john Crane

Name John Crane
Corps Northamptonshire Regiment, 3rd Battalion
Queen's (Royal West Surrey Regiment) 10th Battalion
Rank Private
Service No. 22710, G/10129, 208848
Date/Place of entry 30 November 1915
Date of death 18 March 1918
Memorial/Grave Unknown

John Crane was born at Cottingham in late 1885, the second child and eldest son of John Crane and his wife Alice nee West. The name Crane had first appeared in the parish registers in the middle of the eighteenth century and the family grew considerably in the nineteenth. John senior’s father was Henry Crane whose name was to become notorious. In 1875 while living apart from his family, Henry killed the young son of a neighbour and was subsequently declared criminally insane. He was committed to Broadmoor Asylum where he died in 1885 (A detailed account is available at It must have been a traumatic experience for his many children.
John senior was about twenty at the time of the murder, a labourer living with his mother and siblings in Church Street. (Their neighbour in 1871 was Frederick Jones who committed suicide in 1886 leaving his widow with six children to care for.)  Towards the end of 1880 John married Alice West whose parents John and Jane also lived in Church Street. In 1881 the two households were next door to one another.

It was not a successful marriage, to put it mildly. As a youth John had often appeared in court for poaching, trespass, riotous behaviour, petty theft and so forth, and he continued to do so as an adult. He doesn’t seem to have been a smart operator. On one occasion he walked off with a piece of mutton from a butcher’s cart and, when pleading guilty, said he had been drinking and would not have done it otherwise. That time he was committed for three weeks hard labour. A few weeks later he got another six weeks for stealing a dead hare. This sort of petty crime was commonplace. However, John did not stop at that.

Alice already had an infant son, Samuel, born in the summer of 1879. Samuel lived with his mother and stepfather and on 23 February 1883 John assaulted the three year old so brutally that he was charged with aggravated assault at Northamptonshire Quarter Sessions. Given that domestic violence was far from unusual then, it is significant that this case was widely reported. The Stamford Mercury published the Bench’s judgment that John was guilty of wounding and grievous bodily harm, and had half killed his stepson. They added that he was of remarkably bad character, having been several times convicted before. John was given eighteen months’ hard labour.

There are no further mentions of John in the newspapers until 1891. In the meantime he and Alice had produced two daughters and two sons including John junior. In February 1891 he was back in court, once again for a brutal assault on his stepson Samuel. The magistrates again condemned him for threatening life and shocking ill treatment. This time he was given three months hard labour and committed to Northampton Gail. In his absence Alice and the five children were committed to the union workhouse in Kettering. John was then aged five, Samuel eleven, older sister Mary Anne eight, and the two youngest children Alice and Charles Walter two and five months respectively.

The workhouse had been built in 1838 and initially acquired a reputation for treating its inmates particularly harshly. Some historians think Dickens used it as the model for the workhouse in Oliver Twist; he was a frequent guest at nearby Rockingham Castle and was known to dislike Kettering. Like all workhouses it separated inmates according to their sex and age; children aged seven and under were generally allowed to stay with their mothers, and babies were placed in a nursery. How long they stayed there is unknown, but it was probably not for long as John and Alice had two more children born at Cottingham, George William in 1893 and Frances Emily in 1895.
In November 1893 young Samuel West aka Crane was found guilty of stealing a loaf of bread, some butter and a knife belonging to Benjamin Stokes of Middleton. He had lain in Stokes’ barn all night until he saw him leave to do the morning milking and had eaten the stolen bread and butter straightaway. He was sentenced to ten days imprisonment and four years in a reformatory, which though extremely harsh was probably preferable to life with his stepfather. What happened to him afterwards I haven’t been able to discover. A Samuel West of his exact age was a resident of Berrywood Asylum in Northampton in the 1911 census, described as ‘idiot from birth.’

Two days after Christmas in 1896, Alice and John’s youngest daughter Frances Emily died suddenly aged fourteen months. An inquest was held on New Year’s Day 1897. Alice said that Frances had not been well from birth. The doctor called to give evidence into the death had treated her for 'weak eyes' three months earlier, which he said was brought on by uncleanliness.

