The eleventh of the eleventh

The time of his life …

The watch:

The “Erismus”. An open-face, top-wind pocket watch sold by Collingwood & Son Ltd of Hartlepool.

The movement:

An unsigned Swiss-made 17 jewel movement

The case:

Dennison Watch Case Company ‘Star’ model. Nine carat rolled gold on brass (guaranteed durable for 10 years).

The history:

The owner’s self-inscribed details: HWS Aug 30 1914 7 DLI

This antique pocket watch is worth about £30. It is at least 103 years old as that is when my great uncle inscribed it.

Here’s part of his story:

Harold Whidby Speight (b. 30 Aug 1893) seems to have inscribed the watch on his 21st birthday in August 1914 – perhaps it was his parents’ gift to him.

Having signed-up with the army reserve 22 months earlier, August 1914 comprised the month not only of his 21st birthday, but also that of his mobilisation with D company of the 7th Durham Light Infantry. In April 1915, he embarked for Belgium as a sergeant with the 50th Northumbrian Division, arriving just in time for the second battle of Ypres (with neither gas mask nor steel helmet). He earned three shillings (15 pence) a day of which two shillings was remitted to his parents in Sunderland, leaving him with one shilling a day for any local expenses at the front.

On 30 September 1915 he was sent to recce the enemy positions along with another sergeant.  On reaching the German wire they made their observations and dropped off some copies of ‘John Bull’ before returning to their own front line. (‘John Bull’ was a popular English magazine of the time with its circulation in 1914 estimated to have been in excess of 750,000.)

Later, when looking over a parapet to show an officer where they had been, he was shot by a sniper. The bullet entered his right cheek and exited behind his left ear. After being hospitalised in France and England he joined the reserve battalion until being demobbed in early 1919.

(The wound left him half deaf with a slightly palsied face and permanently weeping eye.)

Twenty-five years later, in March 1944 the Royal Navy called for volunteers to man small craft in support of the D-Day invasion and so, in July 1944, he found himself serving in the Second World War, this time as a deck hand on an armed diesel trawler carrying shells and depth charges to the fleet as they returned from Normandy for more ammunition.

In civvy street, having joined the Sunderland office of the Institute of Weights and Measures in 1909, he qualified as an inspector in 1919 after demobilisation from the army and joined the Newcastle office, becoming chief inspector in 1936. He retired in 1953 as a Fellow of the Institute having also been its Chair for two years during the Second World War.

Thereafter he moved to Kendal where he volunteered for the local Red Cross in 1954, helping out into the 1970s. He also painted in watercolour, wrote poems, corresponded worldwide with other Esperanto enthusiasts, and cycled everywhere on an original Moulton F-frame bike. He even spent two months on holiday in Australia in 1977 at the grand old age of 84 (but without his bike).

While still getting over his injuries and the trauma he experienced during the First World War, he took a long sea voyage, working his passage to and from South America. During that trip he visited Peru and the hot and steamy port of Guayaquil in neighbouring Ecuador which, many years later, I visited a number of times in a professional capacity. I wonder what he thought of it – I hated the place – but compared to the trenches it must have felt like an oasis of calm to him!

HWS in 1961 – a dapper chap!


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😎 Former scientist, now graduated to a life of leisure; Family man (which may surprise the family - it certainly surprises him); Likes cycling and old-fashioned B&W film photography; Dislikes greasy-pole-climbing 'yes men'; Thinks Afterlife (previously known as Thea Gilmore) should be much better known than she is; Values decency over achievement.

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