169 THURLBY, John

Searching for a Portrait
Searching for a Portrait

169 John Thurlby

John Thurlby was born in Ranceby Lincolnshire England in 1881  to parents Henry and Mary Ann ( nee Cubley ). John also had two sisters Ethel the eldest and younger sister Hilda.

The Thurlby name was well known in the district and his father Henry had came from a long line of farming families.

The family were successful farmers and graziers on  what was known  as “Heath Farm” a large holding of 650 acres  where they employed six labourers a governess for schooling  John and his two sisters, as well as a number of housemaids and servants.

At the turn of the century once old enough John was also employed on the farm. In 1906 John’s mother Mary had passed away and John’s sisters Hilda and Ethel had married.

By 1911 his father Henry had retired from farming and was living in the care of his eldest daughter Ethel who had married Samuel Clare.

Prior to this John had left the family farm, perhaps the prospect of running the farm alone was not something John had ambition for, and instead  in 1910 he ventured to Australia on board the passenger ship “Suffolk”.

He settled in Greenethorpe on a share farming estate known as Iandra Castle, near Cowra in New South Wales.

Iandra Castle was a 32,000 acre estate and village established by George Henry Greene who based it on the English manor system.

The estate employed over 350 men and additional share-farmers, and included construction of an adjoining village known as Greenethorpe village for its tenants and workers.

This was familiar surroundings for John, his knowledge and farming skills would have been valued and appreciated by the managers of the estate. John working as a “Station Hand” at Iandra had established himself and had comfortably settled in his new life and had even taken out a life insurance policy with the odd fellows.

iandra castle in the old days courtesy http://www.iandracastle.com.au

In 1914 that all changed and British born John Thurlby felt duty bound to enlist and join the Australian Imperial Forces.  With horse and wagon skills he was placed as a driver in 1st Field Company Engineers.

On April 25th 1915 John Thurlby was serving with the rest of the drivers of the company waiting off shore at Gallipoli hoping to land with horses and carts. This did not eventuate and they returned to Maadi Camp , Alexandria in  Egypt for the remainder of the Gallipoli  campaign .

Maadi Camp circa 1914 – AWM H18504

When the drivers of the 1st FCE  had returned to Egypt and settled back in camp they were just five miles from Alexandria and only a mile from the sea. The weather was dry and extremely hot, however they were able to enjoy bathing every night.

Fellow driver and original 16 Marcus Clark described the daily work schedule of the drivers and the farrier’s in the company.

We are camped with New Zealander’s and English, and there are a lot of horses. We have reveile at 5.30, and my mate and I shoe from 6 to 7.30, and  knock off at 11, when we are finished for the day. None of the troops work after dinner…… Our food is good now, being supplied by the English A.S.C. It is too hot to wear long trousers and leggings, so we cut off our trousers at the knees, and wear white shoes without socks, which is far more comfortable. Only five of us sleep in one tent which is supposed to hold 15, so we have plenty of room. We have as much leave as we want, but without pay.  All of our officers are at the Dardanelles and  a Sergeant is in charge of us……We may be here for a couple of months and then we take the horses to England very soon.” ……….Marcus Clark  (The Sergeant that Marcus makes reference to is John Flackfield)

On the 16th December the drivers transferred to Zeitoun Camp near Heliopolis in Cairo and later on the 21st entrained for Tel-el-Kebir and rejoined the sappers who returned from Gallipoli  a week later on the 28th.

Enter a caption

(Photo -Tel el Kebir, North Egypt. February 1916. Limber wagon used to cart tools, bringing two barrels of beer for 1st Field Company Engineers Sergeants’ Mess. On the right is Sergeant Tom Newson. (Donor original sapper 237 Evelyn Lloyd).

On 31st December 1915 John was appointed  Lance Corporal and also his fellow driver and friend 161 George Gear was also promoted.

Both John and George in late March 1916 were now  members of what became known as the “Mounted Section”  and departed for France on the “Knight Templar”.

John’s war record showed he had a clean slate and for the 12 months spent in Egypt there is no evidence that he had strayed or participated in the early heady days of revelry that his friend 161 sapper George Gear certainly managed to record.

John Thurlby  and the drivers again joined with the original company with pontoon and wagons and were now in the thick of the war at the western front.

The “Short Account” of the 1st FCE detailed how the unit had left Ypres on Thursday the 12th October and arrived at Watten on the 16th October 1916.

On the night of the 19th October 1916 tragedy would strike and it was not from the enemy.

John Thurlby whilst returning to camp fell into the main canal also known as “Train canal” and drowned.  He had fallen at what was described as a very dangerous point of the footbridge crossing that was poorly lit on the night.

Two sappers 2378 Leslie Barry  and 1889 Fred Brightfield had stripped naked and dived in the canal in the cold and dark and tried desperately to recover his body without success.

2378 Spr Leslie Barry

John Thurlby’s body was found on the bank the next morning.

His close friend original 161 Sapper George Gear was with him earlier in the evening and testified that John was certainly not drunk.

Fellow original and now Company Sergeant Major  158 James Johnston had been unaware that John Thurlby was the drowning victim believing that John was uncharacteristically absent without leave. He later formally identified the body of John.

James Johnston
158 James Johnston – Photo Courtesy Johnston Family Collection

Later a court inquiry held by Captain W.W James of the 1st Field Engineers in order to determine the circumstances of John’s death and to conclude the findings.

The following day the company left Watten and marched onto St.Omer where John was buried.

Souvenir Cemetery, Longuenesse St. Omer France

John’s eldest sister Ethel, who was officially his next of kin was notified of his death and his few remaining  personal effects were returned to her care as well as some money due from his insurance policy.

Sadly no picture of John has emerged, but further research efforts through Ancestry.com may offer some hope.

Story © VanceKelly 2016

Sources and Acknowledgements:

AWM, NAA, NLA, CWG, Ancestry.com



Sapper 2378 Leslie Barry memoirs available to read on line from the State Library Of NSW. see link below.