Alice told the coroner she had put Frances to bed at 2.30pm on the 27th and found her dead at 4.30pm. The doctor said the little girl’s body was well nourished, with no marks of violence, but was not clean. He could not identify the cause of death but the post mortem showed acute inflammation of the lungs and pleurisy, which must have existed for two or three days. He said he’d previously treated other children of the family and found their mother very ignorant. Both parents were censured for the dirty condition of their house. The coroner said he would call the attention of the police and sanitary inspectors to their house which was not, he thought, fit for human habitation.
Alice and the remaining children returned to Kettering workhouse some time in that year. John had just turned eleven. Alice seems to have remained there for the rest of her life. She was working in the workhouse laundry in 1901 and died there in 1907. The children however were relatively fortunate.

The previous July the Kettering Union Workhouse Guardians, concerned about the haphazard level of care and education being experienced by child paupers, and the overcrowding in the girls’ wards, had decided to set up a children’s cottage home. Such children’s homes had been introduced in some parts of the country in the 1870s as an alternative to workhouses.

The Kettering Guardians obtained a suitable house in Burton Latimer (now number 159, High Street) and on 9th November 1897 the first twenty eight children took up residence. They included John, Alice, Charles and George Crane, and five more children from Cottingham; four Bradshaw children from Water Lane, and Annie West from Middleton. Parents were allowed to visit for two hours on a Saturday. (Much more information on Burton Latimer Cottage Homes can be found at:

Children did not necessarily have an uninterrupted stay in the homes. Those that had been abandoned by living parents might be reunited, temporarily at least. Census and Home records show that Alice was in the workhouse in 1901, and the children – except for Mary Anne who was already in service in 1901 – were at the Home in 1900. Somewhat confusingly their father John was prosecuted for deserting them in October 1902, though the accusation also said he had left them chargeable on the union since July 1891. He got another month in gaol. Girls living in the homes were usually sent into service once they were old enough. Boys might be apprenticed to a tradesman but a great many took the opportunity to join the navy or army. The Board of Guardians paid the cost of the boys’ training. On 5 August 1900, John Crane departed like many other boys from the Home to join HMS Exmouth, a training ship moored at Grays in Essex. There he would have been initiated into seamanship, including gunnery and signalling, and commonly also taught a trade such as shoemaking. Discipline was strict on the training ships, with a sparse diet and an emphasis on physical fitness. Entrants usually stayed there for three or four years before joining the Royal or Merchant Navy.  The captain of the Exmouth sent regular reports to the Board of Guardians on how their boys were progressing.

The 1901 census lists John Thomas Crane, born 1885 at Cottingham as a Ships Boy Class 1, on the Liberty Training Brig at Plymouth. The additional name Thomas is something of a puzzle, but there doesn’t seem to be any doubt that this is the same John Crane. The definition of Boy 1st class was a boy aged 16 to 18 under training, who had previously served for between nine and eighteen months rated as "Boy 2nd Class". He would need to have achieved a level of proficiency in seamanship and have gained a minimum of one good conduct badge.

His naval record shows he served on a series of training ships; HMS Impregnable formerly known as HMS Howe (Herbert Bradshaw from Cottingham, who had entered the cottage home on the same day as John, also joined HMS Impregnable in August 1904), HMS Lion for seven months, then to HMS Agincourt on 21 August 1901. His conduct was described as very good. In October he moved to HMS St. George, a first class cruiser which had recently escorted the Royal Yacht. In May 1902 the St. George went to Portsmouth for a refit and on 29 May John transferred to HMS Vernon, another training establishment.

The following September he absconded but was found and returned to the ship on 11 October. The next day he was transferred to HMS Duke of Wellington and four weeks later to HMS Good Hope, an armoured cruiser. His conduct here was described as ‘good’ but on 20 April 1903 he absconded again. On 14 July he was found and sent to HMS Duke Of Wellington. He ran away on 14 September. His record states he was dismissed on 17 October as ’no longer required.’

