William was the son of George and Frances Copeland. He was born circa 1872 at Gillow Heath and grew up in the village. In 1881 the family lived in Mow Lane. George and Frances had a large family, all born in Biddulph: Jane, Annie, Mary, Thomas, Walter, Hannah, William and Sarah. George was a coal miner and his sons followed and also became miners. They were still living at Gillow Heath in 1891 but George died in 1898 and by 1901 only William remained at home with his widowed mother. In this census return William’s age was recorded as 29 and he also stated that he was single. His mother died in 1906 aged 72.
He states on enlistment that his next of kin was his brother Walter of Station Road, Biddulph and also that he had married Sarah Ellen Moors in Congleton in 1893.
The only marriage found for a William Copeland in 1893 in Congleton occurred in the first quarter of that year and was to Alice Fynney. However, no death can be found for either Alice Fynney or Alice Copeland.
In 1891 there was a Sarah Ellen Moores living with her parents, Cecil and Emma, and six siblings at 46, Bromley Street, Congleton. Sarah Ellen was still with her parents at the same address in 1901 but with two children, Melindra born 1897 and Annie born 1898. Sarah Ellen was allegedly single. They were noted as being grand-daughters of Cecil and Emma with no indication of parentage but Sarah Ellen was the oldest in the family and no-one else could feasibly have been their mother. Cecil, Emma, Sarah Ellen and grand-daughters, by then 14 and 13, were at 9, Spring Street, Congleton in 1911. So, were William and Sarah Ellen married, had they then separated, and were both calling themselves single in 1901? No death could be found for Sarah Ellen before 1915 when William enlisted, so maybe, he meant ‘deceased to him’. Why did he not enter ‘widower’ as his marital status in 1901 if Sarah Ellen had died?
From the papers which have survived we see that on enlistment in Lichfield on September 8th 1915 he gave his age as being 39. This indicates a birth of about 1876. Maybe, just as the young men added years on, William had taken years off. He was apparently just under 5ft 7in tall. He also stated that he was married, but then said that his wife was deceased. He gave his occupation as collier and he was of no fixed address. Indeed, no address was found for him in 1911. The documents indicate that originally he was in the North Staffordshire Regiment with a regimental number of 18789.
William enlisted in the 11th (Reserved) battalion North Staffordshire Regiment. This battalion was a home-based training unit. His basic training was carried out at Rugeley Camp on Cannock Chase. If this is the correct William Copeland then the notes read that he was a declared deserter on April 9th 1916 but re-joined on May 22nd 1916. For his sins, he was sentenced by the District Court Martial to 112 days in the Guard Detention Room. This was to be cancelled on July 31st when he was transferred to the 12th (Labour) battalion Lincolnshire Regiment.
This battalion was due to sail for France in early August 1916 so maybe some arrangement was made. William crossed the Channel on August 8th 1916 with his new mates who had also only recently joined this newly formed battalion. On arrival they transferred to the Lines of Communications where the 12th battalion commenced their duties. A Labour Battalion is most difficult to research as little information was recorded of their service. They carried out manual duties between the back areas and the forward sectors, always bravely facing the enemy shelling with many of their numbers lost.
Whilst working William became ill during the winter of 1916 and after treatment in France he was returned to England and his records show he spent time in the 1st Southern General Hospital in Edgbaston, Birmingham during Christmas 1916, suffering from cholera. It was not unusual for a soldier to contract this disease through dirty water. His condition did not improve and on January 12th 1917 William was discharged from the colours although he remained on the Reserve List and placed on the Silver Badge List F/239. An address is given in Manchester. Perhaps in the years following he moved back to Biddulph, as the documents of 1922 refer to 29900 being in Biddulph. J. Parkinson of 7, Albert Street received his medals.
A few years later, at home in Biddulph, and with continuing poor health Private William Copeland sadly died on February 26th 1921 aged 49. Whether his death was a direct cause of his war-time service is unknown. Whatever his life history, he enlisted to serve king and country at an age when he could probably have got deferred.
He is buried in the churchyard of St. Lawrence, Biddulph in a war grave in the old yard north of the chancel. His grave is inscribed “29900 Private W Copeland Lincolnshire Regiment 26th February 1921 age 49. Egypt. Lincolnshire.”
He is commemorated on the cenotaph in Biddulph.
Elaine Bryan, Michael Turnock and Elaine Heathcote.