King of the Track

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Alight from any of the buses heading down Garratt Lane from Wandsworth and Earlsfield to Tooting, and just past the Tesco roundabout is the stop they call ‘Summerstown’. A century and a half ago this would have been the perfect place to get out if you were attending an event at the Copenhagen Running Grounds. It would have also dropped you off right outside the home of one of the Summerstown182, William Pater. The son of a silk dyer, he grew up opposite the original St Mary’s Church, in the cottages beside Kwikfit, just across the road from the garage. He was baptised in that church and when it had to be demolished, he probably helped build the new one at the end of Keble Street. His story dovetails quite splendidly with that of significant locations relating to Robert Sadler and his running grounds, a major south London athletics venue between 1853 and 1864, when the sport of competitive running was known as ‘pedestrianism’. Very few people know about this extraordinary venture and it deserves a much greater airing. On a very sunny evening in July 2012, hundreds of people gathered at this spot on Garratt Lane to watch the triumphant passage of the Olympic Flame. Would any of them have known that some of the greatest athletes of the age had competed here 150 years before? One of these was the celebrated American Indian runner known as Deerfoot. Its very unlikely. Let’s put up a commemorative plaque up on Burmester House so they are not in any doubt in future.

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The Pater family would have been neighbours and quite possibly more than nodding acquaintances of the Sadlers. William Pater was born in 1880 and would have remembered, possibly even attended the funeral in 1896 of the great man who lived just a few doors along from him in Copplestone House. Anyone who lives around here will have watched in bemusement over the past few years, as this was knocked down and remained a huge gap in the road for a long time. Suddenly an identikit house emerged from behind a blue tarpaulin, seemingly constructed from polystyrene bricks pasted onto plasterboard. Converted into flats, these of course all sold for huge amounts, though whether they will last a hundred years like the original is debatable. Robert Sadler really was a person of extraordinary energy and enterprise. His headstone in Wandsworth Cemetery says it all, ‘A man who was loved by all, despised by none’. Silk printer, pugilist, pedestrian promoter, publican, property developer and the man behind The Wellington Inn and the Copenhagen Running Grounds. If ever there was a Mr Summerstown, Robert Sadler would surely be that man. Though its doubtful if he ever built his houses with polystyrene bricks.

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Thomas Pater, born in 1840 in Hackney was a generation younger than Robert Sadler but would very likely have known him. Whether he made it over to Summerstown in time to catch a race at the tail end of the life of the Copenhagen Running Grounds in 1864 is debatable but he was definitely in Wandsworth in 1871. His fourth child, William was born on 11th May 1880, baptised at the old St Mary’s Church and married twenty five years later in the new one. He was one of ten children seven of whom survived. For at least twenty years the Pater family lived almost opposite the church on a stretch of Garratt lane between Burmester Road and Huntspill Street. They were sandwiched between two key Sadler locations, Althorp Lodge and Copplestone House and with easy access to two other significant places in his story, The Corner Pin and Prince of Wales pubs. One continues to thrive, the other is currently in the hands of Tesco. In 1881 they were at 3 Alton Terrace and Thomas was working as a silk dyer. They were then at No2 and No4 St Mary’s Terrace. There was a fair bit of name and number-changing going on at this time and it may well have been the same property. Thomas died in 1887 and in 1891 his widow Elizabeth was working as a washing laundress. At this stage there were seven children, ranging from 24 to 3 years old and three of these worked in the garment trade – Thomas 24 was a dyer, Elizabeth 22 an ironer and Alice 17 was a washer. William aged 10 is listed as a scholar. Just a few doors along from them was the 77 year old Bob Sadler who quite possibly had his washing sorted by the Paters. It must have been incredibly difficult for Elizabeth and to add to this crowded household there were also two lodgers. By 1901 she was still a laundress but working from home. There were now five children present, William was working as a saw mill labourer and Eliza two years younger was a laundress. In 1911, Elizabeth Pater’s address is listed as 779 Garratt Lane and she was still working, now aged 65. Two of her sons George and Charles were still with her and also at the same address was Eliza now married to a compositor called Percy Mountain. The houses have survived, an expansive entrance leads to four separate flats in each property. In spite of being widowed so young and a lifetime of laundry work, Elizabeth lived to a great age passing away aged 92 in 1938.

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One thing for sure, young William would have grown up with a very good impression of the elusive Althorp Lodge which briefly re-named The Wellington Inn was Robert Sadler’s home and the headquarters of the Copenhagen Running Grounds. Although it stood at this prominent central Summerstown location for one hundred years, on the site of where Burmester House is now, it seems that no photograph or illustration of it exists. The nearest we can get is a drawing produced by Colin Fenn, for local historian Kevin Kelly when he was writing his book ‘Robert Sadler and the Lost Copenhagen Running Grounds of Garratt Lane’.

