It is ‘Women’s History Month’ and we’ve just done a special ‘Women of Summerstown’ Guided Walk. We have celebrated the stories of the wives, sweethearts, mothers and sisters of the Summerstown182 and those of other significant local women who made a mark in this area one hundred years ago. Why did we do that, well it had became apparent that though the 182 are all male, when we try and explain their experiences, it is very often the women who in one way or another glue their stories together. They deserved for once to be the main focus of our attention. Such a case is Violet Collins, the younger sister of Albert Stewart. We know very little about her, but two traumatic experiences, half a century apart, shine some light into the history of our area and help us understand how it has been shaped.
Albert is one of fifteen of the Summerstown182 who died this spring, one hundred years ago in the Battle of Arras. He was wounded in an attack on a place called Oppy Wood, east of Arras. It is best known for the huge losses of soldiers from the Hull Pals on May 3rd – part of the same Third Battle of the Scarpe that killed Summerstown182 William Brown and William Pitts. One of the Humbersiders, 2nd Lieutenant Jack Harrison VC was a well-known rugby league player and in 2004 a plaque was unveiled after him at the KC Stadium. On it he is described as ‘husband, father, citizen, soldier, sportsman, hero’. Arras was a bloody affair with a daily casualty rate of 4,076. Compare that to 2,943 for the Somme and 2,323 for Passchendaele. It was in an earlier assault a few days before this that Lance Corporal Albert Stewart of the 7th Royal Fusiliers from Maskell Road was wounded. He made it back to south London but died of his injuries some three weeks later on 22nd May 1917. He is buried in one of the city’s ‘Magnificent Seven’ Nunhead (All Saints) Cemetery, just a few miles along the south circular.
He was the son of John and Hannah Stewart. Born in St Pancras in 1856, his father was a timber bender involved with coach building. In 1881 he and Hannah were at 5 Luard Street, Islington with two children Florence and John. By the next census in 1891 the family had moved out west and were at 22 Peter Street, Bedminster in Somerset, not far from Bristol. There were three more children and it was here in 1893 that a seventh, Albert would be born in 1893. Two more would follow and in 1901 they had a family of nine.
Their youngest Violet was born in Somerset in 1901 and it was some time around then that they moved back to London and were at Cumberland Villas off the Wandsworth Road. In spite of her large family, a new baby and three children under ten including Albert, Hannah is listed as working as a wood frame sawyer, perhaps helping her husband with his coach building. Charlie worked in a mantle factory of which there were several in the Garratt Lane area. In 1911 they were firmly in the Earlsfield/Summerstown orbit and living at 10 Maskell Road, surrounded by many Summerstown182 families. It was a bad time for the area and just a few weeks before Albert was wounded, William Baron also in the Royal Fusiliers and living just a little bit further up the road was killed on 11th April. Albert, now eighteen is listed on the census as an errand boy. Four of the their children are present and three of them are in employment. The notes indicate that John and Hannah had now been married 37 years and had ten children, seven still alive, and were living in five rooms.
John Stewart died aged 79 in 1933, Hannah was aged 61 when she passed away a year after her son in 1918. Ernest Stewart was four years older than Albert and in 1911 was a press worker. He married Edith Mancey in 1911 and they are living at 26 Skelbrook Street in the 1939 register. Youngest child Violet married Thomas Collins in 1920 and they were still at 10 Maskell Road in 1939 when he was working as a garage hand machinist. Almost thirty years later, an extraordinary newspaper account in September 1968 records Thomas and Violet being rescued from their home in Maskell Road by a fork-lift truck on the occasion that the Wandle burst its banks. An estimated 500 people in seven roads in the area were affected with up to five feet of water flooding the ground floor of over 100 houses. Thomas passed away in 1971 and Violet died in 1980. Its unlikely Albert married as his soldiers effects record shows he left everything to his father.
On the 9th April 1917 the British Third Army launched the Battle of Arras striking towards Cambrai. Albert’s medal roll shows that he was originally in the 23rd Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers from 17th July 1916. But only for a week when he was transfered to the 7th. It indicated that he served with them until 30th April when he must have been wounded and died of his wounds on 22nd May. On April 23rd, the second Battle of the Scarpe began and the 7th Battalion were heavily involved in the attack north of Gavrelle. A few days later on April 29th the attack was continued as four battalions of the Royal Fusiliers made another attempt to conquer the seemingly impregnable Oppy defences which held a key position in their defence of Arras was resisted and in the mayhem the boy from Maskell Road was fatally wounded . It was also at Oppy Wood that the famous 17th Middlesex ‘Footballers Battalion’ suffered its heaviest casualties in a single day’s fighting during the entire war. Among those taken prisoner on 28th were Joe Mercer of Nottingham Forest, father of the legendary Manchester City manager of the same name.
Nunhead is perhaps the least known, but most attractive of London’s great Victorian cemeteries. Consecrated in 1840, it is one of seven huge cemeteries established in a ring around the outskirts of the city. Left to rot when the company that ran it went bankrupt in 1969, its gates were locked. It was bought by Southwark Council for £1 in 1975 and much of the restoration was done in the late nineties thanks to Lottery funding and the strenuous efforts of the Friends of Nunhead Cemetery. Much of it though is still wild and many of the graves are inaccessible. One of its most moving memorials commemorates nine young boys aged between 11 and 14 who died on a camping and sailing trip at Leysdown on the Isle of Sheppey. They were out in a boat which overturned and all very sadly drowned. Eight of them were from the 2nd Walworth Scouts. The ninth was Frank Masters from the training ship Arethusa, who died trying to help them. By coincidence, a few years later Charles Moss of the Summerstown182 served on a ship called HMS Arethusa.
On Friday 20th September 1968 ‘The Gazette’ reported that ‘two days of torrential rain at the weekend caused the River Wandle to burst its banks, flooding homes, shops and factories along its borders. Worst hit was Earlsfield where 200 families were evacuated after becoming trapped by muddy, swirling floodwater up to five feet deep’. ‘Willing helpers together with council officials and uniformed police manned thirty rowing boats from Battersea Park Pleasure Gardens and rowed to and fro through the night between the flooded houses and Garratt lane ferrying the stranded families. All the houses in Maskell, Headworth, Burtop, Turtle and Siward Roads, Earlsfield and some in Summerstown were evacuated, except for three families who refused to move out’. ‘Among the stranded people were elderly invalids who could not descend ladders to the boats . They were carried in the scoop of a fork-lift truck and lowered into a car waiting to take them to Brocklebank old people’s home, Swaffield Road’. One of the heroic rowing boat rescuers was none other than Hazelhurst Road V2 survivor, our great pal, John Keeley.
Mrs Minnie Sharp gave a lucid description of the chaos the floodwater had caused in her home. ‘We’ve had flooding before but never like that. We thought at first that it would subside and gradually disappear but it just rose higher and higher and the smell was awful. About four in the afternoon the water started rushing in. We had a lot of furniture in the front to try and stop it but it was no good. Another couple who have been residents of Maskell Road for 60 years are Mr and Mrs Thomas Collins who were both evacuated by fork-lift truck after they had been stranded in their flooded home all night. Mr Collins is blind and suffered a stroke only a few days ago and Mrs Collins recently underwent a serious hip operation.’ This of course was Albert Stewart’s younger sister Violet.