The clandestine team behind the little cross war tribute that was a war memorial like no other

The clandestine team behind the little cross war tribute that was a war memorial like no other

By Gareth Dennison | 20/04/2021

The clandestine team behind the little cross war tribute that was a war memorial like no other

 

A LETTER to the Advertiser in 1939 said four of the six who erected the cross were still living in Rawmarsh, with another having left and one dead.

Three of the four are believed to be “Ossie” Stevenson, Harry House and Clifford Ainley — a few other names have been established but the rest remain a mystery over a century later.

“The little cross is one of the enduring historical stories in the area,” said Tony Dodsworth, of Rawmarsh and Parkgate Local History Group.

“Two photos of the group responsible for erecting the little cross only emerged after many years. There had been a real fear in the past that those responsible might have been ostracised by the ‘great and the good’ in the area if their part had been made public.

“The event has been absorbed into the folklore of the area and especially so because the people involved in the Little Cross ‘project’ were sworn to absolute secrecy with regard to their participation.

“We made an appeal in our newsletter of March 2016 but failed to get any more names, probably because of a lack of knowledge, rather than fear, by then.

“The actual cenotaph was unveiled, eventually, in 1928... ten years after the war finished. It’s no wonder the old soldiers lost patience.”

Our story below is based on the accounts of Mr F Singleton and Mrs Mollekin, as told to Mr Dodsworth.

Mrs Mollekin revealed the group picture of the 21 men. She said: “I have had the picture in my possession for some years, but the chap who handed it to me swore me to secrecy until the last of them had passed away.

“I have no doubt that many of you will recognise some of the men. Indeed, there are many of their descendants walking around the district today who bear their features. These 21 men, having returned from the Great War, campaigned for some years to have a memorial erected in memory of their comrades.

“However, come the dawn and there it was for all to see, a significant reminder to all the local populace, of the sacrifice of their own sons.

“Of course their action shamed the council into making provision for the fine memorial that now stands on Rawmarsh Hill.”

 

AN ADVANCE party had already been sent to scout the area.

The vehicle arrived slowly, without lights, at a spot near St Mary’s Church on Rawmarsh Hill.

In the dickey seat was the small but significant item which would become central to one of Rotherham’s most enduring local history mysteries.

This little cross was cast in concrete in Parkgate backyard.

It was made in two pieces. The top had an iron rod extending from the bottom allowing it to be secured — by a hefty washer and nut — to the 18-inch base, which had been cast in an old bread tin.

It was apparently inscribed by a Mr Booth, of Allt Street, and had been stashed in a stable on Netherfield Lane. Nobody must know anything about it.

When it arrived at its destination under cover of darkness on Sunday, July 19, 1926, it was safely unloaded and the driver took away the vehicle, leaving the rest of the party.

A light burning in a streetlamp over the exact spot was swiftly extinguished.

The scouts came across three people sitting nearby. It was decided that the most “policeman-like” member of our undercover group would go over and tell them to move along.

Zero hour arrived: 1am. After final checks, the working party got busy with their tools and hands to create a hole big enough for the base.

They only had to take cover once — as a late traveller headed down the hill towards Rotherham — and soon the little cross was in place.

It soon attracted tributes, with many flowers being placed there, along with a wreath.

The Sheffield Telegraph reported: “An unusual course has been observed in connection with a war memorial at Rawmarsh.

“Without pomp or ceremony, a memorial has been erected at the junction of Westfield Road and Rawmarsh Hill.

“It is in the form of a simple cross of cement, and is inscribed ‘To the glorious dead, 1914-1918.’

“The responsibility for its erection is a profound secret, but the monument is believed to be the work of some ex-Servicemen of the district.

“The local war memorial committee has funds for a scheme, but the British Legion and the committee have differed over the question of a site.”

Eight years had elapsed since the end of the Great War, and all the surrounding towns and villages had long since installed their tributes to the many lost lives.

The public, who donated more than £2,000, had begun to ask questions of the Rawmarsh and Parkgate War Memorial Committee. It was known that the main stumbling block was the question of a site.

Enter our group of 21 men, who for many years were entirely unknown.

They wanted their lost former comrades honoured. Unhappy at the lack of progress with an official memorial, they took the matter into their own hands by erecting the little cross.

They heard of a miniature memorial already being available — a widow had one made in her husband’s memory but the authorities refused her permission to put it in the cemetery.

It was perfect — but on the day it was meant to be inscribed, it was found broken into many pieces. Its fate has never been explained.

It was decided to replicate it — and the new little cross was reinforced with iron tie rods from a disused wringing machine.

The 21 would regularly overhear compliments about the little cross or speculation as to who had placed it there.

Some were nearby when the local cinema operator offered to film a re-enactment. They never sought publicity, and those who knew their identities were sworn to secrecy. The little cross remained for about 18 months, and had served its purpose. The committee dithering on an official tribute had been prompted into action.

They asked for the little cross to be removed. The RBL did so, hoping the cross could be put in the churchyard. Legal issues with the church were blamed for this not taking place and, instead, the cross was buried within the boundaries of the main memorial.

A few members of the legion were there to witness the last rites of the little cross.

The much more imposing “official” memorial was dedicated on Sunday, June 3, 1928 — almost a decade after the end of the war.

The Advertiser reported that a crowd of 8,000 thronged the area, with the space from Goosebutt Street to Rockcliffe Road “one solid wedge of humanity standing in the blazing sunshine”.

St John Ambulance medics were required to aid those who fainted. Children obtained a better view by standing on the rectory wall.

The procession left the council offices on Rawmarsh Hill for St Mary’s. Colonel Rhodes carried out the actual unveiling and told the crowd that those who died in the war had sacrificed their all so the country might live.

Hymns followed, as well as the Last Post, and more speeches.

After the official proceedings, hundreds of widows, mothers and daughters —  some wearing their loved ones’ medals — queued patiently to lay their own personal tributes.

A film made of the unveiling ends with a reference to the little cross (left).

The caption said: “Having achieved its object, it was reverently buried here. May it rest in peace with the secret of its makers buried with it.”

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