Peasants to Puddles
My Family History - By Nicky Rowberry

Thomas Rankin Thorburn - Sapper 414718

This page is dedicated to the memory of Thomas Rankin Thorburn who died on 4th April 1918 in Egypt.

Thomas Rankin Thorburn was born in 1878 in Blantyre, Scotland and he died on 4th April 1918 in Egypt, one of the many millions of men who lost their lives in World War 1. It seemed sad for him to have died and all but these bare facts remembered, so I've tried to find out at least a little about his life until his untimely death aged just 39.

Thomas Rankin Thorburn was born on 13th April 1878 at Kirkton, Blantyre. He was the oldest of 12 children of William Thorburn and his wife Amelia Moncur. William Thorburn was a joiner, born on Mull, who had moved to Blantyre via Longforgan in Perthshire. He must have met Amelia Moncur in Longforgan as he married her there in 1877. The 1881 census shows the young couple with Thomas and twin baby girls living in Blantyre, with William described as a Foreman Joiner. By 1891 the family had increased, although sadly one of the two twin girls had died, as well as another set of twins, all in 1886. They had all moved to the Greenhall area of Blantyre and William was still working as a Foreman Joiner.

By 1901 the family had moved again to Hillside Cottage, Blantyre and Thomas Thorburn had followed in his father's footsteps and become a joiner too. His father William was now described as a Building Inspector, which sounds as if it was a step up from being a joiner. Most of the surviving children (including Thomas) were still living at home with their parents, so it must have been a full house. By 1911 the family had moved to the Zambesi Road area of Blantyre; six of the children still living at home, including Thomas. All the children (even the youngest, John aged 15) were now working at least.

So that's all I've been able to find out about Thomas' early life. Not much to go on. When war broke out in 1914, Thomas didn't immediately enlist and there was no conscription at the beginning. But he did join up in February 1916, just before conscription began for unmarried men. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission website revealed that he was a Sapper in the 569th Army Troops Company of the Royal Engineers, his service number was 414718 and that he was commemorated at the Alexandria Hadra War Memorial in Egypt. I can't reproduce the CWGC photo of the cemetery, but to see his page please click here

You can now look at the Medal Roll cards from the first world war online. These show a soldier's name, rank and what medals they were entitled to. Due to copyright issues, I don't think I can reproduce the image of the medal card, so instead I've transcribed it.

NameCorpsRankRegtl No.
Thomas R" (T) 4828
VICTORYRE/101 B22355306 
Theatre of War first served in  
Date of entry therein  

As is so often the case with these medal cards, not all of the information has been filled in, but it does indicate that he would have been entitled to two medals. The British Medal was awarded to servicemen who served in a theatre of war between 5th August 1914 and 11th November 1918. The Victory Medal (Allied Victory Medal) was awarded for service in any operational theatre over the same time frame.

Luckily Thomas' army service records have survived (over half the WW1 service records were destroyed by a bombing raid in WW2). The service records give a wealth of information that can be found nowhere else. They show that at the time he enlisted, he was still a joiner; the army must have asked one of his employers about his skills and they confirmed he was a "very excellent" joiner. This is perhaps why he became a sapper in the army as he would have been good at building. He was still living at home with his parents in Zambesi Station Road, Blantyre and was at that point unmarried. But the records then go on to show that he married Sarah Atkinson in April 1917 and they lived at Burnbrae Farm, Burnbank, Hamilton (this seems to have been the Atkinson family farm). Not only that, but that they had a daughter born in March 1918 just a month before Thomas died. The service records also give some basic facts about Thomas - he was 5 foot 10 tall, weighed 156 lbs, with a 39 inch chest and no distinctive marks. It looks like he may have worn glasses.

The records show that although he attested in February 1916, he wasn't actually mobilised until May and posted in June 1916. A lot of the details of his service are too faded or damaged to read, but it looks like he was granted leave over New Year 1917. His father died in March 1917 and he must presumably had leave in April 1917 to get married, but I can't find any mention of this. On 18th June 1917 he embarked from Southampton for France and from there on to Alexandria Egypt, arriving 6th July 1917. He was admitted to hospital in Alexandria in mid January 1918, but discharged to duty again at the end of the month. Sadly he was re-admitted on 7th March and died in hospital just a month later. Cause of death was given as Carcinoma of the Bowel. His wife was sent a telegram informing her that he was dangerously ill and this would then have been followed up with the news that he had died. The army sent his personal effects back to her and they are listed in the records. I can't read it all, but they included, a pair of spectacles, photos, diary, letters, wrist watch, razor and cards. Quite a poignant little collection, the letters may have included news of the recent birth of his little daughter.<.p>

You can now look at some of the WW1 War Diaries online and the remainder at the National Archives. War Diaries were kept as a daily record of operations, intelligence reports and anything else that was going on for a given battalion. So I've looked at the diary for the relevant company of the Royal Engineers. They were stationed near Alexandria in the El Qantara (Kantara in the diary) and seem to have been mainly deployed building and repairing roads. The war diary confirms the information from Thomas' service records - his admission to hospital in January and death in April 1918. You can see his name at the end of each of these excerpts from the diary.

The first report of his death I found in the local newspapers was not particularly accurate. Thomas was described as a Lieutenant rather than a Sapper and was said to have died of wounds, when it was actually bowel cancer. All newspaper images created courtesy of THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. Image reproduced with kind permission of The British Newspaper Archive (

The reports the following day were more accurate. I had hoped there might have been a photograph of him in the newspapers, but haven't found one yet.

Thomas Rankin Thorburn had 6 brothers who survived to adulthood and all 7 of them served in the army during the war. Five survived, but Charles Adam Thorburn also died in France. Many years later, in 1930, another brother James Thorburn died in Bruges. The newspaper report of his death mentions his brothers, including the fact that Thomas and Charles were killed in action.

Thomas is buried at the Alexandria (Hadra) War Cemetery in Egypt. He is also commemorated back home on the Blantyre War Memorial. If anyone can let me have photos of either memorial to add here, I would love to hear from them.

The final piece of documentation I could find for Thomas Rankin Thorburn was his entry in the Army Register of Soldiers' Effects. It lists the amount of money in his account at the time of his death and the amount, including the War Gratuity, that was eventually paid to his next of kin - in this case to his widow Sarah. For Thomas the total amount came to about 25 - not much to show for the ultimate sacrifice.

So that's all I've managed to find about the life of Thomas Rankin Thorburn. If anyone can add to it, I would love to hear from them. What I would most like to find is a photograph of Thomas - if anyone has one, please feel free to E-mail me.

In researching Thomas' final days, several sites have been invaluable, so I've included links to some of them here.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is a great site to start with to give you the basic details you would need to then start digging deeper:

The National Archives at Kew now hold a huge number of records, many of which are available online, but it is well worth a visit down there if you can make it:

The official Government source of genealogical data for Scotland:

The British Newspaper Archive holds digitised images of newspapers from all over Britain. New pages are added weekly and it can be a great way of adding to your research:

If any of the above is of further interest, please feel free to contact me at:

Nicky Rowberry 2018

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Peasants to Puddles - My Family History. By Nicky Rowberry