Black Monday

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Charles Robinson lived at 12 Bendon Valley and there has been more doubt and speculation about him than any of the other 179 names on the St Mary’s Church war memorial that we have so far identified. It was almost two years before we added him to our roll of honour and even now we cannot be absolutely certain that he is the ‘C Robinson’ on the memorial. He’s obviously got the same name as the vicar at the time, Reverend John Robinson and for a while it seemed possible that the name on the memorial might even have been a member of his family, several of whom get a mention in the parish magazine in the war years. One cousin Lieutenant Ernest Robinson was drowned on HMS Hawke, another Commander Eric Gascoigne Robinson was decorated with a VC for his actions on HMS Triumph at Gallipoli. Known as ‘Kipper’ he later served in the Second World War at the age of sixty and is buried in a small churchyard outside Petersfield. A cousin of Mrs Robinson, a Lieutenant Hugh Castell Pearson was awarded the MC.

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The family of Charles Robinson orbited a very different world entirely. They came from the heartland of riverside industrialised Wandsworth, at the northern end of Garratt Lane, a world of mills, horse slaughtering yards and manure factories. His father George John Robinson, born in 1868 was the son of a plasterer from Putney. In the 1871 census his family lived at 37 Ram Square, a very old part of the area close to the site of what was until quite recently Youngs Brewery. Charles Young and Anthony Bainbridge started their company here in 1831 when they purchased the Ram Brewery. The company closed their Wandsworth operations in 2006 and the area is currently undergoing a major residential re-development. At the moment its a riot of cranes, hard hats and tip-up trucks and threading its way through this is the final messy stretch of River Wandle. The site of Ram Square appears to have been swallowed up by Wandsworth Town Hall but the name lives on and The Ram Quarter is being pushed as a highly desirable place to live for those who can afford it. George Robinson followed his father’s footsteps and worked as a plasterer. He wouldn’t have been able to live in this area now but he’d have been in his element at the amount of plastering work on offer.

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In 1881 George lived at 40 Iron Mill Road. This was probably named due to its proximity to Adkins Iron Mill, about which a visitor in 1813 observed; ‘At these mills are cast shot, shells, cannons and other implements of war’ – very likely used a couple of years later at Waterloo. Another vivid account from a Sir Richard Phillips in 1817 describes how ‘the men mingled themselves with the fire like salamanders; the owner told me that to supply the excessive evaporation, some of them found it necessary to drink eight or ten pots of porter per day. Many of them presented in their brawny arms which were rendered so by the constant exertion of those limbs, and in their bronzed countenance, caused by the actions of the heat and the effluvia, striking pictures of true sons of Vulcan; and except in occasional accidents, they enjoyed, I was told general good health and often attained a hearty old age’.

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George John Robinson aged 21 married Lizzie Lee aged 17 on Christmas Day 1888 in All Saints Church, Wandsworth. She was born in Pilton, Rutland and died not too far away in Leicester in October 1954. On the marriage certificate her address is South Street, the old name for the Wandsworth end of Garratt Lane. Her father was a bricklayer called Elijah who passed away in Chicago in 1900. Their eldest child George was born in 1891 and Louisa 4 years later. Charles Robinson, referred to as Charlie on many official documents was born on 21st November 1896. He was baptised on 7th February at St Stephen’s Wandsworth with his parents address now 22 Wharf Road. In 1901 it would seem the Robinsons were living in Leicester with five children; George, Louisa, Charles, Mable and Florence. Perhaps they were finding London a bit of a struggle and had decided to have a go in Lizzie’s neck of the woods.

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It looks like they moved back to Wandsworth shortly afterwards as son Alfred was born there in February 1902 when the family lived at 8 Aslett Street. They were still there when Dorothy was born the following year. This pleasant street which rises gently up the hill to Swaffield School is still intact. In 1904 there is a record of Charlie going to Garratt Lane School and living at 5 Furmage Street. This is just on the other side of Garratt Lane, though No5 has disappeared. There’s a stone plaque on the houses just up the road a bit near the Grosvenor pub which indicates where the school was.

