11th May 2016

Thomas Hunter is one of very few people who are remembered annually in the city by a commemorative service. This is despite the fact that he was neither born nor resident in Peterborough, but due to the tragic circumstances which led to his death here in July 1916. He is remembered as the ‘Lonely ANZAC’, an Australian soldier who was wounded on the Western Front during the Great War who, through a chapter of accidents, died in the building which is now home to Peterborough Museum. Today he is commemorated in the Cathedral and buried in the Broadway Cemetery.

Thomas Hunter was born on 5 May 1880 at the Town Farm in the village of Medomsley in County Durham, where his parents were lodging and his aunt and uncle were tenant farmers. His family had lived in the village for generations and by the time of Thomas’s birth the local economy was split between agriculture and coal mining. His father George is recorded as having worked as a ‘general labourer’, working long hours away from his son either in the local mine or on nearby farms as work was available, whilst his mother Mary died when he was very young. As such Thomas seems to have been largely brought up by his Aunt Isabella.

Thomas was educated at the local Church of England school, held in the Medomsley Temperance hall, between the ages of four and thirteen. The school provided a good basic education although school inspections noted that the building was unsuitable and overcrowded.

After leaving school Thomas worked as a coal miner in the local pit, and also served in the local militia as part of the Durham Garrison Artillery, travelling the 3 miles to Consett for training sessions. In 1908 his unit became part of the newly formed Territorial Army and was renamed the 4th Northumbrian Howitzer Brigade.

In 1910, at the age of 30, Thomas emigrated to Australia. His motivation is unknown, but he left behind his Aunt Isabella, his cousins and his father. George Hunter suffered mental illness in his later life and was admitted to the local workhouse in 1916. After the death of his son in the same year he seems to have gone into an even greater decline and died in the workhouse in 1924.

Thomas sailed from Newcastle and arrived in Sydney in Australia in the summer of 1910. He then travelled to the town of Kurri Kurri in New South Wales. Initially he lodged with his aunt and uncle, John and Hannah Dawson, who lived in the town and treated him like a son, whilst he worked in the Hebburn coal mine. Subsequently he moved into lodgings in the Broken Hill district when he switched to working in the heavy metal mines as it was closer to his workplace. In his spare time Thomas joined the local militia and spent a lot of time at the drill hall which was just down the street from his lodgings.

When the First World War broke out in August 1914, Thomas and his militia colleagues all volunteered to join up full time and become part of the Australian Expeditionary Force on active service. He and the other drafts of volunteers were given and rousing a patriotic send-off by local people as they went away to war. Thomas and many others were never to return. Thomas was enlisted as a private (service number 505) in ’H’ company, 10th Battalion, 3rd Brigade, 1st Division of the Australian Imperial Force on 24th August 1914. His description in his enlistment papers describe Thomas as being only 5ft 6ins tall, having a 36 inch chest, brown eyes, dark hair and dark complexion and that he was medically fit.

The troops spent August and September being drilled, trained and equipped at a camp at Morphettville just outside Adelaide. On 20th October they sailed from Adelaide on the transport ship HMAT Ascanius, initially bound for England, but en route they were diverted to Egypt, to disembark at Alexandria. En route the ship was involved in a collision with another ship, HMS Shropshire.

Upon arrival in Egypt, the Australians were moved to a military camp at Mena near Cairo. There they were integrated with troops from New Zealand, creating the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps – or ‘ANZACs’. As part of the reorganisation Thomas’ unit was designated as ‘C’ company of the 10th Battalion.

On 1 March 1915 the ANZACs were moved back to Alexandria and from here put back onto ships, for movement to the Dardenelles, as part of the Gallipoli campaign. Thomas and his fellow soldiers were landed on 25th April 1915, a date still commemorated as ‘ANZAC day’ internationally. The troops were landed despite fierce resistance by the Turks and managed to gain a foothold on land before digging in. Casualties were high, conditions appalling, and despite the heroism of the Australian, New Zealand and British troops the allies could not break out of the beachhead. Thomas was wounded in May and briefly evacuated to Alexandria for treatment. Upon his return it seems likely he was selected to help dig trenches and saps, closer to the Turkish lines, due to his mining experience. By the time the campaign was abandoned and the 10th Battalion had been embarked on 23rd November, Thomas had been promoted to Corporal.

