PRIVATE W.L. BLEARS- A GRAVE OFFENCE ? – A local modern twist on a tragic Swinton born First World War soldier’s story.

Please note  – Click on any of my images below to enlarge and see in greater detail.


I was photographing what were the central Salford grand red brick head quarter premises of the Co-Operative Society from the late 1800’s , at the time in a very  poor state  of repair  (since then restored and converted to modern apartment accommodation) a few years back.  I was horrified to see, in a pile or rubble and litter, behind the dilapidated building, these fragments of an early Victorian family grave headstone.  You would like to think that barring mindless acts of vandalism , grave sites and headstones are sacred and ought to be treated with due reverence. but that is not always the case as a recent example on my doorstep attests to.   Very recently I was called upon by a local activist to photograph an interview with BBC Radio news at  a grassed area between two surface car parks behind Swinton Precinct near my home   This was the site of a proposed supermarket  for ASDA-Walmart  the global retail giant   whose plans included the removal of the remains of over three hundred local residents from what was the grave yard of the Swinton Unitarian Chapel .  That site also contained the remains of a local soldier who saw active service twice  in France during the first World War with two different regiments.

The link with the find of the broken headstone at the Co-op headquarters is that the  soldier, Private  Wibraham Lomax Blears  buried on that grassed site with full military honours but his official headstone along with all the others was removed and presumably destroyed   when the chapel was demolished  but a covenant prevented building on the site until  now.   A few years after that Co-op headquarters were built the  family of Edward Blears and Elizabeth Lomax Wilbraham  lived at No 12  Chorley Road , Swinton and , in 1865, a second son,  was born  to them and he eventually was to work for the Eccles  Co-Operative Society in the grocery section of the Swinton branch located on Worsley Road. He would almost certainly have known that old building and maybe even visited it at sometime during his employment.   Here is an image of part of that impressive building before it was restored and re-developed.


As it happens  I come from a military family and my mother , during military service in the ATS during the Second World War was a very good table tennis player and in those days of austerity soldiers would  play competitively in the mess or NAFFI and cap badges were used as prizes. my mother often outplayed male counterparts and gave me her collection when I was about ten. One of those badges  was actually from  the first World War, the very badge that soldiers like Wilbraham Blears would have often polished with pride with “Brasso”  wadding  as I did this morning before photographing it  ( as I had done so often myself as a child so proud of my collection)

By co-incidence I also have in my possession a brass button board which very probably belonged to my father,  Ted Coxon , who saw military service  in ordinance,  motor engineering , armourer and then in the REME (Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers and until today had no idea that the board is also from the First World War .  I researched the patent number on the board and was able to identify it as being dated 1917 so it is highly likely  that Private Blears  had the exact model in his kit issue on enlistment. ( The brass button board acted as a guard when polishing buttons which were attached to his uniform.   The patent number  end with /17 denoting the year.)

Wilbraham  enlisted in the Manchester Regiment February 1916. Once basic training was completed he left for Egypt in the November of that year. After a comparatively short time he was dispatched to France and transferred to The King’s Liverpool Regiment. Early 1917 he was struck down by the debilitating disease “Trench Fever” and spent a period of rehabilitation in hospital ,firstly in Dundee , and later Blackpool. Blears’ elder brother James Edward of the 19th Lancashire Fusiliers too endured a bout of the disease but he survived the war and returned home to Swinton. (Trench Fever I read was first reported in the trenches of the Western Front in December 1914. Upwards of a third of all British troops reporting bad health had developed the disease. Transmitted by body lice symptoms consisted of sudden high fever, severe headache, inflamed eyes and persistent pain in the legs, symptoms similar to those of Typhoid and Influenza. The modern day equivalent of the condition is “Lymes disease.”)

Once recuperated Wilbraham rejoined his battalion fighting on the front line in France for a further six months before being invalided back home towards the end of 1917 suffering from gas poisoning. the Death certificate confirmed that he died from Broncho Pneumonia passing away on Monday 13 th May 1918 at Royd Hall Military Hospital, Lindley, a suburb of Huddersfield in Yorkshire. The funeral with full military honours took place a few days later, his body interred in Swinton Unitarian Church Chapel Yard, Swinton Hall Road, Swinton. A Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstone commemorated Wilbraham’s grave. We are told his death came as a great shock to his parents who were led to believe his condition had been improving. all these details are contained within this copy of his actual death certificate.

