26.27 – Agnes, Jess, George, Wilbert, Martha Ellen and Herbert Sunderland

“Can a woman’s tender care eyre forget?”

As you can see from the inscription, this marker was erected by a mother to the last memory of her children. That mother is Martha Sunderland, and her story is a sad one. Draw close and listen, and maybe at the end you’ll say a little prayer for mothers everywhere who have had similar tragedy in their lives.

Martha was born Martha Ellen Pickersgill in 1869 in Halifax. Her father George worked for the railways, probably the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway, which took them all around this area of the country, from Leeds to Manchester to Salterhebble, and by the time Martha was 2, he had risen from railway guard to inspector.

When Martha was just 7 they moved to Todmorden, and seemed to set down more permanent roots. Martha spent the rest of her childhood living around the Doghouse/Mount Pleasant area, with her 3 brothers and 6 sisters. It was a large and close family, and all but one of these siblings lived to adulthood. Some never married, and continued to live in the family home. By the age of 11, Martha was shown in the census as a cotton spinner and it is likely her brothers and sisters were also in work at this young age, as was typical in the time period. At the age of 20 she married Herbert Sunderland, a weaver, and they moved into a home at Back Mount Pleasant, very near to Martha’s family.

A mere 7 months later (cough), Martha gave birth to a son, Wilbert. He was baptized here at Christ Church on the 7th of June, 1890. Baby Agnes arrived just two years later, and having left her mark on her mother’s heart, she passed away just two months later. Another 2 years passed, and Martha gave birth to a son George, and then another two years later a 3rd son Josiah came along. Known in the family as “Jess”, he died at not quite 2 years old: another scar on Martha’s heart. We don’t know what happened next between Jess’s death in 1898 and the census in 1901, but dad Herbert and the two remaining boys are listed as living at Cowfold Street. Martha may have been visiting friends and as was the law at the time, would have been listed with their household. Perhaps she was still grieving the loss of her precious children and she and Herbert had separated for a time.

Happily, by the 1911 census the family are reunited and living on Lumbutts Road. Herbert is working at this point as an ‘auxiliary postman’. Wilbert, who would have been 21, was a railway porter for the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway, following in grandad’s footsteps. George, who would have been 17, was working as a clogger and boot repairer. With the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, 20 year old George enlisted with the King’s Royal Rifle Company, and Martha must have been filled with pride at her handsome young boy in crisp military colours. I wonder if she thought, as most did, that he would be home for Christmas, and that he would regale them over Christmas dinner with tales of heroism. When Wilbert followed suit the next year, joining the Scots Guards Reserves, the reality may have been beginning to sink in. We don’t know much about either boy’s career, but by 1918 George was serving as a Rifleman with the 3rd Battalion of the King’s Royal Rifle Company in the Balkan Theatre around Salonika in Greece. Sadly, he was taken seriously ill and died at the 40th Casualty Clearing Station on the 25th September 1918. He was buried at the Karasouli Military Cemetery, and is remembered here. It was a devastating few months for Martha, having lost 2 of her 4 children in childhood and now George as well. Just a few months later Martha’s elderly mother Mary passed away. She is buried here at Christ Church too, just a few rows away from where we stand, with other members of Martha’s close family. Meanwhile, her remaining child Wilbert, her oldest son, who had served two tours in France with the Scots Guards in 1916 and 1918, also suffered serious illness and spent many months in hospital suffering from kidney disease. In April 1918, just a few months before George’s death, Wilbert received a gunshot wound to the leg. Martha must have been beside herself, but Wilbert continued to serve until March 1919 when he was demobilized. He went home to Martha and Herbert who were by then living at Watty Farm, to convalesce, but sadly passed away a few months later on the 14th September 1919, aged just 29.

In the space of a year, Martha lost her own mother and remaining two children, and she was only 48 years old. Her grief is palpable from the first line on this grave, “can a woman’s tender care eyre forget”. Martha and Herbert moved away from Watty Farm in the early 1920s, no doubt overwhelmed by memories of their last child’s last difficult months on earth. They lived at the top end of Walsden at 729 Rochdale Road for many years, and then in 1935 moved to Blackpool, possibly seeking healthier air. Sadly, Martha died a few months later on the 10th August 1935. Herbert remained in Blackpool for the rest of his life, passing away in 1953 at the age of 83, but returned to Todmorden for his eternal rest with his wife and children. We had to dig at the base of the grave to reveal his name, as is often the case for the last person named on a gravestone. He isn’t forgotten either.

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