Saving Sidney Seager

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Its painted black, and that seems appropriate enough, as the front door of the Seager house at 8 Thurso Street was the recipient of much sad news in the First World War. Three brothers were lost in successive years, almost too much to bear for their mother, Winifred Seager, who was already a widow. Albert had been wounded and died in hospital in November 1915. He is buried in Streatham Cemetery. Ernest died at the Battle of Jutland on HMS Shark on the last day of May in 1916 and Edward who worked at the Stock Exchange was killed near Arras in April 1917 and is buried at Feuchy. The eldest son George survived the war, but it is the story of the youngest boy, 19 year old Sidney, which has captured our imagination and took us last week to the town of Newport Pagnell.

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We had got in touch with Gary Donaldson who has Seager family connections. He very kindly provided photos of Winifred, Edward and Ernest for us to use, but it was a letter from Sidney which really stood out. It was written by him to his mother from a hospital sick bed in Lancashire. Dated 19th July 1916, it is an astonishing account written by a young man who seems wise beyond his years. Part reassuring, part terrifying, its hard to know what Winifred made of it. It is a frank and graphic account of the extent of his wounds and describes how he had been rescued from no man’s land by a young officer who hauled the bleeding Sidney, his leg ‘hanging by about two strands’ back to his trench. A distance of some 1,000 yards. At the last moment, as the officer was about to set Sidney down and was receiving cheers from the men, he was shot in the stomach and killed. ‘He fell instantly, almost on the top of my half-severed leg, sending me off into a faint for a while’. The horrific account in which Sid clearly doesn’t want to worry his mother, ‘I did not send you a field card as I thought it might upset you’ names the young officer and Sidney expresses his desire to write to his family to express his gratitude. It was easy enough for us to work out who ‘Lieutenant Taylor’ of 10th Royal Fusiliers was and where he was from. But did Sidney ever write that letter to the Taylor family? Did they know that their son died a hero’s death, making an immense effort to save another man’s life? Another note dated 6th August 1916 indicates that Sidney certainly was trying to contact the Taylor family to tell them what had happened.

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Sidney was born on 16th November 1896 in Camberwell. His family would later move to Thurso Street Tooting, in the shadow of Smallwood Road School. In 1911 he was 14 and working as a printer’s reader’s assistant, a trade he shared with his brothers Albert and George. Having worked for six months as a clerk for M J Turner, 2 Copthall Buildings, Sidney joined the 10th Battalion Royal Fusiliers on 29th August 1914 at Colchester, the same ‘Stockbrokers Battalion’ as his older brother Edward. He was seventeen but added two years to his age. This was the first of the Pals battalions, raised from the stockbrokers of the City of London. In a few days 1,600 men had joined, though it would be 27th July 1915 before they got to France. After his injuries on the Somme at Pozieres, Sidney was taken back to hospital at Whalley in Lancashire from where he wrote his letter. His documentation suggests that he was still in Whalley until the end of the year giving some indication as to the extent of his injuries. Exactly a year after his wounding, Sidney was discharged from the army on 16th July 1917 as ‘being no longer physically fit for war service’ due to a gunshot wound in the leg. Lieutenant Taylor’s bravery would spare Winifred Seager a fourth death and allow Sidney to survive the war and have a family. He married Ida Goate and they had at least two children, John born in 1929 and Margaret in 1933. In 1939 they were living in Epsom but later moved to Christchurch in Hampshire where Sidney died aged 76 in 1972.

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Born on 15th September 1896, Francis Maurice Taylor came from a well-known and prominent family in Newport Pagnell. The firm of F W Taylor produced various mineral waters but was mostly known for its mustard production which began in 1830. Even into the late 1970s they were churning out 12,000 jars a week. Although no longer manufactured in the town, the distinctive pots can still be purchased today. We got ours from the butchers on the High Street.

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There are many Taylor family tablets and memorials in the beautiful St Peter and St Paul Church and among them is an intricately-lettered wooden tribute to Francis. ‘Who was killed while leading his platoon in the attack on Posieres, 15th July 1916, aged 19’. It was designed by Robert Lorimer, a leading exponent of the arts and crafts movement, best known for his work on the Scottish National War Memorial at Edinburgh Castle, which lead to him being knighted.

