The Drummer

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Many years ago when soldiers were at battle in the field with no altars on which to hold religious services, they would pile their drums neatly to make an altar, perhaps draped with regimental colours or a flag. A clergyman would then consecrate the ‘altar’ and celebrate religious services. In modern times the tradition of the Drumhead Service of Remembrance lives on. In the quiet stillness of the dark November night, I always like to slip into St Mary’s Church, Summerstown on the eve of Remembrance Sunday. The drums will have arrived earlier that evening and make a splendid sight, red, black and pristine shiny, they bristle with anticipation, evocative of the eve of battle. They also remind us that amongst the ranks of privates, gunners, sailors and aircraftmen that make up the Summerstown182, there is one who stands alone in being classified as a drummer. Its George Henry Cooper of Huntspill Street and Swaby Road, who was in the 8th Battalion of the East Surrey Regiment. He died aged 27 of pneumonia on 7th May 1918, just under two years after his brother Reginald was lost in the Battle of Jutland. He is buried in Wandsworth Cemetery.

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Henry Benjamin Cooper, a baker from West Molesey, near Hampton Court, married Rose Readings from Stoke Row, Oxfordshire in Chelsea in 1889 and in 1891 they were living at Queen’s Terrace in Fulham. Their oldest child George was born in Parthenia Road, Parsons Green the previous year. Its close to Eel Brook Common at the northern end of Wandsworth Bridge Road. A sister Maude was born in 1892, Reginald two years later and Winifred in 1896. By the time Gertrude arrived the following year, they had relocated via Wandsworth Bridge Road to Huntspill Street, Summerstown. Henry Cooper was doing very well in his bakery business based at No3 Pont Street, Belgravia, now one of the grandest, most exclusive parts of London. In 1901 there were five children and they were all still there in 1911, though another record would seem to indicate that George was abroad in the army. 17 year old Reg worked as a fishmonger. Unusually this census record indicates the streets that all the children were born in.

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It would appear that Henry and Rose moved into a new road near Earlsfield in 1914. They were very likely one of the first residents of Swaby Road, part of a planned garden suburb, the Magdalen Park Estate. A wonderful photo from 1915 shows children playing in the newly built street, looking south towards Burntwood Lane. The Cooper abode at Nos 142 and 144 would be roughly where the horse and cart is, not far from the junction with Littleton Street. Currently one of these is for sale and the other in the process of a major refurbishment and shrouded with boards. The large circular plinths on the gable-ended houses are visible in the photo and these still exist. A decorative outer laurel motif suggests something might have been intended to be added in the middle – that remains oddly empty and plain, so perhaps the money ran out.

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Across the road in the old photo is open ground and although the building of houses here was delayed by the war, a large section between the roads which were named Openview and Fieldview were retained for sporting activity. Originally this land was owned by Magdalen College Oxford and the good quality Edwardian housing designed in 1911 by builders, the Holloway Brothers, on the west side of Swaby Road, Burntwood Lane and Magdalen Road were the start of an ambitious project that was never completed as originally planned. The Council’s ‘Magdalen Park Conservation Area Appraisal’ describes it thus; ‘The west side of Swaby Road is made up of three long terraces, each composed of two building types in a Neo-Georgian style. In all, there are 81 two storey buildings and each has been designed to contain two flats, one on the ground floor with another on the first floor, making a total of 162 separate dwellings. This is a very fine composition with a style that is unique and possibly one of the finest examples of domestic architecture of its period within the Borough’. Reg’s next-of-kin details indicate his parents lived at 144a Swaby Road, two years later, George’s have them next door at 142a. Sadly Rose didn’t have very long to enjoy this splendid location, perhaps heartbroken at the loss of her two sons and a married daughter, she died in 1919 aged 63. Henry passed away in 1931, he was only 73 but lived longer than four of his children.

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Rose never saw a road on the other side of the street being named after the Mayor of Wandsworth, Sir Archibald Dawnay. He was eleven years in office, right the way through the war years and when it came to drumming up recruitment fever he was right at the forefront, very much the driving force behind the local 13th Wandsworth Battalion, part of the East Surrey Regiment. Quite how she felt about having Dawnay Road, a permanent reminder on her doorstep of a man who may have stirred her lads into action, we can’t be sure.

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George’s military headstone in Wandsworth Cemetery is placed unusually, but not uniquely on top of an existing family grave. Records indicate this was only authorised in 1987 and put in position in 1993. The family headstone is now almost unreadable but its possible to decipher mention of his brother Reginald being lost at the Battle of Jutland. He was a ‘First Class Stoker on the famous HMS Invincible. Her destruction at the climax of the Battle of Jutland, resulting in the death of all but six of her crew of 1,031 was captured dramatically in some very famous photographs. In 1991 a British expedition marking the 75th anniversary of the battle located the wreck. The war years saw wedding bells for the Cooper family, Gertrude married in 1916 and Maud a year later, both in St Andrew’s Church by its long-serving vicar, Reverend Douglas Tudor-Craig. Reginald, most likely in uniform, married Blanche Violet Warren on 2nd October 1915 in Balham. Eight months later he was dead and Blanche would be a widow for 40 years. She died in Wandsworth in 1956.

