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.