John Alfred Dunkley

Name John Alfred Dunkley
Corps Royal Engineers
Rank Sapper
Service No. 139664
Date/Place of entry Birmingham
Date of death 3 July 1916
Memorial/Grave VO3 Basra War Cemetery

John Alfred Dunkley (Dunckley) was the fourth child and eldest surviving son of John Thomas Dunkley, a carpenter on the East Carlton estate, and his wife Mary Catherine nee Tilley. John Thomas was born in 1844 at Grimscote, Cold Higham, near Towcester, the only son of Thomas Dunkley and his wife Maria nee Warwick. They also had four daughters.

Grimscote is a hamlet within the parish of Cold Higham, so called because of its elevation – it is said to be the highest village in the county. The total population in 1841 was a mere three hundred and eighty eight, rising to four hundred and six in 1851. A small Baptist church was erected at Grimscote in 1837, a few years before John Thomas’s birth, and looking at the given names some of the local Dunkleys rejoiced in - Mesach and Abednego for example - it’s quite likely that they were members.

Dunkley was a common name in that part of Northamptonshire and many of the male Dunkleys were carpenters, John Thomas’s grandfather among them. His father Thomas however was a sawyer cum grocer.  John Thomas’s mother Maria died in 1858 and thirteen months later his father got married again. His bride was Elizabeth Michaelson and the marriage produced two sons and a daughter.

By 1861 John Thomas was apprenticed to master carpenter Mark Watts of Weedon Lois. It’s a bit surprising that he was not apprenticed to a Dunkley relative.

Things did not go well for the family in the 1860s. Thomas himself was declared bankrupt in June 1862 and he died five years later leaving his widow to bring up their three children under eight and his daughter Sophia, twelve, from his first marriage. Like many other women in her situation, Elisabeth found work as a laundress and outlived her stepson, John Thomas, by nearly a decade. She died aged ninety in 1913.    

John Thomas and his sisters all abandoned Grimscote. The eldest, Eliza had married a local farm labourer in 1859 and moved to London where she died childless in St Pancras in 1867. The next sister Sarah was a nursemaid in Duston in 1861 and cannot be reliably traced thereafter. The third, Elizabeth, also went to St Pancras where she married a cook named Edward Thomas from Islington. The couple had four children.

Sophia, the youngest, followed her sisters to London and worked for a licensed victualler in St Martins near Charing Cross. She married Aldred Dodd, a cellarman / bottle washer ten years her junior at St Bride’s Church on Fleet Street in 1877. Latterly they lived in Lambeth with their six children before Sophia died in 1904.

John Thomas moved to Cottingham in the 1860s. Quite why he ended up in the village when there was plenty of work for carpenters in Towcester and Northampton I have been unable to discover. There were certainly Dunkleys  living in Cottingham at that time but none of them seem to link with the Cold Higham contingent. Farmworker John Dunkley and his wife Ruth nee Muggleton had lived in Middleton for a least twenty years but he was from Stonton Wyville. Local girl Mary Tansley married a James Dunkley in 1867 but he was from Kibworth Harcourt. At the start of the nineteenth century there were other scattered mentions of the name in the parish registers, but no known relationship to any of the others. Perhaps there isn’t one. Although predominately a southern Northamptonshire name, Dunkley appears in nineteenth century Kettering,  Braybrooke, Rothwell, Desborough, and Rushton, to name but a few.

In late June1869, a few months before his father’s death, John Thomas married Mary Catherine Tilley at Cottingham. The Tilley name occurs in the Cottingham parish registers (and around Towcester) from the late 1770s and in nearby settlements rather earlier. Mary Catherine was the fourth and youngest child of William Tilley and his wife Ann nee Wingell. Her mother’s younger sister Sarah Charlotte Wingell was married to Charles Binley of Cottingham and would become grandmother to soldiers John Charles Binley, George William Binley, and Charles Stephen Binley. Mary Catherine is likely to be distantly related to other Cottingham Tilleys including Francis Omar Tilley.

One of Mary Catherine’s brothers, Alfred, was an estate sawyer;  perhaps she met John Thomas Dunkley through him? John Thomas was one of the witnesses at Alfred’s marriage in 1880. In1871 the young couple were living with her parents in Church Street. In 1881 they resided in Middleton High Street with two daughters, Eliza Ann Sophia and Sarah Ann. Eliza died in 1884.

A Henry Robinson Dunkley was buried at Cottingham church in November 1881. The burial index entry gives his age as seventeen but there is no trace in any relevant records of a man of this age. It is more likely to be an indexing error and should read weeks or months. As John and Catherine subsequently bestowed this name on one their younger sons, I am guessing the one who died in 1881 was also their child.

In 1901 John Thomas and Mary Katherine were living on Middleton Hill with five of their remaining children; John Alfred, by then an apprenticed carpenter, Sarah Ann, Sidney James, Henry Robinson and Eveline Mary. Another daughter, Mabel Elizabeth was an under nursemaid in the household of a retired army captain in Dalton, Lancashire.

