The Alan Bleasdale production of The Monocled Mutineer hit the BBC TV screens in the autumn of 1986 and caused outrage and much furrowing of brows in certain circles. The young Paul McGann was a brilliant Pery Topliss, a loveable rogue cocking a snook at the establishment and showing a healthy unwillingness to toe the line. The real Percy was by all accounts much less of a charmer but it made a big impression on me and ten years later I spent a rainy afternoon in Penrith trying to find his unmarked grave. Whether Percy had much to do with the 1917 mutiny at Etaples is debatable but its clear something went on and it was largely unreported and shrouded in mystery. Working as a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurse in France, Vera Brittain mentions it in her ‘Testament of Youth’ and whatever the case, it is clear that Etaples was a rough tough place where big men with bushy moustaches and loud voices turned raw recruits into killing machines in the notorious ‘Bull Ring’. It was somewhere that nearly every soldier in the British Amy would have passed through. In 1917, 100,000 troops were camped among the sand dunes and apart from the training, Etaples was home to a plethora of hospitals who could deal with 22,000 wounded or sick. Hence Vera’s presence. One person who may have passed through her hands but never made it any further was George Henry Worth from 6 Turtle Road. He is one of the eleven thousand men buried in the dramatic and very beautiful Etaples Military Cemetery. Just north of the town, set in a bowl amongst a conifer wood it is a huge sweeping amphitheatre of crosses that takes the breath away. It is as if the graves are seats in a theatre awaiting a performance. Unfortunately trying to find George’s grave proved a task too far for me – maybe I just got a bit confused in the hot sun but a bit like Turtle Road itself, he seemed to have disappeared without trace. He’s in the register book all right so he must be there. Turtle Road is one of the lost roads of Summerstown, submerged by high waters in 1968 and shortly afterwards the Burtop Road Estate. Maskell Road, survives on one side and there are still four original houses on Siward Road on the other. These streets adjoining Garratt Park were home to 26 of the Summerstown182 and possibly three hundred men from them served in the First World War. Fifty years later, the families of some of them were still resident. There are a number of photos at that time of people moving around in rowing boats making the area seem more like Venice than Earlsfield. We are hoping to see cine-film footage of one such vessel floating down Garratt Lane. George Henry Worth was one of these 26 and served in the 19th Battalion of the London Regiment. Born in Battersea, in the 1911 census he was living with his family at Turtle Road. His father worked as a stoker for an infirmary on St John’s Hill and at fourteen, George was already in employment and working as a shop boy in a drug store. The eldest of three sons, his brothers, Arthur and Frederick were probably fortunately just young enough to have avoided service. According to the census, four of George’s other siblings had died. His service record states that George Henry Worth ‘died of wounds (gas)’. Aged 20, the date of his death on 3rd December 1917 suggests that this probably happened in the great attack at Cambrai in November 1917. Famously this action saw the first appearance of the tank on a wide scale and resulted in a ‘victory’ that caused the celebratory ringing of church bells across England for the first time during the war. As so often seemed to happen, the Germans recovered the ground a few weeks later. George Worth died of his injuries most likely on a table or stretcher in one of the hospitals in Etaples. Up to her neck in blood and pus, Vera Brittain was there as the casualties poured in from the battlefields at Cambrai and on 5th December wrote to her mother about the effect – ‘The hospital is very heavy now – as heavy as when I came; the fighting is continuing very long this year and the convoys keep coming down, two or three a night. Sometimes in the middle of the night we have to turn people out of bed and make them sleep on the floor to make room for more seriously ill ones that have come down from the line. We have heaps of gassed cases at present who came in a day or two ago. I wish those people who write so glibly about this being a holy war could see a case of mustard gas in its early stages – could see the poor things burnt and blistered all over with great mustard-coloured supparating blisters, with blind eyes sometimes temporarily, sometimes permanently, all sticky and stuck together, and always fighting for breath, with voices a mere whisper, saying that their throats are closing and they know they will choke. They only thing one can say is that such severe cases don’t last long; either they die soon or else improve, usually the former’. In her book she also recalled from this period ‘At least a third of the men were dying; their daily dressings were not a mere matter of changing huge wads of stained guaze and wool, but of stopping haemorrhages, replacing intestines and draining and re-inserting innumerable rubber tubes. Nearly all the prisoners bore their dreadful dressings with stoical fortitude, and one or two waited phlegmatically for death. A doomed twenty year old boy, beautiful as the young Hyacinth in spite of the flush on his concave cheeks and the restless, agonised biting of his lips, asked me one evening in a courteous whisper how long he had to wait before he died. It was not very long, the screens were around his bed by the next afternoon’. With thanks to Alan Gardener for the photograph of Turtle Road taken in 1968.
