THIS year marks a century since the start of World War One. Features writer GAYLE McBAIN speaks to one man who lost relatives in the terrifying Zeppelin raid on the town — and tells of his battle to trace his family’s history.
A TRAGIC tale of one family’s loss during World War One was endured much closer to home than the muddy trenches of northern France.
The Irwin family’s suffering was right here in Bolton when a bomb fell in the night, killing 13 people and destroying six homes.
And now grandson Geoff Irwin has been able to trace his family’s grave — thanks to help from The Bolton News.
Little Ellen Margaret Irwin was just two-and-a-half years old when she lost her life. Her 44-year-old mother, Bridget Ellen, would die clutching her baby daughter, according to a report in the Bolton Chronicle at the time.
Ellen and her brothers and sisters, Joe, Annie, Jack and Letitia, had been tucked up in bed for the night, thankfully blissfully unaware of the horror that was just hours away.
Bridget’s husband, Joseph, would have been exhausted after a busy day working as a bricklayer in Bolton. He and his wife had moved to Bolton from Sligo in Ireland for a better life.
The family not doubt enjoyed an evening meal in the kitchen of their terraced home before the children headed for bed, followed by their parents.
They would all be fast asleep when the bombs hit in the early hours.
Today, Bridget and Joseph’s grandson, 74-year-old Geoff, who lives in Heaton, wants their tragic story to be told. The engineering worker said: “I think it is important we never forget World War One and the innocent people who lost their lives.”
In the early hours of September 26, 1916, five bombs were dropped over rows of terraced houses in Kirk Street and John Street. Bridget’s husband, Joseph, Joe, Annie Jack and Letitia would survive this dreadful ordeal, but little Ellen and her mother did not.
When the gigantic German airship — a naval Zeppelin L21, flew over Bolton — it would not have been heard by the Irwin family and their neighbours. Zeppelins were virtually silent, but deadly, machines that would bring devastation to Britain and, on this occasion, the people of Bolton.
When the bombs dropped on Kirk Street there was a dramatic scramble to safety by five members of the Irwin family who, it is thought, were dragged from the rubble by rescuers, but Ellen and Bridget are believed to have been killed straightaway.
Geoff Irwin’s father, Jack (John) was Ellen’s brother and he survived that horrific night.
The German airship would have been a terrifying sight. It was almost 600 feet long and 60 feet in diameter.
The bombs caused the most devastation to No 58 Kirk Street, where the Irwins lived, and their neighbours’ homes at numbers 60, 62 and 64.
These were neighbours who, undoubtedly, chatted over their garden walls, borrowed cups of sugar from each other and helped out in times of crisis. This would be a crisis that would rip the heart out of their community.
Geoff said his father never talked about what had happened on that dreadful night and he only found out about it by chance after reading a book about zeppelins he bought from Sweetens Bookshop in Bolton.
He said: “I knew nothing about it. I think it must have been so dreadful that he just never wanted to mention it again. I was shocked to discover my family had been bombed.”
The airship was commanded by Kurt Frankenburg who was, he says, an experienced German officer and had a crew of 17. The zeppelin carried a huge load of explosive and high incendiary bombs.
The zeppelin was actually lost and it is thought Frankenburg believed he was flying over Derby. He had already dropped bombs over Holcombe, Rossendale and Ramsbottom, and a further two incendiaries over Greenmount in Bury that night.
The next bomb destroyed a terraced house in Lodge Vale, but the three women who lived there escaped with shock and minor injuries.
Incendiaries fell on Waldeck Street and Chorley Old Road. From there the airship passed over Queens Park, the River Croal and the railway lines.
Another incendiary fell on Wellington Street, setting a house on fire and trapping a woman and two children in an upstairs bedroom. Thankfully, the fire brigade were able to save them.
At this point no-one had been badly hurt.
Frankenburg, possibly aiming at the Eagle Mill, then dropped the five bombs over Kirk and John Streets. These rows of terraced houses connected Deane Road and Derby Street at the point where the University of Bolton and College Way now stand. There six houses were destroyed and 13 people were killed.
The Bolton Evening News of the day reported the event. The bombs had “wrenched doors clean off their hinges and hurled them into rooms beyond. All windows were shattered and even the frames splintered”.
Shrapnel was gouged into the brick fronts of the houses and one resident was thrown clean across the room and knocked out.
The neighbours who died alongside Bridget and Ellen were Michael and Martha O’Hara, who were next door neighbours at No 60 Kirk Street. Michael was an iron worker and was aged 42 and Martha was 41.
William and Ann McDermott and their five-year-old daughter, Mary Ellen, also died. They lived at No 62, next to the O’Haras. William was aged 42 and a furnaceman and Ann was 36. They were all buried in Tonge Cemetery.
Mr and Mrs James Allison and their lodgers, Frederick Guildford and David Davis, at No 64, were killed too. Mr Guildford is buried in Heaton Cemetery. He died at the Bolton Royal Infirmary and was 62. He was a packing case maker. Mr Davis, aged 39, was a coal heaver. He is buried in Tonge Cemetery.
