Margaret Thatcher had just won a third election and the first brick-size mobile phones were entering yuppie hands when I first came to London in 1988 and started working for a design company in Westminster. Tucked behind the Abbey and adjacent School, it was surrounded by worthy organisations with ecclesiastical connections such as J Wippell & Co, clerical outfitters who were next door and the Mothers Union HQ just across the road. The address was No9 Tufton Street and although its past was concealed beneath a veneer of eighties gloss, befitting the premises of a company that practised interior design, we were aware that the building had some kind of military history. There were about seventy employees and the high street retail boom was in full swing. That Christmas we were each given six bottles of champagne. In that distant pre-computer era, our work stations were dominated by enormous drawing boards and with its super-size meeting-room tables, frosted glass partitions, sparkling white walls and Dynasty extras as receptionists, this was the epitome of eighties designer swagger. We played softball and many people worked long hours and went home in taxis. A few years later it all came crashing down and I won’t forget the site of a stack of those drawing boards piled up outside the building in the wake of mass redundancies. It never crossed my mind in those hedonistic self-absorbed times to question what had gone on in that building some 70 years before when a teenager from Garratt Lane was getting his marching orders for the Western Front.
In 1901 the Brown family lived at 46 Seaton Street in Chelsea. That disappeared off the map when a number of roads were cleared in 1969 and the World’s End Estate was built. The above photo was taken just before that happened and footballer Peter Osgood is referenced in some graffiti. Frederick Brown was a mechanical engineer and iron turner, originally from Trafalgar Street in Walworth. This particular road was notable for its erection of a wooden ‘street shrine’ during the First World War. This was a popular way of neighbourhoods marking-up volunteer’s names and visibly demonstrating patriotism and loyalty to the cause. Reportedly 175 residents had enrolled by the end of July 1915, 200 by mid-September and 300 by October 1916. Perhaps that explains why his son Arthur joined up so quickly. The shrines usually had a crucifix in the centre and a shelf below for flowers. If someone serving died, their name would be marked with a red cross. As they were of a temporary nature, many were lost when streets were demolished in slum clearances or bombing in the Second World War. Others would have been taken down when something more permanent was erected.
Fred’s wife Alice was from Chalfont St Giles in Buckinghamshire. In 1901 there were five children under ten and Arthur aged five and born in Chelsea was the second oldest. Around 1903 they moved across the river into Wandsworth and by 1911 they were in a five room house at 618 Garratt Lane, between Maskell Road and the Prince of Wales pub, not far from the home of Louis Danzanvilliers. There were now seven children, three of whom were now working. Arthur and his younger brother Fred were both errand boys. The eldest of these, nineteen year old Olive was a box maker and could very well, given her age, have been one of the young women who stood up to Hugh Stevenson at the Corruganza Works a few years previously. Certainly there would have been plenty of errands for young Arthur on this busy stretch of Summerstown which looked very different from how it does today.
Drill halls, somewhere to meet, train and perhaps store equipment, originated as a building type following the formation of the Rifle Volunteer Corps in 1859. They are associated most specifically with the British Army’s Reserve Forces, known until recently as the Territorial Army. They became a common sight in almost every English town and city. The drill hall in Tufton Street was built as the headquarters of the 23rd Middlesex Rifle Volunteer Corps in 1899. They transformed into the rather grandly titled the 2nd (City of London) Battalion, London Regiment (Royal Fusiliers) in 1908. It was here, where I would later sit and design salad dressing labels, that Arthur Brown was mobilised in August 1914 when war broke out. His name is one of the very first listed as serving in the army in the roll of territorials produced by Reverend Robinson in the October 1914 parish magazine. He appears alongside Sunday School teacher James Crozier and the Clarke brothers. The 2nd Londons were first assigned with guarding the Amesbury-Southampton docks railway, before sailing for Malta and ultimately the Western Front. They arrived at Marseilles on the 6th January 1915 and joined the 17th Brigade, 6th Division on the 21st February in the line east of Armentières, close to the Belgian border. In June 1915 the 2nd Londons moved to the Ypres Salient and a place called Hooge.
From the final days of the Battles of Ypres and Festubert at the end of May, until the September opening of the Battle of Loos, there was no general movement on the Western Front. It was a period of static warfare, where the Army suffered an average loss of 300 men a day from sniping and shellfire. On 30th July 1915, near Hooge Chateau, (the name means ‘high’ in Flemish), the Germans chose to launch an attack aided by the use of flamethrowers. It was referred to at the time as ‘liquid fire’.
News of Arthur‘s death at the age of nineteen was relayed quite swiftly and was announced in the St Mary’s Church parish magazine in September ‘We regret to have to report that Arthur Frederick Brown (2nd London Regiment) was killed in Flanders on Sunday August 15th, while acting as stretcher bearer to his company’ On his grave the date of Arthur’s death is indicated as 16th August 1915. He is buried at Bedford House Cemetery, just a few miles south west of Ypres. Bedford House was the name given by the Army to the Chateau Rosendal, a country house in a small wooded park dotted with moats. Although it never fell into German hands, the house and the trees were gradually destroyed by shell fire. In time, the property became largely covered by small cemeteries and 5,139 Commonwealth servicemen of the First World War are buried or commemorated in its enclosures, 3,011 of them are unidentified.
Also in Bedford House Cemetery are the first Indian casualties of the war. Sepoy Mehr Khan of 57th Wilde’s Rifles was killed on 28th October 1914, just a few days after his comrade Khudadad Khan was awarded the Victoria Cross. Sepoy Fazl Dad and Jemedar Muhammad Khan of the same regiment died a day later. All perished less than 48 hours after entering the trenches. These graves lie in two rows close to a Chattri-style mausoleum. In 1921 a slightly smaller version of this was built on the South Downs overlooking Brighton on a site where 53 Hindu and Sikh soldiers from the local hospitals were cremated. On the second Sunday of June a memorial service takes place and a few days ago we attended. Given what has happened in the past few months, it was reassuring to see such a display of respectfulness, togetherness and sheer love of humanity. We will return many times I hope.
Having lost their oldest son, a better day for the Brown family occured the following year on 27th September 1916 when at St Mary’s Church, Summerstown, Olive Brown married Albert Hewitt, a soldier and former signal lad from 60 Penwith Road who also came from a family of seven children. They went on to have three children. In the 1939 register Olive pops up with her elderly parents living at 42 Geraldine Road in Wandsworth.
The Drill Hall at 9 Tufton Street was an extraordinary location to work, especially for someone straight off a National Express bus from Moss Side. In a way it also knocked me into shape, making me fit for purpose to work as a graphic designer. When the London Regiment was broken up and the battalions reallocated to other units in August 1937, the hall became the home of the 9th (2nd City of London) Battalion The Royal Fusiliers (City of London Regiment). In April 1946 they were temporarily suspended and the premises fell vacant. It was then converted for commercial usage and The Jenkins Group were there between 1987 and 1992, designing corporate brochures, shop fronts and margarine packaging. The building is now occupied by the Westminster School Music Centre.