The Red Flag

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At the western end of Wimbledon Road, just the other side of Keble Street, facing the roundabout and looking down Blackshaw Road, No58 shares a sad distinction with No14 Worslade Road. A family living there suffered the agony of losing someone in both world wars. The Bruce family had only come to live there recently when Walter was killed on the first day of the Battle of Amiens, 8th August 1918, whilst serving in the 10th Battalion of the Essex Regiment. He died just three days after his eighteeth birthday. A generation later, his older brother Arthur, aged 46 and serving in the Royal Marines was lost at sea on 15th October 1941. He was on the merchant ship SS Empire Heron, which was in a convoy taking a cargo of sulphur to Manchester when it was met by a U-boat pack in the mid-Atlantic. She sank with the loss of 42 of her 43 crew. A terrible double blow for Mary Bruce who had been living in the neat mid-terrace house on Wimbledon Road for at least twenty years and would have twice received a telegram there bearing tragic news.

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Walter was one of eleven children born to John and Augusta Mary (Maria) Louise Bruce. His father was born in 1862 in Dunblane in Perthshire, famously the home town of Andy Murray, his mother in France. At the turn of the century, many families took the plunge to move from one part of London and then perhaps switched around streets a few times within that – surprisingly there was quite a bit of back-and-forth with the Bruce family between Battersea and Tooting. They had married in 1890 and the census the following year finds them in Bickley near Bromley, with John Bruce working as a licensed victualler at a pub called The Chequers on Southborough Road. They had one son John, who was a year old.

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The pub is still going strong and was in fact in the local news recently with reports that it is ‘haunted by ghosts including a French policeman, a woman in stiletto heels and a poltergeist that forces visitors against walls’. Highwayman Dick Turpin is said to have drank there regularly and could ‘make quick getaways through tunnels from its cellars’. Perhaps spooked out by ghostly goings-on in Bromley, the Bruces headed down the south circular to Battersea. The population here exploded from 7,000 in 1841 to 150,000 in 1891 as people poured in from the countryside in search of work at the wharves, railway yards and numerous factories and mills lapping the Thames.

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Another son Henry (Harry) was born the following year and a daughter Mary in 1893. Twelve months later Peter Duncan was born with the family living at 11 Winstanley Road. John seems to have had enough of being a barman and was now working as a plasterer. Harriet and Arthur were born on Christmas Day 1895 with the Bruces now resident at 94 Speke Road. These roads are all part of a cluster of streets in an area north of Clapham Junction. Built on low-lying, ill-drained ground with an underground river, the Falcon Brook running through it, this lead to chronic housing problems with damp for an impoverished working-class population. However, it was one that under John Burns, another lad with a Scottish father, was now organising itself. He was elected to the London County Council in 1888 and as MP for Battersea in 1892. The Progressive Alliance took control of Battersea in 1894 and pioneered municipal reform.

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Largely razed after the war, some of the names of the streets where the Bruces lived survive on the Winstanley estate. Speke Road developed in the 1860s, along with Grant and Livingstone Roads, commemorate African explorers. John Burns once lived there, one of eighteen children ‘the son of a washerwoman’. He was apprenticed at Prices Candle Factory at the age of twelve. In 1889 he played a major part in the London dock strike and was known as ‘The Man with the Red Flag’. He campaigned fervently against the Boer War. The Liberal Prime Minister invited Burns to join the Cabinet in December 1905 as President of the Local Government Board. His major lasting achievement was the Housing and Town Planning Act of 1909 which enabled councils to build houses for rent and ensured they were built to a certain standard.

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In 1897 the Bruces were still in Battersea when a seventh child Charles was born. Walter Hugh was their eighth, born in Wandsworth on 5th August 1899. A school admissions record from 1900 shows Duncan and Mary attending Fircroft Road School and the family now resident at 41 Kellino Street. By the time of the 1901 census the family had crossed Tooting Corner and were living at 135 Trevelyan Road. Seven of the children are listed, all under eleven. Harriet was absent and may have died as an infant. Even though there would surely have been plenty of work for a plasterer with all the houses being built at the turn of the century, life would have been hard for the Bruce family, their incessant moving perhaps being because they struggled to pay the rent.

