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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.