‘Burmester Road’ trips off the tongue rather nicely, its distinctive grandiose moniker, like a town out of a Victorian novel. It is a place apart and its own very special world. And as if to reflect its distinctive L-shape, which suddenly reveals the splendour of the magnificent Anglo-American Laundry, in a nod to the magicians and showmen who have lived on it, every so often it whips off its black cape to reveal another secret or startling fact. It even had a disappearing house, No75, though that was down to the Luftwaffe rather than any conjuring trick performed by Harry Leat who lived at No26. There are many cats and they always seem to give me a knowing look. Approached via a belisha-beacon festooned zebra-crossing, its southern entrance has Burmester House on one side, Kwik-Fit on the other. The former was once the site of the elusive Althorp Lodge, the headquarters of pedestrian impressario, Bob Sadler. The gateway to the glories of Garratt Green, Burmester Road is the Summerstown Champs-Elysées and most appropriately it was very likely named after an ancient empire-bestriding general. My money is on Captain Henry Garden Burmester ‘killed by mutineers’ at Lucknow in 1857. Then again, the National Portrait Gallery has a striking painting of the dashing Lieutenant-Colonel Arnold Edward Burmester of the 59th Foot. Either way, this road has a presence and many stories which still haven’t been told. About half-way up on the right hand side coming from Garratt Lane is a unique stretch of houses that suffered great sadness in the First World War. The Meikle brothers were at No59 and next door was John Davis at No61. Their front doors stand side-by-side and its easy to see how these lads would have been in and out of each others houses when they were growing up. One of five children, John was the son of a Royal Marine pensioner working as a door porter. There were three younger Meikle brothers; Albert John and Edwin and a sister called Ethel. Thomas Meikle Senior was a brass moulder, a profession that he followed his Scottish father into. By 1911 Thomas Junior, aged 17 was an apprentice in the same trade. 15 year old Andrew was working as an errand boy at a motorworks. Next door, John Frederick Davis aged 13 was still at school. Twenty years after the war, Edwin still lived at the address with his mother Elizabeth and the Davis family were still next door. Albert Meikle seemingly lived in the area until the late sixties at 3a Franche Court Road and I’m told another family member Alan may still be in the locality. The Meikle boys joined up together at Wandsworth and have consecutive service numbers, 13887 (Andrew) and 13888 (Thomas). They must have literally approached the recruiting sergeant one after the other. They went to France on 15th July 1915 and probably there transferred to the 8th Battalion of the Gloucestershire Regiment. Their first action was at Pietre, a diversionary action supporting the Battle of Loos. In 1916 they fought at the Somme, capturing La Boisselle and being involved in the attacks on High Wood and Pozieres Ridge. Andrew was killed on 5th March 1916 and just four months later his brother Thomas perished on the Somme. He is one of the 72,195 names on the massive Thiepval Memorial. The Gloucesters War Diary indicates that in early March they were billeted in Riez-Bailleul and Andrew may have succumbed to earlier wounds or been killed by a shell or a sniper. On 30th July they were involved in an attack at Bazentin-le-petit, near High Wood. Eight officers and 160 men were killed in this action and Thomas Meikle was one of them. Undeterred by what had happened to his pals-next-door, John Davis joined the Suffolk Regiment in 1917. The absent voters list of 1918 shows that John Senior had also rejoined his old regiment as a Colour Sergeant in the Royal Marine Light Infantry at Portsmouth. In the first weeks of the war he was part of the landing at Ostend to help defend Antwerp. One can only imagine how this heroic event would have impressed the teenage boys back home, bristling to get into a uniform. His son is also on the list, but sadly he never got to cast his vote. John Davis was serving with the Welsh Fusiliers when he was killed on 11th September 1918 aged 21. He is buried at Sailly-Labourse, a village near Bethune. One door further down at No63 was the son of a ventriloquist, Francis Henry Ireson-Woods who was in the Middlesex Regiment. A later resident of this house died in Kenya at the hands of the Mau Mau. There were 41 servicemen from Burmester Road on the 1918 list including the five members of the Kingham family at No47. To complete the picture and possibly a clue to the overwhelming feline presence on this street, at No20 was Mrs Roberts, the cat lady. She boarded cats and had cages all over the house including the bedroom and the garden. I’m very grateful to Ted Lay, resident of this road for forty years for providing so much of the information here. Incredibly it is thirty years since he lived there and for his extraordinary powers of memory, I nominate him Emperor of Burmester and look forward to guiding him down it on one of our forthcoming walks.
