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Harper Riley Ashworth was born in 1873 in St. Austell, Cornwall and was the eighth of eleven children born to William and Mary Ann Ashworth (nee Riley). William Ashworth was originally from Burnley while his wife Mary Ann was from just over the border in Yorkshire and they married in the little parish church of St. Mary le Ghyll in Barnoldswick in 1860.

When Harper was born his father was a United Methodist Free Church Minister in the parish of Kenwyn within the town of Truro. However, the family didn`t stay in Cornwall because the 1881 Census shows them living in Cuerden Street in Burnley and William Ashworth appears to have left the ministry and was now a master grocer.

At the age of 18 years and 9 months Harper joined the Militia at Preston serving a total of 49 days 14/2/91 – 21/5/91. His medical inspection report describes him as being 5`6” tall and weighing 108lbs. He had a fresh complexion, grey eyes and brown hair and he was of the Methodist religion.

Harper married Eliza Newsholme in the September quarter of 1899 in Burnley and the following year a son George was born. In 1901 Eliza and eleven month old George were living with her father Robert Newsholme at 75 George Street in Nelson, there is no mention Harper but later information confirms that he was serving in the South African war with the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment at the time.

By 1911 Harper and Eliza had gone to live at 3 William Street in Darwen and by this time they had two more children, both daughters, Ivy was born in 1903 and Doris in 1905 and just prior to Harper`s  enlistment another child was born in 1913, a son they named Francis William.

On the 22nd September 1914 at the age of 41 Harper left his job as a weaver and re-enlisted for one years` service as a Special Reservist and was allocated the service number 4148. He sailed out to France to join the 1st Battalion in the field on the 29th November 1914. During his first major action in France, 21st – 22nd December 1914 at La Bassee he was officially reported as missing.

A photograph of Harper appeared in one of the local papers in Preston some time afterwards.Ashworth

Eliza had to wait some six months before eventually news arrived from her husband to let her know that he had been captured and was now a prisoner of war and being held in Wittenburg POW Camp.

An excerpt from Harper`s letter was printed in the Burnley News on the 9th June 1915.


Mrs Ashworth of 147 Chapel Street, Nelson has received a post card during the weekend from her husband, Sergeant Harper Ashworth of the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment who was reported missing on December 13th, since when she had heard nothing from him. Ashworth writes under date May 10th as follows;

“I am at Wittenburg in good health. Send bread, sad-cakes, sweet cakes, biscuits, chocolate, sweets, tinned provisions, soft sugar, milk, butter, cream, jams, treacle’s, pipes, tobacco, soap & etc. weekly. No need to send tea, coffee or cocoa. No fires for cooking. Must be packed well in firm box with contents clearly and carefully written inside and out.”

Harper remained in captivity for four years before eventually being repatriated back to England with a number of other men after an exchange of prisoners on the 18th August 1918. On arrival he was admitted to the 1st London General Hospital in Camberwell where he was treated for “debility”.

After his stay in hospital he went back home to his family in Nelson and on the 18th September 1918 another article appeared in the Burnley News.



“Sergeant Harper Ashworth, Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, 23 Bradley Road, Nelson has returned to his home from Germany, where he has been a prisoner of war for several years. He owes his liberty to an exchange of prisoners.

Ashworth was captured by the Germans at La Bassee in December 1914, and removed to Wittenburg Camp where he remained until March last. He is suffering from slight loss of memory, which he attributes to the treatment he received at the hands of the Germans, and when seen by a Burnley News reporter said he did not feel well enough to relate his experiences at present. He however said if the people of England realised the treatment meted out to British prisoners in Germany they would not be so keen on providing the particular brand of cigarettes they desired. There would be a demand for stern reprisals.

The bodies of many of our lads, he said, bore evidence of their savagery, and so far as he was concerned he could wish for nothing better than to be sent to the front again and placed behind a machine gun or in a tank.

Sergeant Ashworth who went through the South African war added that he would like to express his thanks to the many Nelson friends who sent parcels out to him while he was in Germany.”

Harper was finally discharged from the Army on the 17th January 1919 after being declared medically unfit and he later received the 1914/15 Star, British War and Victory Medals in recognition of his service to his country.

Harper Riley Ashworth passed away in his 77th year and was buried in a public grave in Burnley Cemetery on the 11th September 1950.

Janet Davis
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