Upper Tooting

Brown-Pitts

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Every once in a while our efforts to contact relatives of the Summerstown182 bear fruit in the most delightful way. A few months ago, after finding William Francis Brown on an Ancestry tree, we received a lovely email ‘Your message warmed my heart as it will be a hundred years on the 3rd May since my grandfather was killed at the 2nd Battle of Bullecourt just north of Cherisy. He is commemorated on the Arras Memorial but I had no idea if he was listed on any local memorial and you have let me know that he is.’  We are very grateful to Jill Stock who has allowed us to show many of her family photographs and shared the following memories of her grandfather, William Francis Brown. We hope very soon to welcome her to Summerstown to see our memorial in St Mary’s Church. There are six Browns on there, but he is the first that we have written anything about.

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Known also as Will or Billy, William Francis Brown was born on the 21st January 1892 in Peckham. His father Frank was a gasworks inspector from Balham and married Emily Messenger at St Mary Magdalene Church, Peckham in 1891. Over the next decade three daughters were born, Lilian Helen in 1895, Violet in 1898 and Winifred Mary in 1900. By 1901 the family were in Deptford but for whatever reason they made the trip round the south circular to Wandsworth and in 1911 had alighted at 4 Chetwode Road in so-called ‘Upper Tooting’. This is a little bit out of our orbit, on the high ground, just the other side of where was once Miss Eliza Bell’s Park Hall estate. Known as ‘Lady Bountiful’ Miss Bell was an extremely wealthy Tooting benefactress who passed away in 1914. Her leafy landscaped domain, which once sandwiched the area between Springfield Hospital and Tooting High Street stretched all the way down to Summerstown in the Wandle valley where Bell’s Farm stood opposite Streatham Cemetery. There will be plenty more about her on our special ‘Women of Summerstown’ Walk on 11th March.

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Chetwode Road is a rather obscure street, tucked behind Tooting Bec tube station, off Trinity Road. It has changed considerably since the Browns were there. No4 seems to have disappeared, not just physically but also numerically. There still appears to be some of the original Victorian housing left, but these start at No15 and the rest of the road is an odd assortment of styles including one slick little modernist hipster pad that wouldn’t be out of place on Grand Designs. Assuming the white door on the corner of the Dinner Box chinese takeaway is No1 and the sixties red-brick house is No5, it might have been roughly between the silver and red car. But its possible the numbering has changed and No4 was on the other side which is now the back of a block of flats called Alfred Butt House on neighbouring Holdernesse Road. Sir Alfred Butt was the MP for Balham and Tooting between 1922 and 1936, so very likely came a-knocking on the door of 4 Chetwode Road seeking Brown votes. During the First World War he was Director of Food Rationing at the Ministry of Food but his political career ended in disgrace following a financial scandal. The three Brown girls and Mum and Dad were all still at 4 Chetwode Road in 1933, the year Frank died. Thanks to Mike Barnes for the black and white photograph of the road taken a year later. On 29th September 1940 the street was struck by a bomb which goes a long way to explaining its current unruly appearance. In his book ‘Boy in the Blitz’ Chetwode Road resident Colin Perry describes it thus ‘the road consists of very run-down houses; they are old, some thirty years at least. Its inhabitants are what I would call typical Cockney. To me it has always symbolised dull, routine Tooting, a place in which no spark of the untoward is to be found’. Close to the famous Wheatsheaf pub and some of the best Asian eateries in Britain, this end of Trinity Road appears now to be full of character with a cluster of interesting old-school shopfronts holding out against the advancing gentrification.

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Things appeared very promising for the family in 1911. They had seven rooms at 4 Chetwode Road, Frank was still working and two of his children were bringing in an income. 19 year old William was a mercantile clerk and 16 year old Lilian was employed as a domestic help. 13 year old Violet and 11 year old Winifred were still at school. William’s first job was for Joseph Travers and Sons in Cannon Street. He then worked as a clerk for Fisher, King & Co, leather and hide manufacturers based in Bermondsey.

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William married Irene Mary Lumbers (above) on the 17th August 1913 at Holy Trinity Church, Tooting – just a short walk up the road towards Wandsworth Common. If you’ve just been watching the BBC’s brilliant ‘Further Back in Time for Dinner’ this is very much Robshaw family territory. Its not beyond the realms of possibility that the Browns might have known Mary Cawston Bousfield, the Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse who is on the war memorial in Holy Trinity. Buried in Rouen, she died of illness contracted on duty in France on 24th February 1919.

