Thomas Rankin Thorburn b1878 – d1918

Nicky Rowberry sent in a request saying, “Hi. I’m looking for any information on Thomas Rankin Thorburn – a Blantyre man who died in WW1. Is he commemorated on the war memorial? Or mentioned in any local newspapers? Thanks for your help. Nicky”

Thomas Rankin Thorburn was born at Kirkton on 13th April 1878. A High Blantyre boy, he was the son of William Thornburn, a joiner and Amelia Monour. His father came from the Isle of Mull. His parents had married in July 1877 the year before and therefore the family looks to have arrived in Blantyre between August 1877 and April 1878.

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In 1891, the family were living at Greenhall Lodge in High Blantyre, renting from the Wardop Moore family, living on that private estate. His father was self employed and young Thomas would have been schooled at Hunthill Road nearby.

By 1901, 22 year old Thomas had become a joiner and was still living with his parents at Hillside Cottage in a house at the bottom of Sydes Brae. In that house also were the Douglas family. Neil Douglas being the colliery cashier and whose name was immortalised in the renaming of Douglas Street nearby.

By 1911, the Thorburn family were prospering and could afford a move to a nice house, “Zambesi” on Station Road. Along with 4 grown up brothers and a sister, the whole family including the parents lived at this house. Thomas’s father worked as a wagon builder , though Thomas himself was a builder and joiner, like his brothers.

Duty called when WW1 started and despite being 36 years of age in 1914, he signed up for service with the Royal Engineers. Thomas was a Sapper by the time he was shipped out of Britain to help fight the war in the Southern Mediterranean.

In 1917 whilst home on 10 weeks leave, he married Sarah Atkinson at his home at Zambesi on 9th April. During that summer, Sarah became pregnant and gave birth to their daughter Matilda Deans Thorburn at Burnbrae Farm on 3rd March 1918.

Thomas died near the end of the war on 4th April 1918, just one month later whilst on duty in Egypt. Sadly, I have worked out from these dates that he never got to see his only child. He was 40 years old and is indeed remembered on the High Blantyre War Memorial at the Cemetery entrance.

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There is lots of additional supportive information here as provided by history colleague, Alex Rochead.

Cemetery indexCertificate of trade 2Certificate of tradeDeath & service informationDeath infornation 1Death infornation 2Family information 1Family information required 1Family information required 2Family information required 3Family information required 4Family information required 5Field service 1Field service 2Grave information 1Grave information 2Grave registration 1Grave registration 2Medal information 2Medal information1Medal receiptMedical history 1Medical history 2Personal property 1Personal property 2Private propertyService record 1Service record 2Service record 3Service record 4Service record 5Telegraph 1Telegraph 2Telegraph 3Telegraph 4Thomas Rankin Thorburn 414718 child informationThomas Rankin Thorburn 414718 widow informationThomas Rankin ThorburnWar gratuityWidow's pension

Nicky Rowberry is credited with the following article:

Thomas Rankin Thorburn – Sapper 414718

This page is dedicated to the memory of Thomas Rankin Thorburn who died on 4th April 1918 in Egypt.

Thomas Rankin Thorburn was born in 1878 in Blantyre, Scotland and he died on 4th April 1918 in Egypt, one of the many millions of men who lost their lives in World War 1. It seemed sad for him to have died and all but these bare facts remembered, so I’ve tried to find out at least a little about his life until his untimely death aged just 39.

Thomas Rankin Thorburn was born on 13th April 1878 at Kirkton, Blantyre. He was the oldest of 12 children of William Thorburn and his wife Amelia Moncur. William Thorburn was a joiner, born on Mull, who had moved to Blantyre via Longforgan in Perthshire. He must have met Amelia Moncur in Longforgan as he married her there in 1877. The 1881 census shows the young couple with Thomas and twin baby girls living in Blantyre, with William described as a Foreman Joiner. By 1891 the family had increased, although sadly one of the two twin girls had died, as well as another set of twins, all in 1886. They had all moved to the Greenhall area of Blantyre and William was still working as a Foreman Joiner.

By 1901 the family had moved again to Hillside Cottage, Blantyre and Thomas Thorburn had followed in his father’s footsteps and become a joiner too. His father William was now described as a Building Inspector, which sounds as if it was a step up from being a joiner. Most of the surviving children (including Thomas) were still living at home with their parents, so it must have been a full house. By 1911 the family had moved to the Zambesi Road area of Blantyre; six of the children still living at home, including Thomas. All the children (even the youngest, John aged 15) were now working at least.

