Charles Booth, pictured above, made some rather disparaging remarks about Summerstown which always raise a smile if I choose to recite them at the start of a Walk. He published a massive seventeen volume study called Life and Labour of the People in London between 1889 and 1903 to accompany his famous ‘Poverty Map.’ The Summerstown observations come in the series covering ‘Religious Influences’. When he came here at the turn of the twentieth century he really wasn’t that impressed with either the inhabitants or their homes. ‘The older parts are plainly deteriorating and even new streets show signs of squalor. There has not been much building in the last ten years, but it is now proceeding rapidly with, in many cases, houses of the worst character that can possibly be passed by the most lenient inspector. The people who occupy these houses are largely the off-scourings of the stream of population noted in describing the south-west. Locally they are credited with coming from Battersea; really, they come (perhaps at two or three removes) from the central parts of London’. Our research has indicated so many Summerstown182 families relocating from such areas as Lambeth, Camberwell and Bermondsey. Very few made the trek over from the East End until we looked into the background of a soldier who lived on Headworth Road and Burtop Road, two of the lost streets of Earlsfield.


James Coffield and Rosetta Curtis were both living in West Ham when their respective spouses died in the mid-1870s, each of them being left with three young children. They married in 1876 and their first child together, James was born there in 1878. James Senior like his eldest son Henry worked as a matchmaker and may have been employed by Bryant and May at their factory in nearby Bow. By the time of the famous London matchgirls strike of 1888 they had moved to pastures new. The largely green fields of Summerstown on the banks of the Wandle, to be precise. In 1881 they were living at Alton Terrace with six children including four from the earlier marriages. By 1891 the family had settled at 17 Burtop Road, James Senior was dead but not before fathering another three children. Rosetta with two marriages and nine children behind her was still only 44 and working as a laundress. James Junior, now 13, was a printers boy.

The turn of the century proved eventful for the Coffield family, with numerous marriages and baptisms. Fortunate then that they were well served by churches and living roughly half-way between St Andrew’s in Earlsfield and St Mary’s, Summerstown, they had split allegiances. James Coffield married Alice Howard on Christmas Day 1898 at St.Andrew’s. The day before, on Christmas Eve, his half sister Eliza Jane Craddock married Frederick Smith in St Mary’s. Alice was the daughter of a scaffolder and working as a domestic servant. In 1901 they were at 2 Burtop Road and part of quite a clan in this street. The Howard family were at No18 and James’ mother Rosetta and three of his siblings, including younger brother Ernest were at No13. Rosetta’s other daughter from her first marriage, Alice Craddock wed the fantastically named, Speed Squire Fox at St Mary’s on Christmas Day 1902. This was just one of five weddings at St Mary’s that day, the old tin tabernacle was in big demand. Two of the other children, Selina and Frederick were baptised at the temporary St Mary’s Church by the new vicar, John Robinson. Curiously they were both young adults and just six years later Selina was married to George Chandler at the new present St Mary’s on Keble Street. She was 23 but the short gap between baptism and marriage must be some sort of record. The above photo shows the 1914-1918 Roll of Honour book in St Andrew’s Church. It contains 367 names, 17 of them also appear on the St Mary’s memorial.

James and Alice’s first child, James George was baptised in June 1900 and as Queen Victoria passed on and a new Edwardian age dawned, three more children John, William and Alice were dipped in the St Andrew’s font. Around 1902 the family moved into the next street and settled at 14 Headworth Road. Perhaps they wanted to escape from the encroaching relatives. No chance. His younger brother Frederick married at St Mary’s in 1906, to Alice Hatwin from 18 Headworth Road so the clan was getting even thicker. Ernest meanwhile had spread his wings and was living at Noyna Road in Upper Tooting. He wed Alice Hance at Holy Trinity just a few months after Ernest. James had now progressed to be a fully fledged lithographic printer. According to Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History, by 1914, Hugh Stevenson’s Corruganza Works on Riverside Road were said to have an amazing 2,610 employees and as they did printing and lithographing, its quite likely that James Coffield, living so close was employed there. In 1908 the company were of course in the news when 44 young female box-makers went on strike and Mary Macarthur and John Galsworthy stepped in to lend a hand. It was a row over piecework in the ‘rolling, cutting and glueing’ department and culminated in a demonstration at Trafalgar Square on Saturday August 22nd.