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The 1911 census shows the Robinsons at 12 Bendon Valley, Earlsfield, slowly edging their way towards Summerstown. Even in the time we started this project and wrote two years ago about a soldier called James Chenery who lived there, Bendon Valley has changed beyond all recognition. Now the bingo has gone and the road is dominated by two immense box-like constructions, a trampolining centre and the inevitable storage unit facilty. George junior would have been 20 and had possibly moved on but two other children, Louisa and Florence are also not present. Aged 14, Charlie was the oldest of the five children listed and worked as a butcher’s shop boy. Mable was 11, Alfred 9, Dorothy 7 and Bernard 2. Their father now 43 was still working as a plasterer and mother Lizzie was a maternity nurse. They had been married for 22 years.

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This extraordinary area was one of the most colourful and industrious parts of south west London but there was a price to be paid. Columbia Records had set up on Bendon Valley in 1907 but some of the businesses would not have been pleasant places to work. This stretch of Garratt Lane was a hive of laundries, gas-works and mantle factories, horses coming and going down Wardley Street, day and night. The immense Wandsworth and Clapham Union Workhouse workhouse opened in Swaffield Road in 1885, capable of accomodating over two thousand people and keeping everyone on their toes. In 1911 there were 874 people living there. In 1912 the Wandsworth Medical Officer for Health reported on the ‘offensive trade’ being carried on by the Harrison and Barber Co horse slaughterers – their activities included bone boiling, manure manufacturing and fat melting. There were frequent reports of pungent black smoke emitting from the Primrose Laundry, choking the unfortunate Bendon Valley residents. The poor old Wandle must have been on the receiving end and its no wonder Charlie Robinson saw the army as a way out.

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Charles Robinson was killed on Easter Monday, 9th April 1917, the first day of the British spring offensive at Arras known as The First Battle of the Scarpe. Also killed on that day was someone who knew Summerstown but had a very different perspective, the poet Edward Thomas, 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal Garrison Artillery. He was standing by an observation post when killed by a shell blast. One observer on that morning was  Sergeant Rupert ‘Jack’ Whiteman of 10th Royal Fusiliers ‘Easter Monday April 9th 1917. Truly black Monday. A wretched awakening, pitch dark, cold with a keen wind blowing. One can perhaps imagine the feelings of everybody that morning searching around in the darkness for equipment, chilled to the bone, half asleep, stumbling over other men’s equipment, and on top of it all, the knowledge of a very fair prospect of pushing daisies up before nightfall.’

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This was a huge attack in support of the larger French offensive on the Aisne. The first day was in fact a great success with four Canadian Divisions attacking and capturing the previously unconquered Vimy Ridge. But the assault to the east of the city of Arras which had started so promisingly ended with little tactical gain. Due to the French failure at Aisne followed by widespread mutiny, the Battle at Arras was prolonged and casualty rates climbed. The gains of April 9th were not built upon and the Germans had time to re-organise and strengthen their defences. The fighting lasted for 39 days but in terms of daily casualty rate, this was probably one of the most most costly battles of the entire war.

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Tunneling had been widely used to create an element of surprise and Charles Robinson may very well have approached the front line via a vast network of long tunnels and subways reaching out from the medieval city of Arras itself. At least it kept him out of the sleet and snow. Charles was lost that Black Monday morning and his name is remembered on the Arras Memorial.  This commemorates almost 35,000 servicemen who died in the Arras sector between the spring of 1916 and 7 August 1918 and have no known grave. Astonishingly 12 of the Summerstown182 have their names inscribed on this memorial, more than on any other single cemetery or memorial. It is perhaps indicative of the slaughter in this short but very sharp conflict.

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Another name on the Arras Memorial is Herbert Howard Crocker of 1st London Regiment (Royal Fusiliers) who died on Easter Saturday, 7th April 1917. He’s also on the war memorial at Stockwell, south London. His grandson Colin has been heavily involved with the Western Front Association for many years and we are very glad that he has found the time to support our project, playing a major role in the launch event and identifying First World War memorabilia at our Earlsfield Library Roadshow. His astonishing collection of artefacts has been particularly relevant in our efforts to involve and interest younger people in what we are doing. If you are interested in finding out more about the industry along the Wandle, join our Guided Walk on Saturday, ‘Walking in a Wandle Wonderland’.

