I thought I would start to take a look at the names on the Cardiff High WWI memorial plaque. I’ve made a slow start. The first name on the memorial is “J L Davies. Essex Regt (Headmaster 1915)”. It’s a sad story, as are all that lie behind war memorial names.
The war memorial plaque was originally displayed at the old Cardiff High School on Newport Road but now sited at Cardiff High School on Llandennis Road. It was dedicated in its original position on 22nd Nov 1922, relocated to the new Cardiff High School building in 1970 and rededicated on 30th June 2006 after being restored and remounted.
J L Davies was Major John Llewelyn Davies. He was born in the picturesque village of St Ishmael, near Ferryside in Carmarthenshire in 1879. His father, David Davies, was a schoolmaster. Sometime in the next ten years David Davies moved to Neath where he became headmaster of what is now called the Alderman Davies school, more famous these days for being where Katherine Jenkins started he education.
John Llewelyn Davies attended his father’s school in Neath as did probably his five siblings. After school he then went on to study at Aberystwyth University and then Emmanuel College, Cambridge. He graduated with First Class honours in Natural Science and went on to gain an M.A.
On leaving Cambridge, John went as lecturer to Carmarthen Training College (Trinity College) for a short period, and subsequently became science master at the Perse School, Cambridge. As a schoolmaster, Major Davies was thorough and successful, enjoying great popularity among his boys and colleagues. His pupils gained many open scholarships at universities.
As well as having a passion for science, John Llewelyn Davies was dedicated to the military. Whilst teaching in Cambridge he spent seven years as a Lieutenant in the Officers Training Corps. When the war broke out he gave up his post at Perse School and joined the 11th Essex Regiment as Captain of A Company.
In April 1915 he was promoted to the rank of Major. In May he was appointed as Headmaster of Cardiff High School. It was agreed that he would take up his post when the war was over. On 17th August 1915 he was married to Isabel Christina Jessie Fraser B.A. in Wrexham. Christina, a teacher, worked at the Training College in Bingley, Yorkshire. On 30 August 1915, just thirteen days after he was married, John Llewelyn Davies and his battalion landed at Boulogne, and proceeded to positions at Loos.
On 25th September 1915, Major John Llewelyn Davies is killed on the first day of the battle of Loos in France, one of the bloodiest battles of WWI where 60,000 British soldiers perished. He was aged 35. He has no known burial site.
One of his fellow officers wrote “He was very much a fine soldier and all had such implicit confidence in him. He was so capable and absolutely to be relied upon. The regiment feels very much his loss for he was one of the ablest officers”.
John Llewelyn Davies is remembered on a number of War Memorials. As well as the Cardiff High School memorial his name also appears on memorials at Aberystwyth University, Trinity College Carmarthen and Perse School Cambridge as well as the Loos Memorial at Dud Corner Cemetery, France.
His wife of just one month, Christina, continued her teaching career and never did remarry, and lived into her eighties. She passed away in Chirk, Denbighshire in 1964.
The probate of Major John Llewelyn Davies details that the executor was his bother Richard Jones Davies. The probate also states that he died as Wesel in Germany.
One newspaper report states that the brother, Richard Jones Davies lived in Llanishen, so maybe there was a connection to Cardiff after all. I tried to find Richard Davies in Cardiff in the 1911 Census but failed. It turns out he was at the time in hospital in Pinewood, Wokingham, Berkshire. Pinewood hospital was a place for those recovering from tuberculosis, a not uncommon disease at the time.
So Major John Llewelyn Davies never got to take up his post as Headmaster of Cardiff High School. Judging by his prior achievements I’m sure he would have been very successful in that role. A sad loss to his family and to Cardiff High School.
After publishing this blog post Gwyn Prescott (rugby and military historian) was kind enough to share with me his bio on Major J L Davies. It contained some interesting additional information:
- The Red Cross reported that Major John Llewelyn Davies had died of wounds in German hands at Wesel, Germany. A fellow officer wrote: “He was such a fine soldier, and [all his men] had such implicit confidence in him. He was so capable and absolutely to be relied on. The regiment feels very much his loss, for he was one of the ablest officers.” His official date of death is given as 25th September 1915, the day on which the Battle of Loos opened. However, it appears that he may have been mortally wounded on the 26th and, as he died in Germany as a prisoner of war, his death must have occurred later. He was 36. His grave was subsequently lost so he is commemorated on the Loos Memorial to the Missing, Dud Corner, France. He is also commemorated on war memorials in Aberystwyth University; Emmanuel College Cambridge; Perse School Cambridge; and the Royal Society of Chemistry, Burlington House, London.
Gwyn Prescott also made me aware that J L Davies was a Chemist. When I had read that he graduated with degrees in natural science I had assumed he was a biologist or alike, forgetting that Cambridge University natural science degrees cover a breadth of scientific topics. Being a chemist myself I realised when I read his name is remembered on the memorial at Royal Society of Chemistry offices in Burlington House that I would have walked past his name on a number of occasions.
I’m a great believer in not only sharing the findings from research but also the methods of how to go about conducting that research. I’m by no means an expert and there are others far more expert than me out there in Cardiff.
Researching names on war memorials isn’t always straightforward. In Wales there are a lot of common surnames making things tricky. On war memorials it is often only the initials and surname quoted. And beware, sometimes errors are made even in spelling a name etc.
At least in the case of the Cardiff High war memorial plaque the regiment names are quoted which can help. In the case therefore of ‘J L Davies. Essex Regt’, the first thing I did was to see if he was listed on the Commonwealth War Graves. There were a number of matches J L Davies’s but only one in WWI in the Essex Regiment and he was Major John Llewelyn Davies. I’m still not convinced however at this stage that I have the right person.
I then spent quite a long time looking for a John Llewelyn Davies in Cardiff on the census records. A census is carried out once ever ten years in England and Wales but the information kept secret for a hundred years. The last census therefore available for us to study is the 1911 census. A sort of census was carried out in September 1939 but detailing a lot less information but is also available and called the 1939 Register. Let me clarify by what I mean when I say ‘available’. Census records are most easily searched and accessed using the two main family history websites Ancestry and Find my Past. Unfortunately, both these are subscription websites. Don’t get despondent, there’s good news. Both can be accessed free of charge in Cardiff libraries.
So I search for John Llewelyn Davies in Cardiff in the census information and find nothing. This is where I made a mistake. I should have probably just done and internet search for ‘John Llewelyn Davies’ and ‘Cardiff High School’ where I would probably have discovered that others had carried out similar research. Instead I just kept looking for a John Llewelyn Davies on census records but without a date of birth things were proving tricky. Eventually I found one born in Ferryside and had a father who was a schoolmaster. Then I found him in the 1911 census as a schoolmaster in Cambridge which would explain him being a member of the Essex Regiment. Things were beginning to fit together. A couple more bits were obtained from Wales Newspapers Online and then back to some more general searching using Google (other internet search engines are available!).
I won’t bore you with every avenue I took during my search but I did enjoy doing it. If you are interested in starting off or honing your skills I can recommend the Glamorgan Family History Society. They periodically run courses for beginners and have a session on the first Saturday of the month at Cardiff Central Library for more experienced researchers who may have hit a brick wall in their particular project. A number of Cardiff libraries also run sessions for beginners such as Cathays and Rhydypennau and maybe some others.
My final recommendation is a train trip to Ferryside and St Ishmael, the birthplace of Major John Llewelyn Davies. I went there earlier this year and the views across the estuary to Llansteffan and Laugharne were something else. Don’t forget to tell the train conductor you want to get off however as Ferryside is a request stop. More about that trip on my own blog Cardiff Capers.