In November 2002, when Remembrance Day was imminent, I was reminded of one of the more difficult trails I followed when pursuing my hobby of Family History. My own family, the Ashleys, sprang from Chitterne and it was inevitable, given their abundance in the village, that the Felthams should play a part in my ancestry. One of these, though distant, was William James Feltham. Why did I think of William James in November? It was because he lost his life in The Great War.
I wonder how many of the present-day inhabitants of Chitterne or visitors to the village take time to read the names inscribed on the War Memorial near the entrance to the church or consider why it is The Royal Marine Light Infantry is included in the Memorial Window inside. Those who do read the names will find my relative, "Pvte. William James Feltham of The RMLI, died 31st May 1916." I know nothing of William's life in Chitterne and little of his service with The Marines - he is too distant in time and no descendant is available to help. However, such facts as I have uncovered will, I hope, be of some interest, and the process of "finding" William is a story in itself.
My database of Chitterne Felthams, compiled mainly from parish records and census returns, showed two possible candidates for being the man on the War Memorial, both named William James and born in Chitterne in 1873. One was born in January and baptised in the new parish church in March, the tenth of twelve children of George and Ellen Feltham. He was named for a brother who had died at the age of three. George, an agricultural labourer, was descended from a family established in Chitterne towards the end of the 18th Century which had roots in Somerset in Elizabethan times. The other candidate was born to an unmarried mother in the second half of the year and baptised in the May of 1874. His mother, Emily, who later married John Furnell of Chitterne was a member of the second Feltham "contingent" which has 18th Century roots in Amesbury.
I first consulted The Commonwealth War Graves Commission. In most cases they can provide the date of birth and next of kin of a man killed in action but in this one they had neither. They were, however, able to give me Pvte. Feltham's service number, his ship and the information that he is also commemorated on a Memorial in Plymouth, the home of his marine division. I telephoned The Plymouth Library, which holds details of the Memorial, but, again, it had name, unit and date of death only. My next port of call was the Marines Museum in Portsea, where I hoped to find a repository of service information, but was told by the historian there that records for The Royal Marines are held at The Public Record Office at Kew. Meanwhile some news arrived from a fellow Feltham researcher. I already knew of a William James of Chitterne who married a Hannah Cruse in Imber in 1895 when he was twenty two - undoubtedly one of my candidates - but the other researcher had now found this couple on the 1901 Census for Sutton Veny where they could be placed at least until 1908 by the baptism dates of their children. This was useful but I still did not know if this was the son of George or son of Emily as the Imber marriage record did not give the name of the groom's father.
All would depend on the PRO records giving a precise date of birth for Marine William and/or some other positive means of identification. Before visiting Kew I checked the PRO website in order to establish precisely what records are held for The Royal Marines and it was clear that The Records of Service would be the best for my purposes. My already having William's service number was proved to be invaluable since, on arrival at Kew, I was able to apply for the document I wanted without first searching various indexes to find the appropriate catalogue number. I was presented with my "document," a ledger measuring about 3 by 2 feet and of fearsome weight, and, not without trepidation, found the relevant page. It was all there but the first detail to catch my eye was the date of birth and, to my consternation, it was not what I expected. According to the service record, William James was born in Chitterne in October 1874 whereas, as I have already mentioned, both men under research were born before October 1873, facts confirmed by civil registration. I read on until, much to my relief, I found William's next of kin. It was an aunt, Mrs Grant of Bowden Court, Lacock. This was surely Jane Grant née Feltham, the sister of George Feltham. Jane Grant was widowed in 1876 and had moved from Chitterne to Warminster by 1881. I have found no subsequent record of her but assume that, in 1916, she must have been a living-in servant at Bowden Court. The unexpected date of birth in William's service record remains a mystery and is certainly incorrect as no William James Feltham was born anywhere in England in 1874 but we can, I think, feel certain that the William James Feltham of The Chitterne War Memorial was the son of George and Ellen who was born in January 1873 and that he could not have been the man who lived in Sutton Veny since he was unmarried and in continuous marine service at the times when the other was working as a carter.
The service record also revealed that Pvte. Feltham was a baptist and had been a carter prior to enlistment in Salisbury in November 1893. He was 5feet 6inches in height and was of fair complexion with brown hair and blue eyes. He gained his School Certificate part 2 in 1893 and parts 3 and 4 in 1894. In 1895 he passed for regimental transport. From 1895 to 1905 he served for short periods on a succession of ships - presumably some of these would have been shore-based - and, during this time, passed three times for gunnery, his results being described as "very good." He passed for butcher in 1897. He appears to have left the service for a short time in 1905 since he is listed as re-engaging at the end of that year when, according to the record, he had increased his height to 5feet 61/2 inches! In 1906, in which year he qualified as a marksman, he was assigned to HMS Impregnable. Four years later he joined Pelorus for a few months and, finally, in February 1911, the ill-fated Indefatigable. Throughout his career both his character and behaviour were described as very good, apart from 1914 to 1916 when it was only satisfactory.
Readers with a memory for historical dates will have realised already from William's date of death that he perished at The Battle of Jutland, that one and only skirmish between the opposing Fleets from which neither side gained an advantage but in which the British lost 6097 men and the Germans 2545. The Indefatigable, one of Beatty's fleet of battle-cruisers, was the first ship to be lost when she was struck by a salvo of three shells and then, having dropped out of the line, was hit again and rolled over and sank. The probable cause for this sudden end, it is thought, was a flash from an explosion in a gun turret passing down into the magazine. Pvte. William James Feltham was among the thousand men who went down with the ship.