Charlie Corben’s Spurs

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Its not unusual for First World War soldiers to have served under a name that wasn’t their own. One who I researched extensively a few years ago was a shipyard worker from Sunderland called Robert Hope, who for whatever reason, chose to join the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers using his Gran’s maiden name, Hepple. The first example we have encountered amongst the Summerstown182 is someone we hold very dear and we are very grateful to a living relative who has shed some light on his story. On our memorial and the database of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, his name is Charles Barnes, but the boy we remember in Summerstown is twenty year old Charlie Corben. Making contact with his niece set this project alight a few years ago. Of course, I thought something similar might happen every week and it hasn’t. To meet someone just one generation removed from those on our memorial was quite extraordinary. On top of that, Frances provided a stunning photograph of her uncle and showed us some of his personal effects. But perhaps, most memorably of all, she provided a memory of him which sends tingles down my spine whenever I think of it. It happened over one hundred years ago but it is still recalled on Alston Road today.

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The words were provided by Charlie’s sister and created an extraordinary impression of the family’s final recollection of the young soldier. ‘The last thing she remembered was the sound of his spurs jangling on the pavement’. I could analyse those words all day. It evokes so much, a young man returning to duty, perhaps leaving home for the first and last time. An early morning farewell to the family home were he had grown up. The words ‘jangling’ and ‘spurs’ lending a heroic, almost Shakespearean edge to it all. The pavement would of course have been that outside No8 Alston Road, turn left for Tooting, right for Smallwood Road. Our impression of Charlie, fresh-faced and looking a little anxious in his photo, sitting awkwardly in an ornately carved wooden chair, coupled with the words of his sister, have put him very much to the forefront of this project. His name and photo have been shown on many of our Summerstown182 Walks as we pass his home on our way down Alston Road.

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Charles joined the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry and his medal card indicates that he landed in France on 1st October 1915. He would have just missed the decimation of his regiment at Bellewaarde Farm, but was thrown into the Battle of Loos. He was killed on 1st January 1916 and its very unlikely that he got any leave in the interim period. Therefore, we can be fairly sure those spurs of his jangled on the pavement at the end of the summer of 1915 when he was swept up in the great Kitchener recruitment drive with Alfred Quenzer, the Baseley Brothers, William Warman and so many other lads who lived just a few doors away from him.

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The 5th (Service) Battalion, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry was raised at Oxford in August 1914 as part of Kitchener’s First New Army and landed in Boulogne on 21st May 1915. At Hooge, they were the first division to be attacked by flamethrowers and in September suffered horrendous losses at Bellewaarde Farm, a disastrous diversionary attack in the Battle of Loos just prior to Charlie’s arrival in France. After this the war diary notes the loss of 52 dead, 246 wounded, 136 missing. Two days later a draft of 200 NCOs and men arrived as replacements, apparently ‘a very good looking lot of men’. One of these would have been Charlie Corben. Over the next few months they were in and out of the trenches around Ypres. There was occasional sniping and shelling, they trained, prepared for gas attacks and spent some relaxation time in Poperinghe. On New Year’s Eve the diary notes a move from Herzeele to St Jean ‘Quiet day. Barnsley Road slightly shelled. I other rank  killed, 2 other ranks wounded’. On New Year’s Day ‘Quiet day. Half battalion in trenches relieved by half battalion in farms. Work on trenches and supports, 3 ORs killed, 5 wounded’. One of those three was Charles Corben. The others were 18 year old Frederick Twist from Birmingham and 19 year old Frank Casemore from Aylesbury. They are three of the 54,000 names remembered on The Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres.

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Back in Summerstown, the April issue of the St Mary’s Church parish magazine delivered the grave news ‘With great regret we have to announce that Charles Barnes of the Oxfordshire and Bucks Light infantry was killed when in the first line of trenches by a sniper on January 1st’. St Jean was a small village to the north east of Ypres which by 1917 had been completely wiped off the map. Charlie and his two pals were probably buried here originally but fighting here over the next three years obliterated these graves and the three lads are on the huge memorial to those with no known grave. It should be of great solace and pride to the families of these men to know that one hundred years later, huge crowds, including so many young people, gather here every night at 8pm to remember. The Menin Gate Ceremony is a magnificent deeply-touching ritual that should be experienced by everyone.

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One person who would have appreciated Edwin Lutyen’s architecture and the work that went into this memorial was John Corben. Charlie’s father was a well known local figure. Family information has told us that he was a master stone mason who helped build St Mary’s Church in 1903-04. He also worked on Buckingham Palace and once dined with the King and Queen. His father Jeremiah was also a stonemason and came from Langton Matravers in Dorset. We have already learned how many skilled men from this area came to London, particularly Wandsworth in the nineteenth century to work on the area’s burgeoning construction. Another was John Lander, also one of the Summerstown182, ‘The Man from Dancing Ledge’. Jeremiah settled with his wife Elizabeth in Lambeth, living not very far away from the residences of James Hickey’s family, in the area between Waterloo Station and the South Bank.

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The 26th March 1871 was a notable day in the Corben family history. Then living at No4 Manners Street, in the shadow of the railway bridge, on that day, no less than six of the children including John then aged fourteen were baptised at St John the Evangelist Church. So much has changed in this area, but the church survives on the Waterloo Bridge roundabout facing the IMAX cinema. Only just though, because it was heavily damaged by enemy action on the night of Sunday 8th December 1940, when a bomb struck the nave roof, destroying this and most of the internal fittings.

