In 1901, William and Louise Tibbenham were living in Chiswick, west London with their nine children. Two of these were Spencer (13) and Eric (3). There were four daughters and at 11, Ethel, known as Annie, was the child closest in age to Spencer. Very sadly, both boys were to die in the First World War and their names are on the war memorial in St Mary’s Church. William’s profession was a draper’s assistant and by 1911 it was a trade Spencer had followed him into. The family had now moved south of the river and were living at No 12 Thurso Street (above). A year later Spencer decided that his future lay on the other side of the world and just a few weeks after the Titanic sank, he set sail for Australia on the Zeiten. He arrived in Sydney on 25th July 1912. When war broke out, Spencer, now almost 28 and still working as a draper, joined up almost immediately. A 32 page document containing his service records is on the Australian National Archives website.
Spencer’s attestation paper, dated 21st September 1914 shows that he joined the 13th Battalion of the Australian Imperial Infantry at Rosehill Camp, New South Wales. He had been resident for some time in the town of Gloucester. He was given the distinctive service number 444. It is noted on the form that prior to emigration he had served in the territorials. At half an inch short of six foot he was a big lad. Whatever training he embarked on, Spencer was on his way to Gallipoli on 12th April 1915 to join the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force. Welcome to hell. When I was in Australia in April 1990, I remember being surprised at the extent of the remembrance commerations that month. I vaguely knew the Mel Gibson film but I didn’t really know anything about Anzac Day or what happened at Gallipoli where Australians and New Zealanders formed the bulk of a force tasked with breaking through the Dardanelles and ultimately capturing Istanbul. It was a disaster, but 25th April, the day of the landing has since 1916 been remembered as Anzac Day, a national day of remembrance. A variety of battered papers detail the torment that Spencer Tibbenham suffered there and later in France. A mixture of typewriter and scrawled handwritten script in black and red ink, mingles with the purple stamp of officialdom and hastily made comments in pencil – they tell us so much but so little. It is quite painstaking to try and work out his movements, painful to read of his injuries. Spencer was first wounded on 23rd May 1915. A week later a gunshot wound in the forearm saw him hospitalised. He was on a famous hospital ship, The Dunluce Castle and then taken to Cairo. In March 1916, and still in the Mediterranean, Spencer transfered to the 45th Battalion, Lewis Gun Section at Tel-el-Kebir. On May 2nd he was on the move again, sailing from Alexandria to Marseilles and heading for another bloodbath on the western front. He was seriously injured again here on 2nd June, gunshot and shrapnel wounds in the shoulder, hips and abdomen. On 19th August he was wounded once more, though it doesn’t indicate how badly or where. On 7th November Spencer was promoted to Corporal and on 6th April 1917 to Sergeant. From 12th to 19th May he was in hospital with trench fever. There are no details about how he was killed, but a note next to the date 30.5.17, bluntly states DIED. Another typewritten note provides a few further details ‘Died of wounds received in action, 53rd Casualty Clearing Station, Belgium’.
Another note in red ink indicates that he was buried in Ballieul Communal Cemetery on 22nd September 1917 by Reverend J D Heath, Chaplain to the Forces. This was almost three years to the day after he joined the army in Sydney. At the end of the service records is a slightly less-ancient looking typewritten form requesting entitlement to Spencer Tibbenham’s Gallipoli Medallion. Dated 17th July 1967 and perhaps prompted by fiftieth anniversary commemorations two years previously, a Mrs A E Bignell from 6 Parring Road, Balwyn, Melbourne was writing as the sister of the deceased. We haven’t worked out yet when Annie Ethel Bignell followed her brother to Australia – perhaps she went out there before him. However, Mrs Bignell was the eleven year old Ethel Tibbenham living in Chiswick with her eight brothers and sisters in 1901. The address details on the medal form are handwritten and quite difficult to read. She would have been 77 years old when she made the application. I half-heartedly googled the address and was amazed when it came up immediately as a business address. Even more astonishing, with a name attached, ‘Bignell WC and JM’. Intruigingly the name of the business was Lone Pine Dairy. This rang a distant bell. Lone Pine was the scene of one of the most heroic Australian stands in the Gallipoli campaign on 5th -8th August 1915. No less than seven Victoria Crosses being awarded on those days. I’m not sure if Spencer Tibbenham fought in that particular battle but it is possible that the family business was named in his memory and that of the 8,000 Australian soldiers who were killed in the terrible place that people down under remember every April 25th. We are now in contact with Balwyn Historical Society in Melbourne and this morning I received an email with the extraordinary news that they have traced members of the Bignell family and are going to visit them on Monday and will see Spencer Tibbenham’s medals.
© Commonwealth of Australia (National Archives of Australia) 2013.