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An excellent website dedicated to his family’s military history has been put together by Chris Weekes with a vivid account of the Battle of Arras. http://familyatwar.co.uk/index.php/home/the-battle-of-arras/

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Waterloo Sunset

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The quickest way to get into central London from here is to jump on a train from Earlsfield and its an eleven minute ride into Waterloo. There’s even a bus No77 which goes all the way, it can take an hour but comes highly recommended,  passing a lot of significant south London sights along the way. That may not seem much of a journey these days, but in terms of a century ago it was a very long stretch indeed. Its a bit of a mystery then why someone whose attachment was very much to the Lower Marsh area just to the south of Waterloo station ended up on the St Mary’s Church memorial in Summerstown, six or seven miles away. Such was the case of James Wiliam Hickey.

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Named after Waterloo Bridge which was opened in 1817, two years after the battle, the station opened for business in 1848. It was by all accounts quite a ramshackle operation until a major overhaul at the turn of the century combined with extensive slum clearance got things on track. The first five new platforms were opened in 1910 and construction continued sporadically throughout the First World War until the new station finally opened in 1922. The main pedestrian entrance off York Road, is flanked by the spectacular Victory Arch, designed by James Robb Scott and a memorial to company staff who were killed during the first world war. The four panels contain 585 names, including at least one local man, Charles Brackstone from Trewint Street, who was employed as a porter. How many hundreds of thousands of people pass under it every day without noticing it or giving it a thought?

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James William Hickey’s orbit appears to be the fascinating collection of streets behind Waterloo Station, some of which still exist adjoining Lower Marsh, a cluster of pubs, cafes and the famous street market that have survived the changes all around. The market would appear to be as old as the station, dating from the mid nineteenth century. In its heyday, around the time James Hickey was born, it stretched right down to Lambeth Walk and Black Prince Road. It was almost three miles long, probably the largest and longest street market in London. The most recent location we can find for the Hickey family was at 3 Tanswell Street. On the corner here now is the home of the Christian Aid charity. This was the address given in May 1917 when nineteen year old James Hickey wrote his will, leaving all his personal effects to his mother Alice. He was killed just a few months later that year on 28th August.The road has since been seriously foreshortened by various developments but Marie’s Cafe, facing Tanswell Street on Lower Marsh, looks like it it may have been around at that time in some guise and ready to serve up a comforting cup of tea. Currently it does a delicious plate of Thai noddles.

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It would appear that he was born in Launcelot Road, just a short hop across Lower Marsh. The family lived in at least six other addresses in this area and life appeared to have been one continuous round of upheaval and movement. The connection with St Mary’s, Summerstown, some six or seven miles distant is very difficult to explain, though he’s not alone in that respect. Perhaps a relative with influence put his name forward as would appear to have been the case with Sidney Cullimore. But whilst we established that he had a sister ‘living in Earlsfield’ no such link with James Hickey has emerged. The name though does appear around 1908-1918 in Hazelhurst, Bertal and Foss Roads. Indeed a James Hickey at 37 Foss Road serving in the Bedfordshires is an absent voter. Its most certain that the Hickey family in Lambeth did not have much money. There are no next-of-kin details in his Commonwealth War Graves Commission record and no personal inscription has been added to his grave. His parents, relatively young, with many other worries, may possibly have chosen to simply forget the system that had taken their eldest son and move on. But thanks at least to the memorial in the church we can tell a little of James’ story.

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In the March 1918 edition of the St Mary’s Church parish magazine, in the same paragraph mentioning the deaths of Charles Blakeley and Eldred Henden, notice is made ‘that James William Hickey of the Suffolk Regiment has been killed’. There is no other mention of him throughout the course of the war as a serving soldier but clearly notification of his death was brought to Reverend Robinson’s attention and subsequently his name was inscribed on the memorial. Because of this inclusion, its almost certain that the James William Hickey from Lower Marsh, Waterloo is our man.

