A PRAYER book pierced by a fragment of the shell that killed the first British soldier to die by enemy action on mainland Britain in the First World War has been secured for posterity in his home town.
Private Theophilus Jones was caught in a bombardment of the port of Hartlepool, in Co. Durham, by German battle-cruisers on 16 December 1914. More than 100 people died during the 40-minute assault, and the incident, along with a simultaneous attack on Scarborough, 60 miles south, outraged the nation.
Private Jones, who was 29, was well known in Hartlepool both as a sportsman and as a regular at St Aidan’s. His church connections had helped him to secure a post in October 1913 as head teacher of the village school at Thringstone, near Coalville, Leicestershire, and as choirmaster at the parish church of St Andrew’s.
The prayer book was presented to him by his pupils when, only a year later, he resigned to join the Durham Pals, the 18th battalion of the Durham Light Infantry. Fresh out of basic training, his unit was sent to Hartlepool to guard its coastal gun batteries, but, within days, he had died in a surprise attack by the German Navy.
“He was struck by several splinters from a shell, probably in the head and chest,” the curator of Hartlepool Museum, Mark Simmons, said. The museum paid £9500 for the prayer book and other items belonging to Private Jones and his brothers, Bert and Alf, who also died in the First World War.
“The book was in his left breast-pocket, and, had the splinter been the only piece to hit him it would have saved his life, as it did not penetrate. A piece of his uniform where it entered is also still pinned to the book. This all freezes the events of that day in time.
“We faced strong competition from other collectors, because the items are unique. The price rose well above the original estimate of £1400 to £1800. The items are now in the public trust, owned by the museum on behalf of the people of Hartlepool.”