The Jewel in the Crown

India map NEWEST

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The great majority of the Summerstown182 were killed in France and Belgium. However, there were many other corners of the globe touched by the First World War where local men fell, amongst them such places as Jerusalem, Gaza, Egypt, Greece and Turkey. The furthest away from home, died and is buried in northern India. Reginald Edward Knight, who lived with his wife Annie and four children at 17 Squarey Street, served in the Royal Field Artillery and passed away in a hospital on 4th June 1918. He is buried in Ferozepore (Firozpur/Ferozepur) Military Cemetery in the Punjab. About fifty miles south of Lahore and very close to the India-Pakistan border, this was the site of the first Anglo-Sikh War of 1845 and subsequently a strategic British Army base. Known as the ‘Land of Martyrs’, not far from the border is The National Martyrs Memorial at Hussainiwala, in memory of Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru, three men who fought for independence. Every year, on 23 March, the Shaheedi Mela is observed at the memorial and the day is observed across the state of Punjab.

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Squarey Street is one of the most tranquil and peaceful streets in Summerstown, tucked away from the bustle of Garratt Lane on the bend close to the Wimbledon Road roundabout. The houses which date from the 1880s are still intact and N017 has a front wall topped with a delightful border of violets. Its hard to believe that someone from here lies so far away, albeit in what is probably a stunning location, almost within touching distance of the Himalayas. What was he doing there? Well, for a start, at that time a lot of the world map was coloured pink and like a fifth of the world’s population, India was part of the British Empire, the so-called ‘Jewel in the Crown’. In 1914 India would have seemed quite vulnerable to some form of uprising or attack, hence the need for a British military presence there, particularly in the north-west frontier. Many of those sent out would on the whole tend to be older men and Reginald Knight was 36. His Commonwealth War Graves Commission record lists him as a driver. Many of the casualties in such outposts were as likely to die from a disease like malaria or sunstroke as from a bullet.

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As Reg went one way, it is estimated that a million and a half  soldiers and non-combatants travelled in the other direction to support Britain in the First World War. Many of these men were simply happy to be mobilised to go to Europe and help out ‘the motherland’. Others believed their show of support would surely lead to self-rule. Why, the King of England had even laid on one of his grand palaces as a hospital. They came from all corners of ‘undivided India’, (comprising present-day India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma and Sri Lanka) but particularly the north. 82,000 of them are estimated to have died. Mahatma Gandhi, who for a while lived just up the road in Fulham even encouraged recruitment. Unfortunately hopes of independence were mistaken and if anything the grip tightened. Not far from Reg Knight’s resting place, in April 1919, the notorious Jallianwala Bagh Massacre at Amritsar by troops under Brigadier-General Dyer, resulted in the deaths of possibly up to one thousand people. This provided the catalyst for Gandhi’s movement of peaceful resistance. They had to wait until 1947 and another World War before that could be achieved.

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Reg was born in Eastbourne in July 1881, the third oldest son of Richard Edward Knight, a carpenter and joiner and his wife Elizabeth. Records suggest that there was quite a bit of movement for the family around the south London area over the next decades. He was baptised on 7th February 1886 at Holy Trinity in Croydon. A school admission record from 1889 indicates that they were in Battersea and young Reg was attending Plough Road School, now High View. They lived at 137 Speke Road on the northern side of Clapham Junction railway station, an area now covered by the Winstanley estate. By 1891 the family were back in Croydon and there were six children, four boys and two girls. 1901 was a big year for Reg, now twenty and working as a carman. Adventure beckoned and on 8th March he signed up to the 3rd Battalion, The Queen’s (Royal West Surrey Regiment). On the census night he was in Stoughton Barracks near Guildford. Did this military interlude take him all the way to South Africa and the Second Boer War? We can’t be sure, but the timing would have been right and this regiment did participate, returning to this country in May 1902. He joined so soon after the death of Queen Victoria that her name is still on the attestation form and is inked out with ‘Edward VII’ scribbled in its place. The rest of the family were still in Croydon at 8 Burdett Road and another sister Emily had been born in 1893. The other siblings were all still at home, eldest son Richard was a milkman’s assistant, George a tram conductor, Katherine a waitress in a cafe and 13 year old William a grocer’s assistant.

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Whatever happened over the next few years, Reg was back in London in 1906 and got married to Annie Linch. In 1911 they were at 13 Lydden Road, Wandsworth with two small children. Emily aged four and one year old Ernest. A second son George was born on 6th April 1916 and Ethel arrived the following year. Ernest lived to be ninety, passing away in Hillingdon in 2000. George died in Dunstable in 1994. Now 30, Reginald worked as a coke carman. He might have picked up much of his coke from the giant Wandsworth Gas Company which dominated the area next to the river. They even had their own collier, the SS Wandle carrying coal from Newcastle. Reg would have shared in the general jubilation when she sank a U-Boat in 1916.

