GEORGE THOMAS DEVANEY
A problem arose when researching the life of this soldier – the spelling of his surname. The Frankby parish memorial spells it with two “ns”, whereas other records spell it with one. When we learn that the name is Irish and was originally spelled either “O’Duibheamhna” or “O’Duibheannaigh”, a roving “n” in the Anglicisation of the name would appear to be a minor inconvenience. George’s grandfather, Cornelius Devany, an agricultural labourer from Westport in County Mayo, was the founder of the Wirral branch of the family. Interestingly, the 1861 census records him as living on Pemberton Green in Neston, where 39 of the 96 residents (nearly 41%) were Irish. It is possible that, rather than being emigrants to Liverpool who had later settled in Wirral, they had come directly to Wirral via Parkgate.
George’s parents were John (born in Neston in about 1871) and Sarah (born in Neston in about 1873). Most of their 13 children were born in Neston, but the family moved northwards along the peninsula until, in 1911, they were living in their four-roomed Ivy Cottage in Greasby. That is when they reported that four of their children had died in infancy. However, only four of the nine survivors – Edward, James, George and Ethel – were living in the family home.
The father and his sons were all bricklayers. Edward served in the Royal Garrison Artillery during the War and James in the Royal Engineers. He was killed in 1918.
George attended St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic School in Upton and was taught by a Canon Dallow. He was a very good all-round sportsman who excelled at football and sprinting and always liked to keep fit. His first football club was Gilbrook Mission, presumably based at Gilbrook Square in Birkenhead. He then played for Hoylake, Wrexham and finally Tranmere Rovers. The Deeside Advertiser of 17th November 1916 said that “at Prenton Park he was simply unbeatable, many of his saves being executed in a manner which stamped him as a goalkeeper with a future … and he soon became an idol of the crowd.” The same article mentioned several other famous local footballers of the day, including Sid Bird, Tom Rainford, Harry Jackson, Bill Fenner, Harold Lees and Joe Mercer. The latter player originated in Ellesmere Port and was the father of Joe Mercer (1914-1990), sometime professional player for Everton and Arsenal, manager of Sheffield United, Aston Villa, Manchester City, Coventry City and England and Hoylake resident.
It is not known when he joined up, but he did so in Liverpool. The Deeside Advertiser said that he had only been at the front for a few weeks before he was killed instantly during the Battle of the Somme. His pals buried him somewhere “behind the firing line”. It went on to report that “George was one of those clean-living lads whom it was a pleasure to meet, and the news of his death will be heard by a host of friends with severe regret, but they and his relatives should be happy in the knowledge that he died in the defence of his country… His loss will be keenly felt by local sportsmen, but more particularly his young wife and relatives, to whom the sympathies of the hundreds of admirers of the brave soldier are extended.”
Birth: September 1889 in Neston
Death: 4th November 1916, killed in action aged 27
Addresses: Pensby Lane, Barnston (91-01), Ivy Cottage, Greasby (11), Klondye, “near Greasby” in Upton (16)
Occupations: Bricklayer (11) and Footballer (14)
Units:1st/1st (Cheshire) Field Coy. Royal Engineers.
Number and Rank: Sapper 1376
Medals: Victory and British War
Commemorated and Buried: GH, F, France: Somme, Courcelles Au Bois Communal Cemetery Extension B. 1.
Sources: BR, CWGC, SDGW, CR,MC, DA,BN, Census: 91,01,11; Tranmere Rovers in the Great War by Stu M Ashton from here.
Sadly, we do not yet have a picture of James, but at least his service records exist, albeit in a very damaged state due to bomb damage sustained during the 1940 Blitz.
James was born in about 1888 and, just like his father and brothers, was a bricklayer by the time of the 1911 census, when the family, as mentioned above, was residing in their four-roomed Ivy Cottage on Greasby Road in Greasby. As yet, we know nothing about James’s early life, but he joined the Royal Monmouthshire Royal Engineers in Birkenhead. Unfortunately, James’s attestation papers are so badly damaged that the exact date of his enlistment is not known. We arrive at the year 1916 as a result of adding his recorded age of 28 years and 120 days to his birth year of 1888 (calculated from his age on the 1911 census and from his age at death). It is possible, therefore, that James was a conscript, although his attestation papers do claim that he chose which unit he wished to join. At that time, James was 5′ 6″ tall and possesses a 38 1/2″ chest with a 3″ expansion.
The Royal Monmouthshire Royal Engineers were the most senior militia unit in the British Army having been created in 1539. It is probable, given the need for skilled men in the Western Front, that James, as a bricklayer, was head-hunted for this unit and was eventually employed in specialist building works close to the firing line. He made rapid progress – his service records state that he joined Number 4 Siege Company from base on 3rd March 1917 and was promoted to lance corporal on 29th September in the same year. On 21st November 1917, a piece of his work was adjudged to be “Superior” and he was given the official title of “Bricklayer Skilled”. Presuambly his pay rose in consequence. Confusingly, his service records also report that he was promoted to lance corporal again on 10th August 1918. They do not say that he had been demoted at any point prior to this date.
James’s military career reminds us that not all the servicemen of the Great War were frontline fighting soldiers. Infantrymen required a multitude of different services and skills to equip, support, fuel and feed them whilst they were in the trenches. Casualty rates amongst such support units were lower than in infantry battalions, but they were certainly not completely out of harm’s way – they could be killed or wounded as a result of enemy attack, stray artillery fire or any number of eventualities. James’s records merely say that he was killed in action. The date of his death is tragic – a mere eleven days before the war ended. In order to discover exactly how he died, futher work will have to be carried out in regimental archives.
On 30th May 1919, John Devaney, who was still living at Ivy Cottage at that time, received a parcel from the War Office containing James’s letters and a few personal items. At some point thereafter, he must also have received both of his sons’ medals, commemorative scrolls and plaques. There is no record of how succesful these items were in assuaging the appalling emotional pain which the Devaney family experienced as a result of the loss of these two precious lives. It is poignant to think that in this small village of Greasby, a neighbouring family – the Atkinsons, who lived at Sea View a bit further along Greasby Road – had also lost two sons in the Great War.
Birth: c.1888 in Neston, Wirral
Death: 30th October 1918, killed in action aged 30
Addresses: Pensby Lane, Barnston (91-01), Ivy Cottage, Greasby (11, 16)
Unit: Number 4 Siege Company Royal Monmouthshire Royal Engineers
Number and Rank: 388417, Lance Corporal
Medals: Victory and British War
Commemorated and Buried: GH, Frankby, Upton, France: Croix Church Yard (near Le Cateau) A.4.
Sources: BR, CWGC, SDGW, MC, SR, Census: 91, 01, 11
Further Notes on the Devaney Family:
Based on the 1881 – 1911 censuses, we can see that George and James had the following siblings:
Margaret born c.1875 in Neston
Ellen born c.1876 in Neston
Annie born c.1878 in Neston
Edith born c.1881 in Neston
John born c.1882 in Neston
Sarah born c.1884 in Neston
Edward born c.1886 in Neston
Ethel born c.1893 in Pensby
Here is a page from James’s Service Records:
The above document confirms the list derived from the censuses and gives us the women’s married names. The youngest daughter, Ethel, is visible at the end of James’s list of sisters, although he appears to have got her age wrong, as she would have been 23 at the time of his enlistment if the censuses are correct and she was born in 1893.
Ethel is a well known former Greasby resident. She is visible in the following delightful family photograph, standing at the extreme right.