On the eve of the First World War it was just another ordinary British street – a nondescript cul-de-sac of 60 terrace houses, home to dozens of hard-working families. But by November 1918, some 161 residents of Chapel Street in Altrincham had stepped up to serve their country in the trenches of the Great War. Many of the men of Chapel Street were Irish immigrants who worked as labourers. The lack of work in the winter months was one reason why so many were quick to volunteer. They were ideal recruits, fit and strong from doing building work and some had experience of fighting in the Boer War.
Of the 161 who served, 81 joined up immediately. The youngest was just 16, the oldest 44, meaning both would have lied about their age to sign up. The Norton family led the way with seven brothers signing up – Michael, Thomas, Jack, Joe, Robert, David and the youngest boy Peter. Peter had been granted exemption from military service at the request of his mother Charlotte on the grounds she needed his help in caring for his invalid sisters. But he went against his mother’s wishes and joined the Gordon Highlanders in 1916. Older brother Joe, of the 4th Battalion of the Grenadier Guards, was shot in both thighs at the Somme in 1916. But after recuperating from his injuries, he returned to the front line and was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for carrying wounded personnel to safety under heavy fire. All the brothers somehow survived the conflict.
Tragically 29 of the men were killed in action while a further 20 would succumb to their injuries on their return. Of course the loss of so many of its young men took its toll on Chapel Street. After the war the street was filled with widows and fatherless children, and without breadwinners in families there was much poverty. A penny coin was issued after the war to the next-of-kin of those who died which was made of bronze and became known as the ‘Dead Man’s Penny’. But this could not be spent and families had to rely on relief from the local churches to help with food parcels, children’s clothing and days out.
Such was its sacrifice that King George V called Chapel Street the ‘bravest little street in England’ for having provided so many volunteers. In April 1919, a memorial was unveiled outside All Saints Church by the Earl of Stamford to commemorate those who served and those who did not return. Some 70 survivors of the original 161 volunteers marched on parade, accompanied by a brass band, those who were unable to walk due to their war injuries rode in a specially provided carriage. To mark the occasion the King sent a five page telegram to acknowledge the men of Chapel Street.
In 1960 the Chapel wall on which the Roll of Honour was displayed was also pulled down. Today the row of terraces is gone, torn down in 1939 as part of a slum-clearance project. Today it is now a paved street with a restaurant on one side and a public lavatory on the other leading to a car park. In September 2009 an English heritage plaque was placed on Regent Street which read: “In memory of the 161 men who volunteered and fought in the Great War 1914-18 and the 29 who gave their lives. We will remember them”. The plague honours not only the sacrifices and bravery of the men who fought in the war – but also those women and children left behind.
Local author Sheila Brady has written a book ‘Chapel Street; The Bravest little Street in England’. She has a personal connection to Chapel Street , her great uncle Private James Riley lived there. Proceeds from her book will help support the charity Walking With the Wounded and its housing, health, employment and training programmes for ex-service personnel. Chapel Street, by Sheila Brady is published by Hostory Press and costs £16.
Quite simply, the courage, sacrifice and patriotism of those who lived there should never be forgotten.