Killed by Enemy Action: A Family Tragedy

On Tuesday 17 September 1940, Joseph Boyland, Joey to his brothers, was machine-gunned walking down Scotland Road, Liverpool. He died the following day at the city’s Royal Infirmary. Aged fourteen, he had left school and was about to ‘go to sea’. The Merchant Navy was a common occupation for young men in Liverpool at the time.

The Liverpool Evening News briefly reported on 18 September 1940; ‘a plane machine-gunned women and children who were making for shelter. Several houses were hit in this area and a number of casualties occurred.’ Restrictions on reporting during wartime meant that the newspaper did not state which district had been targeted and only noted that it was a north-west coastal town. But surely, the people of Liverpool affected by air raids, bombing and enemy aeroplanes machine-gunning civilians would recognise more localised reporting, however limited the geographical details. They were living in the hell that was The Blitz and the paper was reporting the death and destruction around them.

Liverpool was a prime Luftwaffe target due to its extensive docks along the River Mersey being crucial conduits for essential supplies. With its ‘twin’ port, Birkenhead, on the opposite banks, it was the most heavily bombed British city outside London. The Luftwaffe made around eighty air raids on Merseyside between August 1940 and January 1942. Joey Boyland was among approximately 4,000 people killed, including 2,736 in Liverpool, 454 in Birkenhead and 424 in Bootle.

joseph boyland birth
Attestation record of John Boyland, recording the birth of Joseph

Joseph James Boyland was born on 11 May 1926, he was the eighth child of John and Margaret Boyland. He lived first at 20 Milton Street, off Scotland Road, and then later at   number 40, when the growing family moved into a larger home. My father, four years younger than Joey, recalled that he was his ‘favourite’ brother. Was my father romanticising their relationship in later years? There is no one left to ask. My father’s last surviving brother died in late 2016. My grandmother lost four of her children in her lifetime, Joey was the third to die. My father told me; ‘it made her old.’

During my family tree research, I came across Joey several times, in birth, baptism and death records. I ordered his death certificate, which recorded his death due to ‘war operations’; a vague and impersonal statement. As a historian, I want the recorded evidence to lead me to the correct or mostly likely interpretation of an event. I would have preferred specified reasons for his death, for if I hadn’t known he was machine-gunned walking down a street, I probably would have assumed that he had been caught up in a bombing.

Joseph’s grave, Ford Cemetery, Liverpool

I visited his grave in Ford Cemetery, Liverpool. It’s a family grave with six people interred there. His sister Annie is buried there too, as is his maternal grandmother. A grave that could hold a treasured son must have been a comfort to my grandmother. There is no remaining photograph, one was lost many years back, according to an uncle, which is a shame. My family are custodians of the one picture of my father’s only sister, her First Holy Communion photograph and it is treasured. The truth is there wasn’t a lot of money for photography, feeding ten children came first.

I found Joey’s record on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website. He is commemorated amongst the civilian war dead in St George’s Chapel, Westminster Abbey. I also downloaded the commemorative certificate and gave it to my father. Joey, along with his brothers and sister, is also listed as a dependant in his father’s Army Attestation papers and later his Territorial Army record.

got dad in it
Attestation record of John Boyland

And then for a long time I didn’t research my family tree. Last week while browsing the British Newspaper Archive I searched the date of his death, mistakenly filling in the date parameter as 1941. I came across the Family Notices, In Memoriam, in the Liverpool Echo.

Liverpool Echo, 18 September 1941

‘BOYLAND – In sad but loving memory of my dear son, JOSEPH, died through enemy action Sept. 1940; also my dear and only daughter, ANNIE (Our Doll), who departed this life Sept. 6 1934. (No one knows my bitter loss, O Mother of Sorrows help me to bear my cross.) – Never forgotten by their broken-hearted Mum, Dad, and Brothers (at sea).’

