The Half Miler

ENSHAM SCHOOL Athletics 1909 Robert Govan


With such a name, Robert James Govan could hardly fail to have anything but a Glaswegian connection. His father, a house painter, also Robert James Govan, was from the Springburn area of Glasgow, born in 1854, when it would have been emerging as the centre of railway locomotive production. Long before the tower blocks and sprawling estates started to appear, he left Scotland and married a girl from Chute in Wiltshire called Emma. In 1901 they were in London and living at 23 Novello Street in Fulham. Robert was forty when he met his wife and two years later in 1896 their son Robert was born in Chelsea. Emma was 36 at the time, and it would appear that he was their only child. Two other household members at 23 Novello Street in 1901 were Charles and Albert Gardner aged 15 and 11, and listed as stepsons. It seems likely then that Emma had been previously married. It must have been fun for Robert to have two big brothers to keep an eye on him. Present-day Novello Street is more than several worlds removed from nineteenth century Springburn. It extends from Parsons Green to Eel Brook Common, very handy for Stamford Bridge and The White Horse pub AKA ‘The Sloaney Pony’. The house is currently valued at £1.2 million and the property history on Zoopla describes it as ‘a well presented family house arranged over three floors and offers a good combination of living and entertaining space. On the ground floor is the south facing double reception room with double doors through to the large kitchen/breakfast room. The French doors in the kitchen allow access to the patio garden’. Very interesting but nothing about the Govans.

By 1911, the family had crossed the Thames and come to Summerstown. Robert was 15 and still seemingly their only child, the older lads having presumably married or moved on. They lived in comparitive luxury to a lot of other Summerstown182 families, the three of them in a five-bedroom house at 14 Bertal Road. We can’t be sure whether the kitchen had french doors accessing the patio garden but if it did, and they lived there today, they would get an excellent view of the comings-and-goings on the St George’s Hospital helipad. This unpretentious well-tended little road nestles quietly between the Hazelhurst estate and Lambeth Cemetery, sloping ever so gently down from Alston Road to Blackshaw Road with a fine vista of the Chapel of Rest in the Cemetery at its western end. A great supporter of our project, Lynda Biggs, three of whose relatives were killed by the V2 bomb on Hazelhurst Road was born there. Her maternal grandfather  Walter Henry Matthews lived at No11, a house which she remembers as ‘two bedrooms plus a box room’. He served in the Royal Fusiliers and survived the war but only after having been gassed very badly. A few doors along from the Govans at No10, William Copeman was killed 6 months previously at Loos. A little bit further from that was Albert Quenzer, the German butcher’s boy and at No29 were the Lucas brothers, Albert and Joseph. Albert was in the Fifth Loyal North Lancashire Regiment and is on their war memorial in a park in Bolton. For a small street of 32 homes, Bertal Road paid a very heavy price in the First World War.

Robert enlisted in Kingston and became a sapper in the 23rd Field Company of the Royal Engineers. He died of wounds on the Somme on 3rd September 1916 and has no known grave. Subsequently his name is on the Thiepval Memorial. It would appear that he was killed in an offensive at a place called High Wood. The name has been a recurring theme this year, as we examine the fates of Summerstown182 soldiers who died on the Somme. As we know, Alfred Dutton and Edward Lorenzi fought there and survived, not so Arthur Clarke and George Collyer.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

This aerial photograph taken by Mike Insall above shows the London Cemetery and Extension to the south-east of the wood where Collyer and Clarke are buried. The fact that the seminal book about the fighting in this area is entitled ‘The Hell They Called High Wood’ (by Terry Norman), tells something about it. The wood was first attacked on 14th July, 1916, but the British were unable to take it. Despite a whole series of costly offensives spanning two months, High Wood held out until a final assault with tanks was made on 15th September. It was never fully cleared after the war, and it is estimated that the remains of around 8,000 soldiers, British and German, still lie today in High Wood. Among them may very well be Robert Govan.

On the 3rd of September, a small preliminary offensive was planned prior to a major attack. A tunnel had been constructed and the assault began with the blowing of the mine containing 3000 lbs of ammonal below the machine-gun position. Flame-throwers and burning oil-drums thrown from a mortar-like device called a Livens Projector were to be used in this attack, but they didn’t contribute much and caused some self-inflicted casualties. Troops reached Wood Lane and gained 200 yards of trench near High Wood in fierce hand to hand fighting. But a ferocious German counter attack drove them back and once they had set up machine guns replacing those blown up by the mine, the position was regained. Four men in 23rd Field Company Royal Engineers died on that day and are remembered on the Thiepval Memorial; Henry Mitchell, George Parker, Albert Turk and Robert Govan. Last week when I was researching this story, I looked at my phone next morning and the first thing I saw was a photo of a view of High Wood at sunrise, posted on Twitter just a few minutes or so earlier. The timing seemed uncanny.

