35.14 – John McGrail

Initially thought to read “J. McC.”, this plot marker is actually J. McG. – and that opened the door to John’s story, that of a young man who died early after a very mixed set of life experiences. From a troubled household to sporting fame, this is his story.

John McGrail was born in Leeds in 1864 to Patrick and Mary Margaret (known alternately as either, but mostly as Mary) McGrail, both Irish-born immigrants to the north of England. The McGrails had their first child in 1850 and by 1864 when John was born that child, Sabina, had already left home; John was the second to last, with a sister Bridget born two years later and finishing off the family unit. Which was not a happy one. Patrick, a labourer, was prone to drinking and violence.

1851 had seen the McGrails in Liverpool but 1861 saw them in Leeds, and 1871 in Bacup. It’s not clear when they got to Todmorden but they appear on the 1881 Census living at Cannon Street in Shade. John was by that point 18 years old and working as a cotton spinner. 1883 began a flurry of newspaper mentions though, as John became a rugby football player for Share Rovers and quickly began to make a name for himself. He went on to play for Todmorden Juniors and later the adult Todmorden team and had many favourable mentions in the newspaper for the rest of his short life in connection with the game.

Todmorden Advertiser, November 21st 1884

Less enjoyable newspaper mentions, however, appear in 1885. Patrick’s drinking had gotten worse, as had his temper, and John nearly came to an early end in August of that year when Patrick assaulted him viciously. John defended himself (and gave a good account of himself from the sounds of it) and Patrick was arraigned for assault. Both men appeared in court black and blue, John with a bad head injury that could have been fatal if Patrick, who had attacked him with a fireplace poker, hadn’t been stopped by John fighting back and others intervening. The cause varied between the tellers – John said he went to his father’s house to talk to him about the fact that he had thrown his mother and one of his sisters (probably Bridget) out of the house, whereas Patrick said that John turned up and ordered his wife and daughter out of the house and he attacked him because he wouldn’t let them back in. A witness backed up John’s story, which is good, because John was so ill that he fainted on his way to the bench and was clearly very unwell.

Todmorden District News, August 21st 1885

John soon moved away from Shade, and Patrick, and settled again at Cobden. He made a fairly quick recovery from his head injury too and was back playing rugby football by October, and continued to do well on the field. He also joined the Lancashire Fusiliers 2nd Volunteer Battalion, possibly as much to do with the game as to be a part of the army (one of our CWGC men, John Arthur Woodhead, also began his army career as a rugby football player for his battalion). But time was running out for John. In early January 1886 he caught typhoid, and died on the 13th at the age of 22. He got a hell of a send off, but only a small plot marker to show where he rests.

Todmorden Advertiser, January 22nd 1886

What happened to the rest of the family? Patrick stayed on in Todmorden for a while and made a nuisance of himself. Interestingly, in May 1886 he took a neighbour to court for defamation because someone had told him that she had “charged [him] with being a murderer and using the knife and the poker”. We wonder if Patrick was wrongly being blamed for John’s death, with the real cause being confused with the injuries he had received in the autumn of 1885 at Patrick’s hands. The case was dismissed, so no chance for him to put the record straight…although what sort of job he’d have made of it is debatable. It seems as though she wasn’t the only person who thought he died by an injury, since the newspaper mention of his death said that many thought he was dead because of an injury he received in a game played on Boxing Day 1885. But as for Patrick, by 1891 his wife had left him, and he was living in Lydgate with daughter Bridget and her husband and their child. After that he disappears altogether.

The other McGrail siblings married and moved on. There are two more McGrails buried at Christ Church but who they are isn’t clear; this unknown Patrick and Margaret were born in 1832 and 1833, which doesn’t tally with either Patrick and Mary’s dates of birth or those of any of their similarly named children. It could be that more McGrails came to the area later, or it could be errors in the burial register.

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