On the most dazzling of Spring days, Streatham Cemetery was at its loveliest, awash with blue skies, blossom and birdsong. In one tranquil corner, a collection of beautiful decorated daffodils crafted out of plastic bottles, felt and bright yellow paper danced in the breeze to the gentle strains of Adam Hill’s mellow guitar. The onlookers quietly contemplated the words of Pevensey Road poet John Byrne, ‘The Glorious Dead and the Great Un-sung’. This was the centenary of a young First World War soldier’s death, and a gathering of young and old had come to the unmarked grave of William Mace from Thurso Street. He joined the South Wales Borderers at the age of sixteen but died of TB in a local hospice after being discharged, his eighteen months of First World War service seemingly unacknowledged. Well, on 13th March he was remembered, with the help of two schools, local charities and community groups, quite splendidly.
It was fairly early on in our Summerstown182 history project when we worked out there was something not quite right about the Mace brothers. Arthur and William were on the First World War memorial in St Mary’s Church but they had no Commonwealth War Graves Commission recognition. Both had been discharged from the army and subsequently died of TB, but it was as if their military service had never happened. They are both buried in Streatham Cemetery in unmarked graves. With the help of an organisation called ‘In From the Cold’ we petitioned the authorities and Gallipoli veteran Arthur Mace will now have his name inscribed on the memorial in Streatham Cemetery. He now has a page on the CWGC website rather charmingly footnoted ‘Arrangements are being made to add this gentleman’s name on the Screen Wall in this Cemetery’. Sadly his younger brother William was rejected. The difference was that the paperwork from 100 years ago indicated that Arthur’s condition was worsened by his military service. William’s apparently was not.
Rules are rules and many other similar cases occured, but it all seemed rather unfair. We had to do something for William. It was the reaction of some young people from Ernest Bevin College who jolted us into action. We had told the story to the boys in the course of a BBC School Report collaboration in 2015. Their obvious disquiet at the perceived injustice made us realise that this was something we needed to follow up. For a while we considered a campaign, some kind of social media storm to take on the military bureaucrats. We would probably need to raise money to get some legal assistance. It was then that we traced the family and they came to meet us. They didn’t really want any of that. To add to an already very sad story, it seemed that they had only recently found out about the brothers’ existence. They really had been completely written out of the picture.
It seemed like a gentler path should now be pursued, so we settled on what we called a ‘Remembrance’. This was based on something I participated in a few years ago in a cemetery in Belgium. It was organised by Friends of Flanders Field Museum (VIFF) – a simple combination of readings, music and placing of flowers at a soldier’s grave. The key factor was that it was always someone whose story has been ‘forgotten’. In that particular case, Robert Hope, a soldier from Sunderland who had been shot at dawn. My great uncle was courtmartialed for refusing to organise his execution. William Mace became Tooting’s ‘Forgotten Soldier’ and on 13th March 2017, in Streatham Cemetery, on the centenary of his death, his community came together to remember him.
We were determined to create a very special occasion, something that everyone who was there would never forget. Short, simple but perfectly executed. Streatham Cemetery were great and Lambeth Council who look after it couldn’t have been more helpful. We wanted to be sure that some ‘permanent’ acknowledgment of William’s military service could be made and it was agreed to add his name to the Streatham Cemetery Book of Remembrance. On a wet and blowy day a week before, Sam the Cemetery Manager hammered a stake into the ground at the spot where William is buried, Block D, a great grassy mound under which are buried probably thousands of bodies. Close by is a holly tree. It was around here that we gathered.
We have been working with Smallwood Primary School as part of our Summerstown182 Heritage Lottery Funded First World War community history project. They had been told William’s story and grasped the idea of a ‘Forgotten Soldier’. We wanted to involve them in the ceremony and they made the most beautiful daffodils which on cue were hung from the branches of the holly bush. They all had tags attached bearing a personal message which the children had written. Six of them read these out. A daffodil was chosen for a number of reasons; William’s association with a Welsh regiment, a symbol of health care, a nod to the area’s history as a place where these flowers were widely cultivated and simply the fact that it was springtime and daffs were bursting out all over. John Byrne had written verse for the occasion and Kath Church from The Friends of Streatham Cemetery also added words from Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. Reverend Roger Ryan of St Mary’s Church closed proceedings and provided a fitting commendation to see us on our way.
It was also proper given their school’s initial input, that Naqibullah from Ernest Bevin College was there with four of his History Club schoolmates, all only a few years younger than William. He joined me in reading an introductory text outlining the story of William Mace. There were some difficult passages about disease and military protocol but the younger children’s attention never wavered. All this happened at 2pm on a Monday afternoon so we only expected a handful of people to show up. Those who were able to do so made the effort. Ralph Norbury, a 98 year old veteran of D-Day and Arnhem was present, also in attendance, military historian Paul McCue and John and Arthur Keeley, the V2 survivors from Hazelhurst Road. William had passed away in the care of a place on Clapham Common called ‘The Hostel of God’. Its still in the same location but now called Royal Trinity Hospice. It was very fitting that their CEO, Dallas Pounds took the trouble to attend.
To our great delight, the nephew and niece of William Mace were able to come along to the ceremony. Ivor 88 and Joan 93 were brought by Ivor’s children, Anne and David. They had only found out about their mother’s brothers existence a few years previously, when a relative did some family history research. When a letter from Sheila Hill dropped through their door telling them of the interest in Summerstown, they must have wondered what was going on. Hopefully they will be back in Streatham Cemetery soon to see Arthur’s name carved on the memorial wall.