Another of the fifteen Summerstown182 soldiers killed in the Battle of Arras was twenty year old Henry Edward Wilton of the Royal Marine Light Infantry. He died in the ferocious fighting at the village of Arleux on 28th April 1917. The son of a farm labourer from Sussex, the roots of his family lie tucked into the gentle folds of the South Downs in the tiny village of West Dean. His father Henry was born in 1871, the son of Samuel, an agricultural labourer and Eliza Wilton from Woolbeding who worked as a washerwoman. Henry was doing the same line of work in 1891 when the family lived at Cottage No93, West Dean in 1891. West Dean is a historic estate recorded in the Domesday Book, nestling in the valley of the Lavant, north of Chichester. 1891 was a big year for the village as the hugely wealthy William James took over the estate, and set out on a great plan to embellish the house and gardens. Also that year, according to a brass plaque in the church, his brother Frank was killed by an elephant on the west coast of Africa. The Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII was apparently a regular visitor to his lavish house parties. Who would believe that he would one day follow the Wiltons to Tooting.
How this new dawn for West Dean affected the farm workers on the estate is hard to say, but Henry’s thoughts were on other matters. He had met Chelsea girl, Ellen Wilkins and their first child Arthur Felix was born in 1893. Elizabeth was born in 1894 and Henry Edward on 11th January 1897. All three births are registered in Brighton. Its unclear if the family moved there from West Dean or this was simply where the paperwork was housed. In any case at some stage around the turn of the century, they must have decided to try their luck in the big city, because in 1901 they was at 31 Haydons Road, South Wimbledon and Henry was working as a plasterer. With houses now popping up all over this corner of Wandsworth his new skills would have been in demand. He and Ellen were there with three children, Arthur, Elizabeth and Henry aged four. His mother-in-law Elizabeth was also present that day.
Haydons Road, which follows the course of the Wandle, connects Merton High Street to the Plough Lane junction. It passes many roads with Nelson or Battle of Trafalgar references and has had a turbulent history itself. An odd assortment of rather tired shops and cafes, recently closed pubs, houses old and new and a train station that it is very easy to forget about. It has a scruffy reputation and feels somehow that it could be something so much better than it actually is. The Wilton home at Number 31 still stands, the final southern stretch approaching the High Street is populated by Victorian terraces, flush with the street on the west side, a tiny garden fronting those on the east.
Here stands No31, a short walk from the Nelson Arms and just a bit further along Merton High Street, possibly the greatest bicycle repair shop in south London, the legendary AW Cycles. This probably didn’t start trading long after the Wiltons were living around here. Up at its northern end, AFC Wimbledon will be very soon relocating to their spiritual home. In 1901 they were still called Old Centrals and had moved from Clapham Common to a new ground at Worple Road West. They were on their Plough Lane site at the junction of Haydons Road by 1912 and thats where they remained until 1991. Their mascot is of course the legendary Haydon the Womble. Thanks for your ‘Quid for Sid’ endorsement last year, mate.
The Wiltons took the big plunge from Merton to Wandsworth some time around 1906 as their fifth child Dorothy was born in Tooting, possibly at 115 Smallwood Road. This house also still stands in all its original glory. It would have shuddered and shook as the V2 rocket landed just a stone’s throw away in 1944. It now looks out on the foreshortened Foss Road and the Twin Towers of the Hazelhurst estate. Look out for our historic guided walks there, just one of many attractions which will be part of the Wandsworth Fringe ‘Hazelfest’ on Saturday 20th May organised by the brilliant ‘Scrapstore’.
By 1911 they were at 42 Blackshaw Road. Arthur was a typewriter mechanic, Elizabeth was in service and Henry worked as a warehouse boy. The census indicates that Henry and Ellen had seven children in total, three of whom had died. This extraordinary road which separates the Fairlight streets from Lambeth Cemetery has seen a lot of changes. On one side very little has moved since the cemetery opened for business in 1854. Though having said that, many original Victorian monuments were lost in a ‘lawn conversion’ carried out between 1969 and 1991. The other side has gone from Bells Farm and its exotic nurseries to an extensive house building programme and the massive St George’s Hospital complex.
