As in every town in Britain the sons of Ilchester flocked to the colours to serve in the First World War. The memorial in the churchyard records 16 men who never returned. They served across the world and some of their remains now lie in official graves tended by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. A few were never found after their deaths and their names are recorded on official War Memorials.
Four of them are remembered here, as representatives of a generation from which there are no survivors in the UK, since the deaths of naval aviator Henry Allingham and Somersetʼs “Last Tommy”, Harry Patch, in 2009.
William and Ellen Farr of Free Street hold the sad distinction of being the only parents in Ilchester to receive two War Office messages telling them of the loss of their son. The first to die was the younger, Henry, a gunner with the Royal Field Artillery in Egypt (who had probably survived the horrors of Gallipoli), at the end of March 1916. He was 24 years old. Elder brother William had led the two of them to South Wales to find work. He joined the 1st Rhondda Pals battalion of the Welsh Regiment and by the time of the Battle of the Somme, in July 1916, he had been promoted to Corporal. The Welsh Division were charged with capturing Mametz Wood and mounted a series of attacks over 6 days. William lost his life in the last one of these, when the attackers got no closer than 60 yards to the German positions. He was one of over 4,000 casualties suffered by the Welsh Division in that one week, and of 65,000 dead in three months on the Somme.
Having endured the sacrifice of their sons, the Farrs also had to cope with the knowledge that neither of their bodies was identified. Henry is remembered on the Jerusalem Memorial in Israel, and William on the Thiepval Memorial in France.
Walter John Cowley was born in Blandford, Dorset, the son of a bricklayer who later moved to Somerset. Cowley was probably a pre-war regular member of the 2nd Battalion of the Dorsetshire Regiment which, in August 1914, was based at Poona in India. At the end of 1914 the battalion was transferred to the Persian Gulf, part of the forces intended to drive Turkish troops out of Mesopotamia (present day Iraq) and secure the supplies of oil from the rich oil fields there. On 12 September British forces began a drive north from the port of Basra aimed at capturing Baghdad. Cowley lost his life two weeks later, on September 28th, somewhere in the desert. He was 32 years of age. His body was never found and his name is recorded on the Basra Memorial, a city which has been fought over by British troops twice more in the last 20 years. Despite that, the memorial has not been defaced, although it was moved by the Iraqi authorities from its original site in 1997.
Edgar Banfield was a farm labourer, born in 1894, the son of a farm labourer and one of five children living with their parents in the squalor of “The Barton” tenement off Back Lane. He joined the 1/4th Territorial Battalion of the Somerset Light Infantry which shipped out to Basra in Mesopotamia (present day Iraq) in early 1916 as part of the 3rd Indian Division. One can only imagine what a young man from extreme poverty and very limited horizons must have thought of the troopship journey through the Suez Canal into the Persian Gulf. He managed to survive the sultry climate and primitive sanitation almost to the end, but lost his life, at the age of 24, on 23 September 1918. At this time Turkish forces were being rapidly pushed out of Mesopotamia resulting in an Armistice in early October. Unlike Walter Cowley, Edgar Banfieldʼs body was found and he was buried in the North Gate War Cemetery in Baghdad.
He was one of over 40,000 Commonwealth soldiers to lose their lives in Mesopotamia, a very long way from the fields of Ilchester.
About the Museum
Ilchester Museum is maintained by The Ilchester Town Trust, and is situated in the Town Hall house, High Street, itself part of a two hundred and fifty year old building and is open Thursdays and Saturdays from Easter to the end of September, from 10am to 4pm.
The museum, set up by The Ilchester Town Trust and dedicated to the memory of James Stephen Cox, allows the visitor a tantalising glimpse into the town's past. Follow the history of Ilchester from Iron Age Settlement of 600 BC to the present day. There is a glimpse of life in a major Roman town, with it's mosaics and the God 'Mercury'.
Here you may touch and feel a Roman mosaic, handle pieces of pottery and have a chat with Faustina in her lead coffin! "Cool" say the children!
At the end of the dark ages Ilchester had regained some status, and its stone walls, for a King's moneyer to reside in the town. On show is the town mace or staff of office, bearing the insignia of Richard I, a crescent moon encircling a star, "One who has been enlightened by the gracious aspect of His Sovereign " and the star "some divine quality bestowed from above, whereby men shine in virtue, learning and works of piety like bright stars on earth". Yes really, that's Ilchester!
Despite adopting this emblem and it's rather glowing meaning, the town went on to become one of the worst of the "rotten boroughs", eventually loosing its franchise to return two members of parliament, in 1832. In the 1740's Ilchester was described as "Poor and corrupt, without honour, morals or attachment to any man or party".
You may be surprised at the sheer size of the prison. The model is built from the 1821 plans, their last refurbishment before eventual closure in 1844. Now remnants of the building can be found all around the district, built into later buildings.
The Maundy Money on display was presented to Owen Masters by Her Majesty the Queen in 1993, and subsequently given to the Museum for display, with the leather purses. On that very special occasion for them both Owen was accompanied by his wife Marjorie, who survived him by several years and attained her 100th birthday in April 2008, some 6 months before she died.
You can see a quick preview of Ilchester Museum if you click here.
Walking tours of the town can be arranged through Julie Stapleton, the caretaker, or through the museum, as can visits to or by schools etc. The museum is staffed by a team of volunteers who do two hour shifts through the opening hours.
Visitors with mobility problems can gain access to the museum by contacting the Caretaker on 01935 841247. Disabled toilets are available
Entrance to the museum is free with donations welcomed.
The Museum sells a range of publications and postcards on the history of Ilchester