Picture riddle of Great War soldier

By Toby Neal | Oakengates | News | Published:

The family of a Shropshire soldier of the Great War, the centenary of whose death has been marked with a graveside ceremony in Telford, are hoping to solve the riddle of the "sorrowing Nancy" who sent flowers to his funeral in 1918.

And Ian Hayward, who is the great-great-nephew of Private Charles Evans, has an intriguing photographic clue.

Because discovered behind an old family picture which has now been identified as being Charles was a second portrait, of a young woman.

A contemporary newspaper funeral report mentioned a floral tribute sent by "His sorrowing Nancy" - and Ian is wondering whether it is of her.

"Unfortunately there was no surname. We are assuming that that was the girl he was courting, or his girlfriend.

"We don't know if the photograph of the girl found in the back of his photograph is Nancy, or whether it is something like a pin-up of the time. The fact it's colourised makes me think it might have been a pin-up. I don't know if it was used as packing card for Charles' photograph. It is intriguing - and emphasises the importance of labelling photographs."

He said he would be interested to hear from anybody who might be able to identify the woman, or could say whether she was a famous star of the day.

Charles' photograph is mounted in a brass frame and has a pin at the back, as if to be worn as a large brooch. The picture of the smiling young woman is carefully cut out and centred to be immediately behind his portrait, suggesting that it was not just random card backing.

Ian, who is from Telford but now lives in Glasgow, was at Saturday's ceremony at St Peter's Church, Priorslee, with other family members. It was one of a series being held as part of a continuing six-year project by Oakengates & District Royal British Legion. It is holding graveside ceremonies on, or as close as possible to, the centenaries of the deaths of the fallen of the Great War who are buried in the area.


The ceremony included standard bearers from the local RBL and the Army Cadets at Donnington, and a short graveside service conducted by the vicar, the Rev Debbie Loughran. A bugler played the Last Post and Reveille, and family members laid a poppy wreath.

Private Charles Evans, of Snedshill, was in the Royal Field Artillery.

During training he developed pneumonia. Discharged from a military hospital in Shoeburyness, he was brought home, where he died aged 25 on January 16, 1918, with the funeral being held at St Peter's on January 20.

The family had had Charles' picture for years without realising it was him.


Ian was doing family research in Wellington library when he discovered a picture of Charles which was printed in a local newspaper in 1918.

"I took it back to my mother's house and said: 'You will never believe it, but I've managed to find a photograph of Charles Evans.' My mother said: 'I've got a photograph, and we have never known who it is. Let me go and get it.'"

Ian's mother, Mrs Britta Hayward of Oakengates, fetched the unidentified photograph, which was exactly as the same as the one Ian had found - clearly the newspaper had used that picture for publication at the time of his death.

The photo had been kept by Charles' sister, the youngest of the siblings, Mrs Elsie Beetlestone, of Rock Terrace, St Georges, and on her death aged 88 in 1986 had passed to Gwen Rigby, her niece, and was found at Gwen's house in Ketley Bank when she died.

The Great War was to hit the Evans family hard. Charles' brother Arthur, serving in the King's Shropshire Light Infantry, was killed on March 23, 1918, and has no known grave, and another brother, William, died in 1920 of what were described as "war effects." Brother Bob suffered a severe wound in which he lost the tips of his fingers, and fifth brother Hubert, the oldest, was a miner who joined up in 1918 but the war appears to have ended before he finished his training.

"It's an interesting, but tragic story, of five brothers," said Ian.

Toby Neal

By Toby Neal
Feature Writer

A journalist in Shropshire for 40 years, mainly writes features and columns, especially about aspects of Shropshire history. Lives in Telford and is based at the Ketley headquarters.


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