John Thomas died in 1904 around the age of sixty. In December of the following year daughter Sarah Ann married Alfred Bull, a butler who in 1901 had been employed as a footman in Audenshaw. They afterwards lived briefly in Ashton under Lyne, then went to Alum Rock on the fringes of Birmingham. Nowadays Alum Rock is a densely populated inner city district with a diverse ethnic population but at the turn of the century it was still a hamlet. Urban development did not accelerate until after the Great War.

In 1911 the widowed Mary Catherine was occupying one of the East Carlton almshouses with her sons John Alfred and Sidney James, a monumental mason; son Henry Robinson, a grocer’s assistant, was lodging with his uncle Alfred Tilley and family. Both her late husband and son worked for the East Carlton estate. Her three year old granddaughter Alfreda Bull, daughter of Sarah and Alfred, was also part of the household. Some months ago a great grand daughter of John and Catherine contacted me to say her family still has the beautifully carved mirror and a Bible Box made by John Alfred to mark the completion of his apprenticeship. She also told me that little Alfreda died a couple of years later from pneumonia as a complication of measles.

Mary Katherine’s widowed sister Harriet Green and her brother John Thomas Tilley, a labourer on the estate, also lived in the alms houses.

John Alfred Dunkley enlisted at Birmingham with the Royal Engineers, as did his younger brother Henry Robinson with the Gloucestershire Regiment, but the precise date is unknown. Had they moved there or could they have been staying temporarily with their sister Sarah Bull?  Either circumstance would explain why they enlisted this far from their home. In 1916 their mother’s address, as stated in the details for next of kin in military records, was Alum Rock. Again I am indebted to Catherine’s descendants for telling me she was probably staying with her daughter and son in law while recovering from a fall, and afterwards returned to East Carlton.

At the outbreak of war the Royal Engineers numbered about eleven and a half thousand officers and men in the regular army and special reserve, with another thirteen thousand plus in the territorials. By August 1917 it was twelve times this size and very complex in its structure. Engineers’ duties included maintaining railways, roads, water supplies, bridges and transport, telephones, signalling equipment, guns and other weaponry.
Three field companies of Royal Engineers, the 71st, 72nd, and 88th, were part of the 13th Division of the army. The 13th Diviison was formed in 1914 from volunteers originally intended for France with the other Kitchener New Armies but went to Gallipoli the following year.

It was on 12 February 1916 that it moved to Mesopotamia (Iraq), then part of the Ottoman (Turkish) empire. The British had occupied the oilfields of Mesopotamia in 1914, taking control of the pipeline near Basra. They had then made a push to seize the strategically important river junction at Qurna

The 13th was the only formation there that was entirely British; the great majority were Indian Army, though the latter included a few British units. The 13th joined the Tigris Force at Shaikh Saad and went into action in the third attempt to relieve the garrison at Kut al Amara, under siege from the Turkish army. Relief attempts began in late March but were unsuccessful and Kut surrendered on 29 April. The loss of Kut was a significant blow, and there were no further major actions until 1917.

Conditions for the soldiers in Mesopotamia, especially those like John who were reinforcement troops, were brutal. In summer the temperature in the shade averaged forty six degrees Celsius and heatstroke was commonplace. The soldiers were ill-equipped. There were few tents and no mosquito nets to provide shelter from flies, mosquitos and vermin, and poor army rations resulted in widespread dysentery and scurvy. In May 1916 there was an outbreak of cholera. The number of deaths caused by disease was huge. Medical help was negligible, with wounded and sick men forced to spend up to two weeks at sea to get to a hospital. Government statistics for the overall Mesopotamia Campaign were:

Sapper John Alfred Dunkley died on 3 July 1916 and is buried in Basra War Cemetery, one of 2551 casualties. The cemetery is about five miles north-west of Basra.

His younger brother Henry Robinson Dunkley had died three months earlier in France. Both were survived by their mother in East Carlton. Her granddaughter remembers visiting her in there in the 1920s, and also knows that Mary Catherine returned to Alum Rock towards the end of her life. She died in 1940 aged ninety.

All of her remaining children seem to have moved at some point to the Birmingham area. Sidney James Dunkley married there in 1925 and had one daughter. He died in 1975. Mabel had moved to Torquay by 1911 still in the employ of the same family but was living in Birmingham in the late 1930s; she died in 1968. Eveline was a nursemaid at Llanfair Hall in Carnarvon in 1911 but married in Aston in 1918; the marriage produced a daughter in 1923. Eveline died in 1969.

Mary Katherine Dunkley’s sister Harriet died in 1912 but her two older brothers shared her longevity. John Thomas Tilley died in 1929 aged eighty six and Alfred Tilley in 1936 aged ninety one. All produced children but none of them can be precisely identified in military records except for two of Alfred’s.

Alfred Tilley had married Elisabeth Boon of Gretton and they had several sons. In 1912 they emigrated to Winnipeg, Canada with two of the younger ones, George and Herbert who like their cousin Henry Dunkley were employed as shop assistants. The couple’s other sons also settled in Winnipeg. Arthur Tilley and George Tilley served in the 78th Battalion, Winnipeg Grenadiers and were demobilised in 1919.