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Re-enactment of the commemorative strike to honour Joseph Blackburn

Thornton war memorial which displays Joseph Blackburn’s name Published Wednesday, 05 April 2017

Before the commencement of full council on Thursday, 15 June 2017, the current Thornton councillors staged a tribute to their predecessors of a century ago.

The councillors commemorated a protest by members of the old Thornton Urban District Council, staged when Joseph Blackburn, a local market gardener was sent off to the war.  

This year marks the 100th anniversary of that protest, and of a legal case gone badly wrong. The story has been brought to light by writer and lawyer David Hewitt, and it is told in his new book Joseph, 1917

During the First World War, the task of deciding whether men must fight or could be given exemption was usually performed by a local tribunal. There were more than 2,000 across the country, each appointed by the local council for the area it served, and containing a number of councillors.

In March 1916, the government introduced military conscription for the very first time.

The local tribunals would now have to decide when men who were already soldiers should be called up, but also whether men who had up until now been civilians should be required to serve. They would have the power to make a man exempt absolutely, temporarily or upon particular conditions.

The Thornton tribunal accepted that Joseph Blackburn was a market gardener and that it was in the national interest that he should follow that trade. His exemption wasn’t absolute, and soon it was overturned.

In May 1917, the central tribunal that sat in Westminster decided that Joseph wasn’t a market gardener at all, but a mere ‘hawker’ of fruit and vegetables, and took away the exemption he had been given several months before. The tribunal made its decision only on the basis of the papers it saw, and it didn’t hear from Joseph himself, consequently Joseph was sent off to war.

On 26 June 1917, in protest at the way Joseph and they themselves had been treated, the five councillors from Thornton Urban District Council walked out of the council offices at Four Lane Ends. They were Thomas Dewhurst, who was the chairman, William Betney, Thomas Waring, William Titherington and Thomas Strickland, and they didn’t return for most of the summer.

Yet despite this protest, Joseph Blackburn never came back to Thornton. In August 1918, as British soldiers swept across northern France, he was killed in action close to the River Somme. He is one of more than eighty Thornton men commemorated on the town’s war memorial.

Take a look at the re-enactment performed by local councillors


Find out more information about Joseph Blackburn and his family.

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