Zeebrugge Raid

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The emergence of a photo of our Great Grandfather got me back in touch with my second cousin Patrick a few weeks ago. He lives in Dover and curiously a century and a half ago, that is where Robert Simmons, a weaver from Co Tyrone was billeted. He helped man the Western Heights Drop Redoubt and kept a watchful eye out for Napoleon III and French invaders. Robert was a professional soldier who had served in the Royal Artillery for twenty one years. Patrick showed me his records a few years back and he fought in the Crimean War and won medals at the battles of Alma and Inkerman. Occasionally I cycle home past The Alma Tavern in Wandsworth and always have a glance up at the red-coated soldier on the sign and think of him.

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Corresponding with Patrick reminded me that one of the Summerstown182 is buried in Dover, in St James’s Cemetery. Indeed his grave is part of a special memorial to an incident that happened in April 1918. The Zeebrugge Raid was a daring attempt to block the source of the U boat traffic and other light enemy shipping coming out of the Belgian port. Churchill didn’t mince his words in describing it. ‘The Raid on Zeebrugge may well rank as the finest feat of arms in the Great War and certainly as an episode unsurpassed in the history of the Royal Navy’.

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John Henry Wood’s next-of-kin details give the family’s address as 596 Garratt Lane. The house would have been roughly on the edge of the Burtop Estate just three doors away from the home of another young man who died at sea, 17 year old Percy Newman who lost his life on HMS Defence in the Battle of Jutland. Before that they lived at Chatham Street in Battersea where in 1911, 18 year old John was employed as a railway porter. He joined the Navy signing up for twelve year service on 27th September 1911. His records show that he was based at a number of shore stations, at Chatham, the Isle of Sheppey and Crystal Palace. He was for two brief periods on HMS Shannon, but not when she participated at Jutland. In May 1915 he joined HMS Antrim which was fortunate to avoid major conflict. In June 1916 she was sent to Archangel before going to the North American and West Indies Station for convoy escort duties until December 1917. John’s father worked as a dustman and he had two sisters, Lucy and Sarah and an older brother Charles. Prior to this the family lived in Sheepcote Lane and Livingstone Road in Battersea.

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Wood family2On an Ancestry website is a remarkable photograph which includes members of the Wood family which we have been very kindly given permission to use by the grandson of Lucy Wood. She is the woman in the back row on the left wearing a sailor’s cap. Second from the right in the back row is a Mrs Hammond, probably Lucy’s mother-in-law. John Henry Wood Senior and his wife Sarah Anne are to the right of the front row. Third from the left on the front row is, it is believed, John Henry Wood. The mood is relaxed and happy, if a little weary and pensive, perhaps suggesting some kind of reunion or send-off. Caps and hats are at jaunty angles. There is even a bit of cross-dressing, two women are wearing sailors uniform and one that of a soldier. One male has donned a large woman’s coat with an expansive fur collar and wide-brimmed hat. Despite the easy-going jollity, many of the faces carry a nervous care-worn expression. The women look strong but resigned. The men appear more upbeat. One older male looks like he has just come back from a shift of labouring work. In a prominent position at the front, the two males, who although not in full uniform, have the air of returned servicemen. They appear notably more cheerful than the others with a confident self-assured pose. The presence of two enormous flagons in the foreground indicate that a few drinks are being had. Could this possibly be the last family photo of John Henry Wood before he went off on his deadly mission? Could his sister Lucy be wearing his cap?
(c) Britannia Royal Naval College; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

John Henry Wood was a Stoker 1st Class on HMS Iphigenia, a lovely name with classic greek connections, but by the spring of 1918, an obselete cruiser which with two other blockships would be filled with concrete and sunk at the mouth of Zeebrugge harbour. The date chosen, St Georges Day 23rd April saw a simultaneous raid on the port of Ostend. Early that morning a motley flotilla comprising thirty four motor launches, two Mersey ferries, two submarines packed with explosives and an assortment of destroyers and motorboats set out across the channel. A diversionary attack on the mile-long breakwater, the Zeebrugge mole, was met with heavy resistance. A painting by Charles de Lacy at the Britannia Royal Naval College shows HMS Vindictive leading this storm. It must have been mayhem as men tried to disembark the blockships, burning chemicals to create a smokescreen as they came under heavy fire. Vindictive’s commander Captain Carpenter later said, ‘They literally poured projectiles into us’. Some residents back in Dover reported that during the raid they could ‘hear the guns on the Belgian coast seventy five miles away and that the sound had rattled their windows’. Amidst panic and confusion the three blockships were sunk in the wrong place, the port was only partially obstructed and within a few days the submarines were able to move in and out again. The raid was however presented by Allied propaganda as a huge success and resulted in the awarding of eight Victoria Crosses.

