44 Hazelhurst Road

Georgeceremony1The seventieth anniversary of a largely-forgotten V2 bomb incident which killed 34 people on Hazelhurst Road was marked in November with a beautiful and poignant service in a packed St Mary’s Church. After the service the congregation walked a short distance to the site where the bomb landed, a car-park behind one of the blocks on the estate. Here we gathered as family members read the victim’s names and scattered petals in their memory. Sadiq Khan MP read the official ‘incident report’ and a guitar ensemble from Burntwood School performed an extraordinarily moving version of ‘Fields of Gold’. It is something that anyone who was there will never forget. john&arthur Two brothers came that day but we didn’t manage to speak to them. Fortunately Sheila had seen them around and sure enough, after Christmas she bumped into one of them in Sainsbury’s in Tooting. Not long after we were sitting in their home nearby hearing an incredible story. They have lived in this house for seventy years since the V2 pulverised the family home at 44 Hazelhurst Road, directly opposite the ‘boys’entrance to Smallwood School (to the right of the group in the below photo). They came to the service in St Mary’s that day to honour their grandmother Jane Elizabeth Wilson who died in the bombing. She was actually living in one of the houses opposite and was the only person killed on that side of the road. Incredibly the boys and the rest of the family escaped unhurt. Arthur remembers waking up that morning and gazing at the sky. The roof had been blown off. They went downstairs very carefully as they thought the walls might cave in. There they saw their father George, terribly injured and holding his face. He was taken away to St James Hospital in Balham on a truck. He’d been looking out of the front window facing the school when the bomb came down and was permanently blinded. Arthur and John’s memory of the event is very clear. Arthur was 15 at the time, the same age as three of the victims. There is a record in the parish magazine of him being baptised with one of them, Josephine Woodley in December 1930. John was nine and some of those killed were in his class at school. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Keeley family had lived at 63 Hazelhurst since 1925. There were eight of them in the upstairs flat and Granny Wilson was living in the one below them. For a while they relocated to nearby Khama Road but then moved back to 44 Hazelhurst some time around 1938. Arthur remembers the 1940 bombs on Wimbledon Road and Garratt Lane very clearly. For a while the boys and their brother William were evacuated to Wales. Their Mum went with them to make sure they were kept together but none of them liked the situation so they all came back to Summerstown. BatterseaWhat happened that day wasn’t George Robert Keeley’s first experience of war. He was born in Battersea on 30th April 1894, the son of George and Ada. For a while the family moved to the Wandsworth area and in 1901 were living in Wardley Street with George senior working as a coalman. By 1911 they had crossed Garratt Lane to 8 Aslett Street and 17 year old George was working as a street trader. The family were living in three rooms and George and Ada had eleven children, three of whom had died. Around this time George moved back to Battersea to 38 Benfield Street, roughly opposite Prices Candle Factory. The street is now submerged beneath the massive Winstanley Estate, an immense sprawl of tower blocks and concrete between York Road and Clapham Junction. The rest of the family were now at nearby Lothair Street. Four months past his twentieth birthday, George joined the 23rd London Regiment on 8th August 1914, just four days after the outbreak of war. The depot where he would have signed up at 27 St John’s Hill is still the HQ of the London Regiment today, next door to Clapham Grand and just a short walk from where he was living. He was now working as a labourer for a gaslight and coke company in Fulham. The boys knew only a little about his First World War experience, apart from the fact that he had suffered a head wound and fought at the Somme and Ypres. Arthur also recalled that he had lost a toe and suffered a serious ankle injury. They thought he might have been in the London Regiment. We got working and a few days later Lynda Biggs, whose family at No36 were among the casualties in the V2 attack, pulled up a forty three page service record.SSCopenhagenLondonRegt up the junctionLike many of these documents they tell only half the story, dealing mostly in matters of administration, finance and discipline. There is little detail about where George fought. A lot of it is unreadable but we should be thankful that it survived at all because two thirds of these records were destroyed in the Blitz. They make very interesting reading, because although George served as a soldier for the entire length of the war, he was prone to going missing and was probably fortunate not to receive more serious punishment. The records also indicate that he suffered shrapnel wounds to his face and gun-shot wounds to his head and ankle. John and Arthur remembered something about their father being hit in the back of the head whilst he was in a trench and also recalled an eye injury. His demobilisation date in itself is of note, 19th November 1918. Exactly 26 years to the day later, the V2 struck his home. George went walkabout for the first time prior to going overseas. He was absent from 4th to 9th January 1915 inclusive, for which he forfeited five days pay. The 23rd London Regiment went to France on 14th March on The Copenhagen. George very possibly bumped into fellow recruits from Summerstown, William Mace and James Crozier, two of the Sunday School Three. He went into the trenches on 11th April and received his ankle injury on 20th of that month. John remembers his Dad telling him that this occurred while he was having a discussion with an officer about the best way to heat up a tin of Maconochie’s stew. As they discussed culinary matters, a bullet ricocheted into George’s ankle. He was subsequently sent home to recover on 24th April and was fortunate to avoid the battles that year at Festubert and Loos when the Sunday School teachers were killed. Five hundred local men from the Battersea area were casualties at Festubert at the end of May – this was the last time long lists of names appeared in the South Western Star newspaper. The records don’t say how serious the injury was, but in October George was still in England at Tadworth Camp at Epsom Downs racecourse. Here they tell us that he went absent again from 31st October to 21st February 1916. Army Form