We haven’t found any of Robert Govan’s family but its an unusual name in these parts. Kevin Kelly came across a photo in a Schools Athletics booklet showing a line-up of young lads from Ensham School, Tooting ‘Winners of the Sports’ Championship 1909′. Among them is an R Govan, the half mile champion. My heart missed a beat when I saw it. Our Robert would have been 12 or 13 then, the age seems to fit and its very possible this could be him. He pops up again in a 1908 photo, once again, the half mile champion and this time with his name written out in full.


Robert’s 880 yard event was part of the South London Schools Sports Festival held at Crystal Palace track on 10th June 1909 and this is the programme cover. He ran in the half mile event in 1908 and 1909 and its not clear yet if he won either race or was simply part of the winning Ensham team. On Franciscan Road in the middle of Tooting, Ensham was built during a period of great expansion at the turn of the 20th century. It became a girls secondary modern school in the 1950s and eventually part of the current Graveney School in Furzedown. After the closure of the girls school it was renamed The Professional Centre and was used for teacher training courses and meetings. In its latest incarnation ‘Ensham House’ was officially opened on the site at the end of last year. A specially designed care home to help vulnerable older people retain their independence.

ENSHAM Athletics 1910 Govan & Foley
Also in the 1909 photo, just in front of Robert and almost leaning on him is a high jumper called ‘E Foley’. This may possibly be Henry Edward Foley from Foss Road of the Royal Fusiliers. He also died on the Somme, just a couple of months after Robert Govan and his name is with him on the Thiepval Memorial. We are indebted to Kevin for finding these extremely poignant photos, especially at a time when we are thinking about Sidney Lewis and boys of his age, taking up arms in a terrible battle. Difficult to believe that Sidney himself was five or six younger than these Ensham boys. Its very hard to look at these innocent photos of young lads on the threshold of adulthood, proudly recording their athletic achievements and reconcile that with what was to happen to them just six or seven years later.

The Farm

Garratt Farm



1880 map

Thomas Knight of the Summerstown182 may never have milked a cow or driven a plough over the fields next to Burntwood Lane, but because of his Commonwealth War Grave Commission entry, he is indelibly connected to Springfield Farm and consequently Burntwood School. It was there, a few weeks ago, that we were privileged to witness an extraordinarily moving performance of Joan Littlewood’s ‘Oh! What a Lovely War’ which made me think of the fate of Thomas and other lads from the streets of this area. In his next-of-kin details, Thomas Knight is listed as the husband of Alice Elizabeth Smy (formerly Knight) of Springfield Farm, Garratt Green. This connection was forged after his death when Alice remarried, but the two are inextricably linked. He served with the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Sussex Regiment and died, aged 21, on 4th May 1916 in hospital in Liverpool. He is buried in Wandsworth Cemetery on Magdalen Road, only the length of Tranmere Road separating him from the site of the farm and where very likely the son he never saw grew up amongst the cows and the chickens.

Farm map
There would seem to have been a farm on this site from at least 1695 when as Garratt Farm, it appears in the will of William Foote of Battersea. It apparently acquired the name Springfield from a natural spring that ran through the estate. The Asylum Act of 1808, encouraged the building of public asylums and in 1838 a Committee of Surrey Magistrates purchased Springfield Park for almost £9,000 from Mr Henry Perkins, a wealthy brewer. The aim was to establish a county asylum for the mentally ill poor. The 97 acres of land contained an 18th century mansion house, stables and a coachman’s house. There were pleasure gardens and an indoor riding school as well as the farm buildings. It was considered an ideal location for the new Surrey County Pauper Lunatic Asylum because of its southerly aspect, clean air and plentiful water supply. The gardens and grounds would play a key role in the treatment and well being of the patients with the high ground providing  excellent views of the surrounding countryside.