Rosetta, the matriarch of the Coffield family died at the age of 75 in 1911. Still at 14 Headworth Road James and Alice were aged 33 and apparently in their prime of life. There were five children and two more boys were born in the following years after a move to 600 Garratt Lane. Frederick, now living in Littleton Street like his brother was in the printing trade after eight years on the railway Ernest was now an insurance collector and canvasser. Selina and her bricklayer husband George were living at ‘Tregethew’ on Burntwood Lane. A substantial house, its still there, No 48 in fact. From No34 the houses on the southern side of the road all bear discreet stone tablets with picturesque place-names such as Tregenna, Tregadra and Knaresborough, oddly many in Cornwall. The Coffields truly were a clan with a spread on both sides of Garratt Lane and strong links to three churches. The world must have seemed their oyster.

But everything was suddenly to change. James Coffield probably volunteered at the begining of 1915 and was first in France on 30th July 1915. He wasn’t conscripted, this was his choice and quite why he made it when he was 37 years old, in a secure profession, had a large family network and was married with seven children, is a mystery. His CWGC record shows that he was in G Company of the Royal Engineers – this was a depot company at Chatham in Kent and James would have probably been posted there as a book-keeping exercise while he was sick in the UK before his final discharge as unfit on 20th June 1916. As he has a CWGC grave his death must be attributable to his army service.

James is buried in Wandsworth Cemetery on Magdalen Road, Earlsfield, one of 478 First World War casualties. Many of the 1914-1918 burials are from the 3rd London General Hospital, just up the hill and across Trinity Road. Approximately 62,000 patients from all over the world were treated in its wards; Newfoundlanders, Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans and Canadians. His name is picked out on the screen with three other Summerstown182 members, William Norris who was killed by a tram on Garratt Lane, George Batson and Thomas Knight. In an adjoining grave is Henry Angliss, one of the Cairo Gang shot dead in Dublin on 1920. Close by are the graves of the 17 Newfoundlanders whose story has been celebrated for the past 12 years by the pupils of Beatrix Potter School. Their annual observance is something that began by accident 12 years ago when on an outing to collect conkers in the cemetery, one of the spupilss wondered why the graves in one particular plot of graves had no poppies on them.

Although he was discharged eleven days before the start of the Battle of the Somme, given the date of his death, we’ve included James Coffield amongst the group of 26 soldiers we are currently writing about and who we will remember at the Thiepval Commemoration this summer. Brother Ernest was killed some eight months later on 3rd May 1917. He was in the same 6th Battalion of the East Kent Regiment as William Pitts from Hazelhurst Road. They died on the same day and their names are on the Arras Memorial. Ernest’s widow Alice was living at Noyna Road. After the war, James’s widow Alice and her three children moved to Cavendish Road, Colliers Wood. In 1919 their son John Robert Coffield volunteered for the Army, joining the Royal Field and Horse Artillery. Keeping the extraordinary family tradition, he was married on Christmas Day in 1928. The Coffields were close to another Church now and several of the children married at the famous Christ Church not far from the Sainsburys megastore. This Church sent the largest contingent of the Surrey Association of Bell Ringers to war, thirteen – all of whom survived. Its sad to look at the marriage register of daughter Ethel who wed a coalman from Wimbledon in 1935 and see her Dad’s name and profession written on it, though he died some 20 years earlier. Ethel was 26 and born in 1910 so she would very likely have an early memory of her father in uniform. James Coffield’s widow Alice passed away in 1952.

Once again, we are grateful to Chris Burge who has done an extraordinary amount of research on the Coffield family and allowed us to tell their story.


