St Valentine’s Day Massacre

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Charles Norris lived at 47 Summerstown, a fascinating address of immense historical significance. Some time before the Norris family located there, it was the site of a beer house called The Sir Jeffrey Dunstan. The road was well catered for on the refreshment front with two public houses at either end, but how useful to have somewhere that a thirsty punter could slake their thirst if they happened to be half way down the street and find themselves in need of a drink. It seems very appropriate that in the face of extraordinary change on this road, its still the case today.
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Jeffrey Dunstan was without doubt the most famous ‘Mayor of Garratt’. A popular chaotic annual gathering was based around a mock election which took place on Garratt Green for over half a century dating from about 1750. Jeffrey was a larger than life secondhand wig salesman from Southwark. Bought up in a workhouse, he was four feet tall and knock-kneed with a disproportionally large head. An account from the time describes him as having ‘a countenance and manner marked by irresistible humour, and he never appeared without a train of boys and curious persons whom he entertained by his sallies of wit, shrewd sayings and smart repartees’. Gatherings on the Green attracted up to one hundred thousand people to the locality, clogging up the roads and engaging in a scale of bawdiness and revelry that puts the possible return of AFC Wimbledon to Plough Lane into perspective.

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Supposedly the tradition was started by some waterman after ‘spending a merry day at The Leather Bottle’ but the occasion was generally believed to have evolved out of some form of local protest at the enclosure of public land. The candidates for Mayor were usually poor tradesmen, quite often with a drink problem and sometimes a physical deformity. The main qualification was a quick wit. A bizarre procession usually started in Southwark, wended its way to Wandsworth before moving down Garratt Lane. A little too fond of his drink, Dunstan died afer a bizarre boozing session in 1797 apparently in the act of being pushed around in a wheelbarrow. The French Revolution and increased radical agitation meant that the authorities cast a sterner eye over the rowdiness of the Garratt elections towards the end of the century and they fizzled to a halt in 1804, though there was briefly a revival in 1826.

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Around 1850, Robert Sadler, not long after the proprietor of The Lost Copenhagen Running Grounds, was managing the Sir Jeffrey Dunstan. It was owned by the Young and Bainbridge Company which eventually evolved into Youngs Brewery. He soon brought two of the cottages next door. The notice of sale remarked on the presence of an artesian well in front of the property which residents all had access to. His back garden would just a few years before have been the route of the famous Surrey Iron Railway, the world’s first ‘iron railway’ on which horse-drawn wagons took coal from Wandsworth to Croydon. The Sir Jeffrey would later become a coffee shop and finally a second hand shop before being demolished in the late sixties. The below photograph was taken in 1914 looking up the road in the direction of The Corner Pin. The building with the tall chimney was known as Gothic Lodge and the Norris home would have been some way further up the street to the left of it.

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Charles Norris was born in Merton in 1890. One hundred years after the last Mayor of Garratt but with the memory of Jeffrey Dunstan still alive, his family located to Summerstown, first to Foss Road and then to the site of the beerhouse halfway down the road, facing what is now the car-park expanse alongside Wimbledon Stadium. We know that in 1916 Mrs Alice Norris, a widow was living there upstairs with at least two of her sons, Alfred and Arthur and a daughter Mary. Downstairs was a shop run by an Elaine Millar. In the space of a year, a cruel double blow was landed on Alice. Charles was killed near Ypres and almost a year to the day later, another older brother William, on leave from 3rd East Surreys threw himself under a tram in Garratt Lane. The court recorded a verdict of ‘suicide whilst temporarily insane’. Charles was in the famous 2nd Battalion of the East Surrey Regiment which in 1915 was boosted by the intake of a huge local Wandsworth recruitment drive. His service record indicates that he had been in and out of the army since August 1908 and a full-time solider since 28th April 1911, when he transfered to the 1st East Surreys. His tangled records indicate that he served in Ireland, Burma and India. He appears to have returned home on 19th November 1914, possibly as a result of suffering from skin problems while overseas. It would seem he was then sent to France with 2nd East Surreys on 19th January 1915. He sounded like a distinctive character, with tombstones and horse’s head tattoos and a prominent scar on his cheek. His records also indicate that he achieved proficiency as a ‘first class shot’. At the time of his death he was 25 and had been promoted to the rank of Lance Corporal.
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Charles was killed on St Valentine’s Day 1915, less than a month after arriving in France. The 2nd East Surreys were south of Ypres and having moved to the front line in February became involved in attempts to capture a much-prized German stronghold called Hill 60. This was a 150 foot high, 750 foot wide spoil heap created by earth dumped from the creation of a nearby railway cutting which provided observers with an excellent view of the Ypres area. Captured by the Germans during the First Battle of Ypres in November 1914, it was taken briefly in April, but lost again shortly afterwards. It remained in German hands until the great Battle of Messines mine assault of June 1917.

