Suitcase rescued from tip reveals family history of WWI soldiers

A suitcase containing photographs, letters and documents from the First World War has been discovered by workers at a Wearside waste plant, following a house clearance. 

The historical artefacts focus on the Cowie family from Sunderland, who lost two relatives during the war, father John Cowie and his two sons Henry and George.

A family tree researcher told ITV News it is "an important find".


Watch @krisjepson's report here:


The suitcase was abandoned in a skip and discovered by workers at Thompson Waste Centre in Sunderland. 

They found carefully preserved documents and photographs which record one family's tragic story of loss during the Great War.

In 1915, Ellen Isabel Stephenson of Southwick Road, Sunderland lost her husband, Coal miner John Cowie 10 days after her son, Henry Cowie, was killed in action in France.

Gareth Thompson, a driver from the waste plant told ITV News it was a moving experience learning about the family's history.

I’ll be honest I was absolutely gobsmacked by it. Saddened that it’s just been chucked in a house clearance, but you can’t fail to read something like that and fail to get a connection with the people.

Gareth Thompson, Thompson Waste Centre

"It’s personal. It’s letters between a husband and wife. It’s letters between a son and his mother. Postcards telling them he’s ok. It’s postcards from friends saying ‘your son is in hospital, but he’s alright’ and then he’s not. It would touch anybody."

Ann Ganley, the owner of the waste plant, commissioned family tree researcher, Meg Hartford, to find out as much about the family as possible.

Meg Hartford discovered that Ellen Stephenson had eight children in all, with her son, George, also going to war, but surviving.

She found Henry was born in 1897 in Sunderland and joined the 15th battalion of the Durham Light Infantry. According to his 'Soldier's Small Book' he was number 15752.

He rose to the rank of Corporal before being killed in action aged just 18 "at a place unknown" on 26 September 1915. He was buried in 1915 in Loos-en-Gohelle, Departement du Pas-de-Calais, Nord-Pas-de-Calais, France.

Unlike Henry, his father, John made it back to England and died at a War Hospital in Croydon, aged 51. He was buried at Southwick Cemetery.

It’s got to be important because there won’t be many collections like this. I think it’s opened my eyes to the hardship that some of the families went through. I mean I always knew that the widows and families found it very hard after their husbands and sons were killed, but I think that this has really brought it home, how difficult it was for those people and how much they gave up.

Meg Hartford, Family Tree Researcher

Medals, coins and letters from Kitchener and Winston Churchill were also discovered in the case.

Mrs Ganley is arranging a memorial for the soldiers and is funding the placing of three stones on the National Veterans' Walk in Sunderland, which commemorates the war dead.

Tom Cuthbertson from Veterans' Walk said it’s "absolutely outstanding" to have found the suitcase full of history that’s been "forgotten for years".

There’s other stones on the path already from World War One, World War Two, that weren’t buried, they didn’t come home, their bodies were never found, the families have laid the stones and to get them recognised now on this path alongside other fellow soldiers, you know, it’s going to be a great achievement I think. I’m so proud to see it happen.

Tom Cuthbertson, Veterans' Walk