On Sunday, Gypsy leader Billy Welch will take part in Darlington’s Remembrance Sunday parade for the first time. He tells Chris Lloyd his family’s war stories

“Germans had attacked them in the trenches during the day, and then that night there was an injured German soldier lying out in no man’s land, severely wounded in a shell crater, only a bairn, crying for his mother,” says Billy Welch in his office on the Gypsy site on the edge of Darlington.

The Northern Echo: Billy Welch Great great grand father David Welch Picture: SARAH CALDECOTT.Billy Welch Great great grand father David Welch Picture: SARAH CALDECOTT.

On the walls behind him are photographs of six generations of his family who have called Darlington home, including one showing his great-grandfather George Adams supported by crutches.

“He was a big hard man, liked bare knuckle fighting – but he was soft, he had a heart,” continues Billy, in full flow. “They were in the trenches listening to the German crying, and they were crying too, and he said he had to do something, he had to get him, that he was just someone’s son, but they said no, it’s too dangerous, you will not come back, and he said that he sounds like a bairn…”

The Northern Echo: Billy Welch. Picture: SARAH CALDECOTT.Billy Welch. Picture: SARAH CALDECOTT.

Unlike the settled community, Gypsies tend not to write their stories down, but they have a vibrant oral tradition of passing them from one generation to the next.

“So he climbed out on his belly and crawled across no man’s land and he got the kid – he was only about 16 – on his back and carried him back to the trenches, and as he reached the British position, a German machine gunner must have spotted the movement and opened up, and a spray of bullets smashed into him, hitting him all the way from the ankle up the leg to the hip.

“His leg was ruined so badly that they had to take it off there and then in the trench.

“When his mother, Louey Pattison, got the telegram in Fawbert’s Yard (in the Clay Row area of Darlington which is now beneath the inner ring road), she couldn’t read it and had to get the telegram boy to tell her what it said.

The Northern Echo: The Pattison sisters of Darlington: Polly, whose daughter married George Adams when he returned from the war without a leg; Betty, who married David Welch, the horse dealer; and Louey, right, who died of a heart attack when she received a telegram saying The Pattison sisters of Darlington: Polly, whose daughter married George Adams when he returned from the war without a leg; Betty, who married David Welch, the horse dealer; and Louey, right, who died of a heart attack when she received a telegram saying

“Next morning, when she didn’t get up, they went to find her, and she was dead, had a heart attack in her chair and she’d fallen so that a candle had burned through her hand.

“The telegram was there on the floor.”

The first known Gypsy to base himself in Darlington was Billy’s great-great-great-grandfather Jackie Welch, who arrived from Wales, although the surname is believed to have derived from an Old English word meaning “foreign”. For a millennium, Darlington had been the agricultural market capital of south Durham and North Yorkshire, with each of its town centre streets hosting an animal sale.

The Northern Echo: Jackie Welch, who is believed to be one of the first Gypsies to base themselves in the Darlington area, probably in the 1850sJackie Welch, who is believed to be one of the first Gypsies to base themselves in the Darlington area, probably in the 1850s

Gypsies have always been interested in horses, which were sold weekly in Horsemarket and Bondgate with an annual horse fair being held on November 9. When the Rising of the North failed exactly 450 years ago (see elsewhere in today’s Memories), the horses confiscated from the rebel army were sold in Darlington, presumably because they would fetch the highest prices in the north.

The Northern Echo: Looking down Bondgate towards High Row in Darlington, with a horse market in full swingLooking down Bondgate towards High Row in Darlington, with a horse market in full swing

Jackie Welch came to Darlington’s horse fairs in the 1850s and met Jane Adams, whose family were also there for the fair. They married, and began a complicated, interwoven family tree – just like the Quakers who dominated the area’s high profile businesses.

Their son, David, became a well known horse trader, based in a yard off Church Street, opposite St Cuthbert’s Church where the traffic lights near the magistrates court are today. David travelled the north, spotting horses and sending them back by train to Darlington, where they were broken in and sold to Co-op and the fire brigade and then, during the First World War, to the army.

