A Swiss Mystery

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One of the abiding mysteries of the St Mary’s Church war memorial is the addition of two names in the early thirties, R Wyler and A F Brown. 180 became 182. There is no indication in the parish magazine or church records as to why this should have happened. Mention is made of Reverend William Galpin, Vicar of St Mary’s from 1923 until 1934, deciding to change the colouring of the lettering on the memorial from black to blue and adding a decorative ceiling representing The Flanders Sky’. In the January 1934 issue, a short account states ‘At the bottom of the list of names cut in the beautiful Stone War Memorial in the Church, the Vicar has had engraved in gold lettering the following words – 182 of the 1,000,000 men of the British Empire who gave their lives’. Nothing about why two new names were added in the corners. The below extract from 1929 shows the memorial with its 180 names – hey presto, overnight two more appeared. A F Brown’ is almost certainly Albert Brown from Maskell Road who died in September 1920, almost a year after the memorial was unveiled. But ‘R Wyler’ is harder to explain. According to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission database, the only Wyler killed in the First World War was a Joseph Max Wyler from Balham. Of Swiss and German parentage, this must surely be our man. But given he was clearly a special case, how did they get the initial wrong? This happened in half a dozen other instances which is understandable amidst the turmoil of war and the strain of trying to get the memorial completed, but it seems odd to have not got this one right. Balham is a few miles away but still not really in the St Mary’s orbit. The name does not appear in the parish magazine, either before or after the war, so what was the connection?

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Joseph’s father, Max Joseph Wyler was a well-travelled and presumably well-educated man. He died in 1948 and it seems inconceivable to me that if he went to all the trouble to add his son’s name to the memorial that he could have presided over the incorrect initial being engraved. Particularly considering that the forenames of his son were a reversal of his own. But for the moment, there is no other option. To make things even stranger, ‘Rifleman J M Wyler’ appears in the UK, British Jewry Roll of Honour, 1914-1918.

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The Wylers first appear on the 1900 electoral roll when they were at 73 Cromwell Road in Wimbledon. Thats the other side of Haydons Road, about a twenty minute walk from Summerstown. A year later the 1901 census saw the family living at 9 Bonneville Gardens, off Abbeville Road on the Clapham-Balham borderland. Now its a leafy road dominated by Bonneville School built in 1905. Max was 34 and his wife Julia two years younger. The writing on the census record is hard to read, but it looks to me like he was working as a ‘merchant engaged in German embroidery trade, importing same from Switzerland’. Certainly one of the longest profession descriptions I’ve seen on such an item. Max was born in Switzerland, Julia in Germany. Seven year old Joseph was their only child, born in Clapham in 1894. There was a great demand for highly-skilled German and Swiss embroidery in the late nineteenth, early twentieth century. In such places as the St Gallen area, which produced over half the world’s lace in 1910, men and women from nearly every household worked in the manufacture or trade of embroidered goods. Growth was bolstered by the advances in industrialization at that time, but many manufacturers continued to employ traditional manual techniques well into the mid twentieth century. The industry declined sharply after the First World War. Its fortunes have improved slowly and Michelle Obama wore St Gallen embroidery at her husband’s inauguration ceremony in 2009.

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Max was a freemason and in 1910 he appears on a membership list indicating that he was now a resident of 42 Lavender Gardens. A lovely road on the other side of Clapham Common, it boasts some splendid individualised decorative stone reliefs above each front door. Its also close to the home of the founder of The Times, John Walter. Max refers to himself as a manufacturers agent – clearly he was involved in some kind of importing and there are numerous records relating to his travels including quite a few transatlantic jaunts. In the 1930s, various directories of manufacturers agents indicate that he kept an address at 13 Paternoster Row, EC4. He was a man of some substance, just the kind of person Reverend Galpin might have befriended. Could the embroidery be a clue? Was Max producing some kind of material for the Church? Some nice embroidered cloths for the communion table? If Joseph wasn’t on a war memorial anywhere else, perhaps Reverend Galpin could be persuaded to add him. This is all speculation of course until something or someone emerges to tell us what really did happen. After all this moving around, it would seem that from 1911 the Wylers found stability at 6 Brandreth Road, Balham, a quiet street on the Heaver Estate. This was an address they lived at until Max’s death in 1948 aged 81.

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Joseph would appear to have joined the 15th London Regiment, alternatively known rather grandly as The Prince of Wales’ Own Civil Service Rifles at ‘New Court’. This was effectively a ‘pals’ battalion, not so much one made up of people living in the same area, but related to specific jobs. They were known as the Civil Service Rifles because they recruited Civil Servants living and working in London. Their headquarters were at Somerset House. Joseph served from 20th December 1916 with a five month lay-off between February and May 1917.

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In March 1918 his regiment were caught up in the German Spring Offensive. By the end of the first day of the attack, the day before the official date of Joseph’s death, 21,000 British soldiers had been taken prisoner and the Germans had made great advances. They were so pleased with themselves that the Kaiser declared March 24th to be a national holiday. Joseph’s body was never recovered and his name is inscribed on the Arras Memorial. The Civil Service Rifles Memorial is situated at Somerset House, London, just across Waterloo Bridge. By the close of the war more than 1240 officers and men of the Civil Service Rifles had died in the war, and among its many soldiers was the sculptor Henry Moore.

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Well, at the end of all that I really can’t be sure about Joseph Wyler being the name commemorated on our war memorial. Max sounds like a man who would not get the detail of his son’s name wrong. Reverend Galpin had a passion for Switzerland but surely it would have taken more than a tablecloth to twist his arm. My theory is that someone with an ‘R Wyler’ connection came along between 1923 and 1930 and somehow convinced Reverend Galpin to add this name to the memorial. He may have been someone like William Mace, Charles Moss or Joseph Hammond who served in the war with distinction but was discharged due to illness, subsequently died and is not on the records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. If he wasn’t commemorated anywhere else then why not? So for the moment, we’ll acknowledge Joseph, celebrate Max and his embroidery and wait for somebody to come along and tell us who ‘R Wyler’ might have been.

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