John Smitheman was born on 18th February 1890 in Tipton Staffordshire.  He was the third child for parents Stephen and Maria.  In 1891 the family are living at Lea Brook in Tipton, his father Stephen is a puddler working in an iron works.

An iron puddler or (often merely puddler) is an occupation in iron manufacturing. The process of puddling was the occupation’s chief responsibility. Puddling was an improved process to convert pig iron into wrought iron.

Working as a two-man crew, a puddler and helper could produce about 3300lb (1500kg) of iron in a 12-hour shift. The strenuous labor, heat and fumes caused puddlers to have a short life expectancy, with most dying in their 30s. Puddling was never automated because the puddler had to sense when the balls had “come to nature.” puddler

According to the 1891 census the family were living at Lea Brook in Tipton.

condensed1891 census

By 1901 elder sister Annie has left home and was working as a domestic servant for two spinster sisters in Walsall, and ‘living in’.  John now 12 years old, has two younger siblings, a sister Ellen born in 1894 and Thomas born in 1898.  The family have moved and are living at 20 Eagle St in Tipton. Older brother Joseph has left school and at 17 is working.

In 1910 John marries Emily Wells in Dudley, and by the time of the 1911 census they were living at Aston Street Tipton. What is surprising is that John is the head of the household which includes himself, his wife and his parents, who are now living with him together with his brother Thomas.  His father, Stephen, has changed his occupation to miner working underground after many years working as a puddler!  Puddling was hazardous to health but working underground couldn’t have been much easier for Stephen at 57 years of age. John is working in the iron works. He put down the name of the iron works as Shears, but I think he worked for the British Iron Company which had several different sites in Dudley, (Shears were members of the board some years earlier).

better iron works picture

Picture of the ironworks in the Black Country (copyright the Black Country Museum).


Some time after this census was taken the family moved to Old Whittington and were living at Newbridge Lane Old Whittington.  I assume John would have come to Chesterfield for work and was possibly employed at Sheepbridge Coal and Iron Co.

After some research I found a reference to John Smitheman on the Great War Forum, which reads as follows-

“Moves to the Chesterfield, Whittington area 1911/12 along with his parents and about 8 other members of the family”.

There is a good chance that this would include his parents and his brother Thomas and possibly his brother Joseph and their family.

John and Emily had three children, Ellen B born in 1911 in Dudley, John T born in Chesterfield on 31st July 1912 and baptised on 21st August 1912 at Old Whittington church and Alfred S born 10th October 1914 and baptised at Old Whittington on 8th November 1914. The baptism register gives an idea of where the family were living, in 1912 they lived at 52 Nelson Road Newbold but by the time of Alfred’s baptism they had moved to 32 Newbridge Street, Old Whittington,  John’s occupation is given as forgeman.

John and his brother Joseph joined the Notts and Derbyshire Regiment with service numbers  21459 and 21457 respectively.  This would indicate they probably enlisted at the same time.

John enlisted in Chesterfield and again the family story goes on to say that “he was persuaded to enlist by his older brother Joseph”.  The brothers enlisted early in January 1915 in the 2nd Battalion Notts and Derbyshire regiment.  Both brothers were sent to France in August 1915 and would have arrived in France just at the end of the action at Hooge,which the 2nd Battalion were involved in.

The war diaries November 1915 don’t paint a pretty  picture of what life was like in the trenches.  The Battalion were in the Ypres area and the report states that none of the trenches were watertight, not even Headquarters,  the author of the diary goes on to say, “ A truly cheerful start of the winter campaign”. The battalion size is reported as 28 officers and 972 other ranks.  November appears to have been a very wet month and the trenches were in a bad state, every day there were reports of men going off sick.

At the end of November the Battalion were sent back to billets in Poperhinge, but when they arrived they found the billets very dirty. Whilst at Poperhinge they took part in compulsory church parade and  then much of the time was taken up with training.

map of poperhinge

Map showing the area where John was based

Map taken from

An idea of the battalion activities for end November 1915:

programme of acivites

December 1915 and they  were sent back to the trenches, the weather was no better still wet and very cold. The 2nd battalion spent Christmas Day in the trenches!  This would seem to be how John’s life in France would have been for much of the time.  Days at the front then back in billets cleaning themselves up and more training.

John Smitheman died of his wounds on 8th March 1916.  According to the newspaper report of his death he was shot on February 19th when leaving the trenches, he was just about to start a home leave. He was shot in the head and never regained consciousness.  John must have been taken to one of the military hospitals around Etaples as he is buried in the Military cemetery at Etaples.

d courier

The report in the Courier 18th March 1916 lists John as Smitheson instead of Smitheman!

As you can see from the newspaper report, John left “a widow and two children, another child having been buried a few days ago”.  The child buried was his daughter Ellen who died in early 1916.    This must have been a terrible time for the whole family, but especially for Emily Smitheman who had lost her eldest child and her husband within a few weeks of each other!

Another report in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph 17th March 1916 is a little bit more graphic.

shff daily telegra17 march 1916

Consequently, Emily moved back to the Black Country, to Wednesbury and probably to her family to grieve.  The grave report for John shows that she was living in Wednesbury.

grave reg

The Military cemetery at Etaples is  the largest Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery in France.  More information at

Etaples 1

John was awarded the Victory and British war medals along with the 14/15 Star.

medal card

John’s Medal Index card

John Smitheman was 26 years old when he died, he is remembered on the Old Whittington and the Brushes war memorials. He is also remembered on the war memorial at Wednesbury.

wednesbury war mem

Picture taken from

good head and shoulders

memorial plaque to john and daughter

(Photograph kindly supplied by Terry Smitheman – Johns grandson)

Emily remarried in 1917 and went on to have five more children.  In 1939  she was still living in Wednesbury and died there in 1966. Her second husband Richard Glover died in 1939.   John’s sons John Thomas and Alfred Stephen were living at home with their widowed mother when the 1939 pre-war census was taken.

John’s parents remained in Chesterfield and died there.  Joseph, Johns brother who supposedly encouraged him to enlist survived the war and died in Lichfield in 1966.


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