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Local Newport Pagnell historian Dick Parker very kindly met us at the church and showed us around. The delightful graveyard, awash with midsummer elderflower tumbles down to the River Ouzel, which after a bit of heavy rain was lapping gently onto the pathway. Dick told us it goes all the way to Leighton Buzzard which was a later destination that day to pick up Sid’s Plaque. The standing of the family in the area can be measured by the impressive family mausoleum on which Francis’ parents and many other family members names appear. Dick then took us on a tour of some of the Taylor homes. Known to many as a junction on the M1 motorway, Newport Pagnell is a delightful small market town with many interesting buildings. It was an important Midlands crossroads with a strong mercantile streak. The site of the mustard factory currently boarded up and awaiting development is a stone’s throw from the St Peter and St Paul Church and just across the road from one of the Taylor home at The Limes. It would have been behind a chemist’s business which the family were also involved in. This still fronts onto the High Street at No36 and is now the Willen Hospice charity shop. Their main residence however was somewhere even grander called Lovat Bank. This impressive pile was built by Francis Taylor’s grandfather in 1877 and the family lived there until 1959. His parents had died within a few weeks of each other in 1953 and his brother Fred passed away in 1956 aged 67. Lovat Bank was sold to the Territorial Army and for a while it was council premises and is now offices. Its size and substance gave us all a good indication of the Taylor family’s standing in this community. The loss of a son would have been newsworthy and his death was noted in a number of local papers. The Bucks Standard of 22nd July 1916 reported ‘News was received on Thursday morning that Lieutenant Francis Maurice Taylor, of the Royal Fusiliers, had been killed In action on Sunday July 16th. Aged 19, he was the third son of Mr and Mrs F W Taylor of The Limes’. Lieutenant Colonel White, officer commanding the Royal Fusiliers wrote ‘He was killed carrying back a wounded soldier in the face of terrible machine gun fire’. The Wolverton Express of 28th July mentioned that he was killed ‘while carrying back a wounded soldier in the face of withering machine gun fire’.

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Our next stop was 475 year old Berkhamsted School, visited the previous month by its Royal Patron, Her Majesty the Queen. She is apparently the first incumbent monarch to drop in, though the story goes that Charles II passed by the front gate but carried on down the road. Lesley, the archivist gave us a magnificent tour and showed us the First World War Roll of Honour on which Francis Taylor’s name is written. Astonishingly eighteen and a half per cent of boys who went to war from this school never returned. Francis who left the school in 1913 was in the school cadet force and there are a number of group photographs of young lads in uniform in which he may well appear.

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After his studies, Francis Taylor worked for a firm of tea merchants in London, Peek Bros & Winch Ltd. He joined the Inns of Court Training Corps in March 1914 and was given his commission in September. He was seventeen and a half and stood five foot ten and a half inches tall. The same age as Sidney Seager when he first put on a uniform, but a few inches taller. In July 1915 he went to the front where according to the Bucks Standard he did ‘a good deal of trench fighting and night patrol duty’.

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This privileged  world of big houses and public schools is far removed from the poverty of the Fairlight or Summerstown. The Seagers had respectable trades in the printing industry and at the Stock Exchange, but seven children lived in a small house with their widowed mother and Albert is in a public grave in Streatham Cemetery. His name is on the Screen but there is no headstone. The Taylor family mausoleum is as big as the entire Streatham Cemetery war memorial.

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An older Taylor brother Frederick who worked with his father in the chemist’s business. He had been commissioned as a Lieutenant in the Manchester Regiment and was wounded by a shell just two days before Francis’ death. He was in a London hospital when news that his brother had died came through. Francis had a younger brother, Alan Linnell Taylor who was killed in the Second World War. He was sixteen when his brother died. Alan himself was killed on the first day of the Battle of Crete in 1941 and is buried at Souda Bay. His memorial tablet was placed directly below that of his brother in St Peter and St Paul Church.

Wouldn’t it be lovely to have a photograph of Lieutenant Francis Taylor? To see the face of the brave selfless young man who gave his life to preserve that of another would be a special privilege. On 1st July, Lieutenant Taylor will be remembered along with three other old boys who died in that battle, in a special Somme event at Berkhamsted School which will include a screening of the famous Geoffrey Mallins film. Also that day, Sheila and I will try to find his name on the Thiepval Memorial when we attend the Offical Somme Commemoration in France. Twelve of the Summerstown182, some perhaps known by Sidney Seager also have their names inscribed on there. Another is Lieutenant Geoffrey Cather, who like Francis Taylor, worked for a tea company. And, like Lieutenant Taylor was killed in the act of saving the lives of others. For this he was awarded the Victoria Cross and will be honoured when a Commemorative Stone is laid at the war memorial in his native Streatham on 4th July 2016.

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Thanks to everyone who has helped with putting together this account. Dick, Malcolm and Marilyn in Newport Pagnell and Lesley at Berkhamsted School. Marion, Chris and Sheila for their research and of course Gary who in sharing Sidney’s letter provided the key to this extraordinary story.

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