In about a month’s time we will be celebrating the heroics of Wandsworth’s best known First World War soldier, Corporal Edward Foster VC. The six foot two, ‘Tiny Ted’ from Fountain Road, Tooting who stormed a German machine gun battery at Arras and paved the way for the liberation of Villers-Plouich by the 13th Wandsworth Battalion. On the morning of 22nd April, almost one hundred years to the day of his great valour, a VC Commemorative paving stone will be placed outside Wandsworth Town Hall. Later that day, we’ll be honouring him with a Guided Walk around key local locations relevant to Tiny Ted and his East Surrey comrades. The day will also see the unveiling of a green plaque on No92 Fountain Road, the house where he and his family lived for many years. One spot, which sadly we won’t be able to get to on this occasion is Foster’s Way, a stretch of pathway, named after our hero, bordering King George’s Park. Running alongside the Wandle it stretches from Kimber Road to the new development behind the Henry Prince Estate. A small footbridge on one section of this leads into Lydden Road, a street very much associated with another soldier who fought at the Battle of Arras, but whose fortune was very different from Corporal Foster.
Like quite a few of the Summerstown182 that we’ve written about lately, William Baron’s roots lie in the cluster of historic streets off Garratt Lane, about half way between Earlsfield and Wandsworth. It was here that a painter called Robert Baron settled with his wife Annie. He was from Middlesex and she from Dawley Green, Shropshire. They were married at the famous St Anne’s Church, Soho on 5th January 1873. By the time of the 1881 census the family were living at 17 Lydden Road and William Thomas was the youngest of four children. His baptism records indicate he may well have been born in Wardley Street. That took place on 19th December 1880 at another well known St Ann’s, Wandsworth’s ‘Pepperpot’ Church. Robert and Annie had seven children in total and by 1891, they had moved one door along to No15.
What a place to grow up, these bustling streets so influenced by the presence of the Harrison and Barber slaughterhouse and its attendant industries, would have been alive with the smells and sounds of horses, hawkers, costers, twenty four hour activity. It was a frenzied world fraught with danger and exploitation. In August 1888 three young women were killed in an explosion and a fourth permanently disabled at a firework factory on the site of what is now the Henry Prince Estate. An employee accidentally stood on one of the toy cap guns. A wave of shock ran through the area and emotion was so high at the funerals that according to the Wandsworth Borough News, ‘Many of the weaker sex had to be lead away’. A little bit further down the road in 1885, a huge new workhouse complex was opened on Swaffield Road, keeping everyone on their toes. Only last week our Summerstown182 Walk provided a harrowing account of what could happen when the wheels come off. Betsey Higgs entered this workhouse in 1900 having been abandoned by her husband with two small children and pregnant with a third. Thanks to Neil Kirby for providing the interview notes relating to his great grandmother’s misfortune. They make for painful reading but we were pleased to know she found happiness in later life. Today, two popular Garratt Lane pubs still stand on the corners of Lydden Road and Wardley Street, The Jolly Gardeners and The Grosvenor, what stories they could tell us.
Getting married didn’t change William’s circumstances much when he wed Sarah Elizabeth James at St Andrew’s Earlsfield, Surrey, on 23 October 1899. He gave his age as twenty and his profession as a floor layer. The Barons were now as 21 Lydden Road and it appeared Sarah’s family lived at No6 which would have made them the neighbours of Raymond Briggs’ father Ernest. The aspiring milkman, as featured in the brilliant ‘Ethel and Ernest’ lived at No8.
Charles Booth believed poverty and slums were spreading along the Wandle Valley and was most uncharitable in his comments about the area. He visited in 1902 describing Wardley Street and Lydden Grove as the worst streets, summarising the former thus; ‘Houses, two storeyed, most of them flush with the pavement, a low common lodging-house on one side and a yard full of wheelless gypsy vans on the other, each inhabited by a family. There is throughout the street a family to almost every room, and a great number of loafers hang about at the corner – men who work either not at all or only on market days’. This provoked an angry response from the local Medical Officer who produced a report which claimed only 25 families in Wardley Street lived in a single room – bad enough surely. The report noted ‘Insanitary conditions sometimes resulted from careless habits – the people themselves seem to have an instinctive dislike to soap and water’. Very sadly he didn’t quite get as far as Wardley Street with his map so we can’t see what colour he would have given it but nearby Iron Mill Place where Betsey Higgs lived was dark blue ‘Very poor, casual, chronic want’. She lived in Wardley Street in 1891 and quite possibly crossed paths with the Barons.