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In February the French were in charge of the efforts to take Hill 60. On Sunday 14th February at 2pm, the 2nd East Surreys set out with the objective to capture a lost trench on the southern side of the Ypres-Combines canal. The War Diary records how the attack was over open ground and very exposed. Chris Burge has researched this disastrous attack which saw the loss of Charles Norris and fellow Summerstown182, Lance Corporal William Smith from Bellew Street. Surprisingly not on the St Mary’s memorial, is another local lad, Fred Sorrell from Khartoum Road. He had also served extensively in India and was very likely known to Charles Norris.

Pearse and Sloman’s regimental history of 2nd East Surreys adds much important detail to the day’s events. “When the men had first entered the trenches some ten days earlier they quickly found the boots issued to them at Winchester were of poor quality and suffered for it.  When the battalion was first brought forward on the morning of the 14th at around 7.30am they halted at battalion H.Q.  Some had been digging support trenches elsewhere all night and many had feet so swollen by trench duty they marched in their socks. They did not take the option to fall out.  An officer of the 3rd Middlesex that was to act as a guide was killed early in the advance.  Owing to the absence of five platoons already in adjacent trenches, to previous casualties and to frostbitten men and those sick from other causes, the Battalion went into action with no more than half its normal strength.” If the normal fighting strength is reckoned at around 750, this would suggest under 400 men took part in the advance.  Subtracting the 100 or so kept as a reserve, made the attacking force closer to 300 officers and men. The last 300yds were across an open turnip field, in heavy clay soil sodden by rain.  The men advanced knee deep in mud. “The attacking companies were exposed to a destructive fire to which they could make no reply. There was little or no artillery support owing to a shortage of ammunition. Of the whole attacking party only 2 officers and 25 men remained unwounded and able to stand to that night.”

A and C Company lost nearly all their officers. Eight rank and file were killed, 106 wounded and significantly 37 listed as missing. In total 44 men from the East Surrey Regiment lost their lives that day and only five have known graves, the remainder like Charles Norris are remembered on one of the grand white marble panels of the Menin Gate in Ypres and photographed when we visited the Ceremony there last Saturday evening. The diary records the death of 2nd Lieutenant Ernest Bernie who was shot in the chest on 14th. His last reported words to his sergeant were ‘Sergeant Oliver, cheer the platoon up and look well after them. Goodbye, I have done my best’.

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Back home, all has changed utterly on the historic road which was once the centre of the original settlement at Summerstown. Now it runs wearily alongside Wimbledon Stadium, anxiously awaiting what next will be thrown at it in the name of progress. The only survivor of the five pubs is The Corner Pin. The numbering on the road has changed several times and the site of the Sir Jeffrey Dunstan at what was No47, is now very appropriately an award-winning micro-brewery called By the Horns. They open their doors most days and where better to spend a lazy summer’s evening than kicking back with a bottle of ‘The Mayor of Garratt’. You can watch the sun set over the dog track and drink to the Norris brothers and Jeffrey Dunstan who in very different ways served this area so magnificently, many years ago.

Many thanks to Kevin Kelly whose book ‘Robert Sadler and the Lost Copenhagen Running Grounds, Garratt Lane, Wandsworth’ provided much insight to help tell this story. Also Chris Burge for his extensive research of Charles Norris’ army service records.

http://honestbrew.co.uk/shop/by-the-horns-mayor-of-garratt/

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