John Walker – With the Tyneside Irish at the Somme

Memorial card for John Walker

Name of relative : John Walker

Your own name : Helen Dje

John Walker’s story is a good illustration of the struggles and opportunities of working class life in Ireland and England in the late 19th century.

From Kilkenny, John moved to Durham in England where he enlisted with the Tyneside Irish Battalion and fought in the First World War, eventually getting killed at the Somme in October 1916.

Today, John’s great grand daughter, Helen Dje, originally from Wales, lives in north Dublin with her young family.

Pictured Above: Helen Dje at the Burren, County Clare, Ireland

John was born in 1882 to John Walker of Kilkenny and Ellen Kennedy of New Ross, Co Wexford. He was the second of five children.

The Walkers were tenant farmers and with rights of inheritance, living in Castlecomer, County Kilkenny. This meant they were continually renting the land from the landlord, possibly a colonial figure.

This was the precarious situation of most of the Irish population at that time, most of whom lived off the land. The use and ownership of the land was a huge issue in Ireland for centuries and the source of much tension culminating in the Land Wars of the 1880s.

Boarding the Emigrant ships: the Irish Diaspora grows

By 1900, the situation had improved, under various British government Land Acts, but the situation was still precarious for tenant farmers such as the Walkers. Added to this were the complications around rights of succession.

John Walker’s father died when he was young and later his mother remarried Mr Boyle. They had two sons, Dick and Rob Boyle. Later when his mother Ellen died, the tenancy and all property passed to her new husband, and would be inherited by John’s step brothers.

At this stage, all the Walker siblings emigrated to find work, going to either Britain, America or Australia. In 1901, John went to England and a small mining village in County Durham called Cornsay Colliery (pictured below) where there was plenty of work ‘down the mine’

Cornsay Colliery (pic courtesy of George Nairn mining postcards)

This is not an exaggeration : up to 700 men and boys were employed at various activities in Cornsay. Beneath the ground where four rich seams of coal, about a metre thick and discovered in 1868, which were mined and brought to the surface and turned into industrial coke. Also underground was a rich fire clay which was fired into tiles and drainage piping, using up to 270 ovens.

In Cornsay, John lived as a boarder with Irish emigrants Francis and Kate Quinn who had previously emigrated from Ireland after the birth of their third child, daughter Sarah Ann.

John eventually married Sarah Anne Quinn from Thomastown, County Fermanagh, in the North of Ireland. They had seven children – incredibly, all of them were girls.

The First World War began and the army recruitment team came to the village to persuade young men to join up.

According to his family, the authorities ‘touted the war as one to free small nations and mentioned that if Irishmen joined up it would further the cause of Irish independence. With this in mind, John Walker joined up’.

John enlisted at Newcastle on November 9th 1914. He joined the 25th Tyneside Irish Battalion, part of the Northumberland Fusiliers, alongside other Irishmen who had ended up in Cornsay Colliery.

After initial training at home, the battalion joined the 103rd Brigade, 34th Division in June 1915 at Ripon in Yorkshire before moving to Salisbury Plain, for final training in late August. They proceeded to France in January 1916 where the 34th Division concentrated at La Crosse, near St Omer.

After a period of trench familiarisation, they moved to the Somme and saw action at the Battles of the Somme, including the capture if Scots and Sausage Redoubt, the Battle of Bazentin Ridge, Pozieres Ridge and the Battle of Fleurs – Corcelette. The latter was with the Divisional Pioneers as part of the 103 rd Brigade.

The 25th Battalion did not take part in any further major battles. However, they stayed on in the Somme, engaged in day to day trench warfare.

Pictured above : the Tyneside Irish at the Somme on the fateful first day, 1st July 1916

John was a bandsman and so he did not do a great deal of figthing. He was in the Ambulance Corps and looked after the wounded and dead. According to his family, he was stretchering some wounded off the battleground at the end of fighting when he was shot in the back. He was 34 years of age.

He is buried at Cite Bonjean Military Cemetery, Nord in France.

His wife Sarah Anne had seven children to bring up on her own. Two died but five survived. She received all monies due to John, and a pension for herself and her children. She later lived at Elderwood Gardens, Gateshead, County Durham.

The family assert that Sarah Anne was always bitter that her husband had thought he was fighting to free Ireland and died with this in mind. ‘When freedom came with the Republic in 1948, her part of Ireland remained under British rule’.

1948 was the year that Southern Ireland declared itself a Republic. However, the country had been independent of Britain since 1922.


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