The Rent Collector

An altercation in Pevensey Road in April 1915, outlined in the South Western Star newspaper, paints an interesting portrait of life on the mean streets of the Fairlight in the turbulent First World War years. A special constable and rent collector called William Bonken was accosted there by a fellow resident, a 43 year old council worker called William Newton. The latter apparently was aggrieved at being refused a particular property and was under the impression that Mr Bonken was responsible for the decision. After first verbally abusing him, he proceeded to attack the victim with his fists. Bonken defended himself with a punch which knocked Newton down. However some time later that day, Newton got his revenge in Fountain Road by attacking Bonken from behind, kicking him savagely and inflicting injuries which caused Bonken to ‘take to his bed for three weeks’ and required him for some time to walk with the aid of a stick. William Newton’s excuse was that he ‘was in drink at the time’ but the judge was outraged and warned that the defendant faced a lengthy spell in prison. William Bonken however declined to press charges on account of the fact that the prisoner had enlisted in the army and was about to serve abroad. Though not reported in the article, perhaps he took this sympathetic line because his own son had recently joined the East Surrey Regiment. In the 1918 Absent Voters List, William Bonken is noted at No57 and a little further down the street in the direction of Fountain Road there appears a ‘W Newton’ at 21a, serving in the Middlesex Regiment and living just across from the homes of my old mates, Rose Cook and George Dear.

William Bonken junior was born on 11th October 1898 in Kennington, the eldest son of a builder and decorator and his wife Esther. There is a record of him attending a Hatfield Street School in 1905. They lived in Broadwall Road, an area just to the south of the South Bank complex which was turned upside down for the 1951 Festival of Britain. By 1908 the family were at 57 Pevensey Road, Tooting, filling the houses now sprouting up on Peter Barr’s daffodil fields. At the junction of Pevensey and Rostella Roads, No57 was a good position for anyone collecting rents, with an excellent overview of the locality. Had they been there today they would have been able to see the air ambulance landing on the helipad at St Georges Hospital as currently featured in Channel 4’s 24 Hours in A&E. The Bonkens were close to a number of other Summerstown182 families; the Burkes and the Williams were just across the road. There were two more siblings, sister Florrie and younger brother Henry. Another brother Sidney was baptised in June 1915 at St Mary’s Church, just a couple of weeks after Len Jewell. By 1911 William would have been a pupil at Smallwood Road school, a fact noted in the 1916 booklet produced by the school. He was one of about 450 ‘Old Smalls, serving their Country in His Majesty’s Forces’. Produced at the height of the conflict, this publication gives a fascinating insight into the extent of local involvement and demonstrates the very special connection with this school. 40 of the Summerstown182 are listed here including the schoolkeeper Francis Halliday who was already dead.




William and Esther lived on at 57 Pevensey Road until the mid-30s before moving to Lavender Hill in Battersea. They died respectively in 1941 and 1942. Matilda Florence (Florrie) lived on until 1991. William junior first joined the East Surrey Regiment as a signaller but at some stage transfered to the 10th Essex Regiment. He was destined to die of his wounds less than three weeks before the end of the war. We visited his grave in Premont British Cemetery not far from Cambrai in October. Also there is Harry Keatch from Franche Court Road who was killed in April. Its a neat deceptively small cemetery in open country which looks like it contains a lot less than 500 graves. Premont village was captured by the 30th American Division on the 8th October 1918 and the cemetery was made and used by four Casualty Clearing Stations. It was designed by Charles Holden, who as well as his work for the Imperial War Graves Commission, famously devised the HQ of London Underground and many of its stations including Tooting Broadway and Tooting Bec.

Bonken grave
The one hundred day advance in the summer and autumn  of 1918 paid a heavy price in casualties, with no trench system to defend against German machine guns. The cemetery registration document indicates that William died on 23rd October from wounds received on 11th. The date would have been his twentieth birthday. A few weeks earlier he would very likely have participated in the heroic fighting at Trones Wood on 27th August when his regiment fought alongside the Royal Berkshire ‘Biscuit Boys’. A memorial to the 18th Division was placed here after the war, constructed from concrete captured from the Germans on the exact spot. In his book ‘With the 10th Essex in France’, Captain RA Chell, DSO MC recalled ‘August 27th was a day of proud record in the annals of the 53rd Brigade, for on that day the Royal Berkshires and the Essex in combination met and defeated the German Guards in a bitter all-day struggle around Trones Wood… these reinforcements steadied the situation, and then, as evening approached, they crept stealthily forward, until, with a wild burst of artillery, they dashed to the assault, carrying all before them in a magnificent bayonet charge, inflicting heavy casualties on the German Guardsmen with sheer cold steel, and capturing 70 prisoners. Thus Trones Wood was once more captured for the Division, and the immature boys of the Berks and the Essex vindicated their superiority to the flower of the German troops.’

Involved here would have been a fellow member of the Summerstown182 called Sidney Cullimore. He was a horseman who came from Aldworth near Lambourne and we were thinking about him when we found a rusted old clay-covered horseshoe in a ploughed field next to Premont British Cemetery. This is close to the site of the battle at Le Cateau on 26th August 1914, in which the British Expeditionary Force managed to hold up the half million strong German army and save Paris. Might our shoe have come from a 1914 war horse participating in a cavalry charge at Le Cateau? Of course we like to think so.

