Sunday, 8 November 2020

Henry David Duff - Remembered on Earlston War Memorial

Henry David Duff (1895-1918)

Henry David Duff was born in Earlston on January 1895, the only son of Archibald Duff, a shoemaker and Helen, with four older sisters, Jane, Annie, Nora and Isabel. His parents came from Perthshire and had moved to the Borders prior to the birth of their three youngest children.   The 1901 census saw the young family at 4 Rodger’s Place, Haughhead Road, Earlston.   Archibald was described as a “retired” shoemaker, which seems surprising, given his age was noted as 41.  Perhaps he was not a well man.

Henry’s Parents: Archibald and Helen Duff, nee McLeish

Ten years on in the 1911 census, 16 year old Henry Duff was working for David Wallace, a local draper and clothier on Earlston High Street.


Earlston High Street c.1910 

 A later newspaper report (Berwick Advertiser: 19th February 1916) noted that:

“Henry served his apprenticeship in the establishment of Messrs. Wallace & Sons, drapers and clothiers.   Upon its completion he went to London where he was in a situation for a short time, but, not liking the living-in system which is so common in the larger drapery houses, he determined to seek his fortune in the Western Hemisphere."


In 1914, 19  year old Henry emigrated to Canada on board a ship of the Allan Line which carried more young Scots emigrants to Canada than any other line: an estimated 2.3 million people emigrated from Scotland between 1825 and 1938, many of them leaving from the Clyde for Canada

Henry travelled on the  S.S. Hesperian from Glasgow, bound for Quebec.   The ship was built by Messrs Alex Stephen and Sons, Glasgow for the Allan Line and launched in 1908.  A Handbook noted that five of its eight deck were devoted to passenger accommodation and facilities

Henry arrived in Canada on 9th May 1914 and settled in  Toronto.                                                           

Enlisting in the War Effort

Three months later after Henry’s arrival,   Britain and its Empire were at war with Germany.   Henry showed his commitment to his new country by joining the Governor of Canada’s Bodyguard. One cannot help speculating on what prompted Henry’s decision at this particular time, for two months before the SS. Hesperian, the ship he had sailed on to Canada, was torpedoed by a German U boat and sank, with the loss of 32 lives.

News of Henry reached Berwickshire, for The Berwick Advertiser of 19th February 1915 featured a fulsome introduction under the heading “Roll of Honour”:

 “Among those Earlstonians who have responded to the call to enlist in the Army for the defence of their King and Country, one has somehow   escaped mention among the worthies who have been kept in remembrance by those left behind.  We refer to Henry Duff , a lad of about 20 years, son of Mr. Archibald Duff……….

He responded to Lord Kitchener’s call for men, by enlisting in the crack cavalry regiment – no other than the Governor of Canada’s Body Guard.   After undergoing some training at Stanley Barracks, Toronto, he was sent away about 500 miles into the backwoods along with a detachment of his regiment to do duty at an encampment for prisoners at a place which is 72 miles from the nearest town.   Here he is at present located and in a letter which he has written home to his friends, he expresses himself as well pleased with his surroundings.   He is well paid, well fed, and well clad against the rigour of the Canadian climate, his only regret being, that he sees no prospect of being sent to the from where he would very much like to be.”  The news item concluded that “Henry is a Good Templar and a non-smoker, so that a share of the tobacco sent to the other Earlston heroes would have been of no use to him.”

Henry’s time at Kapuskasing Internment Camp in Northern Ontario.

In the early years of the twentieth century, Canada recruited large numbers of people from eastern European countries to settle the Prairies and to build up its labour force. When the First World War broke out in August 1914, Canadians' attitude towards immigrants from countries under German or Austro-Hungarian rule suddenly changed. They were now regarded as potential enemy sympathizers rather than valuable contributors to Canada's economic development. The government's solution to this perceived threat to domestic security was to establish, under the War Measures Act, a series of internment camps across the country to detain enemy aliens and prisoners of war for the duration of hostilities – among them  Kapuskasing, in a camp carved out of the bush by the prisoners themselves. The Kapuskasing location was one of the largest and the last to close on 24th February 1920.

Below is a letter, written on birch bark, which Henry wrote to his mother when he was at the camp.

“Via Cochrane


Oct 4th 1915

Dear Mother

                   I guess you’ll be wondering why I’m writing on this stuff.   Well you see, it’s the only stuff I can get here.   I’m down the river from the camp.   There was an officer got drowned here on the 1st. so there’s a search party trying to find the body, and I’m one of the party.    We’ve been here for 3 days but it is a very difficult place to get at as it is a waterfall at the foot of rapids, so we are searching around there but I guess we’ll have to wait till after 9 days we’re going down to put a net across the river.   I think that is the best way.

