigation. Stories of all the others are in the pipeline. If you know someone who was in Schweidnitz POW camp in WWI or indeed one of the 24 escapees please Contact our group.