For those of us who plonk our rubbish on the pavement early on a Thursday morning and wait for the Serco truck to magic it away, its hard to imagine what happened as recently as fifty years ago. Then a big hairy binman might turn up on your doorstep, walk through the house, pick up your bin from the back yard, throw it over his shoulder and walk back out again. Imagine if that person was the six foot two war hero Tiny Ted Foster! If ever you were holding out for a ‘First World War Hero’ Edward Foster fits the bill on every level. From his Kitchener-style tache, sergeant’s stripes and iconic dustman status, to tales of how he dealt with a German machine gun and liberated a French village. The thought that Tiny Ted might have stepped into their home to carry away the rubbish must have lit up several generations of Tooting folk. He is without doubt one of the best known Wandsworth soldiers of the First World War and will be honoured on Saturday 22nd April with a commemorative VC paving stone in the Town Hall Gardens. That afternoon the focus moves to his Tooting hometown and the house where he lived for over thirty years at 92 Fountain Road. Here the council will unveil a green heritage plaque at 2pm and after that I’ll round things off with a Guided Walk, ‘Tiny Ted’s Tooting Tour’ taking in some key Edward Foster locations.
Much has already been written about him, not least in Paul McCue’s ‘Wandsworth and Battersea Battalions in The Great War’. A new headstone was placed on his grave in Streatham Cemetery in the nineties, around the same time that his medals were acquired for the Lord Ashcroft Collection at the Imperial War Museum. They are available there to view in the top floor gallery, in a wooden box with a bin lid painted on it bearing the words ‘Dustman VC’. Back in Wandsworth, a riverside path on the southern section of King George’s Park, round the back of the Henry Prince Estate was named Foster’s Way as part of the Council’s celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of VE Day. There have been official visits to Villers-Plouich, the tiny French village that was the scene of his heroics. His name is there also on an information board outside the Town Hall. Children at Smallwood Primary School have been learning about him as part of our Summerstown182 community history project. Several of them live on Fountain Road and are thrilled to hear about the genial giant who once resided in their street.
The Foster family roots were in the Lambeth area. His grandfather John Foster, married to Mary, was a carman from Shoreditch. Ted’s father Charles was born in Westminster in 1849. In the 1861 census they lived at 28 Causton Street, roughly behind the Tate Britain Art Gallery. On Christmas Day 1875 Charles Foster, now 26, married Mary Ann Biggs aged 24 in St Barnabas Church, South Kennington. He was working as a brewer and lived at 2 Portland Street in the area between Wandsworth Road and South Lambeth Road. The church closed for business in 1980 but has been converted into flats and is now called Ekarro House. On 13 June 1877 Amelia Mary Foster was born, she was baptised at St Barnabas on 15 July. The Fosters now lived at 11 Hemans Street and Charles worked as a brewers servant. Their second child Charles was born in 1883. The Charles Booth notebooks describe the area as ‘mostly costers and low class labourers, poor and crowded’. In the 1930s the slums were cleared and royalty came to inspect the newly constructed Hemans Estate. Not far from Sainsburys and the New Covent Garden Market, you get a good view of it from the top deck of a 77 bus along the Wandsworth Road.
At some stage the Fosters took the course of that 77 bus and headed for Tooting. Edward was born on 4th February 1886 at 14 Tooting Grove Wandsworth. A map of 1888 shows that Tooting was still largely under-developed with large pockets of empty spaces, the Fairlight area, the Bell Estate and Totterdown were all either fields, farms or the private fiefdom of Lady Bountiful. This was a few years before the two fever hospitals, most of the schools or Streatham Cemetery appeared. Tooting Grove was a cluster of cottages facing the High Street. Behind it the exotic nurseries of Peter Barr’s daffodil-growing enterprise were in full swing.
