Mrs Brown’s Boys

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I’ve always liked the sound of Frank Churcher Brown, two very straightforward simple names sandwiching a more unusual middle one. As was the fashion at the time, it was the maiden name of a mother and often more than one child had the privilege. Frank was the older brother of ‘Ambulance Man’ Albert Frederick Brown, who died in 1920 and was added to the war memorial a decade later. Two other Brown boys, Charles and Edgar appear to have survived the war. Their father Hugh Brown was born in Warminster, Wiltshire in 1865 and like his Dad was a railway signalman. By 1887 he was living in Hammersmith, west London and it was here on June 4th that he married Kate Eliza Churcher from Worthing. In 1891 the couple had settled at 32 Cambridge Road and they had two small children, Fanny Helena and Charles Henry. Hugh’s widowed father was with them along with three children of his own. The golden age of rail had apparently pulled them all into the teeming metropolis. From around the turn of the century the Brown family were in Summerstown at 20 Burtop Road. In the 1901 census there were five children, Frank Churcher Brown was born in 1892 and Albert Frederick two years later, both in Hammersmith. Only the youngest boy Edgar was born in Wandsworth, indicating that the family moved to the area in 1898.  In that 1901 census, Charles now eleven is listed as being ‘engaged in the milk trade’. There were certainly plenty of dairies around, farms on Burntwood lane, cows grazing on the common.

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It would seem that in 1906 the Browns shifted two streets along and alighted at 11 Maskell Road where they would reside for at least the next three decades. This is one of what I have dubbed ‘The Lost Streets of Earlsfield’, wiped off the map after the River Wandle burst its banks in September 1968. Maskell Road does of course live on in name only but its neighbours have disappeared beneath the Burtop Road estate. Only two of the boys were present on the 1911 census. It looks like the 17 year old Frederick working as a builder’s labourer was in fact Albert and Edgar was thirteen. Oldest brother Charles Henry Brown, now aged 22 was already in the army, seving with Prince Albert’s Somersetshire Light Infantry in Malta. There is no sign of 19 year old Frank but its very likely that he too was already also in the military. His service records do not exist but his number indicates that he joined up around 1910. Some medical records and looking at soldiers with similar service numbers help define his movements. He would most certainly have been involved in the war from the start and seen action at many of its greatest battles. At the end of May 1915, he was in Malassis Hospital near St Omer, suffering from german measles.

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Frank Churcher Brown, serving with the Royal Field Artillery, 9th Battery, 41st Brigade, died of his wounds in the Southern General Hospital, Birmingham on 24th April 1918. He is buried in Magdalen Road Cemetery, Earlsfield. His soldiers effects records indicate that Frank was married, very sadly possibly less than six months before his death. It would appear that he wed Alice Davies in the third quarter of 1917.

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The War Diary of the 41st Brigade of the Royal Field Artillery gives a frank and unusually readable account of the events of that spring which lead to Frank Churcher Brown losing his life. It finds them at a familiar place in March 1918, Villers-Plouich, liberated a year earlier by Ted Foster and the 13th Wandsworth Battalion – now back in German hands. On 12/13th March mention is made of heavy gas shelling and the ‘area near Beaucamp full of gas’. It was noted that the gas was not clearing and shortly afterwards ‘Owing to gas casualties and the want of rest the 9th Battery were replaced by 16th’. All this was a prelude to the firestorm unleashed by the Germans just a week later. Over the following days Frank’s battery were in the firing line as the German advance pushed them back over the Somme battlefield, through places that were probably very familiar names to him; Sars, Gueudecourt, Bazentin-le-Petit. On 27th March at Bouzincourt the diary very frankly recorded the extent of this retreat. ‘Out total retirement from La Vacquerie to Albert, 25 miles between the night of 21/22nd and night 25/26th – fighting continuously all the time’. At this point the attack appeared to have been held and the 9th Battery was able to get some rest at Varennes before joining the Canadian division on the Arras front on 9th April. They were here at Blagny, near Feuchy from 16th April until the end of the month. On 18th the diary lists the names of eleven men in the 47th Division who were awarded Military Medals. Frank is not one of them and by this stage was probably either already in hospital in Birmingham or on his way there. Whether he was wounded in the retreat, the ‘harrassing’ and ‘sniping that followed it, or the earlier gas attacks is impossible to say.

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In October 1914 the very first list appears of ‘men serving their King and Country who have gone forth from this parish’ appeared in the St Mary’s Church parish magazine There were 124 names and Frank is included with his two brothers, under the heading ‘Regular Army’. They were there from the start and came so close to surviving but very sadly two of Mrs Brown’s Boys didn’t made it through to the end. Thankfully Edgar Brown survived the war. He was in the Royal Engineers and is indicated on the 1918 Absent Voters List. On the 1920 electoral roll he’s there alongside Albert and his parents. Hugh and Kate were still living at 11 Maskell Road in 1939 when they were both in their mid-seventies. Fanny was also present, presumably looking after them. She died in Warminster in 1972, aged 84.

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What a sad day it must have been for the family in the spring of 1918, Frank’s body presumably arriving by train from Birmingham to be taken for burial in Magdalen Road Cemetery, one of 477 burials here from the First World War. I wonder how many times they came to look at the war memorial screen and read his name. Four names above him is George Batson from Blackshaw Road who died the same year in another hospital. Its possible Albert might even have visited here if he had any leave before the end of the war and when he died, in September 1920. The guns might have stopped firing but tragically the Brown family would have to go through it all over again.

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