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John Corben married Henrietta Mary Taylor in Lambeth on Christmas Eve 1893. She came from Bledlow in Buckinghamshire and this may have shaped Charlie’s choice of regiment. Charlie was born on 30th May 1895 and baptised in the same church as his father, St John the Evangelist, Waterloo. Its revealing that on the register he is Charlie, not Charles. The family had moved to south west London and were at 27 Mantua Street in Battersea, a stone’s throw from Prices Candle Factory. By the time of the 1901 census they had moved round the corner to 69 Wye Street. The street is still there today, dissecting the enormous Winstanley Estate, next to Clapham Junction. There is though no sign of a No69 and no original houses appear to have survived. There were three children present in 1901, six year old Charlie, Beatrice aged three and one year old William. In Charles Booth’s 1899 notebooks, there is a reference to a ‘Board School’ on Wye Street. This would have been Mantua Street School, opened in 1876 and extensively rebuilt in 1913, it is now Falconbrook Primary. An admissions record indicates that Charlie enrolled here on 25th August 1902. The surrounding roads in this area sound like a checklist of late Victorian colonial activity; Khyber Road, Kabul Road, Natal Road, Musjid Road and Afghan Road. many of them still exist, perhaps a little truncated in some cases. The area is an extraordinary mix of Victorian houses and unsympathetic sixties and seventies developments. Some of this is likely to be turned upside down in the next few years as Wandsworth Council embark on a massive regeneration of the Winstanley and York Road estates.

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A 1904 street register has John Corben living at 7 Letchworth Street in Tooting so it seems very likely that his work had taken him to Tooting and the building of the Totterdown Fields Estate. Letchworth Street was on the edge of this. By 1910 the family were at 73 Smallwood Road and a year later had settled in 8 Alston Road, beginning an almost one hundred year connection with this property. This ended when John’s niece Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Corben died in 2010. In 1911 there were seven children, Charlie was 15 and working as a grocer’s errand boy, his siblings were Beatrice, William, Ethel, Hilda, Sidney and Leslie. John Corben died in 1932 and his wife in 1949. Beatrice lived at 8 Alston Road until her death in 1987 aged 89 and William’s daughter Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Corben until she passed away in 2010 aged 83. She is buried in Streatham Cemetery and her death ended almost a century’s connection of the Corben family with 8 Alston Road. One hundred year’s during which the family must have thought many times about the sound of Charlie’s spurs jangling on the pavement.

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This extraordinary and evocative memory of Charlie demonstrates the power of oral history and the value in recording and documenting it. You can learn how to capture such memories and stories when we host an oral history workshop at our next ‘Friends of Summerstown182’ meeting in St Mary’s Church Hall on Tuesday 17th January at 730pm.

All Together Now

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When I was in India a few years ago I had a bizarre idea that if I went along to the Royal Bombay Yacht Club I might find some reference to my Great Uncle, Alan Lendrum having passed through. Turned down by the Royal Navy, he served in the Royal Indian Marine between 1907 and 1910 and I thought be might pop up in a group photo in the dining room or something. No such luck but its a nice slice of faded colonial grandeur if you are ever in Mumbai. While I was in Delhi, I was amazed to see the massive India Gate Memorial and find out that 82,000 Indian soldiers had been killed in the First World War, serving alongside my Great Uncle. I had seen a few photos of cavalry men wearing turbans and knew vaguely that many Indians had come to Europe but surely not this many.

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The extent of the involvement of soldiers from overseas really does take the breath away. Bear in mind though that in 1914 the British Empire was in control of a quarter of the world’s population, 412 million people. Its astonishing to consider that 1,500,000 men from ‘undivided India’ (comprising present-day India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma and Sri Lanka) including soldiers and non-combatants, were recruited into the British Indian Army during the First World War. It is estimated that 400,000 of these, about a third of the British Indian Army were Muslim. One in every six soldiers of the British Empire was from the Indian subcontinent. Compare this to 134,000 from Ireland, 332,000 from Australia and 400,000 from Canada. True, proportionally these are much less populous countries, but in terms of our impression of the war, its stories and experiences of the latter seem to dominate. The contribution of the Indian soldiers has perhaps been viewed in the mainstream as a quirky oddity, to be noticed, but quickly forgotten. Thankfully a number of organisations in this centenary commemoration period are doing great work to ensure their participation is more widely recognised.

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Indian Amy soldiers were in action on the Western Front within a month of the start of the war, some 24,000 men of the Lahore and Meerut divisions landing in Marseilles and placed under the command of General Sir James Willcocks. They are credited with plugging a gap which could have seen the Germans breaking through in that early stage. Over this long winter, Indian soldiers manned a third of the British line in France and there were records of exceptional bravery, with Khudadad Khan receiving the first Victoria Cross to be received by a South Asian soldier in the First Battle of Ypres. They were though ill-prepared for the harsh conditions in the trenches and suffered from a lack of warm clothing and food.

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After a year of front-line duty, sickness and high casualties combined with loss of so many highly trained British officers who understood the cultures and religions of their men, the Indian Corps was reduced to the point where it had to be withdrawn. Indian cavalry continued to serve on the Western Front until 1916. Many of these were redeployed in other theatres such as Gallipoli. Almost half a million became embroiled in Mesopotamia, where up to 12,000 were captured after the Siege of Kut which involved Thomas Carrigan of the Summerstown182. The Battle of Neuve Chapelle in March 1915 saw the Indian Corps fight its first major action as a single unit, forming half of the attacking force. More than 4,000 of them perished here and is the highly symbolic location of The Indian Memorial.