Between 1896 and 1911, the population of Tooting exploded, multiplying five times to 36,000 people. The Foster family were right in the middle of this surge of growth which saw Tooting transformed from a village to what it is today. Tooting Grove, itself now dissected two hospitals, The Grove on its west side, The Fountain on the east. It was here that Edith Cavell trained as a nurse for six months in 1895. In 1890 the family had moved to No15. The current St George’s Hospital complex now straddles the entire area but the line of Tooting Grove runs through it and the southern part of the street still bears the name. Some idea of the location of where Edward Foster was born can be gained from the site of ‘The Little House’ currently at No13 Tooting Grove. This was still a pub 15 years ago but was once also ‘The Queen Victoria’ and in the First World War years known as the source of a collection made every week to send copies of the ‘Tooting and Balham Gazette’ to the soldiers. Organising this was a dustman called Bill Drummond.
Tooting Grove was described by Alfred Hurley as ‘Probably the worst slum area in the Borough of Wandsworth’. ‘For many years Tooting Grove had been a source of trouble to the local authorities. It was a collection of old and dilapidated dwellings, rat ridden, with broken roofs, and the conditions under which human beings were living in overcrowded and insanitary surroundings were deplorable’ Hurley describes how unscrupulous property developers took advantage of the First World War to enforce refurbishment on the already very poor inhabitants. Henry Prince, chairman of the Housing Committee got involved and the council purchased the houses and in 1936 a new estate was completed.
In 1891 George Foster was born, he may possibly be the policeman brother who moved to Stoke who appears in a photograph with Ted, probably taken after he was discharged in 1918. In the 1891 census at 15 Tooting Grove, Charles now 43 is indicated as a general labourer and Mary was working as a laundress, the children listed are Amelia 14, Charles 7, Edward 5 and George 1 month. Ted would probably have started school around this time and it would seem that he was educated at Graveney School until 1900. The nearest school would have been just a little bit further down the High Street at what was then Tooting Corner, now Tooting Broadway. A London Board School was established here around 1870. By my reckoning this is roughly on the present day site of Sainsburys. Before this was built the site was that of an adult education college which still uses the space above the supermarket. Close by is Gilbey Road. If Ted Foster is Britain’s Bravest Binman, this might be Tooting’s Bravest Street. There are 99 doors on this road and from behind them emerged 137 serving soldiers and sailors according to the 1918 Absent Voters List.
On 3rd August 1896 Amelia Foster, aged 19, married Walter Newburgh at Christ Church, Mitcham. In 1900 Ted left Graveney School and started work at Wandsworth Council at their new ‘Dust Destructor’ rubbish incineration facility which opened for business in 1898 on an old clay quarry brickworks. It was wound down in 1930 and is now Fountain Road Recreation Grounds, though it was still used to house dustcarts and their attendant shire horses for some time. Its landmark feature, demolished in 1930 was a 153 foot chimney and curiously there is now one at the back of the hospital which can’t be much smaller. The 1901 census shows the Foster family now at 27 Tooting Grove. Mary Ann was now 49 and Charles was absent. He died in 1914 aged 65. Ted’s older brother Charles was 18 and working as a carman, Edward was 15 but there is no indication on the census of his new job. There were some colourful occupations in the street, an italian ice cream vendor was living next door, there was a street musician, several organ grinders, a dealer in lumber and a paper hanger.
On 24 May 1903 Charles Foster aged 20 married Florence Amy Butterworth at Christ Church, Mitcham. Ted was 17 when his brother married and probably already shaping up to be a big lad. The Dust Destructor site at Alston Road was just a short walk along the Grove. After re-organisation sometime around 1909, it appears he was transfered to dusting section (refuse collection) contracted to a company called F W Surridge who were based on what is now the site of Tooting Leisure Centre at Greaves Place. Either way it was still an easy commute.
On 8th May 1910, at Christ Church, Mitcham, Edward Foster, aged 24 married Alice Jane Donovan, aged 26. According to the certificate Ted now lived at 92 Boundary Road, Colliers Wood and Alice just a few streets away at 44 Byegrove Road. She was the daughter of a labourer called John Donovan and was born in Berkshire. The following year Ted and Alice were living at 48 Fountain Road. He gave his profession as a dustman (contractors) and she would later work in a laundry. The census indicates that his brother Charles was next door at No46 with his wife Florence, working as a carman for the council. The Fosters grip on Fountain Road had well and truly been established.
