Rank: Able Seaman
Unit/Regiment: H.M.S. “Pembroke”
Service Number: Tyneside Z/5695
Date of Death: 6 November 1918
Although there is a William Townsend on the St Mary’s War Memorial, it is not William Frederick Townsend whose November 1918 burial service was conducted by St Mary’s priests the Rev. Fathers Lee and Kestelyn. It appears this 1918 man only spent a short time in the parish prior to his death. As such I am including him amongst those associated with the parish (albeit briefly) but who is not on the War Memorial.
And, despite extensive research, William Frederick Townsend is still very much a man of mystery with many fragments of seemingly contradictory information. That being said, I am now beginning to build a picture based on the balance of evidence. These are my findings so far.
William Frederick Townsend’s Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR) papers give his date of birth as 3 April 1882, but his place of birth is left blank. According to his death certificate and the Batley cemetery burial register he was 39, equating to a birth date between 7 November 1878 to 6 November 1879. Another newspaper report gives his age as 37. As yet, and despite other information unearthed, I’ve not located any definite birth registration. Neither have I yet definitely found him in any of the censuses in England, Wales or Ireland.
There are even discrepancies over the number of children he had – two or three depending on which newspaper you read.
But there are tantalising hints in other records and sources. Amongst other information, they show a connection with Sheffield, and that his wife was called Jessie. There are snippets showing Jessie remarried in 1919 to a man with the surname of Johnson, and she travelled to Canada before settling in the USA. These clues, amongst others, have enabled me to piece together some information.
It appears William Frederick Townsend used other names. He was known as Fred Townsend, or Frederick William Townsend – not big leaps, but enough to throw obstacles in the way of research. However, to add to the complication, he was also a music hall artist known by the stage name of Fred Fosco.2 For consistency I will use the William Frederick Townsend variant in this piece – the name under which he enlisted and died.
However, I will start his story in the music hall and theatres at the turn of the 20th century. Here, in the pantomime season of the winter of 1902/03 he was touring provincial theatres with Gus Levaine’s company. The production was Aladdin where, as Abanazar, and under his stage name of Fred Fosco, he performed the “usual scampish tricks well.”3 Also in the cast were sisters Lizzie and Jessie Lindsay. Jessie was born in Sheffield in February 1885, the daughter of Robert and Mary Lindsay. The 1901 census describes Jessie and her sister as stage artists and vocalists. Within months of Aladdin’s run ending, William Frederick Townsend and Jessie Lindsay married.
The wedding took place on 3 July 1903, according to the rites of the Established Church, at St Bartholomew’s, Sheffield. Married under the name of Fred Townsend, he gave his age as 24, and he named his father as deceased tailor William Townsend. The couple’s addresses were stated to be Kelvin Street, Sheffield. This is the street where the Lindsay family lived in the 1901 census. The age in this record puts his date of birth between 4 July 1878 to 3 July 1879, so a match for his death registration and burial records.
The couple had numerous addresses during their marriage. These included the Sheffield addresses of 211 Whitehouse Lane and 62 Tennyson Street. Their work also led them to staying in many other towns across the country whilst on tour, predominantly in the north of England and the Midlands.
During this time they had two children: Florence Edna born on 3 February 1904 in Sheffield, and Charles Frederick on 4 March 1905, born in Worksop. Almost from the start though it was not a happy marriage.
In the winter season of 1905/06 they did still work together in theatre productions. The pantomime in which they performed this season was Miss Ethel Clayton’s Babes in the Wood where:
Miss Jessie Lindsay as Robin Hood is a captivating principal boy, and charms with her songs and dances…Messrs. Fred Fosco and Dave Anderson as Weary Willie and Tired Tim are most amusing comedians…4
However their work in music halls was irregular. In order to make a living they also appeared in hotel entertainments. But this too was insufficient income to support their family. It appears that around the summer of 1906 Jessie’s father obtained a position at Vickers, Sheffield for his son-in-law. He stayed here for about a fortnight, and then left both his job and his wife.
