A Cleaner Tooting

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Joseph Frederick Thomas Lucas was born in Willesden at the dawn of the twentieth century into an age of optimism. A few years later his family came to live in Tooting in the early years of the reign of Edward VII. There’s a good reason why the King’s statue is outside Tooting Broadway. Related to most of its royalty he was known as the ‘Uncle of Europe’. As people flooded into the area and new streets and amenities emerged almost overnight, this was the birth of the bustling, hustling Tooting we know today. The trams came in 1903 and with them three future kings to inspect the progress of the emerging Totterdown Estate. A library was built and great well-intentioned public meeting places like Fairlight Hall and the Central Methodist Hall would soon emerge, followed by the cinemas. There was even a new St Mary’s Church in Summerstown. Public baths were constructed, then a great ‘bathing lake’, now the world famous Lido. Not only was Tooting getting bigger, it was getting cleaner.

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The Lucas family had a strong military pedigree. Joseph’s grandfather Hugh was a Chelsea pensioner from Belfast, his parents worked in military tailoring and his brothers Albert and Hugh served alongside him in the First World War. Albert was killed at Cambrai and less than five months later eighteen year old Joseph, serving in the 8th Battalion of the Gloucestershire Regiment also lost his life in the wake of the German Spring Offensive. His name is on the great memorial at Tyne Cot in Flanders. The Tyne Cot Cemetery and Memorial to the Missing is the largest cemetery for commonwealth forces in the world. The Memorial bears the names of almost 35,000 officers and men whose graves are not known.

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Their first residence in Tooting was 11 Gambole Road, the street that diverts sharply off Garratt Lane just before its last stretch and heads to St George’s Hospital before turning into Coverton Road. Not far down here, No88a was the childhood home of the legendary comic actor George Cole. This last stretch of Garratt Lane would at that time have been called Defoe Road and the hospital was the Fountain Fever Hospital. Just a short walk away Sidney Lewis was born in 1903, another young lad who ended up in uniform before he should have done. The pressure to join up in the early war years was intense and halfway down, Gambole Road is met by the extraordinary Gibey Road and its record-breaking Absent Voters List roll call of 137 out of 99 doors. There are only 40 doors on Gambole Road but still 37 names. They include a George Slaughter at No28 and someone at No5 who was on the quaintly named ‘HMS Inflexible’. At No40, next to the hospital were three members of the Henson family including one who was a Sergeant in the Chinese Labour Corps.

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No11 is now gone. The even-numbered houses on the north side are all preserved but the south side peters out at inflexible No5 before it meets Gilbey Road. For whatever reason, where it should have been appears to be a parking space. Around this point is surely one of the oddest doorways in Tooting, No98a Gilbey Road actually fronts onto Gambole Road and has a great big gaping windowless wall all to itself. At the Garratt Lane end of the road is a chiropracter and a shabby corner retail premises which should be a prime location but has been empty and boarded-up for as long as I can remember.

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The 1911 census saw them living at 29 Bertal Road in Summerstown. A delightful street of about 40 original houses, tucked in between the Hazelhurst estate and Lambeth Cemetery. Eleven year old Joseph was still at school with two younger sisters Daisy and Rose. His name does not appear on either the Smallwood or Fountain registers, though its hard to believe he didn’t go there given the proximity – he probably didn’t make the 1916 ‘Old Smalls’ booklet because he was not yet in the army. The Absent Voters list for here also makes interesting reading for Joseph you would think should be on it. His brother, 25 year old Hugh Lancelot Lucas of 21st London Regiment is. The reason is that Joseph was too young to vote – like thousands of others not captured on this register because they were under twenty one. Other familiar Bertal Road names are John Warman at No27, brother of William. George Quenzer at No2, brother of another underage soldier Alfred, who died with the East Surreys at Villers-Plouich. Walter Matthews at No11 was connected to the Kitz family and the maternal grandfather of our great friend Lynda Biggs. He survived the war but was badly gassed.

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Joseph was in the 8th Battalion of the Gloucestershire Regiment, killed on 18th April 1918 when the battalion were retreating in the face of the great German Spring Offensive. No wonder the tone is a bit brisk and to the point, they must have been terrified. The Gloucesters war diary indicates that they ‘relieved the Australians in front of Messines’ at the start of the month and were now in front line trenches. There was an extensive enemy barrage on the 10th forcing them back to a place called Stinking Farm. On 14th they were at Rossignol and trenches near Beaver Corner. The diary note on 18th reads ‘Orders were received from Brigade to commence to withdraw the battalion back to a field near Wippenhoek Siding about two miles east of Abeele’. This was a place where the previous year a young Jamaican pilot called William Robinson Clarke became the first black airman to fly for Britain. They remained here for three days before moving to Proven. There is no mention of any attack or further shell barrage but the young man from Bertal Road was some how lost in this period. Heartbreak for his mother Annie who less than six months earlier had lost an older son Albert at Cambrai. Annie’s husband William died in 1921. She passed away in 1947 aged 81 having outlived five of her sons.

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We remembered Joseph Lucas this summer along with two of his Summerstown182 mates, Albert Dell and Eldred Henden whose names are all on the memorial at Tyne Cot. We were there to attend the Passchendaele centenary commemoration event, standing among the headstones precisely a century after the battle began on 31st July 1917. It was a curious oddity that none of our Summerstown threesome died in that battle but all the following year. We placed a little cross at the foot of screen wall where his name is inscribed, close to the top of the middle column of Gloucestershire Regiment names. There was quite a collection of tributes so there must have been plenty of people there that day with connections to the regiment.

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Later that evening we went to Artillery Wood Cemetery, just a few miles outside Ypres to remember someone who did die that day. Killed by a shell just a short walk from where he is buried, Francis Ledwidge was a poet and Irish patriot who served with the Royal Inniskiling Fusilers. The Friends of Flanders Field Museum in Ypres have done great work over the last twenty years to bring his legacy to public attention and this year his face was on an Irish postage stamp. All our Belgian pals were there; Bart and Sabien, Gilbert from VIFF, Tracey and Richard doing the music. Also present were members of the Ledwidge family, representatives of the Irish government and a coachload of people from the poet’s home town in Slane, County Meath. One of his best known poems ‘To One Who Comes Now and Then’ was written a week before his death on 22nd July 1917. That was the day Fred Jewell died so we made a trip to his grave the day before and recited it.

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Sadly we know very little else about young Joseph Lucas. We don’t know what job he had, can’t be sure about his school or when he joined ths army or any detail about how he was killed. We have so far not been able to contact anyone from the Lucas family. All we have is a little early family background. For more on that, read the story about his brother Albert. However, he is in our thoughts and if we are passing 29 Bertal Road on our Summerstown182 ‘Walk of Remembrance’ next month, we’ll be sure to leave him a candle.

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