B115, a record of a Court of Inquiry in Croydon, dated 25th November 1915 declares that ‘Private Keeley illegally absented himself without leave and is still deficient of the following articles’. It goes on to list an inventory of all the kit which went missing with him, everything from his hairbrush and braces to two pairs of ‘drawers’. Almost four months later George reappeared to face the music. It did seem he might be in very hot water. At his court martial on 4th March 1916 he was sentenced to ‘nine months detention and forfeits all service prior to trial’. He was also ordered to pay four pounds, two shillings and eight pence towards the cost of his ‘lost equipment’. With a desperate need for manpower at this time, it would appear that his punishment was only partly implemented because on 22nd June 1916 he was on his way back to France having been transfered to the 1/13th battalion of the London Regiment. Had his disappearing act been on active service it might have been a very different story and he would very possibly have faced a firing squad. As it was he was back on the battlefield in France getting set for service on the Somme. Just ten days later he would participate in one of the most infamous days of the First World War, the massive ill-fated advance on the first day of July. letterThe 13th London Regiment fought in the attack at Gommecourt that day when it is estimated that 5,000 men in the London battalions were killed, missing or wounded. George was fortunate and there are no records of him being injured that summer. An officer in 1/13th Battalion was Major Cedric Dickens, grandson of Charles, killed on 9th September. Sometime around this date, for an unspecified reason, George was awarded 25 days ‘Field Punishment No1’. This humiliating and public ordeal resulted in the unfortunate victim being tethered to a fence post or the wheel of a gun, the same fate as his Maskell Road neighbour ‘Wild Colonial Boy’ Alfred Chipperfield. At the height of the battle of Ginchy its hard to see how this could have been carried through. The1/13th were fully involved on the Somme for the rest of the year, moving up to Arras in the spring. The following April it seems George was in yet more bother when a rifle he was cleaning went off and he shot himself in the foot. This self-inflicted wound could have been seen as a way of getting himself out of front-line duty and shipped back to a cushy hospital in Blighty. An investigation followed and half a dozen witness statements regarding the incident are amongst his records. George himself stated ‘While cleaning my rifle this morning I pressed the trigger after oiling the bolt. On return from a working party at 2am I unloaded my rifle. On two occasions I had taken my rifle to the armourer’s shop on account of the magazine not working properly’. George might not have been too hot on rifle maintenance but he had beautiful handwriting. Whatever happened because of this is unclear but George probably missed the battle of Arras as a result. He may also have lost a toe. He was though back in action in time for the mud of Passchendaele. George and Arthur recall him fighting ‘at Ypres’ and this would be the moment. On 17th August 1917 he suffered a ‘gunshot wound to the head’ almost certainly in the Battle of Langemarck. On 27th November he had a shrapnel wound to his face, this date suggests the Battle of Cambrai in which the third Sunday School teacher Albert Gibson was killed. Arthur recalls that he was awarded a silver war badge as a result of a serious head injury and it was surely one of these occasions which merited that. It would appear that in the last stages of the war his wounds kept him from frontline duty. It seems incredible that having survived the bullets and the bureaucrats in equal measure, George was still on his feet and a soldier until the end of the war. Another note in his record shows that George was in further trouble for ‘absenting himself from canteen fatigue without permission’. Maybe he didn’t want to help with the washing up. He had a little bit of an issue over time-off again in October 1918 when he was apprehended by a military policeman in Sandwich for overstaying his leave. Who could blame George for his wandering tendencies but he was very lucky – to ensure discipline, many soldiers would be severely punished for this and much lesser offences. 306 soldiers in the British Army were famously ‘Shot-at-Dawn’. None of his problems prevented him from being described as ‘of good character’ the following month on his discharge paperwork. The form did though note that he was now a chronic rheumatic. NOV44craterGeorge returned to civilian life, battered and bruised but not beaten. In 1919 he married May Forster and their first son George Henry was born in 1921. Arthur and John still live in Moffat Road. Another son William died in 1985. There were three daughters, Violet, May and Ivy. It is quite astonishing to think he went on to raise a family of seven children, to make a living and survive an appalling injury in the 1944 bomb. He worked after the first war at a Dutch-owned margarine factory in Mitcham called Benninga’s. In the Second World War he was a fire watcher. To their immense credit, after he was blinded, the company found work for him. The brothers remember that a gentleman called Mr Shaw was instrumental in this and organized the building of a special kiosk in the works where George could sell cigarettes. He had a pair of special dark glasses made to cover his eyes. He died aged 70 in 1964. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGeorge is not one of the Summerstown182 but he came very close. His story is worthy of being recorded in their number. He stood side by side with the Sunday School Three and dodged both German bullets and the disciplinarians who might in other circumstances have had him face a firing squad. It is tragic that he came through all that to be so horribly injured in the Second World War, a generation later. We salute him and are grateful to Arthur and Johnny for reviving his memory and letting us have this photograph of him. 19th November 1944 was an incident which had a huge effect on this area but has been largely overlooked , perhaps almost forgotten. It was good to remember the seventieth anniversary in such a dignified and community-spirited way. We now hope to investigate whether some kind of plaque or permanent memorial could be placed near where this happened. George was just one of over one hundred people who were injured that day, after all they went through, its the very least we can do. https://summerstown182.wordpress.com/november-19th-1944/

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