ONE hundred years ago this week, news was filtering back to south Durham that the area’s greatest war hero had died in northern France.

Mrs Amy Bradford, of Milbank Road, Darlington, had received several letters in the morning post of December 4, 1917. One was from her son, Brig-Gen Roland Bradford, saying he was quite well after ten days continuous frontline fighting.

Another was from one of her son’s officers saying that, after dropping back behind the lines for a rest, Roland had been killed by “a chance shell” on November 30.

“The news will be received with great regret throughout the country, and more especially in Darlington, whose residents had become very proud of this son of Darlington who had so greatly distinguished himself and brought lustre upon the town,” said The Northern Echo.

Roland, who’d been born at Witton Park, had won the Victoria Cross on October 1, 1916, for leading two battalions of the Durham Light Infantry into battle after their commanding officers had been killed. On November 13, 1917, he’d been promoted to the rank of brigadier-general – at 25, he was the youngest to hold this rank in British Army history.

On December 5, 1917, at a meeting of Darlington Town Council, the mayor, Cllr TE Bates, noted how he had planned to put forward a motion congratulating Roland on his promotion.

“Unfortunately they now had news of the death of that brilliant officer, and their sympathy not only went out to Mrs Bradford, who had been called upon to make the sacrifice of two out of her four sons, but to every home in this town and other towns who had had the misfortune to have had sons killed,” said the mayor.

By the end of the week, Mrs Bradford must have been overwhelmed by letters of condolence. A major-general wrote to her immediately after attending Roland’s funeral, saying: “It is no exaggeration to say we all loved your boy. He was so full of life, so full of all the qualities that go to making what he was, a leader of men…"

He concluded: “PS. He cannot have suffered at all, and must have been killed instantaneously. He is buried at Hermies.”

It capped a miserable year for Mrs Bradford as her 27-year-old son Captain James Bradford had been killed fighting with the DLI on May 14, but she would have to go through it all again in April 1918 when her eldest son, George, was killed in the process of winning the VC with the Royal Navy.

The Evening Despatch concluded its coverage of Roland’s death by saying: “All those who love a brave man will mourn Brig-Gen Bradford’s death, and in Darlington especially, where men were hoping to do him the honour on his return, his death will be lamented.”

REPORTED alongside the death of Roland Bradford was that of Capt James Shirley of the Army Veterinary Corps. He was, said the Echo, “the well known veterinary surgeon of Bedale" who had just written home giving his wife and four children a “graphic description” of a big push at Cambrai (perhaps the action in which Brig-Gen Bradford had fought).

“He said it was a magnificent sight to see over 100 tanks go into action,” said the D&S Times. “He and some others were told to sleep in a German dug-out but as it was filled with 27 enemy dead…they preferred to sleep outside.”

The next letter home was from Capt Shirley’s servant, informing the family that “he has had as good a burial as we could possibly give him”.

The Echo said: “Mr Shirley was very skilful in the treatment of horses, and he wa in charge of a horse hospital about 40 miles from Paris. He revealed to the French a method of treatment for an infectious disease which was carrying off a great many of their horses, and he was to have received a decoration for this service.”

His family may have been gratified that the local newspapers all printed long obituaries concerning the death of “Capt Shirley”, although the Bedale war memorial and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission both refer to him as “Capt Sherley”.

From the Darlington Mercury of December 11, 1867

THE extraordinary headline "exorcising a witch at Framwellgate Moor" featured in a short-lived sister paper of The Northern Echo exactly 150 years ago.

It told how Isabella Briggs had been summoned before Durham County Magistrates (Messrs John Fawcett and A Wilkinson) accused of assaulting her sister-in-law, Sarah Clark.

"The parties in this case are both married women, and it appeared from the statement of the complainant and her husband that on November 28, the defendant entered her brother's house and asked for a bill they had belonging to her,” said the report.

"Mrs Clark was in the act of searching for the bill required when the defendant drew from her pocket a darning needle with which she inflicted a wound on the complainant’s arm, drawing blood.

“She then hurried out of the house, remarking as she did so: ‘There, I am satisfied now. I have drawn blood of her and she will bewitch me no more.’”

Isabella denied everything in the statement "but the magistrates believing the evidence of the complainant and her husband (who must have been Isabella's own brother), imposed a fine of five shillings and costs."

Although belief in witchcraft had by 1867 generally faded away, Isabella still clung to the notion that the best way to break a witch's curse was to draw blood from the witch herself.

She must have been one of the very last in the country to attempt to counteract sorcery in this way, although in 1875 in the Cotswolds, John Haywood was found guilty of murdering a 79-year-old woman who, in his attempt to draw blood from her by stabbing her with a pitchfolk, died of her injuries. He escaped execution as he was considered insane.