‘A terrible dementia’: the Eccleshill tragedy

Eccleshill Mechs Instit

It is now more than a century since the violent death of Lilian Bland in the Eccleshill district of Bradford. Although the events were, within a few months, to be subsumed in a far greater human catastrophe undeniably we have a very sad and, in my view not wholly explicable, occurrence. The sources for my account are the contemporary reports of four local newspapers. I understand that the story is far from forgotten within the area of Bradford where it occurred but I hope, after so long an interval, I can recall the events without causing offence to any descendants there may be of those directly and tragically involved. I hardly need to say that I would welcome the opportunity to correct any factual errors I might make.

In the 1880s a family called Bland lived in Baildon near Shipley. The head of the family, William Bland, was a book-keeper in a yarn spinning-mill; his wife was called Ann. William must have been a man of some education to have obtained a job of this type; in a census form of later period I noticed that he wrote a beautiful copperplate script. Both the senior Blands had been born at Baildon and by the 1891 census the family were living at 10, Upper Green. But their short-lived daughter Elsie Bland (1890-96), was recorded as having been born at Eccleshill. By the time of the 1911 census William Bland, again described as a cashier or book-keeper, is living at 47 Norman Drive in Eccleshill. The reason for this removal I do not know, but the opportunity for William to obtain a better or a more secure job seems most plausible. Perhaps the Blands had moved between Baildon and Eccleshill more than once as job opportunities presented themselves.

William and Ann Bland were eventually the parents of four adult children: Lilian or Lily their eldest, Sarah Alice or ‘Cissie’ Bland who was a year younger, John Wilfred Bland, and Clifford Milner Bland. All had been born in Baildon. By late 1913, their father was a cashier at Vint’s Mill, and the family were living at Moorwell Place, Eccleshill. They had a roomy house with three floors, close to William’s workplace. These listed buildings survive and are still lovely examples of hand-loom weavers’ terraced cottages. Close to the cottages is a significant place in the story, Ellenthorpe House. Little Red Lane, which also had an important role, was a track-way immediately south of Ellenthorpe. The house survives to this day, but development has occurred with the result that the track-way has been destroyed and with it, I assume, the actual site of the tragedy that was to occur.

Young Lilian Bland grew up in Eccleshill. She attended the Central Board School, which opened in Chapel Street in 1870 and was renamed Hutton School in 1899. She was a popular member of the ‘new’ Eccleshill Congregational Church Sunday school but both new and old Congregational churches have now been demolished. Her Sunday school teacher, Annie Jackson, reported that Lilian ‘was nice and straight’ and there is plenty of evidence of Lilian’s popularity and attractiveness. Two local newspapers later published pictures of a pretty and well-dressed girl. In her early teens Lilian was employed at Tunwell Woollen Cloth Mill (Smith & Hutton), and she eventually entered the ‘burling and mending’ department which sought out and repaired imperfections in the woven cloth.

At the age of 16 or 17 Lilian, understandably, began to take an interest in boys, and in particular a young man called John Ackroyd Pitts. John was almost her exact contemporary being born in 1887. He was an only child whose father Richard had died at the early age of 39, around the time John and Lilian first met. Richard Pitts had himself been born in 1865 within another Eccleshill family. He married John’s mother Maria Ackroyd at St Luke’s Eccleshill in 1886, and both were woollen cloth weavers living in Chapel Street in the 1891 census. Rather surprisingly by 1901 the whole family had moved to Morecombe where Richard Pitts had become a bill poster or possibly (according to a newspaper report) a bill manager on the pier. Morecombe, Lancashire was a common place for Bradford citizens to take their annual holidays.

The Pitts family must have moved at least once more since Richard was living in Dewsbury, seemingly as a publican, when he died in 1904, during a notorious smallpox outbreak. The authorities in Dewsbury were at that time led by those opposed to vaccination against smallpox; the town had 1300 cases in 1904. Later press reports stated that John was left a small legacy upon his father’s death. John apparently boasted that he possessed an independent income of £1 per week, but this claim was widely believed to have ‘no foundation in fact’.