Two Edwards





It must have been one of the most exciting things to have happened in Tooting Broadway. Its the 4th of November 1911 and thousands of people have gathered to witness Archibald Davis Dawnay, the Mayor of Wandsworth, resplendent in his long black cape and chains of office, theatrically whip off a sheet to unveil a statue of King Edward VII. Paid for by public donations of ‘one shilling and upwards’, the Mayor’s fundraising campaign sounds like an earlier incarnation of ‘A Quid for Sid’. What a moment. The first major commission of sculptor Louis Roselieb, it is a magnificent 18 foot tall bronze figure of the King in the uniform of Commander-in-Chief. On either side of the pedestal are two bronze panels representing peace and charity. From his bakery on the corner of Defoe Road and Tooting High Street, Peter Jung must have glanced nervously across and wondered what might lie ahead. In the middle of the heaving throng, a young couple from Foss Road, Summerstown squeezed hands and nibbled blissfully on one of his Chelsea buns.

Military Medal
Not long after the Summerstown182 project got underway, Sheila and I went to Olympia for the BBC ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ Genealogy Roadshow. The highlight was definitely when we chatted up the good people from Forces War Records. They liked the look of our poppy map and before we knew it, we found ourselves in a TV advertisement for them. It was during this that one of their staff pointed out that one of the soldiers on our list who we didn’t know very much about, a Henry Edward Foley, had been awarded the Military Medal for Gallantry. We had seen his CWGC details but it was easy to overlook the discreet ‘MM’ notation. Two small letters on a piece of paper, indicative of very great bravery. At the time it was hard to find much more on him, and its only now, approaching the hundredth anniversary of his death that his story is told. Equivalent to the Military Cross (MC), the Military Medal, awarded to non-commissioned members of the Army, was instituted on 25th March 1916. It was an award for gallantry and devotion to duty when under fire in battle on land and on the reverse of the medal is inscribed ‘For Bravery in the Field’. Recipients of the medal are entitled to use the letters M.M. after their name. Over 117,000 awards were made for actions during the First World War and Henry Edward Foley we are proud to say was one of them. A page in the London Gazette dated 6th January 1917 shows the award of a Military Medal to G/5983 Cpl H.E. Foley, Royal Fusiliers. These lists often appeared several months after the event, so it seems likely to have been awarded for some sadly unknown action that took place while his unit was on the Somme from July onwards. Unfortunately by the time it was published Henry Edward Foley was dead.



The Foley family roots were in Lambeth and Albert Foley and his wife Florence were living in Camberwell when Henry Edward’s birth is registered at the end of 1893. Although officially Henry Edward, he consistently appears as ‘Edward’ on the census records which suggests that was the name he was known by. His father Albert was a jack-of-all-trades, his professions including barman, carman, painter and potman. In 1901 the Foleys were at 27 Fairlight Road and Albert was working as a potman at The Castle pub in Tooting, still going strong 115 years later. In his book ‘Days that are Gone’ Alfred Hurley, local councillor and founder of the Tooting and Balham Gazette recalls living in Fairlight Road in the early years of the century and how difficult life was for people in what he referred to as ‘Parrafin Park’. He doesn’t specify the number, just that it was roughly opposite Fairlight Hall. The house is marked with an arrow in the below photograph. Oddly enough it looks very similar to No27. There were five Foley children and over the next decade they moved frequently, living at Hazelhurst Terrace and at 19 and 41 Foss Road. By 1911 they had settled at No9. Albert was now working as a house painter and there were seven children, five boys and two girls.

HURLEY Fairlight Road 1899


Edward, now seventeen was the second oldest and working as a greengrocer’s assistant. Another family moving around this Foss-Hazelhurst triangle were the Mabeys, who would have come to Summerstown from Brixton around the same time as the Foleys. Charles Mabey was a bricklayer’s labourer and there were ten children, six girls and four boys, ranging in age from 26 to 3. Lizzie, the eldest and working as a cardboard box maker in an earlier census, appeared to have moved on. In 1911 they were at 54 Foss Road, an address already familiar to us as the home of the family of Alfred Byatt in the later war-time years. Eighteen year old Dorothy was the third oldest and along with four of her siblings, had been born in Brixton. Like her mother Mary and two of her sisters, she worked in the laundry. How Mary fitted in her childcare arrangements is nobody’s business. Heading off to her early morning shift at the laundry, young Dorothy may well have frequented the greengrocers on Wimbledon Road, perhaps stocking up on some watercress or an apple for her lunch. Edward VII’s statue went up in Tooting that autumn and in the Spring, the Titanic went down. Oblivious to it all no doubt, romance blossomed between the laundrygirl and the greengrocer’s assistant in the over-populated streets of the Hazelhurst triangle.