The Chelsea Monster


four medals

A few weeks ago, the ever-vigilant Chris Burge alerted me to a post on the Mitcham History Notes website. It had been written by Peter Hannah whose Aunt Annie married Ernest, the younger brother of George Richard Batson of the 7th Battalion, the Lincolnshire Regiment and one of the Summerstown182. George died in hospital in Southampton on 5th September 1918 and is buried in Wandsworth Cemetery. Ernest’s son Ronald who passed away last year had inherited his Uncle’s medals from his father. After Ronald died, Peter was asked to look into the details of George’s service and is trying to find a living relative of the Batson family to pass the medals onto.


George Richard Batson was born in 1899, one of the nine children of Henry and Flora. They were married in Chelsea in 1890 and in 1901 were living at 62 Lots Road in the Sands End area. Just round the corner in Uverdale Road were the Clay family, with young William working at that time as an errand boy. Turn another corner and one more of the Summerstown182, Dorset stonemason John Lander was lodging in Burnaby Street. This fascinating waterfront area was to be turned upside down in front of their eyes a few years later. Henry worked as a ‘coal carman’ and the construction of the Lots Road Power Station there in 1905, practically opposite their home would have probably given him some work. It burned 700 tons of coal a day, powering the burgeoning Underground railway and tram system. The station, always in the shadow of its two bigger and better-known younger siblings, Battersea and Bankside, actually outlived both of them and only closed in 2001. Its development plans had been until very recently put on hold. But by 2018 it will have been transformed by superstar architect, Sir Terry Farrell into the usual clutch of exclusive luxury apartments which a coalman can only dream about. The original house at No62  is still there, recently valued at £2million. The Edward VII postbox probably arrived on the scene around the same time. Also that year, just the other side of the Kings Road, a football club were formed in the locality – though no one is quite sure what happened to them. When he wasn’t feeding coal to the Chelsea Monster perhaps Henry may have queued up at Stamford Bridge for his place in The Shed.
The Batson family were still in Sands End when four year old Arthur died in June 1905 but by 1911 they had crossed the river and were at 76 Foss Road, Summerstown. Henry and Flora had now been married 20 years and six of their nine children were still alive. George, now aged 11 had three older sisters. Lilian and Florence, the two eldest worked in the cardboard box factory. Its just possible that they may well have been at the Corruganza Works three years previously and played a part in the famous box-makers strike. Nellie was a servant looking after a retired banker in Balham. The other children were Ernest aged six and Ivy who was two.

By the time the First World War began, they had moved the short distance to 23 Blackshaw Road, not far from Summerstown Mission and facing the open ground of Lambeth Cemetery. This may have been less dramatic but would have been quieter and more pleasant to look at than the Chelsea Monster. The homes here were demolished in the sixties and would have been roughly at the foot of Hayesend House, one of the two fourteen storey towers which dominate the Summerstown skyline. George had just passed his 18th birthday when he signed up for the 29th Training Reserve Battalion in Wandsworth on 27th February 1917. His attestation form lists his profession as ‘attendant’. By the time he wrote his will, leaving everything to this father, on 10th April 1918 he was in the 7th Battalion of the Lincolnshire Regiment.
George found himself in France in the summer of 1918 as the allies pushed the Germans back across the Somme battlefields in the Battle of Amiens. Major General C.R. Simpson’s ‘History of the Lincolnshire Regiment 1914-1918’ compiled from ‘War Diaries, Despatches, Officers’ Notes and Other Sources bullishly records ‘The Battle of Amiens was the prelude to three months of brilliant fighting, first in entrenched positions and then in open warfare, the British Armies, with their Allies, advancing without a check from one victory to another’. A significant advance began on the morning of the 24th of August with the enemy driven back to the Hindenburg Line. George’s 7th Lincolnshires crossed the Ancre and attacked at Courcelette. Here they were held up by machine-gun fire and took position north-west of Martinpuich, at 5am on the 25th. Between 21st and 28th the regiment lost eight officers and 203 other ranks. Somewhere around here, in the vicinity of Martinpuich, in a position south of Eaucourt L’Abbaye, George was very badly wounded. It was roughly the same area where fellow Summerstown182,  Edward Lorenzi lost his life in the mud just over two years previously.


George’s death certificate (see below link) indicates that he was hospitalised in France for eight days before being repatriated to Southampton. Here at the University War Hospital, he died of his wounds on 5th September 1918, aged 19. What a battle he must have put up to preserve his life. The typewritten certificate makes difficult reading. He had suffered multiple gunshot wounds necessitating the amputation of his left leg. Gangrene had set in and on top of that he was suffering the effects of gas. A Corporal J Slade was present at his death. George Batson is one of nine of the Summerstown 12 who are buried in Wandsworth Cemetery on Magdelene Road, where his name is on the First World War screen. Two conifers stand directly in front of this evoking the two surviving chimneys of the Chelsea Monster.
medal package
Peter has sent me photos of George’s medals and the original documentation and package that was sent to Henry Batson containing the British War and Victory medals awarded to his son. Henry and Flora both died in December 1938. Ronald Batson was aged five at the time and he had to wait until 1974 when Ernest died and the medals passed to him. St Mary’s Church is only a few minutes walk from the location of 23 Blackshaw Road, not much past the post box if Reverend Roger Ryan was popping out to post a letter. ‘G R Batson’ is in a prominent position, third from the right on the top line of names, directly beneath the word GREAT of ‘The Great War’. We look forward to welcoming Peter Hannah to the church very soon to see it.