A Leeds Schoolgirl Reflects on WW1

  • As part of Dying Matters awareness week, The Secret Library investigates the story behind a powerful poem on the subject of death and loss. Our Heritage Volunteer Maureen Jessop discovered the piece while reading and indexing the magazine of Leeds Girls’ High, the school that stood in Headingley from 1876 until its merger with Leeds Grammar School in 2005. It was signed simply ‘E. McD’ but, with a little research using resources at the Local and Family History Library, Maureen was able to identify the pupil who wrote it and uncover the tragic truth behind the verse.

The Last Homecoming

So you are dead, are dead, my little brother,
And forever sleeping under a marble stone;
So you have winged your way, like many another,
Down into the mystic silence and dark, alone.

The sunlit leaves in the dawn wind may be shaken,
The sky may fuse to a glory of molten blue,
The sun may set, and the moon and stars waken,
But never, never, never again for you.

You are lost to us; you are gone – ah, who knows whither?
Is it to the land you left when you first drew breath?
Are you one with the wind you loved, and does sorrow wither
To nothingness on the other side of death?

Beloved, if there is a God, you are in His keeping,
Young life, pure life, strong life, life that is clean and true,
Forever safe on another shore lies sleeping,
Till the great dawn comes, little brother, – and this was you.

(Published in Leeds Girls High School Magazine, issue 61, 1918)

The poet was Ethelwynne Stewart McDowall, who was born in Castleford in 1896. She was a pupil at Leeds Girls’ High School and had won a music scholarship. Her brother was Hugh Stewart McDowall, born in Castleford on 28 November 1898. Their parents were Robert Moffatt McDowall, an architect/surveyor, and Helen Murdoch McDowall, nee Stewart.

Hugh enlisted on 3 July 1917, as a sailor with the Mercantile Marine, but he suffered a severe illness after a long voyage. On his recovery, he was discharged and, on 4 December 1917, was “appointed to a temporary commission as 2nd Lieutenant (on probation) on the General List for duty with the Royal Flying Corps”. He was attached to the 62nd Training Squadron at Hounslow when he died on 28 June 1918 “as result of aeroplane acc.” [accident].

The circumstances of the accident were reported in the Hounslow News section of the Middlesex Chronicle, 29 June 1918:

Yesterday morning as Lt. Hugh Stewart McDowall, RAF, was flying over the district, his machine got out of control, and in falling crashed into one of the buildings of a local gunpowder factory. Both building and machine were wrecked, and the young officer was taken from the debris dead, his terrible injuries including broken back, legs and arms. Fortunately the petrol did not ignite, or the consequences might have been much more disastrous, as a large number of hands were working in the vicinity at the time.

It was surmised that Hugh was taken ill during the flight, as he had previously flown the machine and the engine was found to be in order after the accident. Hugh’s funeral was reported in the Hull Daily Mail on 3 July 1918:

Lieut. Hugh Stewart McDowall, RAF, aged 19, only son of  R.M. McDowall of Victoria Avenue, Hornsea, was quietly laid to rest in Hornsea Cemetery on Tuesday, in the presence of his immediate relatives, after a service with full military honours, held on Sunday at Hounslow Aerodrome.

McDowall Grave Hornsea.2
Maureen paid a visit to Southgate Cemetery in Hornsea, where she took this picture of Hugh’s grave

On 24 December 1919, the Hull Daily Mail also reported that, in Hornsea, “A war memorial tablet in brass was unveiled by the Rev. J.J. Matson Hillary in the Congregational Church on Sunday morning. The tablet bears the inscription, “The Souls of the Righteous are in the Hands of God. To the Glory of God, and in loving memory of the following members of this Church, who laid down their lives in the European War 1914-1919 … [Several names follow] … Hugh Stewart McDowall, Lieut. 62nd Training Squadron, RAF, accidentally killed at Hounslow, June 28 1918, aged 19. Make them to be numbered with Thy saints in glory everlasting. This tablet was erected by members of the congregation”.

Memorial in Hornsea United Reformed Church
Memorial in Hornsea United Reformed Church – temporarily taken down during decorating (photographed by Maureen)
  • We’re proud to share with our readers the moving tribute paid to Hugh McDowall by his sister almost a century ago; and, as the anniversary of one of the First World War’s bloodiest battles, the Somme, approaches, we hope it gives you pause to think about those you hold dear and what they mean to you. We’ll be marking the hundred years since the Somme with a special exhibition at Leeds Central Library in June/July, together with a short series of talks and other events, including a poetry reading. Look out for more details soon.

5 Comments Add yours

  1. thecelt58 says:

    Beautifully composed verse. Soberingly tragic in that, in times of conflict, young lives are lost in the most mundane of fashions. Begs the question; If there’d been no war, would Hugh have flown at all? Would he have taken ill? Would he have died in such a seemingly senseless fashion at the age of just nineteen years? Or not . . . R.I.P. comrade-at-arms SADF (Army) 1973 to 1990

    1. Thanks for the comment. We agree – Ethelwynne’s words show a maturity beyond her young age.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.