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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.