SprngfieldHospital 1950
Springfield Farm was for many years worked by male patients as a form of occupational therapy. Additional land was acquired and by 1865 the asylum had 83 acres of farmland and 14 acres which were used to grow produce for its kitchen gardens. This provided food for the institution and it was almost self-sufficient. In April 1916 at the time Thomas Knight was fighting for his life in France, part of the asylum was renamed Springfield War Hospital and used to care for soldiers suffering from neurasthenia or loss of mental balance. After the First World War, the asylum was renamed Springfield Mental Hospital. By 1950, it had 2,153 patients and was extensively modernised. The farm at this stage had 50 cows producing 800 gallons of milk a week; poultry produced eggs, and provided meat, as did the pigs. Fruit was provided by the orchard, and vegetables and salads were grown in the kitchen garden. But both farm and orchard were under threat and in 1951, two acres were taken from the orchard to be converted into a school playing ground.


A few years later everything changed forever. In 1954, 26 acres of farmland was taken over by the LCC for building purposes on what is now Burntwood School and the St George’s Grove housing estate. The piggeries and poultry remained, tended by male patients, 40 of whom still worked in the gardens and orchards. In 1955 all dairy farming ceased and the use of the farm gate was discontinued as an exit and entry point. Garratt Green School for girls was built and the Grade II listed ice house in its grounds was all that was left of the farm. The other part became Springfield Park Golf Course, later the Central London Golf Centre. Garratt Green School amalgamated with Mayfield School, Wandsworth in 1986 to form Burntwood School, and apparently when they were deciding on a name, they very nearly settled on Summerstown. Now the Trust which runs the hospital is modifying plans for the redevelopment of the Springfield site. An enormous but very controversial regeneration programme which involves the upgrading of the hospital facilities, new homes and the creation of a public park has been ongoing since 2004 and was provisionally granted planning permission in June 2012.



triple baptism
Born in 1895, Thomas was one of the four sons of Charles and Annie Knight. Originally from Fulham, Charles had a variety of occupations – bricklayer, labourer, carman and glass washer. The family circulated around various addresses in the Merton area. They were living in Pelham Road when Naomi, their oldest child was born in 1894. By 1901 they had moved to 101 Deburgh Road, pictured so vividly through Edward Thomas’ encounter with a gypsy outside the nearby Sultan pub in his ‘Pursuit of Spring’. He described the road as ‘a double row of dingy, mulatto cottages, ending in a barrier of elm trees.’  Two years earlier when Hugh Knight was born the family were at No99. At some stage Thomas caught the eye of a girl living a mile or so further down the Wandle and he married Alice Elizabeth Woodley on 12th April 1914 at St Marys Church. Incredibly they were one of five couples married in the church that day, there were also four baptisms. His occupation was listed as a labourer and his residence given as 26 Foss Road. Thomas’ older married sister Naomi and her husband James Egginton were the witnesses. Alice, who lived at 26 CopperMill Lane had a lengthy connection with the parish. She was one of six daughters and was baptised at St Mary’s on 14th October 1894 with two of her sisters, Katherine and Emily. As the original Church had just been demolished, this unique triple baptism would have taken place in the temporary ‘iron church’ erected behind the school and roughly opposite the Corner Pin. This was used for about six years until plans were laid for the building of a new permanent structure at the other end of Keble Street. By 1911, Alice was aged 17 and like her mother and one other sister, was working in a laundry. The St Mary’s parish magazine of April 1915 lists the baptism of a Thomas Ernest Knight from 109 Boundary Road, Merton on 17th February 1915. He was the son of Thomas and Alice and would have grown up on Springfield Farm. He married a Rosina Hemingway in 1942 and a grandchild of Thomas and Alice called Pamela, may still be alive. Alice remarried, to David Flood Smy in 1918.  They are shown on the 1919-1958 electoral rolls as living at Springfield Farm and later Burntwood Villas, which were part of Springfield Mental Hospital. They would seem to have had only one more child, David who died aged eight in 1930. We believe Alice ended her days in Southend in 1974.

Thomas Knight gave his address as 109 Boundary Road, not too far from St Georges’ Hospital when he volunteered for the Royal Sussex Regiment in Kingston on 15th February 1915, just two days before his son was baptised. They would have had very little time to get to know each other. An older brother Ernest had already joined this regiment in 1911, which might explain why Thomas followed suit. Two other brothers, Hugh and John were also in the army. Hugh Knight was in the Royal Army Service Corps and John Abraham Knight joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force in Glasgow in July 1916.