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His parents James Hickey and the exquisitely named Alice Ancient were married at the stunning St John the Evangelist Church on 15th August 1897. Its still there and a highly visible connection to the past on the Waterloo Bridge roundabout dominated by the IMAX cinema. James was nineteen and working as a ‘stocker’, which presumably means some kind of Victorian equivalent of stacking shelves. Given the Bankside proximity, it could have been loading and unloading the barges on the wharves. Their first son James William was born in the January quarter of 1898 so he was well on the way when the happy couple tripped up the aisle. They were now at 68 Launcelot Street, just off Lower Marsh. Incredibly this road still exists, dipping beneath the mess of platforms that make up the nineties Eurostar development of the Waterloo Station concourse. One or two of the buildings on Launcelot Street even look like they were around from James Hickey’s time and thus this fascinating road encapsulates three different centuries of history. Close by is the extraordinary Banksy-initiated Leake Street ‘graffiti tunnel’ which is as interesting to visit as anything you’ll ever find on the South Bank.

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In December 1899 John Thomas Hickey was born and the family were now resident at 44 Doon Street, behind the National Theatre, another road that has also survived the changes all around it, though in name only. Charles Booth visited this area at the time and mentions, thieves, prostitutes, brothels, broken windows and children with dirty faces. He remarked that ‘women and children seem to live in the streets more than they do north of the Thames’. By the time of the 1901 census the Hickeys were at 8 Prince’s Buildings, just off York Road and not too far from the London Eye. The road has long gone but neighbouring Chicheley Street has survived in name only. This area is currently the scene of intensive re-development, the site next to the Shell Centre resembling some sort of deep mine, filled with workmen in orange jackets, cranes and diggers.

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James was now a timber labourer. This was an area Booth noted was ‘crammed with children’. A third son Harry was baptised on New Years Day 1902. James was now working as a carman and their latest abode was at 25 Carlisle Buildings, round the back of Lambeth Palace. Harry married Lilian Stewart in 1923 and they had six children. Lilian, James, Violet, Grace, Robert and Anne. Their eldest son James William who died earlier this year was named after his Uncle. Harry passed away aged 82 in Lewisham in 1984.

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Very sadly John Hickey died aged three in 1903. Another child Alice was born in 1905 by which time the Hickeys were living at Little Thomas Street. In 1911 the ever-resourceful James Senior was working as a scaffolder and the family of five were now living in two rooms at 16 Marshall Street, off St George’s Road. This street was roughly half way between the Elephant and Castle and the Bethlehem Lunatic Asylum (now The Imperial War Museum). The road is now submerged beneath a housing estate but would have been opposite Hayles Street and the Prince of Wales pub where James Senior would certainly have enjoyed a drink or two. The neighbouring road, Gaywood Street still exists and the photo above gives us an idea of what the houses in Marshall Street would have been like. Oddly enough Alice had been raised next door at No14, her father William Ancient was a carpenter and she was one of nine children. James was now thirteen. All this moving around, different jobs, child mortality… points to a difficult and unsettled life in an over-populated and very poor part of London. With a nod to Ray Davies, this was a few years before Waterloo Underground, but there were most definitely millions of people, swarming like flies. As would have been the case for thousands of other young men, the army would have been a way out of this. It offered the prospect of regular food and pay, foreign adventure and an escape from the drudgery of inner-city depravation.

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James Hickey served in the 11th Battalion The Suffolk Regiment, known as The Cambridgeshire Suffolks. Its possible that he may well have been transfered to them in the wake of their horrendous losses on the first day of the Somme, however his medal card doesn’t indicate an involvement with any other regiment. On 1st July 1916, 800 men of the 11th Suffolks had advanced on German positions. 186 of them lost their lives and a further 505 were injured. On 26th August 1917 they participated as part of the 34th Division in a successful attack on Malakhoff farm and the trench system in front of the village of Hargicourt. The Suffolks lost 31 men killed on 26th, most were buried in Hargicourt. James Hickey was almost certainly injured in this action, dying of his wounds two days later. Tincourt, just a few miles away and where he is buried, was a centre of the casualty clearing stations at the time.