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Of the 1,700 men involved in the operation, there were 500 casualties with 238 dead. 156 of those killed were brought back to Dover. Sixty-six of these men including John Henry Wood were buried at St James’ Cemetery. They were brought home either because they had died of their wounds en route or because their bodies had been recovered. Pathe footage of twenty bodies being laid to rest at a special ceremony in Dover Cemetery is the only film we are likely to have of one of the Summerstown182 being buried. Thousands lined the streets of Dover to see this event.

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In a quiet corner of St James’s cemetery in Dover, on a grassy bank in the shadow of some pines, is the ‘Cross of Sacrifice’, a memorial erected to honour and remember the sailors and marines killed during the Zeebrugge Raid on 23rd April 1918. Some have names, others just say simply ‘A Soldier Of The Great War’. Fourth from the left, down on the front row is the gravestone of John Henry Wood of the Summerstown182. The message on it is longer than most ‘GONE FROM US BUT NOT FORGOTTEN – NEVER SHALL THY MEMORY FADE – MOTHER’. The King of the Belgians presented a bell to the town in honour of the heroism shown that day. It was placed above the Town Hall and there is a special ceremony every St George’s Day.

Many thanks to Patrick Simmons who visited John Henry Wood’s grave in Dover, took these photographs and helped tell this story.

http://www.britishpathe.com/video/heroes-of-zeebrugge-laid-to-rest

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Lavender and Gunpowder

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It was the summer of 1898 and a boy called Percy Frederick Charles Harrison was born into a sweetly-scented world of lavender in the town of Mitcham, about two miles south of Tooting. He was the son of a firework maker, baptised in the Church of St Peter and St Paul on 12th June 1898. Its hard to imagine it these days, passing through Mitcham on the way to Brighton or Gatwick – a bit of a mess of badly planned ringroads and never-ending roadworks. Cheap ill-considered eighties retail builds, jostling uneasily with crumbling sixties concrete developments, now stand on what must have once resembled a scene from Haute Provence. Picture Figges Marsh, once a sea of mauve, swaying delicately in the breeze, the epicentre of the production of something which was acclaimed as the finest in the world.

Advertisement for Mitcham Lavender Water circa 1895

Mitcham has been known for lavender from the 1500s, with its glory days during the 19th century. Popularised by Queen Victoria, the lavender fields around Mitcham, Wallington, Carshalton and Sutton became internationally renowned and supplied the world. It wasn’t just the heady aroma that appealed to the ladies but the healing properites of the oil had also become highly sought after. In The Art of Perfumery, published in 1857, the author claims that the best oil is obtained from the lavender grown at Mitcham, in Surrey. ‘All the inferior descriptions of oil of lavender are used for perfuming soaps and greases’. The likes of Mrs Creeke at the Anglo American Laundry would have placed bags of lavender among the linen to keep it fresh and it was used to flavour honey and jam. Lavender oil was even utilised as a dressing during the First World War when the supply of modern disinfectants and antiseptics ran out and it became necessary to revive older methods of treating the injured.

