Suicide to avoid horrors of battlefield

Volunteer Susan Berry and local and family history officer Hannah Turner
Volunteer Susan Berry and local and family history officer Hannah Turner

THE tragic story of a local soldier who committed suicide alongside his wife to avoid the horrors of the First World War has been uncovered by an amateur historian.

Shadrach Critchley and his wife Annie were found in their home in Leigh in 1915, having taken their own lives shortly after Shadrach was recruited to the Cheshire Regiment.

The sad tale was uncovered by volunteer historian and genealogist Susan Berry, who came across the incident while searching for war-related stories in newspapers from the time at Leigh Local Studies.

Although the suicide has now been largely forgotten, the story made headlines at the time, with a large headline in the Leigh Chronicle referring to the: “Sensational Tragedy at Westleigh”.

Susan, 50, came across Shadrach’s story while trying to find out more about a prisoner-of-war camp in Leigh during the conflict for a blog which sees archive services and history groups across Greater Manchester sharing local information about World War One, and quickly decided to switch the focus of her interest to the suicide.

Susan, from Plank Lane in Leigh, said: “I was looking through the newspapers when I came across the headline about Shadrach and his wife.

“I thought this would be a good subject as when most people think of World War One they tend to think of men dying on the front line or from injuries received in combat, but Shadrach’s and his wife’s deaths were also a direct result of the war.

“I’m not sure what people’s attitudes would have been like at the time towards events like these. The story made me think about what people must have been going through emotionally when the men went off to war.”

Born in 1881, Shadrach was brought up in Leigh and followed his father Thomas down the pit, working as a coal miner.

He married Annie Heaton in 1906 and the census five years later suggests they lived in Westleigh and did not have any children.

Shadrach was listed in the local newspaper in April 1915 as a new recruit to the Armyand was stationed at Birkenhead, but returned home on May 22 for three days’ leave.

According to friend and fellow soldier Richard Adamson, he was at the Fleece Inn the night before he was due to rejoin his regiment, telling him he had made a mistake in enlisting in the forces. Mr Adamson said he had tried to reassure him it would be fine.

However, when Mr Adamson went to the Critchleys’ house the following evening they forced open the door and found both Shadrach and Annie on a mattress on the kitchen floor.

An inquest heard the couple had written notes expressing their wish not to be parted, and were buried together in St Paul’s churchyard in Westleigh. The jury who heard evidence concerning their deaths recorded a verdict of temporary insanity.

The memorials set up following his death shows clearly how soldiers dying at home in the UK during World War One have struggled for recognition, with public thoughts of sacrifice during the conflict dominated by images of the horrific slaughter on the Western Front and the losses in the British Army’s campaigns in the Somme in France and Flanders in Belgium.

Shadrach’s name was finally given posthumous recognition when he was placed on the Brookwood Memorial, in a list of around 500 men who died on British shores.

The memorial, located in Surrey alongside a huge cemetery containing the final resting place of more than 1,500 Commonwealth servicemen who died in the UK of their wounds, was erected in 2004, almost 90 years after Shadrach’s death.

Hannah Turner, local and family history officer at Leigh Local Studies, said: “It’s a very sad story and one we had never come across before. “It shows that the deaths during the war didn’t just happen on the battlefield.”