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At a crossroads not far from the Belgian border, The Indian Memorial at Neuve Chapelle commemorates over 4,700 Indian soldiers and labourers who lost their lives on the Western Front during the First World War and have no known graves. It takes the form of a sanctuary enclosed within a circular wall in the style of the enclosing railings of early Indian shrines. A high column of white stone between two weeping willows is flanked by two tigers, guarding the temple of the dead. The column is surmounted by a Lotus flower, the Star of India and the Imperial Crown. Its base is carved with the words: INDIA 1914-1918. On the lower part of the column the words ‘God is One, He is the Victory’ are inscribed in English, with similar texts in Arabic, Hindi, and Gurmukhi. The Neuve Chapelle Memorial is the only place of remembrance on the Western Front to commemorate the sacrifice made by Indian soldiers during the Great War.

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After an initial success, within a few hours, the advance at Neuve Chapelle ground to a halt through poor communications and a lack of munitions. In just over half an hour the bombardment consumed more shells than the British Army had used in the whole of the Boer War fifteen years earlier. Fighting ceased on 13th March with British gains limited to an area two kilometres deep and three kilometres wide for a loss of over 11,000 British and Indian soldiers, either killed or wounded. Some fifteen miles to the north of this, a soldier called William Tate was in the 1st Wiltshire Battalion. Alongside the 3rd Worcesters, their role in this offensive was to attack and take Spanbroek Mill at Wytschaete (‘Whitesheet’), just inside the Belgian border, as a preliminary to a further advance. The 12th March was a misty morning and the war diary mentions that the rumble of the firing at Neuve Chapelle to the south could be distinctly heard. The mist had turned to dense white fog and the British guns were unable to observe their own fire and the attack was delayed until 4pm. William Tate and his mates emerged from their waterlogged ditches into knee-deep mud and were met with a hail of bullets. By the time they returned to billets at Locre, the Wiltshires lost 29 killed, 45 wounded and 12 missing. The Worcesters were hit even harder with 47 killed, 99 wounded and 32 missing. William Tate very likely survived this as his record states he was ‘killed in action’ on 18th March. Over the following days the battalion recuperated and rested at Kemmel. On the 17th the war diary records that ‘all Box Respirators of the Battalion were inspected by the Brigade Gas Officers. In the afternoon all officers reconnoitred the scene of the Brigade, attack practice which was to take place the following day.’ Obviously a gas attack was expected but whatever happened the following day, the diary makes grim reading for the family of William Tate. ‘A quiet day nothing unusual occurred. 2 men killed 3 wounded’ One of these was surely the man from Limehouse whose name is on our Summerstown memorial.

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A cemetery in Spanbroekmolen (the site of the windmill) contains almost exclusively the graves of Irishmen killed at Messines two years later but William was buried a little further west in a cemetery near the town of Kemmel. It is called ‘La Laiterie’ and was the site of a dairy farm on the road to Ypres from Kemmel, the Kemmelstraat. The cemetery slopes gently down to a field adjoining what looks like a very busy and prosperous working farm. It wouldn’t have surprised me to see a lorry trundling out heavily laden with crates of finest Belgian pasteurised.

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William Tate was born in an area of east London which has become one of the most ethnically diverse in the United Kingdom. The soldiers who he would have seen in the trenches and billets around Ypres and Neuve Chapelle were quite possibly related to the Bengali and Bangladeshi families who settled in Tower Hamlets in the sixties and seventies. Even back in the late nineteenth century the Limehouse area was home to a great many chinese people, possibly over half of those living in London at the time. A maritime area with a shifting cosmopolitan population of people from every corner of the globe, it would not have been uncommon for young William, growing up in this area, to have seen people whose skin was a different colour from his own.

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William Tate was born on 29th May 1880, his father also William was an engine fitter from Alnwick in Northumberland and his wife Amy came from Limehouse. A school admission register shows that he entered Oban Street School on 24th August 1885, when the family were living at 29 Moness Road, literally with the school at the end of the road. Right on the eastern edge of the Charles Booth’s map, sandwiched between Commercial Gas Works and East India Docks, the street is coloured solidly blue. One of the police notebooks from 1897 indicates that ‘a poorer class come to Moness Road because the rents are lower than in the other two streets – because the street is at a lower level and houses used to be flooded. Things are better now and the sewers have been improved so there is no longer any backflow’. William was baptised on 3rd November 1886 at nearby All Hallows Church, Poplar, the same day as his younger brothers Harry aged four and infant John. The 1891 census indicates that they moved to 445 Robin Hood Lane in the shadow of the warehouses of the massive East India Docks. William was the oldest of four siblings. Harry was nine, John was four and Catherine two. This road and the adjoining ‘Robin Hood Gardens’ still exist at the north entrance of the Blackwall Tunnel. The opening of the longest underwater tunnel in the world on 22nd May 1897 by the Prince of Wales, must have been a very exciting day for the young Tate family. Though having the tunnel emerging so close to their home must have increased the sense of chaos and frenzy in an already overcrowded neighbourhood. By 1901 they were at 54 Addington Road on the other side of Bow Creek. It was a little bit further away from the docks and hopefully somewhat calmer. William was working as a painter and his two younger brothers were clerks. Another sister May was born in 1898. Reg Varney of ‘On the Buses’ fame was born in this road in 1916. I’m sure they would all have enjoyed the tranquility of the Bow Creek Ecology Park, which I designed some signage for about ten years ago.