wedding cert

If we look at the map above you can see that No54, Dorothy’s home and Edward’s home where Nos 9 and 11 should have been, were practically opposite each other. No54 survived the V2 rocket of 1944 but the houses across the road were destroyed. On 8th December 1912, Henry Edward Foley and Dorothy Olive Mabey were married by Reverend John Robinson in St Mary’s Church. Both gave their ages as 19 and both were apparently resident at 54 Foss Road. Edward seemed to have moved on from fruit and veg and defined himself as a labourer, Dorothy perhaps preparing for a life of domestic bliss, had left the laundry behind and simply referred to herself as a spinster. The electoral roll shows that both fathers were registered to vote at this address in 1915, so very possibly the 11 Mabeys and 9 Foleys were now in the same house, though how the newly-weds fitted in with that is anyone’s guess. One of Edward’s army documents indicates that he was resident in Paddington. Its almost certain that Edward and Dorothy set up home elsewhere, especially given what happened a few months later. Edward’s ‘Soldiers’ Effects Register’ indicates that he and Dorothy had children, Mary in 1913 and Timothy the following year. His service papers have not survived but his Medal Index Card shows that Edward first went to France on 30th July 1915. Chris Burge who has done much of the research on this story managed to locate two examples of service papers of other soldiers in the 13th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers with army numbers close to Edward Foley’s. Examination of these  suggests that despite being a married man with children, he volunteered sometime in September 1914, around the time of the birth of his son.

Beaucourt AncreSept 1916

Edward Foley was killed in action on 15th November 1916 in the Battle of the Ancre, the last British attack in the Battle of the Somme. The general assault was launched amidst a tremendous artillery bombardment in darkness and thick fog at 5.45am on Monday 13th November. The objective was Beaucourt Trench near the village of  Beaucourt-sur-Ancre. The above photo was taken near there that September. The attackers had to contend with deep mud, heavy enemy fire and poor visibility. The 13th Battalion Royal Fusiliers war diary states that they moved off too quickly and some of the advance were caught up in the fire of their own creeping barrage and that they were ‘considerably harrassed by machine gun fire from Beaucourt village’.  ‘The Royal Fusiliers in The Great War’ by H.C. O’Neill published in 1922, states rather coldly  ‘The casualties of the 13th were 8 officers and 130 other ranks. But the victory was complete. It was a great blow to German prestige and it made an important improvement in the British positions’. The attack ended amidst sleet and snow on 18th November, two villages were captured but the German line remained untouched. Somewhere in the middle of this Edward Foley was lost and his body never recovered. His name is inscribed on the Memorial at Thiepval, just a few miles south of where he very likely died. The Thiepval Memorial is the largest Commonwealth war memorial in the world and bears the names of more than 72,000 men who died on the Somme and have no known grave.

Thiepval flags

Somme graphic
Dorothy remarried in 1917 and her wedding was conducted again by Reverend Robinson at St. Mary’s Summerstown on Christmas Day. Her second husband Albert Edward Bull from Maskell Road gave his profession as a ‘motor driver’. Why he had not been conscripted at the age of 27 is puzzling. Perhaps he was serving in Army motor transport of some description at the time or might he have been previously discharged. Perhaps his driving job was so significant that he was exempt. He is not on the 1918 Absent Voters List for Maskell Road which suggests discharge as the likely answer. Dorothy, now Mrs Bull and her new hubby stayed in Wandsworth after their marriage. They appear on the Electoral Roll at 29 Maskell Road between 1924 and 1926. The recently released Register of Identity Cards for 1939 shows Dorothy and Albert living in Hornchurch in Essex. With them was Timothy, the son from her first marriage, aged 25 and working as a butcher’s assistant. Dorothy died aged 80 in Barking in 1972 and Albert a year later. Charles Edward Mabey and Mary Jane Mabey, lived at 54 Foss Road until at least 1939.

