The French Connection





The Bishop of Kingston came to St Mary’s Church last week and I was very pleased to take him on a short Summerstown182 Walk. We went over to the Hazelhurst estate where I showed him the green plaque and told him all about the brilliant ‘Hazelfest’ which passed off so splendidly this weekend. We then moved across Garratt Lane to the tranquility of the Huntspill Steet enclave where we stood outside the former home of one of the Sunday School Three, William Mace. The Bishop was so supportive of what we are doing in this community and our efforts to reach out to everyone, whatever their faith or lack of it. He understood the importance of ensuring that the story of those who came from faraway lands to fight alongside our Summerstown boys one hundred years ago is heard. One of those who would have ecountered Asian soldiers in the trenches of Ypres in the early months of 1915 was William Smith from Bellew Street. He was killed in the fighting at ‘Hill 60’ not far from the location where Indian soldiers first went into action on the western front in October 1914. At this site a memorial to them was unveiled in 1999. On our recent visit to the First World War battlefields we were honoured to take a floral tribute from our Tooting Sikh community which we placed at this location, on the edge of a field near the village of Hollebeke. This is also the site of where Khudadad Khan became the first Muslim recipient of a Victoria Cross.


The first foreign influence in this corner of the borough were probably the Dutch who came over to make frying pans in the 1630s – they were also involved in copper working and dying, industries that were most certainly practised on Copper Mill Lane and at the Garratt Printworks at the end of Riverside Road. Bellew Street and Franche Court Road are two streets in this area that most certainly owe their monikers to the Huguenot presence in Wandsworth from the late seventeenth century. Being artistically inclined, the French refugees would certainly have approved of the decorative floral detailing around the window fronts on the north side of Bellew Street. Not a lot of that on Franche Court Road.


Reverend William Galpin speculated in the St Mary’s parish magazine in 1929 that Bellew Street may have been named after a much earlier association. ‘Our district was part of the estate of the Prior of Merton; in their very first entry now remaining – 1150-1160 occurs: Robert, Prior and Convent of Merton granted to the Heir de Belewe, their mill at Sumerton for 24s 8d per annum’. From 1680, large numbers of Huguenots arrived as refugees in response to Louis XIV revoking the Edict of Nantes which had granted them liberty from persecution. It is believed almost half a million Huguenots fled to other Protestant countries in Europe and further afield. They are so intensely bound to the history of this borough that the ‘tear-shapes’ on the Wandsworth Borough Council crest are symbolic of their sad plight.


The Huguenots set up their own industries and established a french-speaking church. Many of them are buried in the famous Mount Nod Cemetery on East Hill. Their new skills and trades, coupled with an outstanding work ethic meant they were largely welcomed. With its free-flowing Wandle, described in 1805 as ‘the hardest worked river for its size in the world’, this area had always been a centre of textile-finishing. Scarlet dying was just one of the new techniques added by the Huguenots. It was said that the scarlet dye was much prized by the Cardinals of Rome as the colour was so fast it could be guaranteed not to run down the face in the rain. Calico printing was almost certainly introduced to Wandsworth by the Huguenots and practised in this area on the site of the Corruganza Factory which before cardboard boxes took over was the Garratt Print Works, churning out 25,000 items of cloth a year at its height in 1850 when it employed over 100 people. Robert Sadler’s father James was a silk and calico printer and Bob who was a dyer and his two brothers almost certainly worked there. Hat making, feltmaking and leather work were all trades that the Huguenots introduced to Wandsworth, playing a huge part in the development of industry in the Wandle Valley. You can hear more about that on our ‘Industry of Garratt Lane’ Guided Walk on 10th June as part of the Wandsworth Heritage Festival.


Lance Corporal William Smith from Bellew Street died on 15th February 1915 aged 37. This was in the same ‘Valentines Day Massacre’ that claimed the life of another Summerstown man, Charles Norris. They were both in the 2nd East Surrey Regiment and their names are carved onto the Menin Gate in Ypres. William’s father Archibald was born in Dumbartonshire, Scotland in 1842 and worked as a carpenter. In the 1881 census the Smith family were living at 14 Hindon Place, Westminster and Archie was married to Ellen and working as a joiner. There were eight children, five of whom were born in Pimlico including three year old William. Although the streets in this area are blue on the Charles Booth map, we should be relieved to see that the great man notes ‘no sign of squalour’ in relation to Hindon Place. Ten years later they were at the same address and thirteen year old William was a telegraph messenger. Archibald first appears on the electoral roll at 10 Bellew Street in 1899 and in 1901 he and Ellen are present there with one son Thomas and a grand daughter. William was 23 by then and had already seemingly upped and left the nest. By 1911 Ellen had been widowed, she was 65 and working as a maternity nurse. Her daughter Ellen, now Mrs Parmiter was also present with one of her children.


In February 1915 the 2nd East Surreys were south of Ypres and became involved in attempts to capture a much-prized German stronghold called Hill 60. This was a 150 foot high spoil heap created by earth dumped from the creation of a nearby railway cutting which provided observers with an excellent view of the Ypres area. Captured by the Germans during the First Battle of Ypres in November 1914, it was taken briefly in April, but lost again shortly afterwards. It remained in German hands until the great Battle of Messines mine assault of June 1917. On Sunday 14th February at 2pm, the 2nd East Surreys set out with the objective to capture a lost trench on the southern side of the Ypres-Combines canal. The War Diary records how the attack was over open ground and very exposed. A and C Company lost nearly all their officers. Eight rank and file were killed, 106 wounded and significantly 37 listed as missing. In total 44 men from the East Surrey Regiment lost their lives that day. The attack recommenced the following day with further disastrous results. Five killed, 37 wounded, 14 missing. Somewhere amongst these was Lance Corporal William Smith.

We know very little else about him. Its unlikely William was married due to his ‘soldiers effects record which tell us something quite significant about his character. Most of these indicate the deceased soldier leaving whatever money was due to him to a wife or parent. William Smith carefully divided his estate between all his brothers and sisters who are listed on the form; Alexander, Archibald, John, Thomas, Sarah, Ellen and Isabella. He left behind thirteen pounds, fourteen shillings and nine pence. This was split nine ways between his widowed mother, seven siblings and sister-in-law. Surely that says something and suggests that William was part of a closeknit family and even though he wasn’t around for a couple of census records and we can’t find any traces of him, they were all still very much in touch and on good terms. Given his age and the tradition of local men joining the East Surreys, its just possible William Smith was a fully signed-up soldier for some time before the War, possibly stationed in faraway places like South Africa, maybe even India. One thing for sure, the connections run deep – look out for the Far From the Western Front exhibition coming to St George’s Hospital Tooting in September and our other initiatives to promote knowledge of the extensive involvement of Asians soldiers and non-combatants in the First World War.



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