One hundred years ago this month a terrible tragedy unfolded on the Lancashire moors as the county was in the grip of a winter freeze. Local historian Keith Johnson reports
The vast moorlands of east Lancashire are a place frequented by many who enjoy the rugged countryside with its bracing air.
A century ago the paths and walkways were not as substantial as they are now and walkers often faced hidden perils should they wander in unfamiliar places.
The danger of the Darwen moors was particularly apparent in the winter months and a tragedy that occurred in December 1917 drove home the stark reality.
The weather on the third Sunday of the month was hardly ideal for trekking. Nonetheless, three young lads, who had attended St Barnabas Sunday School that day, decided to venture out full of the spirit of adventure and relishing a walk in the snow.
Despite dusk being only a short time away they entered the moors a couple of miles from the church of St Barnabas.
Earlier in the day a Mrs Entwistle, who lived upon the moors at Higher Trees Farm, had set off with her daughters in the hope of attending a memorial service at St George’s Church.
They had hardly left the farm when it became apparent their intended journey was impossible. They soon became separated from each other in the blizzard which confronted them before they had even cleared a couple of fields.
By the time they reached a nearby quarry they knew that they must abandon their trip and, only by holding on to each other, were they able to weather the storm.
Such was the ferocity of the blizzard that they had to fight for their very breath as they made their way back home. Mrs Entwistle remarking that in 30 years of living by the moors she had never known such a storm.
As for the Darwen lads they were familiar with the moors but could hardly have expected having to face such extreme weather. With darkness falling quickly and a blizzard to contend with they seem to have lost their way.
When they did not return home that evening their anxious families held on to the hope they had managed to find shelter and would return unscathed from their ordeal.
That night snow drifted up to 10ft in places and by morning a search and rescue operation was under way. The lads were named as William Cooper Longton, 18, of Culvert Street; Ralph Bolton of Maria Street, 16, and his young 10-year-old cousin James Bolton, of Princess Street.
The feeling was that they might have set out to visit an uncle of the two cousins at the other side of the moors. Despite an intense search carried out by the regular police officers, special constables and numerous civilian volunteers, there was no sighting of the lads on the Monday. Operations were resumed at an early hour on the Tuesday and in the middle of that afternoon a tragic discovery was made.
The dead body of William Cooper Longton being found 100 yards to the south of the derelict Old Lyons Farm. He lay face down in the snow with his hands drawn over his face.
The news of his discovery increased fears for the safety of the other lads and on the Wednesday their lifeless bodies were also discovered. Ralph Bolton was found lying on his back about 200 yards from the farmhouse, fully clothed except for his overcoat.
A little later, 100 yards away, James Bolton was discovered buried in a snowdrift with just one foot sticking out, he was also lying on his back with his cousin’s topcoat thrown over him. There was no doubt the lads had lost their way, fallen down exhausted and died through exposure to the severe cold.
Sadly all the farmhouses in the vicinity were boarded up and unoccupied at the time due to an allocation wrangle which was under way. Some of the drifts had been extremely deep and the footpaths completely obliterated.
The general opinion was that the lads had kept together until Longton had set out with the intention of getting assistance.
As the hours passed and Longton did not return it was thought Ralph Bolton, after covering his cousin with his topcoat, had also set out for assistance. However, he himself had got only a short distance before he collapsed.
Ironically, on that Wednesday night, a farewell gathering had been arranged, by the Church Lads Brigade, in honour of Longton who had been called to the colours.
In each case the lads were the only sons in their respective families.
Ralph Bolton’s father was away serving in the First World War in France, and James Bolton’s father had been killed in
action the previous July.
At the subsequent inquest the coroner remarked that it had been a terrible catastrophe and he hoped it would be a warning to others not to venture on the moors in such weather.
The fact the dusk would have drawn in not long after they entered the moors had seemed another factor the boys had not considered. He then thanked all those who had been involved in the search, which had been a very trying experience in awful conditions.
The inquest jury took little time to record a verdict that the lads had died from exhaustion during a snow blizzard while lost on
Darwen moors, ending their statement by expressing their sympathy to the grieving parents.
On the following Saturday the church of St Barnabas was packed with mourners as the funeral service took place. Hundreds lined the route to the cemetery where William was buried with his grandparents, and the Bolton cousins were interred together just a few yards away in a common grave.
All agreed that Ralph had carried out the most selfless act possible when he had wrapped his overcoat around the younger lad in the hope it would save him from perishing on that fateful night.
In the pocket of the coat was discovered a badge inscribed with the words ‘Fight The Good Fight’.