Donnison, Alfred

Born Drypool, Hull 1854. Son of Henry Donnison (1833-1865) and Sarah Oldfield (1832-1904). A Boiler Riverter. Alfred married Sarah Elizabeth Watts, at Hull Holy Trinity Church, in 1874. They lived at 8 Argle Street, Hull, with mother and Stepfather (1881 Census). He later married . This time to Helen Louisa Elizabeth Wingham, (1864–1949), at St Matthews Church, Hull, in 1887. He lived at 6, Dixons Entry, Lowgate, Hull, with his second  wife, “Ellen” and their four children (1901 Census). They then lived at 19 Market Place, Hull (1911 Census and 1914 Army Address). As a Boilerman, Alfred had also served in the East Riding Territorials for 28 years. His elder son Harry Donnison, had joined the Royal Engineers in 1908, emigrated to Canada and served with the Canadians during WW1.

Alfred Donnison, enlisted at Hull, on 06/10/1914, joining the East Riding Yeomanry (Territorial Force), as Private, no.1759. He was described as 50 years old, 5 foot, 8 inches tall, 198 lbs weight, 45-47 inch chest, ruddy complexion, blue eyes, brown hair and Church of England religion. He was discharged as medically unfit on 23/11/1914, but at 60 years old, he was also  too old for military service. He died in May 1915, apparently as a suspected German spy!

The “Spy” story was carried in several newspapers as far apart as Coventry and Dundee *. According to the seemingly syndicated article, Donnison was standing in Hull’s Chariot Street, when he was overheard apparently speaking German. A woman reported this to two RGA Gunners who happened to be close by, adding that he had said ‘God Bless the Kaiser’.  The Gunners (Wilfred Price and Parker) alerted a policeman and Donnison was taken to Hull Central Police Station. Under questioning he became ill and was put in a cab back home. He didn’t survive the journey and became an unfortunate Hull casualty, of WW1.

The two gunners were reprimanded by the Coroner, for roughly handling Alfred, but no further action was taken. The Home Secretary was asked in parliament whether there should be legislation to prevent recurrence but he considered it too rare to justify such action.

I am grateful to Maggie and Richard Taylor, for sharing this “Spy” story on 27/07/2022.

See the British Newspaper Archive website:- Coventry Evening Telegraph – 24.Jun.1915 Dundee Evening Telegraph – 24.Jun.1915, Western Daily Press – 25.Jun.1915, The Scotsman – 25.Jun.1915, Beverley & East Riding Recorder – 26.Jun.1915, Hull Daily Mail – 2.Jul.1915, Cannock Chase Courier – 3.Jul.1915, Yorkshire Evening Post – 24.Jun.1915,

  • Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail, Huddersfield Examiner, Sheffield Daily Telegraph, Western Mail – all 25.Jun.1915, Hants & Sussex News – 30.Jun.1915, Illustrated Police News – 1.Jul.1915. Some of these accounts add a witness called Charles Smith, a waiter, who testified to the inquest, that the gunners, had been drinking and ‘roughly handled’ Donnison on the way to the police station. Parker admitted to being ‘excited’ but not drunk. Also Donnison is now called a ‘water softener manufacturer’. The Hull Daily Mail article mentions the House of Commons question to the Home Secretary.
  •  ….another snippet. In ‘A Supernatural War: Magic, Divination, and Faith During the First World War’ there is a story that psychic investigator, Reginald B Span, claimed Donnison’s organs of speech had been possessed by the spirit of a dead German, which would of course explain his sudden ability to speak the language.



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Hull, East Yorkshire, UK
18 Market Place, Hull, East Yorkshire, UK