After their return to Eccleshill John’s mother, Maria Pitts (1864-1938), worked as a weaver at Garnett’s of Apperley Bridge. All the evidence suggests that son and mother had formed a close relationship. Maria had reached the age of 47 by the time of the census in 1911. There is a widow of the right name and age was certainly living at 38, Institute Road, Eccleshill, with her mother Ann. John Ackroyd Pitts, a 24 year old shop assistant, is also resident. This census information fits except that John is described as ‘nephew’ of Ann not ‘grandson’. Among the people also living there was John’s uncle George Ackroyd who was to give important testimony at an inquest. John had another testifying uncle, Arthur Ackroyd, and an aunt Ellen.

John seemingly worked in a pet shop. Newspapers later published pictures of him; we can see a good looking young man with short hair and a left parting. A drawback was that he enjoyed drinking in pubs, travelling in taxis, and gambling on race-horses. These faults are not unknown in young men and one can surely feel some empathy with a boy whose schooling must have been disrupted by frequent moves, who who lost his father at an impressionable age. John may have even gone (for a short period at least) to live alone in a strange country since he seems briefly to have visited America during 1913. Many steamship passenger lists are now available on-line but I cannot yet identify John in these available to me. Consequently the journey to America must remain slightly speculative, but it was accepted at the inquest into his death.

John’s mother thought that there was ‘never a better lad’ and that he ‘ought to have been a parson’. Maria Pitts also considered that John’s girl-friend Lilian Bland was ‘everything you could wish for in womanliness’; seemingly Lilian had her Sunday tea with the Pitts family for a period of five years. Clearly John’s own prospective father in law was not so impressed. The testimony he subsequently gave, expressed as it was in moderate language, did not indicate the same degree of enthusiasm for John that Maria expressed for Lilian. The young couple seem to have done most of their courting at the Eccleshill Mechanics Institute. ‘The Mechanics’, as it was known, was opened in 1869. In 1911 it was converted into a cinema. Thereafter it showed silent films which I imagine Lilian and John would have attended. The building is still standing today. John and Lilian seemingly also frequented the quiet, unlit, local pathway called Little Red Lane, near to the large house named ‘Ellenthorpe’. In 1901, and for thirty years after, this was to be the home of a local councillor who played an important part in the tragic events which were shortly to unfold.

The next episode is slightly confused. It seems that John and Lilian never actually got engaged, although their relationship lasted for at least six years around 1906-1912. In press reports it was claimed that the couple were planning to get married but that John himself abandoned these plans because he had spent his inheritance and was in trouble at work. Another view was that John was by no means ‘constant’ and that there was another woman in the case, a woman who was never named. A local domestic servant was once described as having a picture of him. Lilian, according to this view, ‘could not endure dissolute habits’ and ‘threw him up’. Was it for this reason that John went to the USA (early reports said Canada) from June to September 1913. Was his departure entirely voluntary? In a later statement John’s uncle George said: ‘I first saw his revolver in June when we sent him to America‘.

Be that as it may John seems to have returned from the New World after a matter of weeks. His mother believed this was ‘because of the heat’ others reported that he had heard stories about Lilian which concerned him. John seems to have written letters to her and evidently hoped that their relationship might be restored after his return. Lilian’s father reportedly said that many of these letters were burned and that the relationship was unwelcome to his daughter. Another expressed local view was that the tone of some of the letters was hostile and that William Bland had to speak to John and ‘threaten him with extreme measures’. Several of John’s letters to Lilian did in fact survive and were later read by a coroner who found ‘nothing to object to’ in them. It is impossible, on the available evidence, to know where the truth lies.

John’s mother said that some years prior to his departure for America her son had suffered a severe head injury at work when a half-hundredweight case fell on his head and cut it open. He was then attended by a Dr Rawson of Morley Street. This happened while he was employed by Taylor’s, a ‘local fancier’s shop’, and he had ‘not been right since’. I assume a ‘fancier’ is a bird & live animal dealer. I can’t find one in Bradford called Taylor’s in the 1887 and 1912 trade directories. In 1906 however there was indeed a George Taylor, naturalist and bird dealer, at 3 St John’s Street, Bradford. St John’s Street was off the city end of Little Horton Lane, but in the press John’s employer was said on several occasions to be in Thornton Road. E. Bairstow, a well-known live bird and animal dealer, had premises at 3 Thornton Road. I’m not then certain who John’s employer might have been, nor exactly what he did. His job-title is variously given as ‘seedsman’s assistant’ or ‘shop manager’ but whatever his exact situation there is no reason to dispute that he had suffered a head injury during his employment.

