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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