On my many strolls down Blackshaw Road over the last twenty years, the postbox near the Wimbledon Road roundabout, opposite the Summerstown Mission has been a constant landmark. It now has new and very special meaning. Just a short walk further on down, heading towards St George’s would have been the site of No51, home of Frederick James Parker. A pleasant location, facing Lambeth Cemetery, but since 1953, supplanted by Alfred Hurley House which is visible in the top photo. The Post Office was the biggest single employer in the Britain of 1914 and actively encouraged their staff to join the war effort. Over 75,000 workers left their jobs to fight and 8,500 were killed. Of these 12,000 joined the Post Office’s own battalion, the 8th Battalion City of London Regiment known as the Post Office Rifles. During the course of the war about 1,800 of its soldiers were killed and 4,500 injured. It contribution to the war effort was immense, maintaining the postal service at home and providing an essential means of communication between the fighting lines and those back home.
We only picked up on Frederick Parker quite recently due to his being listed as ‘EJ Parker’ on the St Mary’s Church war memorial and ‘Edward James Parker’ in the vicar’s report of his death in the parish magazine. At the height of the conflict its easy to see how this came to happen and Fred became confused with his father and brother who both had the name Edward James Parker. Its most certainly not the only mistake on the war memorial but can’t have been much fun for the two Edwards who were most definitely still wandering the streets of Summerstown for at least the next ten years. In the parish magazine in November 1917 Reverend Robinson announced that ‘Edward James Parker of the City of London, Post Office Rifles, who was reported missing on 7th October 1916, is now assumed to be dead’. It took over a year to come to that conclusion. In the next paragraph its reported that Archibald Dutton is also assumed to have been killed. He too is buried in Warlencourt. There can be no doubt that the ‘E J Parker’ in St Mary’s Church is Frederick James Parker from Blackshaw Road, one of the 94 men from the Post Office Rifles who died on 7th October 1916 and are buried at Warlencourt.
To coincide with this realisation, Marion came across a small treasure trove of photos and personal records relating to Fred Parker in the Imperial War Museum collection, shedding a little light on his family. Among them, letters to his sister Elsie, a photograph of her, a school report, four embroidered postcards he had sent home from France and perhaps most moving of all, a photograph of his parents visiting his grave at Warlencourt Cemetery in the heart of the Somme. Also in the collection is a picture of Fred himself, in uniform, with a mate, clearly taken in France and very likely something he sent home to Blackshaw Road. He’s the one on the left.
We visited Warlencourt Cemetery last summer when we called in to see Archibald Dutton from Hazelhurst Road. Pictured above is Sheila Hill who placed a photo on Archie’s grave that was given to us by his family. The Parkers came from a line of butchers and Edward James Parker was born in 1868 in Wattisfield, Suffolk. Frederick’s mother was a Lucy Ann Argent, born in Isleworth, Middlesex in 1862. Curiously in 1881 she also worked for a while in a butcher’s shop, one belonging to Harry Oliver Mason of Mitcham Road. It’s possible that was where she met her future husband. Edward Parker however appeared to alternate his line of work and in 1891 he and his brother Arthur were working as assistants at a pottery in South Street, Clapham. In any case, the pair got together and Edward and Lucy’s oldest child Edward was born in 1893. Cecilia followed two years later and Frederick was born in the September quarter of 1896 in Wandsworth.
Edward and Lucy tied the knot in Kingston in 1898. By 1901 he was back in the meat business and had his own butcher’s shop at 151 Hartfield Road, South Wimbledon. There were four children; Edward, Cecilia, Frederick and Elsie. By 1911, they were in the Summerstown orbit at 51 Blackshaw Road, just two doors along from Percy the Painter. Edward and Lucy are listed as having being married twelve years with six children, one of whom had died, the other we cannot account for. Edward was now a drainpipe fitter for a pottery. Fourteen year old Fred was an office boy at the Army and Navy Stores. He had attended Aristotle Road School in Clapham the previous year and his school report indicates he was not destined to follow in the family trade, either of them. He appears to have been educated to work in an office, French unusually being one of his subjects. He excelled at art and algebra, but his arithmetic was weak and this was rather sternly noted.
