A KIND-HEARTED war hero who lost his business after helping the hungry of the Great Depression is the focus of today’s Wearside Echoes.
WORKHOUSE boy turned Great War hero Thomas Chapman was bombed, shelled and shot three times on the battlefields of Europe as he fought for King and Country.
But despite witnessing the horrors of the Somme – and losing many of his comrades to brutal trench warfare – the Millfield lad never became hardened to life.
Indeed, on his return to civvy street the kind-hearted grocer made it his mission to help others – ultimately paying the price of kindness by losing his Hylton Road store.
“My grandfather was a lovely man – strict, yes, but always fair. He hated to see people go hungry. He just couldn’t say no to those in need,” said Alan Chapman.
Tom, the youngest son of six children, was born to labourer John and his wife Emily in 1890. His early years were spent in Pemberton Street, Bishopwearmouth.
By the time of the 1901 census, however, William was dead and Emily – with little to live on – had placed Tom and his older brother Joseph in the Union Workhouse.
“My grandfather later returned to live with his family and in 1911 he was sharing two rooms with them at 44 Nile Street. He was a grocery assistant by then,” said Alan.
“Two years later he married my grandmother Ethel Watson and moved to 41 Booth Street in Millfield. They stayed for more than 50 years – and I lived with them for a time.”
When war was declared in 1914, Tom was exempt from call-up as a married man. He still chose, however, to serve his country – despite leaving behind two children.
Initially, the grocer signed up with 3rd Durham Light Infantry, but later transferred to 18th DLI for fighting duty. After training in the UK, he was shipped off to France.
“He was sent straight to the front line, where he was the company runner – one of the most dangerous battlefield jobs, as you had to operate in No Man’s Land,” said Alan.
“When running with a note, he used to hold it in his mouth – so that he could chew it and swallow it down quickly if he got caught by the enemy. It was that dangerous.
“When a flare went up, it used to light up the whole battleground. If anyone was running with a message when that happened, they had to stop and stand stock still.
“They just couldn’t move, if they valued their life, until the flare finally died down – because even our side would shoot at them. It is a wonder he managed to survive.”
Tom saw action at some of the bloodiest battles of the Great War, including the Somme – a conflict of such tragedy he would never forget the scenes he witnessed.
“He told me the Somme was so muddy that people who had been blown or shot into the mud just couldn’t get out. They were sucked further and further in,” said Alan.
“These soldiers would be yelling and screaming out for help, but sadly nothing could be done – as anyone trying to rescue them would be dragged into the mud as well.”
Tom fought right through the war until May 1919, when he was discharged as unfit for military service – after suffering gunshot wounds to his hand, hip and foot.
He was awarded the British War Medal and the Allied Victory Medal for his wartime heroics – as well as the Silver War Medal for having been wounded in battle.
“My grandad had his finger shot off at one point,” said Alan. “Apparently, the bullet went through the heart of one of his officers first. It killed the officer, then hit Tom.
“Grandad really was lucky to survive, but, back at home, my grandmother Ethel was left very badly off. She would feed her children, but often couldn’t afford to feed herself.”
Once Thomas was finally demobbed, he used his war pension to open a grocery shop in Hylton Road, opposite Rutland Street. His compassion, however, shone through.
“It was tough for many people during the depression of the 1920s and 1930s, and he was very soft on families who had no means of paying for their food,” said Alan.
“He just couldn’t say no – it wasn’t in his nature. If a family needed bread, he gave it. Eventually, he could no longer pay his suppliers – and was obliged to discontinue.”
Thomas was forced to sell out to a company specialising in buying debts, but he still managed to find another job – as a manager for London and Newcastle Tea Company.
He later worked for a Vine Place grocer before retiring in 1955 – when he and Ethel enjoyed 20 years of quality time, until dying within a month of each other in 1975.
“My grandfather was a good-hearted, friendly man, who always gave credit where credit was due – and hated to see people suffer,” said Alan, now of Nottinghamshire.
“If the horrors of war affected him at all, he didn’t let on. He was pretty stoic – but he would never knowingly let anyone go hungry or needy. He always wanted to help.
“He was a wonderful man, a grandfather to be really proud of.”
•Do you have a First World War story to tell? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.