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Meanwhile William Pater, now 25 and working as a plasterer’s labourer had married Clara Priscilla Hewitt in St Mary’s Church on 26th February 1905. The Church had been functioning for less than a year and considering his skills and how close he lived to it, its unimaginable that William Pater was not in some way involved in its construction. By the time of the 1911 census, William and Clara were just around the corner, living in two rooms at 24 Bellew Street. They had two children, Ellen Clara, born 1905, who died aged 99 in 2004 and William Thomas, born 1906, who died in 1983. A third child Elsie was born in 1915. Clara worked as a laundry ironer. Electoral rolls show she was still living at 24 Bellew Street until her death in 1967. Incredibly to this day, there are memories of William Pater’s siblings and the names Mountain and Pater on neighbouring Huntspill Street where some of the family moved to sometime before the Second World War. Wiliam’s older brother George was there in 1946 and Eliza lived there until at least 1970. We came across an excellent postcard of the Hubbard family, residents of 28 Bellew Street from September 1907 which gives a glimpse into the world of the street at that time. Very possibly just a couple of doors along from them were William and Clara and their young family. Another door on from them on the other side was the Clarke family. William would have been most certainly aware of the death of his neighbours, 16 year old Henry Ollive at No18 and Albert Clarke at No30.

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Aged 36 and with a wife and three young children, it appears that William Pater was conscripted for service in 1916 and was fortunate to be in uniform just as the worst of the Somme was over. He was a Royal Fusilier, briefly with the Royal West Kent Regiment from 31st October to 22nd November 1916 and then 13th Battalion Royal Fusiliers (City of London Regiment) until his death at the Second Battle of the Scarpe on 23rd April 1917, St Georges Day. This was part of the Battle of Arras, the first great offensive of 1917, considered to have been relatively short, but very sharp. Our Summerstown182 research suggests that 12 of the names on the war memorial in St Mary’s Church were killed in this particular battle and one of them was 37 year old William Pater.

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Through most of April the 13th Battalion Royal Fusiliers had been involved in the advance eastward from Arras, including participation in the Battle of Monchy le Preux. Here the 10th and the 13th battalions were highly praised for their courage, tenacity and skill. A Colonel Layton reported ‘I consider that the battalion behaved magnificently, and I have nothing but praise for every one in it’. But losses were heavy and by the evening of 10th April after advancing on Monchy the 13th had ‘only 3 officers, the CO and adjutant left’. There wasn’t much time to recover from this bruising encounter and another offensive south of Gavrelle was launched. An eye witness from 7th Borders who were also in this attack recounts in the book ‘Cheerful Sacrifice’ ‘April 23rd 1917, St George’s Day, the day when very few of my pals came back. It was my first and last action. I was totally terrified but the lads tried to buck me up a bit but it felt like you were about to commit suicide. It was sheer murder. I panicked and dived into a shell hole and stopped there until dark’.

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William’s body was lost amidst this chaos and his name is inscribed on the Arras memorial. Visited by us in October 2014 where we searched for his name and took these photographs. For a long time he was listed as missing and it was only in the February 1918 issue of the St Mary’s Church magazine that Reverend Robinson finally relayed the grim news. ‘With deep regret we have to announce that William Pater, of the Royal Fusiliers, who was reported missing, is now assumed to have been killed on April 23rd’. Aware of what had happened to neighbours Albert Clarke and Henry Ollive, what unimaginable horror and uncertainty for his mother, wife and older children, aged 11 and 12 to have had to endure.

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Kevin Kelly, a Wandsworth historian with a lifelong passion for athletics discovered the location of Robert Sadler’s ‘Copenhagen Running Grounds’. You can read all about this in his terrific book ‘Robert Sadler and the Lost Copenhagen Running Grounds of Garratt Lane’. (Look for it on Amazon or get it directly from Kevin). The 2012 Olympic connection was not lost on him when he snapped this photo of Mr Bolt on Garratt Lane looking like he’s about to sprint up Burmester Road towards Bob’s track. This is an extraordinary story that I’ve told many times on Summerstown182 Walks and it delights young and old. But its one that we feel strongly more people should know about. For that reason, we would like to put up a plaque at the location. Commemorating not just the track, but celebrating the enterprise and energy of Robert Sadler and as a reminder of the unique sporting heritage of the Borough of Wandsworth. Look out for more details about this over the coming months as we plan what we hope will be a very special occasion.

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