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.
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.
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.
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.
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.