War of the Roses

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The extraordinary Summerstown road which bends its away around the Wimbledon Stadium complex never fails to throw up a good story. This is the wild frontier between the boroughs of Wandsworth and Merton. A road so loaded with history that it takes the breathe away, yet a road now so choked with traffic and industry, that to even pause there for a moment and reflect on the past is difficult. It is a road that will soon be further choked with diggers, trucks and construction industry accoutrements, as the great plan to re-establish the home of Wimbledon’s football club gets underway in the next few months. Formerly Church Road with the original St Mary’s at its northern end, this winding village street which formed the genus of the settlement of Summerstown, will enter another chapter. Robert Sadler had his name all over this road in the last half of the 19th century, from his connections to its many pubs, to his ownership of a number of properties including Sadlers Cottages. Sometime between its  ‘village on the Wandle’ status and the start of its decline into the polluted mess it is today, the Blakeley family were resident at its southern end at No88. The above photo shows the shop at No90, so their home was just past the entrance on the left, a little further on from where the figure is standing. This is from the London Metropolitan Archives collection, believed to date from 1914. Living not far across the road from The White Lion pub, Charles Henry Blakeley was one of at least 15 of the Summerstown182 who once inhabited this fascinating thoroughfare.

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Charles Henry Blakeley was a private in 1st/5th Battalion of The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment. His date of death is listed as 9th December 1917 and he is buried in Honnechy British Cemetery, about fifteen miles south of Cambrai. We visited him one late autumnal afternoon a few years ago. His final resting place is close to that of his Summerstown neighbours, Francis Baker at Bethencourt and William Bonken and Harry Keatch at Premont. Honnechy was part of the battlefield of Le Cateau in August 1914, and from that time it remained in German hands until the 9th October 1918. It had been a German Hospital centre, and from its capture until the end of October it was a British Field Ambulance centre. The village was inhabited by civilians during the whole of the War and for that reason perhaps it has a very different feel from a lot of other cemeteries.

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There is no mention of Charles Blakeley in the parish magazines in the early part of the war when the vicar was still publishing a roll call of those who ‘were serving their King and Country’. This was soon replaced with a list of ‘those who have died in the service of their country’. What can be read into the dropping of King and the capital C? His name first appears in the February 1918 issue ‘Charles Blakeley of the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, was reported wounded and missing on November 20th.’ The following month a simple sentence, spells out in no uncertain terms what happened next. ‘With great regret we have heard that Charles Blakeley of the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, who was first reported wounded and missing, then a wounded prisoner in Germany, has died in hospital in Germany after an operation’. The date of his death was later established as 9th December 1917. We can’t imagine the horror of the final weeks of his life or the distress this news would have caused his family. There are accounts of a POW camp at Honnecourt and this location is mentioned in the North Lancashire war diary in the days before the attack. Close to a combat area, conditions would have been at best primitive.

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The date of his capture leaves no doubt as to where he was fighting. 20th November 1917 was a day of great significance for my great uncle, Captain Alan Lendrum, then with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. He was awarded the Military Cross for organising a wiring party at Fontaine-les-Croisilles, somewhere close to where the above photograph was taken. The date is etched on the reverse of his medal, preserved in the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers Regimental Museum. This was famously the first day of the Battle of Cambrai and the first time tanks were used to any significant effect. The attack began early in the morning and initial advances were remarkable, famously heralding the ringing of church bells in Britain for the first time during the First World War. The North Lancashire war diary is quite matter-of-fact, ‘630am Heavy bombardment opened followed by attack by British troops. Division of about 8 miles! Attack highly successful’. Within a few days the Germans were given a chance to regroup and there was extensive fighting around Bourlon Wood where 69 of the local 13th Wandsworth Battalion perished in a disastrous attack. Among the wounded was Edward Foster VC. He received a bullet through the wrist which eventually lead to his discharge. Much of the ground gained in the initial days of the attack was lost and Charles Blakeley and many others were in enemy hands.