The wonderfully named Elsie Pretoria Parker was born 7th April 1900. This is the sister whose photo is in the Imperial War Museum collection along with the letters Fred sent to her. She married a Vincent Joseph Medynski in 1927. They lived for some time in Rostella Road. Vincent passed away in 1955 and Elsie died in 1987. That may possibly be when the photos were donated to the Museum. Edward and Lucy Parker died in the 1920s and some of the family continued to live at 51 Blackshaw Road until at least 1939.
Frederick James Parker enlisted in the 8th Battalion Post Office Rifles, and died aged twenty on 7th October 1916. He is buried at Warlencourt British Cemetery. 193 men from the Post Office Rifles died this day and 94 of these were buried at Warlencourt. 7th October was a dark day in their story. ‘History of the Post Office Rifles’ (1919) spells it all out in no uncertain terms. ‘After being reinforced and reorganised, the Battalion moved up via Eaucourt l’Abbe (on 6.10.16) and on the following day made a somewhat disastrous attack on the famous Butte de Warlencourt, a mound that bristled with unsuspected machine guns. Two companies were completely wiped out, only 7 men returning. The casualties in this attack were 3 officers killed (Lieut. Snowden and 2-Lt Sterling and Jenkins) and seven wounded ( 2-Lt Kirby, Smith,Starling, Watson, Macbeth and Everson and Captain Thomas. 2-Lt Leon was missing. Casualties to Other Ranks numbered 400. On 9th October the remnants of the Battalion were moved to Albert and entrained on the 13th for the Ypres Salient.’
Looking at photos of what appears a rather insignifcant overgrown mound, today its hard to appreciate how highly-prized this was in 1916. Its views over the Somme battlefield made it a vital strategic position. On 7th October 1916 the Post Office Rifles were among the first troops to attempt to force the Germans off the Butte, alongside two other London Regiment battalions.The 47th (London) Division history tells us that they encountered ‘The full force of the enemy artillery and machine gun fire, cleverly sited in depth, so as to bring a withering cross fire to bear along the western slopes leading up to the Butte and the high ground to the south of it. From across the valley the enemy had magnificent observation of the ground leading to our objective and made full use of it…not a man turned back, and some got right up under the Butte, but they were not seen again.’ On 22nd October 1916, the German defenders at the Butte complained: ‘The masses of British dead in front of our position were giving forth such a stench of corruption that our brave defenders could not touch their food. The weather was wet, and our rifles and machine guns were rusting and covered with mud.’ For a very good account of what to find at this feature today, its worth having a look at this link.
Fred was lost in this attempt to capture the Butte and though clearly missing for a long time, his remains were eventually buried at the nearby Warlencourt Cemetery. It was a spot which the faded brown envelopes in the Imperial War Museum collection revealed had been visited many years earlier by Edward and Lucy Parker. The letters to Elsie, fifteen years old going-on-sixteen are typically straightforward and upbeat. The last was written just a week before his death on 30th September. Fred talks about recovering from his vaccination which might suggest he hadn’t been in France too long. He is concerned that Elsie doesn’t waste money sending papers he might not receive and thanks her for the poetry she sent. He enquires about her work at ‘the stores’ and is keen to make sure she knows that ‘fags can be sent cheap from any tobacco shop’. The brave face tells her about the good weather, concerts every night and the Canadians ‘jolly fine string band’. More ominously he comments that things are getting lively with the noise of the shells.
There is no indication of when Fred’s parents visited Warlencourt, though it must have been in the twenties. Its curious that his headstone looks quite well-worn. Intruigingly, also among the small collection of items preserved in the ‘Private Papers of F J Parker’, at the Imperial War Museum, there is a photo of a German cemetery. On the back is scribbled ‘View of German Cemetery near Arras’. It surely peaks volumes that in the midst of their grief the Parker family had the presence to record this and that it has remained part of this intimate collection.
Thanks to Marion Gower of The Streatham Society who researched this story and found Frederick Parker’s papers in The Imperial War Museum.