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They were shortly on the move again to 26 Headworth Road, Earlsfield when another pair of twins were born in January 1902, William and Sidney, baptised by Reverend John Robinson. He would have been a busy man then, furiously laying plans for his new St Mary’s Church. Incredibly by the time Agnes Flora was born in December 1903 they were back in Battersea at Speke Road. She was I believe the last of their eleven children. Another school record from 1905 provides a telling indication of the family’s situation. Five year old Walter entered Southfields School, Merton Road on 20th March 1905 and was discharged two months later, apparently ‘removed to workhouse’. The address of John Bruce was given as 80a Penwith Road. The workhouse would surely have been nearby Swaffield Road.

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The family appear to have got itself back on the rails by the time of the 1911 census one once were back in Battersea, now living in a four room tenement at 112 Meyrick Road. Its indicated on this form that two of the eleven children had died. Nineteen year old Harry was a fitters mate at the generating station, Duncan a sales manager for a bakery and Charles aged 14 worked in a grocers. Perhaps having these older children earning had stabilised finances. A military service record for Peter Duncan Bruce indicates that he was discharged from the Hussars in December 1914 after three months service. The reason for this was ‘myopic astygmatism’ – he was short-sighted and ‘not likely to become an efficient soldier’. At this time they lived at 16 Este Road. One more move for the family was to come and they were back in Summerstown on Wimbledon Road by 1918. In the Absent Voters list, John Bruce serving on HMS Cardiff was resident at No54, Peter Duncan Bruce, seemingly in the Army Service Corps at No58. There was no mention of Walter. The ‘soldiers effects’ record after his death later that year indicates his mother as sole legatee. She was left one pound, seven shillings and four pence. It would appear Mary Bruce lived on at No58 with her adult children until at least 1939. Sidney was a shoemaker and married at St Mary’s Church in 1928. Agnes Flora, a tailoress wed there two years later. Two other brothers, Harry (Henry) and Arthur would seem to have been with Mary at 58 Wimbledon Road until 1939.

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On the 8th August 1918 the Allied forces launched the hundred day Amiens offensive, a surprise attack that heralded the end of the First World War. The so-called ‘Black Day’ for the German Army. It was also a very black day for the Bruce family. Walter died in the attack by the 10th Essex Regiment at Gressaire Wood on the Morlancourt Ridge. This commenced at 420am on a misty morning and when the mist lifted his already depleted batallion were completely exposed. In the mayhem the war diary records ‘Casualties; other ranks killed 56, wounded 191, missing 24, 2 officers killed, 8 wounded, 3 missing’. Widely commented upon in accounts written shortly afterwards, was the fact that by this stage the 10th Essex comprised largely of very young inexperienced soldiers. One of these was the eighteen year old birthday boy from Summerstown. Near here, just a few months earlier, Manfred von Richthofen, the famous ‘Red Baron’ met his death from a single bullet in aerial combat, while flying over Morlancourt Ridge.

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The map showing the planned attack on 8th August amazingly indicates the village of Sailly-Laurette in the bottom left corner. It is here, at Beacon Cemetery that Walter Bruce is buried. There are 517 First World War burials there, mostly killed that month. The fact that short-sighted Peter Duncan Bruce and his under-age brother Walter were back in the army in 1918 shows the desperate need for manpower at that time. Walter was still two years short of the required minimum age for service overseas when he was helping hold back the German Spring offensive.

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In July 1914, John Burns MP wrote, ‘Why four great powers should fight over Serbia no fellow can understand. This I know, there is one fellow who will have nothing to do with such a criminal folly, the effects of which will be appalling to the welter of nations who will be involved. It must be averted by all the means in our power. Apart from the merits of the case it is my especial duty to dissociate myself, and the principles I hold and the trusteeship for the working classes I carry from such a universal crime as the contemplated war will be. My duty is clear and at all costs will be done.’ He resigned his post as President of the Board of Trade, played no role in the war and left Parliament in 1918. John Burns died aged 84 in 1943 and is buried in St Mary’s Cemetery, Battersea Rise.

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