The eldest Foley sibling was Thomas Albert Foley who was three years older than Edward. He joined the army in 1913 and had the distinction of serving in the 1st Battalion, East Surrey Regiment throughout the entire war. He later lived at 56 Fountain Road before moving to Carshalton. Thomas Foley died in 1954. Another brother Percy was living at 11 Pevensey Road until the mid-1960s. On the way home last night I bumped into the Keeley brothers in Smallwood Road, just around the corner from where they grew up on Hazelhurst Road. They always like to hear what we are working on and Arthur’s eyes sparkled as he recalled Frankie Mabey, a childhood pal from Foss Road who later worked at the Astoria in Upper Tooting Road and emigrated to Rhodesia. He was very likely Dorothy’s nephew and once again we felt within touching distance of the war-time generation.




UPDATE; How exciting to suddenly get an email from Darren in the summer of 2017. His mother Jean is the youngest and last surviving daughter of Dorothy Mabey’s second marriage to Albert Bull. He came across our story after googling her maiden name, which he was considering naming his honey-making enterprise after. There followed a flurry of messages and just a few days later we welcomed them both back to Summerstown. It was extraordinarily poignant for Jean to visit St Mary’s Church, where her mother had twice stepped downed the aisle, in 1912 and 1917. They bought with them some family photographs, most notably one of ‘Eddie’ taken on the battlefields in July 1916. It is one of the best known images of the aftermath of the early fighting on the Somme and is in the collection of the Imperial War Museum. It was taken by Lieutenant Ernest Brooks on 7th July 1916. Eddie is in a very prominent position at the front of a large group of victorious soldiers, a number of whom are wearing German helmets and carrying daggers. Darren has memories of Tim and Mary (Edward Foley’s children) visiting the museum to identify the father who had died when they were so little. They have also been to the Fusiliers Museum at the Tower of London where his Military Medal is kept. The story in the family was that Eddie was awarded this medal for rescuing an officer in the field. Apparently he had been wounded by enemy fire with Edward Foley picked him up over his shoulder and carried him back to the British lines.



Thanks are due to Chris Burge who has done much of the research on this story and many of the other Summerstown182 soldiers who were killed on the Somme, one hundred years ago.

There will be a feature about Summerstown182 in the next issue of Forces War Records monthly magazine. https://www.forces-war-records.co.uk/magazine/issues/2016/04/


The Devil’s Wood

Wardley (old)



Very much on the northern extremity of our Summerstown orbit and rather more part of Earlsfield or Wandsworth, a trio of little streets with a Summerstown182 connection have captured my imagination for some time. One of them in particular to be precise. Wardley Street nestles in behind the Grosvenor Arms pub and close to The Jolly Gardeners, currently the domain of a recent BBC Masterchef Winner. As if the aroma of pan-fried sea bream with saffron baby chicory isn’t enough, there’s even a spanking new state-of-the-art primary school across the road, Floreat Wandsworth ‘nuturing happy, high-achieving children’. Clearly they have one eye on the trampolining centre springing up in place of the Mecca Bingo Hall. Seriously foreshortened, in the manner of Foss Road, much of Wardley Street was demolished in 1956, but it still has five or six original residential properties which have survived on the southern side of the road. Its neighbours Bendon Valley and Lydden Grove seem fairly quiet non-descript streets, mainly home to the clutter of light industries and warehouse spaces which populate the area between this stretch of Garratt Lane and the River Wandle. I just wonder if the fine diners munching on their pressed confit of rabbit terrine with smoked buttermilk mousse know that this neighbourhood once had quite a reputation, and though the days of knackers yards, manure factories, horses being kept in front rooms and nervous policemen patrolling in pairs seem light years away, just look on any ‘Romany Roots’ chat forum and see the amount of references to Wardley Street. In 1948, the BBC ‘Light Programme’ aired a feature called ‘The People of Wardley Street’, a ‘radio portrait of the costers and street traders of Wandsworth’ written by Harold Rogers. How wonderful it would be to be able to hear it.