So that’s all I’ve been able to find out about Thomas’ early life. Not much to go on. When war broke out in 1914, Thomas didn’t immediately enlist and there was no conscription at the beginning. But he did join up in February 1916, just before conscription began for unmarried men. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission website revealed that he was a Sapper in the 569th Army Troops Company of the Royal Engineers, his service number was 414718 and that he was commemorated at the Alexandria Hadra War Memorial in Egypt. I can’t reproduce the CWGC photo of the cemetery, but to see his page please click here

You can now look at the Medal Roll cards from the first world war online. These show a soldier’s name, rank and what medals they were entitled to. Due to copyright issues, I don’t think I can reproduce the image of the medal card, so instead I’ve transcribed it.

As is so often the case with these medal cards, not all of the information has been filled in, but it does indicate that he would have been entitled to two medals. The British Medal was awarded to servicemen who served in a theatre of war between 5th August 1914 and 11th November 1918. The Victory Medal (Allied Victory Medal) was awarded for service in any operational theatre over the same time frame.

Luckily Thomas’ army service records have survived (over half the WW1 service records were destroyed by a bombing raid in WW2). The service records give a wealth of information that can be found nowhere else. They show that at the time he enlisted, he was still a joiner; the army must have asked one of his employers about his skills and they confirmed he was a “very excellent” joiner. This is perhaps why he became a sapper in the army as he would have been good at building. He was still living at home with his parents in Zambesi Station Road, Blantyre and was at that point unmarried. But the records then go on to show that he married Sarah Atkinson in April 1917 and they lived at Burnbrae Farm, Burnbank, Hamilton (this seems to have been the Atkinson family farm). Not only that, but that they had a daughter born in March 1918 just a month before Thomas died. The service records also give some basic facts about Thomas – he was 5 foot 10½ tall, weighed 156 lbs, with a 39 inch chest and no distinctive marks. It looks like he may have worn glasses.

The records show that although he attested in February 1916, he wasn’t actually mobilised until May and posted in June 1916. A lot of the details of his service are too faded or damaged to read, but it looks like he was granted leave over New Year 1917. His father died in March 1917 and he must presumably had leave in April 1917 to get married, but I can’t find any mention of this. On 18th June 1917 he embarked from Southampton for France and from there on to Alexandria Egypt, arriving 6th July 1917. He was admitted to hospital in Alexandria in mid January 1918, but discharged to duty again at the end of the month. Sadly he was re-admitted on 7th March and died in hospital just a month later. Cause of death was given as Carcinoma of the Bowel. His wife was sent a telegram informing her that he was dangerously ill and this would then have been followed up with the news that he had died. The army sent his personal effects back to her and they are listed in the records. I can’t read it all, but they included, a pair of spectacles, photos, diary, letters, wrist watch, razor and cards. Quite a poignant little collection, the letters may have included news of the recent birth of his little daughter.

You can now look at some of the WW1 War Diaries online and the remainder at the National Archives. War Diaries were kept as a daily record of operations, intelligence reports and anything else that was going on for a given battalion. So I’ve looked at the diary for the relevant company of the Royal Engineers. They were stationed near Alexandria in the El Qantara (Kantara in the diary) and seem to have been mainly deployed building and repairing roads. The war diary confirms the information from Thomas’ service records – his admission to hospital in January and death in April 1918. You can see his name at the end of each of these excerpts from the diary.

The first report of his death I found in the local newspapers was not particularly accurate. Thomas was described as a Lieutenant rather than a Sapper and was said to have died of wounds, when it was actually bowel cancer. All newspaper images created courtesy of THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. Image reproduced with kind permission of The British Newspaper Archive (

The reports the following day were more accurate. I had hoped there might have been a photograph of him in the newspapers, but haven’t found one yet.

Thomas Rankin Thorburn had 6 brothers who survived to adulthood and all 7 of them served in the army during the war. Five survived, but Charles Adam Thorburn also died in France. Many years later, in 1930, another brother James Thorburn died in Bruges. The newspaper report of his death mentions his brothers, including the fact that Thomas and Charles were killed in action.

Thomas is buried at the Alexandria (Hadra) War Cemetery in Egypt. He is also commemorated back home on the Blantyre War Memorial. If anyone can let me have photos of either memorial to add here, I would love to hear from them.

The final piece of documentation I could find for Thomas Rankin Thorburn was his entry in the Army Register of Soldiers’ Effects. It lists the amount of money in his account at the time of his death and the amount, including the War Gratuity, that was eventually paid to his next of kin – in this case to his widow Sarah. For Thomas the total amount came to about £25 – not much to show for the ultimate sacrifice.

So that’s all I’ve managed to find about the life of Thomas Rankin Thorburn. If anyone can add to it, I would love to hear from them. What I would most like to find is a photograph of Thomas – if anyone has one, please feel free to E-mail me.”

(c) 2018 Nicky Rowberry

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