By Friday 2 January 1914 John Pitts had been back in Eccleshill for several months but had been unable to find a job. On that day Lilian Bland went shopping with her parents. Her father later stated that it was shoes or slippers that she bought since ‘she ought to have gone to a ball’. The exact nature of the purchase does not seem important but the fact that she bought anything is good evidence that her subsequent death was not part of a planned double suicide. The party she was to attend was to take place the following day, this being the New Year period of course. On her return home on Friday (around 8 pm) she told her sister Cissie that she was going out to meet a female friend from work at Mount Street. This was probably a deliberate, if diplomatic, untruth. Later in the evening she was certainly seen with John Pitts in Little Red Lane, perhaps 200 yards from her home. John had arrived at the meeting from a public house. The previous day he was said to have seen a silent film: ‘Doomed to Death‘ which people later thought might have upset him. A film actually entitled ‘Doomed to Die‘ was released in 1913 but I haven’t been able to learn anything about the plot. In any event the couple stayed in Little Red Lane for several hours although a witness later reported that they appeared to be talking quietly. A press report indicated that her parents realised that Lilian had not come home and so they sat up waiting for her.

Around 11 pm of the same evening the owner of Ellenthorpe House, a local councillor called John Anthony Guy JP, took his dog out for some exercise, walking for about 5 minutes. Little Red Lane had no street lamps of any kind. He later stated that he heard the sounds of an altercation, or perhaps a scream for help, and two or three shots being fired. He reached the scene (which was near to the driveway of his house) and found Lilian lying on the ground, bloodied and apparently dead. John Pitts produced a gun and behaved in a threatening manner, telling Guy to leave. In reply Guy rather remarkably told his dog to attack John. After a short interval John shot himself behind the ear and fell to the ground. Guy first shouted for help and when none was forthcoming went to his home, which was equipped with a phone, asking his wife to ring the police. Guy then returned to the scene where John and Lilian remained; he moved the bodies ‘to help them breathe if they were still alive’.

It was probably a passer-by who carried a message to Lilian’s father. William Bland, at what must have been a truly terrible moment for him, arrived at the scene and recognised that his daughter was dead. Several local police officers attended including acting-Inspector Bates and Sgt. Gale. The first on the scene, acting-Sergeant John Maskell, reported finding Councillor Guy together with two bodies, both with wounds behind their right ears. The gun was lying near John Pitts’s right hand and was subsequently described as a 6-chambered revolver with three chambers discharged. Dr Hibbert of Eccleshill and the chief police surgeon, Dr Wrangham, arrived. John Pitts was found to be still breathing and Sgt. Maskell took him to Bradford Royal Infirmary, and was with him when he died a few hours later (at about 1 am on 3 Jan 1914) without being admitted to a ward.

Today we are all too aware that male ex-partners are capable of appalling acts of violence against the women with whom they have once had relationships, but it must be remembered that no one ever claimed to have actually witnessed Lilian Bland’s death. Nonetheless the first press account published within hours on 3 January was headed ‘murder & suicide in Bradford’, which was in accord with the evidence, but also ‘young women shot by her lover’ which must have been speculation. Inevitably statements given in early press reports varied slightly from those given later by the same witnesses at an inquest. In what follows I have assumed that the inquest statements are the more considered and reliable.