Charles Booth identified this street as one of the poorest in Wandsworth in 1902. ‘Houses two-storeyed, most of them flush with the pavement; a low common lodging-house on one side and a yard full of wheelless gipsy vans on the other, each inhabited by a family. There is throughout the street a family to almost every room, and a great number of loafers hang about at the corner – men who work either not at all, or only on market days’. This provoked an angry response from the local Medical Officer who took the trouble to outline the occupations of residents of the street; ‘Hawkers and costers 64, general labourers 32, carmen 9, bricklayers 3, plasterers 2, council employees 3, the rest consists of tinkers, wood choppers and rag and bone dealers’. In the early fifties, Ted Sandys recalls nervously going down there to sell insurance and seeing horses kept in front rooms. The legacy of a romany presence in the area survives to this day with the existence of two permanent travellers sites nestling next to the Wandle, one at the end of Trewint Street in Earlsfield, the other on Weir Road, in the shadow of the development on Wimbledon FC’s old home.


The romany connection with Wardley Street has been explained as resulting from a clearance of gypsy vans from the common at the time the road was built. But the proximity of the Harrison and Barber horse-slaughtering yard, just a few streets away must also have played a part. Consider that in 1900, there were estimated to be a total of over 50,000 horses transporting people around the city each day, not to mention horse-drawn carts and drays delivering goods around what was then the largest city in the world. The average life expectancy for a working horse was only around three years. This was one of the biggest yards in London at which it is estimated 26,000 ageing nags a year met their maker, many of which were then converted into catfood on the site. The area may have been a colourful and lively place to live, but with a manure factory and boning plant also in the vicinity, it can’t have been easy on the senses. The following extract comes from ‘The Horse World of London’ by William John Gordon [1893] ‘In Garratt Lane, Wandsworth, is the largest horse-slaughtering yard in London. It has existed for about a hundred years. There it stands, practically odour-less, by the banks of the winding Wandle, with a wide meadow in front of it and a firework factory next door. One fine morning we found our way down the lane, along the field, armed with Mr. Ross’s permit, to be initiated by Mr. Milestone into the mysteries of a horse’s departure from the London world. The last scene does not take long. In two seconds a horse is killed; in a little over half an hour his hide is in a heap of dozens, his feet are in another heap, his bones are boiling for oil, his flesh is cooking for cat’s meat. Maneless he stands; a shade is put over his eyes; a swing of the axe, and, with just one tremor, he falls heavy and dead on the flags of a spacious kitchen, which has a line of coppers and boilers steaming against two of its walls. In a few minutes his feet are hooked up to cross-beams above, and two men pounce upon him to flay him; for the sooner he is ready the quicker he cooks. Slash, slash, go the knives, and the hide is peeled off about as easily as a tablecloth; and so clean and uninjured is the body that it looks like the muscle model we see in the books and in the plaster casts at the corn-chandler’s’.

It was into this Wardley Street world in 1911 at No70, that we find the Benfell family. William Benfell, once of Jubilee Cottages, Garratt Lane had married Florence Hewitt in 1893. In 1901 they lived at Union Terrace in Battersea, just off Usk Road. It would have been a short distance beyond the car on the right hand side of the road in the above photo. This was where a V2 rocket fell on 27th January 1945 killing 17 people. William worked as a builders labourer and may well have been one of the 32 men plying that trade, as counted by the Medical Officer in Wardley Road. In 1911 William was 39 and George born in 1894 was the oldest of four children, the others were Eleanor, William and Arthur. Two others, Florence and Lily had died in infancy.