Harry Wells
The 2nd Battalion fought through the war on the Western Front and it was during the first Battle of Ypres in 1914 that it was given the unofficial title ‘The Iron Regiment’. The following year it is very likely that Thomas Knight participated in the Battle of Loos and it was here on 25th September,  that Sergeant Harry Wells from Herne Bay won a posthumous Victoria Cross. The citation reads: ‘On 25 September 1915 near Le Rutoire, Loos, France, when the platoon officer had been killed, Sergeant Wells took command and led his men forward to within 15 yards of the German wire. Nearly half the platoon were killed or wounded and the remainder were much shaken but Sergeant Wells rallied them and led them on. Finally, when very few were left, he stood up and urged them forward once again and while doing this he was killed.’ Over the course of the war. the 2nd Battalion, Royal Sussex Regiment, lost a total of 1,723 officers and men.


Towards the end of March 1916 the 2nd Royal Sussex were between Maroc and Double Crassiers, just outside Loos, the large twin spoilheaps which dominate that flat mining area for miles around. The diary paints a grim portrait of violent trench raids where the enemy were ‘silently dispatched with the bayonet.’ It dramatically recounts a midnight raid on one of the regiment’s positions, by five bomb-throwing Germans and how one of the attackers was ‘hit by a rifle bullet and rolled down between the two crassiers.’ Another mentions how they were enjoying hot water baths behind the line which had to be curtailed when the enemy shelled them with a long-range gun. It was also around this time that steel helmets were issued for the first time. On 11th April a trench raid was planned, ‘involving one officer and fifteen men, some armed with rifles, some with bludgeons, every man carried a few bombs.’ The raid was successful and an MC and DCM were resultingly awarded. From 21st April, intermittent shelling cause a small number of deaths and injuries. This could perhaps have been where Thomas was wounded or injured. On 29th April the diary notes that reports were received that of a ‘pungent chlorine attack’ coming from Hulluch. There were only a handful of casualties over these few days but one of them may have been Thomas Knight necessitating a transfer back to a hospital in England.

All this happened at the time of the Easter Rising in Dublin and many Irish troops serving here in the 16th Division must have wondered what the world was coming to. The German attack near Hulluch began on 27th April, with the release of smoke, followed by a mixture of chlorine and phosgene gas from an arsenal of 3,800 cylinders. Total British casualties between 27–29 April were 1,980, of whom 1,260 were gas casualties with 338 being killed. Thomas Knight died in hospital the day after Patrick Pearse was executed in Dublin. Also in Liverpool on that day, the SS Nigeria landed, bringing my Great Uncle, Captain Alan Lendrum of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers back from Cameroon and service with the West African Frontier Force.


Many thanks to Chris Burge, Graham Gower and Sheila Hill for their extensive research in helping tell this story. It is dedicated to Charles Harper, Deputy Head Emeritus at Burntwood School whose support and enthusiasm for this project has been so much appreciated.

Hymns and Arias


sea cadets
They don’t take any chances on Himley Road. It took a bit of a bashing in the last months of the Second World War and standing guard over it on the corner of Mellison Road and pointing menacingly in the direction of Colliers Wood is the cobalt blue artillery gun of ‘Training Ship Constant’. This is the HQ of the Tooting and Balham Sea Cadets who do such a great well-drilled job in St Mary’s Church each Remembrance Sunday. A little further up the road at No74 is what would have once been the home of a young welshman called Reginald Thomas.

