I thought that the ghost soldiers that had appeared in Manchester yesterday were just here because we were the centre of the national commemoration of the Battle of the Somme. Apparently not, they appeared in towns and cities and by famous landmarks across the country. It was a very moving part of the commemoration with people reduced to tears by their appearance.
The Mancorialist, a Manchester photographer and blogger who records the very individual style and dress sense of the city’s people, took these photographs of them in St. Ann’s Square. I’ve used his pictures before. He’s happy for people to share and a link to his site is in the blog roll on here. He’s worth a look. The soldier in the middle of the picture below has one chevron on his arm which is the mark of a Lance Corporal. Maybe he is Harry?
If you approached one of the soldiers he wouldn’t speak to you but he might give you a card with the name of the man or boy he was. Always a local lad and one who died on July 1st 1916. This is the one he was given by a ghost soldier he approached.
I was intrigued by him. Harry Sant. I googled him. He died on July 1st 1916. His name is on the Thiepval Memorial in Picardy in Northern France. You may have seen it on TV yesterday. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry were there. It marks nearly 20,000 British boys and men who died that day. It also means that his remains didn’t come back to Manchester. They are still there in the fertile soil of the Valley of the Somme. So much blood and bone was left here that, once peace returned and they began to farm again, the crops flourished as never before. Harry is still there somewhere far from his birth city. It saddens me that he’s so far from home even if his resting place is beautiful and so well looked after by the local French people.
The memorial is huge. It was designed by the architect, Edwin Lutyens, who designed the Cenotaph in Whitehall, London. Nearer home he designed the Midland Bank building on King Street in Manchester which now houses the Hotel Gotham and Jamie’s Italian. Harry wouldn’t have known that building as it was built after his death. The white is Portland Stone, a hard, brilliantly white limestone that we use for our great buildings. The brick is Accrington brick in honour of the town that lost every one of the boys and men it sent to the Battle of the Somme within hours of the battle beginning.
I found out a few things about Harry. From the 1911 census I discovered that there was a Harry Sant living in north Manchester who had been born in 1893 which would make him 24 in 1916. He’d been born in Miles Platting, an industrial suburb close to where Manchester City’s stadium is now and close to the mills and metal works of Ancoats. His father was also called Harry and his mother was called Susannah. He had a sister also called Susannah though I have no idea if she was older or younger than him. At some point she married and became Susannah Mell. Miles Platting wasn’t the best part of Manchester to put it mildly and the suburb Harry would have remembered has long gone. And the Miles Platting we know is rapidly changing again as apartment blocks for the urban rich are spreading to the area.
Harry’s family must have been doing well for themselves and by 1911 they were living a couple of miles up the Rochdale Road in Harpurhey. They had a terraced house in Beeston Street, number 27 to be precise. It was larger and more comfortable than the house in Miles Platting. The façade had decoration and it may even have had indoor plumbing. The family were upwardly mobile.
Harry was working as a pattern cutter by the time he was 18 in 1912. I had to look this up. His job was to look at items of clothing designed by someone else and devise a pattern so it could be reproduced. The cotton industry, and the associated garment industry, in Manchester was at its height in these years before the war. Manchester was the ninth largest city on the planet at that time and had wealth beyond its size. Harry seems to have been part of that industry. Probably by 1914, when he was 22, he was contemplating his future, maybe he had a sweetheart, possibly thinking of settling down, finding a home, children. We will never know.
I’m not sure when he joined the army after war broke out in 1914 but by June 1916 he was in northern France. He was in the 18th Battalion of the Manchester Regiment. On July 1st the Battle of the Somme began and within a few hours Harry was dead, lost on the field of battle never to be found again. I’ve been thinking about him a lot today. If he’d survived the city would have been different. There might have been children, grandchildren and great grandchildren living here. Who knows what Harry or his never to be born descendants may have done? I feel bad for him.
I had thought that his home in Harpurhey may have gone. But not so. It was well built, the kind of house that is sought after in places like Chorlton or Didsbury and command eyewatering amounts of money to buy. But not so much in demand in Harpurhey that is still waiting for the monied middle classes to discover it. I google earthed it (if I can use that as a verb) and found that Harry’s house is still there. Sadly, he never returned. This afternoon I took the time to go find it.
Here is Beeston Street.
And here is Harry’s home, number 27, still looking much as he would remember apart from the new door and window frames made from a substance he’d never seen, plastic. It’s the second house from the left with the white door. I imagined him leaving it to go to France in his uniform. Probably excited to go to a foreign country. His parents and sister waving him ‘goodbye’. Father doing that stiff upper lip thing, his mother and sister upset. He may have gone up to Heaton Park which was being used as a training ground for new soldiers. Or maybe to Victoria Station, through the Soldiers’ Gate and onto a train to take him and his comrades to France.
If anyone knows anything about Harry Sant, his family and descendents, I would really love to hear from them.