Last year I received an email from Dr David France which introduced me to a former Everton player called Fred Collinson. The result of this was an article published on ToffeeWeb recently which told Fred’s story along with that of Everton born New Zealander Alfred Corlett. Apart from their association with two different football clubs called Everton what joined their stories together was Gallipoli in 1915.
While I was working on the story I received another email from David. This identified another man whose name passes briefly through Everton’s history before World War 1, Thomas Norse. Thomas was selected for three Everton reserve games in the spring of 1903 having been signed from Blackburn St Philips; he was a Blackburn born mill worker aged about 22. A Thomas Norse died at Gallipoli and David wondered if they are the same man; if so then we have another candidate for the roll of honour of the Everton players who died in the two World Wars.
A quick look at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission site showed six men with the surname Norse, all of whom died in World War 1. Of these three were called Thomas, but only one is listed as belonging to the East Lancashire Regiment and whose details show his family were living in Blackburn. The record also gave his age as 34 which would fit with him being 22 in 1903, so David was definitely on to something.
Clearly there was a need to look in the historical records for more on Thomas Norse. Most of these are available on Ancestry or Find My Past, but I find Ancestry hugely frustrating to use. Some of the transcription is laughable, for example Alexander ‘Sandy’ Young, scorer of Everton’s winner against Newcastle in the 1906 Cup Final is indexed as Alexandria Young. The distinguished Scots regiment the Black Watch is shown as the Black Wallet on one soldiers’ record. Fortunately I had a lot of assistance from a friend who is brilliant with the sources and I was able to concentrate on researching the history of the 1/4th East Lancashire Regiment and its involvement with the Gallipoli campaign.
Within hours information drawn from censuses and registers of births and marriages was arriving in my inbox and it was possible to build up a detailed picture of Thomas Norse’s life. It was clear from the outset that there is a strong likelihood that we are dealing with the same man; there is a large body of information about Thomas Norse's family life in Blackburn and his war service, and a parallel body of information about a footballer called Norse. The key was to link the two parts together.
There are also a remarkable number of parallels with the story of Fred Collinson and not just at Gallipoli. These continued to emerge as I looked more closely.
Thomas Norse was born in Fenniscowles or the adjoining village of Livesey near Blackburn on June 21st 1880, about a mile and a half from Blackburn Rovers’ Ewood Park ground today. The Norse family were originally from a village called Bradninch just north of Exeter in Devon, and moved up to Blackburn between 1875 and 1880, Thomas’ elder sister Ellen having been born in Bradninch around 1875. In the 1891 census the Norse family are living in East Street in Livesey and 16 year old Ellen and 10 year old Thomas are shown as working as cotton weavers.
In March 1897 at the age of 17 ½ Thomas joined the militia attached to the East Lancashire Regiment. His papers describe him as of fresh complexion with fair hair and grey eyes, but with a scar in the centre of his forehead. He stood 5’ 4” tall and weighed 8st 6lbs. His service only lasted 14 days however, unlike Fred Collinson who had taken to the army life several years before.
In the late summer of 1898 Thomas Norse married Mary Sanderson and a daughter, Mary Agnes was born soon after. In the 1901 census Thomas, Mary and 3 year old Mary Agnes were living in the parish of St Philip in Blackburn with his sister Ellen and her three children; Ellen was a widow at 26. Thomas’ occupation is given as a paper mill worker, his father and uncle also followed this trade.
Around this period local newspaper match reports show that an inside forward called Norse was making a name for himself in local football. On 11th November 1899 the Lancashire Evening Post reported Accrington Villa giving a trial to a player called Norse from Blackburn, he scored the winner in a 3-2 win over Great Harwood. Further reports exist of Norse playing for Accrington Villa against Hopton and against Rawtenstall in December, and in two more games the following March and April. Local reporters played an important role in scouting new talent for established clubs, and it may be that the continued good reports of Norse reached Everton’s notice through this route. In another parallel it is also possible that this was the way Everton had found out about Fred Collinson over a decade before.
The Everton Minute book entry for 17th March 1903 states that a player called Norse was selected to play against Rossendale United on the 24th at Goodison Park. However the Liverpool Courier report of the match says that owing to one of the forwards not turning up the goalkeeper Whitely played up front, the missing player being Norse. Whitely was clearly wasted between the sticks because he scored a hat trick in a 4-0 victory, despite having to go off injured just after half time. Despite the inauspicious start the Everton Minute book entry for 24th March confirms Norse’s selection for the next two Lancashire Combination games against Manchester City away on the 28th and Manchester United at home on the 30th. An entry then states “Norse: the Secretary reports that this player had been transferred from Blackburn St Philips”
Norse duly played in both games; no match report exists for the 1-0 defeat to Manchester City, but the report in the Liverpool Courier on the 1-1 draw against United has two fleeting mentions : “At length Wolfe and Norse ran down but a long shot travelled wide of the goal. The home halves with the exception of Clark, could not stop the visiting forwards who were playing with great dash. At last Elston forced a corner, but Clayton sent wide, although a little later Norse, shot in splendidly, the custodian saving well.” The directors were not impressed because a Minute book entry for the 30th March states “Norse: The play of this player being unsatisfactory Resolved that any further trial be declined.”
