Tragic tale of Hartlepool woman left twice-widowed by war

Minnie pictured with three of her children with William Churcher.
Minnie pictured with three of her children with William Churcher.

Hartlepudlians were going about their daily business in the run up to Christmas 1914 when three German battleships suddenly opened fire just after 8am on December 16 - the darkest day in the town’s history

More than 100 people, including babes in arms, pensioners and soldiers, perished during the 40-minute bombardment - which saw more than 1,100 shells rain down.

William Churcher - a casualty of the bombardment of Hartlepool in 1914.

William Churcher - a casualty of the bombardment of Hartlepool in 1914.

Amongst the casualties was Essex-born William Churcher, a preventive man for HM Waterguard, who was struck by debris near his office at Middleton Harbour.

Back home at 29 Clarendon Road, William’s wife Minnie knew nothing of the incident - until a knock at the door turned her world upside down.

“I used a mix of newspapers and memories to piece together what happened to my Great Uncle William,” said Mike Churcher.

“It seems he had a letter to post and was walking along the seafront after starting a new shift, having just replaced one of his fellow customs officers.

If there is one message here, it is to find out about your family and what happened to them these past 100 years. Do not let them be forgotten.

Mike Churcher, great-nephew of bombardment victim William Churcher.

“Once the bombing started, William ran to take shelter under a pier - which sadly was hit. The concrete debris landed on him, breaking his back.”

William, 26, was taken to hospital but died a few days later. Minnie, 25, was left a widow with four children under five - and no way of supporting her family.

Fortunately, William’s mother and father in Essex offered to help. Accepting their support meant leaving her home town of Hartlepool, but she readily agreed.

“She moved to Dovercourt, a village located just next to Harwich,” said Mike. “The problem with this move was that William’s parents had struggles of their own.

“His father had been a councillor with a steady job on the railways, but this came to an end when he ‘blackballed’ by employers for attempting to start a union.

“Eventually he was left picking up odd jobs at Harwich docks. However, support for Minnie and the children was forthcoming from the extended family.”

Minnie went on to marry merchant seaman William Maryan in 1919, but World War Two claimed his life - leaving her with another four young children.

Meanwhile her eldest daughter, Minnie Churcher, lost her sailor husband Leslie Warman during the war as well - when HMS Veteran was torpedoed in 1942.

Tragically, another of Minnie’s children - Harold Churcher - accidentally choked to death on a football field just eight years later, leaving two young children.

“In 1989 I was introduced to Minnie - who was then approaching her 100th birthday. Her life had been overwhelmed by two world wars,” recalls Mike.

“I feel unspeakably privileged to have been able to live a life which has been unaffected in the ways my ancestors were during the 20th century.

“If there is one message here, it is to find out about your family and what happened to them these past 100 years. Do not let them be forgotten.”