No42 is at the top end of Blackshaw Road, directly opposite the entrance to St George’s with a very handy 493 bus stop just outside the front door. In fact its actually Clare House that’s across the road, the original nurses home and one of the oldest parts of the hospital. The Wiltons would have been present to see the Grove Fever Hospital become the Grove Military Hospital and the site of so many wounded servicemen coming and going would have been a constant reminder of the peril their son was in. 15,000 officers and men were treated here between November 1916 and September 1919. Now its still a frantic location with ambulances flying into A&E twenty four hours a day. I had heard a rumour that Clare House was earmarked for demolition but all seemed intact when I inspected it a few days ago.
Henry enlisted on 9th October 1914. He was seventeen and gave his occupation as a painter. His underage status must have soon come to light as the records state that he forfeited 94 days service. He was in the 1st Battalion of the Royal Marine Light Infantry, alongside Ernest Pelling from Burmester Road, another of the Summerstown182 to have served in this prestigious regiment. Unfortunately Henry was with them on what was to become their darkest day, the 28th April 1917, the Battle of Arleux. A town now best known for its smoked garlic and its annual festival in September.
Royal Marine deployment to Gallipoli started in February 1915. Records indicate that Henry got there in August but soon became sick with dysentry and was invalided back home on 26th August. One of their number was Rupert Brooke who died on a hospital ship two days before the invasion. The following year the Royal Naval Division was sent to France and fought at the Somme. In November 1916 the 1st Royal Marine Light Infantry took part in the Battle of Ancre, the last large British attack of the Battle of the Somme. They incurred over 50% casualties and after being withdrawn from the line, had to be completely rebuilt with new recruits. One of those killed on the Ancre was Ernest Pelling. Having come through that, the spring of 1917 saw them in the front row for the Battle of Arras. On 23rd April they were in action at the Second Battle of the Scarpe and amidst the sleet and the snow captured the village of Gavrelle. This strategically important site would not be given up easily and immediately came under intense artillery bombardment. On 28th an attack to the north was launched in support of the Canadians. Henry and the 1st Royal Marine Light infantry began their assault at 425am only to find the wire uncut. There was no option but to seek cover in shell holes where they were cut to pieces. A few got through the wire but the battalion was virtually wiped out. The cost to the Royal Marines that day was appalling and remains the largest casualty list for one single day’s fighting in their history. Out of nearly two thousand officers and men of the two battalions who attacked that morning, over a thousand had become casualties. The Second Battalion had incurred six hundred all ranks killed, wounded and missing, whilst the First Battalion had lost over five hundred officers and men killed, wounded and missing.
Henry’s name is inscribed on the Arras Memorial, its on a section where unfortunately age has taken its toll and the names are starting to fade and it was difficult to read. A monument to the Royal Naval Division at Gavrelle stands on a busy road outside the village. The memorial was inaugurated in 1991, and consists of an anchor, weighing three tons, the emblem of the division, surrounded by a broken wall of red bricks which symbolises the ruins of the village of Gavrelle which was mainly built out of red bricks at that time. In March 1918, at a trench, not yet cleared, a soldier from the British 56th Division reported: ‘That was a terrible part of the line, in front of Oppy Wood and Gavrelle. The Royal Naval Division had attacked there the year before, and their bodies were still hanging on the wire where they’d been caught up’.
Back in Tooting, it was some time before official news of Henry’.s death could be verified. The parish magazine of January 1919 finally reported ‘We have heard with great regret that Henry Wilton, Royal Marines, was killed in action in May 1917’. This was a year and eight months after the event. It would appear that his family were on the move again shortly afterwards, to 162 Markerfield Road Tottenham. Perhaps the pain was too much to bear and they needed to forget. We went to West Dean Gardens last weekend on a most glorious spring afternoon. It was Mother’s Day and the gardens were ablaze with daffodils, primroses and assorted blossoms. The greenhouses hummed with the expectation of seedlings jostling furiously in the race to sprout. It is truly the best time of year to be alive and our thoughts went out to Ellen Wilton who had to wait so long for news of her son, lost that spring, one hundred years ago in the garlic fields of France.