Jessie continued to work as a hotel turn, music hall and pantomime artist. In 1909, whilst appearing in Burton-on-Trent, she met chauffeur Ezra Shaw. Although they did not live together, in December 1911 they had a son born in Barnsley, named Ronald Shaw. Earlier that year, in the 1911 census, the children of William Frederick and Jessie were living in Sheffield with their Lindsay grandparents – although here Charles Frederick’s name is given in this census as Frederic William Townsend! To date I have not traced William Frederick or Jessie in this census.
However, by the summer of 1912, William Frederick Townsend had set up home at Holder’s Square, St James Street, Nottingham with Ivy Lea. They were living together as Fred and Ivy Fosco. This was the name under which 19-year-old Ivy’s death and burial was registered in September 1912.
In October 1913 both William Frederick Townsend and his estranged wife were both back in Sheffield. Her address was given as 4 Joiner Street, Sheffield. He was at Hill Street, Sheffield. It was at this point Jessie filed a divorce petition, citing her husband’s cruelty towards her and his misconduct with Ivy Lee. The divorce papers state that the name under which he married, Fred, was the shortened version of Frederick William Townsend.
The case was heard on 2 and 23 February 1914 and, given the sensational subject and music hall link, there was even more incentive than usual to cover it in the papers. William Frederick Townsend did not appear. At this point the indications are he was trying to earn a living singing on the streets. During the case Robert Lindsay described his son-in-law as “a disgrace to humanity” and said he would not work. Ezra Shaw was also present in court, offering to marry Jessie if a divorce was granted. Sir Samuel Evans however rejected the petition.
Skip forward to the Great War period.
In June 1915 using the William Frederick Townsend version of his name, he enlisted with the RNVR. His religion on these records was given as Catholic. He is described as 5’ 5¾” tall with brown hair, grey eyes and a fair complexion. He also had a tattoo on each forearm. And his occupation was stated to be a labourer. Although this does not match the expected music hall work associated with him in earlier years, this is an occupation which appears in a subsequent school record for his daughter. And the Vickers work of 1906 is an indication that he did dabble with other occupations, given the precarious nature of stage earnings. The address for both himself and wife, Jessie (or Jesse as it is written only on this record), is 13 Orange Street, Sheffield. The implication is that they are together, but I have been unable to substantiate this.
By 17 September 1915 he was a Leading Seaman, but less than a month later her was sentenced to 14 days detention for an unspecified transgression and disrated to the rank of Able Bodied Seaman. And this was his rank for the remainder of his service.
At this point it seems appropriate to give some background information about the service branch with which William Frederick Townsend enlisted. The RNVR was formed in June 1903 by the ‘Naval Forces Act 1903’. Volunteers joining the RNVR agreed to serve ‘either ashore or afloat’ and consequently performed a wide range of duties. According to his service papers William Frederick served on H.M.S. Victory I,5 H.M.S. Vanguard,6 H.M.S. Pembroke,7 H.M.S. Prince George8 and finally back to H.M.S. Pembroke.
Of these postings only one was at sea, H.M.S. Vanguard. He served with her between 11 November 1915 to 30 April 1916. According to newspaper reports William Frederick took part in the Battle of Jutland in which he went through the terrible ordeal of being in the water for several hours before his rescue. However, according to his records, he had left H.M.S. Vanguard by the time of the Battle of Jutland, on 31 May to 1 June 1916. At the time of the battle, according to this record, he was back at the shore-based establishment, Pembroke. So, based on this, it appears as if the story of his Jutland sea ordeal is perhaps a misunderstanding and it took place in some other context. There is no reference to it on his service records.
William Frederick Townsend was discharged from naval service on 9 May 1917 as a result of tuberculosis of the lungs. He was awarded a Silver War Badge (SWB) upon discharge. This badge was given to those military personnel who had served at home or overseas during the war, and who had been discharged because of wounds or illness. It was a way of showing to others that, once back in civilian life, they had done their duty to King and country.
His naval records show his conduct was either good or very good, and his ability was satisfactory.
I have not tracked down Jessie Lindsay during the time William Frederick Townsend was serving in the military. But their daughter Florence Edna, along with Jessie’s son Ronald (now using the surname Townsend), were in Liverpool during the war period according to school records. There is no trace of their son Charles Frederick.
Florence appears in the admission register for Gwaldys Street County Primary, Liverpool (for those not familiar with Liverpool, think Goodison Park and the Everton FC area) on 30 November 1915. Her father is listed as Fred[erick] William Townsend, Navy. Her date of birth is given as 4 February 1904, so not quite a match on birth date – but only one day out.
