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

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