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Maud and Gertrude Cooper both married servicemen. Maud wed Stanley Weller who was in the Royal Marine Light Infantry. Among the 82 names on the Swaby Road Absent Voter’s List, he is at No142, apparently serving on HMS Canterbury. Maud and Stanley lived on at 142a Swaby Road until her death in 1928. Gertude married Joseph Marcantonio from Eltringham Street in Wandsworth, the son of an ice cream maker. He had been invalided out of the 23rd London Regiment after two years service following a gunshot wound in 1915. Sadly after a little over two years of marriage, Gertude died aged 22 in December 1918. This was a very black year for the Cooper family. Her name is just about readable on that family headstone in Wandsworth Cemetery.

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Although his military records have been lost, George’s army service number is consistent with a 1908 recruit into the East Surrey Regiment, when he would have been 18. Although he is listed at home in the 1911 census, another record places places him with the 2nd Battalion of the East Surreys in Burma. A long way from Huntspill Street. He would have returned from India at the start of the war and should in theory have gone to the western front in early 1915. One thing is certain, from the end of March, through April 1918, the 8th Battalion of the East Surrey Regiment suffered terribly in the wake of the German Spring Offensive. In the mayhem of a retreat, with gas and shells exploding over him on top of terrible weather, its unlikely George would have had much chance of doing any drumming. Its most likely that in the midst of this madness he was wounded and taken back to hospital in England.

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The ‘soldiers effects’ form tells us that George died of pneumonia in a Shrewsbury War Hospital in Shropshire and left an estate of £22 to his father. This may have been Berrington Hospital which was converted from an old workhouse and appeared to treat many soldiers who suffered from respiratory diseases, many of which were caused by the effects of gas. A desire to provide the patient with ‘fresh air’ may also have been a factor in choice of hospital and certainly Shrewsbury must have had a much better air quality than London in those days.

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When the family lived at Huntspill Street there must have been a connection with St Mary’s Church but the move to Swaby Road very much took the family into the orbit of St Andrew’s. In October 1914 the very first list appears in the St Mary’s parish magazine of ‘Men serving their King and Country who have gone forth from this parish’. There are 124 names on the list, both Cooper brothers among them. One woman is included, Nurse Ethel Willoughby under ‘Hospital Service’. Twenty of these names would eventually appear on the war memorial. In June 1918 George’s death was announced in the parish magazine and that it was as a result of him being gassed.

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Horse and Plough

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One of the saddest deaths of all of the Summerstown182 must surely be that of Henry William Ward He passed away at the Grove Military Hospital, Tooting just five days before the Armistice, on 6th November 1918. Not only that, but the fact this happened at home seems to make it even harder to bear, just half a mile up the road from his family home – so close yet so far. He is buried just another half mile or so, in the other direction, in Wandsworth Cemetery on Magdalen Road, Earlsfield.

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Henry lived at 74 Summerstown, at the Plough Lane end, on the other side of the road from The White Lion, Sadler’s Cottages and Gothic Lodge. He would have been very familiar with the Hammonds, the Bakers and the Woods, living on the last stretch of this pivotal road, a location long favoured by those with Romany roots and a fondness for caravans and horses. He worked as a blacksmith and served as a farrier-sergeant in the Royal Field Artillery. They were in charge of smaller mobile field guns, positioned close to the front line and moving frequently using teams of horses. Henry would have been making and fitting shoes, attending to the majority of the veterinary and husbandry needs of a horse and inspecting every horse in his charge twice a day.

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This corner of the Wimbledon Stadium complex, still the home of a beautiful willow, sadly earmarked for the chop, was until just under a year ago, the location of Simon’s Diner, providing sustenance to the greyhound racing fraternity, market and car boot sale shoppers. Now its enclosed with Galliard hoarding awaiting the coming of luxury homes and AFC Wimbledon. I just had to smile a few weeks ago when as if some giant cheeky mouse had visited, a hole suddenly appeared opposite Lidl and there were police reports of a caravan being impounded. Very naughty of course, but it seemed a bit like tradition was being upheld.

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What changes would take place here in the following decades as the traces of calico ditches and watercress beds were replaced in 1928 by a greyhound racing stadium. Then came speedway, bangers, monster trucks and on a bizarre day in 1978, sixty five naked women riding bicycles in Freddie Mercury’s video. Now we eagerly await the return of the football club who Henry Ward may well have watched when they came to the other end of Plough Lane in 1913.

