16.15 – Nellie, John Albert and Clara Barker

This story was told on our Remembrance Sunday 2023 tour.

This is another tale that is about a family, not just a soldier.  As often happens, it is filled with tragedy, and not a little graphic detail.  Reader discretion is advised.

John Albert Barker was born in 1882 to John and Susannah (Marshall) Barker. Susanna died in 1885 and is buried at 47.55 along with three of John Albert’s siblings as well as some of his later half-siblings. He worked at the local paper for many years as a linotype operator, before leaving to open his own grocer, confectioner and bakery on Wellington Road.  He was secretary of the Parish Church Friendly Society, one time secretary of the Todmorden Church Cricket Club, and an active member of the Todmorden Photographic Society.  He married Clara Crossley in September 1906, and their daughter Nellie was born April of 1908.  Another child, Mary, followed in March of 1916.  As far as I can tell, John opened his bakery around April or May of 1916.  Sadly, a short time after this, his little family was struck a blow of the worst kind.

With little Mary only two months old back at home, and mum and dad running their newly opened bakery, little Nellie set off for National School in the ordinary way.  She was coming down Adelaide Street, and was with a few of her friends, including Harry Horsfall, Hannah Dykes and Jon Cryer.  The children were all dashing down the hill, worried that they were going to be late for school, with Nellie in the lead.  At that time, the side road was obscured by a hedge, and when Nellie reached the bottom, she jumped the step straight out into the road.  At the same time a heavy motor wagon was heading down Burnley Road.  There was no time to stop—by all accounts the driver barely had time to see poor Nellie before she was knocked down.  The wagon, weighing nearly 4 tons, and carrying a load of nearly 4 tons, passed directly over Nellie’s head almost immediately.  Death was mercifully instantaneous.  No blame was laid on the driver who was said to only have been going 7-8 miles an hour, and who immediately stopped his vehicle and ran directly to get help.  There was much discussion about what precautions could be taken in the future, as there had been another recent death of a schoolgirl knocked down and killed on Halifax Road.  They debated placing a constable there every morning and afternoon, but when the sum total of all schools in the area was taken into account this was deemed impracticable.  It was equally decided that the school could not be held responsible for children making their way to and from school.  There was some criticism that the signage indicating there was a school there had been knocked down and not replaced.

In short, the next time I see a lollipop lady, I shall thank her for her service as well. And if you wonder why such care is taken at that particular spot in ensuring children cross the street safely, you now have a very clear inkling as to the reason.

John and Clara barely had time to bury Nellie, here at Christ Church, before he received his call to service around October 1916.  He tried to appeal, saying that his daughter was only 7 months old, and his wife would be unable to give more time to the business for some months yet.  If he was forced to enlist, it would mean the closing of his business and losing all her possessed.  In addition, he cited the unequal treatment of a competitor, who was left to run his business.  This argument was given short shrift, and I do wonder if he’d have been treated more sympathetically if he’d mentioned the recent death of his older daughter.  Regardless, his personal appeal was disallowed, and John enlisted on the 1st December 1916 in the 9th Battalion of the West Riding Regiment.  Our researcher found part of his service records where his children’s names were given, and it looks as though he started to write Nellie’s name, and then crossed it out, a detail I found heartbreaking.

Sadly, in early October 1917, while sheltering in a dugout in Rouen during enemy shelling, the area was hit and the three men inside were buried.  One died, one lost a leg, and Private John Barker received injuries about the head and face, and both legs were broken.  He was taken to a casualty station, and wrote to his wife on the 4th October, saying: 

I am doing fine, but to make a good job of it and a complete cure will take a long time.  Keep your pluck up, for with the least little bit of luck I shall soon be in Blighty.  Everything is being done for my comfort and you need not worry at all about me.

It must have been shock upon shock to hear that he died the following day.  He is commemorated here, with little Nellie, and the following was published in the paper.  I can hear Clara’s heartbreak in these lines, and she must have been so in love with her husband:

The face I loved is now laid low,

His fond, true heart is still;

The hand I clasped when I said good-night

Lies low in death’s cold chill.

His pleasant face and kindly ways

Are pleasant to recall;

He had a loving word for all,

And died beloved by all.

As with so many young men in WW1 he was outlived by his father, John, who died in 1920 and is buried at 12.18 with his second wife and John Albert’s half sister Edith.

Clara had managed the bakery without him, with an infant still in arms, and continued to run the bakery until 1921 on her own.  At this point she moved to Blackpool, and there was some mention in the paper of a public apology for ‘slanderous comments’ made by one Samuel Smith.  Our researcher speculates that this may have been a spurned suitor trying to ruin her reputation, and frankly, as a widow with her own business she’d have been quite the catch.  It seems she left Tod at some point after this…possibly to escape the gossip.  She was living as a nurse to an elderly man and his incapacitated daughter in Blackpool in 1939, but when she died in 1965, she was brought back here to rest with her beloved husband and little girl. 

Mary, the infant, grew up and married, but doesn’t appear to have had any children.  She died in Blackpool in 2007. No one remains to tend the grave of the bright schoolgirl.  No family stands here to mourn the death of Private John Albert Barker.  But we remember both of you, and we will look after you.  Your lives mattered to your families, and they matter to us.

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