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Admired From the Western Front:
The Brief Romance of a Mexborough Lass

Vice Chair Bill Lawrence continues our first world war features with the story of a letter from the Western Front

Charlotte and John Shaw and baby Miriam 1897

The Mexborough and District Heritage Society have undertaken some important historical project over the years and remains a vital channel for collecting and disseminating information concerning our local heritage.
The Society’s Friday sessions at Mexborough library have proven to be a welcome contact place for those wishing to research their own family history, but it has also serviced as forum for those with collections of photographs and stories of local interest. Many have kindly donated photos and articles to our ever growing archives so that they can be shared and enjoyed by all of us. Many contributors are anxious that they are preserved for future generations and not overlooked by those who inherit them.
We continue to have interesting photos and the stories behind them brought to our attention. One such contributor has been Mexborough born and bred Mrs Pauline Gibbons. (nee Graham)
Mrs Gibbons brought us a collection of photos of her mother Miriam Shaw. The story behind one of them is fascinating. It was a photo of Miriam at the age of about 18, what accompanied it was equally as captivating.
Miriam was born in Mexborough on the 2nd December 1896. Her father was, at that time, the well known performer and trapeze artist John “Blondin” Shaw. On marrying Miriam’s mother Charlotte, John took the slightly less dangerous job of working at Cadeby Main Pit. He settled down and moved into the then new house at 13, Dodsworth Street, Mexborough where he, his wife and Miriam lived for the rest of their lives.
Miriam was born into a theatrical family, certainly a talented set of individuals. She went to work in the one time Prince of Wales Theatre in 1911, which was renamed the Hippodrome in 1913. Miriam’s brother Joseph Shaw become the leader of the Orchestra of the Hippodrome round this time.
This was a period when Mexborough was thriving as a result of the expansion of the coalfields and provided relative prosperity for its working people. The theatre saw the performance of the greats of the time such as comedians, Dan Leno and Little Titchbourne. Charlie Chaplin appeared in at the theatre in 1909 in a Fred Karno stretch in which he performed as drunken clown. The then unknown Norman Evans appeared around 1912.
At the outbreak of the First World War Miriam was still working at the Hipporome. Like most women at that time she was keen to do something for the war effort. Women, particularly young women, were asked to send various items to the ‘lads’ at the front. This could be knit wear, cigarettes, chocolate or other provisions which would help maintain or lift moral. It was believed that the troops would appreciate the enclosure of a photo from the young women who supplied the various parcels
Miriam packaged her own parcel for dispatch to the Western Front and placed a photo of herself along with her gifts. Miriam wrote her address on the back of the postcard photo. It is thought this is how it arrived on the battlefields in France in the first world war.

A Lance Sergeant in the 20th Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters saw Miriam’s photo (left)  pinned to a trench wall in the battlefields of the Western Front. Sergeant Reg Bradley’s words in the letter he wrote to Miriam tells the story.

“Dear Miss Shaw”
“Just a few lines trusting they find you in the best of health as they leave me and the boys at present. I have no doubt you will begin to wonder who I am and how have got your address. I will unravel the mystery. I had the pleasure of picking up your photograph along with others, and I have asked all the boys in my platoon did they own same but the answer was in the negative. You name and address was on the back of the same and as I picked it up in Billets, it is evidently belongs to one of our boys. Of course you will be pleased to know that your photograph adorns the wall of one of our dugouts and myself and one or two of the boys wish the real thing was there to have a talk with us, as things sometime get rather monotonous. I will be glad then the war is over and we can get back. What a time there will be when the boys come home. Well Miss Shaw I should be pleased to hear from you as to what I have to do with the photograph. Should you want me to return I will do, otherwise I will keep same. Sorry I have no photograph of myself here but my age is 23.
In the meantime believe me to be, Sincerely yours, Reg Bradley.”

Whilst Lance Sergeant Bradley clearly expresses the frustrations of soldiers isolated from love ones and an urge to return to social normality with the ending of the war, he also appears to be keen to forge some kind of relationship with Miriam. We do know he was later to achieve this ambition.
Miriam must have replied to Sergeant Bradley for Miriam’s photo arrived back at 13 Dodsworth Street, along with a photograph of Reg, taken at the Don Studios in Balby Bridge, Doncaster. This suggests he was a local man. It portrays a photo of Reg looking handsome in what appears to be a police officer’s uniform (below).

On Sergeant Bradley’s return to England he met up with Miriam although we have no evidence as to an exact date but probably around the end of the war in 1918. Miriam clearly took to this handsome young sergeant and they become engaged. However the relationship wasn’t to last. It become obvious to Miriam that Reg was a ‘ladies man’ as he would be described in those days. Writing charming letters to young ladies may well have been one of Reg’s regular activities. Miriam soon discovered Reg was probably true to form but not true to her.
Miriam broke off the engagement, but made the symbolic gesture of smashing up the engagement ring with a hammer. Miriam mother, Pauline on telling this story was not quite sure whether her mother’s method of showing her disgust with her betrothed was appropriate. Pauline agreed that such event may be worth recording when it was pointed out to her the modern women of today would probably applaud her mother’s determination to put this particular ‘ladies man’ in his place.
It is fascinating to reflect on the journey Miriam’s photograph took. From Mexborough to the Western Front and back again, and with it a story from the trenches which developed into, albeit short, romance.
The photos of Miriam and Reg and the original letter from first world war trenches are now in the Mexborough Heritage Society’s Archives for save keeping. Just another piece of our Mexborough heritage for us to enjoy.
Miriam’s father John Shaw died around 1916 but not before he had turned his hand to the practice of homeopathy which he used to treat invalid soldier during the Great War.
As for Miriam herself she continued after the war to work at the Hippodrome as head cashier. At this time she would have witnessed the performances of, later to become world renown, Gracie Fields. Gracie performed at the theatre around 1919 at the age of 22. The George Formby father, also called George, appeared also around this time. The Mexborough Hippodrome proved to be a good training ground for well known great artists and performers of the post war first world war period.
By 1920 George Aston, a former manager of the Tivoli Theatre in Hull, had succeeded former manager George Hirst. George Aston remained at the Hippodrome until 1928, the year after Miriam’s marriage.
Miriam married John Graham and left the Hippodrome on marriage in 1927. John had a good job as a master pattern fitter building machinery at the Queens Foundry on Whitelee Road. Consequently Miriam was able to concentrate on the job of being a house wife and raising Pauline her only child, at 13, Dodsworth Street where she continued to pursue her love of the piano.
Miriam died in 1975. Her daughter, Pauline, born in 1929 still lives in Mexborough and has very kindly donated photographs which tells a little of her mother’s life and of course the story from the Western Front during the first world war.
The Mexborough and District Heritage Society is grateful to Mrs Gibbons and others who have donated or have allow us to see their family archives helping us to build our own ever increasing collection.

Interview with Mrs Pauline Gibbons (June & July 2012)
The History of the Hippodrome Theatre Mexborough 1893 – 1939 Brian Hillerby (1978)

If any readers have any photos or articles relating to Mexborough during the first world war or any interesting aspect of our local heritage, please contact the Society’s Secretary Julia Ashby on jrashby@hotmail.co.uk
Alternatively please visit us at our Friday open sessions at Mexborough Library between 11.00 am and 4.00 pm.

Copyright: This newsletter may not be reproduced, in part or in its entirety without the permission of Bill Lawrence