During the Petersfield Museum’s closed period last winter I was asked if I’d be interested in researching material for the planned commemoration of the end of the First World War. My starting point was the existing Roll of Honour and I began working my way through, plotting last known addresses and adding information that was available online. I was able to contact several family members via the internet, all of whom proved extremely willing to let us use photographs and add to what we already knew about certain individuals.
Almost at the end of the process I searched another of the genealogy websites, which threw up a whole list of additional names, all men who had put Petersfield as their home town on enlistment. Having eliminated those already on the memorial, as well as those due to be added before the rededication in the summer, that still left a considerable number of names to check. In time I found all of them were commemorated elsewhere, either on one of the village memorials in the area or further afield; all except for one, James Cooper. From there it was a matter of establishing who he was, what was his connection with Petersfield, and why he hadn’t been included on any memorial.
The Commonwealth War Graves website records him as Private James Cooper (7575), 1st Battalion Hampshire Regiment, and that he died 26th April 1915 aged 24. The 1901 census shows Kate Cooper (32), James Cooper (10) and Mitchell Cooper (8) living at the Petersfield Union Workhouse. From his birth certificate I learned that he was actually born in the workhouse on 2nd December 1891, as was his brother two years later. The next step was checking the school log books, which noted that he moved up to the Boys’ Elementary School in 1898, one of a handful of ‘Union Boys’ at the school. He appears to have left both the school and the Union in the summer of 1901, possibly to live for a time with his grandmother in Liss. That prompted a quick dash up the A3 to double check that he wasn’t on the Liss memorial.
His regimental number tells us that he enlisted in late 1905 as a boy soldier/bandsman. In 1911 he is listed on the census as a private and musician with the 1st Battalion in Badajos Barracks, Aldershot. As a regular soldier he was part of the British Expeditionary Force and arrived in France on 23rd August 1914, thereby making him one of the ‘Old Contemptibles’. In those early weeks of the war he fought in the Battle of Le Cateau and took part in the Retreat from Mons. By April 1915 the Battalion were occupying trenches in the Ypres area. The Battalion history tells of a desperate attempt to close a gap in the line on the night of the 25/26th of April resulting in over 150 men killed, wounded or missing. One of those was James Cooper. He is buried at Oosttaverne Wood Cemetery, Ypres, VII E7. He was eligible for the 1914 Star with rose and clasp, the Victory Medal and the British War Medal.
After the war his mother, now married to William Roberts and living in Portsea, applied for James’ medals as his next of kin. His brother Mitchell served in the Royal Navy and survived the war, going on to marry and have a family.
It was a real honour and a privilege to do this work and I’m so thankfully James Cooper was remembered in St Peter’s Church bell ringers’ tribute and nightly readings, in the Royal British Legion remembrance booklet, and most importantly at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Day 2018.
As as a result of an article in the Petersfield Post I received a call from none other than James’ great-niece Diane. She was in possession of his death penny and had kept it safe, bringing it out every year on November 11th. She knew nothing about her grandfather Mitchell’s brother except that he was a musician in the army. By coincidence she had decided to do an online search late on the 11th after attending a military concert, and up popped all the details. We’ve since met and she has offered to donate the ‘penny’ to the museum.
I was in Ypres with my choir at the end of November and was able to visit Private Cooper’s grave and take crosses on behalf of Diane, and the people of his home town, many of whom were moved to hear his story told by the vicar during his Remembrance Day address in the town square.