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Remembering John Thomas Metcalfe, Bertie Phillip Emsley and Tom Watson

The Third Battle of Ypres, also known infamously as Passchendaele, the epitome of the desolated landscapes, mud and blood of the trench warfare of World War One, claimed the lives of three Embsay men in October 1917.

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John Thomas Metcalfe had a troubled childhood – his father Thomas, a spindle mill worker, born and raised in a large Embsay family, had married in 1878 to a girl from Manchester whose family had settled in Embsay to work in the mills. But before his eldest child was four years of age, Thomas was an alcoholic, appearing regularly before the courts on charges of assault, begging or being drunk and disorderly – having been picked up on the streets of towns and cities across West Yorkshire. For well over 25 years he was in and out of Wakefield Prison virtually every year, while his long suffering wife Sarah had 4 children to look after, including the eldest, John Thomas, born in 1880. Not surprisingly she moved in with her children to live with a labourer, Aaron Thompson at The Fold, Embsay, at first under the guise of being his housekeeper.  Aaron himself was separated from his wife who lived at Grassington. Sarah and Aaron never legally married, but after having 3 children and moving to Skipton (during John’s teenage years), felt they could describe themselves as married on the 1901 census returns. Indeed all Sarah’s children, including John Thomas had adopted the Thompson surname. But within a few years Aaron too had left the family, leaving the eldest son John Thomas as head of the household – the whole family reverted back to the Metcalfe surname.  John, having previously been a limestone quarryman, now worked as a bleacher at Dewhurst’s Belle Vue dye works, and married Sarah Ellen Beck in 1912. He did not sign up during the initial war fever - perhaps his desire to be a good husband, and father to his baby son, played a part. But in May 1915, at the age of 34 [although he declared himself to be 33] John Thomas Metcalfe enlisted into the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment.

On 19th October 1917, the Craven Herald reported that Sarah had received a letter from John’s commanding officer, which read: “Dear Mrs. Metcalfe, – I am very sorry to have to inform you that your husband has been killed in action on the 9th. He certainly died like a true British soldier. He was buried, and a cross will be put up later. Throughout the time he was with me he was a brave soldier, always a keen and willing worker, and you may well be proud of him and the bit he has done. Please accept my deepest sympathy in your bereavement, and also remember that he died in a great and worthy cause.”

John Thomas has been one of 23 men of the 8th Battalion West Riding Regiment killed during an attack on the little village of Poelcappelle.


Thankfully his mother had not lived long enough to learn of her son’s death – and that her other son Joseph was missing presumed dead. John’s mother-in-law, his sister Janie, and his widow Sarah were heartbroken as testified by their emotional remembrances of him in annual memorials they had published in the Craven Herald over the next 3 years.


John Thomas is commemorated on the Tyne Cot memorial. He is also named on the Skipton cenotaph, and in the memorials of both Christ Church and Holy Trinity, Skipton. Unfortunately the memorial brass plaque for employees of Belle Vue Mills on which his name appeared, has long been lost.  He is not on Embsay’s war memorials but deserves to be remembered by his boyhood home parish.

Tom Watson was baptised at the New Jerusalem chapel in 1892, the illegitimate son of a dressmaker, Elizabeth  [Lizzie] Watson. Throughout his childhood and adolescence they lived with his grandmother, aunts and uncles. Young Tom, who played cricket for the Embsay club, went to work at the Tobacco Mill [Primrose Mill], before becoming a commercial salesman for an Otley grocer. He declared himself to be Wesleyan when, at the age of 23, he signed up in December 1915. As a Class B recruit, he was sent into the Training Reserves. But in training he proved to be a first class shot and was officially re-enlisted so he could be sent to France in January 1917 to serve with the Yorkshire and Lancashire regiment. He was gassed in late August but returned to the front less than a month later, on 11th September. He found himself in the midst of some of the worst conditions on the front. On 9th October  the 1/4th battalion endured a long march through mud and heavy rain to the front line – their commanding officer noted in the unit diary that the men were “very weary”. But less than an hour and a half later they went over the top. The officer, clearly frustrated and angry, commented in the diary “report on the attack and criticisms on the arrangements attached.” Including officers, 204 had been wounded, 49 were missing, and 44 men had been killed,

