The King’s Book Of Heroes - the most moving and poignant memorial to those who died in the First World War

Collections manager Vicky Harrison with the King’s Book of Heroes in the Undercroft at York Minster

Walter Robinson

Gilbert Lewis

Betty Stevenson

Alfred Clark

Clarence Frederick Jarvis

Kings Book of York Heroes Feature Picture Frank Dwyer (8377357)

First published in News
Last updated

WAR memorials take many shapes and forms: cenotaphs, village crosses, statues, stained glass windows, inscribed brass plaques in parish churches.

The most moving and poignant of all York's memorials to its First World War dead is none of these, however: it's a book.

The King's Book Of Heroes, kept in a glass cabinet at York Minster, is no ordinary book. It has a cover carved from English oak and, weighing as it does a hefty 9 stone 4lbs, is reckoned to be one of the largest books in the world.

Such statistics mean nothing, however, when compared to the sheer emotional impact it has.

Inside is page after page of photographs of the young men – and two young women – from York who gave their lives in the service of King and Country in the Great War.

The photographs are arranged 16 to each huge page and gaze out at you as you leaf through the book. Most are in uniform. Some look anxious, some calm, some even cheerful. Many are heartbreakingly young. Beneath each photograph are a few details: age, rank, regiment; where and when they were born; where and when they died.

Betty Stevenson was 21 when she was killed. Born in September 1896 in Burton Stone Lane, she was a canteen worker and driver for the YMCA. Her job was to drive injured soldiers to and from hospital, and also to transport families to see injured soldiers at the front. She was killed in action on May 30, 1918, during an aerial bombardment of Étaples in France, and was posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre avec Palme (French equivalent of the Victoria Cross). Her photograph gazes out at you: the collar of her greatcoat raised, her eyes steady and level.

Then there is Gilbert Lewis, a York Minster chorister from Longfield Terrace off Bootham who, before the war, worked as a clerk at the North Eastern Railway. He joined the Royal Marines as a private, and was killed in action in France on April 28, 1917, aged 24. He looks painfully young in the photograph: his uniform and cap immaculate, but his eyes somehow anxious.

Walter Robinson look like a cheeky schoolboy, despite his uniform. He lived in Bilton Street, York, and served as a private in the Prince of Wales' Own West Yorkshire Regiment. He was killed on July 1, 1916 at the Battle of the Somme, aged 22, and is buried at the Dantzig Alley British Cemetery in France.

Look at any of these photographs, and you are struck by the awful waste: by the young lives cut short; by the grieving loved ones back home. But, as you turn the pages, it is the cumulative impact of the row after row of photographs that really catches at your throat.

There are almost 1,450 men in the book (and those two young women, Betty Stevenson and Eveline Hodgson, a military nurse who was killed in Salonika, Greece). That number is still rising because, to this day, families are coming forward with details of loved ones who lost their lives in that war 100 years ago.

The book was put together after the war by the people of York in a communal act of love, loss and grief. It seems to have been David Leith Presley, the editor of The Yorkshire Herald, who – with other leading citizens of the day – was the driving force behind the book.

But people from all walks of life in the city came together to produce the book.

The wooden covers and much of the inside of the book were designed by the artist and architect Edwin Ridsdale Tate. The covers were carved by George H Hudson (no relation to the 'railway king') to Tate's designs, using oak supplied by the North Eastern Railway 's wagon department. The photographs and obituaries were collated by Mr A Adams of the Yorkshire Evening Press, and the book was bound by Mr FJ Wells and printed by Mr R Currie, both of the Yorkshire Herald.

Today, the book stands as a monument, not only to the generation of young men who lost their lives in the war, but also to the shock and grief of a city which mourned their passing, and which was never to be the same again.

The King's Book Of Heroes is now on display in the Undercroft at York Minster as part of the York Minster Revealed exhibition. A reproduction of the book is held at the Minster Library, where it can be viewed on request.

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