An inquest was held on the two young people by the Bradford City Coroner, John G Hutchinson, on 6 January 1914. John Pitts’s family were legally represented by solicitor Mr Hugh Hammond. There were many witnesses. Lilian’s father said that recently John Pitts had been ‘drinking to excess’ and was ‘strange in his manner’, but Lilian’s sister Cissie stated that Lilian was not afraid of John, and that no threats had ever been made against her. The previous year John had even written Lilian a poem which was read at the inquest. This poem was not great art but expresses his regret for ‘losing’ Lilian and squandering his time and wealth. The fact that John tried to express his emotions in poetic form suggests to me that he was on a higher intellectual plane than his portrayal as an unemployed shop-assistant with a fondness for alcohol might suggest. The verdict reached inevitably depended almost wholly on the evidence of Cllr. Guy. It was decided that Lilian had been a victim of ‘wilful murder’ at the hands of John who had subsequently taken his life in a fit of ‘temporary insanity’, in essence John had shot Lilian with his own gun and then shot himself.

Lilian and John were both buried on 6 January 1914. It appears that some trouble was taken so that the two cortèges should not meet. John was interred by his family. I found it moving to learn that, despite the circumstances, six of his friends had the charity to act as John’s pall-bearers. I have found his grave in the Methodist Cemetery, Norman Lane; he was buried with his mother, and the father who had pre-deceased him. The non-conformist records note his death (on 2 Jan 1914), and burial (on the 6 January) by the Methodist minister Rev. A. Fentiman. Lilian herself was buried by the Rev. William Manning. Her employers, Smith & Hutton, had closed for the day as a mark of respect and an estimated 20,000 people turned out to follow the coffin to the nearby Salem Chapel burial ground where I have subsequently located her memorial cross.

Two obvious questions must be asked. Were the inquest findings correct and, if so, what possible motive could John have had for his actions? Having read the press accounts I am concerned that there are certain inconsistencies between the evidence presented at the inquest and the verdict reached. In the first place the police reported that the ground at the crime scene was widely disturbed as if a fight had taken place. This seems a very odd finding if the events there had been confined to the shooting of an unarmed girl by an armed man. A second weapon, an open and blood-stained cut-throat razor, was also found at the scene and had been trampled into the ground. This was later identified by John’s uncle, George Ackroyd, as his own property. Both John and Lilian were found to have cuts at post-mortem examination. Under what circumstances could the razor have been used as a weapon, and by whom? One could imagine an unhappy and disturbed young man using a razor to threaten suicide in Lilian’s presence, but under such circumstances would it be blood-stained and trodden into the ground?

Was the revolver found really John’s property? John’s mother Maria said that she had never seen him in possession of a revolver. Other testimony was given to the effect that even before the trip to the USA it was ‘general knowledge that John Pitts carried a revolver habitually’. John’s uncle George later confirmed that, despite his mother’s testimony, John did indeed have a gun; apparently he even displayed it in public houses. But George Ackroyd confused matters substantially when he stated that the pistol found at the scene was not in fact John’s weapon. Naturally if the uncle’s evidence was correct then John’s own pistol should have been found among his effects; was it ever looked for? As far as I can tell the authorities seemed to have rejected George’s statement about the pistol, but to have accepted his testimony concerning the razor.

In contemporary trade directories premises in Bradford are identified as gun makers so it is quite possible that revolvers could be purchased locally. In fact even after the Pistols Act 1903, an early attempt at gun-control, a man over eighteen who was not visibly drunk or insane would have little difficulty in buying a weapon. As I understand it today in the UK you would not be able to obtain a gun licence for a hand-gun capable of concealment nor an automatic pistol using greater than .22 calibre ammunition.

Finally there are some additional small puzzles. Although John Pitts had come to the scene from a pub the landlord reported that he had stayed only 15 minutes and was not drunk on his departure. Also it seems that Cllr. & Mrs Guy had a teenaged son who entirely escaped mention in reports of the inquest. Was he at home? Under such circumstances would he have remained quietly indoors? At the inquest Guy said that ‘he knew the girl well’ but how this acquaintance had come about was never explained. Both his son and one of Lilian’s brothers shared the name ‘Clifford’; was this simple co-incidence? At the inquest a friend spoke about John having ‘pains in his head’ and exhibiting unusual behaviour. John had apparently said: ‘they have arrested me for Sumner but have let me go again’. He had been drinking and was reading an illustrated paper at the time. This statement about Sumner was not explained in the press reports but I shall interpret it at the end of this account.