Thomas’ Battalion spent the end of 1915 back in Egypt before sailing, at the end of March, from Alexandria for France to join the campaign on the Western Front. By the time they arrived at the front at the end of April, Thomas had been promoted to Sergeant. They went into the front line trenches for the first time on rotation on 6th June 1916. The following day Thomas received a minor shrapnel wound and was evacuated to a Casualty Clearing Station. He was treated and returned to duty within a few days.

At the end of July the Australians were moved into position for an attack on the German-held village of Pozieres, part of the campaign that would be known to history as the Battle of the Somme. The assault began shortly after midnight on 23rd July, and casualties were high from heavy German shelling and gas attacks. In the early hours of the morning of 25th July, German troops launched a counter attack on an Australian mortar position. During the fierce fighting Sergeant Thomas Hunter was seriously wounded in the legs and his spine.

Once the fighting died down Thomas was carried by stretcher to a Regimental First Aid Post behind the lines, then from here to an Advanced Dressing Station, then a Casualty Clearing Station. On 27th July he was put on a Hospital Train back to the Military General Hospital at Boulogne. His wounds were considered to be so severe that treatment in a more advanced military hospital was required, so he was transferred on 29th July to the hospital ship St Dennis for transport back to England, landing at Portsmouth that evening. The following day, Sunday 30th July, he was transferred by a Red Cross Train to London and from there to another hospital train heading for the military hospital at Halifax in Yorkshire.

Due to the severity of his wounds, and the jolting of the train which was exacerbating the situation, Thomas condition was worsening rapidly. As such, the medical staff on the train took the unusual step of getting the train to stop at the next station. By chance, the next station was Peterborough North (the modern rail station). After being taken from the train, Thomas was brought by motor ambulance to the nearest hospital, the Peterborough Infirmary (today the museum building). Sadly his condition had worsened so much that he died of his wounds the following day, July 31st 1916.

All that was known of Thomas at this stage was that he was Australian; his origins in County Durham were unknown to the people of Peterborough. The Mayor of Peterborough and the secretary of the Infirmary, Alfred Caleb Taylor, felt sorry for this ‘lonely ANZAC’ and arranged a civic funeral for him. Word about his story spread around the town and piles of floral tributes were brought to the Infirmary. His funeral was held on 2 August, with his burial at the Broadway Cemetery with full military honours. The entirety of Peterborough stopped as the cortege passed through the streets, as people paid their respects. Thomas’ death seems to have struck a cord with the people of Peterborough, perhaps because he died so far from home; perhaps because he was emblematic of their own young men who were away fighting.

A public subscription was raised to place a memorial at his graveside, and an 8 foot high Celtic cross still marks the spot in the Broadway Cemetery. A brass plaque was also created to his memory which hangs in the military chapel in Peterborough Cathedral; the resin original is in Peterborough Museum’s collections.

Since the 1920s there have been many reported sightings of a ghostly figure of a man in a grey uniform seen on the staircase of Peterborough Museum, or on the first floor corridor just outside the room in which Thomas Hunter passed away in 1916. It was believed by nurses in the hospital and subsequent Museum staff that this is perhaps the ghostly figure of the ‘Lonely ANZAC’ Thomas Hunter. There was a great deal of press interest in the subject even back in the 1930s. Even today the figure has still been seen or heard on occasion by staff, visitors and would-be ghost hunters, another of the strange phenomena that has been reported in the Museum building over the years.

Whether he returns in ghostly form or not, Thomas Hunter is still remembered in Peterborough with an annual commemoration at his graveside on 25 April, ‘ANZAC day’. This service is attended by the Mayor of Peterborough, members of the British Legion and local dignitaries. Most fittingly it is increasingly attended as well by local schoolchildren and Australian service personnel here on attachment in the UK, paying tribute to one of their forebears who made the ultimate sacrifice.

Stuart Orme
Adapted from an article originally published in ‘People of Peterborough Volume 2’

Further reading:
Newspaper accounts from the ‘Peterborough Advertiser’
Australian War Memorial Records
‘The Lonely ANZAC: A True Son of Empire’ John William Harvey, 2003
‘Posh Folk: Notable Personalities (and a Donkey) Associated with Peterborough’ Ed. Mary Liquorice, 1991
‘People of Peterborough Volume 2’ Ed. Stuart Orme, 2011
‘Haunted Peterborough’ Stuart Orme, 2012

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