Braithwell, Micklebring and Clifton History and Heritage

William Marshall of Micklebring and Braithwell

William Marshall, lived a remarkable life, born in Braithwell on 6 July 1885, he grew up at 'The Plough Inn', Micklebring and later lived at 'Harehound Ale House', Braithwell - he was husband to well known village character - Aimee Marshall and together they shared a keen interest in all things thespian. 

 

His fascinating story is told by Howard Pell - grandson of William Marshall

 

Of the many Braithwell folk who have made their mark, William Marshall just happened to do so in strange circumstances, and a long way from home at that. So the choice of words – “just happened to do so” – offers a clue to this story of a local man who did something unusual in the final weeks of the Great War.

William Marshall was born in 1885, the second of eight children of farm labourer John Marshall and his Maltby-born wife Annie. By the time William was born, this particular Marshall family had lived in Braithwell for almost a century, with the oldest Marshall-family gravestone still surviving in St James’ Churchyard today being that of William’s grandmother, Hannah, who died in 1821.

But if William was born a Braithwell lad, it was in nearby Micklebring that he was to spend much of his early years. This was because, as more and more Marshall siblings were born, their home no longer had room for them all, and William was therefore taken-in by his widowed aunt, Martha Marshall. She was licensee of The Plough Inn, which her branch of the Marshall family had run for decades, and so William’s formative years were spent living above the pub.

Much later on in life, William was to write his autobiography and, though never published, it survives today as a cherished family heirloom. It is from William’s own account that this story is taken.

Of his early life, William wrote of summer days spent helping on farms; of a village cricket match to celebrate a Royal wedding but sadly where a woman spectator was fatally injured and also of leaving school to start work aged just 13. That first job saw William look after the pit-ponies at a local mine, and by the time he was 15 he was a face-worker earning one shilling a day.

By then, William and his widowed mother had left Braithwell and were living in Worksop. But William had often been drawn to Worksop before, not to live or work but to enjoy the entertainment provided by touring theatres and their travelling players. Such was his growing interest in the theatre that William soon began to help-out back-stage and, though still a teenager, would sometimes be asked to play small parts.

William wrote about how, from that point on, all he really wanted to do was to work in the theatre and ideally, to run a theatre company of his own one day. That would take significant capital, however, and a larger sum than he would ever save from his English miner’s wage. William therefore hatched a plan. The vast Canadian wheat-fields required harvesting and there were schemes that encouraged British workers to travel to Canada, to reap both corn and big rewards. William duly signed-up and in 1906 left Britain for what would turn out to be four years away from his family.

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Marshall's Hippodrome, Lavenham, Suffolk - August 1910

It was not, however, four years spent harvesting wheat. That never happened, because upon reaching Canada William discovered that equally good money was to be made from coal-mining in British Columbia, and in the USA too, where Washington State was also opening valuable coal-fields. William worked in various pits on both sides of the Border and in May 1910 returned home to England on the ship Lusitania, arriving home a relatively wealthy man. He then acted swiftly to fulfil his theatre dream, and by August 1910, “Marshall’s Hippodrome” had opened for business – a travelling theatre company with its own portable wood-and-canvas theatre that would prove to be just the start of a thriving enterprise.

In the winter of 1910 William met for the first time the woman who would later become his wife. The Hippodrome needed a pianist, since William had decided to branch-out and show Silent Movies in the winter and perform plays the rest of the year. An advertisement was placed in The Stage and drew a response from an accomplished musician called Aimee Lindsay. William hired her in November and by February 1911 the couple were married - not that Aunt Martha approved, however telling her nephew - in a powerful letter, which still survives, that he had "lost his mind!".

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 William Marshall as Lawyer Dill - in the classic Victorian melodrama 'East Lynne', with signature in his own writing

Braithwell would only get to know Aimee (“Mitty”) Marshall a few years later, since Marshall’s Hippodrome was touring not in Yorkshire but in East Anglia. By 1912, William also had a second travelling theatre – 'The New Theatre' – with numerous professional actors and actresses on contract.