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Lydden Road was part of the industrial heart of Wandsworth, in an enclave of streets off Garratt Lane, famous for their associations with horse-trading, a romany presence and a variety of less-than-pleasant factories and industries. Just a few doors away at No8 were the Grandparents of the illustrator Raymond Briggs. Dad James was working at a ‘phonographic factory’ which can only be Columbia Records, which was established in nearby Bendon Valley in 1905. His eldest son had the delightful job of being a ‘fat melter’ in a bone factory, another son was a smith’s mate in an iron works. The bone factory was almost certainly an off-shoot of the notorious Harrison and Barber horse-slaughtering yard. Another son, then ten years old would become a milkman. This was Ernest Redvers Briggs, so delightfully portrayed this Christmas in the brilliant animated adaption of ‘Ethel and Ernest’, Raymond Briggs’ affectionate homage to his parents. In one of the scenes, where Ernest steps out of the front door onto his bike, one of the coal carts outside his door may well have been that of Reg Knight. This was a rough, tough world, Ernest wasn’t too keen to bring Ethel round when they were courting and Reg would have been keen to move his young family to more genteel surroundings. Ethel and Ernest found their dream home just across the Wandle in Ashen Grove, Southfields. In 1914 Reg and Annie Knight moved three quarters of a mile down Garratt Lane and relocated to 17 Squarey Street in Summerstown, an address that the family would be associated with for nearly six decades.

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Settled into their little terraced house near Garratt Green, with Asletts’ sweet shop round the corner, the world must have been full of promise for Reg, Annie and their young family. It was soon to be turned upside down. Its doubtful if the father of a young family would have rushed to join up again, but as an ex-soldier, Reginald may have felt it was his duty. In any case, he became a driver in the Royal Field Artillery. His work hauling coke around and background in the horse-dominated world of Lydden Road would have stood him in good stead for what was to come. A typical 18-pounder field gun would have required six horses to pull it, with two drivers allocated to each horse. There wouldn’t have been a demand for such things in the Khyber Pass but Reginald was at some stage posted to the north-west frontier of India. He died of illness on 4th June 1918, leaving Annie back in Summerstown with four children under ten years old.

A Royal Field Artillery 18-pounder battery, 1914 (c).

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The Knight family’s connection with 17 Squarey Street would continue for many years. In the 1939 Register, Ethel and George would appear to still be living there with Annie. George Bertram Knight, now 23 was a dustman and most certainly known to ‘Tiny Ted’ Foster, the Victoria Cross holder from Fountain Road. Ethel worked in a laundry, of which there were plenty nearby. Ernest was at Squarey Street until at least 1935. George Knight married Joan Gould in 1945. They had three children, the eldest of whom Colin, was born in 1947. Annie died in 1969 aged 85, possibly the last surviving widow of any of the Summerstown182 and still living in their marital home at 17 Squarey Street. Ethel who was living with her at the time and aged 52 may have resided there for some while longer.

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Meanwhile Reginald lies in Ferozepore Military Cemetery, in the Punjab, one of 88 casualties, looked after by some of the gentlemen in the above photograph which was posted not too long ago on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission twitter feed. His records indicate that he was the husband of Annie in Squarey Street and the son of Richard and Elizabeth Knight from Croydon. Richard had in fact passed away the previous year.

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We are very keen to acknowledge the story of Reginald Knight and in doing so would like to highlight the contribution of the million plus Asian soldiers and non-combatants who stood alongside him one hundred years ago. We are hoping to organise a talk and exhibition about this sometime later this year. Perhaps we can find somewhere local to host the ‘Far from the Western Front’ exhibition (below), recently visited at the Karamel Cafe in Wood Green. https://southasiansoldiers.org.uk/

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To help us learn more about this and the involvement of Caribbean soldiers, the Friends of Summerstown182 will be visiting the graves of West Indian soldiers in Seaford and the Memorial Chattri on Patcham Downs. We also intend to visit The Royal Pavilion in Brighton and see the recently unveiled blue plaque to Subedar Mir Dast, who was awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery at the Second Battle of Ypres. A pathan, from a village in the Maidan Valley in the Khyber Pass region on the north-west frontier, perhaps not far from where Reginald was posted. Mir Dast and his regiment, the 57th Wildes attacked with the Ferozepore Brigade on the afternoon of 26th April 1915. In the face of a devastating gas attack and although badly wounded himself, he saved the lives of eight injured officers.

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Mir Dast eventually returned to India but many did not. One way we would like to engage interest is to tell the story of one of these men, someone like Reginald Knight who died a long way from his home. Perhaps someone from Firozpur, in the Punjab. If anyone can help us to do this, please get in touch.

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http://brightonmuseums.org.uk/discover/2016/06/03/mir-dast-the-man-behind-the-plaque/

https://ww1wandsworth.wordpress.com/2016/05/02/2-8-may-1916-the-wandle-heroics/

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