The Holy Land

At the southern boundary of St Mary’s parish, Fountain Road is almost like a grand avenue, connecting Garratt Lane to Blackshaw Road. I’ve been told that in the mid-nineteenth century it was established as the main thoroughfare, leading visitors towards the newly constructed Lambeth Cemetery. At its lower end, The Fountain public house being set up as a watering-hole for thirsty visitors. It has the feeling of being on the edge. Maybe its the great width and length of the street or its proximity to a huge hospital and several graveyards which induces fear and anxiety, but there is a sense of houses that hold secrets. Its a place with a real presence. Only a week or so ago a recent resident, Babar Ahmad, widely described as a ‘cyber-jihadist’ has made the news, sentenced to prison by an American court for promoting terrorism on the internet. Go back one hundred years and you might find the roots of the events that destabilised the middle-east region and sowed the seeds of his beliefs. Walter Tappin lived in one of the distinctive collection of flat-roofed houses which dominate a number of stretches on the southern side of Fountain Road. He was killed on 9th March 1918 and is buried in Jerusalem War Cemetery. Also there is Horace Woodley from Hazelhurst Road who died on the same day. Not far away, James Luke Tugwell from Headworth Road rests in Gaza. In 1911, fourteen year old Walter was an errand boy living at 19 Fountain Road with his parents and five siblings, one brother and four sisters. His father, also Walter was a ‘trenchman’ who worked for the Metropolitan Water Board, his mother was the exquisitely named Amelia Bodfish. He was probably born at No19 as the family were resident there when he was baptised at Holy Trinity Church in August 1896. 1915 was a highly eventful year for young Walter. I came across an item in the Tooting and Balham Gazette newspaper dated 13th February about him, under the headline ‘Police Raid on Tooting Gamblers’. Walter and three others were charged with playing pitch-and-toss in Khartoum Road. They were part of a group of forty, who when challenged by the police, resisted arrest. Things then turned nasty. Stones were thrown and punches exchanged. One policeman was bitten on the hand and another threatened with having his fingers bitten off. A woman was alleged to have trod on an officer’s heels ‘in order to help the gamblers escape’. There were counter-claims of brutality back at the station. One of the co-accused, Henry Crump also of Fountain Road stated that he was ‘seized by the throat and set on by five policemen.’ Walter was discharged but two of his pals including Henry ended up with short prison sentences. Pitch-and-toss, essentially betting on the throw of a coin was extremely popular in working-class areas and particularly mining communities. The game flourished in the war years with Australian soldiers introducing their own version called ‘Two-up’. This involved flipping two coins from a small piece of wood and waging on how they fell. Groups of men would form a circle around the main protagonists and tended to scatter in all directions if the police approached. Not long after his brush with the law, Walter was off to Diss in Norfolk to enlist with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. It was 31st March 1915 and he was nineteen. Walter went to Gallipoli and later saw service at Gaza and Jerusalem. On December 1916 he transfered to the Montgomeryshire and Welsh Horse Yeomanry, part of the 53rd Division. Both Horace Woodley and Walter Tappin died in the fighting in Palestine, the biblical lands whose ongoing conflicts continue to rage to this day. In 1914 the area was under the control of the Turkish Ottoman Empire who entered the First World War on the side of Germany. As always there were oil and business interests at stake and protecting the Suez Canal was a British priority. After initial reverses at Gallipoli and in Mesopotamia the tide turned in December 1916 with the entry into Palestine of allied forces and the capture of Jerusalem by Field Marshal Allenby a year later. Walter’s death occured in a skirmish a few months after this between 8-10th March 1918. An event known as the battle of Tel Asur. The war diary of the 158th Brigade mentions that ‘Tel Asur, altitude 3318 feet was captured by 1/5th Royal Welsh Fusiliers at the point of the bayonet and successfully held against three determined counter attacks’. Many thanks to the Great War Forum for the map shown above. The red line on this indicates where Walter’s division were at 6pm on 8th March. The dotted red line above it shows where they had got to by 10am on 10th March. About half-way across in the middle of all that was the fateful hill of Tel Asur. I found it in my atlas, about fifteen miles north of Jerusalem, just beyond the high ground of the West Bank. Its bang in the middle of the disputed territory which has been occupied by Israel since 1967. Easy to see how in 1918 it was a strategically important point in any attempt to re-seize the city. Somehow in this struggle in a strange far-off land, near familiar-sounding places like Jericho and the River Jordan, three young men from Summerstown who probably knew of these places from their Sunday School classes, lost their lives. The only thing in Walter Tappin’s possession when he was killed was his identity disc. His mother passed away in December 1915 and Walter’s father moved to Mitcham which explains why his name is also on the war memorial there. 19 Fountain Road, just a few doors up from Cavell House, nurses accomodation got pebble-dashed about forty years ago but looks pretty much like it would have done in 1914. A few weeks ago I visited the home of a lady a little bit further along Fountain Road whose grandparents had moved into the house in 1914, four generations later the family are still there.


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