HMS Crystal Palace

CrystalPalaceSphinxOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAcrystalpalaceparadetalbotOne of five Smiths in the ranks of the Summerstown182, Charles Arthur Smith is tucked in close to William Nicholls in the corner of Streatham Cemetery. Roughly the same age as William’s eldest sons, its as if the older man is keeping a watchful eye on the eighteen year old naval rating. The son of Charles and Louisa Smith from 55 Lucien Road, his home was quite a distance from Summerstown, on the far side of Tooting on the edge of the Totterdown Fields estate. Close to Tooting Bec Common and the Lido. His father was a coachman and the family of four children lived  for the first decade of the century at the quaintly named 10 Goodman’s Stile, Whitechapel, just off the Commercial Road right in the heart of Jack the Ripper territory in the east end of London. They probably moved to Tooting around 1912. His headstone with prominent anchor and rope motif, carries an intruiging personal message at the bottom ‘His memory is as dear today as in the hour he passed away, our Bobs’. It indicates that he was an ‘Ordinary Seaman’ in the Royal Naval Volunter Reserve. The words HMS “Victory” suggest that he went down on a mighty warship on 9th October 1918. In fact he died of illness a few miles down the road at Crystal Palace. HMS Victory was the name given to a number of naval training establishments and due to its location this one was informally known as HMS Crystal Palace. The original building, constructed for the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park in 1851 was a symbol of the power and prestige of the British Empire. Three years later it was moved at immense cost to an affluent part of south London near Sydenham Hill and the area was soon named after it. The great glass structure, at the time the largest amount of glass ever seen in a single building was destroyed by fire in 1936. After the war, it was even for a while the original location of the Imperial War Museum. Between 1914 and 1918 more than 125,000 men trained there and it must have been a very exciting place for the young Charles Smith. It is very likely that he died of what was known as ‘spanish flu’, as on that day, just a month before the end of the war, he was one of ten seamen, all of the same rank to die of ‘illness’ at the Crystal Palace depot. This was the early phase of an extraordinary epidemic that in the years 1918-1919 would kill three times the number of people who perished in the war, roughly fifty million people worldwide. It was most deadly for people between the ages of twenty and forty. The First World War with its mass movements of men in armies and aboard ships, most certainly aided in its spread. Death came almost instantaneously and without warning. A tickly throat in the morning, could be followed by ones skin turning purple and death by choking before bedtime. There was great panic at this virus and the authorities already paralysed by four years of war seemed unable to know how to handle it. Typically they tried to play it down. In desperation people tried their own homemade prevention remedies; eating raw onions, keeping a potato in their pocket, or wearing a bag of camphor around the neck. There are about twenty other CWGC headstones in this area of Streatham Cemetery with date of deaths long after hostilities ceased. Close by are the Gawn brothers originally from Bickley Street in Tooting who died of pneumonia on successive days. Gunner Mizen from Thrale Road died of meningitis. Private Nicholl from Clapham died of pneumonia. Lance Corporal Greaves from Battersea died of nephritis. And so it goes on. At least they all have headstones or formal recognition on the memorial wall. Spare a thought for the Mace brothers, Arthur and William from Thurso Street, two young men who between them gave over three years service to regiments of the British army in the First World War. Both were discharged and died some time later of tuberculosis. They are buried in unmarked graves.

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