In 1906 he was probably living in Cottingham as his father was back in court that year and described as John Crane ‘senior’. In 1911 John junior was living at Middleton Lodge where he was employed as a farmworker. His younger brother George William was also back in the village, living with his aunt Mary Ann West in Dag (now School) Lane.
On 13 November 1915 John volunteered to join the army and was briefly posted to the 3rd Battalion, Northamptonshire Regiment. However he transferred into the 10th Battalion of the Queen’s (Royal West Surrey) Regiment. The 10th was a service battalion made up of mainly Kitchener Volunteers and served on the Western Front. Together with the 11th Battalion it was with the 124th brigade, 41st Division in 1916.

John embarked from Southampton on 5 May 1916 and arrived in Le Havre the following day. His battalion spent the rest of the month training in billets near Ploegsteert before moving into trenches along the Somme on 4 June. They followed the usual pattern, occupying trenches and being relieved in turn, suffering intermittent deaths and injuries, until 26 July. The following day the battalion took part in a raid on enemy lines. Fifty men were killed or wounded.
In September the battalion marched and travelled by train to Dernancourt, going into trenches in the devastated countryside near Delville Wood on the 14th. They lost many men during the subsequent Battle of Flers–Courcelette (a phase of the Battle of the Somme). This was the first time tanks were used in battle, and though these first examples were unwieldy, slow and far from efficient, their appearance made an understandable impression and the 41st Division took Flers with their support. Battle ceased on the 22nd. While the British had made some progress in capturing enemy ground they failed to follow up on their victory and make a decisive breakthrough. The Fourth Army, of which the 41st Division was part, lost nearly 30,000 men. The 10th Surreys were relieved on 19th.
Seriously bad weather began to set in. The British Official History describes a ‘wilderness of mud, holding waterlogged trenches or shell-hole posts, accessible only by night, the infantry abode in conditions which might be likened to those of earthworms rather than of the human kind.’

From 1st to 18th of October, the 41st Division was in action again at the Battle of Le Transloy, the last offensive in the 1916 Battle of the Somme. The aim was to reach higher ground in preparation for the 1917 Offensive. The 10th Surreys reinforced the 32nd and 26th Royal Fusiliers who had been held up by heavy machine gun barrages en route to Bayonet Trench.

Mist, mud, and constant heavy rain rendered the terrain a quagmire which together with enemy bombardment prevented any lasting significant progress. The German forces suffered less from these conditions as they were on higher ground and their supply lines were less boggy.

From 3rd November the 10th Surreys relieved Royal Fusilier Battalions in trenches at Ridge Wood, the name given to a wood standing on high ground between the Kemmel road and Dickebusch Lake. They were themselves relieved and marched to La Clytte, a tiny village seven kilometres west of Ypres that was used as Brigade Headquarters. They and the Royal Fusiliers continued to take turns in the trenches until 13 December.

Their living conditions were unspeakable. Shell holes and trenches were half full of water; men were commonly up to their thighs in heavy mud. Some fell in and drowned, others died of exposure. Winter was exceptionally cold, and the ground froze solid. There was of course also the danger of being killed or wounded by sporadic enemy gunfire  The Imperial War Museum Diaries of winter 1916 near Ypres quote one soldier ‘The winter was so cold that I felt like crying. In fact the only time… I didn’t actually cry but I’d never felt like it before, not even under shell fire…’
On 12 December it was the turn of the 10th Surreys to be relieved by the 32nd Royal Fusiliers. At 4pm on that day John Crane was reported Absent Without Official Leave. He was picked up by Military Police at 3.15pm the following day. (Being AWOL was a less serious charge than desertion, as it meant being temporarily absent, whereas desertion implied a determination not to return.) On this occasion he was sentenced to nine months detention but this sentence was commuted to three months on 27 February 1917. The reason given was for his ‘bravery and good conduct during the raid of 24th February.’

This daylight raid on enemy lines in Hollandscheschuur Salient. was carried out from Murrumbidgee Camp near La Clytte. The objective was to destroy enemy dugouts and take prisoners, both of which appear to have been achieved. One officer died, two were wounded, twenty six Other Ranks died, ninety one were wounded and eleven were reported missing.

