ALL too often, it is only when people are gone that those left behind begin to piece together their live stories.

“My wife's grandmother, Miriam, always bemoaned the fact that her brother's name, Matthew Richardson Bell, was not on any sort of war memorial even though he had served in the Royal Navy and had died in 1916 at her home in South Moor near Stanley,” says Paul Dobson, in Bishop Auckland.

After Miriam died in 1983, Paul and his wife, Judith, discovered what a tough start to life she and Matthew had had.

The Northern Echo: Able Seaman Matthew Richardson BellMatthew Richardson Bell

They’d been born in South Shields, Miriam in 1893 and Matthew in 1895, but in 1903, their father, a coalminer, had died, and their mother, Margaret, struggled with ill health and, unable to work, debt.

An application was made to the Church of England’s Waifs and Strays’ Society, and Matthew went to live in a boys’ home, first in Bognor and then in Sampford Peverell, a village in Devon.

In 1907, their mother, Margaret, died and Miriam went to a girls’ home in Hampshire, where she was taught to be a kitchenmaid. She eventually found a position as a housekeeper to a miner, John Plews, in South Moor.

Matthew was also making his way in the world. He was working as a gardener and he joined a Royal Navy training ship, HMS Impregnable, when he was 16, in Devonport.


On his 18th birthday in 1913, he was posted to HMS Dreadnought which, when the First World War broke out, joined the Dover Patrol. The ship would do everything in the English Channel: escort duties, clearing mines, laying mines, bombarding German positions in Belgium…

He was then posted to HMS M25, a small warship built on the Tees in 1915 by Sir Raylton Dixon & Company – at some point, Miriam travelled from South Moor to meet Matthew when his ship was in Teesport.

But then, in March 1916, gas cylinders bound for France were being loaded onto HMS M25 when there was an escape, and the unfortunate Matthew “got the full force of it”.

He was taken to hospital, where it was discovered that he also had TB – a disease prevalent in the Navy and difficult to diagnose until its later stages.

He was invalided out of the Navy on March 11, and went to live with his sister in 38, Maple Street, South Moor – Mr Plews, the miner, must have been very understanding when his housekeeper’s ailing brother turned up in his humble home, and in later life, Miriam’s children referred to Mr Plews as “grandad”.

It was there, on September 9, 1916, that Matthew died. He was only 20, and was buried in an unmarked grave as Miriam couldn’t afford a headstone.

In the years since Miriam’s death, Judith and Paul have been researching the family story, and even managed to visit, while on holiday in Cornwall, the vicarage garden in which Matthew had worked.

The Northern Echo: The plaque in Sampford Peverell with Matthew Bell's name at the topThe war memorials in Sampford Peverell church in Devon, including the new one on the left which has Matthew Bell's name at the top

Then, a couple of years ago, through an accident of googling, Paul discovered that there was a Sampford Peverell Society dedicated to the history of the Devon village, and that it had a Lottery-funded First World War project which, in 2019, produced a new memorial to include all the names of local men who had been missed off which the plaque in the village church was compiled in the immediate aftermath of the war.

And there at the top of it was the name of “Bell MR”.

“We’ve been able to provide the society with a portrait of Matthew that is now on their website, and they, in turn, have provided a picture of the memorial plaque that bears his name and which is read out each Remembrance Day,” says Paul. “Obviously, it's too late to tell gran than her brother's name is on a memorial, but at least we know that it is.”


The Northern Echo: Margaret Jane Renforth HicksMargaret Jane Renforth Hicks

PAUL was inspired to get in touch following the story in Memories 678 about how the First World War memorial scroll of Lance-Sergeant Edwin Banks had come home to his family in Sedgefield after being found in an auction in Alnwick.


“Incidentally,” he adds, “Matthew's mother’s full name was Margaret Jane Renforth Hicks. We had no idea where the Renforth came from, until we discovered that she was born shortly after James Renforth became the world sculling champion in 1868.”

The Northern Echo: James Renforth

Which leads seamlessly on to another fabulous story, because in the middle of the 19th Century, rowers were the footballers of their day, with Tyneside producing three famed champions: Harry Clasper, Robert Chambers and James Renforth.

Renforth was a later developer: it was only when he was 24 and he was rowing men and materials back and forth across the river as part of the demolition of the old Tyne Bridge in 1866 that he discovered an aptitude. He won his debut sculling race on the Tyne that year and in 1868 starred at the Thames Regatta in London, beating the four times world champion, Harry Kelley.

A head-to-head re-match on the Thames was arranged for the world title in November 1868, and Renforth trained hard. He was regarded as the most powerful man ever to sit in a boat, and won the race easily, by four lengths.

The Northern Echo: Drawing of Champion sculler James Renford, sculling the River Tyne in the 1860s. From book James Renforth of Gateshead - Champion Sculler of the World by Ian WhiteheadJames Renford on the Tyne in the 1860s

As world champion, Renforth was a global name – so much of a star that at least one North East baby was named in his honour.

He raced in Paris and, in 1871, undertook a tour of Canada with a crew of Tyne rowers. However, on August 23, 1871, while racing on the Kennebecasis River in New Brunswick, he missed a couple of strokes and keeled over into the boat.

His crew brought the boat to the shore, but he soon died, apparently of heart failure caused by epileptic seizure. He was only 29, and the news of the death of this superfit sporting hero shocked his native North East. Tyneside dialect poet Rowland Harrison wrote:

Ye cruel Atlantic cable.
What's myed ye bring such fearful news?
When Tyneside's hardly yeble
Such sudden grief to bide.
Hoo me heart it beats – iv'ry body greets
As the whisper runs throo dowley streets
We've lost poor Jimmy Renforth,
The Champion o' Tyneside.

His body was returned to the Tyne and up to 100,000 people are said to have attended his funeral in Gateshead, where a monument now stands to him outside the Shipley Art Gallery.