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Henry was born around 1885 into a part of Surrey with long-standing military connections. His parents were Thomas Henry Ward from Ash, near Aldershot and his wife Mary Keen, a native of Farnham. They married on 14th November 1880 at a place called Tongham, just off the famous A31 Hog’s Back road. In the 1891 census the family lived at 7 Pembury Place, on the High Street in Aldershot and Thomas worked as a grocer’s assistant. There appear to have been only two children, William and his sister Emily, born in 1890.

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A decade later, presumably having decided that London provided a better future, they were at 32 Selkirk Road in Tooting, one of the great historic roads in the area, overlooked protectively by the famous old Defoe Chapel. Legendary Tooting worthies, Joshua Oldfield and Bevill Allen are connected to this building though Daniel Defoe’s involvement remains unconfirmed. At No3 is one of Tooting’s most long-established businesses, Harrington’s famous Pie and Mash Shop. Bertie and Clara set up there in 1908 and its still going strong. Henry was now a blacksmith’s mate and his father a labourer. Five other people lived at the address including George Squire, indicated as an assistant barber. He quite possibly worked at one of three nearby barbers shops, assuming they were in operation at the time. Another extraordinary tonsorial connection was forged a few years ago when Harrington’s Pie and Mash Shop was dramatically transformed into a theatrical venue. In the winter of 2014, Tooting Arts Club decided to stage Stephen Sondheim’s classic musical Sweeney Todd there. Eight actors, three musicians and an audience of thirty two people squeezed into the tiny shop. Exceptional reviews followed and on the last night a visit from Sondheim himself. Sir Cameron Mackintosh took it to the West End and the show is currently playing on Broadway with the existing cafe set at 3 Selkirk Road re-created for its Big Apple audience. Whatever would Henry Ward have thought of that?

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The following ten years saw dramatic events which took the family up Garratt Lane to Summerstown and allow us to identify Henry as the H W Ward on our war memorial. In April 1907 Thomas, still resident at Selkirk Road died at the age of 44. In December Mary re-married to Cornelius William Walker and moved to 74 Summerstown. They certainly didn’t hang around getting hitched as Cornelius’ first wife Elizabeth only passed away in September of that year, leaving him with six children.

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One small episode which happened in 1908 was found in the online records of a trial of one William Sheldrake at the Old Bailey. It would appear that Cornelius Walker described as a ‘tar traveller’ had supplied materials to the defendant ‘whom I knew, and had arranged to make the end carriage of a van for me’. The Walkers had previously lived at 11 Summerstown, another house with 182 connections. Sheldrake was acquitted of the forgery and deception charge but the extract gives a tiny glimpse into the world of horses, trading and travelling life that Henry now orbited. A world remarkably of which there are still traces, over one hundred years later. On the 1911 census, Henry indicated as ‘Harry’ is 26 and listed as a stepson, working as a carman. Ernest Walker a nineteen year old son from Cornelius’ first marriage was also a tar traveller. In June 1910 Emily had married George Figgest a gardener in the cemetery and they now lived at the same address. There were Figgest family living round the corner at No8 Keble Street where William and John may well have been George’s brothers.

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It’s not possible to say too much about Henry Ward’s military service other than that he was a farrier-sergeant in the 179th Royal Field Artillery at the time of his death and that he also served with the Royal Horse Artillery. He enlisted in Camberwell and it would seem from other similar service number records relating to 179th Royal Field Artillery that he volunteered in June 1915 at Deptford, so possibly he was living at this time in south east London. The only other thing we know is that he died on 6th November 1918 and his name is on the screen in Wandsworth Cemetery. In January 1919 his death was noted in the St Mary’s Church parish magazine, ‘We regret to hear that Henry William Ward of the Royal Field Artillery, died in hospital on November 6th 1918’.

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A key fact in tracing the family of Henry William Ward was in his Soldier’s Effects record which shows his mother as his sole legatee. Mary Walker was left nine pounds, eighteen shillings and sixpence. This fact enabled us to trace his parents and find out that his mother had re-married. It also stated that he died in the Grove Military Hospital, now the site of St George’s Hospital.

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The Absent Voters List of 1918 makes interesting reading with two Walker brothers, Henry Ward and George Figgest all listed as serving soldiers at 74 Summerstown. Ernest Walker was in 1/5th East Surreys, Alfred Walker in the Army Service Corps, George Figgest a ‘wheeler’ in the Royal Field Artillery and Henry Ward a sergeant-farrier. Familiar names of Earl, Baker, Nicholls, Woodley and Wright all feature in the list and round the corner, Robert and William Figgest at 8 Keble Street.

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Cornelius died in 1925 at the age of 74. Henry’s mother and married sister Emily were still at 74 Summerstown according to the 1958 electoral roll. This photo from 1958 shows the road shortly before its transformation and No74 would have been one of the houses on the left. Across the road is the beautiful Gothic Lodge at No73, the building immediately to its right is the only original house on the main section of this road which still stands today. It would appear that Emily and George Figgest had a son in 1920 called Harry John Figgest. Its quite possible that he was named after her recently deceased brother. We will perhaps never know.