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By 1911 things had changed radically for the family. William’s father had died in 1903 aged 57 and Amy now appeared to be the main breadwinner, aged 56 and working as a general dealer. They now lived at 38 Ordnance Road, just the other side of Star Lane from their old address, three adults and teenager May in three rooms. This road still exists in the shadow of the mighty Newham Way but has been completely rebuilt. The census records that William and Amy had seven children in total but two had died. John now 24 had taken up the same trade as his father and worked as an engineer fitter. Catherine was a waitress. May was thirteen and still at school. Harry Tate had married in 1906 and was living at 15 Lonsdale Avenue, East Ham with his wife Lilian and son Allan. He was working as a ‘constructional draughtsman’ and the family were still in East Ham in 1939. Allan died in Eastbourne in 1991. William had moved on and we have no trace of him until he joined the army in Marylebone.

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His records do though tell us that he was married. A soldiers effects document indicates that his sole legatee was his wife, Elizabeth M Tate – and her name and residence at 43 Burlington Road, Fulham is indicated on his Commonwealth War Grave Commission records. We can find only one possible indication of this marriage, a William Tate marrying an Elizabeth Ansell in the spring of 1914 in the parish of St Olaves. This may not be our man. Burlington Road isn’t too far from here, cross Putney Bridge, then turn left a short way up New King’s Road. The 270 bus would pretty much take you all the way. But there are plenty of churches between there and St Mary’s, so its hard to see how he came to be on the war memorial in Summerstown. Did the couple live here for some time? Was Elizabeth’s family from this area? We really don’t know. Sometimes the headstone inscription provides a clue, but there is none on William Tate’s grave in La Laterie. Perhaps his mother Amy might have wanted to place a few words but very sadly she herself died in the spring quarter of 1915, just a few months after her son.

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Interestingly the Imperial War Museum’s database shows that a war memorial was unveiled in Oban Street School, Poplar on 11th November 1925. There were a total of 511 names on the memorial, 452 returned, 59 did not. Its very likely William Tate is one of the names on this memorial.

Thanks to the Unknown & Untold project, the information on whose website has been very helpful in putting this post together. Very soon we intend to host an event where a speaker will come and talk to us about the contribution of Muslim soldiers in the First World War. Look out for more details about that coming very soon.

http://ww1muslimsoldiers.org.uk/

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Twenty one is supposed to be the age when life begins, the threshold of adulthood, a proper grown-up, the key of the door and all that. Charles Jeffries from Thurso Street never quite made it. He died in a Birmingham hospital the day before his twenty first birthday. There’s no record of him donning a cassock and stretching his vocal chords in the church choir, but in the parish magazine of 1924, there is a photograph of the clergy, staff and choir of St Mary’s Summerstown. Four of the six surviving Jeffries boys are in the photo, their oldest brother’s name very sadly on the war memorial at the other end of the church. By the greatest coincidence, I am writing this up in the week that a member of my own family who passed away very recently was buried. Like Charles, Barbara Abbott didn’t quite make the big milestone, she died just two days before her 99th birthday. It was only at her funeral though that I noticed that the day she was born was the day Charles Jeffries died, 13th November 1917. Barbara’s own father, my great uncle, Captain George Waller Vesey MC died of his wounds in France on 26th March 1918 when she was four months old.

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One of the highlights of the first season of Summerstown182 Walks in the summer of 2014, was when a pair of cousins rolled up. They were Reg and Joy Jeffries, nephew and niece of Charles and both very familiar with Thurso Street where the family resided until the sixties. I seem to remember them telling me they hadn’t seen each other for a long time and their delight in each others company was really sweet. Reg had come from Cheam and Joy all the way over from that ‘Queen of the Suburbs’ they call Ealing. They enjoyed it so much they even came on another walk later that year and on that occasion Reg brought over a photograph of his Uncle. He was probably aged about twelve or thirteen at the time and looking very smart and serious. With his jacket, tie and waistcoat, a flower in his lapel and a watch dangling on a chain, he really looks like a young man going places. He appears to be leaning on what looks like some sort of stone plinth but the smokey backdrop suggests this was some kind of photographic studio.

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It may have been taken around the time of the 1911 census which shows the eleven of the twelve Jeffries children living in the five roomed house with their parents and their uncle. Charles was fourteen then and perhaps this was some kind of formal portrait to mark the start of adult life. The photo would suggest the subject came from a much wealthier background than was probably the case and its unlikely Mr and Mrs Jeffries could have afforded this for all their children. As for the choir photo, back row fourth from the left is Sidney, Joy’s father (twin brother of Thomas) Seventh from the left is Horace (known as Jim)  Third from the right is Reginald, Reg’s godfather. Front row fourth from the left is John (Jack) the baby of the family. Horace was the last of the twelve Jeffries children to pass away aged 90 in Salisbury in 2001.