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A large temporary workforce was required to cut the flowers when they bloomed ready for distilling. As well as working on the harvest, travelling people, many from Kent and Ireland would buy bunches of lavender to sell on the streets of London advertising their wares. Often with the traditional cry ‘Will you buy my sweet lavender, Sweet blooming lavender, Oh buy my pretty lavender, Sixteen bunches a penny’. The importance of the flower can be seen by the sprigs of lavender which feature on Merton Council’s coat of arms and the badge of the local football team, Tooting & Mitcham United FC. A local council ward is called Lavender Fields and the name is evoked in a number of streets and roads.
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This and other activities along the River Wandle led in 1803 to the building of the horse-drawn Surrey Iron Railway, the world’s first public railway. The decline of this in the 1840s heralded a change in industry, as horticulture gradually gave way to manufacturing, with paint, varnish, linoleum and firework manufacturers moving into the area. The work provided eventually resulted in a doubling of the population between the years 1900 and 1910. Just like the market gardens and daffodil beds of the Fairlight gave way to bricks and mortar, so the suburbs sprawled all over Mitcham and its fields of blue. The final nail in the local industry’s coffin was the emergence of cheaper French lavender flooding the market.
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Born in Camberwell, Percy’s father Frederick was a firework maker from at least 1891 when he was 18. By 1901 he was married to Ada with three children and living in Mitcham at Lewis’s Cottages, West Fields. Ten years on they had set up home in three rooms at No9 Smith’s Buildings. This no longer exists, it was a terrace of 30 houses between Lavender Walk and the Beehive pub, demolished in 1936 following a slum clearance order that allowed for the bridge that went over the railway line to be widened. I’ll think about that the next time I’m on the way to Brighton. Percy now appears as the eldest of five on that census, one of four boys with younger brothers George, Alfred and Herbert, and a baby sister Rosina. Its most likely that Frederick worked for a major local firework manufacturer called Pains. The origins of this company were in the East End and legend has it that they supplied Guy Fawkes with his barrels on 5th November. They moved to Mitcham in 1872 and were there for almost a century before moving on to Salisbury in 1966. Just a few years before Percy was born there was a serious accident there after a fire occured in the rocket shed and two boys were killed.

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The only other personal thing we know about Percy was that in March 1917 he married Ellen (Helen) Rudge, the sister of George Rudge in Wandsworth. The Rudges lived at 63 Burtop Road and curiously Ellen’s father was also a fireman. Ellen herself was a fancy-box maker and almost certainly worked at Hugh Stevenson’s Corruganza works. The wedding would have been a chance for the Rudge and Harrison families to forget the war for a while. Six months before, Ellen’s brother ‘First Class Stoker’ George Rudge along with George Cooper from Swaby Road were two of 1026 lives lost on HMS Invincible at the Battle of Jutland. There were only six survivors.
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A note on Percy’s medal card indicates that he was ‘transfered 17th April 1917’. Possibly this coincided with his wedding and we can only hope that the teenage newlyweds were able to enjoy a period of marital bliss at Burtop Road before returning to the horrors of Arras or Passchendaele. In any case we managed to find a ‘Soldiers Effects’ record which indicates that Percy and Helen had a child, a Frederick C Harrison.

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Percy Harrison had only just turned sixteen when he went to war with the 1st Battalion of the East Surrey Regiment on 16th August 1914, just two weeks after its outbreak. His medal card indicates that he was awarded a 1914 star, which suggests that he would have been trained well before the war when he was fifteen, perhaps even younger. He was thrown into what would be known as the Retreat from Mons. The 1st East Surreys were part of the 5th Division of the British Expeditionary Force, faced with the ominous task of holding back a vastly numerically superior German advance. His first major action was just a week later at the Mons Canal, where his battalion suffered 139 casualties. What a baptism of fire for a lad who had probably not had his first shave. Within a week they were in action again at Le Cateau and being pushed back to the River Marne. We can’t be sure if Percy was still with the East Surreys in the spring of 1915 when it achieved possibly its finest feat of the war, the Defence of Hill 60 near Ypres. During this action, the Battalion gained three VCs, two Military Crosses (MCs) and seven Distinguished Conduct Medals (DCMs). As the war progressed, Percy worked his way north, joining the Bedfordshire Regiment and then the 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers.
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Percy was twenty when he was killed on 17th June 1918, twenty summers and just a few days on from that lavender-scented baptism. The 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers War Diary recounts how the battalion had moved from the village of L’Ecleme to relieve the Hampshire Regiment in front of the small hamlet of Riez du Vinage on the night of 16/17th April. It was here that Percy met his death recorded in the diary ‘Enemy artillery active during the night, 1 O.R. killed, 5 O.R. wounded’. This was also the place where C.S. Lewis, the same age as Percy and a 2nd Lieutenant in the Somerset Light infantry was wounded just a few months earlier. He went home to write his Chronicles of Narnia, Percy ended up staying in France, swapping purple lavender for scarlet poppies.

