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


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