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Thurso Street, as noted elsewhere on this blog and on numerous Summerstown182 Walks paid a heavy price in the First World War. Its a short often-overlooked road connecting Smallwood and Khartoum Road. There are only about 25 addresses but it accounts for 9 of the names on the war memorial, proportionally a far higher amount of casualties than any other road. Summerstown may have more names than anyone else but its 90 addresses only amount for 14 fatalities. A 15% chance of being killed in the war compared to 36% in Thurso Street. Out of interest, other percentages are Maskell Road 18%, Hazelhurst Road 18%, Wimbledon Road 11%, Keble Street 9%. We haven’t found a single one on Aldren Road which is very much in the church’s orbit and appears to be the safest place for anyone in uniform to have lived in Summerstown in 1914-18. Back to Thurso Street, on the west side of the road, there are three Tibbenhams, the three Seager brothers and Arthur and William Mace. They have captured a lot of attention and across the road Charles Jeffries at Number 13 has been a little bit neglected.

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The son of Ebenezer Jeffries, a ‘paper toy maker’, Charles John Jeffries was born intruigingly in Russell Square. A railway porter by trade, he married Harriet Anne Maud Byrch in 1892. For a considerable period of time they lived in the Peckham area which was where the first three of their children were born. There were two daughters, Margaret and Beatrice, then on 14th November 1896, a son. Following his mother’s fashion, he had three forenames; Charles Thomas Walter. In June 1900 it is recorded that he started attending Springfield School in Crimsworth Road, Lambeth. In 1899 Doris Jeffries was born and a year later along came Martha. Two years after that Winifred was born. Charles was now surrounded on all sides by five sisters. It would seem that sometime around the turn of the century the family moved to Kennington. In the 1901 census they are at 37 Conroy Road and they later returned to Peckham to live at 2 McKerrell Road. From 1903 the battle of the sexes started to redress itself when Edmund was born and five other brothers promptly followed him. Twins Thomas and Sidney were born on 11th February 1906 at McKerrell Road. Sidney is the father of Joy and Reg’s Dad was called Thomas. In 1908 Reginald Jeffries was born and in 1911 Horace, just two months old in the 1911 census. John Gilbert, the twelfth and last of the Jeffries children was born on 11th November 1914. In that 1911 census sixteen year old Beatrice was the only child working. She was in domestic service but appeared to still be living at home. The Jeffries, along with the Matchams are the largest of all the Summerstown182 families.

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In June 1915 Reverend Robinson first gave notice that Charles Jeffries had joined the war effort. He was 18 and in the Territorial section of the Royal Field Artillery with the rank of gunner. His medal card indicates that he entered France on 12th December 1915. At some stage, for whatever reason he transfered to the 33rd Signal Company of the Royal Engineers and would appear to have been based in Bedford, perhaps as part of his training. The Royal Engineers’ Signal Service Training Centre H.Q. was moved to Bedford in October 1917 with a number of Depots being established there. In any case he got sick and died on 13th November 1917 in Dudley Road Military Hospital in Birmingham which became 2/1st Southern General Hospital. Once a workhouse infirmary, in May 1917, the hospital was taken over as a military hospital, with the first casualties arriving on the 10th May. The wounded were transported to Winson Green Railway Station and then transferred by ambulance to the hospital. A total of 53,896 patients were treated over the course of the war with only 268 deaths, it would suggest that the majority of patients had passed the acute stages before being transferred to the hospital.

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Unlike some other Summerstown182 who died in similar circumstances, Charles Jeffries’ body was returned to his home area for burial in Streatham Cemetery. Mention of his death is given in the November issue of the St Mary’s parish magazine in the same paragraph that announces the death of James Luke Tugwell in Gaza. His funeral was on 19th November 1917 must have been a sad occasion with his brothers and sisters making the short journey across Garratt Lane from Thurso Street. He is buried in a public grave with 23 other people. His name is on the memorial screen which still awaits the addition of his Thurso Street neighbour, Arthur Mace. Oddly enough a third Thurso Street resident Albert Seager who also died in hospital on 20th November 1915 is also on the screen. Three lads from the same road just doors away from each other, all went to war and ended buried in the local cemetery.

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Both Reg and Joy recall visits to the Jeffries house at 13 Thurso Street. Its recently had a bit of a facelift and was on the market a few weeks ago for £775,000. While it was on offer Barnard Marcus very kindly provided an online photographic tour for any Jeffries descendants out there wanting to have a look around the old family homestead. Sadly they’ve now taken it down. Spoilsports.

The Flower Girl

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A couple of years ago when it emerged that the family of a soldier called Percy Randall lived at 65 Franche Court Road, I went past the house on my bike and took a photo. It was mid-June and I was dazzled by the beautiful array of yellow and cream coloured roses in full bloom. The scent seemed to hang over me, following me all the way round the corner past The Anglo American Laundry. It was indeed a heady summer. We didn’t know it then but Percy had a very strong attachment to someone involved in the flower trade and its taken two years and some Chris Burge investigation to bring it all to light.

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Percy Alfred Randall was killed at the Battle of Loos on 13th October 1915. He was twenty five years old. As with James ‘Waterloo Sunset’ Hickey, his appearance on our memorial owes itself to his family’s connection with the area, in Percy’s case probably after his death. Both families have their roots in the Lambeth area and its not beyond the realms of possibility that they passed over the river together occasionally. But lets not get too carried away. Oddly enough, to try and determine their connection with Summerstown we ordered copies of their soldier’s wills. Percy’s revealed something of great interest. His main benefactor appeared to be a Miss Constance Hallam from Highgate. We’d already noticed in his ‘soldiers effects’ form that Constance Hallam was noted as sole legatee. Who was this young woman and how was she connected to Percy?

