This Was Not To Be His Final Curtain

We’ve recently been contacted by Ray from Mattishall who has shared a fascinating story about a local man who has faded from memory since the First World War, despite is high profile at the time.

This was not to be his final curtain: Frank Henry Norman Wrighton

Frank Henry Norman Wrighton
1879 – 1917

Friday, November 2nd 1917 – My journey looking for First World War casualties had brought me to the picturesque seaside town of Torquay, Devon, many miles from the battle fields of the Western Front. A thin and wasted 38-year-old man had finally succumbed to an affliction he had acquired during his military service. Katherine Peacock, the Matron of St Barnabas Nursing Home for the Incurables, was recorded as being present. No records have been found to confirm there was any effort to return his remains to his home village of Mattishall Burgh, Norfolk although on his death certificate an address of 45 Warwick Road, Warwick Gardens, London was written, a large building where he or his wife could have been renting a room, whilst working in the capital. There was a war on and any transportation of a corpse would have involved considerable expense which from all accounts show there was little funds available. Four days later on November 6th he was taken the short trip to Torquay cemetery and after a simple service lowered into a common grave, a grave we now know he shares with four other men. His death was not the result of battle wounds but a condition brought on and worsened during his short military service. His death certificate, records him as ‘FRANK HENRY WRIGHTON’, age 38, an Actor. A simple note on his service records reads “He was well till a year ago, then had Pleurisy and Pneumonia, following wet exposure”. TB was also found in his Sputum.

I had been researching this man for a few years and on discovering this I was left quite emotional. There was no record of him on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website, even though the army had been paying and caring for him since his discharge. How had this man just been forgotten? I had got to know him well, my research had found he had been such a character, or being an actor, multiple characters! He was very patriotic, had a great spirit of determination and given a lot so ending up forgotten, in a common grave did not do him justice.

My journey started with three small well-worn pieces of paper found in the personal effects of another First World War casualty from Mattishall, Private Sydney Marshall Cole, age 22. He was killed in France on March 19th 1917. The three pieces of paper contained ten verses of a hand written poem, the poem was about his home village of Mattishall and the surrounding Norfolk countryside. It was titled “An Anglers Ode to Norfolk & Country Life”. Holding the papers in my hands, I could not help but let my mind wander and imagine young Sydney crouched in a filthy water logged trench, probably utterly petrified. These young men had been thrown into what we now know was sheer utter hell on earth. It’s not hard to imagine in the quieter times Sydney taking the poem from his wallet and reading it through and through just to relive those warm memories of home. Were those words any comfort to young Sydney, we will never know but it must have transported his memories back to his safe, slow and peaceful life in Mattishall where he had left his family and friends. His heart must have ached with an incredible longing just to be home again. As we know Sydney never did return but his poem did, safely tucked in with his effects. The poem together with a picture of him taken with his younger brother in happier times has been treasured by his family for almost 100 years. The poem was signed “NORMAN WRIGHTON, His Majesty’s Theatre London S.W, Formerly of Mattishall Burgh.”

Who was this man? – I had taken all the names from the Mattishall War Memorial and one by one put together some form of personal family identity to show where they and their families fitted in to our local history. I wanted to show them more like people instead of just a surname with initials, something which should have been done much earlier for now virtually 100 years had passed and getting their stories from family members who knew them was no longer possible. What I did find were these young men were classed as heroes of their day and many of their pictures, medals and effects had been handed down respectfully through families as heirlooms. That is apart from NORMAN WRIGHTON. How did he know so much about Mattishall and Norfolk? Little by little information came up regarding his acting career but there was still no birth or death record. I did find him on the 1911 census living at a boarding-house in London. The census record stated he was married, his age given as 31 and his place of birth was Cannock in Staffordshire. It then dawned on me that NORMAN WRIGHTON was a stage name.