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In the report of the assault of 26th August in the 11th Suffolks war diary, the battalion were at a place called Roisel, east of Peronne. Its noted that the whole battalion were in position by 230am, having moved in silence so as not to alert the enemy. Also mentioned was the terrible weather and that ‘the men were very cold before starting off’. Hard to imagine how nineteen year old James Hickey could have felt that morning. The diary states that the attack started at 430am and by 450am ‘all objectives were gained’. The inclement weather continued and was ‘very wet making work difficult and conditions wretched’. It was in this action that Corporal Sidney Day from Norwich won the Victoria Cross. He was in charge of a bombing section who successfully cleared enemy trenches, killing two and taking four prisoners. He then went out alone to contact neighbouring troops. He returned to find that a stick-bomb had landed in a trench with five wounded men. Corporal Day picked it up and threw it away, where it exploded harmlessly. He completed the task of clearing the trenches and remained in an advanced position for 64 hours under constant fire. His conduct was regarded as an inspiration to all. Its possible one of the wounded men in the trench could have been James Hickey.

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There are over 2000 casualties in Tincourt New British Cemetery including 150 Germans and 136 Americans. The Germans withdrew from this area in March 1917 to the Hindenburg Line and recaptured it in the Spring Offensive of 1918. Its so very hard to believe now, that this tranquil landscape of scattered farms and cows grazing gently on rolling pastureland, could once have borne witness to so much violence and destruction. Perhaps here James Hickey found a peacefulness in death that the boy from the back streets of Waterloo never found in his short and very hectic life.

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UPDATE – Shortly after this post was first published we made contact with the Hickey family and on 8th December we met Anne, youngest child of Harry and Lilian Hickey and James’ niece. We had a wonderful day with her, wandering around the Waterloo area locating some of the places that were connected with her family, so many years ago. With a Charles Booth map to hand, helping to identify some of the streets that no longer exist, seldom have I felt the hand of history hovering so intensely over us. We met at St John the Evangelist Church, where 119 years earlier her grandparents tripped up the aisle. Ann remembers them well and provided the fascinating information that James Senior supplemented his income by practising as a bare-knuckle boxer. She recalled her father telling her that as a boy he once followed him out to witness an organised street brawl. He was so shocked by what he saw that he never repeated it. Apparently Alice was also quite a tough cookie and acted as his regular sparring partner. Indeed she packed such a fearsome punch that in her ninetieth year, she knocked someone out after a row in a post office. Intruigingly it would appear that James also served as a soldier in the First World War.

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In 2016, LSE Library’s Archive of Charles Booth’s Inquiry into the Life and Labour of the People in London (1886-1903) was inscribed into UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register. The archive comprises over 450 volumes of interviews, questionnaires, observations and statistical information. We’ve used the Charles Booth poverty maps extensively in this particular story and the new improved website on which this and his notebooks and diaries can be accessed is quite simply a revelation. Unfortunately the maps only go as far as Wandsworth so don’t cover the Summerstown area. Booth did however visit us around the same time when he was writing his ‘Religious Influences’ survey and made some very choice observations about our neighbourhood! I attended a lecture at the LSE by historian Sarah Wise earlier this week, part of the Library’s activities around the launch. I found myself sitting next to Charles Booth’s Great Grandson and what a great pleasure it was to shake his hand and tell him how much I enjoy quoting his ancestor on Summerstown182 Walks.

http://booth.lse.ac.uk/map/14/-0.1174/51.5064/100/0

Big Guns

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It was after my Aunt’s funeral in Ireland this summer and my sister and I were travelling west when we thought we’d drop off the motorway and visit the ancestral Simmons homeland in the linen country south of Dungannon, County Tyrone. Over the past few years Alma enjoyed very much hearing about the Simmons family history. She loved the story of her Grandfather Robert, whose Crimean war exploits were discovered in The National Archives. He’d won medals at the battles of Alma and Inkerman, though she always doubted the speculation that she was named after it. Seeing the names; Somme, Loos and Verdun peppered amongst the baptismal records in the St Mary’s church parish magazine during the first world war years, I’ve got an open mind on that one.