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There is a forty year history of the Randall family in Lambeth. Percy’s Dad Robert George Randall, the son of a stonemason, had been apprenticed and trained as a silversmith and specialised in making silver pencil cases all his working life. He married Louisa Hurwood at St Andrew’s Church, Lambeth in 1880 and they spent their early wedded life in Shoreditch. By 1891 they were back in Lambeth living at Theed Street. This is one of the charming roads-that-time-forgot, a clutch of little streets between Waterloo East and Blackfriars Bridge that are often used as film locations and so perfectly described on the Flickering Lamps website. I’ve been a big fan of these for a long time, ever since discovering Belgian fruit beer on tap in a cosy pub on one of the corners. Percy was baptised on 14th September 1890 in St John the Evangelist Church, where James Hickey’s parents were married. His older siblings were Louisa aged nine, Robert eight and two year old Ernest. Ten years later they were at No3 with further additions to the family, Sidney and Walter. Father Robert was still making pencil cases and Louisa and oldest brother Robert also had unusual jobs – she was a ‘childrens milliner’ and he worked as a ‘cutler’s warehouseman’. These houses were constructed with artisans and skilled workers in mind and the Randalls seemed to fit the bill to perfection.

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By 1911 surprisingly little had changed. Robert had married in 1909, but Louisa was still at home. Percy, now aged 20 was working in a coal office, like two of his brothers as a clerk. With five children and one parent all contributing a wage, this would have been an unusually comfortable household for the time. The Randall family had steady earnings and six rooms. This may seem like a genteel picture-perfect late-Victorian location, but as outlined in James Hickey’s story, the area was surrounded by great poverty and overcrowding. Perhaps that might have been a factor in their decision to uproot to the more expansive spaces of south west London.

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Robert’s marriage to Edith Bloomfield from Islington could hold the key to Percy meeting ‘Miss Constance Hallam’. In 1911 the couple were living in East Finchley with Edith’s sister. In 1915 they were in Wood Green, close to what is now Alexandra Palace Railway Station. Robert was a salesman, dealing in ‘hairdressers sundries’. Percy’s ‘Soldiers Who Died in the Grteat War’ record intruigingly indicates that he resided in East Finchley when he joined the 6th Battalion of the East Kent Regiment in the autumn of 1914. It would seem he may have followed his brother to North London at some stage and here met and formed a close friendship with Miss Hallam. In 1911 Constance lived with her family at 97 Hazelville Road, Highgate, just a short tram ride down the A1 from East Finchley. In 1911 she was seventeen, worked as a florist, had four sisters and two brothers and her father was an advertising agent. Perhaps she was the girl Percy hoped to marry? His will is not dated but there is evidence that it was written before he went overseas. In 1913 Louisa Randall had married Michael Martin, a joiner from the Walworth Road and he and his father William are indicated as witnesses to Percy’s soldier’s will. His obvious affection for Constance had placed her above all others, excepting a small bequest to his mother of ‘£2 to get some keepsake’ Percy left her everything. ‘The remainder of my personal belongings, my money and also any money due to me to Miss Constance Hallam of 97 Hazelville Road, Highgate’.

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Percy Randall’s service papers have not survived but judging by other recruits to the Buffs with service number close to his, Percy was one of those eagerly queueing up to volunteer their services in early September 1914. The 6th Service Battalion was formed from the hundreds of young men arriving at the Canterbury regimental depot from September 1914 onwards. He trained at Colchester, Purfleet and Aldershot. At some stage Percy was promoted to the rank of Lance Corporal though we can’t be sure whether he earned his stripes before going overseas. He went to France on 1st June 1915 and was very soon in the trenches at Plugstreet Wood.

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Percy was killed on 13th October 1915 at the Battle of Loos. His name is on the Loos Memorial with two other members of the Summerstown182, sunday school teacher James Jenner Crozier and William Copeman. We visited it on a grey October day in 2014. Swathed that morning in mist, the memorial to 20,000 men with no known grave is surrounded by endless stretches of ploughed fields and with the omnipresent Crassiers looming menacingly on the horizon, it is a cold and unearthly landscape. The 6th East Kent losses at Loos were appalling, more than half the battalion were wiped out. According to Commonwealth War Graves Commission records, 190 died on that first day alone. We were back in the area last year with Bart Seynaeve trying to locate a trench where our Great Uncle, Captain Alan Lendrum was wounded. A year after Percy Randall was slaughtered near Hulluch he lost part of his finger in a trench skirmish.

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With minimal trench experience to draw on, the 6th East Kents were to be committed on October 13th, at Hulluch, not far from the famous Hohenzollern Redoubt which the Germans had recaptured two days earlier. Their objective was the quarries. The attack was to be made with the aid of gas and artillery and was to take place at noon. Unfortunately a smoke screen which would have provided them with some sort of cover lifted just as the attack was timed to start and the German barbed wire was found to be uncut. The battalion could make no headway and were heavily machine gunned before withdrawing. Ten of the thirteen officers who took part in the attack that afternoon were killed and 450 other ranks were also casualties.