Councillor Guy’s evidence was crucial to the inquest verdict; this is what I have been able to establish about him. He was a Bradford wool merchant, born in 1856. The 1912 trade directory names his company as William Guy & Son, Moorside Road at which time he was also a Liberal councillor for the Eccleshill ward. John Anthony Guy married Eleanor Watson who was to outlive him. After the events described he, surprisingly perhaps, stayed at Ellenthorpe, and he died there some 17 years after the tragedy. Both John Guy and his brother Thomas had reputations as chess players. Their father had been William Guy (under whose name the business still traded), but by the time of the tragedy both William and brother Thomas were dead leaving John to run the business alone. I can find a John Guy at Ellenthorpe House in the 1911 census although his surname is incorrectly transcribed as ‘Grey’. His son was named as Arthur Clifford Guy, aged 18, who ‘worked at his father’s business’. Strangely at that time his wife Eleanor lived apart from him, with her sister Louisa in Bournemouth. She describes herself as a household head so she is not simply a transient visitor.

In a modern investigation forensic evidence would have been crucial. The weapon found at the scene had three empty chambers. Did those hold the three bullets removed from the victims, in other words were the fatal missiles actually fired from the recovered weapon? If the facts are as stated it seems most likely that Lilian was killed at close range. Skin staining from contact with the propellant might be anticipated. No contact staining was reported in the press account, although this does not mean that none was noted. Fingerprints on the putative murder weapon would have been valuable confirmation of who had actually handled it. The same situation applies to the cut throat razor. No fingerprint evidence was mentioned at the inquest. The only forensic evidence reported at all were the post-mortem examinations performed on both victims.

A PM on John was performed by a Dr Mackenzie. A bullet was apparently found under the skin on the left hand side of John’s skull having passed through his brain from the entry wound above his right ear. Significantly Dr Mackenzie also reported evidence of an old fracture of the base of the skull and three cuts on his right hand. Were these cuts defensive wounds from the cut-throat razor or the results of a threatened suicide? If the cuts were defensive wounds would a girl, even if threatened by a gun, have responded by a razor attack on her assailant? Even if she would, how had she come by this weapon? Since so much depended on his PM findings I have tried to find out more concerning Dr Mackenzie, without much success. He was not the Bradford Infirmary pathologist who was a Dr B Hughes. He is mentioned in several contemporary press reports, once as being ‘of Bradford Royal Infirmary’, and on one occasion he ordered a fire victim to the Infirmary so he cannot have been purely a pathologist. I lack any initials for him which is unfortunate. The only medical practitioner with this surname identifiable in contemporary Bradford was a Dr Lawrence Abel Mackenzie MB Ch.B (Glasgow) but he appears to have been a GP in the Great Horton Road district (Helenslee, 62 Park Lane) for nearly 30 years, although this would not prevent him undertaking additional hospital work.

Lilian’s PM was performed by Dr William Wrangham MD of 46 Ashgrove. He was the senior police surgeon and an honorary assistant physician at the Royal Infirmary. Dr Wrangham reported that he found two wounds above the right ear with half an inch between them. There was also a bullet wound between the second and third fingers of the left hand and one at the root of the thumb. There was a clean cut at the base of the right thumb compatible with a razor cut. No internal examination was reported neither was the finding of the bullets mentioned. The impact of the bullets seems to have caused remarkably little damage to the skull bones but inquest reports to this effect may have been made to minimise the distress to Lilian’s family. One newspaper uniquely reported a far more extensive injury. The bullets from a standard British service pistol, .455 calibre, would have caused massive skull injuries at such short range. Two small entry wounds in close proximity would be more typical of a small calibre revolver such as a .22.

Lilian also had two wounds on her left hand. In the press reports these were linked to her putting her left hand to the right side of her head. Logically I can accept that the same two bullets went through her skull and her hand but it is not easy to place your left hand behind your right ear unless you cross your arms across your face. If she had simply placed her hands over her face and was shot from behind, and to the right, the injuries would be explained. Unfortunately that explanation would require exit wounds from the skull but none are reported.