NORMAN WRIGHTON – Shakespearean Actor, Author, poet and playwright. He played many small parts appearing in various plays in several London theatres. Some of the plays also took him to other parts of the country. In one he appeared with Lilly Langtree in 1905 in her play ‘As You Like It’. He was also an author writing ‘Wake Up England’ written about 1906 then converted to a shorter play called ‘Kultur’ about 1913, which foretold the First World War. The play centred in the small rural Norfolk village of Mattishall. The opening scene describes an invasion of German troops capturing the Maltings and Post Office, then the villagers taking refuge in the parish church of All Saints. It goes into detail the horrors the villagers were subjected to by the enemy. The play was performed, according to the papers of the time, up and down the country including the West End and Leeds, getting good reviews. Norman was never a huge star and often fell out of work. To get by, he was often seen busking and performing scenes from Shakespeare outside some of the top London theatres to the queues waiting for the doors to open. “What else could I do I had a wife to support” he said in an interview “sometimes I was performing seven acts per night” this he did in all weathers. He was even arrested for performing and delivering Shakespearean recitations in Hampton Court for what the policeman giving evidence to the court described as causing an obstruction for he had attracted a crowd of over 500 people, he was fined 1 shilling. There was also a dispute over copyright of his play but I could find no conclusion.

Norman was born ‘FRANK HENRY WRIGHTON’ on June 27th 1879, his birth was registered at Cannock Staffordshire, the son of Thomas Henry Garland Wrighton (1845) a Chemist and Dental Surgeon born in Dublin, Ireland, although not of Irish decent, and his wife Mary Jane Gayford Abbott, born May 14th 1852 in the Norfolk village of Shipdham.

Little has been found in regards to Norman’s early life and schooling. We do know from census records he had two sisters May (1885), Kathleen (1889) and two brothers, Percy (1881) who died age 1 and Rowland (1890) all carried ‘Garland’ as their middle names. His mother was an Abbott, the daughter of Jonathan Abbott, a farmer of 174 acres, near the church of Shipdham, Norfolk. We can only assume this is where Norman’s love for the Norfolk countryside began while staying with his mother’s family. From his poetry, his heart was always for Norfolk and there is a two-week journal, also containing poetry of one of his visits travelling from village to village in a horse drawn caravan. He also claimed to have spent a year on a ranch in Canada but where his love for acting and Shakespeare, for which he was very knowledgeable came from is not known.

On June 26th 1905 he married Winifred Bernice Norton at St Giles, London, a young girl from Mattishall Burgh. Winifred’s family (Norton’s) were a well-established Mattishall family of land owners and farmers. Mattishall is just a few miles from Shipdham. Winifred must have also had an interest in the theatre for it seems she made some appearances on stage alongside Norman.

Norman was a very patriotic man and by early 1914 it was becoming very clear war was on its way. Two events were mentioned in the Thetford and Watton Times where Norman, who at this time was representing the Navy League and had been very active reading his play and giving some impressive addresses to the villages of Mattishall and Hockering. When war broke out, he was among the first in line to enlist and did so on August 29th 1914. He had previously served in South Africa at the end of the Boer War as a Military Policeman but his enlistment this time was in the 3rd Country of London Yeomanry which was formed from South African veterans and then transferred to a Territorial Force. In accordance with the Territorial and Reserve Forces Act 1907 which brought the Territorial force into being, the unit was intended to be a home defence force for service during wartime and members could not be compelled to serve outside the country. From a financial perspective it also meant Norman was now receiving some kind of regular income.

His enlistment gave Norman new energy and we find he took on the role of recruitment. He was promoted to Acting Sergeant (un-paid) on November 1st 1915 and was often seen on Norwich market place and in London performing scenes from ‘Wake Up England’ and ‘Kultur’ to attract and excite recruits.

There was a particular instance one Saturday, Norman had been recruiting in Trafalgar Square, for the 6th City of London Rifles, where as usual he had read his play entitled ‘Kultur’ to a large crowd several times during the afternoon. He was known for holding nothing back, he had great skill in playing the audience. He thought nothing of putting much emphasis on the atrocities committed to the poor village folk of Mattishall, where the play was set. It is said, after his recital, emotions were left running rather high. This instance had not gone unnoticed as Lord Roberts, wrote to him and told him that he could hardly believe that any invader could be guilty of such atrocities as were outlined in the play, “but,” added Trooper Wrighton, “events have proved that these atrocities have been understated rather than exaggerated.” One of the officers of the battalion said in a statement that recruits were being obtained faster than their equipment could supply to the 6th City of London Rifles.