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Our Uncle, Grandparents and Great Grandparents are all buried in Derrygortreevy graveyard at St Columba’s Church near Eglish. I’d never been inside, but on this occasion the church door was open and we chatted with a couple of lovely folk who said we should talk to a local historian who lived just up the road. Ten minutes later we were in Wolsey Moore’s parlour as he consulted his 1860 ‘Griffiths parish valuation records’. Within just a few minutes he found reference to a Robert Simmons living ‘free’ at ‘church and graveyard’. Sounds pretty much perfect to me. Wolsey was certain this meant that he performed some kind of sexton role for the church, keeping it tidy, repairing things and digging the graves. He would have lived in a cottage behind the current orange hall adjoining the church. In the aerial photo the hall is the building in the foreground. The original cottage is long gone but the photo shows the one in its place. He would have been the father of ‘Crimean Robert’, my namesake and Great Great Grandfather. We went back to the church, built in 1815, the year of Waterloo and as if to give a final thumping salute to our Simmons ancestors, including Alma – three Lambeg drummers, testing their equipment for a local drumming contest gave us an impromptu demonstration. The sound was like thunder, echoing across the peaceful green midsummer countryside of the Oona valley. This is Simmons country and where it all began for us. It was quite an emotional moment to end the day and we finished it off in Aughnacloy and called in on the couple who live in the old Simmons home on The Diamond in the Main Street where Alma was born in 1923. Anyway, given my current interest in graves, churches and cemeteries, I’m very proud to welcome a gravedigger and sexton into my ancestry and hence the affinity with William Steers, one of the Summerstown182 whose father followed this profession.

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William James Steers appears to have been Tooting born and bred, growing up in Salvador and Selkirk Road. At the time Robert Simmons was gearing up for his Crimean adventures, Tooting was very much still a village and William would have been probably grown up listening to scare stories about the activities of Mr Drouet. His father was a gardener and his mother a laundress whose father is listed in the 1861 census as a Chelsea Pensioner. William married Alice Edwards at St Leonard’s Church, Streatham on 3rd July 1892. He was 34 and she was 33 but they soon made up for lost time and in June the following year, William their eldest child was born. William Senior worked as a gravedigger and sexton. In 1901 they were at 65 Trevelyan Road and William now had four siblings; Edith, Charles, George and Eleanor. This street has been attracting our attention a lot recently as it was apparently once the home of the double Olympic gold medal winning Tooting athlete, Albert Hill. Given their young family, the road would have been very handy for Sellincourt School which opened for business in 1907. Someone who might gone there, third eldest son Charles died that year aged ten. Perhaps given William’s job they needed to be closer to the cemetery, but by 1911 they were at 149 Fountain Road, right next door to Lambeth Cemetery on Blackshaw Road. William junior was now 17 and working as a builders labourer and another child Alice had joined the family.

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This is one corner of the Summerstown182 circuit that always makes the hairs prickle. It may be proximity to tragic Frank Taylor’s house, the rather creepy looking cemetery, thoughts of Colin Davis’ ‘Hospital Tour’ with its tales of body-snatching or just the fact that these are some of the oldest houses in the area, but this is one for Halloween night and most definitely on the dark side. Certainly it was pretty much the perfect spot for a gravedigger’s residence. Indeed most of the houses in this strip in 1911 appear to be occupied by people whose work was connected to the cemetery – monumental engraver, gardener, cemetery attendant, mason. Probably the most famous person buried in Lambeth Cemetery is the entertainer Dan Leno ‘The King of Laughter Makers whose funeral in 1904 attracted a huge crowd. Could William Steers have dug his grave?