No motive other than sudden insane rage was ever suggested for John’s killing of Lilian. The true nature of their relationship was never touched on in detail. In those days girls and boys ‘walked out’ or ‘had an understanding’; sex was never mentioned. One witness graphically described John’s actions as a ‘terrible dementia’. Jealousy was not raised at the inquest as a possible motive but is it conceivable that a clever, popular and attractive 26 year old girl did not have other ‘followers’ besides John? None were ever mentioned by name although her father stated: ‘I have heard that another young man was trying to cultivate her acquaintance’. We can understand that John may well have been depressed because he was out of work, but there is good evidence for an old traumatic fracture of the base of the skull. Neuro-behavioural sequelae are very common in this situation. Changes in personality and aggressive behaviour sound very believable as long-term psychological effects of John’s head injury.

But was John actually responsible for Lilian’s death which, to repeat, was not witnessed? Although John’s visits to pubs and turf accountants may not have endeared himself to a prospective father in law, before the events described nobody ever called him violent, and Lilian was evidently not afraid to meet him. In particular he was reported as sober on the night in question and the couple seem to have been talking quietly less than two hours before their violent deaths. The same witness saw John try to kiss Lilian and heard her reply ‘don’t be silly’. There are a number of possible interpretations of this remark, most perfectly innocent. If the subsequent events were really a homicidal shooting followed by a suicide why was the ground disturbed and why had both victims received apparently defensive razor wounds on their hands?

It is very clear that the inquest verdicts depended almost exclusively on the testimony of Councillor Guy. Without his evidence a double homicide would at least have been worthy of consideration. Frankly I can find no explanation (including the one offered by the inquest) that explains all the facts as we now have them. I will recapitulate these but first remember that we have to start with two young people talking quietly and kissing at 9.10 pm and end with both dying horribly within two hours. The apparent facts we have to explain are: the disturbed ground at the scene, the open razor found which was identified as John’s uncle’s, the presence of a revolver, which may or may not have been John’s, and its three empty chambers. The gunshot head wounds which seem to me to have been present in an odd place for a suicide, or indeed a murder if the murderer was unfamiliar with guns and suffering from mental torment amounting to temporary insanity. If we assume that the razor was indeed from John’s house and that Guy’s evidence was truthful, but unavoidably incomplete, what then? We might speculate that a fight occurred between John and an unknown assailant which disturbed and muddied the ground. Guy comes upon the scene after the assailant has made off, and he witnesses John’s suicide in a fit of horror over the events that had occurred, at which his love had probably been shot as an innocent bystander.

With so much depending on Councillor Guy’s evidence I would ideally like to be certain over some small details about him. Guy was educated at the Quaker school Ackwith and Quakers are famous for speaking the truth. Guy did seemingly know Lilian well in a way that was never subsequently explained. Guy reportedly got his wife to telephone the police. They were living apart in 1911 so were they now together again? Lilian does seem to have been seeing another young man besides John; is it conceivable that young Arthur Clifford have been this man and might he have fought John Pitts?

I need hardly add that there is nothing supporting this alternative interpretation and my feelings of sympathy for one dead young man are no justification whatever for suggesting the involvement of another when evidence is so totally lacking. In any case both explanations involve John Pitts, with his liking for poetry, walking the streets of Edwardian Eccleshill armed with a razor, or a pistol, or both; post-traumatic brain injury personality change is, after all, perhaps the most likely explanation.

My main sources for these events for this are the contemporary illustrated accounts published in: The Yorkshire Observer, The Bradford Daily Argus, The Bradford Weekly Telegraph and the Bradford Daily Telegraph during the first week of 1914. Press reports, as ‘the first draft of history’, often do not agree. Generally I have considered them together and have picked a version of events that seems the most probable. A useful source of background information, very necessary for a non-resident, is Memories of Eccleshill published in 1990 by the Eccleshill Local History Group (University of Leeds, Department of External Studies). The tragedy itself is not mentioned there.