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One of those killed was Tom Watson. Wounded with a piece of shrapnel in his head, such was the fierce nature of the fighting that a stretcher bearer could not be found to get him to the the casualty clearing station. A friend bandaged him up as best he could, and had to leave him behind to be picked up later. Tom died 3 days later aged 24. The friend wrote to Tom’s mother and sister:


“It is with a very sad heart that I now write a few lines in relation to the death of your son and my dear friend Tom, who was killed in action on Tuesday, October 9th. It was about 7.30 on the morning of the advance that he received his wound from a piece of shrapnel, which struck him on the head. It was impossible to get him to the dressing station as the ground was in a very bad state, and worse than that, it was almost certain death for anyone to show himself as the enemy was doing terrible work – sniping even wounded and stretcher bearers. I myself saw several wounded killed trying to get back. With conditions like these I could do nothing except put his field dressing on, and make him as comfortable as I could, and wait till dark, hoping that we should be able to get him away then; but when night came I and the remainder of the section had to go forward to dig a gun post and so I was forced to leave him, but before doing so I reported to the platoon sergeant, and he promised to get him away if possible. Later he told me that almost everyone of the stretch bearers had been either wounded or killed. I saw him again about 12-o’clock midnight and found that he had passed away. He was very much respected by all the lads in the platoon, and they send their very deepest sympathy. I pray that God will give you strength to overcome this great loss, and that in His good time war shall cease and we shall have a peace, which shall be unbroken... I would be very pleased if you would let me know if you receive this, as it was a promise we both made when we came out, that should anything happen each one would write. My greatest sorrow is that I could not see him buried. I will now close sending my deepest sympathy to all affected by the loss of my dear pal. I remain, Yours still mourning, J. PHETHEAU.”


Tom was buried at the Nine Elms British cemetery in Belgium. He is named on the Embsay war memorial, as well as on memorial plaques in St Mary’s Church and Embsay Cricket Club.

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Bertie Phillip Emsley’s father, who had the unusual name of Major Wilkins, from Hartlington, near Burnsall, had arrived in Embsay as a young man to work as an assistant for grocer John Hoar, and had married local girl, Clara Phillip, of Crown Villa, the daughter of a spindle flyer manufacturer.

When Major became a grocer in his own right, he moved with Clara and their young daughter Norah to the High Street in Skipton. Bertie the 2nd of 7 children – 2 of whom had died young – was born in Skipton, but the ties with Embsay were not lost. He was baptised in 1897 at the New Jerusalem chapel, and in 1903 his father had purchased Rockwood House. Bertie attended Ermysted’s Grammar School from 1907 until 1912, and is commemorated on the school’s roll of honour.

He worked as a bank clerk in the Skipton branch of the Liverpool Bank. Rejected several times on medical grounds, but determined to join up Bertie eventually got in as a sapper in the Royal Fusiliers. He only served a few months on the Western Front, when, at the age of just 21, he was reported missing on 26 October 1917. Despite efforts by his commanding officer to find him, Bertie’s body was never found. After a year his parents were still desperately hoping he was still alive, their hopes cruelly raised by news that a “Bennie” Emsley was a prisoner of war in Germany. But it came to nothing, and his is one of nearly 35,000  names on the famous Tyne Cot memorial in Belgium.  His name also appears on the Embsay War memorial, and the brass memorial plaque in St Mary’s Church and Embsay Cricket Club.

Jane Lunnon, Embsay-with-Eastby Historical Research Group, (2017)

With thanks to “Craven’s Part in the Great War” website ( .

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