The middle of half-term week probably wasn’t the most sensible time to visit the Tower of London poppy installation which everyone has been telling me is so wonderful. After a week in the tranquil cemeteries of France and Belgium, where for the most part we were the only people present, it was a bit of a shocker to be thrown into the seething mass of people straining to get a view of those red flowers. We came over Tower Bridge on our bikes and it was immediately apparent that seeing anything was going to be difficult. The moat around the tower is gradually being filled with 888,246 ceramic poppies – one for every death in the British forces in the First World War and the first glimpse of this really does take the breathe away. But this was no idle sightseeing jaunt, there was work to be done and it involved visiting the Tower Hill Memorial and searching for Charles Blight of the Summerstown182. The covered part of the memorial where we found him was almost like a sanctuary from the mayhem outside. Not just the hordes of people who had come to see the poppies, but the traffic, the tour buses, the builders in flourescent jackets, scaffolding everywhere and the incessant racket of drillling. Central London re-development gone mad, this was a world away from Caterpillar Valley and Fifteen Ravine. And in the middle of it all is Charles Blight looking out on the Tower and the madness. His name is on a prominent position at the front of the memorial which commemorates the names of 12,000 men of the Merchant Navy lost at sea in the First World War. Charles was only 20 years old when he perished on a ship called the SS Minnehaha, a liner which ploughed the Atlantic between London and New York and in 1901 carried Mark Twain back to the United States after a decade in Europe. A product of the Harland and Wolff yard in Belfast, it carried munitions in the War and was in a convoy with five other vessels when sunk by a U-boat twelve miles off the coast of south-west Ireland on 7th September 1917. 43 lives were lost, 110 were saved. She went down very quickly, stern first, ‘with her bow pointing like a column in the air.’ Charles Blight was a wireless operator and his death was noted in the St Mary’s parish magazine in the same passage that Reverend Robinson refers to the loss of William Clay. ‘His captain, who was saved, has written to say that he bravely stuck to his post to the end, and went down with the ship.’ It is possible that Charles trained with Marconi in Liverpool. Much of the company was requisitioned for war service and technological advances accelerated when it became clear how vital radio would become. The lad from Franche Court Road would have been at the cutting edge of these developments. Charles was born on 1st November 1896 in Lambeth and had one younger sister. His parents were both unusually-named, Oscar Enys Blight, who worked as a valet and Florence Serbella. In 1911 the Blights lived on the South Lambeth Road but at some stage moved to 46 Franche Court Road, the upper end of the street just before the turn where all the houses are still have the original brick colour. Its the second one from the end on the right hand side just before things go a bit Brookside. In 1918 Captain Frank Claret who wrote to Reverend Robinson was awarded the OBE for his heroism and saving eleven lives when the ship sunk. The New York Times reported how he ‘bobbed about in icy water, blowing air from his huge lungs into a leaky life preserver’ until rescued. He jumped from a life raft several times to rescue wounded or struggling men and that, ‘finally he himself had to be dragged into the lifeboat completely exhausted.’ Meanwhile, the wreck of the Minnehaha lies some 12 miles south-east of Fastnet Rock and is often visited by divers. She sits upright, her funnels and winches apparently clearly visible and her portholes still intact. Back at Tower Hill, I can only hope that young Charles has his headphones on to drown out the noise of all that traffic.
Part of the Tower of London poppy project involves the nightly reading of names from a roll of honour. Two of the Summerstown182 were submitted by Alison Milton and the names of William Mace and James Chenery were read out by Michael Morpurgo on 19th October 2014.