John Henry Quilliam


This post was written by Victoria Doran.

‘Bob’ Quilliam, as he was known, was a former soldier with a wife and family who lied about his age in September 1914 in order to be eligible to enlist.

J H Quilliam grave jpg.jpg

The age shown reflects what he told the army, he was actually aged 38 when he died

Bob Quilliam was born on Christmas Day 1878 in Kirkdale, Liverpool. He was registered as John Henry Hall. His mother Agnes Mary Briggs (1849-1920) had a total of 8 children – 3 boys and 5 girls – most of whom survived to adulthood, but they definitely had more than 1 father and it is not certain who actually was Bob’s father.

What follows should be read bearing in mind that divorce was not an option for the sector of English Society that Bob came from at that period. If you made a mistake in marrying, you had to live with the consequences. Also there was no Welfare State to act as a safety net when hard times came and a woman on her own with small children had few options.

Agnes Mary Briggs was born on 14 Feb 1849 in Liverpool the second child of Edward John Briggs (1821-1855) and Sophia Ann Pierce (1827-1885). Edward Briggs was a mariner and he died of an unknown cause at Calcutta whilst a member of crew of the ‘Gibson Craig’.  Sophia was left with 5 children under the age of 12 to bring up. She worked variously as a boot binder and a dressmaker, but also may have pursued other options. She had a 6th child, George, 3 years after her husband died. It is likely that Agnes was brought up in a household where one did what one could to survive.

In 1869 she found herself aged 20, unmarried and pregnant and on 7 January 1870 had a daughter Maria Sophia. Maria was baptised at St Peter, Liverpool on 17 February 1870 and her father was given as Benjamin Henry Hall, ship steward. Benjamin Henry Hall  (known as ‘Ben’)  (1854-1945) went on to become a master mariner, so his movements from when he went to sea at the age of 13 on 21 January 1868 until he received his master mariner’s certificate on 10 December 1889 are minutely recorded. At the time of Maria’s birth he was still over 3 months short of his 16th birthday, and from the dates of his voyages, Agnes must have been well overdue when Maria was born. He was at sea until late November 1870, so probably only heard about Maria when he returned to Liverpool. Despite this he married Agnes on 23 March 1871 at St George, Liverpool.

When Agnes’ second child, George Edward Hall was baptised on 11 August 1872, Ben was away at sea, but she gave his occupation as ‘gentleman’, which is unusual. By 22 Nov 1874 Ben had returned to live with his grandfather Henry Hall (1791-1878) who had brought him up, so the father of Agnes’ 3rd child Sarah Ann Hall (1875-???) must also be in doubt.

Ben then committed bigamy by taking a young lass of Irish parentage to Bangor on Dee around Christmas 1875 and marrying her by licence! He claimed to be a bachelor and was still only aged 21. This ‘marrriage’ did not last long as she reverted to her maiden name, moved to the South of England and passed the rest of her life in domestic service.

Ben persisted in giving his grandfather’s address until he again committed bigamy on 26 October 1887 at St Mary, Bootle. This time he claimed to be a widower. This was a successful ‘marriage’ leading to 5 children and a ripe old age as a master mariner. Ben is unlikely to have figured much if at all in Bob’s upbringing.

In the meantime, Bob had been born, his mother giving his father’s occupation as ‘joiner’.

In 1881 Agnes and her 4 surviving children were living at 17 Mitford Street, Liverpool. The head of household was given as Benjamin Hall, general labourer aged 39. Who actually was the ‘man of the house’ is clearly unknown, but it seems very unlikely to have been Ben as the age and occupation are both very wrong.

The latest child was Joseph Henry Hall, whose father’s occupation as given as gas fitter when he was baptised on 14 Feb 1881. This makes it probable that his father was actually John Kelly Quilliam (1858-1948) a gas fitter, who by 1891 was living as man & wife with Agnes. They eventually got married on 28 Sep 1891 when she committed bigamy, claiming to be a widow. It is likely that all Agnes’ 3 youngest daughters were by John Quilliam, though he was only named as the father for the last of them and they were all born before the ‘marriage’.

Agnes and John Quilliam then settled down for the rest of their lives as a married couple. Most of Agnes’ children used the surname Quilliam, and he undoubtedly was the most present father figure whilst Bob was a child.

Bob married Esther Alice Owen (1882-1977) on his 21st birthday, Christmas Day 1899 at St Chrysostom, Everton. He was a paperhanger by occupation, and seems to have been living with the Owen family. Esther was the 4th of the 6 children of Edward Owen (1849-1927) and Clara Ann Whitby (1853-1949). Edward had various labouring type jobs and the family moved between Liverpool and Birkenhead. They seem to have been a close family and Bob and Esther continued to live with them until at least March 1901.

