There are an estimated 16,000 villages across England. In the First World War every village saw its young men (and some women) leave to serve their country.
Over 700,000 Britons died, yet 53 village communities suffered no fatalities – all those who left for war returned home alive. These places became known as ‘thankful villages,’ a phrase coined by the writer and historian Arthur Mee in the 1930s in his guides to the counties of England, ‘The King’s England’. Wales has two such villages. Scotland and Ireland have none.
In an extraordinary twist of fate, research has revealed that it is likely that 16 of the English ‘thankful villages’ and both the Welsh ones also saw everyone return safely from the Second World War. These are known as ‘doubly thankful villages’.
1. Hunstanworth, Durham
Joshua was one of Edward and Anne Jameson’s 13 children. At the outbreak of war, the parents (who had already lost 4 children at a young age) had to watch as 4 of their surviving sons, including Joshua aged 16, went off to fight, along with a fifth villager, Arthur Taylor. The 5 young men were the only villagers serving in the First World War.
Joshua was wounded by shrapnel yet, miraculously, he and his 3 brothers and Arthur all returned safely to Hunstanworth. Each was presented with a framed certificate wishing them ‘a long and happy future.’
2. Catwick, Yorkshire
One hundred years ago John Hugill – Catwick’s blacksmith – nailed a horseshoe and 30 coins to his forge doorpost during the First World War to represent the village men who went to war. The blacksmith fixed the coins, including pennies and halfpennies, plus a German and Swiss coin, round the horseshoe. Each represented one of the 30 men who left Catwick to serve their country and who all returned home.
One man, Joseph Grantham, ‘left an arm behind’ according to writer and historian Arthur Mee. The blacksmith cut a notch in 1 of the coins to represent the lost limb.
In the Second World War another 30 village men served in the armed forces and, again, all returned safely making Catwick a doubly thankful village.
3. Helperthorpe, Yorkshire
This is an unusual plaque in that it indicates with the letters C, W and G after their names which of the men were captured (one), wounded (one) or gassed (three, one of whom was also wounded). This refutes the occasional claim that those in thankful villages survived only because they were serving in safe places away from frontline action. These men were clearly fighting on the battlefield.
4. Knowlton, Kent
In 1914 the local Kent newspaper, the Weekly Dispatch, ran a competition to find the ‘Bravest Village in the United Kingdom.’ This was defined as the one from which the largest proportion of its men had volunteered to serve in the armed forces before March 1915.
Almost 400 villages competed. Knowlton was declared the winner, with 12 men enlisting from a total population of 39. The prize was the granite cross, unveiled on 1 September 1919.
5. Upper Slaughter, Gloucestershire
This village hall displays a simple wooden plaque recording the 24 men and 1 woman who went to war but who all returned. In the Second World War, 36 joined up and 36 came home making Upper Slaughter another doubly thankful village.
A Major EFB Witts granted a 99 year lease of the village hall in 1920 and there are 5 Witts listed among the 25 names on the memorial plaque. One was Agnes Witts, a member of the Voluntary Aid Detachment which was a civilian unit providing nursing care to military personnel. She may have been an ambulance driver for the unit.
The village’s soldiers served in regiments ranging from the Gloucestershire Regiment and the Tank Regiment, to the Coldstream Guards and the Cameron Highlanders.
6. Ousby, Cumberland
Part of the dedication beneath a memorial stained glass window in St Luke’s church in Ousby reads: ‘…Erected by the parishioners in grateful recognition of the mercy of God who…afforded protection to all the men who went from this parish to the Great War 1914-1918 and safely restored them to their homes.’
Ousby is a doubly thankful village. All 13 men who served in the Second World War also came back.
7. Middleton-on-the-hill, Herefordshire
Although there is no record of how many men left Middleton-on-the-hill to fight in both the First and Second World War, the inscription makes it clear that all came home. Part of it reads:
A thank offering to Almighty God
“At evening time it shall be light”
for the safe return of all the men from this parish
who fought in the Great War
Middleton-on-the-Hill is a doubly thankful village.
8. Teigh, Rutland
This plaque recognises the 11 men and 2 women who went to serve in the First World War and who all returned.
However, nearby is a hand-written ‘Roll of Those Serving in His Majesty’s Forces in the War of 1914’, which names 12 men and 2 women. The twelfth man was Private William Haines listed as killed in action. However, as it was subsequently determined that he was a visitor to Teigh rather than a resident, Teigh retains its status as a thankful village.
Written by Nicky Hughes.