Ted and Alice lived here for a couple of years before moving down towards the Lambeth Cemetery end of the street to 141 Fountain Road in 1914, even closer to the Dust Destructor site. They would have been at this address when war broke out. This was next door to a house lived in just a few years previously by the Marshall family and one of the ‘Lost Women of British Jazz’ Sadie Crawford. It would seem that in 1915 the Fosters moved for the last time, to 92 Fountain Road. With them now was a young niece Alice Kemp who later married and lived next door at No94. Alice Foster was still there when she died in 1972.
Ted joined the army in the sumer of 1915, part of the 13th Wandsworth (Service) Battalion of the East Surrey Regiment, whose numbers were recruited thanks to the efforts of Mayor Archibald Dawnay and the Tooting undertaker William Mellhuish. The Battle of Arras had started on 9th April 1917 and the small village of Villers-Plouich was occupied by the Germans and blocked the advance on the Hindenberg Line. The accounts of what Corporal Foster did that morning are almost beyond belief. He and a Lance-Corporal Reed, each armed with a Lewis gun and some bombs furiously attacked a German trench at a place just outside the village called Fifteen Ravine. Here two machine guns had been causing havoc and threatened to halt the attack. Under a storm of rifle and machine-gun fire, the duo forced their way through the wire and jumped into the trench. In a fearsome fight, one gun was lost which Tiny Ted swiftly reclaimed. He followed this up by getting both Lewis guns in action, obliterating both machine gun crews and capturing the trench. The action was recorded in a detailed account written by James Price Lloyd of Military Intelligence which after many years of being classified is now available to read.
The liberation of Villers-Plouich followed, but at a heavy price for the Wandsworth Battalion, 39 officers and men were killed taking the village, 160 wounded. They lost about a third of their fighting strength. One of these, buried in Fifteen Ravine Cemetery was 17 year old Alfred Quenzer, the son of a German butcher who lived just around the corner from Ted Foster on Bertal Road. After his exploits at Villers-Plouich Edward Foster spent several months being feted locally. News of his VC was announced in the London Gazette on 27th June and he was also awarded the Medaille Militaire. On 17th July after more than a year at the front he returned to Fountain Road. Flags and bunting were draped across the street and a huge crowd gathered outside his house to give him a rousing reception. A few weeks later at Buckingham Palace, King George V pinned the Victora Cross onto his tunic. Ted declined the offer of a desk job to return to front line duty and was wounded at Cambrai in November when a bullet went through his wrist. The injury caused him to be discharged from the army the following year.
After the war the Council honoured Ted Foster with the title of Chief Dusting Inspector and he carried on working until his death on 22nd January 1946 aged 59. John Brown recently located this extraordinary article in the Streatham News of 24th June 1927. It shows a collapsed wall at the Dust Destructor entrance on Pevensey Road. A young boy called Leonard Chamberlain was very tragically flattened in the incident when a dustcart struck the wall causing it to fall on him. It must have been a tramautic time for local people, but standing there by the gate, un-named in the photo but clearly recognisable, is the calming, reassuring presence of the hero of Villers-Plouich.
Many thanks to Ted Foster’s grandson Dennis for sharing some of the family’s photographs. Also to Jean and Rose, born and raised in the Fairlight area, Fountain Road and Pevensey Road. Their memories of the locality and its people are very vivid and Jean’s father and grandfather both worked ‘on the dust’. It was a hard life, the smell, the horses, the constant washing of bodies and clothes. But there seemed to be a real sense of camaraderie and of working together for the good of the community. Rose showed me this lovely photo of the ‘Tooting Dustmen’s Day Out’ trip to Southend. The togetherness is very apparent and you can practically hear those accordians and taste the Mackesons. It was probably taken not too long after Tiny Ted Foster passed away and its certain that most of the people in the picture would have known him.