The first thing to notice about this soldier is his surname: Dwight is an uncommon one; there are between 500 and 600 bearers of the name alive in Britain today (approximately nine in every million of the population) and most of them have their roots in the South East of England. It is believed to be an English personal name – a pet form of Dionysia, an even rarer if not totally defunct first name. Pop music fans will immediately recognise it as being the real surname of the famous musician, Mr Elton John, who originates from Pinner in Middlesex. Both Elton John’s and Thomas Dwight’s family trees can be traced back to the London area in the early 17th century, but, so far, no link between the two men has been traced. Interestingly, however, as will be made apparent below, Thomas Dwight’s father also had a career in the music industry, although at a much humbler level than his modern namesake.
I found the first reference to the death of Thomas Dwight on the Western Front in 1918 to be somewhat surprising. It is a small entry in the Deeside Advertiser and appears below:
I speculated briefly, that Thomas’s father, Albert (1862-1940) might have had African or Asian ancestry, but quickly realised that his distasteful nickname resulted from his occupation, not from his ethnicity – he was a street musician and stage performer, who, like many of his contemporaries in the same trade, used to ‘black up’ as part of his act. He was known by at least two more soubriquets – ‘Pete’ and ‘Uncle Joe’. Both of these names were associated with British and American stereotypes of black male slaves or ex-slaves from the southern states of America, who were portrayed as being simple, jolly and natural entertainers. One of the founders of this genre of entertainment was the Christy Minstrels Troupe which began performing in New York in 1846. One of their favourite songs was The Old Folks at Home by Stephen Foster and most of their repertoire was provided by him. A British version of the troupe, called Raynor and Pierce’s Christy Minstrels first performed in London in 1857 and such minstrel shows remained very popular with British audiences well into the twentieth century, finishing up with the BBC television show, The Black and White Minstrels, which ran between 1958 and 1978. See here for an interesting assessment of this controversial programme.
Being a semi-famous performer, Albert Dwight received a reasonable amount of coverage in the British press; we learn a lot from his obituary which was syndicated in 1940. It appears that he began his stage career, aged ten in Newcastle Upon Tyne and then worked for the Moore and Burgess Christy Minstrels, followed by Billy Moore’s Pierrots, who had a pavilion ‘on the sands’ at Hoylake. Albert went to Hoylake in about 1902 and stayed there for the rest of his life.
The life of such performers was rarely easy, requiring frequent moves around the country and characterised by irregular income. Before moving to Hoylake, Albert Dwight lived in Abergele, North Wales and was no stranger to controversy as the following extracts from the Denbighshire Free Press reveal:
By 1911, the Dwights were, as the following census schedule reports, living in Hoylake:
In addition to Thomas, two more of the Dwight boys served in the Great War – Albert with the Labour Corps (Number 579453) and George with the Durham Light Infantry (Number 91677). Only Thomas’s Service Records exist and they tell us that he joined up in Chester in 1916. His records are unclear and incomplete, but he was probably a conscript, especially as he would have been unwilling to volunteer, having married Esther Walmsley on 1st August 1914 in Liverpool. The couple lived at 43 Groveland Avenue, Hoylake and Thomas was employed as a Doctor’s Servant or Driver. He was aged twenty-seven years and four months. His medical notes show that he was 5′ 8.75″ tall, that he had a 34″ chest with a 3″ expansion and that he weighed 132 pounds. He had a sallow complexion and bad teeth which required attention from the army medics. His overall fitness was graded as B1, but this did not stop him being posted to frontline infantry units, the 1st and 10th Battalions of the Prince of Wales Own (West Yorkshire Regiment) with the number 21674. He sailed to France on 21st August 1918 and was killed on 3rd September 1918.
The 10th West Yorkshires had been formed as part of K2 (the second wave of Kitchener’s New Armies) in September 1914 and became part of 50th Brigade, 17th (Northern) Division. The battalion’s war diaries for the period wherein Thomas was killed are remarkably detailed, technical and, due to being written in pencil, very difficult to read. On 31st August 1918, the battalion was in a support trench in Martinpuich in Northern France, preparing for a well planned attack on the German held village of Rocquignuy. Having only arrived in France some twelve days earlier, Thomas must have felt daunted by the task ahead and would have been reliant upon the guidance of more seasoned comrades and experienced officers and N.C.O.s.. Following an effective artillery barrage, the attack began on 2nd September and the 10th Yorkshires achieved their objective. The diary does not mention names and does not even list casualty numbers, but does record that during September, no less than two Military Crosses, ten Military Medals, three Distinguished Service Orders and one Distinguished Conduct Medal had been awarded to battalion members. The Yorkshires had played an essential part in the wider British advance of that period, ensuring victory on 11th November 1918; it would not have been possible without the sacrifice of thousands of young British conscripts like Thomas Dwight.
Thomas is buried at Five Points British Cemetery at Lechelle, not far from where he died. He is commemorated in Hoylake and at Grange Hill. His widow, Esther, went on to marry a neighbour and former soldier, John Humphreys Little (1894-1964), whose cousin, John Henry Little (1896-1915) died fighting with the 13th Cheshire Regiment and is recorded on the Grange Hill War Memorial. Esther died, aged 90, in 1980.
Birth: 15th March 1887 in Islington, Middlesex.
Death: Killed in Action on 3rd September 1918 near Martinpuich in France.
Address: 8 Back Sea View in 1911 and 43 Groveland Avenue, Hoylake in 1918.
Occupation: Carpet-Layer and Doctor’s Servant or Driver.
Unit: 10th Battalion The Prince of Wales’s Own (West Yorkshire Regiment).
Number and Rank: 77871, Private.
Medals: British War and Allied Victory
Commemorated and Buried: Hoylake Parish War Memorials at St. Hildeburgh’s Church, Grange Hill and Five Points Cemetery, France (D.5)
Sources: Commonwealth War Graves Commission Database, Soldiers Died in the Great War Database, West Kirby Book of Remembrance, Deeside Advertiser, Liverpool Echo, Service Records, Medal Card and Roll, Pension Records, Register of Soldiers’ Effects, 1901 and 1911 Censuses and Online Family Trees.