Bob and Esther than moved to West Kirby and had another 5 children born there before the war broke out. He became a member of West Kirby Working Mens Club and would have been friends with George Edward Sherratt, David Hartness, Edward Railton and T Cotgreave who also died in service during the war.

According to his military record Bob had already served in the King’s Liverpool Regiment. The record for this service has not survived, but it seems likely he served, say, a 2 year engagement before he married. He did not serve overseas as he was not awarded any medals.

On 14 September 1914 Bob went to Seaforth and enlisted as Private 19856 in the 13th Battalion, King’s Liverpool Regiment. To do so he understated his age by 2 years, as he was actually over the maximum age that the army was accepting at that time.

King's Liverpool cap badge.jpg

King’s Liverpool Regiment cap badge

That he had previous service is demonstrated by his promotion to Corporal on 20 October 1914. On 26 June 1915 he was promoted to Sergeant (unpaid).

He landed in France on 27 Sep 1915 with his battalion. They were on the Western Front as part of the 8th Brigade of the 3rd Division, but did not take part in any major actions before they were transferred to the 9th Brigade of the same Division on 4 April 1916.

On 9 May 1916, Bob was granted leave to return home for a week. This lead to the birth of a final daughter Joyce Eugenia Quilliam in February 1917; sadly she died at the end of 1919.

He missed the start of the Battle of the Somme being in hospital in St Omer from 1 July to 22 July 1916 with influenza.

DA July 1916.jpg

Deeside Advertiser July 1916

His colleagues had moved around a lot and been in action at Bazentin and Delville Wood, but he returned just as they were going into Reserve. On his return he was promoted to paid sergeant.

They spent time in billets at Ville sur Ancre until 11 August 1916 when they moved to bivouacs nearer the front. They reached the trenches on 15 Aug 1916 just south of the German lines between  Guillemont and Wedge Wood. On 17 August the Battalion made an attack on the German trenches. This was inefficiently supported by the artillery and Bob was one of 40 Battalion casualties, receiving a gunshot wound in his left shoulder. He ended up back in hospital until 28 September 1916.

He rejoined his battalion in billets at Erny St Julien. During November and December they spent time in front line trenches in the Serre sector, coming under heavy bombardment in early November, and then spending much effort repairing the trenches in the mud. Trench service alternated frequently with time in billets not far away. In January they moved to Bonneville much further from the front line and rested and underwent training in much better conditions.

On 26 February 1917 Bob was sent to No. 1 Training Camp at Etaples for further training. He returned to his Battalion in the field on 18 April 1917. They were in billets at Arras, and Bob had missed the main action during the start of the Battle of Arras for which 6 of his colleagues were awarded the Military Medal.

They moved back to the front line near Arras on 1 May and unsuccessfully attacked the German trenches in the early hours of 3 May 1917, taking heavy casualties. They remained in the front line for a further week, before moving to trenches slightly further back for a couple of days before moving to rest billets at Beaufort. On June 1 they returned to Arras moving on to relieve the Newfoundland Battalion on the Brown Line (front line) that evening. The following evening they moved to relieve the 1st Battalion, Essex Regiment. At some time during this action Bob was killed.

He was buried at Faubourg d’Amiens Cemetery in Arras and was awarded the 15 Star, Victory and British War medals.

Faubourg d'Amiens Cemetery jpg.jpg

Birth: 25 Dec 1878 at Kirkdale, Liverpool
Death: 2 Jun 1917 near Arras, France; killed in action
Addresses: 17 Mitford Street, Everton (81); 9 St Tudno View, Everton (91); 5 Solva Street, Everton (01); 40 Birkett Road, West Kirby (11); 38 Birkett Road, West Kirby (16)
Occupation: painter & decorator
Unit: 13th Battalion, King’s Liverpool Regiment
Number and Rank: 19856; Sergeant; Battalion band master
Medals: 15 Star, Victory & British War
Buried & Commemorated: Faubourg d’Amiens Cemetery, Arras, Pas de Calais, France; Grange Hill War Memorial, West Kirby; St Bridget & St Andrew churches, West Kirby
Sources: CWGC, SR, MC, DA, Census: 81, 91, 01, 11, BR, PR, TNA – Deaths at Sea, UK Masters & Mates Certificates, 39



7 thoughts on “John Henry Quilliam

  1. Alfred Lesley Quilliam (known as Les, born in 1913 and mentioned in Bob’s service papers) was a close friend and golfing partner of my Dad’s. He used to live on Market Street in Hoylake and had his father’s ‘death penny’ on display on his mantel piece. Les was a veteran of the Second World War. I think he fought in Burma.

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