William James Percy Avery and George Henry Avery

This month we look at another set of brothers, William and Percy Avery, who grew up in Pengelly’s Court. This, one of the many courts which could be found tucked behind the main streets of the town in bygone days, was situated at the south end of the High Street. Both fought and died on the Western Front. George died on the first day of the Somme and is commemorated on a particularly poignant memorial.

William James Percy Avery

Private, Service Number 17321

1st Battalion of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry

1880 – 4th March 1915


 George Henry Avery

Private, Service Number 11301

2nd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment

late 1882/early 1883 – 1st July 1916

Pengelly's CourtThe sons of John George and Mary Ann (or Anne) Avery, who were married in the third quarter of 1873, William and George were both born in Barnstaple, and spent the early part of their lives living in what used to be known as Pengelly’s Court – both the 1881 and the 1891 census’ list the family as living in the area. William and George were part of quite a large family, having at least six other siblings in addition to each other.  Their eldest brother, Charles, was born in 1877, whilst their youngest sister, Charity, was born in 1888. Their other siblings were Annie, born in 1878; Cordelia and Frances, presumably twins, born in 1882; and Thomas, born in 1885. They also had a step-brother, Richard J. Stenteford, who was born in 1871.  Mary’s surname at the time of her marriage was listed as Stentford, and she does not appear to have been previously married; therefore it is highly probably that Richard was born out of wedlock.

Raleigh Cabinet WorksAs a young man, William learnt to be a French Polisher at the Raleigh Cabinet Works, which belonged to Shapland and Petter of Barnstaple. According to a War Item in the North Devon Journal dated 18th March 1915, he also served in the Militia around 1897, and later on in the Volunteers. In the fourth quarter of 1901 he married Nelly Ellen Harris, who was born in 1882. By the time of the 1911 census they were living at 4 Fry’s Court, Silver Street with three living children; Florence Beatrice Avery, born in 1903; William James Percy Avery, born in 1908; and Frederick John George Avery, born in 1910. The census record also lists a fourth, unnamed child who had been born alive but who had subsequently passed away. It would also appear that the couple had another child sometime subsequent to the 1911 census, as upon his death it was noted in the North Devon Journal that he left behind a widow and four living children.

Fort Regent BarracksIn the 1901 census, at the age of 18, George is listed as being stationed at the Fort Regent Barracks on Jersey Island, as part of the Royal Garrison Artillery. In early 1903, he married Hannah Chapple, who was born in 1884. By the time of the 1911 census they were living at 25 Azes Lane with four children; George, born in 1904; Ivey, born in 1906; Jhon (presumably a misspelling of John), born in 1908; and Lilie, born in 1910. George’s occupation at the time is listed as Basket Maker: Wicker.

In the fourth quarter of 1903, William and George’s eldest brother, Charles Thomas Frederick (or possibly Frederick Thomas) W. Avery, appears on the death register, aged 26. It is unclear how he died.

At an unspecified point in time, William took employment at Newquay, Cornwall, where he enlisted with the 1st Battalion of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry on 23rd December 1914. Earlier in the same year George had enlisted with the 2nd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment. The exact date that he joined the army is unclear; however, in November George and the rest of the 2nd Battalion, which had until recently been stationed in Egypt, boarded the SS Bellerophon and arrived in France on 19th November 1914.

SS Bellerophon

William was brought up to the Western Front on 14th February 1915, joining his regiment where they were stationed at Hainaut, Belgium. Shortly after his arrival, he wrote a letter to his wife, an extract of which has been recorded;

“Dear Nell,

I received the paper and tobacco all right but you need not send any more tobacco, for we get a lot of it out here. I wish the weather was better; it is frost and snow one day and sunshine the next, but the time is coming when it will be better. Give my best to all at home and to the children, and tell them we shall meet again some day. Kisses for the baby.”

On 11th March 1915 Nelly Avery received another letter, this time from William’s Lieutenant, which read as follows:

“Dear Madam,

I regret to inform you of the death of your husband, Pte W.J.P Avery, which occurred on the 4th of March. He was killed in action. You will receive more details in the course of a few days.”

To this day, William James Percy Avery’s name is recorded on the Ploegsteert Memorial to the Missing at Comines-Warneton, Hainaut, Belgium.

Meanwhile, George and the 2nd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment were involved in heavy fighting, having taken part in all of the major battles on the Western Front after the first battle of Ypres. In December 1915, the British and the French had agreed to a joint assault on the Somme, as a part of a combined Allied venture against Germany and her allies. An (arguably unsuccessful) attempt to conceal the Allies intentions from the Central Powers was made on 30th June 1916, when three battalions of the Royal Sussex Regiment staged an attack on German forces in the Boar’s Head region of Artois, France. This date has subsequently become known as “The Day Sussex Died,” due to the severe losses inflicted by the German army.

On the following day, 1st July 1916, the Battle of the Somme began. By the end of the day, approximately 19,240 British soldiers had lost their lives, amongst them George Henry Avery. Today, the site of the trench occupied by the Devonshire Regiment is marked by a memorial bearing the following inscription;

The Devonshires Held This Trench...RP


Ancestry Library Edition – Census records; WW1 Service Medal and Award Rolls; British Army WW1 Service Records 1914-1920;  (available free online in the Local Studies Centre and in any Devon library)

British Newspaper Archive – North Devon Journal (available free online in the Local Studies Centre)

findmypast – Soldiers Who Died in the Great War (available free online in the Local Studies Centre)


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