The 1901 census shows that William and Sarah had one child, Annie Elizabeth, born in March 1900. Also present on that day at 21 Lydden Road were William’s parents. Were they just visiting for tea, or all cosied up together is impossible to say. Lydden Road is now completely changed, a messy hotch-potch of industrial units, builders merchants and lighting suppliers pepper its length. In 1957 the council knocked everything down in Lydden Road and Wardley Street along with some of the older houses in Lydden Grove. No21 is still indicated and is now the location of ‘Mr Resistor, Lighting Specialists’. By 1911 the Baron’s address was 34 Lydden Grove and William is absent. The fact Sarah isn’t working shows he was probably just having a night out. They now had four children; Annie, William born in 1903, Lillie born in 1908 and Reginald in 1910. A fifth child Ivy was born in 1915. Lydden Grove is an odd-shaped street which bends round from the bottom of Lydden Road and emerges on Kimber Road. Much of it still seems intact and it looks like No34 may be the same home where William and Sarah Baron lived over one hundred years ago. Hopefully the door they used was the same shade as the delightful violet that the current one is painted in.
With five small children and a wife, its almost certain that William was conscripted. He appears to have joined the 8th East Surreys on 13th November 1916, at the start of the last British offensive on the Somme, the Battle of the Ancre. Whether he saw any action there, within ten days he had been transfered to the 13th Royal Fusiliers. In the spring of 1917 he was to be involved in the even bloodier Battle of Arras. He lost his life on 11th April in the attack on Monchy-le-Preux, a small village standing on a hill to the east of Arras whose name constantly recurs in many of our stories. At a place called Broken Mill on the 10th April the 13th Royal Fusiliers attacked before dawn. This continued on the 11th and the village was eventually taken, but at a heavy cost. As H C O’Neill put it in ‘The Royal Fusiliers in The Great War’- ‘It was a memorable day. At one time there was a blinding snowstorm; but the troops ignored such small inconveniences’. Attacking as part of a mounted division in that snowstorm were the Essex Yeomanry. They lost 135 men and most of their horses. Lance-Corporal Harold Mugford from Bermondsey (below), although severely wounded in both legs, which were subsequently amputated, was awarded the Victoria Cross.
William Baron is buried in the tiny Houdain Lane Cemetery at Tilloy-les-Mofflaines, just about a mile east of Arras. There are only 76 burials here, 67 identified. He has though got plenty of his Summerstown182 pals not too far away to keep him company. Just a few days before William Baron was killed, Charles Barnard Richmond of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps who lived on Wimbledon Road also died. He is buried in the same village but another cemetery, Tilloy British Cemetery. William would have been fighting alongside another of the Summerstown182, William Pater who was killed just twelve days later. Ernest Seager from Thurso Street died on 10th and is buried at Feuchy with William Steers. Herbert Tibbenham was killed on 23rd and Henry Wilton on 28th. Arras claimed a heavy toll of Summerstown casualties.
In 1997, in the Arras area, the bodies of 27 British soldiers were found, buried together in a shallow mass grave. It transpired that they were members of the 13th Battalion, the Royal Fusiliers, killed in the fighting around Arras between 9th-14th April 1917. It was believed that they most likely lost their lives in the attack on Monchy. The remains of 24 of the soldiers, impossible to identify were buried there in a quiet ceremony in December, 1996. Three of the others, two of whom were identified were buried in another ceremony on 15th April, 1998. They were Private Frank King from Hampton and Private George Hamilton Anderson from Paddington, comrades of William Baron who died alongside him, now buried with full military honours.
Sarah Baron died in Wandsworth in 1929 aged 50. At some stage she had moved to 25 Maskell Road and it was there that she gave her next-of-kin details to the War Graves Commission after William died. All of her children married and four of them would appear to have had offspring themselves, so we hope one day, a descendant may read this and know that William Baron has not been forgotten.