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Durham County Record Office: the official archive service for County Durham and Darlington

James Edward Cook (1891-1915)

Information about James Edward Cook, a teacher at Thornley Council School, who was killed in action at Bellewaarde Ridge during the Second Battle of Ypres and is commemorated on Durham County Council War Memorial.


James Edward Cook was born on 12 January 1891 at Thornley in East Durham. He was baptised on 29 January at home (a possible indication that he was a sickly baby), and the baptism is recorded in the Thornley Wesleyan Methodist Circuit baptism register. He was the second son of John George Cook and his wife, Ann (or Annie) Sarah Cook. John kept a greengrocers and fruit shop at Hartlepool Street, Thornley, and had done so from the early 1880s. There was a third son of the marriage, Percy, who was also killed in the Great War.

Soldiers of the 7th Battalion, The Durham Light Infantry, marching along a road in France or Belgium, c.1914-1918 (D/DLI 2/7/18(223)) - click to enlarge
Icon showing image can be enlarged
James had attended a Pupil Teacher Training Centre at Henry Smith School in Hartlepool and had worked as a Pupil Teacher at Wheatley Hill Council School.

In the summer of 1909 he applied to Bede College in Durham City, with references from the head teacher from Hartlepool and the vicar of Thornley, Rev. Ernest Coltier Biggs.

Given his Methodist baptism and his close ties with the Wesleyan Church in Thornley, it is perhaps surprising that he applied to Bede College, a Church of England Men's Training College.

Although he passed the qualifying examination he did not attend Bede College, but instead went to Sunderland Training College in September 1909 for a two-year training course.

James appears in the 1911 Census as a 'Student (Teaching Profession)', since at the time of the census he was still at Sunderland College. However, later in that year he was appointed as a Certificated Assistant at Thornley Council School (Boys Department), and the school log book notes that he commenced his duties on 14 August - one of three fully-trained teachers in a staff of five. His time at Thornley School appears to have been uneventful, in that his name only appears in the log book once, noting an absence through illness on 2 and 3 March 1914.

James was later described as 'a young man who had obtained in a remarkable degree the "good word" of everyone with whom he came in contact'. He was deeply involved with the Thornley Wesleyan Methodist Society and read papers to the debating society which 'were all marked by earnestness and high intelligence'.

On 10 September 1914, one month after the outbreak of war, the log book notes that James 'left school for War Service', following one of the other Certificated Assistants, Alfred Turner, who had joined-up on 17 August. Permission for him to enlist was formally given by the Education Committee on 30 September.

He joined B Company of the 1/7th battalion of the Durham Light Infantry, which, after seven months training, landed in France on 19 April 1915. Within a week the battalion was in action at the second battle of Ypres, which began when poison gas was released into the Allied lines north of Ypres, the first time that gas had been used in the war. The effects of the gas and the strength of the German attack forced a British withdrawal to a shorter defensive line. James was killed, aged 24, five weeks after landing in France, on 26 May 1915 (Whit Monday), having written what became his last letter to his parents on the day before.

According to the Durham Advertiser report (which refers to him as 'John') his parents had not been informed officially of his death by the end of July, but received the news in a letter from a soldier in a Lancashire regiment who had found James' body on 3 July and had buried him. The soldier said he had found James' watch, diary and a photograph, but apparently had not signed the letter. A memorial service was held at Thornley Wesleyan Methodist Church on 18 July.

James had written to the boys at the school while he was at the front, thanking them for the cigarettes which they had sent, and said that although his thoughts were often with the school, he preferred to be out in France than walking about Thornley in civilian clothes - We are all happy here because we know this is the place where we ought to be.

James Cook has no known burial place, but is commemorated on the Menin Gate memorial at Ieper (Ypres), with 54,000 other British soldiers whose graves are unknown. The Menin Gate memorial was designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield and is one of four memorials to the missing of Flanders - its site was chosen because the original gate was known to thousands of British soldiers who marched through it on their way to the Ypres Salient front.


  • Durham County Council War Memorial website
  • Soldiers Died in the Great War 1914-19 CD
  • Medal Rolls Index Cards
  • North East War Memorials Project website
  • Bede College register of applicants, E/HB 257, pp.189-190
  • Thornley Council School log book, E/E 67, pp.268,281,286
  • Thornley Wesleyan Methodist Circuit baptism register, M/Th 78, p.57
  • Durham County Council Education Committee minute book, CC/A26/1/22, pp.19-20
  • Durham County Council Education Committee minute book, CC/A26/1/26, pp.11-12
  • 1891 Census return, RG 12/4110, f.43v, p.40
  • 1901 Census return, RG 13/4686, f.19v, p.30
  • 1911 Census return, RG 14/30012, schedule 114
  • Durham Advertiser, 23 July 1915, p.7(f)
  • Durham Advertiser, 26 May 1916, p.8(h)
  • Durham Advertiser, 11 August 1916, p.8(e)
  • Durham Chronicle, 23 July 1915, p.4(c) and 4(e)
  • British Army World War I Service Records, TNA WO 383 Percy Cook