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Charles was originally in the East Surrey Regiment but ended up with the Loyal North Lancashires. Perhaps he had enough of the company of southerners and hankered to be around people from his home turf. The 5th Battalion of the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment were formed in August 1914. It was Bolton’s own territorial battalion, and the town’s equivalent of a ‘Pals’ battalion. Albert Lucas from Bertal Road was also in this regiment and died on 30th November 1917. Both these Summerstown boys are among over one thousand names on the splendid ‘5th Loyals’ Memorial in Queen’s Park, Bolton. He’s actually one of five Blakeleys on there. We are grateful to Jim Robinson of Bolton History Centre and Bolton War Memorials Project for sending us these photographs. If you look closely, Charles Blakeley’s name is in the extreme right hand column.

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There are no next of kin details in Charles Blakeley’s Commonwealth War Graves Records but his soldiers effects documentation indicates that he left his estate to a Jessie Williams. Jessie aged 33 was the mother of his two sons, Charles born in 1914 and Leslie the following year. They lived at 88 Summerstown, next door to the family of John Henry Wood who had  a saddlers shop which we believe is ‘Scotts’ in the 1914 photograph. They were there for another twenty years until the start of the Second World War.

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The Blakeley name is very common in the north of England and its probably for that reason that Charles joined the Loyal North Lancashires. He was born in Manchester, possibly Chorlton. We first picked up his parents living in Cemetery Street in Leeds in 1861. Both parents were from Yorkshire, father Joseph was a plasterer born in 1835, his mother Sarah Ann Abraham was born in 1836. She was 44 when Charles came along in 1879, the youngest of seven – five boys and two girls. They were still in Leeds in 1871 at 11 Ritter Street. Joseph was at that point a master plasterer ‘employing two men and one boy’ so it sounds like the family were doing quite well and he may well have travelled in his work, perhaps explaining his absence in subsequent census records. There were five children and eldest son Samuel was also a plasterer and might have worked for his Dad. Ten years later they had crossed the pennines and were in Openshaw, Lancashire. Once a village a few miles to the east of Manchester, it had by now been sucked into the city’s late-Victorian industrialised expansion. Never a pretty place, its now not too far from the Etihad Stadium. The 1881 census intruigingly tells us that young George Blakeley was born in ‘Washington, America’ in 1875. Did the family emigrate there and then return home? Was his name a nod to the President after whom the city is named? In any case, the lure of the White Rose was too strong and in 1891 they were back in Leeds, Charles was eleven and they lived at the prophetically named 16 Verdun Terrace. Arthur was now a plasterer.

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What happens next is all a bit vague but we think Charles appears again in the 1901 census as a visitor at Asquith Street in Leeds, working with his Dad as a plasterer. We lost track of him completely after that. Sometime over the next fifteen years he came to Summerstown. With houses springing up all over the area, a plasterer’s skills would have been in demand and its not even inconceivable that he might have worked on the new St Mary’s Church. Romance was also in the air, on the banks of the Wandle, as he hooked up with Jessie Williams and started a family.

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Charles Blakeley was thirty five years and seven months old when he was conscripted on 31st October 1916 and joined the 4th Battalion of the East Surrey Regiment in Kingston. He gave his occupation as a window cleaner. What a dark time this must have been for Jessie. The Battle of the Somme was still raging and everyone was aware how bad things were. They had two very small boys. It would have been an extremely sad goodbye at 88 Summerstown. It must though have formed a special bond between mother and sons that explains perhaps how they stuck together for the rest of their lives. Jessie does not appear to have remarried and retained the name Blakeley. The family were at 88 Summerstown for another twenty years until the start of the Second World War. After that Jessie and Leslie moved to Clapham and then Streatham. She died in Sutton in 1970. Leslie appeared to live with her until her death and he passed away in 2002. The fate of the other son Charles, intruigingly remains unknown. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission has a record of a soldier who died in Germany a few months after the end of the Second World War. It indicates that a Charles Henry Blakeley of the Pioneer Corps died of an accident on 10th December 1945, aged 31. He is buried  in Reichwald Forest War Cemetery in the town of Kleve close to the Dutch border. A father and a son, lost in two different wars, a generation apart. What a blow that must have been to Jessie, almost exactly 27 years to the day after the death of his father. We can’t be sure yet if it is him, but the name, age and birthplace/residence which are indicated as ‘south west London’ seem to suggest it may be. Sometimes you just have a feeling.

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