An old Devonport acquaintance? Letter by S H Tremayne, Plymouth, Western Morning News September 26th 1918.
Intriguing little snippet of news when researching Devoran War Memorial’s construction date.
November 1917 is an important date in Tank history for the mass use of tanks by British forces at the Battle of Cambrai (20 November – 7 December 1917).
Did Thomas Tank Burral give his name to this British (Mark V Male) Tank? (Image: Wikipedia)
Did Devoran born Thomas Tank Burrall or Burral give his name to the Tank?
The Strand Magazine article in February 1918 can be found here:
It features a portrait photograph of Burral, Burral or Burrall. His surname appears in both spellings.
A portrait of Tank in The Strand, February.
The February 1918 Strand article referred to in Mr. Tremayne’ newspaper letter was written to challenge the usual story or official story given in the September 1917 issue of The Strand magazine. This was the original, officially endorsed article by Colonel Swinton about Tanks, their development, and naming: https://archive.org/stream/TheStrandMagazineAnIllustratedMonthly/TheStrandMagazine1917bVol.LivJul-dec#page/n285/mode/1up
The usual story of how the Tank got its name is given here on Wikipedia, based in part on Swinton’s official article in The Strand, September 1917:
“Although landship was a natural term coming from an Admiralty committee, it was considered too descriptive and could give away British intentions. The committee therefore looked for an appropriate code term for the vehicles. Factory workers assembling the vehicles had been told they were producing “mobile water tanks” for desert warfare in Mesopotamia…
The term tank, as in water tank, was in December 1915 finally accepted as its official designation. From then on, the term “tank” was established among British and also German soldiers …
It is sometimes mistakenly stated that, after completion, the tanks were shipped to France in large wooden crates. For secrecy and in order to not arouse any curiosity, the crates and the tanks themselves were then each labelled with a destination in Russian, “With Care to Petrograd”. In fact the tanks were never shipped in crates: the inscription in Russian was applied on the hull for their transport from the factory to the first training centre at Thetford. (Wikipedia ‘Tank’ entry)
Thetford was the home of agricultural engineers Charles Burrell, another coincidence or link with Thomas Tank Burral?
Thomas Tank Burral was born in Cornwall on April 16, 1847 and died in Thetford on November 26 1884.
Burral had died of overwork, a heart attack in the office, his death as a promising agricultural engineer was reported in Cornish newspapers.
His Works town of Thetford paid suitable respects to Thomas Tank Burall, who was buried in Wisbech. Despite being a native of Devoran, it appears as if several members of his family worked in or were buried in Thetford by 1884. Two brothers lived nearb. His wife Ellen Burall lived there too but returned to their birthplace in Devoran. His father Thomas Burall was buried there in Wisbech in 1883 shortly before this.
Burall’s death, Royal Cornwall Gazette, December 12, 1884
The probate for Thomas Tank Burral “Mechanical Engineer” suggests that Ellen Burral may well have returned home to her Burral or Williams family in the Devoran area as a widow.
Thomas Tank Burall’s family links to Devoran
Thomas Tank Burall and his wife Ellen Williams were both born in Devoran in 1847/8. They married in Feock Parish Church (Devoran Church was not yet built) in January 29 1870.
Thomas’ father Thomas Burall (born Illogan, 1812) was at first a Blacksmith / Smith (1841) then a boilermaker (1851 / 1861 Census), employing ten men by 1851 in one of the many engineering related jobs in a county full of mines and steam engines. In 1871 he was living in Laurel Cottage, Devoran (near Lower Devoran, Carnon Gate and Toll Gate House). In 1881 he was still listed as a working Engineer
His wife Ellen’s father Jeremiah Williams was a Grocer.
The Tank part of his name comes through his mother’s side, his mother being one Catherine Tank, born Illogan around 1813. Several of his brothers bore the middle name of Tank, including
Joseph Tank Burral (b. 1849, Devoran / Feock) also worked as a Boilermaker and died in Pennsylvania, America in 1935)
The press articles mentioned his two brothers living nearby who were summoned and arrived rapidly on hearing of Tank’s death. These were William and Henry.
William Tank Burral (b. 1852, Devoran / Feock) moved to Wisbech and ran a business with his brother Henry Charles Burral as a Patent Label Manufacturer. William lived with his brother Henry.
Henry Charles Burral (born 1855, Feock / Devoran) was originally a Draper, lived also in Queens Road, Wisbech in a house called Tregullow, very Cornish!
Henry had two children by his first wife, Catherine Grace Burall (b. 1891 who became a Cashier) and William H. Burall born 1893. This generation of Burall children or boys would have served in the First World War. Henry Charles was a widower by 1901 but remarried around 1902 to a woman named Maud and had a further child, Kathleen Maud Burall in 1903.
Thomas Tank Burral had two sisters Catherine Grace Burral (b. 1847, Perranarworthal) and Elizabeth or Eliza A Burall (born 1846, Perranarworthal, later a Draper’s Assistant).
Thomas and Ellen 1881 Census entry
In the 1881 census Thomas Tank Burral and Ellen were living in Thetford, Thomas being the Manager of an Engineering Works (which must be Burrell the Steam Tractor works). His period at HM Dockyard Devonport as an engineer Draughtsman seems to link his mechanical engineering to marine engineering. A marine engineer with an interest in steering, and an agaricultural mechanical engineer with an interest in getting vehicles across rough terrain came together in this clever man.
Many different forebears from caterpillar tracks, steam traction engines and artillery tractors seem to have come together in the invention of the Tank in Britain during WW1. It would be good to think Thomas Tank Burall’s character, hard work and engineering skills at Burrell’s of Thetford in the 1880s brought him the respect of his workforce and led to his name ‘Tank’ being applied to the ridged or “pattened” wheels or ‘Tanks’ he developed and ultimately to the cross country vehicles that may have given his name thirty years later to the Tank in WW1.
The tank centenary is interestingly marked by an extensive and interesting blog from Bovington Tank Museum http://
It will be interesting to see what Bovington have to say about this strange Devoran linked story of Thomas Tank Burall.
In 1919, Thomas’ Tank, Williams and Burral relatives in the Devoran, Feock and Falmouth may well have seen a WW1 Tank in display in Falmouth http://tank100.com/homefront/tank-town-falmouth/
Blog posted by Mark Norris, Devoran War Memorial Project blog, November 2017.