Then the battalion continued taking turns with the 32nd Royal Fusiliers as before at Ridge Wood. On 12th March they were in the Right Subsector trenches at N18.10-0 7.1. The following day John deserted his post. He was apprehended in Reninghelst, a village about a mile from La Clytte, at 12.30am the next morning. This time he was tried and sentenced to death for desertion.  Two weeks later this sentence was commuted to ten years. John was committed to Les Attaques Number 5 prison on 22nd April, and on 30 April his sentence was again commuted to two years imprisonment with hard labour.

This pattern was not uncommon. WW1 saw 7,361 field courts martial for desertion take place, and in the UK there were a further 31,269. While 306 soldiers were executed by the British and Commonwealth military during WW1, the majority of those given a death sentence had it commuted.  Altogether, 89% of WW1 death penalty sentences were commuted to a lesser penalty.

Under the terms of the Army Act, the minimum sentence of penal servitude that could be awarded was three years, and since the maximum time to which a man could be sentenced in a military prison was two years, technically John and other soldiers in the same position would have had to be returned to the UK to serve their sentence. The Government did not welcome a large influx of military prisoners and in August 1917 formalised the existing practice that got round the problem; ‘to keep them in France, any sentence of penal servitude had to be commuted to imprisonment with hard labour.’

Ten kilometres south of Calais, Les Attaques enjoyed a reputation for harsh treatment. In May 1919 questions were asked in Parliament. Hansard records:

‘Sir F. HALL asked the Prime Minister if his attention has been called to the report that has been published in the "Daily Herald" with regard to the conditions obtaining at Les Attaques Military Prison, near Calais; if, as there stated, men are confined in this camp for trivial offences such as the overstaying of leave for a few days; if they are supplied with only one blanket each in the coldest weather and are flogged and placed in irons and handcuffs for conversing with each other; and, if there are no grounds for these charges, will he consider as to the taking of criminal proceedings for the publication of such reckless and libellous statements for the purpose of bringing the Army into disrepute?’

Winston Churchill, Secretary of State for War, said he would ask for a report. A week later his response was that the reports were completely unfounded.

John died in Les Attaques on 18th March 1918. His Attestation Papers three years earlier described his physical condition as good. He was then five foot six inches tall and weighed one hundred and forty four pounds.
According to documents surviving in his service record, on 18th March he was ‘undergoing cell punishment’ at Les Attaques. He had paraded at Reveille and was said to seem ‘All-Right.’ At 6.15am an orderly found him dying and telephoned for a Medical Officer, but there was a delay and John had died by the time the M.O. arrived. He was pronounced dead at 12.10pm. A post mortem gave cause of death as lobar pneumonia and pleurisy.

This type of pneumonia is characterised by sharp chest pains, shortness of breath, rapid breathing, and a worsening cough that may produce discoloured or bloody phlegm. There is an acute inflammation of the entire lung. Pleurisy is inflammation of the tissue between the lungs and ribcage, the symptoms of which are similar to the above. It is often accompanied by a fever if the cause is a viral infection. It’s difficult to believe that John’s serious condition wasn’t obvious before the orderly discovered him, let alone that he could be deemed ‘all right’ at reveille.
His funeral took place at 2.30pm on 22nd March 1918. His place of burial is unrecorded and his name is not included in the Commonwealth War Grave Commission’s list.

Were his family informed? His mother had died in 1907. His father John wasn’t living in Cottingham in 1911 and may have died before the war began. John’s sister Mary Anne married in 1903 and spent her life in Finedon; she had no children. His younger sister Alice had gone into service but was later a patient at Berrywood Asylum; in 1939 she was a patient in Kettering Public Assistance Institution (i.e. workhouse).

John’s brother Charles Walter had joined the army before the war and served throughout. The youngest, George William, may also have served but records are inconclusive. It’s also possible he died at Kettering in 1918.
John was related to over thirty servicemen descended from the Crane families of Cottingham. Their surnames were Coles, Wade, Martin, Sculthorpe, Blount, Groocock, Timson, Crook, Allett and Scott.