Letters discovered in a Harrogate jewellers’ attic give a personal account of the Great War

PUBLISHED: 00:00 17 October 2014

Part of the First World War archive now on display at Ogdens James Street shop

Part of the First World War archive now on display at Ogdens James Street shop


Walter Ogden was an ordinary lad with his heart set on adventure. At 19, he should have been making his first forays into the family jewellery business, established by his father in 1893, having fun with his friends and romancing the girls of Harrogate.

Walter Ogden, who died in the battle of Cambrai aged 19Walter Ogden, who died in the battle of Cambrai aged 19

Instead, he was in H Battalion of the Tank Corps, commanding a tank he’d named after his home town, battling the Germans on the Somme and, ultimately, losing his life at the battle of Cambrai.

Robert and Ben Ogden outside the family jewellers in HarrogateRobert and Ben Ogden outside the family jewellers in Harrogate

The Ogden family, who still run a successful jewellery business in Harrogate, knew that their ancestor had served in the First World War and died in battle, but that was as far as their knowledge went.

Until, that is, they found a cache of his letters tucked away in the attic of their James Street store.

‘His letters had been beautifully archived by our founder but they had been left in the attic for some time,’ explained Robert Ogden. ‘When we decided to refit the store we needed to use the top floor for storage to create more space downstairs. When we discovered the archive we, as a family, were obviously very interested, but we completely under-estimated how interested other people might be. It took us a while to really take on board what we had found. We really didn’t think it would have a wider resonance, but we’ve been proved wrong.’

A display of Walter’s letters detailing his exploits in Harrogate, his aptly-named tank, have become a real talking point in the store and have even attracted attention from The Tank Museum in Dorset, the official museum of the Royal Tank Regiment and Royal Armoured Corps.

‘Very few tanks took part in the conflict as it was very much a new technology then,’ said Robert. ‘Walter actually served alongside Commander Hugh Elles, who had been charged by Churchill to monitor tank warfare.’

While the letters undoubtedly hold a strong historical interest, it’s the personal details that have proved most important to the Ogden family

‘He was the youngest child and had a very sparky personality,’ said Robert. ‘Reading his letters you can clearly tell how young he was. He could be petulant and moan about conditions, but that just makes him all the more real; more human. Obviously these were terrible times, but it’s interesting to read how hugely excited he was about his adventures.

‘His youth and vigour also make you realise what a massive loss of potential the war inflicted on his generation.

Who knows what he could have done with the rest of his life?’

The family is now keen to discover more about Walter and is looking forward to taking up an offer of a battlefield tour in the near future.

‘It’s such an important part of our family history,’ said Robert. ‘It feels like we are reconnecting with Walter and with our own past. It’s also nice to feel we’re giving him his time in the sun at last.’

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