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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
In 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.
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.
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/