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Percy’s name is on our war memorial in Summerstown because of his marriage, but it also lives on in lavenderland as one of 589 names on the main Mitcham War Memorial which stands serenely on leafy Lower Green, behind the old fire station and close to the wonderful Wandle Industrial Museum. Chris Burge has been researching the identity of these names for over 15 years and three of the names are also on our St Mary’s Church war memorial. Apart from Percy, there is Frederick Sigmur Buckland from Wimbledon Road and Walter Tappin from Fountain Road. Percy’s grave is in the military cemetery at Lapugnoy just outside Bethune, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens.

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http://www.roll-of-honour.com/Surrey/Mitcham.html
http://www.wandle.org/

Young Offender

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On the same day that my eleven year old son stepped out into the world on his first day at secondary school, I learned of a boy not much older from just around the corner who was sent to a very different kind of school one hundred years ago. Each of the Summerstown182 has a story to tell, and none of them fail to move us but finding out about the fate of Henry Geater, a name we have been familiar with now for eighteen months, but known very little about was an extremely thought-provoking experience.
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Henry served in the North Staffordshire Regiment and was killed in action on 21st August 1918 aged just 20. His father and mother lived at the time at 18 Bellew Street where they became the third family at that address to suffer bereavement in the First World War. Its on the left in the above photo and another address where the Geaters lived was on Huntspill Street at the end of the road. Number 18 had been the home of 16 year old Henry Ollive who died in 1915 after wounds received at the Second Battle of Ypres. A year later the tailor, Ernest Haywood who also lived there would be killed at Guinchy on the Somme. It seems rather cruel to label this address ‘The Unlucky House’ and I’ve felt a bit guilty on a Summerstown182 Walk when standing outside it, telling its story and the current resident has stepped out to hear the grim news. He has taken it all in good heart and recently told us that our interest had inspired him to trace his own family’s WW1 history and that he had discovered a Great Uncle at the Battle of Jutland.
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Henry’s family had strong Berkshire connections with Geaters living in the Hungerford area from 1790. His father, the splendidly-named Hezekiah, was born in 1855. Its a romany name apparently and indeed a fair bit of movement followed over the next decades before the Geaters settled in the bricks and mortar of Bellew Street. Hezekiah married Annie in 1875 in Cookham and in 1881 they were in Warwickshire where he worked as a railway porter. There were three children; Elizabeth, Charles and Susan. Ten years later, they were in Reading, Biscuit Town, home of Huntley & Palmer, for whom Hezekiah now worked as a factory labourer. Annie died in Reading in 1893 and a year later Hezekiah married again, to Emma. Henry George Geater was born in 1898. By 1901 they had come to London and were first in Camberwell, before finally alighting in Summerstown at 30 Burtop Road in 1911 with another son, William. Curiously Henry was missing from that census and appeared instead to be an ‘inmate’ at the County of Stafford Certified Industrial Boys School in Werrington, Stoke-on-Trent. Almost certainly there had to be some connection between his attendance here and him joining the North Staffordshire Regiment. An email from Rachael at Staffordshire Archives shed some light on Henry and how he came to be so far from home.
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The Werrington Industrial School records indicate that he had been admitted there on 8th March 1911 just a few weeks after his thirteenth birthday. Very sadly it had all gone wrong for him and the day previously at Westminster he was ordered to be detained until the age of 16 under the charge of ‘parent unable to control’. Now, seemingly like many other lads from London, he was on his way to Staffordshire. Some fascinating details on his family background are provided. Hezekiah is described as ‘poor’ but of ‘respectable character’. He earned 27 shillings a week as a labourer and paid 4/6 per week rent. Henry had apparently been in trouble for stealing on three occasions, most recently in October when he had been birched. He had also been reprimanded for begging. The Industrial Schools allowed young people to learn a trade or skill and often helped find them a position on leaving the institution. ‘Despite the severity of these punishments less than five per cent of the boys who had been sent to Werrington got into trouble with the police when they left at sixteen’.
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The following day Rachael sent us two pages from the school register outlining Henry’s life from May 1913 when it would appear he was ‘released on licence’. This seemed to involve some kind of local placement and Henry began his new life working at Spot Grange Farm near Stone on a wage of three farthings a week. Over the following years the notes show how the school periodically monitored his progress. The language is kindly and humane and it seems that Henry settled down on the farm and apart from a few minor indiscretions worked hard, got on well with the farmer and behaved himself. As his wage increased it was even noted that he was saving his money and at the outbreak of War in 1914 had even made a donation to the Prince of Wales War Fund. His only complaint was that he couldn’t go out as he wished, so his movement was clearly still restricted. However it was recorded ’boy very happy and comfortable, grown big’. In January 1915 it was mentioned that a letter had been received ‘from boy asking permission to buy a bicycle’. On 22nd June 1916 it states that ‘he has joined the army for three years and wants his money sent to his father at 15 Huntspill Street, Tooting’. The lines over the next few years are brief but track Henry’s movement, and although he had been officially discharged, demonstrate an interest and concern for what happened to him next.
1916-ProclamationIn July 1916 it seems he sent a postcard to the school from Straffan Camp in Dublin. He was in the 2/6th Battalion of North Staffordshire Regiment and would have been sent to Ireland to quell the growing swell of anti-British feeling in the wake of the Easter Rising. It would have been a difficult baptism for 18 year old Henry and his regiment were involved in a number of highly controversial incidents involving the civilian population. One of these culminated in an identity parade at Straffan Barracks. He was still in Ireland in January, writing from Ballykinler Camp in Co Down. The regiment moved to France at the end of February and the next note is a letter in July 1917 from a hospital in Southampton. He had been wounded by shrapnel in six places. The final note is dated June 21st 1918 indicating that Henry was now back in France with 1/6th North Staffordshires and reported that ‘he says Thompson has been gassed’. There are no more notes. Just two months later Henry was dead.

