15.4 – Margaretta, George, Leopold and Sarah Mary Rohrer

This story was told on our Remembrance Sunday 2023 tour.

This is a story of not just a soldier, but an entire family that were drastically affected by the events of WW1.  But let’s start with the birth of a little boy that would one day die for his country.

George William Rohrer was born on the 11th February 1898, the 4th child of Leopold Herman and Sarah Mary (Stansfield) Rohrer.  The family already consisted of older brother Leopold Sidney, born just 4 months after his parents’ marriage in 1888, Margaretta born in 1890, and a brother that George never knew—Herman Albert, born and died in 1892 on Boxing Day. He’s buried with his grandparents William and Julia and his unknown aunts and uncles in the private area at W7.1. Meanwhile George was baptized here at Christ Church in March of 1898, attended the Parish Church Sunday School, and was on the roll of honour.

Dad Leopold had come to the UK from Karlsruhe, in the Black Forest, Germany at the age of 17 on or around 1877.  He was originally in Preston but moved to Tod soon after, married an English lady and led an English life.  He was a watchmaker originally employed by Stott and Speak, but soon after he took charge of the watch and jewelry department at the Co-op on Dale Street—a position he held for 14 years.  He then opened his own premises on Wellington Road, working from his home, and was a well-established part of the Todmorden community. He was also a bird fancier and won several prizes for his apparently rather splendid bullfinches.

George’s older brother Sidney was already working with his father when George left school and joined them at age 14, no doubt learning the family business of watchmaking.  George was a good boy, from all accounts, even being involved in the Sunday School at Christ Church. Sadly, a year later, the family suffered the first loss since the death of infant Herman… Margaretta was killed.  Another Christmas time tragedy for the Rohrer family. It seems that 23 year old Margaretta and her 14 year old brother George were, to quote the paper, ‘larking’ at about half past 12 at the house on Wellington Road on the 24th December.  He had been to Blackpool in the summer for his holidays, and had somehow managed to purchase a revolver.  He had been in the habit of carrying it around and playing with it, and just as Margaretta sat down to eat her dinner, he pointed it at her and pulled the trigger.  He told police that he had loaded it the previous night, but that he thought he had taken the cartridge back out again.  Margaretta was struck in the back of the head and died within half an hour.  George was devastated, and of course had to be taken into police custody.

A special children’s court was convened to deal with the case. Fortunately, the inquest into Margaretta’s death found that it was an accident, and the children’s court agreed… in fact no charges were sought and no evidence brought.  I think George’s clear extreme distress, attested to by witnesses and also demonstrated in court, likely showed that it was indeed, ‘pure accident’.  The magistrate warned that firearms ought never to be pointed at anyone, loaded or unloaded, not even in jest.  The pistol was confiscated.  Interestingly, the newspaper record reports that the magistrate asked, ‘Can any steps be taken against the parties in Blackpool who sold it to him?’ and the reply was ‘I’ll explain that to your worships afterwards.’  I find myself curious as to what happened there!

I wonder how much guilt George carried inside after that moment, and I wonder how much it contributed to his later act of sacrifice for his older brother.

When war broke out in 1914, parliament acted very quickly to restrict German nationals in the UK.  They were initially required to register with the police, and certain areas were forbidden to them.  They had restrictions on travel and on goods that could be brought into or taken out of the country. Men of military age were taken into custody…largely peacefully.  However, in 1915, after the sinking of the Lusitania, anti-German sentiment dramatically increased, and the number of internees increased in response.  Dad Leopold would have been 51 or so, and would have lived in the UK at this point for somewhere around 34 years.  Unnaturalised Germans could apply for an exemption for internment, and valid reasons included marriage to a British-born woman or length of residence of 35 or more years.  Having a son or sons serving with the forces did not guarantee exemption.  So Leopold was taken to a camp near Wakefield.  It appears that the family paid for him to receive somewhat better treatment, and to keep him close to home and avoid him being removed to the Isle of Man.  Sidney testified that he paid £1 a week maintenance.

Around this same time, conscription began, and being of eligible age, Sidney, George’s older brother, was called up.  He appealed against this on the grounds that he was the only one left to run the family business, his brother being barely 18 and not having the experience, and their father being interned.  There is mention in the paper of dad Leopold being struck off the ownership lists for the premises on Wellington Road, so the situation was growing desperate.  This appeal was initially refused, and Sidney was told his mother would receive a separation allowance, but he pursued it.  What seems to have swung the committee ultimately in Sidney’s favour was the fact that George volunteered to go in his place.

George entered service on the 12th May 1916.  Not much is known about his record.  He came home on leave at Christmas 1916, and then crossed over into France in March.  In April, he had a close brush when he was on a bombing expedition, and he was shot ‘in the haversack’.  Not a euphemism.  Apparently the shot shattered his shaving tackle, and the bullet was actually found inside the box.  He apparently sent this little memento home with a note saying he’d tell them the story when next he saw them… but he did not live to relate the tale.  He was killed in action on the night of 3rd May, and the family were notified a year to the day after he enlisted.  His lieutenant sent a letter saying that George died a noble death, and that he had endeared himself to all with whom he came in contact.

George, we thank you for your service and your sacrifice.  You are not forgotten.

The postscript to this case is that Leopold survived internment, and died in Todmorden in 1928, and is buried here.  Mum Sarah died in 1940 (and was also buried here), and Sidney survived until 1963.  It must have been Sidney’s son, who was named George after his brave uncle, who moved the shop to Halifax Road in 1948, and the older of you may remember Rohrer’s Jewelers, around where the dry cleaner’s is now.  It continued well into the 80s under family ownership, apparently. If anyone remembers when it closed, or has any memories of visiting, I’d love to hear it.

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