Himley Road-1

While No72 looks Victorian, the block next to it is of a distinctly fifties vintage. The black blob on the London bomb-site map gives an indicator of what happened – total destruction. A V2 landed on Nutwell Street on 6th March 1945 and it would seem likely that 74 Himley Road was hit by High Explosives in the same raid. On a genealogy site, Tooting resident John Green remembers ‘I do not recall any casualties with any of these attacks, not even another stick of HE which landed on Himley Road a short distance away which flattened half of the street. Perhaps as a child I was sheltered from anything gruesome.’ In fact four people were killed in the Nutwell Street V2 attack, three of them very young children. In ‘Days that are Gone’ Alfred Hurley mentioned that houses recently patched-up from an earlier raid could not stand the force of the V2 and had to be demolished.
Reginald Thomas was born in Cardiff in 1896  but unlike a cluster of other members of the Summrstown182, he did not serve with a Welsh regiment. An extraordinary story has emerged, courtesy of Chris Burge, about how a group of young lads from the Fairlight area, from Thurso Street and Pevensey Road, all trotted off to the Norfolk market town of Diss and joined a regiment called the Welsh Horse Yeomanry. John Betjeman famously once declared to Harold Wilson’s wife Mary, who grew up there, how it would be ‘bliss, to go with you by train to Diss’. Not sure how the Fairlight lads got there but possibly the catalyst for this was Arthur Mace, the soldier who died of TB and whose name will hopefully sometime this year, be inscribed on the war memorial in Streatham Cemetery. Last year his niece and nephew came to Thurso Street and the below photo was taken outside the old family home at No2.
Arthur signed up for the Welsh Horse in Diss on 7th March 1915, declaring his age to be 19 years and 11 months. Just over three weeks later, three lads whom he would surely have known rolled up in the same small Norfolk town. Walter Tappin, John Burke and Charles Bosdet. They signed up one after the other and consequently have consecutive service numbers; 1122, 1123, 1124. They would have had to have been nineteen years of age to qualify for overseas service and no surprises, that’s how old they all said they were. Walter Tappin from Fountain Road and John Burke from 54 Pevensey Road were actually 18. Charles Bodset from 14 Thurso Street was sixteen and a half. The Three Musketeers who all worked as porters, later all transfered together to the 25th Battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. We spotted two more Pevensey Road boys in Reverend Robinson’s list in the May 1915 issue of the St Mary’s Church parish magazine, Sidney Carpenter at No52 and John Soane at No56, lived either side of John Burke. Then Chris discovered a Walter Moore who lived at 17 Thurso Street whose service number was 1125. An extraordinary exodus of young men from the Fairlight area travelling to Norfolk en masse to join the Welsh Horse! The Three Musketeers had suddenly become the Magnificent Seven.
The 1/1st Welsh Horse Yeomanry had come to Diss, Norfolk at the end of 1914 and were part of the East Coast Defence Force. Invasion threats were taken seriously and in the spring of 1915 several towns in East Anglia were bombed by Zeppelins. In September 1915 they were ordered to ready themselves for foreign service and hand in their horses. They were bound for Gallipoli. The Welsh Horse sailed from Liverpool on board  SS Olympic on 23rd September 1915, arriving at Mudros port on the Greek island of Lemnos on 8th October. Insult was added to injury when they discovered they had effectively swapped horses for shovels. The Welsh Horse were given the task of digging trenches and mines under the Turkish positions, dangerous and strenuous work. Although there were to be no major attacks at this time, the Welsh Horse lost men who were either killed or wounded in the daily attrition of trench warfare, picked off by the Turks. But in the awful conditions in Gallipoli, sickness especially dysentery was rife, and this accounted for many more.
Less than two weeks after arriving at Gallipoli, Arthur Mace became so ill that he had to be evacuated, on 19th October 1915 via Mudros to Malta, and finally to England on 19th November 1915. Arthur’s condition became worse and he was discharged from the army with TB of the lung in September 1916 ‘aggravated by exposure and hardship on active service’. Arthur never recovered from TB, and he passed away on the 1st October 1918, almost exactly three years after he had landed at Gallipoli. The three lads that went there with him had very different fates, Walter Tappin died in Palestine and is buried in Jerusalem. John Burke was killed in France in 1918. Charles Bodset came home to Thurso Street. There will be more about them very soon. At least two other Summerstown182 were in Welsh regiments including Arthur’s brother William in the South Wales Borderers and double gallantry medal-winning Thomas Earl.
None of these boys appear to have Welsh connections but a true son of the Valley was living in Tooting at 74 Himley Road. Reg was in 1/21st (County of London) Battalion (First Surrey Rifles) like ‘The Boy in the Bottle’ Archibald Dutton of Hazelhurst Road. They were killed on the same day in an attack near the ‘Butte de Warlencourt’ on the Somme. Reginald was the eldest son of John and Annie Thomas, born in Cardiff in 1896. The family must have come to London by 1899 at the latest as this was when the next oldest John was born. John Thomas Senior was a painter and in in 1911 he and Annie were living with their six children at 74 Himley Road, Tooting. One of only a handful of the Summerstown182 who have strayed across the boundary and inhabit the streets south of Tooting Broadway.

Reginald Thomas was lost in the melee tying to take ‘Diagonal trench’ somewhere near the Butte de Warlencourt on 8th October 1916. His body was never recovered and his name is on the Thiepval Memorial. If the Tooting and Balham Sea Cadets can fire up that big old gun of theirs, I suggest they blast out a big Welsh salute for him next Autumn. Just don’t do any more damage to Himley Road, please lads.

Many thanks to Chris Burge and Keith Shannon for their contribution to this story.