Shelled, shot and bombed – a survivor’s tale

WAR HERO: Ralph Purvis in uniform.
WAR HERO: Ralph Purvis in uniform.
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WEARSIDE laundryman Ralph Park Purvis was shelled, shot at and bombed on the battlefields of Europe during the First World War – but lived to tell the tale.

Now the treasure trove of memorabilia he saved during his time in the conflict has been donated to Sunderland Antiquarian Society – including his demob bowler hat.

FUN TIMES: Ralph and his comrades enjoying a break from the conflict during a Garrison Sports Day at Dieppe in France in August 1915.

FUN TIMES: Ralph and his comrades enjoying a break from the conflict during a Garrison Sports Day at Dieppe in France in August 1915.

“It is an absolutely marvellous wartime collection, and includes everything from knives to battlefield drinking cups and postcards,” said member Norman Kirtlan.

“To receive a donation like this, in the year Britain is marking the 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War, is wonderful. I’m sure it will be of interest to many.”

Ralph, the son of sawmill labourer George Purvis and his wife Elizabeth, was born in Monkwearmouth on February 12, 1889 – third youngest of nine brothers and sisters.

His early childhood was spent at 56 Brandling Street but, by 1901, the family were at 68 Laburnum Road. Just three years later – aged 14 – Ralph found work as a butcher.

A career change saw Ralph switch from butchery for laundry within a few years, and he went on to make headlines by driving Wearside’s first horse-drawn laundry van.

But, just two years after starting a job at Roker Laundering Company in 1912, war was declared. Ralph married his sweetheart Mary, then signed up to fight.

A reference for the army from his managing director read: “Ralph, of 20 East Whickham Street, has been in my employ for 14 months as vanman and horse-keeper.

“During that time he has given every satisfaction and is thoroughly reliable.”

A posting with the Army Remount Service followed Ralph’s initial enlistment in February 1915 – where he helped train horses and mules for battlefield service.

But he was then transferred to the Northumberland Fusiliers in August 1916, seeing action at the bloody Battle of the Somme as part of the British Expeditionary Force.

Within months, however, he was on the move again – this time to the Machine Gun Corps, which earned the nickname of the Suicide Club due to high casualty numbers.

“Unfortunately, no detailed records of Ralph’s wartime service have survived,” said Norman. “But his postcards from across France at least show where he was posted.

“He appears – or perhaps it was his wife Mary – to have saved all manner of memorabilia from the Great War. It all adds up to a fascinating glimpse of war life.”

Ralph’s army career finally came to a halt on July 7, 1918, when the 5ft 4in private was discharged after three years and 140 days as ‘no longer physically fit for service’.

His army medical notes reveal he had a distinctive mark on his right arm – possibly a shotgun injury – and he was later awarded a Silver War Badge as a tribute to his wounds.

“Ralph was indeed a lucky man to have survived the war, particularly his time in the Machine Gun Corps – which was an incredibly dangerous posting,” said Norman.

“To now have his medals and the wounded badge he would have worn on the streets of Sunderland – thanks to donors Ian and Linda Welford – is a great honour for us.”

Ralph went back to Roker Laundry after being wounded, clocking up more than 50 years of laundry service before finally retiring in his sixties. He died in 1975.

“He had an amazing life and, through the memorabilia he collected, his memory will live on. The society will help preserve it for future generations,” said Norman.

“I now hope that others will follow Ian and Linda’s lead and let us be the guardians of their own family memories. Each donation makes Sunderland a little bit richer.”

•The Antiquarian archives can be viewed at 6 Douro Terrace on Wednesday and Saturday mornings. All donations, from single photos to collections, welcome.