William Gilderson 1890 - 1917


by Jonathan Seymour 10 June 2016


This is not a family history, but a short article that reflects some aspects of the life of Lance Corporal William Gilderson who was killed in the First World War in 1917 and who was also my great uncle (my grandmother's brother).



Today it is hard to comprehend the scale of casualties in the First World War.  The sea of names at memorials such as the Menin Gate and Tyne Cot seem to go on forever.  When researching one's family history it often does not take long to discover a personal connection to the huge loss of life in the First World War.  When someone's brother or father within a family has fallen the connection becomes tangible.  The conflict is no longer confined to the history books, but it has become personal.


For my family, William Gilderson was such a person.  Someone leading an ordinary life before the war, someone whose nature was to avoid conflict, yet someone asked to make the supreme sacrifice on Flanders fields.


History should not be forgotten.  Nor should the individuals who made up that history.  However ordinary those individuals were and however extraordinary the price they paid, now immortalised on a piece of stone standing near a battlefield far from home.




I am indebted to my mother Doreen Packard (William Gilderson was her uncle) for making these personal effects available to me and for her memories as to what she was told about William.  I am also indebted to the late Christopher Goodfellow for bringing to our attention many years ago that William's name is recorded on the Tyne Cot Memorial.


Gilderson Family


William's parents, Samuel Gilderson and Ellen Orams, were married on 7th September 1889 at St.John Baptist Church, in East Ham, Essex (ref.1).  Samuel was a coach builder, as was his father Robert Gilderson before him (ref.1). Samuel worked for the family undertakers Gilderson and Sons, where he went from being a coach builder to an undertaker (refs.4 and 5).  Ellen's father, Samuel Orams, was a painter (ref.1).  Ellen was know as “Ma” or “Nelly” within the family (ref.2). 


Their first born, William Gilderson, was born in March 1890 in Ilford, Essex (ref. 3).  William had two sisters, Winifred and Grace, and one brother Alec. The Gilderson family is captured in the 1901 Census (ref. 4) living at 23 Grange Road, Ilford when William was 11 years of age.  The photograph below which must have been taken close to 1901 shows all of the children - in 1901 Grace was 9, Alec 6 and Winifred 4 (ref.4).



Gilderson Children


Gilderson Children circa 1901.  From left to right - Alec, Grace, William and Winifred


Photograph in possession of the family



In the 1911 census (ref.5) we see that the oldest daughter (Grace) has left home, leaving the oldest son William age 21 now employed as an electric lamp trimmer with the Urban District Council and Alec age 16 employed as an undertaker's assistant.  The remaining daughter, Winifred age 14 was employed as a Draper's assistant.  The whole family is captured in the photograph below - likely to be just before the 1911 census as the photograph includes Grace.









Gilderson Family


Gilderson Family circa 1911.  From left to right (front row) - Samuel and Ellen, from left to right (back row) - Alec, William, Grace and Winifred


Photograph in possession of the family



William Gilderson


The following quotations were taken from my mother's recollections (ref.2).  William was “very well built, tall, athletic and very involved with keeping fit. In fact he was an amateur boxer and weightlifter, for which he won medals.  I have seen the medals but don’t know where they are now. He had a boxing ring in the cellar of the family house in which he lived.  My mother was banned from watching the boxing etc. but she often used to sit on the cellar stairs quietly, until somebody spotted her.  In spite of this hobby he was a gentle, quiet man and very non-violent.  He used to walk a lot, rain or shine and didn’t mind walking alone.  I think in modern day terms he would be described as a loner.”


William was “quiet (both Winifred and Grace confirmed this) – although non violent he once intervened in a street fight between a drunken man beating up his wife.  Unfortunately he knocked the man out and was then attacked by the woman using her umbrella.  He vowed never to get involved again.”

 “I was told that Uncle Will married relatively late, just before he went to war.  Her nickname was 'Carrie'.  This is something in my memory from my conversations with my mother but I find it odd that there is no mention of her or a marriage anywhere else.”   The records show that William Gilderson did marry on 1st April 1915 at Romford Register Office, Essex to Caroline Sarah Hearn (Ref. 6).


William Gilderson - First World War


William Gilderson enlisted for the First World War in Ilford, Essex. He served in the Machine Gun Corps (Infantry) in the 44th Coy Unit reaching the rank of Lance Corporal (Number 84730) (ref.8). However, that may not have been the start of his military career. “I think he started out in Signals.  My mother said he was colour blind so maybe this is why he was transferred. He did not want to go to war as he did not want to be involved in killing.” (Ref.2).


He was killed in action on 22nd August 1917 in the theatre of France and Flanders (Ref.8) at 27 years of age. His name is on the Tyne Cot Memorial (close to panel 154 to 159 and 163A) as he has no known grave. The Tyne Cot Memorial is situated in Belgium about 9 kilometres north-east of Leper Town Centre (previously called Ypres).