NURSE MARY CAWSTON BOUSFIELD

William was 21, his bride was 18 and one of the witnesses had the spectacular name of Aspasia Daisy Lumbers which sounds like it wouldn’t have been out of place in Miss Bell’s exotic nursery. Irene was born in Brentford, but lived at 82 Summerstown in Lower Tooting, not necessarily the wrong side of the tracks but definitely the other side of Lady Bountiful’s estate. Her family had been at that address from at least 1901. Her Liverpool-born father Thomas worked as a packer for the Church Missionary Society and in 1911 lived there with his wife Florence and two children, 19 year old Leonard and 16 year old Irene. Its funny how this end of the much maligned street has captured so much attention recently with Summerstown182 stories eminating from numbers 92, 90, 88 and 68. Like these, No82 has disappeared without trace but would have been roughly opposite the building that is currently home to the charity Generate. How the Girl from Lower Tooting met the Boy from Upper Tooting is hard to say, but it was into 82 Summerstown that they moved as their first home. Their daughter Irene Frances, Jill’s mother, was born the following year. William’s widow, Irene died in 1981 aged 86. His daughter passed away in 2006 at the age of 92.

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Following the outbreak of the First World War, William continued to work for Fisher, King. Its possible that the company was involved in the war effort, supplying leather for clothing and boots. On the 15th November 1916, he joined the 8th Battalion of the East Surrey Regiment as a Private. In early 1917, he arrived in France and was killed in the attack at Cherisy, six miles east of Arras. He has no known grave and is commemorated on Bay 6 of the huge Arras Memorial, together with 450 of his comrades from the East Surrey Regiment.

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Before the sun had risen on the misty morning of May 3rd 1917, William Brown and the 8th East Surreys had started their assault on the German front line at the village of Cherisy. The village was captured and they reached the banks of the River Sensee. However, on either side of the village, the flanking units were not as successful and completely overun when the Germans counter-attacked. Of the 500 or so 8th East Surreys who attacked at Cherisy, 90 were killed, 175 wounded and more than 100 captured.

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Killed alongside William Brown that day was William Pitts of the 6th East Kents. He lived on Hazelhurst Road, just the other side of Blackshaw Road from 82 Summerstown. His widow Minnie was one of 35 people killed there by a V2 rocket in November 1944. The War Diary of the 8th East Surreys contains a lengthy account from commanding officer Lieutenant-Colonel Irwin that pulls no punches about a fiasco which resulted in almost 400 casualties. Poor communications, lack of organisation and most critically an attack launched at 345am in complete darkness contributed to the disaster. ‘It was too dark to distinguish enemy from friend. As a result of this within even a few minutes of the start all units were hopelessly intermingled and formations as such ceased to exist. There was no moon, and within a few minutes of the start there was considerable confusion’. German troops mingled with assaulting troops and enemy aeroplanes flew low, dropping lights to show the position of the attackers.

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Also lost that day, and in the same regiment as William Brown, was the man who scored the winning goal in the 1909 FA Cup Final, Manchester United and Scottish International footballer Sergeant Alexander ‘Sandy’ Turnbull. In his book ‘The 18th Division in the Great War’ Captain GHF Nicholls recalls him as ‘a good soldier, earnest, extremely wide-awake and a man of good influence’. Like William Brown and William Pitts, Sandy Turnbull is on the Arras Memorial.

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Jill has all William’s letters to her grandmother, his cap badge, medals and his death penny. The photos below and above postcard were with William in France and sent home with his effects. His widow wrote the words on the back of the card which has William’s photo on the other side. Among those letters are several between Irene and William’s employer, a Mr CW Ward. Several months passed before his death was confirmed and the family believed him missing, presumed wounded or a POW. Mr Ward elected to make enquiries and was in contact with the War Office. Of even greater torment, was reference to a letter sent to Irene by one of William’s comrades, a Private Warren. He stated that he had buried William where he fell and gave directions. Sadly this letter was not copied and sent by the employer to the War Office in a desperate attempt to locate and repatriate his body. The letter went missing.

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Jill intends to visit Arras on the anniversary of her grandfather’s death in a few months time. We hope that she may also be able to place something provided by Maureen Giles in memory of her grandfather, William Pitts. Whether the two men knew each other is hard to say. William Pitts was ten years older than William Brown and both only came into the orbit of St Mary’s Church shortly before war broke out. There is something very poignant, after one hundred years have elapsed, that there should be a small kindness between two families who don’t know each other but have something in common. William’s only child, Irene Frances had three children, one of whom was Jill Frances, named after her grandfather. There are now eight grandchildren and seven great grandchildren; as Jill’s Mum would apparently say, ‘Everything that ever was, is still here in some form or another.’

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UPDATE: 9th May 2017 We are indebted to Jill Stock for sharing her family history with us. She visited the Arras battlefields and on the centenary of the deaths of William Brown and William Pitts, she placed a tribute at the Arras Memorial, not just from her own family, but also one on behalf of Maureen. The two women whose grandfathers were killed on the same day, met for the first time just a few weeks earlier at St Mary’s Church in Summerstown. A few days later we also visited the Arras Memorial and placed a wreath from the church in memory of fifteen of the Summerstown182 who were killed in the battle, over six bloody weeks in spring, one hundred years ago.

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