World War One: Young couple’s heartbreaking history discovered

At Littlethorpe Hotel in Ripon on September 11, 1917, Wilhelmina Little is pictured in her wedding gown standing proudly next to her new husband and looking forward to starting a new life together.

By Dan Windham
Friday, 12th September 2014, 7:00 pm
Wilhelmina Little and Lieutenant Charles Gibbon on their wedding day (s)
Wilhelmina Little and Lieutenant Charles Gibbon on their wedding day (s)

Little more than a year later and the couple had become two of the estimated 250,000 Britons to be struck down by the 1918 flu pandemic.

Although 97 years have passed since the pair were wed, Rosemary Johnston of the Duchy estate in Harrogate, is still fascinated by their story after a chance glimpse into the Little family history.

Ms Johnston began her journey through the life of the Little’s after deciding to do some research on the history of her home in the Duchy.

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The David Little Factory (s)

Armed with just the 1901 census for information, Ms Johnston first discovered John Andrew Little, his wife Elizabeth and their nine-year-old daughter Wilhelmina.

A trip to Harrogate Library then revealed that John had been the head of the family firm, David Little and Co, a cloth manufacturer in Leeds that had grown into an enormous manufacturing and retail business.

This was where Rosemary’s research plateaued until she stumbled upon the image of 25-year-old Wilhelmina marrying Lieutenant Gibbon after the ceremony at St Peter’s Church in Harrogate.

Rosemary said: “The wedding was described as ‘quiet’ but it was certainly splendid. Wilhelmina looks serious but self assured, Charles Gibbon confident, cocky even.

“Who could imagine anything but the happiest future for them?

“After the wedding, they left for Cornwall for their honeymoon and where Lieutenant Gibbon would take up a naval post.”

With this new break in the Little case, Rosemary was intent on investigating further into Wilhelmina’s family.

Sadly, this is where Rosemary discovered that the couple could only enjoy one year of their married life together in Cornwall after contracting influenza after the First World War had ended.

Wilhelmina died on October 31, 1918 at the Alexandra Nursing home in Falmouth, just two days after her husband died at the same place.

Rosemary said: “I immediately applied for both their death certificates and a long two weeks later my suspicions were confirmed.

“The Harrogate Advertiser reported their deaths. The ‘very popular’ couple had visited Harrogate just a few weeks before their deaths.”

It explained why they were described as a very popular couple and why they were given full naval honours as they were brought to Yorkshire for their interment in Ripon Cemetery.

The Lieutenant was given command of a trawler patrol section on his vessel, The Ariande, in 1915.

When his ship was attacked by a German submarine, Charles managed to successfully engage and sink it, despite being seriously wounded in both arms.

It was said he stuck to his post and fought to the finish despite his injuries and for this he was made ‘Lieutenant for Gallantry in Action’ and received the Distinguished Service Cross.

Rosemary said: “The interments at Ripon took place with full military honours, ‘amidst widespread expressions of sympathy and regret’. All blinds were drawn as the cortège passed through the streets of the city.

“The oak coffins were conveyed on a gun carriage drawn by six black horses with officer outriders, and an escort of 100 men.

“That was the bit that really touched me most about this story.

“The picture of her beautiful dress really brings to life what a human being she was but, unfortunately, she did not get the chance to enjoy her life.

“I have done this kind of research before with my family and each little piece adds to the puzzle. But I did not think I would find any where near the information that I found or how important the Little family were.”