Last letter home to his sister Winifred


Our transcription of this letter is as follows :


84730 Private W. Gilderson
44 Coy M.G.C.
B.E.F. France


Thursday June 7th 17 [1917]


Dear Win *1

Thank for letter which I received to-day. I am still quite well. I hope you are the same. It’s a bit too hot out here now, and, as we get plenty of marching to do, you bet we feel it, it’s a wonder we don’t melt away, but we don’t, we seem to be just as fat, I don’t mean fat you know, but we all look well. We are supposed to be resting, the only rest we get is when we go up the line, where I suppose we will be going soon. Remember me to Mum, Dad and Percy *2. Give my love to the Girls at the shop. I hope their boys will soon be back to them. Tell Hilda to cheer up as we all shall be home soon. Keep on serving the old cats Win *3. You are alright there take my tip.

Well good bye till next letter


Your Loving Brother Will xxxxx


*1 ‘Win’ was Winifred Gilderson, one of William’s sisters
*2 probably a cat
*3 refers to Winifred’s employment at the drapers. The ‘old cats’ were the picky old women customers who irritated Winifred


The Battle of Ypres 1917 (aka "Third Battle of Ypres" or simply "Passchendaele")


Because William was killed on 22nd August 1917 it is highly likely that he was killed in the Battle of Ypres 1917 (also known as “Third Battle of Ypres” or simply “Passchendaele”) which ran from 31 July 1917 to 10 November 1917 (see Refs. 9 to 13). There were actions around St Julien (aka St Julian) on 19, 22 and 27 August – the middle date of which coincides with William’s death.


The first two battles of Ypres in 1914 and 1915 were largely defensive battles against German offensive actions. The Third Battle of Ypres was an Allied offensive action against a strongly fortified German line with the objective of reaching the Belgium coast in order to destroy German submarine bases which could have supported a potential German blockade.


The Third Battle of Ypres was preceded by two weeks of artillery bombardment. 4.5 millions shells were fired from 3,000 guns. Unfortunately it failed to destroy many heavily fortified German positions. Atrocious conditions were caused by the clay and soil having been heavily shelled for long periods, which destroyed the land drainage system. This was combined with the heaviest rainfall in 30 years. This resulted in very difficult conditions for the advancing infantry. The use of tanks became impossible. Men and horses drowned. Rifles became clogged up. It would have been during one of these attacks that William lost his life on 22nd August 1917. Attacks were eventually called off due to the conditions. They resumed again from September onwards, culminating in the capture of Passchendaele on 6 November.


The battle became infamous for both the number of causalities suffered (325,000 Allied and 260,000 German casualties) and the atrocious conditions in which the battle was fought. Its purpose was to extend the Ypres Salient (or bulge) to the Belgium coast. After 3 months of fighting only about 5 miles of ground (about 8 kilometers) had been gained when the British Commander Sir Douglas Haig called off the offensive.


The battle contributed towards the eventual outcome of the First World War. During the period of the battle, the Germans were unable to launch offensives to the south against the weakened French. After the battle, the German losses in men and equipment could not be made good. Germany lost the war in the following year.


Visit to Tyne Cot Memorial in May 2007


My mother and I visited the Tyne Cot Memorial in May 2007 where we found the inscription to William Gilderson, shown below.

Photographs on the top line are of a small part of the Tyne Cot Memorial (left) and inscription for William Gilderson (right).  On the bottom line are a few of the gravestones at the Tyne Cot Memorial (left) and Gentle slope looking down from the Tyne Cot Memorial which was the site of a fortified German position (right).




(1) General Register Office, England and Wales, marriage certificate, Q3 Jul-Sep 1889, West Ham 4a, 60.
(2) Personal recollections from my mother Doreen Packard (2007).
(3) General Register Office, England and Wales, birth certificate, Q2 Apr-Jun 1890, Romford 4a, 344.
(4) Census 1901, 23 Grange Road, Sub district Ilford, Registration District Romford.
(5) Census 1911, Ilford Lane, Sub district Ilford, Registration District Romford.
(6) General Register Office, England and Wales, marriage certificate, Q2 Apr-Jun 1915, Romford 4a, 1385.
(7) Medal Card Index TNA WO372/8 http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/SearchUI/Details?uri=D2746568
(8) Commonwealth War Graves Commission http://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead/casualty/839904/
(9) “The British Army in the Great War” http://www.1914-1918.net/wf.htm
(10) http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/wwone/battle_passchendaele.shtml
(11) http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/FWWpasschendaele.htm
(12) http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/special_report/1998/10/98/world_war_i/203397.stm
(13) http://www.ascotparnell.com/OtherLinksPassendale.html