It was around November last year when Dorothy found out that the Clay family were living at 823 Garratt Lane. The house is at the end of my road and I rushed out immediately and stood looking at the front door. I was transfixed. Probably because there was a photo to go with it, one of the entire household, this had a special meaning. I couldn’t stop thinking about it and it triggered a desire to find out where the other 181 men on the war memorial lived. It was hard to imagine the moment when the knock came and Cecilia Clay and her four small children learned the awful news. It really brought home to me the appalling personal tragedy that was visited upon so many homes in those four years a century ago. On the 8th August 1917 in the Battle of Passchendaele, a shell landed on the dug-out where Private William Clay was taking cover. The gentle baker from Summerstown had no chance and his name is commemorated on the immense Menin Gate memorial in Ypres. I’ve been past the house many times since that evening. I have gazed at it when I’ve been waiting at the bus-stop through the winter. I admired the pansies so perfectly arranged in little hanging baskets and window boxes in early summer. It will always be William Clay’s house. The photograph of Cecilia with her proud uniformed husband had been left at St Mary’s Church some twenty years ago by someone who signed themselves ‘I Clay’. We were very curious about who this was but the quest to find this person was proving difficult, even with the help of a front page story in the Wandsworth Guardian. The trail seemed to point to Chatham in Kent but had gone cold. In July a friend at school with connections in the Rochester area offered to call in on one of the addresses from where a letter had been returned. He would ask around. Sheila had found a Ken Clay living in the same street, could he be a relative? Ken wasn’t in when Simon visited but a note through his front door did the trick. We were immediately put in touch with Iris in Taunton. Iris Clay’s father Thomas hadn’t been born when the photograph was taken of William and Cecilia Clay with their three small children. Cecilia was pregnant at the time with him and he was only six months old when William was killed. Iris was born in 1942 and lived at 138 Smallwood Road. The extraordinary photograph above taken of a street party on VE Day shows the extended family who lived in four houses next door to each other from number 138 to 144. Sadly none of the houses survive. Iris is the little girl on the extreme left. At number 140 were Bonner family cousins and next door to that at 142 lived her maternal grandparents. Alice Richardson worked in a munitions factory in the First World War and her husband William was a rifleman with the 21st London Regiment. Iris’ brother Ken is also in the photograph sitting on his Mum’s lap and her father Thomas is standing on the right. Incredibly, knowing nothing about this picture, Neil Kirby contacted me last week after hearing an item about the Summerstown182 project on Radio Jackie. His Grandfather, Charles Alfred Kirby was a soldier who survived the war and whose home was at number 136. They lived on there until after the Second World War and some members of his family are probably in the picture enjoying the celebrations.
William Clay was born in Gunter Grove, Chelsea in 1886, the son of a policeman. By 1901 the family was living at Uverdale Road in the nearby Sands End area and William was working as an errand boy. His mother Fanny died when he was sixteen. William married Cecilia Mitchell in April 1910 and by 1911 the young couple were living at Chesson Road, just off North End Road. Their first child Frances Dorothy was born the following year. The rest of the family were in Stephendale Road, just down the road off Wandsworth Bridge Road. Brother Albert was also a baker and another brother Robert was a grocer. Robert Clay would also be killed in the war, just a few months before his brother on 15th May 1917. He was in the Royal Fusiliers and is commemorated on the Arras Memorial. William was conscripted into the army on 11th July 1916 at Kingston where he joined the Army Service Corps. Before he went overseas he had transfered to the 6th Northamptonshire Regiment. On his enlistment papers an address of 823 Garratt Lane indicated that the family had moved across the river and William’s occupation was given as a baker. Maybe he even worked at Peter Jung’s shop in Tooting. Family group photos such as this were often done before soldiers went abroad so it was probably taken in late 1916. From the 6th Northamptonshire War Diary, it is possible to work out that William was somewhere called Westhoek Ridge near Zonnebeke on 8th August 1917. The regiment were preparing an attack but it was delayed by the heavy rain which that summer churned the Flanders terrain into the sticky swamp that defines any impression of Passchendaele. On the 8th it is noted that ‘Enemy artillery active all day, our aircraft were in the air all day preventing the enemy planes flying near our trenches’. Unfortunately they couldn’t stop the shell that killed William Clay. A letter to Cecilia outlines his death in a rather blunt matter-of-fact way. ‘Pte W Clay 40496 was killed outright by a shell. We were in a trench some way behind the front line – your husband along with some other men was in a small dug-out – the shell went through the roof and killed them all. I was on the spot myself a few minutes afterwards but found there was nothing that could be done for them as they were all dead.’ The letter dated 5th September 1917 was very likely sent to 823 Garratt Lane. Cecilia was 26 when William died and left with four children under the age of five. Fortunately she found love, very close by and according to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission record of William’s death, was married again, and as Mrs Cecilia Parsons was living at 12 Aboyne Road, literally round the corner from her previous home.
Many thanks to Iris Simmons, grand-daughter of William Clay, who has kindly shared these photographs and papers with us and plans to visit St Mary’s Church with a family group on Remembrance Sunday. That will be a very special day. Also all those who have contributed to trying to find her and researched this story. Most notably Sheila and Dorothy and also Simon who made the vital breakthrough in Chatham.