Darwen moors can be inhospitable and dangerous in the winter, painting by Ian Morris.
Greater love hath no man
By Harold Heys
DARWEN MOORS TRAGEDY: DECEMBER 1917
DARWEN'S sweeping moorland has always had a rugged attraction, especially in the summer months when families take to the footpaths and tracks which meander through the surrounding hills to enjoy both the exercise and the fresh air.
In winter, however, the moors can be inhospitable and dangerous, especially if walkers are not prepared for the weather which can change in minutes.
It was much more perilous many years ago when footpaths were rough and ready and when danger from deep gulleys and old mine workings lurked at every turn.
It was just a few days before Christmas, 1917, when three local lads decided on an afternoon walk on to the moors to the southwest of Darwen after Sunday School at St Bamabas'. It was both adventurous and dangerous for they set off in the face of the most severe blizzard the town had seen for years.
All three were found dead in the snow drifts during the next few days of frantic searching by police and volunteers.
It was a tragic story made even more poignant by the revelation of a selfless act of courage by 16 year-old Ralph Bolton ...
The joint funeral and the formal inquest were over in days and the tragedy was soon pushed into the background as the prospect of another long year of war dominated every part of life - and death - both locally and nationally.
"Self Sacrifice" reads the top line of Ralph Bolton's headstone.
The three lads were William Cooper Longton of Culvert Street, which was close to the church, just 18 and due to join the Army within a few weeks; Ralph Bolton, of Maria Street and his ten-year-old cousin James Bolton of Princess Street - where Mayfield Flats now are.
Why did they set off for the threatening moors when it would be dark in an hour and in weather which, according to the Darwen News was "wild in the extreme" and with "their only shelter the heavens above"?
The paper said: "It must forever remain a mystery." But, looking back now, with old maps of footpaths to hand, it seems fairly clear that the boys simply took a wrong fork.
William was wearing a blue serge suit and a dark, heavy overcoat; Ralph had a blue serge suit, brown overcoat and leggings and little James wore a black suit and a light top coat.
They knew the moors well, but this was precious little protection against the drifting snow and piercing north-east wind.
The alarm was raised that Sunday evening and by dawn a big search was under way. The boys had been seen heading in the direction of Rough Height Farm above Bull Hill Hospital on the southern moors. Snow had drifted up to 10ft and conditions were very difficult.
It was on the Tuesday afternoon that the body of William Cooper Longton was found to the south of Old Lyons farm which was over to the west, on the Cadshaw Brook side of Black Hill and a couple of miles from the safety of Bull Hill. It seems that he had set off to get help and had reached the farm only to find it unoccupied before pressing gamely on.
On the Wednesday, after a slight thaw, the body of little Jimmy was found under drifting snow in the lee of a stone wall about 400 yards to the north of the empty farm.
He was wrapped in his cousin's brown topcoat which had been carefully placed over his own light coat.
Ralph himself, left with just his cheap suit, was found frozen to death about 200 yards away. It seems as though he, too, had set off to get help after making the little boy as comfortable as he could.
In the pocket of the coat Ralph had wrapped around the child was an emblem bearing the legend: "Fight The Good Fight" and, as the Darwen News report asked: "Had he not done just that when he gave his overcoat to his young cousin?"
On the Saturday the bodies of the three pals were taken from their homes to a moving funeral service at St Bamabas' where the older boys had been in the Church Lads' Brigade and in the choir. William had also been the Sunday School secretary.
Hundreds of mourners packed the church and there was no more sad a figure than frail Mrs Nancy Bolton, whose husband Joseph had been killed in action in France the previous summer and who had now lost her only child at the age of just 10.
Hundreds more lined the route to the nearby cemetery, their sadness compounded by the desperation of a continuing and bloody war and the selfless heroism and fine example of a 16-year-old boy.
William was buried with his grandparents. The cousins were interred together, just a few yards away. Ralph's gravestone bears an inscription taken from John 15:13 "Greater love hath no man than he who layeth down his life for another. "
A simple wrong turning in the blizzard looks the likely cause of the tragedy. An uncle of the younger boys and his family lived at Duckshaw Farm above Bury Fold and it was thought that they might have been heading there. It would have been adventurous and dangerous but perhaps not as foolhardy as it had seemed.
As they approached Rough Height a right turn to the footpath through Higher Barn, Meadow Head and Wet Head would have taken them to the safety of Duckshaw Farm before it went dark. From there it was an easy walk home; down through Whitehall or Bury Fold. Instead, above Bull Hill, they pressed on slightly more to the west - and on to their deaths.
The hurried inquest on the day after the last body had been found discounted the theory that the pals were heading for an uncle's farm as it was "in the opposite direction." It wasn't. Duckshaw Farm, where William Bolton and his family lived, was just to the north of Black Hill and the lads had probably simply taken a wrong turn in the heavy snow as the footpath forked..
A moving postscript to the drama was penned by the writer of a letter to the Darwen News a few days later when local folk were still asking what had made them embark on what had seemed such an illadvised venture.
"Such confidence, strength of purpose and love of adventure was obviously displayed by these lads and the crowning sacrifice made by one in giving up his overcoat only emphasised the true British spirit which their elders are displaying every day on the battlefields of Europe."
Everyone has their hero. Ralph Bolton is mine.
1. St. Barnabas'; 2. Bull Hill; 3. Old Lyons; 4. Duckshaw Farm; 5. Darwen Tower.
Article written and researched by Harold Heys.