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September 1918 was 1/6th North Staffordshires finest hour when they played the leading role in the seizing of the St Quentin Canal and the vitally strategic Riqueval Bridge which was about to be blown up by the retreating Germans. Led by Captain Charlton who was awarded the DSO the aftermath provided one of the most evocative photographs of the First World War. Clustered to the steep bank of the canal like a great swarm of ants, hundreds of soldiers of the 137th Brigade pose for the camera at the scene of their triumph.
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Unfortunately there is no possibility that Henry Geater was in this photo and sharing the glory. he died just a few weeks earlier in the thick of the advance on the Hindenberg Line. August 1918 was a key turning point in the war as a spent German army was swept back and its advances of the spring reversed. His grave is at the Fouquieres Churchyard Extension on the edge of the town of Bethune. 269 of the 387 First Wordd War graves here are from the North Midland Division so he is in familiar company. We visited it last year, a curiously-located cemetery next door to the forecourt of a car showroom off a busy roundabout – the impression not dissimilar to the feel of Plough Lane, Summerstown. The main cluster of war graves including Henry’s arrow in formation away from the showroom, as if disdainfully turning their backs on the display of shiny motors.
The life of Henry’s older brother Charles had followed a very different course. Aged 40 and a plumber with five children, he was a Corporal in the Royal Engineers. It would appear from CWGC records that he had received the Medal of Honour with Bronze Swords, a French decoration awarded to individuals who had performed acts of courage during a rescue. Very sadly just a few months after Henry, he too perished as a consequence of the War. He died of influenza on 5th November 1918 and is buried at Les Baraques Military Cemetery at Sangatte near the entrance to the Channel Tunnel – a name which became notorious as a holding centre for refugees and asylum seekers. Whilst that particlar institution closed some years ago, Werrington Industrial School has a different name but remains a Young Offenders Centre.

Many thanks to Rachael Cooksey of Staffordshire Archives for providing information on Henry Geater’s time at Werrington Industrial School. (DOCREF: CES/3/2/9/3 Page:140 Admission No: 1303)
Staffordshire Great War Website http://www.staffordshiregreatwar.com/blog/