But there is no doubt this is the correct child. Her previous school was Racecommon Road School in Barnsley – a locality associated with mother Jessie. Crucially Florence Edna’s address in Liverpool is 58 Wellbrow Road – and the 1911 census and 1918 Electoral Register shows that at this address lived her aunt Lizzie (or Elizabeth Ann) Lindsay. Lizzie’s marriage to musical performer George Claude Handover was registered in 1904, stage name George Brooks. The 1911 census uses the Handover surname; the 1918 electoral register is under the Brooks name. And this address also appears on the service records of the man Jessie Lindsay married following Frederick William Townsend’s death – as a contact address for his new next of kin.
Perhaps this move by the children to Liverpool was prompted by the need for some stability in home life, based with their aunt and uncle – especially coming after William Frederick Townsend’s enlistment a little over two months earlier, and if Jessie was still working as a vocalist, and frequently on the road.
Florence left Gwladys Road school in June 1916, transferring to St John’s Roman Catholic Secondary School. The timing of the move and the date of birth given are a match for the Gwladys Street County Primary log records. One slight difference – her father is recorded on the St John’s log as William Frederick Townsend, which is the name order matching the military and death certificate information. Although still in the navy in June 1916, this school record describes his occupation as a labourer – a match for that given on William Frederick Townsend’s RNVR enrolment card.
There is a note on Ronald’s school log noting his last attendance at the end of May 1916 at Gwladys Street, and a transfer to St John’s, Fountain Road. But this move did not last and he was soon back at Gwladys Street.
Back to William Frederick Townsend then. After being discharged from the Navy, according to newspaper reports at the time of his death he worked as a stage manager at the Batley Hippodrome. The description of the responsibilities and tasks associated with the job of stage manager is:
…responsible for smooth running of performance; satisfies himself that scenery, lighting, properties, etc., are in order; sees that all artistes are on premises prior to performance, and if they are not, instructs understudies to take parts of absent performers; sees that intervals are not prolonged; is in charge of everybody and everything on stage; receives reports from master carpenter, property master and electrician that everything under their charge is in order.8
It is a role which would not seem a fit for someone who had only worked as a labourer. However, it would certainly suit someone with previous stage experience and knew how the industry worked – such as a former stage artist. Perhaps also Frederick William Townsend’s situation as a man who had stepped up to serve King and country, and whose health had suffered as a result (possibly with a Jutland backstory), helped nail him the job.
Batley Hippodrome has long since gone. But it stood on the corner of St James Street in Batley, and started life as the Theatre Royal. It subsequently became the Empire Cinema. I have attached a brief history of the building as follows:
Located in Batley, West Yorkshire. The Theatre Royal opened on 2nd November 1896. It was designed by architect William Smelt and had 3,000 seats in pit, stalls, dress circle and boxes, and was built for Fred Cooke. Alterations were carried out around 1907 to the plans of architect A.J. Whitty. In February 1912 it was re-named Batley Hippodrome Theatre.
In 1921 the building was gutted back to the bare walls and the façade was rebuilt. This was done to the plans of architectural firm Hanstock & Sons who created a modern cinema with 712 seats in the stalls and 268 seats in the circle. It re-opened as the Empire Super Cinema on 2nd January 1922. There was still a stage, and the proscenium was 22 feet wide. The Empire Cinema was the first in town to be equipped to show ‘talkies, when a Western Electric (WE) sound system was installed and on the 20th October 1929 “Showboat” was the first sound film to be screened.
The Empire Cinema was equipped with CinemaScope in 1954/1955, with a new wide screen was installed forward from the original proscenium. It was closed on 26th August 1961 with Richard Todd in “Don’t Bother to Knock”.10
I have also attached details of the productions shown at the theatre in the four weeks prior to the death of William Frederick Townsend, to give a flavour of the type of shows, their regularity and price structure at the time he worked there.