Three years later George Albert Benfell gave his profession as an ‘outdoor porter’ when he signed up for the East Surrey Special Reserve in Kingston on 20th April 1914. He arrived in France a year later on 27th April 1915, having been posted to the 2nd Battalion. Only a few pages of his service record has survived and these are badly burnt and only partly legible. They do however provide a few clues about him. That summer he was in a spot of trouble – on 7th August he received 21 days ‘Field Punishment No1’ for an unspecified offence of misconduct. He was then out of the line in September with ‘ulcerated legs’. Could the two be related? Not beyond the realms of possibility, consider how fellow Summerstown182, Alf Chipperfield ‘The Wild Colonial Boy’ was hospitalised with pneumonia after his Field Punishment. Being lashed to a gun and exposed to the elements was no picnic. In any case, shortly afterwards George was transfered to the 1st Battalion on 21st October 1915. His records also indicate that he was granted leave in January 1916. That summer the 1st East Surreys were pitched into the extreme violence of the Somme and George Albert Benfell was recorded as missing on 29th July 1916. His death was later presumed, on or after that date and his family would for a considerable time have had the uncertainty of not knowing whether he was dead or alive. He was one of 30 of the Summerstown182 who died between 1st July and 18th November 1916 on the Somme battlefields and along with eleven of them, his name is inscribed on the Thiepval Memorial. He was one of 320 of the 1st East Surreys killed between noon on 27th and noon on 29th July 1916. The War Diary makes harrowing reading, even more so when considering  these events would have been happening at the same location where thirteen year old Sidney Lewis was manning a machine gun. It happened at a place called Delville Wood, the scene of fighting so terrible that it became known as ‘The Devil’s Wood’. ‘Every semblance of a trench seemed full of dead-sodden, squelchy swollen bodies. Fortunately the blackening faces were invisible except when Verey lights lit up the indescribable scene. Not a tree stood whole in that wood. Food and water were very short and we had not the faintest idea when any would be available. We stood and lay on putrifying bodies and the wonder was that the dysentry did not finish off what the shells of the enemy had started. There was hand-to-hand fighting with knives, bombs and bayonets, cursing and brutality, on both sides such as men can be responsible for when it is a question of ‘your life or mine’, mud and filthy stench, dysentry and unattended wounds’. Captain S.J. Worsley MC, North Staffordshire Regiment.


The worst passage in the diary describes the plight of the wounded, crying out for water. The 1st East Surreys were in reserve and had avoided the first weeks of the battle but by the 20th July they were in trenches near Longueval and the first mention is made of Delville Wood. ‘The whole day and night were spent rendering our surroundings a trifle safer by dint of digging, and more sanitary, by burying the dead of various units who were lying in and around our trenches.’ Shelling was heavy and casualties mounted. On 23rd orders were received to attack specified machine gun points in Delville Wood. Casualties from this skirmish were 5 officers and 119 men. On 27th another fierce attack was repelled. On 28th the diary states ‘About 2am orders were received to occupy the NW corner of Delville Wood and Longueval recently won back by the Norfolks and Bedfords, which units had suffered so severely they were physically unable to hold their gains. Very short notice was given’. The writer goes on to describe this ‘as trying an ordeal as any battalion could be called upon to face, carried out as it was in a very heavily shelled area’. On Saturday 29th ‘Many wounded of several days duration are occupying shell holes in and around the village. It is impossible to get them away or even provide them with the water, which they cry for as one passes’. On Sunday 30th ‘Our strength as a battalion in the field is now 251 O.Ranks and 9 officers including CO and Adjutant’. The 1st East Surreys had been practically annihilated in those few days and with huge understatement, Major Swanton records ‘It was a great relief to all ranks to be able to get a quiet time for a wash and a rest’.

Hazelhurst east
By the time it came to recording George’s death, his family had moved to 37 Hazelhurst Road and almost certainly worshipped at St Mary’s as Reverend John Robinson’s signature is on some of the relating paperwork. The house was on the Smallwood Road school side of the street, just a stone’s throw from the church and avoiding the main impact of the V2 rocket blast of 19th November 1944. It would be one of the houses on the extreme left of the terrace in the above photograph. William and Florence would surely have been aware of another rocket landing close to their old home in Battersea just two months later. Florence was still resident there when she died aged 81 in 1955, William himself passed away in 1949. Sister Eleanor married a tailor called Arthur Welch on Christmas Day 1923. She died in St George’s Hospital in 1967 aged 68. George’s brother William married Mary Hunt in 1931 and passed away in Basingstoke in 1984. Arthur married Catherine Green and died in Bexley in 1987.  In a photo on an Ancestry website are Eleanor and husband Arthur. They continued to live at 37 Hazelhurst until about 1958 and then moved to 18 Recovery Street where Eleanor lived until at least 1965. Was her husband, Arthur William Welch, invalided in the war? The photo indicates he had lost a leg. We suspect that it may have been taken on their wedding day.

Many thanks to Chris Burge and Sheila Hill for their help in researching this account. On Saturday 28th May, as part of the Wandsworth Heritage Festival,  I will be doing a ‘Guided Walk of Historic Earlsfield’ taking in many of the locations mentioned.


Earlsfield Tour