Henry H. Bignall
Henry H. BignallView full burial details
in the cemetery
HENRY HERBERT BIGNELL; 1875 – 1948
Henry was born on the 17th June 1875. Although his surname appears as “Bignell” on the kerbstone of Herbert’s grave in Rectory Lane Cemetery, it appears in various records, such as the 1841 census as “Bignall.”
He was the fourth of nine children born to Frederick and Sarah Bignell: Sarah, born in 1868; Lizzie, 1871; Emily, 1873; Henry, 1876; George, 1878; Florence, 1881; Nellie, 1883; Charlie;1885 Mary, 1888; Jane,1890. The family lived in Northchurch, in the High Street in 1881 and at Orchard End in 1891. Henry’s father’s occupation was noted in 1881 as being a labourer and in 1891 he was working on the railway as a platelayer.
In 1894 at the age of 18, Henry took the Queen’s shilling and joined the Army. His service record shows that prior to volunteering he had been working as a labourer. He joined the Bedfordshire Regiment as a short service volunteer (5 years service and 7 years on the Reserve), but he later extended his service to 12 years and was discharged in 1907. Between November 1896 and December1907 he served with the 1st battalion in the East Indies. He was fortunate not to have been posted to the 2nd battalion which served in South Africa in the Boer War.
Henry does not seem to have been an exemplary soldier. In 1901 he was promoted to Lance Corporal and in 1902 was granted good conduct pay, but he lost his stripe in 1903 and his good conduct pay in 1904. He was reappointed Lance Corporal in 1906, but again lost his rank and good conduct badges in 1907 for “neglect of duty when in charge of a room.” He was discharged after 13 years and 33 days service. It seems Henry was glad to quit the Army. Alongside the date of his discharge is the laconic note “Free after 13 years.”
Henry’s service record provides us with a physical description of his appearance at the age of 18 years. He had a fresh complexion, brown hair and eyes. He had an indistinct tattoo on his left forearm and scars on left forearm and right elbow. By today’s standards he was small; he weighed 8st and 6lbs and at 5 ft 4 in height was only one inch taller than the Army’s minimum height requirement.
His small size and stature may have been the result of poor diet during childhood, not uncommon at that time. Many young men from working class backgrounds were malnourished and unhealthy and the poor state of physical fitness of new recruits to the army was one perceived cause of the British Army’s poor performance during the Boer Wars. 40-60% of volunteers to the army, mainly from working class backgrounds, were rejected on medical grounds. In some towns nearly all young men were turned away. In the aftermath of the war, newspapers and writers associated the problems of the British Empire with the poor health of many British people, arguing that a malnourished and unhealthy nation could not rule the biggest empire in the world. The Committee on Physical Deterioration was set up in 1903 and recommended that the government introduce compulsory medical inspections of children in school, free school meals for the very poor and training in mothering skills for working class women. These recommendations represented a significant increase in the role of the state in public health.
Following his army service and return to Berkhamsted, Henry married Ada Norwood in 1910. The 1911 census reveals that Henry and Ada were living with Ada’s parents, Frederick and Sophia Norwood at 38 High Street, Berkhamsted, together with the Norwood’s 13 year old grandson (Ada’s nephew) Frederick Herbert Norwood. There is no record of Henry and Ada having any children of their own. The census also reveals that Henry, like so many other sons born in this era, followed in his father’s shoes and had himself also becoming a platelayer.
Platelayers, also known as Lengthsmen, were employed by the railway and worked in a gang to maintain the railway track. As the name Lengthsman suggests, they were allocated a specific section, or length, of line to look after. Like many Victorian occupations it involved hard physical labour. The platelayers were responsible for inspecting and maintaining the track, including all its component parts such as rails, sleepers, fishplates, bolts, etc. Their duties included greasing points, and generally watching for wear and tear. The track had to be inspected twice a day and any faults in the gauge, level and super elevation were to be mended by using their picks, shovels, hammers, wrenches and track gauges. They also had to maintain lineside fences and keep the culverts clear, as well as retrieve any item that may have fallen from a train. All these tasks were to be done in all weathers.
A platelayer’s working conditions were the poorest of any railway employees. For six days a week they had to be on duty between 6am and 6pm, and at the end of the day they had to make sure that the line was clear and in good working order. If the work had not been completed by 6pm, they had to stay until it was done so. Pay was probably the worst of any railway employees, apart from women.
Within the first two weeks of the outbreak of the First World War, over 27,000 railway workers had either been called up as Territorials or Reservists or had volunteered for the armed forces. There is no record that Henry served during the Great War. Whilst Henry’s younger brother George volunteered in 1914 (he died of wounds in 1916 and is recorded on the Northchurch War memorial), Henry’s earlier experience of army life may have put him off volunteering. Henry was, however, just young enough to have been conscripted. In January 1916 the Military Service Act became law. This required all single men aged between 18 and 41 to enlist. In May 1916, further legislation extended this to include married men and Henry didn’t turn 41 until June 1916, so he should have been caught by conscription by the matter of a month.
However, as a railway employee, Henry was exempt from conscription. The Military Service Act provided for certificates of exemption to be issued by tribunals if it was in the national interest for someone to continue with the work in which he was habitually engaged instead of being employed by the military. Certificates were also issued if conscription would cause exceptional financial, business or domestic hardship, cases of ill health or conscientious objection. With so many railway employees joining up at the outbreak of war, concerns grew about the efficiency of the railway system. The Government then issued an instruction which ensured that men employed by the railway companies should not be accepted for the forces unless they had a certificate from their employer indicating that their services could be spared.
The electoral rolls show Ada and Henry continued to live at 38 High Street with Ada’s parents. Her mother’s name last appears on the roll in 1922 and her father’s in 1927, so presumably they each died shortly after 1922 and 1927 respectively. The rolls for 1929 and 1930 reveal that Henry and Ada had moved from 38 High Street, presumably after the death of Ada’s father, and were living at 22 Victoria Road. By the time the 1939 Register was compiled, the couple had moved again and were living at 10 Woodlands Avenue. Henry was then nearly 64 years old and still working. The entry recording his occupation in the register is damaged but the following can still be read: “Maintenance & repair…lengthsman railway…”
Henry and Ada were both to remain living at 10 Woodlands Avenue for the rest of their lives. Henry died at home on 18th November 1948 at the age of 73 years.