It is possible that Thomas Norse’s mind was elsewhere during this period, because sometime in the 3 months following his unsuccessful trial his daughter May Agnes Norse died aged just 5.
It would appear that Norse, like Collinson before him returned to play in his home town, because a very hard to read match report of a game in September 1904 shows that Norse played against Burnley Reserves for Blackburn St Philips and scored in a 5-2 win. At this point Thomas Norse disappears from the records, at least those unearthed so far. In the 1911 census his wife and son are boarding near Ewood Park, but there is no record of Thomas. However the record does point to more family tragedy; stating that of four children born to Thomas and Mary Norse only one, four year old Thomas junior is still living.
Thomas Norse’s next appearance on an official record gives a date of 9th May 1915 when he arrived at Gallipoli with the 1/4th Battalion of the East Lancashire Regiment, disembarking four days after Fred Collinson. The 1/4th was a Territorial Army unit which had been mobilised at the outbreak of war the previous August, and had been sent to Egypt on 9th September to guard the Suez Canal as part of the 42nd East Lancashire division. Fred Collinson was also part of the 42nd serving with the Bury based territorials of the Lancashire Fusiliers, and it is possible that their paths may have crossed, although in a formation of 20,000 men it is unlikely.
Thomas Norse’s service records have not survived but it could well be that like Fred Collinson he had joined the Territorials before the war, despite his unsuccessful fortnight with the militia as a 17 year old. If he did sail with the battalion to Egypt he may have seen action against Turkish forces along the Suez Canal at the beginning of February 1915, before departing for Gallipoli.
Lancashire Fusiliers of the 42nd Division waiting to go into attack at Gallipoli
The war diary of the 1/4th shows that Norse and the rest of the battalion were immediately put into the front lines near the village of Krithia which stood in the way of any advance onto the high ground around the commanding peak of Achi Baba. They were initially on the right of the British and Commonwealth lines with French troops on their right; it is often forgotten that the French contributed about a third of the forces committed to Gallipoli around this time. The East Lancs war diary describes back breaking work to improve the trenches and advance the frontage in preparation for a third attempt to take Krithia, the first having failed on 28th April three days after the initial landings, and the second in early May.
For what became the third battle of Krithia the battalion’s four companies were attached to regular battalions of the Worcestershire, Essex and Hampshire regiments. The attack took place on 4th June and the East Lancashire’s attacked on the left of the peninsula near Gurkha Bluff. After two days of heavy fighting the lines had only been advanced by an average of 250 yards along the whole line, but the 1/5th companies gave a good account of themselves according to the war diary. After the battle the battalion reformed and went back to trench holding.
British Artillery firing near Krithia in June 1915
On 22nd June the 1/5th East Lancs were relieved from the front line and went into camp about a mile behind the front lines at the confluence of two dry river beds which the troops called Clapham Junction. On the 24th the battalion war diary notes one fatality by name, that name was Private Thomas Norse. No cause is given but it was most likely from shell fire; his body was probably buried in the area but later lost in another sad parallel with Fred Collinson.
So what can we deduce from the evidence about Thomas Norse? The man killed at Gallipoli is definitely the same as the man born in Feniscowles in 1880. His parents and wife are the same as recorded by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and his son's marriage in 1928 shows Thomas junior was living at the address on the CWGC record. Was this Thomas Norse the footballer who appears in various newspaper reports and was signed briefly by Everton? It seems very likely; the surname Norse is rare and only one man of the right age was living in Blackburn at the time. He was a mill worker and lived in the parish of St Philip which ties in with the Everton records, but I’ll wait for my friends at the EFC Heritage Society to consider the evidence before his name is added to the club’s roll of honour.
Regardless of this the way that Thomas Norse’s story parallels that of Fred Collinson is remarkable. Both came from mill towns in Lancashire, which could be considered the heartland of the professional game in the late Victorian era. Both had a short time at Everton before returning to their roots to play their football, although Fred Collinson would go on to play at a higher level. They also joined the local militia in their teens, although Thomas Norse’s initial career only lasted a matter of days. And they both joined territorial battalions at the outbreak of war in 1914, served in the same division and fell at Gallipoli within a few weeks of each other. But here the parallel analogy breaks down as parallel lines can never meet, and Fred Collinson’s story and that of Thomas Norse do come together, as their names are both inscribed on the Memorial to the Missing at Cape Helles, looking out over the blue Aegean sea.
Pete Jones, EFC Heritage Society 2015.
I am indebted to my friend JP Levinge for her research on Thomas Norse, without which I wouldn’t have a story to tell. I am also very grateful to Billy Smith, David France and Steve Johnson for their research and assistance. Also my thanks go to Lyndon Lloyd and ToffeeWeb for publishing my stuff.