The Rent Collector

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.’

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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.
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One thought on “The Rent Collector

  1. Very interesting – with an Essex link (!) – but it just hows what sound detailed research reveals about our brave soldiers in WW1

    Dr Ted Bailey, grandson of an Essex Regiment survivor

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