William was increasingly more manager than performer which had become the role he preferred - as his success grew so did the circles in which he moved. In 1913 the Marshalls’ paths crossed with that of Daisy, Countess of Warwick. Lady Warwick was a leading socialite and before her marriage had been romantically linked with Edward, Prince of Wales (later Edward VII). Rumours suggested the pair would marry and it was these events that gave rise to the famous Music Hall song “Daisy, Daisy give me your answer do”. In 1913, Daisy Warwick had decided to convert an old barn on her family estate -  Little Easton in Essex - into her very own private theatre. Having achieved a good reputation, William’s company was among the first to be invited to perform there; with William as Manager shows were put on for Daisy and her distinguished guests. The Barn Theatre still survives today – it is now a Nursery School and Function Room - as does a letter which the famous Victorian actress Dame Ellen Terry wrote to William in October 1913, when she and Mrs H G Wells enjoyed one of his performances there.

By 1914, William and Aimee already had two children and the family was travelling between theatre locations in their own Pullman railway car. With multiple theatres performing nightly and at different venues business was booming, but all this changed with the onset of the Great War. Most of the men in William’s Company had quickly obeyed the call to sign-on to fight for King and country. After putting his business affairs in order, William Marshall signed-up too, becoming a Private in the Army Cyclist Corps. Wife Aimee and the remaining cast-members briefly kept one theatre going but as audience numbers fell, that came to an end too, and from 1916 Aimee and (by then) three children were living in Braithwell. They had moved in with Aunt Martha – no longer licensee at 'The Plough Inn', Micklebring but now owner occupier of the Braithwell 'Ale House' known as Harehound House (see Harehound Ale House, Braithwell).

 

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William and family at Melbourn Cambs 1914 

 

William meanwhile was sent off to Northern France. As an Army Cyclist he would routinely carry dispatches to the Front Line, or with his rifle slung across his shoulder, head out on patrol with fellow cyclists. Although this meant he avoided the very worst of trench-warfare he was sometimes under fire in shell-craters, fox-holes and dug-outs but overall he had a lucky war, though his autobiography reveals some of the horrors he witnessed and sometimes only narrowly managed to avoid.

William’s war took a truly unusual turn on 17 October 1918 when he and his Company – six cyclists in total – were out on patrol in Northern France, only a few miles from the German lines. William had stopped briefly to adjust his kit, teliing his colleagues to go on ahead and he would catch them up but unfortunately, they went one way and William, having missed a turning, mistakenly went another. He cycled on, imagining that he would find his Company but was soon completely lost. He later arrived at what he thought initially to be a small village, but as he cycled on not only were there more and more houses but there were also numerous people coming out of the houses and all waving furiously. As the numbers grew William could make out cries of “Vive l’Angleterre” and soon he was being lifted bodily from his bike and carried shoulder-high by a cheering French crowd.

William had unwittingly ended-up behind enemy lines and had become the first British soldier to enter the town of Tourcoing, which had been under continuous German occupation for nearly four years. With the war heading towards its November end, the Germans were slowly retreating but still remained elsewhere in Tourcoing. However to the town’s joyous residents William’s arrival heralded liberation at last. A lone and lost Army Private had just singlehandedly (and accidentally) “freed” their town, and long dreamt-of celebrations could begin.

 

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William Marshall 1914

William at Tourcoing 17 Oct 1918 

The above photographs of William in uniform are reproduced by kind permission of the Municipal Archives of Tourcoing (169Z2)

 

The crowd soon carried William to the Town Hall in the centre of Tourcoing and there he was received by civic officials, while doing his level best to convince everyone that he really should not be there, and needed to get back on his bike and rejoin his Company. Such was the throng, however, that when William was finally able to leave it was through the back door, but even then there were people anxious to see him and cheer him on.

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Tourcoing Town Hall, Northern France

 

Henri Plateaux now enters the story. Monsieur Plateaux was a photographer in Tourcoing and his home and studio were situated close to the Town Hall’s back door. Seeing William emerge, M. Plateaux had offered food and shelter and promptly took him, his rifle and his bicycle into the family home, where William then met other members of the family. William wrote that in those first hours, a constant stream of visitors arrived, all wanting to meet the liberator and to hug and kiss him – so much so that William wrote afterwards that he had probably been kissed that day more than a thousand times.

In the hours that followed, the last of the occupying German Army withdrew from Tourcoing. William’s fellow cyclists also arrived a few hours later and were received into the Town Hall. William, however, remained in the Plateaux home and was served a dish of rabbit stew and given a room for the night. But before he cycled away the next day William 'the accidental hero' was taken into the Plateaux studio to be photographed, with copies of the cycling soldier later appearing throughout the town and the district beyond.