Elizabeth Gregory, aged 42, of 66 Kirk Street and her 17-year-old daughter, Ellen are buried in Heaton Cemetery. Elizabeth’s husband, Robert, and their five-year-old son escaped.
Joseph Irwin and his four children were rescued from their home. There were five people seriously injured and a horse was killed in Back John Street.
Relays of firemen and volunteer rescuers worked through the night and the survivors were taken to Flash Street Special School.
But Frankenburg and his men had not finished with the town yet. The airship swung in a tight turn, passing over Great Moor Street, the junction of Deansgate, Spa Road, Moor Lane and Marsden Road, passing near the Bolton Royal Infirmary and then dropped a bomb on a flower bed in Queens Park.
Then turning south it passed over Gilnow Mill, it recrossed the railway lines and dropped bombs on Rope Walk in Washington Street and the Co-op Laundry in Back Deane Road. Although there was damage to properties, no-one was hurt.
It then crossed Deane Road and flew over Quebec Street and Cannon Street before arriving at Ormerod and Hardcastle Mill in Daubhill. Here an incendiary bomb started a fire which was put out by the mill’s sprinkler system.
Another bomb broke windows and smashed the back privies in Parrot and Apple Streets.
Frankenburg then turned north and dropped a bomb that hit Trinity Church but failed to explode. The last three bombs of this raid were scattered around Bolton Town Hall, hitting Mawdsley Street, Ashburner Street and Mealhouse Lane.
Then it left Bolton and headed back to its base in Nordholz. The zeppelin and the pilot who had caused such devastation to Bolton would be shot down two months later over the Yorkshire coast with the loss of all men on board.
Almost six months earlier, the Zeppelin L21 had attacked Cleethorpes, dropping several bombs on the town just after midnight.
One landed on the Alexandra Road Baptist Chapel, killing 31 soldiers of the 3rd Battalion the Manchester Regiment, who were billeted there. It was one of the only British Army units to be directly engaged by enemy action on British soil during the war.
The story of how Bolton dealt with this unexpected event is thought to have been varied.
Apparently people rushed on to the streets — some were scared, some angry, but some were simply curious. They had never seen anything like this before.
The bomb site would draw crowds in for days following the disaster, with some people travelling from as far afield as Liverpool to survey the damage.
While the tiny houses would bear the brunt of the bombing, Holy Trinity Church in Trinity Street was also hit during the raid.
At 8.30am on September 26, 1916, verger Thomas Sanderson opened the doors to the church to discover a hole in the roof and bits of a bomb that had broken open on impact but not exploded.
He immediately reported his discovery to the vicar and went to Bolton Town Hall to make a report to the police.
This bombing on Bolton was part of a raiding party of seven zeppelins that crossed the British coastline at 9.45pm on Monday, September 25, and left at 3.05 am the next day.
Rumour has it that one little Bolton girl, whose sixth birthday was on the day of the raid, looked out of her bedroom window and said to her sister: “Oh look? A beautiful big balloon for my birthday.”
While we can never prove or disprove this story one thing is certain — the lives of the Irwin family had changed forever.
The grave of neighbours William and Ann McDermott and their little daughter, Mary Ellen, is just a few steps away from that of Bridget and Ellen Irwin in Tonge Cemetery.
Perhaps those neighbours who had survived this dreadful night will have gathered at both gravesides to pay their last respects at funerals held at the end of September and early October, in 1916.
The funerals appear to have been held on different days — it would give family, friends and neighbours the opportunity to be present at the funerals of those who had died alongside their own.
Geoff Irwin made an emotional trip to the graveside of his grandmother and aunt to lay flowers and remember the family members he never knew.
In a peaceful, sunlit, Tonge Cemetery he laid a bouquet of pink flowers.
He has no photographs of his family — they lost everything when their home was destroyed — but now he has a place to remember them.
He said: “It has been an important visit for me and I am pleased to have been able to see where my grandmother and my aunt are buried.
“It is such a sad story but it is one that needs to be told.
“I imagine my father simply blocked out what had happened to him. He lost his mother and his sister and probably never wanted to relive that awful night.”
• Thanks to help from Bolton Council we were able to find the graves of those who died in the bombing.
The Bolton News has traced the graves of most of the other victims of this devastating night and wonder if there are any descendants in Bolton who would want to share memories with us.
A headstone marks the spot where Frederick Guildford is buried in Heaton Cemetery. He is buried with his 14-year-old daughter, Harriet, who died in 1894.
There is no headstone to mark the grave of Elizabeth and Ellen Gregory, but it is clear someone has tended the grave in recent years as artificial flowers have been laid there and small stones with the words “loving wife” and “grandma” on them.
The gravestone of William and Ann McDermott and their daughter Mary Ellen is overgrown and the lettering is fading, but it is possible to just make out a reference to them being “killed” as a result of an aircraft.
Anyone looking for cemetery records can do so by accessing deceasedonline.co.uk where all Bolton cemetery records are now kept. The records contain information about graves in the town’s cemeteries but not in church graveyards.
If you are a descendant of any of the victims of this tragedy please get in touch with Gayle McBain on 01204 537269 or email firstname.lastname@example.org