James Redfern Johnston

James Redfern Johnston was a Liverpool ‘Pal’ killed in action of the first day of the Battle of the Somme.


Liverpool ‘Pals’ cap badge

He was born at 9 Abbey Road, Walton in Liverpool towards the end of 1886 and was the second of the 3 sons of Isaac Smallwood Johnston (1860-1940) and Isabella Culley Redfern (1863-1947). He also had a younger sister. The family lived in the same house until some time between 1901 and 1910 when they moved to ‘Drimmagh’, 7 Drummond Road, Hoylake.  His parents, sister and youngest brother later moved to 24 Park Road, West Kirby, but this probably happened after James was killed.

Isaac Smallwood Johnston was born in Blackburn, Lancashire where his father, Peter Johnston (1830-1898), was a successful master draper. Both Peter and his wife Mary Smallwood (1832-1902) came from near Carlisle, Cumberland. By 1882 he had moved to Liverpool where he married Isabella Culley Redfern at St Peter’s church on 17 June 1882. Isaac worked variously as a shipping clerk, secretary to a private company and a cashier. He was always in a clerical job and always well enough off to employ a domestic servant.

Isabella Culley Redfern was born in Toronto, Canada (probably still called York Town at that date) where her parents James Redfern (1830-1889) and Sarah Wothers (1842-1920) were living. James was the son of a farmer from the area around Ashby de la Zouche where the boundaries of Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire meet. James himself was born in Gotham, Nottinghamshire. He enlisted as Gunner 1080 in the Royal Artillery in 1850, spent some time as a hospital guard at the Royal Ordnance Hospital, Woolwich Arsenal in London, but bought himself out of the army in 1852. He is next found in 1861 in Toronto employed as a constable, by which time the couple were married. About 1867 the ever increasing family returned to England and he set up as a grocer in Ashby de la Zouche, Leicestershire. By 1881 they had moved to Liverpool and James had retired at the early age of 51. However he left no money when he died.

Sarah Wothers was one of 4 children of Samuel Wothers (1814-???) and his first wife Ann (1820-1847). They lived in Market Bosworth, Leicestershire where his father Richard Wothers (1783-1856) had been a master blacksmith. Samuel started out as an engraver, but by 1851 was working as an assistant at Market Bosworth Free Grammar School. Ann died in February 1847 leaving Samuel with 4 children under the age of 8. He was remarried only 6 months later to Elizabeth Trivell (1808-1878) in the summer of 1847. This marriage must have had problems. By 1861 Elizabeth was still in Market Bosworth running a confectionery shop, still married but with Samuel and the children absent. In 1871 she described herself as a widow and was housekeeper at the Red Lion Inn, Market Bosworth for a nephew.

It looks as though Samuel took the oldest 3 children to Canada, leaving his mother Sarah (1789-1865) to bring up the youngest Martha (1846-???). No subsequent trace of Samuel or his other children has been found.

James enlisted in the King’s Liverpool Regiment on 2 September 1914 at Liverpool, one of several thousand who responded to Lord Derby’s appeal for the formation of a commercial battalion in Liverpool. He became Private 16913 in the 18th (Pals) Battalion.

JRF desc jpg.jpg

He described himself as a clerk, and wrongly gave his place of birth as Hoylake.

After training the 18th Battalion arrived in France on 7 November 1915 and became part of the 21st Brigade of the 30th Division. On 1st July 1916 they were engaged in their first major battle, namely the first day of the Battle of the Somme. The 18th Battalion’s task was to assist in the taking of the village of Montauban. Of all the battalions which formed part of this Brigade, the 18th (Pals) suffered the heaviest casualties from machine gun fire from Railway Valley. The Brigade reached Glatz Redoubt as planned and moved on to take Montauban by 10.00 am.

With the subsequent fighting, James’ body was not recovered. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Thiepval Memorial jpg.jpg

Thiepval Memorial

He is also commemorated on Grange Hill, War Memorial, West Kirby.

His older brother, Thomas Smallwood Johnston (1883-1970), was an engineering draughtsman who married young and had 7 children. He was conscripted on 3 June 1916 but placed on the reserve until 31 May 1918. He served in both the 10th (Scottish) and 3rd Battalions of the King’s Liverpool Regiment, but never served overseas, so received no medals.

His younger brother, Charles Herbert Johnston (1900-1958), was too young to serve during the war. In 1928 he married to Edith Mary Carr (1903-???) the much younger sister of another local casualty, Frederick Carr, from Hoylake.

His sister, Mary Hilda Johnston (1895-???) was married in late 1917 to John Stanley Tanner (1895-1948), a Lieutenant in the 7th Battalion, King’s Liverpool Regiment, who came from a rather wealthier family. John was possibly affected badly by his service as they had no children and lived with her parents before his rather early death. He left no money.

Birth: Oct 1886 at Liverpool, Lancashire
Death: 1 Jul 1916 at the Battle of the Somme, France; killed in action
Addresses: 9 Abbey Road, Walton, Liverpool (91) (01); 7 Drummond Road, Hoylake (11);
Occupation: clerk
Unit: 18th (Liverpool Pals) Battalion, Kings Liverpool Regiment
Number and Rank: 16913 Private
Medals: 15 Star, Victory and British War
Commemorated: Thiepval Memorial, Somme, France; Grange Hill War Memorial, West Kirby
Sources: CWGC, MC, SR, Census: 91, 01, 11, Canadian Census 1861, PR, BR, probate, 39


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