A newspaper picture (courtesy of Look & Learn) it shows Sergeant Wrighton wearing a full suit of armour to attract attention on the steps of the Henry Irving’s statue in the grounds of the National Portrait Gallery, Charing Cross Road, London. At the end of his military service he had to his credit over 3800 recruits to his name.

Then in 1915, June 23rd – the following appeared in The Era’ (stage paper) titled  –

To Stimulate Recruiting – To The Editor – “Sir, I beg to inform you that the scheme I have the honour to inaugurate, appertaining to the women of London weaving the flag and ancient standard of England, viz the Red Cross of St George, for their men folk to march under, has received the official sanction and patronage of the Royal Society of St George, of which as you know, their Majestic’s the King and Queen are patrons – The scheme is this, that every woman in London and throughout England shall be asked to contribute 1d (one penny) to the weaving of this banner. Any money over and above of the cost of the actual banner to be divided as follows: – Half the balance to be utilized into providing little luxuries for our gallant comrades in the firing line, and the other half to raise a very necessary statue of St George for England in the heart of our capital city. I am not asking your most potent aid for any self-glorification but you will, I am sure, readily realize in this hour of stupendous and supreme effort how much this emblem that has stood good throughout the ages means to the men and women of England to-day”. yours faithfully NORMAN WRIGHTON – 3rd Reserve County of London Yeomanry.

Another article on July 17 in the Daily Mirror:

– ‘KULTUR’ – If you attend any of the recruiting meetings which are being held all over the place right now you are bound to be impressed by a recital of a powerful play called ‘Kultur’ The recruiting officers are reading this play to the public with fine dramatic effect. It was written by Mr NORMAN WRIGHTON, Soldier – Author. I knew Mr Wrighton when he was a member of the theatrical profession. He has written several dramas and a number of ballads. He has seen quite a lot of soldiering, too, long before the present war broke out, as a member of the Rhodesian Police, which is a most military body.

Two more articles in the Thetford and Watton Times give further evidence:

– [1] Trooper NORMAN WRIGHTON, of the County of London Yeomanry, the writer of the above article, was formerly of the Rhodesian Mounted Police, and late of His Majesty’s Theatre, Drury Lane, Vaudeville, and Coliseum Theatres, London. He is also the author of the invasion plays “Wake Up England!” and ‘Kultur’ or ‘Too Late’ the play that foretold the great war or 1914-15 and the German atrocities, as well as of many well-known ballads, including an “Ode to Shakespeare” accepted by Queen Alexandra. TROOPER WRIGHTON is a Mid-Norfolk man, and is at present engaged in recruiting in Norwich and the county. He has rendered excellent services in this capacity in Norwich where he was a familiar at the dinner hour in the Market Place —- [2] THE PLAY THAT FORETOLD THE WAR – This week we publish an interesting sketch of travel in Norfolk, by a Norfolk man, a native of Mattishall, who is now a trooper in the 3rd Country of London Yeomanry. TROOPER WRIGHTON, who in his lifetime has played many parts, is just now busy recruiting up and down the country. Amongst other occupations he has both written and acted plays notably “Wake Up England” a production that did much to stir the latent patriotism wherever it was exhibited. Yet another play is entitled ‘Kultur’ dedicated to the men and women of England by its author, NORMAN WRIGHTON. Curiously it was written in December 1913, almost two years before the war broke out, and foreshadowed, with lifelike reality, many of the incidents that befell unhappy Belgium in the early stages of the struggle. Below we give an extract from the play which will give an idea of its forceful quality. The play was set in Mattishall.

