George’s Door

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Having noted that he was a bottlewasher in the 1911 census, I’ve always felt a bit of an affinity with George Boast. The London Census 1891 Transcription Blog of Victorian occupations defines a bottlewasher as ‘someone who washed used bottles for re-use’. In the days before organised recycling, I recall a period growing up when we collected bottles from the rubbish tip and returned them to the shop for five or ten pence each. We usually had to give them a bit of a clean up or scrape off the labels, but it was quite a nice little earner that must seem as remote to the young people of today as the world of George Boast does to me. Then there’s the Boast abode, at No30 Aboyne Road, tucked onto the corner facing the Aboyne estate and Glentanner Way. The house surely has one of the most splendid and distinctive olde worlde front doors in Summerstown. Its narrowness compensated at the top by a rather oversize arched window. Its definitely one of my favourites.

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There are a few other doors along here in the same style, but they are all recessed, this one is flush with the wall, perhaps because of its position on the bend. The house is currently cloaked in scaffolding so I do hope nothing will be done to change it. Aboyne Road wraps itself comfortingly around Garratt Green. Following the path of the legendary G1 bus, it starts on Burntwood Lane and passing alongside the school, it follows a fairly rustic path to Huntspill Street where it picks up a stretch of terraced houses on one side. It then bends past George’s home and passes Reginald Knight’s Squarey Street and a couple of hairdresser’s before emerging on Garratt Lane. A truly historic route that would have once lead up to Springfield Farm, its tree-lined nature giving it more of a countrified flavour than most of the roads in this area. It is though at certain periods choked with traffic. The old photograph above was taken in 1908 on its northern stretch, Burntwood School would now be on the left hand side and on the right, the trees have thinned out a bit, but wonderful Garratt Green remains unchanged. George Boast would have been eleven and its just possible that he may be in the picture.

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The road has nothing of the tightknittedness of Huntspill Street and although George always gets a mention when I tell the story of William Mace of the Sunday School Three, he always feels rather in his shadow. They died the same day, 26th May 1915 at the Battle of Festubert, their names, along with Cecil Passingham who was killed at Neuve Chapelle are on the Le Touret Memorial near Bethune. Its close to the Indian Memorial and we visited both on a glorious autumn day a few years ago. Its interesting to read the name ‘Blackadder’ carved into the stone, just two above George’s name. He’s also there alongside him in the list of the 23rd London Regiment casualties printed in the South Western Star on 18th June.

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The Boasts were very much of Lambeth stock and trod the well-worn route to Summerstown in the first decade of the twentieth century. Certainly they would have been quite at home on James Hickey’s Waterloo Sunset Walk in a few weeks time. Robert Lewis Boast was an electrician and in 1901 lived with his wife Ellen and six children, all under the age of ten, at 8 Mart Street in Kennington. They were later resident at 9 Bertal Road and 104 Fountain Road in Tooting. Here young George would most certainly have been familiar with a character a few doors along at No92. Edward ‘Tiny Ted’ Foster worked at the nearby Dust Destructor yard and was awarded the Victoria Cross in 1917. By 1911 there were two more children and the family were at 30 Aboyne Road. Money was certainly coming into the house, for as well as fourteen year old George washing his bottles, his two older brothers, Robert and Richard were laithe hands and nineteen year old Ellen Boast was an envelope folder. That also sounds like a job I must have once done. She eventually married a William Dale and lived for a while at 17 Defoe Road, an address once associated with the Tooting Communist Party and next door to where George Cole was born. The Boasts were connected with 30 Aboyne Road for at least another six decades. George’s mother Ellen lived on there until her death in January 1947. Belts were being tightened at the time and St Mary’s produced a very homespun ‘Emergency Magazine’ that month which mentioned her passing away at the age of 81. She is buried in Lambeth Cemetery. The youngest of the 1911 Boast family, Henry (Harry) would seem to have lived at the address with his wife Edith until as recently as 1970.

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George had a brief and tragic experience of war. He joined the 23rd Battalion of the London Regiment at St John’s Hill, Clapham Junction and like William Mace and George Keeley went to France on 14th March 1915. He was killed just over ten weeks later on 25th May 1915 in what became known as the Battle of Festubert, described in both the parish magazine and the local newspaper as ‘a gallant charge’. The 23rd Battalion War Diary in the National Archives gives us an impression of George’s movements. They left St Albans on 14th March and the next day sailed from Southampton on SS Copenhagen. From Le Havre they spent the first few weeks settling in, building up their fitness with marches which moved them towards the front. It is noted in the diary that ‘Divine Service’ was observed on Sundays. Days were spent marching, training and digging trenches. The weather must have been pleasant around Easter as there was bathing in one of the mine craters. On 11th April they entered the trenches. Over the next few days there were a small number of casualties and these were unusually mentioned by name in the diary. An officer killed would always have his name noted but ordinary ranking privates were just numbers. Everything was soon to change. In mid-May they moved from Le Touret to Givenchy. On 25th it is recorded ‘Orders given to attack German trench. Casualties 499, including 3 officers killed and ten wounded’. This attack occured at 630pm and the fighting lasted all night as the Germans fought fiercely to recapture the lost trench. Particular mention is made of ‘the stretcher bearers who all through the night worked, often under heavy fire to evacuate the wounded’. On the 26th May the Battalion were relieved from the captured trench and on 27th it is noted that ‘names of 123 men received from Division as being buried’. George Boast was very likely among them.

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The Le Touret Memorial on which George Boast’s name is inscribed, commemorates over 13,400 British soldiers who were killed in this sector of the Western Front from the beginning of October 1914 to the eve of the Battle of Loos in late September 1915 and who have no known grave. The fighting on 25th-26th May in which he died was the British Army’s contribution to a major French offensive at Vimy Ridge. The Battle of Festubert lasted 12 days and cost 16,000 British casualties for no real gain. In addition to the deaths caused by shelling and machine-gun fire, many soldiers died in hand-to-hand fighting or were drowned in the flooded trenches and ditches criss-crossing the battlefield. Such was the confusion that many soldiers were killed by artillery fire from their own side.

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In the local South Western Star newspaper of 18th June 1915, there is a full list of 178 names of men from the 23rd London Regiment killed in the fighting of 25th-26th May. Among them is ‘Private G F Boast No 2601’. The names fill a whole column and reading them must have been a great jolt to local people. Standing on one of the river’s earliest known consecrated sites and hugging a bend of the Thames at the very heart of Battersea is the beautiful St Mary’s Parish Church. It displays a number of memorials, tablets and honours associated with 23rd London Regiment including its ‘colours’. At a subsequent memorial service there in June 1915, the vicar compared the effect of the loss of the men and officers of the 23rd Regiment to that of the sinking of The Titanic a few years before. ‘Seldom has the old church been so crowded. People stood in the doorways and thronged the gallery stairs. The service had a solemnity most impressive. The vicar preached with dramatic eloquence and while he spoke, men, as well as women were moved to tears. The pageantry of sound was not wanting. The National Anthem was sung by tremulous voices. The battalion band thrilled the congregation and the great assemblage outside with the solemn tones of the Dead March. Then after a few moments of the deepest silence, the battalion bugles rang out. They sounded the Last Post which sounded like the despairing call of those who are hoping against hope that some might hear and return. But there was no response, except the slapping of the fast ebbing tide against the barge under the churchyard wall’.

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