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.

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