William Phillips was born in 1895, the youngest of seven children to Frank and Emily Phillips. Frank was a joiner and carpenter and, while his young family initially grew up in his home village of Thurloxton, Somerset, he and Emily soon moved them to nearby Taunton, where there would be more work and more opportunities.
By the time of the 1911 census, the young family were all tied up with different jobs. While William had become an office boy for an accountant when he left school, his siblings all had varying different roles: one was a boiler cleaner, another a mason, a third a cellarman and the fourth a shop assistant. With Frank’s own work, this meant that there were five wages coming into the home, albeit on a much smaller scale that we are used to these days.
War was coming, however, and, at the beginning of 1915, William enlisted in the West Somerset Yeomanry. Little information remains of his military service, but it is known that Private Phillips’ experience as a clerk was made use of, and he worked in admin at the reserve depot in Minehead.
William had, by this time, got himself a lady friend, who worked at the hospital in Taunton, and, while they did not see each other a lot, they corresponded regularly.
His new-found freedom from the family home seemed to have led to William being a bit freer with his money than his parents would like, and it appears that he may have run up e few debts He reassured his mother that he did not want to worry them with any business that he had. However, financial matters may well have played on his mind more than he would have liked to admit.
On Saturday 20th February 1915, Private Phillips travelled to Taunton to see his girlfriend; she was working, but he caught up with his sister instead, before returning to the base in Minehead that evening.
The following Tuesday morning, he received a letter from his girl and was last seen heading to breakfast in the hotel digs where he was billeted.
That afternoon, a local engineer was walking along the seafront, when he saw a body lying on the foreshore, about four feet (1.21m) from the high-water mark. The body – which was later identified as William – was wearing some clothing, but other bits were scattered around him. The police were called and Private Phillips’ body was taken to nearby Dunster.
The coroner confirmed William had drowned; the letter he had received was amongst his clothing, but there was nothing in it to suggest that anything was amiss. At the inquest, he suggested that “he could hardly suppose at this time of year that the deceased had taken off his clothing in order to bathe. [His conclusion was that William] got into the water with intent to drown himself.” [Taunton Courier and Western Advertiser: Wednesday 3rd March 1915]
The jury at the inquest returned the verdict of ‘found drowned’. Private Phillips was just 20 years old.
William’s body was brought back to Taunton for burial. He lies at rest in the St James Cemetery there.