Bulletproof testament: Through the lens of the 1921 Census

Bulletproof testament: Through the lens of the 1921 Census.

Bulletproof testament: Through the lens of the 1921 Census. Image: National Trust.

A remarkable tale emerges from the annals of history, a small pocketbook nestled within the uniform jacket of a private soldier during the First World War halted a sniper’s bullet, saving his life.

Thanks to the collaborative efforts of the National Trust and Findmypast, this extraordinary story, alongside others sourced from the newly released 1921 Census, takes centre stage in a captivating display shedding light on soldiers, nurses, families, and staff at Knightshayes Court in Devon.

The Court served as a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) hospital during the war.

Private Sydney ‘Syd’ Alexander Cross, a native of Australia born in April 1896, enlisted in various British regiments throughout the war.

In 1915, on the Gallipoli Peninsula, fate intervened as a sniper’s bullet struck his chest but was thwarted by the pocketbook, photographs, and papers in his breast pocket.

This miraculous incident garnered attention from newspapers at the time, with Private Cross featured in an article in the Western News in February 1916, showcasing his recovery at Knightshayes while clutching the pocketbook and bullet.

However, the tale took another twist.

The pocketbook contained a testament that Private Cross had received as his regiment departed England, and the bullet halted at the words: “A thousand shall fall by thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand, but it shall not come nigh thee.”

After his time at Knightshayes, Private Cross returned to the Front Line, but was discharged in 1917 due to malaria.

His whereabouts following the war remained a mystery to National Trust staff until the release of the 1921 Census, which, in collaboration with Findmypast, unveiled glimpses of his post-war life.

By 1921, Sydney had tied the knot with Elizabeth, as indicated in the census records.

He worked as a steward for the Cunard Shipping Company, with further records tracing his journey, from a dining car attendant on the railways in 1926 to a waiter in Battersea, London, by the time of the 1939 Register.

Private Cross was not the sole soldier to make headlines after a miraculous escape at Knightshayes.

Corporal Cooper from the South Staffordshire Regiment, wounded by a shrapnel shell in Belgium in 1915, recovered at Knightshayes despite sustaining 119 wounds.

In addition to the 1921 Census, researchers tapped into autograph books owned by nurses and estate workers, offering insights into the soldiers’ experiences at Knightshayes through messages, jokes, and drawings.

Katie Knowles, Assistant National Curator for the National Trust, underscored the significance of census data in unravelling the lives intertwined with National Trust properties, fostering a deeper understanding of individuals amidst the backdrop of war and societal changes.

Rachael Pett, Collections and House Manager at Knightshayes Court expressed hope that visitors would engage with the stories and perhaps contribute to uncovering more about the individuals connected to Knightshayes, inspiring further exploration into family histories.

Jen Baldwin, Research Specialist at Findmypast, highlighted the wealth of stories waiting to be discovered within the 1921 Census, emphasising the collaboration’s role in shedding light on diverse narratives, from military heroes to everyday workers.

The Knightshayes display, curated with meticulous research by National Trust experts and supported by Findmypast’s access to the 1921 Census records, offers a poignant glimpse into the lives of those who lived and served during a transformative period in history.

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Written by

Anna Ellis

Originally from Derbyshire, Anna has lived in the middle of nowhere on the Costa Blanca for 19 years. She is passionate about her animal family including four dogs and four horses, musicals and cooking.