There was no official record found as to when Noman became ill but from his records he was subjected to wet exposure, it must have been very intensive for on May 29th 1916 he was reported as medically unfit for active service followed by his discharge a few days later on June 14th. He was granted a War Pension of 15 shillings a week, and then another application agreed to increase it to 27s and 6 pence per week. The Army sent him to a convalescent home on the Norfolk coast, near Cromer. During this time, he continued to show a positive attitude and said he would be back on stage by the autumn of 1916. It was during his hospital stay he wrote ‘CARRY ON!’ – A six verse Ballard of the Somme, dedicated to his friend, Lieutenant Nelson Ellis, Late British Expeditionary Force, France.

However, things were not improving and he was transferred to a more specialist hospital in London. On January 31st 1917 Norman sent a short note to the ‘Era’ addressed from the Norfolk Ward, Albert Gallery, of the Brompton Hospital (specialist in heart and lung disease) simply saying “Am rather badly strafed.” From there he was sent to St. Barnabas’ Home for Incurables, Brocket Hall, Haldon Road, Torquay, Devon. St Barnabas was a T.B. home (one of many in Torquay) It was run by the same Order of Nuns as St Luke’s & St Raphael’s. Torquay was chosen as it was widely believed that the climate and clean air was a cure for TB. Sadly, Norman never recovered and died on November 2nd 1917.

There are scores of horrendous and heroic stories of young men, some still teenagers who in appalling circumstances, paid the ultimate sacrifice in what was to become the deadliest conflict in human history. The men who did return were at the time seen to be the lucky ones but many suffered life changing injuries. Many were mentally scared, a condition not recognised at that time. It was not uncommon for families and loved ones to find they had a completely different person to the one they had waved goodbye to. Sad stories are found where some even took their own lives.

It is only now after 100 years we look at this war and its causalities very differently. We now recognise casualties were still mounting up way after armistice day on November 11th 1918. Although fighting still continued in some places until August 31st 1921 when Parliament declared the war to be ended. Many men had suffered dreadful injuries and were returned home just to simply get on with it. The Ministry of Defence and Commonwealth War Graves Commission were soon to recognise this and set the cut-off date to August 31st 1921 for purposes of commemoration. Whether it should have gone further is a matter for debate as men were known to have suffered for many more years after this and subjected to an early death due to their injuries.

NORMAN WRIGHTON did not fall into any of these categories, his contribution to the war effort could be said was less harrowing to what many went through, but never the less his early death was the result of an illness brought on whilst serving the country he so much loved. Who knows what he could have been had he lived on. The fact he was discharged, given a pension and placed in military hospitals confirmed the army had taken some sort of responsibility for him, but it was quite apparent after his death he had slipped under the radar, as it were, and had not been entered into the official war records.

The most fortunate thing was all his service records were available on-line and had not been destroyed in the September Blitz of 1940. Armed with all the information gathered on this man I approached the CWGC. I also contacted Terry Denham of the ‘In From The Cold’ website who were very helpful as they have a lot of experience in these matters. An application was lodged and then it was a case of waiting. It turned out funds had been withdrawn from the project so we had to wait some time for a decision. Then on May 31st 2018, FRANK HENRY NORMAN WRIGHTON had finally been added to the First World War Casualty List 100 years and 6 months after his death.

The next process is grave verification which will begin at CWGC, then once this is completed, his commemoration will be moved to the grave site. However, this will not be as straightforward as it sounds, for Norman was buried in a common grave with multiple burials so unless something can be found to say precisely where his remain are buried the CWGC may not be permitted to erect a stone. If that happens, they could erect a Special Memorial stone in the cemetery or add his name to a Screen Wall if there is one in the cemetery.

Ray concludes with the  question should FRANK HENRY NORMAN WRIGHTON be added to the Mattishall War Memorial of fallen men? –

Norman played a key role in the War effort – His army service records show Mattishall Burgh as his home address – He showed great love for Norfolk and the village of Mattishall, this is well documented – Most important of all he is NOT listed anywhere else and we should remember every fallen soldier respectfully – My opinion is, Norman more than qualifies to be excepted as one of Mattishall’s own and we should be proud of his great contribution and sacrifice – For more facts and full story click HERE:

Ray Taylor


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