 

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On Louisa’s marriage certificate her address is 44 Roupell Street so possibly the family moved round the corner before heading to Wandsworth. In any case, sometime around or soon after Percy’s death, the Randalls began a lengthy association with 65 Franche Court Road. They are on the electoral roll there in 1918 when two sons Walter and Sidney appear on the absent voters list. George Randall died in 1925 and Percy’s mother moved to 23 Carminia Road, Tooting Common. The Loos Memorial was not unveiled until 1930, so when she gave her details to what is now the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, this is the address they have on their next-of-kin database. Louisa died in 1934. Percy’s brother Ernest came to live at 65 Franche Court Road and remained there until at least 1939.

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And what happened to Constance, the flower girl from Highgate? She was aged 21 when Percy died. Two years after his death she married Kenneth Kirkham, an air mechanic in the Royal Flying Corps. He was diagnosed with ‘neurasthenia’ before the end of the war and discharged as unfit. This is currently known as chronic fatigue syndrome. Curiously this condition was specifically treated at Springfield War Hospital just a very quick walk up Burntwood Lane from 65 Franche Court Road. Whether he ever sought treatment there, the couple were still living at 97 Hazelville Road in the 1930s. No sign of the address now, it has disappeared beneath the Hornsey Lane Estate. Constance May Kirkham passed away in 1955 aged 61 and her husband two years later. Whether he ever knew of the flower girl’s bequest, we shall never know. Ernest was two years older than Percy and its possible to speculate that had he lived, Percy would have married Constance and lived at 65 Franche Court Road, smelling those roses.

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Discovering the “impossibly handsome” Roupell Street

The Visitors Book

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On our last visit to France in October we identified a couple of Summerstown182 cemeteries not too far from Dunkerque that we should be able to visit on our way over to Lens. Both proved a lot more difficult to find than anticipated. They were digging up the middle of Esquelbeq and all sorts of intimidating ‘deviation’ signs threw us off track. Perseverance always pays off and we eventually found William Bolton with the help of a bit of ‘Nous somme perdu’ schoolboy French. Henry Dowsett is buried in the small village of Borre. It’s on the edge of a ring road near Hazebrouck and looked easy to find on the map – we went up and down that ring road quite a few times before we found it – one of the most peaceful out-of-the-way little cemeteries you could imagine. The sunshine sparkled as it always seems to do when we make this Autumn half-term trip and the leaves on the turn were a blaze of red, green and gold.

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The cemeteries entrances always have a little alcove which contains details of everyone who is there, a plan of the lay-out and a visitors book. I usually leave a message and have a look just to see when the cemetery was last visited and occasionally glance at the comments to see where everyone has come from. I don’t ever expect to find a familiar name. On this occasion it jumped right out at me straight away ‘Great Uncle Henry Dowsett’. Just three months before someone had been to visit the person we were intending to visit. The name was fairly easy to read, it looked like A M Bishop and they had come from Ashtead. It was the first time we’d gone to visit someone to find someone else had been there before us. Could we get in touch with them?  I had a feeling they wouldn’t be difficult to find and joked to my brother that Sheila would probably have a letter in the post by the time we got to Lens.

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Anyway, Chris came up with a possible address and just a few weeks ago we got an email from Ann and thanks to her and her first cousin once-removed, Barbara, we know quite a few things about Henry Dowsett and his family that we wouldn’t have come across by any other means. We really hadn’t got too far with Henry, so bless em for sharing their information. The next-of-kin details suggested he lived at 13 Wimbledon Road, directly opposite St Mary’s Church and now the location of the SPM Convenience Store. This was where we assumed Henry lived with his wife Dorothy Ellis whom he married in the spring of 1916. He was in the 2nd Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment when he was killed in action on 8th August 1918, though curiously his Soldiers Who Died in The Great War record indicated that he was resident in Putney. Hard to say then whether he ever set foot at No13 or if Dorothy only moved there after his death. There is no mention of him throughout the course of the war in the St Mary’s Church parish magazine, until November 1918 when his death and date of death was announced. There is only one other Dowsett mention in the publication at that time, a John George Dowsett from 1 Thurso Street was baptised at the church on 11th June 1916. There do appear to have been Ellis family at 13 Wimbledon Road between at least 1922 and 1939. This might suggest that it was Dorothy’s family that lived there and she moved back with her parents after his death. In any case the property was damaged by bombing in 1941, would have been further shaken by the Hazelhurst Road V2 in November 1944 and eventually succumbed to the Wandsworth Council developers in 1970. Back in 1916, next door at No11 lived the family of Thomas Carrigan, who endured the Siege of Kut and is buried near Istanbul. At No17 were the family of Charles Richmond who was killed at Arras. Now this location is home to a rather ugly three storey block, residential on the upper tiers, a row of retail units on the ground deck. Whilst its handy to have a couple of convenience stories, a chicken shop and a laundrette – its no substitute for the butcher, baker and candlestick maker that once populated this stretch of terrace which curled round into Blackshaw Road with a handsome and well-loved off-licence on the corner.

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Ann told me in her email that Henry was her great grandmother’s younger brother and that her mother’s cousin Barbara was the family history ace and had found where he was buried and put together his story, prompting their visit to Borre. Barbara had discovered some skeletons in the family cupboard. Her Grandmother Mary Ann Pope had hinted at rather a grand background with the double-barrelled name of Pope-Dowsett. Although she may herself have been a Pope, her youngest siblings were Dowsetts and a couple in the middle were Pope-Dowsetts. Why so? Mary Ann’s mother, Ellen Dowsett had unfortunately found herself in dire circumstances requiring her to spend a stretch of time in the workhouse. The authorities there wouldn’t allow her to use the surname of the father of her children, Joseph Pope, to whom she wasn’t married. The three eldest girls had already left home before the workhouse episode so they remained Popes. Future generations would grow up knowing nothing about their Gran’s three ‘Dowsett’ brothers.

