Wilson John Woodbury was born on 8th December 1888, and was the third of seven children to Daniel and Elizabeth Woodbury. Daniel was a chair maker from Wellington, Somerset, and this is where the family – including six boys and one girl – were raised.
By the time of the 1901 census, Daniel had had a change of career – he was now working as an oil presser. His and Elizabeth’s oldest three boys, Wilson included, had also found work, and were employed as wool spinners.
Elizabeth passed away in 1906, when Wilson was just seventeen years old. This may have pushed him to bigger and better things, and a career. On 13th August 1908, at the age of 19, he enlisted in the Royal Navy a a Stoker 2nd Class. His service record shows that he was 5ft 7.5ins (1.71m) tall, ha light brown hair, blue eyes and a fresh complexion. It also noted that he had a tattoo of a cross on his right forearm.
Stoker Woodbury was initially trained at HMS Vivid – the naval dockyard at Devonport. On 9th February 1909, however, he was given his first posting, on board HMS Defence. He spent two years on board the armoured cruiser, and, gained a promotion to Stoker 1st Class.
During the remainder of his initial service, Wilson served on two further ships – HMS Sentinel and HMS Bellona – returning to Devonport between each posting. When he completed his five-year contract, Wilson voluntarily signed up for a further seven years with the Royal Navy.
As war came to Europe, Stoker Woodbury was given a number of assignments, on the battleships HMS Caesar and Lord Nelson, the cruisers HMS Blake and Apollo, and the depot ships HMS Blenheim. Further promotions followed – Leading Stoker in 1915 and Stoker Petty Officer two years later.
Wilson’s oldest brother, James, was serving in the Labour Corps during the conflict. Based in Northern France, he was assigned to the 720th Company, although further detail are unclear. He almost survived the war unscathed, but contracted an illness of some description and died on 3rd November 1918, aged 34 years old. He was laid to rest in the Terlincthun British Cemetery in Wimille, France.
Stoker Petty Officer Woodbury returned home on leave in July 1919. The plan was to meet up with his fiancée who lived in Rockwell Green, near Wellington, but he instead turned up unexpectedly at his brother Fred’s home instead. Wilson said he had returned to Somerset because his girlfriend had broken off the engagement the previous week: the couple had been due to marry when he next came home on leave.
Fred told Wilson that she was not worth it, and they had gone drinking with a friend. Fred later said that on his previous leaves his brother had taken to drinking more than was good for him, but on that evening – Saturday 2nd August 1919 – he did not get drunk.
The following Monday, Stoker Petty Office Woodbury had taken himself down to the railway at Wellington, and been hit by a train. The action was deliberate, as, about his person were three letters. The first was to Daniel.
To My Dear Father,
Sorry to cause you any inconvenience or trouble, and please don’t worry about me, as I’m not fit to worry about. I have had this in mind for about a week. I can’t sleep and can’t eat, as I am broken-hearted, but not insane. This is through love. Now I must exit myself, and I am in great pain. Written at 4:15pm Sunday afternoon…
This is all I have to say in this world. Hoping you and my dear sister will soon forget their
Wilson John Woodbury.
Wilson’s second letter was to his only sister, Ivy. This included details of a parcel left on board his ship, in which was the ring he had given to his fiancée, which he asked that Ivy wear as a memory of him.
Knowing the implications of what he was doing, the third letter was addressed to the jury of the inquest.
My leave expires at 1pm, and my life expires just before by my own hand. I wait to get the chance to put a stop to my life. This would not have happened to bring disgrace on my relations. I am quite sane. Written at 2pm.
On the afternoon of Monday 4th August 1919, Wilson made his way to the Woodford crossing, a short distance from Wellington Railway Station.
…he waited by the side of the line at the crossing for a train, and as the Norther express approached he laid down with his head on the metals, being practically decapitated.Taunton Courier and Western Advertiser: Wednesday 13th August 1919
The fiancée in question did attend Wilson’s inquest, although the Coroner did not think it was necessary to call her. The newspaper report referred to her, but not by name. She will remain a mystery.
Despite the evidence of his own hand, the inquest found that Stoker Petty Officer Woodbury had committed suicide while temporarily insane. He was just 30 years of age.
Wilson John Woodbury was laid to rest in the cemetery of his home town, Wellington.