At one stage John Pitts apparently remarked: ‘they have arrested me for Sumner but have let me go again’. In the event it appears that the name related to a Liverpool murder with only the most tenuous connection to Bradford. The case was known as ‘The Liverpool Sack Murder’. On Wednesday, 10 December 1913 a Liverpool woman called Christina Catherine Bradfield was murdered and her body found in a sack in the Leeds-Liverpool canal. Christina had been born in 1874 but by 1913 she worked for her brother in the family business ‘Bradfield Tentor Tarpaulins’. A man called George Ball, alias Sumner, was also employed after March 1909. Mr Bradfield took him from a boy’s home in Soho St. There had never been any real trouble with Sumner but there had been some problems over money, so a watch was kept on him to prevent him from stealing. In December Sumner beat Christina to death and placed her body in a sack, her body being found in the canal the following day. The police initiated a search on Friday 12 December for Sumner, a search which soon became nationwide. He was arrested on Saturday 20 December at a lodging house in St James St, Liverpool, and was later tried and hanged. Strangely the Bradford local press reported that Sumner had been found in the Clayton workhouse in Bradford. I can only assume that this, and any police involvement with John Pitts, was part of the nationwide manhunt. The case, tragic in itself, seem to have no other connection with Lilian’s death but, if true, it is very odd that the police mistook this young man, well known in Eccleshill, for Sumner.

What happened to those left behind? The Great War broke out eight months after Lilian’s death, in August 1914. At the age of 23, that is in November 1915, Clifford Guy enlisted in the 8th Battalion King’s Royal Rifle Corps (C 12532). Rifleman Guy sailed to France from Southampton less than a year later. He was posted as missing, and then killed in action, on 3 May 1917. This was the first day of the battle of Bullecourt, part of the larger Allied attack at Arras. He was awarded the Victory and British War medals which his father later received. Pte Guy’s military records confirm that he was unmarried and had no brothers or sisters. His name is commemorated on the Arras memorial, the Roll of Honour in the porch of St Luke’s Church (as C. Guy), and also on the Eccleshill war memorial. His father John Anthony Guy of Ellenthorpe, Eccleshill, Bradford, died on 19 September 1931. Probate was granted to Eleanor Guy, his widow, and Alfred Gibson, wool merchant. His effects totalled £648 14s 6d.

Lilian’s parents are both registered as dying in Eccleshill, William Bland in 1928, and Ann Bland in 1931. It would be understandable if they had not remained at their old house with all its memories but street directories still place them at Moorwell Place in 1916 and 1921. They were outlived by John’s mother Maria Pitts who died in 1938. She is buried with her husband and son, but as yet I know nothing concerning her later life. Lilian’s brother Clifford Milner (b.1901) is easy to trace because of his unusual name. He died in Wharfedale as recently as 1974. John Wilfred Bland (b.1896), Lilian’s elder brother, became a designer and engraver and in 1924 he married. I understand that he was never the same man after the death of his much loved sister but he had a career as a much respected engraver with Fattorini’s. John died at Bradford in the same year as his brother. Sarah Alice Bland appears last under that name in the 1911 census and at the 1914 inquest where she delivered her testimony in tears. A marriage between John Simpson and Sarah A Bland is registered in 1915. Lilian’s memorial stone refers to Lilian and her parents, but also an Irene Simpson. Irene was the daughter of John and Sarah A Simpson who died at the age of 20, even younger than Lilian, in 1937. Sarah Alice ‘Cissie’ Simpson, mother of Irene, had a common surname which so far has defied my attempts to find her date of death.

Will we ever know the full truth about these dreadful moments? Probably not. The final words should be those of the Rev. Manning, clearly a wise and charitable pastor, at poor Lilian’s funeral: ‘do not judge….leave the mystery and sorrow to Him who is too wise to err’.


2 thoughts on “‘A terrible dementia’: the Eccleshill tragedy

  1. John Wilfred Bland was my Grandad. I know he was never the same after losing his much beloved sister and I welcome this insight into a part of my family history that was never spoken about much until after his death.. My mother has since filled me in with some detail and I have done some reading myself. I too was never convinced about the true culprit.
    One thing I would like you to correct though, my Grandad never had a sweet shop or tobacconist and certainly never went bankrupt. He spent much of his life in the employ of Fattorini’s as a much respected engraver.


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