He was just a young fellow and a very nice fellow too, he was a career (?) officer and he had his photo taken along with us just two days before he got drowned.

Well goodbye just now

XXXXXXX best Love from Harry”

Shortly afterwards, The Berwickshire Advertiser:  22nd October 1915 wrote under the headline “An Ardent and Patriotic Earlstonian”:

“According to letters which have been received by his parents from Henry Duff, who has for some time been serving with the Canadian forces to the west of Toronto, is having a busy time in the far West.

Henry, who served his time with the firm of D. Wallace and Sons, is now engaged in canteen work, and stimulated by the stirring news coming from the various scats of war in Europe, his patriotic spirit prompted him to take part with so many of his youthful countrymen in resisting the aggressions of Germany and Russia.  

This feeling on his part was so strong that it prompted him to offer to resign his place in the Canadian Army, and pay his fare back to Scotland, in order that he might join the army so urgently called for by Lord Kitchener and Lord Derby.   The Canadian military authorities, however, know when they have got hold of a good man, and they desire to keep him, and for the present have persuaded him to remain and discharge his canteen duties.”


Henry joined the infantry of the Canadian Expeditionary Force as a Private in the Central Ontario Regiment 15th Battalion – service no. 192423.  His Attestation Papers have survived in the collection of The Library and Archives of Canada:  Personal Records of the First World War  and confirm his name, date of  birth, birthplace, with his next of kin noted as his mother Helen Duff. His occupation was given as salesman, he was Presbyterian and unmarried.  He signed the document on 15th December 1915.

We also have a description of Henry from the medical section of this record. He was   5.5 inches tall, chest 37 inches, with an expansion of 3 inches.  He had a fresh complexion, grey eyes, brown hair, and a mole on his left back, and a scar on the right side of his neck. He was described as a Presbyterian and considered fit.   

Action in France

The Berwickshire News: 13th November 1917 reported under Earlston News that “Henry Duff, Canadian Contingent, who has been 15 months in France, has been at Home on short furlough.”

But ten months later  Henry, whilst on duty as a runner during operations in the vicinity of Marquoin,  was hit in the head by an enemy bullet and instantly killed – the date 27th September 1918, just six weeks before the Armistice on 11th November.  Henry  was just 23 years old/ .

In  Remembrance

Henry was buried with 257 other servicemen  in the Commonwealth War Graves British Cemetery (below)  at Sains-les-Marquoin, Departement du Pas-de-Calais, Nord-Pas-de-Calais, France


Back home Henry’s death was reported in the local press:

“Border Heroes of the War” was the headline in The Southern Reporter: 10th October 1918:  “Pte. Henry Duff, Canadian Highlanders is reported killed. He was the only son of the late Archibald Duff, shoemaker, Earlston and served his apprenticeship in the drapery trade with Messrs. Wallace. He immigrated to Canada and there joined the Canadian contingent.”

The Berwickshire News: 5th November 1918 noted:

“Rev. Walter Davidson writes as follows in Earlston Presbyterian Supplement of Life and Work for November – “Another splendid young Earlstonian, Pt. Henry Duff, Canadians, after a lengthy period of active service has fallen in the performance of a most heroic, single handed action on the Western Front.   To save the lives of his comrades Henry attempted to destroy a machine gun crew.   A companion writes, “It was the bravest deed I have seen in the war.”   Before going to Canada Henry was a draper with Messrs. Wallace, and his bright and winning disposition made him a favourite with all and an especially welcome visitor on his brief furloughs home during the war.   His three sisters, who have also lost both parents this year, have the deepest sympathy of everyone in this fresh and sore bereavement.”

The Canadian Virtual War Memorial paid tribute to Henry:


In memory of: In In Memory of Private Henry David Duff September 27, 1918

Military Service Number: 192423

Force: Army Unit: Canadian Infantry (Central Ontario Regiment) Division: 15th Bn.

Additional Information Born: January 26, 1895



In his birthplace of Earlston, Henry Duff  is remembered on the village war memorial.



 Sources of Information

  • Contributors:  Sheila McKay and Susan Donaldson of he Auld Earlston Group

Monday, 5 October 2020

A Tragic Railway Accident at Earlston Station

Historical newspapers regularly featured quite graphic accounts of tragic accidents in the workplace. 

