This lovely bud, so young so fair,
Called hence by early doom,
Just came to show how sweet a flower
In paradise would bloom

MARIA SCRATCHER was only 17 years and five months old when the First World War claimed her exactly 100 years ago.

She was making munitions amid the machinery of a converted brickworks at Hunwick, near Bishop Auckland, early on Thursday, December 20, 1917. It was a cold morning, and she pulled on an extra layer of clothing to keep warm.

Loading article content

“She was in the act of putting on her jacket when it was caught by a machine-driven riddle, and she was dragged head first into the riddle,” reported The Northern Echo the following day.

“Another girl named Alice Jackson, who was working near, got hold of the unfortunate victim’s feet, and tried to pull her out, but failed. The machinery was stopped as quickly as possible, but Scratcher was quite dead when got out.”

The tragedy happened in the West Witton Ganister Company’s brickworks at West Hunwick.

An inquest into the death was held the following day. “The evidence showed that deceased was beating a belt with a strap 1ft 6in long, when she said she felt cold and started to put her jacket on,” said the Auckland Chronicle. “The jacket was caught by the machine-driven riddle, and the girl was drawn into the riddle and killed instantaneously.”

Poor Maria lived with her mother at 24, Clarence Terrace, Willington – her father, Sgt Joseph Scratcher, was away serving in the Army in Egypt.

A verdict of accidental death was returned, and her body was buried in the cemetery in Willington on Sunday, December 23. The ceremony was attended by a large number of people, from workgirls to company directors.

“The manager and the foreman of the brickworks said they very much deplored the accident and expressed the firm’s sympathy with the relatives of the deceased,” said the Chronicle. “The coroner and jury also expressed their sympathy.”

Maria lies beneath a heart-shaped headstone. Nearby, are the military straight rows of 13 traditional white First World War graves, and

another 12 Second World War headstones. Maria’s stone looks very different – it bears the words of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1832 verse, Epitaph On An Infant – but she is every bit as much a victim of the war as the men who lay beneath the conventional Portland Stone memorials.

NO pictures of Maria are known. The images above come from the 90-minute film The Wear at War, which tells what little is known of her story. The film was produced by Wessington U3A in Washington, and funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. The film tells how the First World War affected communities along the banks of the Wear, and it can be viewed for free on the production company’s site, lonelytower.co.uk

A RIDDLE seems to have been a mechanical sieve used for separating materials, like sand from gravel. Ganister is the stone that lies beneath a seam of coal. It was probably mined at the West Hunwick Colliery and converted in the brickworks into firebricks for the furnaces of Teesside’s iron and steel industry.

IT looks as if Maria’s father made it home from the First World War. There is only one Scratcher listed on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website as having fallen during the conflict, and he was Cpl JH Scratcher of the 12th Durham Light Infantry.

Cpl Scratcher died on June 7, 1917, and is buried near Ypres in Belgium. That day, the 12th went over the top at 6.50am and, according to the regimental diary, “attacked Impartial Trench which was taken with a loss of only 15 killed and wounded”.

Only.

The North-East War Memorials Project website tells us that Cpl Scratcher was remembered on a memorial in Willington Working Men’s Club. The Northern Echo reported that memorial was unveiled on July 24, 1920, by the newly elected Houghton-le-Spring Labour MP, Robert Richardson, a local miner, and that it was dedicated to the 291 members of the club who had served in the war, and the 34 who had been killed.

Two members of the club had been awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal and three had won the Military Medal – one of whom was our man, Cpl Scratcher.

The Echo reported: “Mr Richardson said Willington had done its duty to the nation. He hoped that this war would prove to be the war to end all war. Why, he asked, should men fly at each other’s throats? It rested with the workers whether we had war or peace. The men they were honouring had given their lives to make the world better.”

As, of course, did women like Maria.

Cpl Scratcher with his Willington connection must be related to Maria. If you are related to the family, we’d love to hear from you.

The memorial was lost when the club burned down in the 1950s.

FINALLY, while looking for details of Maria Scratcher, our eye was caught by The Northern Echo’s tragic report headlined “DLI corporal’s death – swallowed his false teeth while at dinner”.

The unfortunate soldier was Cpl Joseph Birkett, 26, from Carlisle, who was serving with the 5th DLI 100 years ago at Hull.

“While at dinner on December 6, the deceased swallowed his false teeth,” said the Echo. “He had complained they were faulty, and was sent to a clinic at Hull, but they were too busy to repair the plate.” The poor chap had three operations to remove the obstruction and died a fortnight later on December 22, 1917, of bleeding.