My grandmother died before I was born, but this brought her to me, I cried for her.
I realised I had searched for the wrong year and so searched again for 1940.
Condolence, Liverpool Echo

Liverpool Echo, 18 September 1940

‘BOYLAND – Mr and Mrs BOYLAND and Family wish to thank the priests of St. Joseph’s, all relatives and friends, and neighbours, also the staff of John Tyrer and Son, Hanover Street for their sympathy and beautiful floral tributes during their sudden tragic bereavement.’

John and Margaret Boyland saw the deaths of four of their children in their lifetime. George Frederick (their first child) died aged eighteen months – convulsions due to teething. Annie (their fifth child) died aged twelve, ten days before her thirteenth birthday – peritonitis. Joseph James died aged fourteen. Charles (their third child) died of cancer in 1954 aged thirty-nine. He was survived by his parents, wife and two children.

These two newspaper references offer an almost tangible glimpse into the grief my grandparents suffered when they lost Joey through such violent actions. And for me, it brings to life the people I never met and offers a nickname for the little girl, whose picture is bequeathed to me, known as ‘our doll’. Those few lines in long forgotten newspapers lay bare their humanity.

The National Archives, Kew

39 thoughts on “Killed by Enemy Action: A Family Tragedy

  1. Hey, I found your little space in the community pool, so glad I did!! amazing write up!!!keep writing and inspire us…. surely will be waiting for more!!
    Please do visit my blog when time permits, thanks in advance and see you there! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have a blog and it is still new. I am trying to capture that raw emotion but I am not there yet. If you could check out my blog and give be any feedback that would be so awesome. The link is:

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes! I’ve been neglecting my family tree research. Linked through the Roches, then Kings to the Polands – so far removed I don’t know! Sorry, a little bit useless when it comes to cousins and generations. I’ve just checked my genes reunited tree – I’d forgotten I’d been so detailed . . . Margaret Roche married a Richard or Bernard King then had several children one being Catherine who married an ‘unknown Poland’. Uncle Lennie did explain the Poland link to me at one point – maybe that’s his handiwork. It’s been too long. Margaret King (nee Roche) was the sister of my great grandmother Annie O’Donovan (nee Roche).


    1. I thought Anne O’Donovan was Maggie’s sister as they were my nans sister’s Catherine Poland and their maiden name was king

      Liked by 2 people

  3. As a parent/grandparent I can’t imagine anything worse than the death of a child/grandchild. Your grandmother’s words are heartbreaking. Thank you for sharing your family’s history. I very much enjoyed reading this.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. What painful experiences those must have been for your grandparents, dad, and other relatives. Thank you for sharing their story.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. That’s just brought me to tears too. As a mother, my greatest fear is absolutely having something happen to my kids. When my lovely aunt died at 42 I was devastated for my grandma. I was only 23 myself at that point. I didn’t have kids yet but I couldn’t bear the thought of my grandmas loss. When she died it comforted me knowing she was with my aunt again

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m reading my Mum’s memoirs today – the chapter I’ve just read covered my Nanna Boyland’s death. Particularly as I’ve aged, I’ve really missed the grandparents I never met. I followed my Nanna’s family through the archives plotting all her siblings and parents from original records, so I feel very close to them even without having known them personally.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. My grandmother was very reserved but she did tell my mum in later years, some aspects of her childhood. She wrote three books, begining with her childhood in Liverpool, so we have those as resources.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Your family tragedies reach out to us and pull us in. I never solved the lifelong mystery of my family history until I was in my 70s. I pulled it all together in a memoir and could almost write a sequel on what I’ve learned since.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Family history is fascinating, isn’t it? My Mum wrote a memoir so we have all her history recorded for future generations. Trying to find the earlier history proves problematic, though.


  7. It’s so fascinating, i too knew Lennie he was a regular visitor to my nans ( Catherine poland) house and when they would talk about Maggie boyland i just thought it was my nans sister. I really have enjoyed reading your work

    Liked by 1 person

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