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Between 1885 and 1895 Henry Dowsett’s family lived in a variety of locations in central Wandsworth; Ram Square, Red Lion Square, Pier Terrace, and Jews Row. He was born to Ellen Dowsett and Joseph Pope in the spring of 1890 and was registered, as were all eight children, with the surname of Pope. In 1895 the family lived at 14 Wharf Road, Wandsworth just a few doors away from another of the Summerstown182, Charlie Robinson. The girls, including Barbara and Ann’s Grandmother had all already left home for domestic service. In December that year, Joe Pope ran off with another woman, leaving Henry, his mother and four youngest siblings destitute. They were turned out by the landlord and on December 7th had no choice but to apply to the Clapham and Wandsworth Union workhouse in Garratt Lane. Joe and Ellen had produced nine children, one died in infancy, but never married. The workhouse guardians frowned on this and insisted that their new guests be known by their mother’s name. This will have caused all sorts of confusion in tracing their records. Ellen was put to work in the workhouse laundry. A regular laundry was bad enough but this was probably a whole new level.

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The children meanwhile were soon transfered to the residential North Surrey District School at Anerley, between Penge and South Norwood. With his brothers George and Albert, six year old Henry was in the boys block, their sisters Amy and Minnie in the girls. It breaks your heart just to think of it. The school had the reputation of a very strict regime but provided the necessities of life and a good education by the standards of the time. Boys would leave at 13 or 14 ready for an apprenticeship or a career in the army or navy. Girls would be proficient in housekeeping, needlework and laundry, ready for domestic service or marriage. Henry’s sister Amy ended up serving a wealthy household in Hazelwell Road, Putney. Barbara was amazed to find this out many years later after having had a great friend live there and visit on many occasions.

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Henry left the school aged 14 in 1904 and proved elusive for a decade. In 1911 his mother and two siblings George and Minnie were living at 7 Skelgill Road, East Putney. His eldest sister Ellen had married and was living in Kingston Vale with her brother Albert Dowsett. Barbara and Ann’s Grandmother, Mary Ann was now married with four children and resided at Festing Road, Putney. Bessie was married and living in Wandsworth. Amy was unmarried and in service in Putney. All were accounted for except Henry. Intruigingly though a Richard Dowsett was living as a lodger near to Henry’s sister Ellen in Kingston Vale. Richard’s date and place of birth are the same as the elusive Henry, but there is no Richard Dowsett nor Pope registered in the UK in 1890. Richard was an ‘out of work’ gardener. Barbara feels fairly certain that Henry, for whatever reason, chose to call himself Richard – it may even have been his second christian name though it has never shown up on any records.

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Henry Dowsett married on 9th April 1916 at St Barnabas Church, Southfields where he described himself as a soldier. His bride was Dorothy Rose Ellis, a carpenter’s daughter from 81 Penwith Road. She worked as a mantle maker. One of the witnesses was George Dowsett, now 31. There follows here more confusion over names on the certificate with a Joseph Dowsett listed as Henry’s father. Henry was only six when his Dad deserted – did he ever know about what might have been seen as a shameful secret that was never spoken about – or maybe he just wanted to hide the truth from his bride and family.  Henry’s address at marriage is 7 Florence Terrace Kingston Vale, where Ellen and Albert were living in 1911. Perhaps he was there too then and just away for the night or was this the mysterious Richard re-surfacing under his real name?

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Henry enlisted with the Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry at Windsor then later with 2nd Battalion, the Hampshire Regiment. He was killed on 8th August 1918 at Borre in French Flanders. Henry was not on the front line at the time but a support line manned by the 88 Field Ambulance. The officer’s report for that day recorded one casualty and no deaths. Henry was unlucky to be the one casualty. He would have been carried by stretcher bearers the three miles to Borre where he died the same day. He is buried in Borre British Cemetery, one of 365 identified casualties. This was the first day of what became known as the Hundred Days Offensive, ultimately leading to the end of the First World War. General Erich Ludendorff called 8th August ‘the ‘Black Day of the German Army’ when the allies advanced over seven miles and forced the enemy into retreat. Henry may have had a troubled life but his family and seven siblings did not forget him in his death. It always surprises me how many Commonwealth War Graves don’t have a personal message inscribed on them. True, it cost money but they are a way of expressing some identity onto what is ultimately a very regimented and impersonal form. A fee of three and a half pence per letter up to a maximum fee of £1 was payable though very often unpaid fees weren’t pursued. Dorothy, the Dowsetts, Popes and Dowsett-Popes showed their fondness for their husband and brother with a rather splendid message ‘Gone from us but not forgotten, never shall thy memory fade’.

Many thanks to Barbara Sanders who has given us permission to reproduce much of her account relating to her Great Uncle Henry Dowsett. Also to Ann Bishop whose visit to the cemetery has brought all this together. We certainly hope to see them soon on a Summerstown182 Walk. What happened to George and Albert Dowsett is a mystery yet to be solved.