The Northern Echo: David Welch, right, the First World War horse dealer, and his son, Alfie, on the steps to the caravan. This picture is believed to have been taken in the Durham area – is it too much to hope that anyone can recognise the building behind?David Welch, right, the First World War horse dealer, and his son, Alfie, on the steps to the caravan. This picture is believed to have been taken in the Durham area – is it too much to hope that anyone can recognise the building behind?

Those Gypsies of fighting age, like George Adams, joined up, usually in the East Yorkshire Regiment. He was on the Somme, in the same regiment as his second cousin, John Cunningham, of Hull. On November 13, 1916, Pte Cunningham performed an extraordinary act of bravery.

Near the village of Serre, which had been the starting point for the Durham Pals on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, all of Pte Cunningham’s bombing party were either killed or wounded by the enemy. He collected bombs from his fallen comrades and went on alone, returning for a fresh supply when he had run out. As he moved up the trench for a second time, he encountered a party of 10 Germans.

“He killed all 10 and cleared the trench up to the new line,” says the citation for his Victoria Cross. “His conduct throughout the day was magnificent.”

Pte Cunningham was one of five VC winners to be presented with their medals by George V on June 2, 1917, in a huge ceremony in Hyde Park in London. One of the other recipients that day was Brigadier-General Roland Bradford, of Witton Park and Darlington.

The Northern Echo: John Cunningham VC winnerJohn Cunningham VC winner

“Cousin John would have known everyone in Darlington through going to the Appleby horse fair, and he must have visited here, and his great nephew is in Darlington now,” says Billy. “When George V gave him the medal, he was told he was a Gypsy and chatted to him for about 15 minutes, and that little story makes us extremely proud that the king took time out to speak to him – we are extreme royalists.

“John came back from the war badly injured in both legs and his lungs damaged from gas, and he died when he was only 43.”

George Adams also made it back from the front a broken man.

“When he was finally released from the field hospital, he came home to Fawbert’s Yard, only 19 or 20 years old, and found his mother had died,” says Billy, picking up his rapid fire story of his great-grandfather. “He went into the market square and got drunk and they found him on the Stone Bridge, crying and screaming. His cousin, Rachel Jones, went to him – she was a bit younger than him and they’d probably been seeing each other before he had gone away. They said to her what future does he have, a one legged man – he couldn’t even wear a false leg because they’d taken it off right at the top without leaving a stump – but she said he needs someone, he doesn’t even have a mother to look after him, and so they got married.”

It can’t have been an easy life that she opted for. George was known as “Sticky” because of his reliance on the crutches and, like so many First World War survivors, suffered huge mental trauma.

“At night, Rachel had to get other men to come into the horsedrawn wagon in Fawbert’s Yard to hold him down because he was shouting and shaking from the pain – his nerve endings weren’t right, and he could feel them taking his leg off again,” says Billy.

Sticky died in 1959, without reaching his 60th birthday. It is not known what happened to the German lad that he rescued.

Also in Billy’s family tree are stories of Second World War service – his grandfather landed in Normandy shortly after D-Day and fought his way through to Germany; his uncle fought in Africa and up through Italy to Monte Cassino. And, of course, upwards of half-a-million Gypsies were murdered by the Nazis in the death camps, like Auschwitz, where Billy in August laid a wreath with Insp Chris Knox of Darlington police to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the end of the war.

It is to remember people such as these that Billy, at the request of the Darlington mayor, Cllr Nick Wallis, is joining tomorrow’s parade.

“It is an honour and a privilege to be marching with the mayor and everyone else, side by side, shoulder to shoulder, just like our grandfathers went side by side, shoulder to shoulder with the settled community into war,” he says. “We gave our lives and our limbs, we won VCs and we suffered the mental trauma, so Remembrance Sunday is every bit as important to us as it is to anyone in the settled community. We are as much a part of British culture as anyone else.”

BLOB Fawbert’s Yard, where the Gypsy caravans were stationed, was somewhere in the shadow of St Hilda’s Church, before the ring road was built. We believe it belonged to legendary Darlington figure Geordie Fawbert, fishmonger, chestnut-roaster, bus-driver, barrel-organ-owner, bicycle repairman, who has featured here before. In 1899, Geordie, who lived in Freeman’s Place, built two lock-up shops in Clay Row so we’d guess the yard was behind them. He is known to have allowed Gypsies to stay on his land.