Soldier’s sideline

A Yorkshire Regiment soldier, the Battle of the Somme, the Bronze Age, Driffield and The New York Times.

The person linking them all together? 2068/240509 Private Cecil Nicholson Grantham.

Cecil was born at Market Weighton, Yorkshire on 31st January 1896. His father, Robert was a Stable Hand.  Cecil’s mother, Annie, died before he was three, so Robert raised Cecil with his brother John and sister Mary.

By 1911 aged 15, Cecil was working as a Stable Lad on the farm of Walter Dee at Woodhall, Sledmere. Sledmere was the home of the Sykes family, Sir Mark Sykes would go on to command the 5th Battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment.  Unsurprisingly, Cecil joined the 5th Battalion and, after training, left Folkestone on the night of 17th April 1915, bound for Boulogne and four years of trench warfare.

Cecil became a Batman to an officer and, as part of his duties he looked after the officer’s horse.  Occasionally, according to family stories, he had to bury dead horses. On one occasion, whilst carrying out this gruesome duty, he found something odd.  It turned out to be a Bronze Age Axe-Head. In the midst of carnage he had unearthed a relic from the depths of history, something the shells had spared; something which would captivate Cecil’s imagination and lead to local and world renown.

His duty to King and Country done, Cecil was discharged from military service on 15th July 1919 and returned to his native East Riding. He met and fell in love with Amy Mathews and, in October 1920 they married and settled in Driffield where Cecil established himself as a butcher. Their son, Eric was born on 11th December 1927 and, by 1939, the family were living at 8-9 North Street, Driffield.

In 1963 an old chalk-pit in Driffield was re-opened and, no sooner had work begun than a number of skeletons were unearthed. The police determined that they were historic and not the result of any nefarious act and, there being no professional Archaeological Service at the time what could they do? Easy, call Cecil! Cecil and his son carried out the initial recovery of the skeletons and associated material of what turned out to be an Iron-Age Barrow burial.

An archaeological journal described the find:

“a large trapezoidal grave-pit containing the remains of a chariot, its fittings and its owner. Iron tyres, bronze navehoops and woodstains survived from the twelve-spoke wheels. The pole shaft, nearly four metres long and capped with iron, had been broken in two to fit the grave. Two three-link bridle bits, five terrets, two buckles, sheet-bronze fragments and whipmounts were present, but no linch pins. The coachwork had been inverted over the body where it rotted away. Adjacent was a circular ritual house and pits containing skulls; in another rectangular barrow the burial, laid on the old ground surface, did not survive.”

He may have been an amateur Archaeologist, but Cecil knew the drill and, having stabilised the finds and site he handed it over to the Inspector of Ancient Monuments.

Ancient tribes have long inhabited the area of Britain we know now as East Yorkshire and evidence of their habitation, farming and culture lie around us if we have the eye to see, clearly Cecil did. His own investigations resulted in various finds, and local people who came across unusual things whilst ploughing or digging drainage ditches brought their ‘finds’ to Cecil.

The collection grew and grew and eventually Cecil opened a small museum at the back of his butcher’s shop.  The family remembers a ‘..fantastic dresser with pull out drawers with glass covers..’ in which the mysterious artefacts of history were displayed. So legendary did Cecil and his collection become that they were the subject of an article in the New York Times.

Cecil’s work has been the subject of books and academic papers as far afield as Australia, and his collection still remains with his family.

As a museum team who share Cecil’s fascination with the objects from history, those large and small things that tell us so much about ourselves, be it gold and medals or letters and keepsakes, we think we would have got on well with Cecil.

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