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This feeling of unease has not even been lifted by knowledge that one of the ‘Lost Women of British Jazz’ Sadie Crawford, lived just a few doors away. Pictured above with her husband Adolph, she was born Louisa Marshall at No143, she was a ragtime performer and saxophonist, the first British woman to record with African American jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong. Its just possible she may have overlapped with the Steers family. There is a lot of interest in her at the moment and I’m sure we’ll be hearing more about her.

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A year later and just turned nineteen, it would appear that William Steers married Sarah Dale, the daughter of a ‘hardware hawker’ from Battersea in the autumn of 1912. There is no mention of her on his Commonwealth War Graves Commission details but his soldiers effects form indicates her name. In the St Mary’s Church parish magazine I found notice of the baptism of a Charles Robert Steers on 17th February 1915. This was the son of William and Sarah who it appeared were now living at 20 Hazelhurst Road and he was very likely named after William’s brother who had died so young. Also baptised at the church that day was the son of Thomas Knight, another man whose name would end up on our war memorial. This address on Hazelhurst Road was one of the houses which were destroyed in the V2 blast of 1944 but by then the Steers were long gone. It would appear that after the war, the family left the area and settled in Lewisham. William’s widow Sarah never remarried. She lived for a while with her sister’s family in Mount Pleasant Road and worked as a domestic servant. She died in Wayland, Norfolk aged 92 in 1984.Charles Steers married Rose Stone in 1939 and passed away in Lewisham in 1994.

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William’s military documentation suggests he joined up in Wandsworth and entered France on 7th July 1915 . He was killed in action on 13th May 1917 and is buried at Feuchy, just outside Arras. As an Acting Bombadier with the 102nd Siege Battery of the Royal Garrison Artillery, William Steers would have been part of a team manning some of the heaviest, most powerful artillery on the western front. Having just seen the Carved in Stone screening of the ‘Battle of the Somme’ film in Wimbledon Library, images of men and horses struggling to manoeuvre huge cumbersome pieces of firepower into position are very much in my mind. These heavy howitzers were capable of sending out large calibre high explosive shells in a high trajectory. They were the weapons of mass destruction of their day, used to obliterate infastructure such as strongpoints, ammunition dumps, stores, roads and railways behind enemy lines and blitzing everything in their path. It required a huge team to operate them, each battery consisting of up to 180 men and 140 horses.

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William Steers would have seen service here through 1916, participating and surviving the Somme. 1917 was a year of attrition, but the Battle of Arras was the first large scale attempt at a further breakthrough. It was hailed a great allied victory, mainly because of the success at Vimy a little further to the north of Feuchy, but in reality it achieved very little. In fact it came at a cost of about 300,000 casualties in less than six weeks fighting. 35,000 of them are on the Arras Memorial, eight of the Summerstown182 and our friend Colin Crocker’s grandfather Herbert. It was in the later stages of this, at the village of Feuchy, a few miles to the east of Arras that William died and where he is buried in the same cemetery as Edward Seager, another Summerstown lad from Thurso Street. Both sides used gas, and the famous ‘Red Baron’, Manfred von Richthofen, shot down several planes above the area. Serving in the same 102nd Siege Battery as William and killed just a few weeks before him was a Newcastle United footballer called Richard McGough. Feuchy was captured on 9th April 1917 and Feuchy British Cemetery was constructed shortly afterwards. The area would change hands again before the end of the war. It now contains 209 First World War burials. We went there two years ago to visit Edward Seager and to my great shame, William Steers slipped through the net. We will most definitely return.

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On 13 May 1917, the day of William Steers’ death, three children in Portugal saw a woman ‘brighter than the sun, shedding rays of light clearer and stronger than a crystal goblet filled with the most sparkling water and pierced by the burning rays of the sun’. She wore a white mantle edged with gold and held a rosary in her hand. The woman asked them to devote themselves to the Holy Trinity and to pray ‘the Rosary every day, to bring peace to the world and an end to the war’. This was the vision of Fatima, since then one of the most significant and visited Roman Catholic shrines in the world. Ponder upon that the next time the sun is dipping and you are heading down Fountain Road on a dark evening with the gothic edifices of Lambeth Cemetery looming up on the horizon.