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By Roger Morlidge

William Harry Stephan from Shropshire has an unusual memorial that has been on something of a journey. Sadly, it’s not unusual for memorials to be physically moved as buildings and sites change their usage, but what’s unusual about Private Stephan’s memorial is that it has moved in time! It is unclear how he came to be serving in the Loyals although his memorial claims that he was a member of the 3rd battalion so it’s possible he was a member of the Special Reserve before the war. By 1917 he was serving with the 1/4th battalion when he was killed in action on the 18th July aged 23.

On the Commonwealth War Graves site his parents are recorded as living in Jackfield in an area of the East Shropshire coal field that is now celebrated as being part of the Coalbrookdale World Heritage site. It is an area where a huge number of advances in industrial technologies were made in the early years of the Industrial Revolution including the world’s first bridge constructed entirely of iron which opened in Ironbridge in 1781.
Although Jackfield was, and still is, a village famous for the manufacture of tiles, it’s probable that Pte Stephan followed a different trade. A memorial to him exists in a church that was built in the late 19th century a few miles north at Lodge Bank, Muxton. This church, the St Chad’s Mission Church, was opened in 1888 to serve the mining community at the Granville colliery. The building itself is an example of a “Tin Tabernacle”, an unconventional building that could be bought as a kit and assembled quickly and cheaply on site from timber and corrugated iron. Assuming he did indeed worship here he would seem to have left his family home to work on the other side of Telford in some kind of coal mining trade but hadn’t yet settled and started a family.

Inside the building Private Stephens’s memorial is the only one anywhere in the church and, as there is no further Roll of Honour, it suggests that the congregation honoured Pte Stephan as the only soldier from this small mining community who died in the war. For the next sixty years the solitary white shield shaped tablet on the back wall of the church, facing the congregation, would have reminded the worshippers of the colleague that had never come home. However, as time moved on through the later Twentieth century, the role of both church and coal mining in the local community diminished and congregation and workforce declined. The Granville Colliery itself, Shropshire’s last deep coal mine, closed in 1979 ripping the heart out of the local community but the decline in the chapel’s congregation had led to it being closed well before that fateful date.

Private Stephan - Tin tabernacle

No longer used as a place of worship, the building itself, like many similar buildings, could have simply disappeared. However it was fortunate that The Granville colliery’s Tin Tabernacle was located in what was destined to become a World Heritage Site and was thus on the radar of people looking for ways to remember all aspects of life in this part of the world during the Industrial Revolution. One of the ideas proposed to highlight this industrial heritage was the building of a recreated Victorian town and from the early 1970’s onwards various buildings were either moved brick by brick or copied from original examples to form the nucleus of a living museum at Blists Hill about a kilometre away across the River Severn from Jackfield where Private Stephens’s parents lived. In 1977 the St. Chad’s Mission Building was selected as a typical example of a Tin Tabernacle that had been erected at various industrial sites in Shropshire and was moved in its entirety to the new museum where it can still be seen today.

The museum depicts an industrial community as it would appear in 1900 and is worth a visit to get a sense of the kind of world the men who served in the First World War grew up in. The former St Chad’s Mission building, having been built in 1888, is absolutely of the right period for this community and it now sits nestled in woodland that has overgrown the massive piles of slag from the nearby blast furnaces. You can imagine the miners turning up to worship here, dressed in their best, of a Sunday morning. It is the last building on the site, the furthest away from the entrance and, in Pte Stephens’s memorial, contains the only incongruous thing about the whole museum. Even though it is definitely not of the right period and should not yet exist, the decision was obviously taken when the building was moved to respect the memorial and it still hangs in the place it always did and serves as a rather fateful prediction; having spent several hours in the England of 1900 you are faced, at the very end of your journey, with the reminder that in 17 years’ time a member of this community would meet a violent death on the continent. This idealised England in all its Victorian glory would, in the very near future, be shattered by the horrors of the First World War but Private Stephan, who would have been 6 at the time the museum is supposed to represent, could have had little idea what the future had in store for him. Nor would his colleagues who paid for his memorial have predicted that the tablet they erected would serve both as a memorial after his death and a prediction before it.

Private Stephan - Tin tabernacle - plaque

Rank: Private
Service No: 36893
Date of Death: 18/07/1917
Age: 23
Regiment/Service: The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, 1st/4th Bn.
Cemetery: VLAMERTINGHE NEW MILITARY CEMETERY

Published with thanks to Roger Morlidge

Paul McCormick
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Paul McCormick

Paul McCormick is the creator and administrator for the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment website. Since 2010 he has been researching the soldiers that served during the First World War and sharing their stories on his website. You can contact Paul through the website 'Contact Me' page or on Twitter and Facebook.
Paul McCormick
Contact me

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