‘There was an old woman who lived in a shoe, she had so many children she didn’t know what to do’. The Summerstown equivalent of the shoe was 14 Worslade Road. This was home in 1911 to Edward Matcham, a 41 year old labourer working for the council, his wife Jane and their twelve children, seven boys; William, Henry, Ernest, Frank, Sidney, Charles and Edward and five girls; Ellen, Florence, Rose, Elsie and baby Winifred. Originally from Dover, they had been living in Kennington but around 1907, the young family were part of the great wave of people moving to the newly bricked-over green fields of Summerstown. Home was now cosy little Worslade Road, nestling in the leafy shadow of Lambeth Cemetery and along with its tranquil neighbour Bertal Road, surely one of the gentler streets of the rough-and-tumble Fairlight area. Sadly, as for so many other families, the war turned everything upside down. Two of the boys, William and Ernest were killed within ten months of each other and are remembered on the St Mary’s memorial. A third brother Henry lost his life in the Second World War. This is the largest family we have encountered so far and how they all squeezed into this tiny house has baffled me for six months. Well, this week I got a chance to have a look inside. I had leafleted the street in the morning and at lunchtime got a message from someone asking if any of the Summerstown182 lived in Worslade Road. I told them about the Matchams at No14 and incredibly they announced that was precisely where they lived. I popped round later for a cuppa and a chat. Roz was delighted to find out that two of the Summerstown182 had once lived in her home and will be bringing a possee of Worslade Road residents on the next walk. The brothers signed up within a week of each other, about a month after the start of the war. William Matcham, born in 1893 was the oldest and worked as a grocer’s assistant. He was 21 when he joined the 2nd Battalion of The Rifle Brigade, a regiment rather grandly known as ‘The Prince Consort’s Own’ at Winchester in September 1914. Ernest, born in 1896 was working for a printing company called Harrisons when he joined the 21st London Regiment aged 18. William was promoted to Corporal on 21st July 1916 but was ‘killed in action in the field’ just eight days later. The field was the Somme and he is buried at Vermelles, about six miles outside Lens.‘Gone from our Home, but not from Our Hearts’ is the rather moving personal inscription on William Matcham’s headstone.
The official paperwork recording his death indicates that two other brothers, Frank and Henry were also in the services but curiously there is no mention of Ernest who would have been getting ready for Salonika. He had also seen service in France that summer but in December 1916 he disembarked at the notorious Macedonian port. Ernest Matcham was killed there on 4th May 1917 most likely in something caled the 1st Battle of Doiran. Bizarre as it sounds – the terrain was Greece, the enemy was Bulgaria and the fight was in defence of Serbia, if anyone can explain what that was all about, please get in touch. A sideshow to the western front of course, but one which cost 12,000 lives, a great many of whom died of malaria. Salonika… the name itself became a bye-word for misery and mosquitoes, many Irish soldiers served there and it was immortalised in a song frequently performed by The Dubliners. In 1941 my Dad spent a particularly unpleasant time there at a POW camp called Dulag 185 on his way from Crete to Germany. Going in the other direction in 1985, I passed through Thessaloniki on an Interail holiday. If that train ride was overcrowded and stiflingly hot, it was nothing compared to his nine day ordeal in a sweltering dysentry-ridden cattle truck. At least I had Mykonos to look forward to – four years of cabbage soup awaited Dad. Ernest’s service record indicates that he was a bit of a naughty boy with a track record of ill-discipline including ‘giving false information’, ‘being late for early morning parade’ and ‘disobeying an order’. His records reveal that his punishment included ‘field punishment’ possibly being tethered to a post like Alf Chipperfield and ‘confinement to barracks’. He seemed to pull himself together when he got to France. Between 24th April and 9th May 1917 British forces attacked the heavily fortified Bulgarians near Lake Doiran. They had surrounded themselves with so much wire that the area was known as The Birdcage. This was very likely the battlefield on which Ernest fell. His personal affects were sent home to his parents from Greece, including a belt, letters, photos and a card case.
Frank Matcham had joined the same battalion of the London Regiment as Ernest and also saw service in France, Salonika and Egypt. He survived the war and was demobilised in 1919. Henry was in the Royal Navy and made it through the first world war only to be killed in the second. He received the Long Service and Good Conduct Medal for service between 1925 and 1930. He may be wearing them in the above photo. He died aged 45 on 5th November 1940, one of 195 lives lost when HMS Jervis Bay was sunk by the German battleship Admiral Scheer. The ship sacrificed itself in a heroic action off Newfoundland which allowed 32 vessels from the Atlantic convoy it was protecting to escape back to port. Petty Officer Henry Theodore Matcham is commemorated on the Chathan Naval Memorial. A Matcham connection continued in the house until at least the early 1960s with several elderly people still living in the area recalling the name. Edward Matcham lived on there until his death aged 92 and Winifred even longer. Enough history to fill a whole street, let alone one little house. Fourteen people, number fourteen Worslade Road.