The Unitarian church was demolished in 1985 and Wilbraham’s  name was subsequently added on a memorial screen wall dedicated to military casualties of WWI in Southern Cemetery, Manchester. his body though remains where so many of us believe it should remain, where he was buried in his home town. As well the the indignity of exhumation one wonders how can the developers be certain who each set of remains belongs too and it seems so utterly disrespectful to both the descendants of Private Blears and the other families of people buried here are simply collected together  and buried together in some communal marked pit in  another local cemetery for the convenience as savings on costs for the phenomenally wealthy American owned  retail chain , the biggest retailer in the entire world.  To add insult to injury , we hear that the Unitarian Church have actually sold the covenant to the current owners of the Shopping Precinct and thus there is no further barrier to developing this graveyard site other than the matter of ethics which does not appear to come into the thinking of either the struggling owners of the Precinct or the wealthy ASDA-Walmart magnates.  Incidentally Pte. Blears’ body lies alongside   six members of his immediate family and 306 other internments of Swinton people in the Unitarian Chapel Yard , all under threat of removal, the bodies to be relocated elsewhere.  The removal of Private Blears headstone  frees the Commonwealth War Graves commission from any further responsibility. It is I think possible that at least the remains would be re-interred in the local Swinton public cemetery rather than elsewhere in the City.

In Memoriam (Lest We Forget)

Comment.  I am not personally convinced that adding another large supermarket in Swinton Town Centre will bring the promised community benefits or many new jobs as supermarkets often prefer part-timers who come at less cost through for example having fewer employment rights. ASDA- Walmart have already taken over a former Netto store maybe a mile from the proposed new site and will no doubt close that unit and transfer existing staff to the  new build superstore. The Local Authority do not seem in any way opposed to the development or prepared to  take issue over the unnecessary removal of the remains of locally interred residents. Currently the actual privately owned Precinct is struggling to survive with a number of units already  going out of business and yet recently increased rentals have made it even harder for local businesses . Increased traffic problems will ensue and parking problems will increase. There is already a large supermarket a stone’s throw  from the site, Morrisons,  and a recently enlarged Aldi supermarket just a stroll away. Construction work will take some of the existing units with loss of jobs and will entail closing the large existing car park for roughly six months with dire consequences for all the businesses currently trading on the Precint from which they are unlikely to recover or even survive.  ASDA -Walmart have been dismissive of the issues , apparently calling the grave yard site a neglected waste ground when in fact the grass is well maintained. the owner’s of the Precinct did remove the notice which announced that the grassed area was a grave yard and without action initiated by one or two concerned residents  no respect whatsoever would have been paid in terms of the dignity of those interred and the feelings of their surviving families. I also see no justification for removing any of the bodies or say converting it to a memorial garden and also restoring an appropriate  memorial of some kind for Private Blears in the home where he was born and where he is buried with his immediate family.  I hear there is , as far as I can ascertain,  no legal barrier to this development  although I have no idea why the Council did not dismiss the application as soon as it was sent in. With luck and the help of the media and gathering local support, the moral issue will take precedence over avarice and business interests  of a foreign owned global market dominating corporate because so many people have expressed disgust and dismay at what they  see of unwelcome desecration of a burial ground. Private Blears in a sense is the focus of that dismay given he did not die of natural causes but from the rigours of War. ( some of those buried were the young boys and men victims of an horrific local coal mining disaster. )  The building of new premises is a matter for planning legislation but the movement of human remains very much falls into  a different legal framework which one can only hope will be fully explored and lead either to the planning application being dismissed or full and due attention paid to the identification of all individual remains and appropriate and dignified  arrangements being made for their re-interment solely at the expense of the developers since their removal only serves their business interests .

Some information here is used with due acknowledgement  to Salford War Memorials Project and Salford Local History library for access to the burial records of Swinton Unitarian Church and copies of the Eccles Journal.

Links :-

Salford War Memorials Project  (website forum)

Salford War Memorials Project (SWARM Facebook)

No to Asda at Swinton Precinct Facebook Group!


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