At the time of his death William Frederick Townsend’s address was given as 23, Henrietta Street in Batley – a stone’s throw from the Hippodrome. However he does not appear in Batley in the October 1918 Electoral Register. Neither does Jessie. And they cannot be found in the Liverpool Electoral Registers at the Wellbrow Road address. It is certainly possible children Florence Edna and Ronald remained in Liverpool, because Ronald’s records indicate him being still in school here in October 1919, back at Gwladys Street, at which point his log is annotated “Gone to Canada”.
William Frederick Townsend died on 6 November 1918. His death certificate gives the cause of his death as pulmonary tuberculosis is 15 months – although newspapers reported the cause as double pneumonia. The occupations given on his death certificate are music hall artist/naval pensioner AB, RNVR. And the death informant was his widow, Jessie Townsend of 23 Henrietta Street.
He was buried in Batley cemetery on Saturday 9 November 1918. The burial register merely mentions his occupation as RNVR discharged. The graveside service was in two parts. The Rev. Fathers Lee and Kestelyn from St Mary’s conducted the interment service. The Rev. D.F. Jones of Soothill Road performed the graveside rites of the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes (RAOB).
William Frederick Townsend was awarded the 1914-15 Star, Victory Medal and British War Medal. These medals were forwarded to his widow.
Although not on the St Mary’s church War Memorial, he is remembered on Batley War Memorial.
As for his widow Jessie, she did not end up with Ezra Shaw (the father of Ronald). Ezra is still single in the 1939 Register. In the spring of 1919 she married Swedish-born Canadian serviceman Oscar Hilding Johnson at Burnley Register Office. In October that year she set sail for Canada, along with children Florence and Ronald, arriving in Montreal on 10 October 1919. From there the family travelled to the USA and Geneva, Illinois, and this is where Oscar, Jessie, Florence and Ronald are in the 1920 U.S. census.
As I indicated at the start, this is a complex case. However the weight of evidence is pointing towards William Frederick Townsend being Fred Townsend/Frederick William Townsend/Fred Fosco. I will update this post if further information is discovered.
Finally a huge thank you to historical researcher, genealogist and archivist Maxine Willett who was a sounding board for my research and theories regarding this man.
1. I do have one possibility, but as yet unproved;
2. There was also another music hall artist with similar name of Fred Foscoe whose forte was the accordion.
3. The Stage, 5 March 1903, Ilkeston Royal;
4. The Era, 17 February 1906 – Rawtenstall, Grand Theatre;
5. Nelson’s flagship, used as a barracks at Portsmouth;
6. H.M.S Vanguard was a battleship which took part in the Battle of Jutland. She eventually sank after an explosion at Scapa Flow in July 1917;
7. This was a shore based barracks at Chatham;
8. William was on H.M.S. Prince George from 20 August to 14 September 1916, during which time she was based at Chatham.
9. Labour, Ministry of. Dictionary of Occupational Terms: Based on the Classification of Occupations Used in the Census of Population, 1921. London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1927.
10. Cinema Treasures website, contribution by Ken Roe, http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/51602
• 1939 Register;
• Arriving Passenger and Crew Lists, Michigan, U.S.;
• Baptism Registers, St George, Brook Street, Sheffield and St Mary’s, Sheffield;
• Batley Cemetery Burial Register;
• Border Crossings – Canada to U.S.;
• Censuses, England and Wales – 1901 and 1911;
• Census – U.S. 1920;
• Civil Divorce Records – England and Wales;
• Commonwealth War Graves Commission Website;
• GRO Birth and Death Indexes;
• GRO PDF Copy of Death Registration;
• Lancashire BMD website;
• Marriage Register, St Bartholomew’s, Sheffield;
• National Library of Scotland maps;
• National School Admission Registers and Log Books – Burgoyne Road Infants, Sheffield; Gwladys Street County Primary School; St John’s Roman Catholic Secondary School for Girls, Liverpool;
• Naval Medal Award Rolls – Campaign and Silver War Badge;
• Newspapers, including Sheffield Evening Telegraph – 2 and 23 February 1914; Sheffield Daily Telegraph – 3 and 24 February 1914; Sheffield Independent – 3 and 24 February 1914; Reynolds Newspaper, London – 8 February 1914; The People, London – 8 February and 1 March 1914;
• Passenger Lists – Canada;
• Royal Naval Division ADM339 Records;
• Royal Naval Reserve ADM337/74/200; and
• WW1 Pension Record Cards and Ledgers.