One such event in Earlston involved John Thomson, a coal agent.    On 7th February, 1866, aged just 36, he died as a result of injuries to his arm being crushed betweenthe buffers and coal trucks at Earlston Station.    A newspaper report in ‘The Kelso Chronicle’ of Friday 9th February, 1866, gave the full details:

“John Thomson, who got his arm broken and severely bruised between the buffers two wagons on Monday last week, died from the effects of the accident about one o'clock on Wednesday morning.    Thomson having been sergeant in the Earlston Volunteer Company, the members the Corps, who were greatly interested in his case, and who in the beginning of the week thought it was assuming very serious aspect, subscribed to procure the services of a surgeon of eminence from Edinburgh, and in this they were liberally assisted by the public in general.

Accordingly, on Tuesday morning, Mr Andrew Murdison, a brother volunteer of Thomson’s, very kindly took the trouble of going personally to Edinburgh, in addition to sending a telegram (which, as is too common, landed at its destination long after the sender had been conveyed by train thereto) to seek the services of Dr. Annandale, to whom he had been recommended by Dr. Riddell.  [The local physician]

This gentleman accompanied Mr Murdison back to Earlstoun in the afternoon, and having seen and examined Thomson, deemed amputation of the arm necessary. This operation Dr Annandale performed about 4 o’clock in the afternoon but Thomson gradually sank, and about nine hours thereafter expired.

Thomson, who was a young unmarried man in the prime of life, was much respected in the place, and his premature death under such circumstances has excited deep sympathy for those of his family who survive him.”


Two trains in Earlston station
Copyright © A R Edwards and Son,  Selkirk.    (Cathy Chick Collection).   All Rights Reserved


Background Notes:

  • ·       John Thomson’s Family
    John was born Earlston, 2nd May 1829, the fourth son, in a family of eight, children  of William Thomson and Janet Slight/Sleigh, the great, great great, grandparents of Auld Earlston member Sheila McKay.  

    In the 1851 census, William, born in Lauder, was described as a thatcher, with the family living on Main Street, Earlston. John’s occupation was given as a sawyer.

    Father, William died in 1860, with John named as the informant, on the death certificate.

    Where John was at the time of the 1861 census remains a mystery, as he was not in Earlston.     Could he possibly be the John Thomson, born in Earlston , aged 30, serving as a police constable in Chirnside?  Impossible to say when his name is so popular in the region. The Heritage Hub in Hawick holds a substantial collection of police records, but the Constabulary Records  for Berwickshire did not begin  until after 1866. 

    By the time of his death, John had had a change of occupation to that of coal agent. Coal represented the single largest freight traffic on the railways.  John would have been working in the coal merchant’s yard at the station. As the coal wagons arrived from the Dalkeith coalfields, his role involved liaising with the local coal merchants on the purchase of the coal.
  • ·       Medicine in 1866
    John was tended to initially by  the local physician Dr. Riddell, and we have a fine description of the doctor in  the writings on Earlston people and places by  Rev. William Crockett. 

"Here was a man skilled in diagnosis, a very capable servant, responsive to every phase of human distress. Even if (because of his slightly humped back), they spoke of him as”Humpy" Riddell, it was never with any feeling of disrespect. The doctor was endowed with a big brain; poor people said he had a heart of gold. He showed his queer habits on occasions   - a street fight fascinated him for instance.  Dr  Riddell believed in prayer and once told the minister "I always pray before I start an operation."  

This was a time of early days in the use of anaesthesia, with infection control weak, and the incidence of mortality following amputation high. It was only in 1867 that Joseph Lister published his work in using carboiic acid as an antiseptic.

  • ·       Earlston’s Community Spirit
    It is worth noting the generosity of the public to John’s accident and the readiness to provide funds to call on Edinburgh surgeon, Dr. Annandale to perform the operation.

  • ·       Earlston Railway
    John’s death in 1866 occurred in the
    early history of the Earlston railway.  The Berwickshire line had reached the village in 1863 and was extended to Newtown St. Boswells in 1865, with completion of the Leaderfoot Viaduct, the major engineering feat of the line and itself the scene of some railway accidents during its construction.

    A goods train from Earlston travelling between Gordon and Greenlaw.
    Copyright  © Bruce McCartney.  All Rights Reserved.  


Sources of Information

  •  British Newspaper Archive - website

  • The Rhymer's Town:  Further Notes on Earlston's Past, by Dr. W. S. Crockett. In "The Southern Annual:1942.

    Cotributed by Sheila  McKay and Susan Donaldson