Soldiers in the First World War confronted death every day on the Front Line from bursting shells, bayonets and gun fire. Private Will Hansford, from Poole, however, once faced danger of a different kind. He risked his life… mending a mosque clock.
This quirky story was unearthed by local history researcher Bryan Gambier, delving into the archives of the Poole and Dorset Herald. History, they say, can teach us lessons that resonate today.
The Hansford family were well known in Poole. They had a jeweller’s shop on the High Street and were also skilled at making watches and clocks.
Private Hansford’s grandfather had been a jeweller in Poole and his father, John William Hansford, followed in the family business. In 1882, John William married Mary Elizabeth Hooper Legg, a policeman’s daughter from Sherborne, and their first-born, Will, came along two years later. Mary would soon give birth to three other children, Florence, Alfred Frank and Bert.
Will was 30 when the First World War broke out and, asked to do his bit for his country, enlisted with the 2nd Dorsets.
The conflict, of course, was not limited to the Western Front. Many soldiers went to fight in Mesopotamia, in the Middle East, where Britain sought to protect the valuable oil fields. The Royal Navy relied heavily on oil.
Private Hansford was among the men posted to Mesopotamia to fight the Turkish Army. It wasn’t an easy billet. Casualty rates, through battle and sickness, ran high.
The 2nd Dorsets soon found themselves camped near Samarra on the bank of the River Tigris, in today’s Iraq.
Inside the city stands a mosque, famous for its beautiful golden dome. Years before the war, its striking clock had had marked time so accurately that, together with the Muezzin, it helped call the Muslim faithful to prayer.
But, one day, 40 years before the conflict, the worn timepiece stopped. Though a masterpiece of engineering, it had rusted and ceased to boom the hours. It stayed silent.
Keen to make friends with the local community, the 2nd Dorsets’ local commanding officer hit on an idea. They would mend the clock. And Poole’s Private Will Hansford, the clockmaker, volunteered to have a go.
Hansford had only Army tools. It was no easy task. Once, hearing scraping sounds above him, he levered a trapdoor and, to his dismay, found himself staring at storks, regarded as sacred birds. He swiftly lowered the door and went back to work.
After three weeks, though, he got it working and the clock chimed out the hours once more.
Overjoyed, the local community hailed Hansford as a ‘messenger from Allah’, sent to help them.
When the war was over, Will Hansford re-joined his father and brother Bert at the family jeweller’s and watchmaker’s business. It had once been at 16 High Street but had long since moved to 143.
It was certainly there in 1901 and, 10 years later, Will and Bert were still living with their father at the shop, the three working as jewellers, watchmakers and clockmakers. The other children, grown up, had moved away. Florence, we know, had once worked as a post office assistant. Their mother, too, it seems, had gone, though her husband still marked himself down as ‘married’.
Come the war, their other brother, Alfred, would also enlist, serving as a Gunner with the Royal Garrison Artillery. Bert may well have served, too.
Their dad, John William, died in 1926, leaving estate to the value of £2,051 (with a purchasing power of about £109,000 today).
Will and Bert would carry on working together at their jewellers’ shop near the old Post Office until 1952 when it would finally close… and the Herald carried its story under the headline, ‘Poole jeweller worked a “miracle” in the mosque’
But what of Private Will Hansford? Like brother Bert, he never married. And, despite the wartime danger he had encountered repairing the mosque, he was to survive for nearly 50 more years to reach the age of 79.
Working on that mosque clock in the midst of a bloody war in which so many died, he was one of the lucky ones. A soldier with time on his hands… in more ways than one.
By Ed Perkins