Into the Darkness

MaureenpetalsInto the Darkness

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAUntil the area was substantially redeveloped in the late sixties, Hazelhurst Road and Foss Road swept southwards from St Mary’s Church, separating in a great V which forked down to Smallwood Road. An extraordinary story connects these two streets with two world wars. It was told to me by Maureen Giles, the granddaughter of William Pitts whose family lived at 28 Hazelhurst Road. Born in Brighton, William married Minnie Matilda Figg in 1909. They were still there in 1911, now with two small children, Elsie and Minnie. According to the census, Willam was aged 22 and worked as a washer in a laundry. Sometime after that a third child Alfred Albert was born. When the war broke out William joined the 6th Battalion of the East Kent Regiment, known as The Buffs. This was after the colour of their uniform in a previous era. William was killed on 3rd May 1917. It is curious that there is a seven year discrepancy between his age on the census and that on his military records, which suggest he was 35 when he died. On that day his battalion were in front line trenches near Monchy in France and attacked in complete darkness. Communication was impossible and about 250 men of The Buffs were killed on what was later known as the Third Battle of the Scarpe. The official historical record of the regiment recalls ‘Zero hour was fixed at 3.45 a.m. The battalion was, during the preceding night in shell holes. Punctually on time the guns fired and our men went off into the darkness, too many of them never to see the sun rise again’. He is one of ten of the Summerstown182 whose name is on the Arras Memorial. Minnie Matilda was left with five young children to raise on her own. Alfred Albert, Maureen’s father, was only three years old when his dad was killed. For whatever reason she didn’t stay in Brighton but moved to 28 Hazelhurst Road and married again, to Robert Ware. They had a further three children, one of whom was called Eileen, born in 1932. Another sister called Minnie remembered how her Mum kept the memory of her first husband alive. A little cloth bag was placed on a peg behind the door in the outside toilet. It contained something very special and precious, wrapped up in cotton wool. The children were instructed never to touch it or look inside. The bag contained the medals of William Pitts. Without warning, on 19th November 1944, a V2 rocket fell out of the Sunday morning sky killing 34 people and turning a large section of Hazelhurst Road to rubble. A post-war map of this area showing a huge gap where the bombed houses once were, illustrates that No28 was directly in the line of fire. Minnie Matilda and twelve year old Eileen were both killed and the bag containing William Pitts’ medals was lost forever. Maureen’s mother Louisa lived at 26 Foss Road. She married Alf Pitts, literally the boy next door. By 1944 they were living at No22 with one year old Maureen. Although nine houses on this street were destroyed in the blast, their home was relatively unscathed. Maureen’s father rushing back from work that morning had been told that his wife and baby had been killed. He found out later it was his mother and sister. The area where the houses had stood remained a pile of rubble for years afterwards, a constant reminder of an incident which numbed people in the neighbourhood for a very long time. Maureen remembers vividly clambering over this bomb-site on her way to Smallwood School. Sadly photos and other mementoes of William were lost in the rocket attack. Alf ended up with one photograph of four soldiers standing outside a tin hut, one wears a cap which my friends on the Great War Forum reliably inform me, is the badge of the Leicestershire Regiment. They all look tired and as if they’ve seen too many terrible things. Its just possible one of them may be William Pitts. There was also a photo of a butchers shop in Wandsworth called Skinners but she has no idea of the significance. About twenty years ago Maureen contacted the Commonwealth War Graves Commission about the loss of the medals and a replacement set were issued. The rainbow style Victory Medal and the British War Medal. These were given to her father, a very special eightieth birthday gift for Alf Pitts, the three year old boy who so tragically lost his Dad in 1917 and his Mum in 1944. I’m not sure if Maureen keeps them in the toilet any more but they are in a nice wooden frame and no need for the cotton wool.

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UPDATE: The photo at the top of the page shows Maureen scattering petals in memory of her Grandmother and the 35 victims of the 19th November 1944 V2 attack at a special seventieth anniversary remembrance. The car-park behind Sutton Courteney House on the Hazelhurst estate is the site of the main bomb crater. This prompted Wandsworth Council to place a green heritage plaque at the location and the ceremony to unveil that on 6th June 2015 attracted several hundred local residents. We estimated that at least a dozen elderly people who lived in Foss Road or Hazelhurst Road at the time of the incident also attended, including relatives of many of the victims and some who were literally pulled from the rubble.

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