There the story might well have ended, had it not been for William’s determination to keep in touch with those who had looked after him so well. William soon rejoined his unit (he discovered by then he had been posted as missing!) but after the Armistice and before his return to England, he visited the Plateaux family whenever he could and even stayed there two more nights. Indeed, the friendship continued throughout the years that followed, with William making return visits to France until age and infirmity reduced such contact to just cards and letters. But more remarkably perhaps, even modern-day Tourcoing (now a bustling city of nearly 100,000 people) is familiar with the story of William from Braithwell and his extraordinary grand day out. It has been taught in schools and is therefore known to new generations, in no small part due to the work of Tourcoing’s City Archive.

In November 2018, the City Archive opened a major Exhibition marking the Centenary of the Liberation. Publicity for the Exhibition saw William’s unusual story widely covered in the French Press, not least in the high-circulation daily, the Voix du Nord. Two of William’s grandchildren visited the Exhibition and saw the panels telling the lost soldier’s story and also the display cases containing William’s possessions from his wartime service. Many of these have been donated to the City of Tourcoing in perpetuity, meaning that Private Marshall from Braithwell will forever be remembered there. The Exhibition also achieved one further thing. It brought together for the first time a grandson of William and a grandson of Henri Plateaux, thereby forging a new link between the two families a century on.

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El-Myla Playbill Thorne 1929

For William, life immediately after the Great War brought demob and a return to Braithwell and in 1920 the birth there of the Marshall’s fourth child, Ella.

Post-war England was proving slow to recover economically, and with little public appetite for entertainment, William would take several years to rekindle his theatrical business. Times were changing in other ways too, and cinema was fast replacing theatre as entertainment for the masses.

But William did find a way back, no longer in travelling theatres but in Repertory Theatre instead, with his El-Myla Company performing in a number of Yorkshire venues into the late 1920s. To the right is the playbill for one of the Marshall shows at Thorne near Doncaster. 

But when all that came to an end, William put the theatrical props, back-drops and scenery into storage at Harehound House in Braithwell. When World War Two started, the need for firewatchers to protect key buildings in the capital saw William move to London. With their children having grown up, William and Aimee were now effectively living separate lives and so it remained, with William acquiring modest property interests in Chelsea before dying there in 1974.

 

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Earl's Colne Special Benefit 1912

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

William Marshall is buried in Essex, in the village of Earls Colne which had been a fond favourite in those travelling theatre days that William and Aimee had shared together, and where in 1912 Mrs & Mrs Marshall had hosted a Special Benefit event. The poster (above) from that occasion reveals that the performance was for just one night only, with William playing two parts (both police officers) in the drama Two Little Vagabonds.

The picture below, also from William’s cherished Earl’s Colne days, shows children from a local orphanage going excitedly to a Matinee there.

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Matinee at the Hippodrome 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

William and Aimee Marshall left their own distinctive legacies, whether it was their theatre work together in those East Anglian towns and villages, or latterly back home in Braithwell where they brought up four fine children. Their first and only son John, born in Essex in 1912, lived longest in the village, and having been wounded in World War II was the last to marry when he found wife Angela. The other children also married and moved away. Florence born in Hertfordshire in 1914 became Mrs John Lee, moved to Worksop and delivered two sons; Margaret (known as Peg) born in Buckinghamshire in 1916 became Mrs Philip Hicken and their family, of one son and four daughters, lived in Sheffield; and the youngest, Myra Ella (but known always as Ella) married Worksop-born Frank Pell (known as Gordon) and brought up their two sons in Grantham, Lincolnshire.

William and Aimee had numerous grandchildren who today are now spread far and wide – places such as Retford, Sheffield, Hampshire, Somerset, Ireland, Belgium and Portugal – so the Braithwell legacy lives on in them and in generations beyond. Indeed – and much to the amusement of the archivists in Tourcoing - second, third and even fourth generation descendants together attended the Liberation Exhibition in November 2018, all proudly viewing mementos of what might best be described as William Marshall’s amazing day out!

 

William died in London on 9 January 1974

 

We would like to thank Howard Pell for contacting us after finding our website and writing such an engaging account of his wonderful grandfather, who enjoyed his childhood and many adult years in our lovely three villages. 

 

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A card William posted back to his family in 1909 when he was a coal miner in Kopiah in Washington State