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.
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.