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15 October 2014
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'In the Quartermaster's Stores': 'Bish' Burney and Matt Devlin

by ritsonvaljos

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Archive List > United Kingdom > Cumbria

Contributed by 
People in story: 
James Burney ‘Bish’, Matthew Devlin ‘Matt’, Isabella Burney (née Telford), Mary Hannah Devlin, John Burney MM, Trooper George Knowles Devlin, Raymond Devlin ‘Ray’, George Burney (from Sale), Chris Burney.
Location of story: 
Cumberland (Cumbria).
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
29 December 2005

Corporal (later Sergeant) Matt Devlin and RQSM James ‘Bish’ Burney (right), two ‘old soldiers’ of the Border Regiment. They served in the 8th (H.D.) Battalion during the early part of WW2 and are wearing the ribbons of their WW1 medals. [Photograph used by courtesy of Mr Raymond Devlin]


One of the things I have been trying to obtain while researching stories for the BBC “People’s War” project has been a photograph of a gentleman by the name of James Burney, known by most people by the name ‘Bish’. Having looked through my own photograph collection and not found one, I then tried to locate a photograph either in the Border Regiment Museum at Carlisle or from the Cumbria County Archives Service. Unfortunately, at neither of these locations was I able to trace an identifiable photograph of James Burney.

Eventually, in December 2005, a good friend by the name of Ray Devlin informed me he had a photograph of James ‘Bish’ Burney with his father, Matt Devlin, dating from early in World War Two. Ray, who has done much historical research about Cumbrian mining and military history, has kindly allowed me to copy the photograph to use for this story. In addition, Ray has also given me some background information that I have been able to incorporate into this account, with his permission. The author has read and understands the terms of the "People's War" website.

8th (Home Defence) Battalion, the Border Regiment in WW2

In the summer of 1939, the Territorial Army Association began to enrol ‘old soldiers’ over 45 years of age to form a National Defence Corps. Two ‘old soldiers’ living in Whitehaven, Cumberland (now Cumbria), who were assigned to this Home Defence were James ‘Bish’ Burney and Matt Devlin. Both James and Matt became 48 years old in 1939, having been born in 1891.

Then, in the winter of 1939, the ‘Group 100 National Defence’ became 8th (H.D.) Battalion, the Border Regiment. Most of the fellows serving in the 8th Battalion had previously been ‘old soldiers’ of the Border Regiment, and this number included both James and Matt. In 1940 the Battalion was reinforced with younger volunteers, so part of the role of the older soldiers was to guide the younger recruits through their early training to build up the army.

In the second part of the war, in 1941 / 1942, the 8th Battalion was renumbered and its role changed. It was ultimately disbanded in the autumn of 1942 and younger servicemen were transferred to other units. Older soldiers, such as James and Matt, both of whom were 50 years old in 1941, were discharged back to civilian life. They had answered their country’s call in World War Two, firstly for National Defence and secondly to guide younger recruits while the army was being built up in the first part of the war.

James ‘Bish’ Burney and Bella Burney

In World War Two, James Burney was a Regimental Quartermaster Sergeant Major in the Border Regiment. This is a role responsible for the stores and supplies, such as feeding the other troops. There is a comical song, often sung by soldiers, entitled “In the Quartermaster’s Stores”. For this song, each soldier would sing about a different item found in the stores followed by everyone present who would join in the chorus. As RQSM for the battalion, James would have had a key role and he would have been well known by all the others in the unit. It is a key role in a battalion.

James’s wife was Isabella Burney (née Telford), but everyone knew her as Bella. The family home of James and Bella was at Queen Street, Whitehaven, on the West Cumbrian coast. From what I remember, people who knew Bella used to say she was one of the women who would be sent for if someone in the household was ill.

Bella was good at diagnosing and treating many minor ailments. Recently, a former neighbour of the Burney family who was brought up a few doors away told me he remembers when he was about 7 years old his family asked Bella to come into the house when he was sick. He was treated with a tried and trusted remedy. This did the trick and he was soon running about again!

Bella was also one of the women who were usually sent for to act as midwife for many of the mothers who gave birth to their children at home. Home births remained fairly common in Whitehaven and other parts of Cumberland until well after the war ended. It was important to know who could be sent for when a baby was born. Bella helped out as a midwife for many of the families who lived in the town centre of Whitehaven. Although Bella passed away some years ago she is still remembered by the many Whitehaven families she helped at important moments in their lives.

After being contacted through the BBC “People’s War” project by Mr George Burney of Sale, a grandson of James and Bella, and George’s wife Chris, I wrote an earlier article about the experiences of some of the Burney family of Whitehaven in World War Two, including other details about James, Bella and some of their other relatives (A6223402). In addition, I have also written another article about James’s brother John Burney MM. Like James, John Burney served as a soldier in World War One, was awarded the Military Medal, and then lost his life in a mining accident in Whitehaven during World War Two (A7507433).

Sergeant Matt Devlin, the Border Regiment

Ray Devlin has kindly provided the biographical information in this section. Matthew Devlin, known as Matt, was born on 15 May 1891. Matt first enlisted to the Border Regiment on 17 March 1908 and was posted to Rangoon, Burma with the 1st Battalion. Matt returned to Britain and was discharged after completing his service 2 February 1914. With the outbreak of the World War One later in the year, and the call for volunteers, Matt re-enlisted to the Border Regiment on 12 August 1914, being wounded three times in that war. His original Service Number was 10963.

By the time World War Two broke out, Matt was married to Mary Hannah and the family lived on Fell View Avenue in the Woodhouse district of Whitehaven. As referred to above, Matt was one of those former soldiers who re-enlisted early in World War Two, joining what became the 8th Battalion, the Border Regiment. Matt was given a new Service Number for World War Two: D/24894.

On the photograph that goes with this article, Matt is a Corporal. However, by the time Matt was discharged on 3 August 1942, at the age of 51, Matt had been made up to a Sergeant. He had served his country before and during both World Wars. Matt then returned home to Whitehaven.

The following year, 1943, Matt and Mary Hannah learnt that one of their sons, Trooper George Knowles Devlin, had died while a POW in what is now Poland. George had been taken prisoner during the German breakthrough into Belgium and France in 1940. He had escaped from the prison camp three times and eventually died while working on a farm. George had saved the life of a German farmer who was being attacked by a rampaging bull. Over 50 years later, George’s brother Ray learnt from another POW at the same camp that the Germans had granted the honour of a Military Funeral to George. He now lies in Malbork Commonwealth Cemetery in what is now Poland.


I would like to thank Raymond Devlin for a copy of the photograph of his father Matt with James Burney, and also for providing much of the information contained in this article. I have been able to pass on a copy of the photograph to George and Chris Burney who previously did not have a photograph of George’s paternal grandfather.

It has been interesting to learn more about relatives of families I have known for a while and to write these memories down. Hopefully this article may go a small way in helping to keep alive the memory of some fellows who answered their country’s call in both World Wars.

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