Church bells ring out to mark 100 years since Sunderland war hero’s death

Cecil Oversby Sayer
Cecil Oversby Sayer
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The death of a Wearside bellringer has been marked at a historic Wearside church - 100 years to the day he lost his life after being wounded in battle.

Cecil Oversby Sayer, a lecturer at Sunderland Day Training College, was fatally injured during the Second Battle of Ypres on May 24, 1915. He died, a prisoner of the Germans, on June 7.

Cecil Oversby Sayer pictured as a baby.

Cecil Oversby Sayer pictured as a baby.

His sacrifice for King and Country is marked by a memorial at Kortrijk Cemetery, in West Flanders, but Cecil was also remembered on Sunday at Holy Trinity Church - where he was a bellringer before the war.

“Bellringers from Durham and Newcastle Diocesan Association of Church Bellringers rang a quarter peal at 12.30pm to commemorate his life,” said Central District ringing master Ellen Crabtree.

“This is part of our project Ringing to Remember, which will be commemorating the lives of 41 bellringers from the North East who were killed during the war.”

Cecil Sayer, son of music teacher John and his wife Elizabeth, was born in 1885 at Kirkby Stephen, Westmoreland - now Cumbria - and educated at Appleby Grammar School.

His wife received a postcard from Cecil which said he was twice wounded on May 24 in a severe engagement and lay for 48 hours before being picked up by Germans.

Yvonne Cairns, a local researcher and bellringer

At 17 he won the Gunson Exhibition, which provided £50 for three years for college fees, and accepted a place at Queen’s College, Cambridge - where he was a top cricketer. A career as a maths lecturer followed.

The year 1910 saw Cecil marry his fiancé Ethel Edward. Shortly afterwards he moved to Sunderland and joined the 7th Battalion of Durham Light Infantry - then a Territorial Force.

In 1913 he won promotion to 2nd Lieutenant and in August 1914, when was broke out, he became a fulltime soldier - helping with coastal defences until posted to France in 1915.

Action at the Second Battle of Ypres followed and, during the Battle of Bellewaare Ridge on May 24, Cecil was wounded. He lay on the battlefield for 48 hours before being captured by German soldiers, and died just two weeks later.

More than 350 of his comrades died during the same battle, most poisoned by gas, and 7,000 gas casualties were reported. The battle was not a success, and the Allies were forced to retreat.

Cecil was initially reported missing by the Territorial Office, but a later message stated that the soldier - eldest of five brothers serving in the forces - had been wounded and captured.

“His wife received a postcard from Cecil which said he was twice wounded on May 24 in a severe engagement and lay for 48 hours before being picked up by Germans,” said Yvonne Cairns, a local researcher and bellringer.

“Sadly, it took the postcard over 50 days to reach its destination and by the time his wife received it, he would already have been dead.”

l The roots of Holy Trinity Church date to the industrial boom of the late 17th century, when keel-boats lined the river, factories and timber-yards mushroomed and hundreds of people sought homes in the area.

But, although business was booming, the new town of Sunderland did not have a parish church. Worshippers had to walk to St Michael’s, in the neighbouring village of Bishopwearmouth, if they wanted to attend services.

Eventually, the leading men of Sunderland decided to rectify this. In 1712 they got up a petition for a church and parish of their own, and this was finally agreed by an Act of Parliament in 1719 - by which time Holy Trinity was almost complete.

Just a few months later, on September 5, it was consecrated by the Bishop of London. The new parish church was to play a key role in shaping modern Sunderland and became the first seat of local government, as well as the town’s first public library, a court, fire station and place of worship.

But, following dwindling congregations and mounting bills, it eventually closed.

Today the church is managed by the Churches Conservation Trust, and plans are underway to transform it into a community space. Volunteers are being sought for the project - contact Amanda Gerry on 0788 1106330.