Monthly Archives: October 2012

Race riots

So far, the black history month posts have been fairly positive stories – two young officers of mixed race, and a  successful propaganda speaker. Sadly (if unsurprisingly) it was not all plain sailing where race relations in Great War London were concerned. There were several incidents of race riots.

It was not quite all quiet on the home front. At least two race riots took place in London during the Great War.

In July 1917, the Times reported a ‘disturbance’ on Victoria Dock Road in West Ham. A police sergeant told magistrates that “in consequence of the infatuation of the white girls for the black men in the district, some of the inhabitants are greatly incensed against the coloured men.”

The previous Saturday night, a gang of white youths attacked houses inhabited by black men in Victoria Road causing considerable damage. In response, several black men came out into the street ‘armed with knives and other weapons’. The newspaper reported that the clashes continued the following day, when ‘according to the police, a crowd of about a thousand people assmbled, and stones, sticks, bottles, pokers and tongs were freely used by both sides. One black man was fined £1 for brandishing a revolver during the melee.

After the war had ended, a wave of race riots swept the country in the summer of 1919. A website about the riots describes the events in London:

The troubles in London were more sporadic. On Saturday 14th June there was an incident at a coffee shop in Cable Street, East London, where two Negroes were “roughly handled.”[Daily Express 16/6/19]. The Daily Mail [16/6/19] reported that “a coffee shop kept by an Arab was stormed and the furniture wrecked; two revolver shots were fired at the crowd by Negroes who were found in the house… The riot arose on a report being spread that some white girls had been seen to enter the house. Soon a crowd of about 3,000 people assembled, and the place was attacked.”

Two days later there were also attacks on Chinese-owned properties in Poplar.

Clearly all was not well in relations between the races in London – and in the other places in England and Wales where disturbances occurred in 1919. Thousands of people clashed in the street on these occasions. It is notable that both these examples in London were linked to white girls being seen with black men. The 1919 riot was happening at the same time that German inhabitants of the occupied Rhineland were fed racist propaganda (such as this infamous medallion) against the stationing of black colonial troops there by France after some of them got together with German women in what was called the ‘black horror’.


Posted by on 28 October 2012 in Events, Ordinary Londoners


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HR Lumley and pioneering facial surgery

Wartime often brings advances in medical treatments. In the Great War, this included the development of facial reconstructive surgery. Techniques were developed, but these had to build on trial and error – these errors could lead help advance the science, but they could also cost men their lives. One of those who lost his life in this way was Henry Ralph Lumley.

[Warning: one of the photos in this post is not suitable for the squeamish]

2Lt Henry Ralph Lumley

Henry Ralph Lumley was born in Marylebone in March 1892, son of barrister (and playwright) Ralph Robert Lumley and his wife Florence. Following his father’s death in 1900, young Henry was sent off the Christ’s Hospital (the Bluecoat School) for his education. He then returned to London and worked at the Eastern Telegraph Company as a telegraph operator until August 1915.

After a few months without work, he ‘attested’ under the Derby Scheme and then filled in an application form to become an officer in the Royal Flying Corps, in December 1915. In April 1916, he was appointed as an officer and went to Christ Church College, Oxford, for his flying training.

By July, Lumley had taken and passed his flying test and his appointment as a flying officer was approved from the 14th. On that day, he was flying in a BE12 from the Central Flying School at Upavon in Wiltshire, next to Salisbury Plain. The flight ended with a crash on the Plain and Lumley suffering extremely severe burns.

Lumley after his flying accident. [(c) Gillies Archive]

As well as the burns to his whole face, Lumley lost his left eye and could barely see out of the right eye. He had burns to his fingers and lost part or all of both thumbs. His legs were also both severely burned, resulting in restricted movement.

Despite his wounds, Lumley lived for nearly two more years.  In early 1917, he was a patient at King Edward VII Hospital for Officers, on Grosvenor Gardens. While he was there, Sister Agnes wrote a letter about him:

I am writing for 2 Lieut H.R. Lumley R.F.C who has been most terribly burnt in a flying accident. He was boarded here a few days ago and they told him to apply for compensation. His face is burnt beyond recognition. One eye removed, the other practically blind. Legs burnt, arms burnt, thumbs and some fingers amputated. Of course they have the whole history on the [medical] board papers. He has very little to live for poor boy, but we are doing everything possible believe me.

Yours sincerely,

Sister Agnes

Feb 20th

[Sister Agnes and her sister set up the hospital for officers in their house. It is now – as a hospital for ex-service personnel – named in her honour]

In 1917, a house in Sidcup, Kent, was turned over to the treatment of facially-wounded men like Lumley. Harold Gillies, an ear, nose and throat surgeon who had become interested in facial surgery, had managed to set up a plastic surgery ward at the Cambridge Military Hospital, Aldershot, but its inadequacy in the face of rising casualties required a larger site. Over the next four years, the hospital, which with its convalescent satellites had around 1000 beds, was home to over 5000 servicemen from across the Empire. Lumley was one of those men.

A ward at the Queen’s Hospital, Sidcup, Christmas 1917.  [(c) Gillies Archive]

An excellent wikipedia entry describes his time there:

Lumley was transferred to Sidcup on 22 September 1917, for reconstructive surgery. The surgical team, led by Harold Gillies, decided to reconstruct Henry’s face using a huge skin graft from his chest. The scar tissue would be removed, and the graft would be stitched into place. Tubed pedicles would be employed to provide further available skin. A similar, though less drastic, procedure had already been successfully carried out on a sailor, William Vicarage, who had received severe cordite burns at the Battle of Jutland.

The operation was performed in stages. The first, on 24 October 1917, outlined the chest graft and created the tubed pedicles at the neck. The second, more major, operation occurred on 15 February 1918. The scar tissue was excised, effectively removing all traces of Lumley’s ‘old’ face, and the graft was stitched into place.

Unfortunately, because of the size of the graft and Lumley’s already weakened state the chest skin was rejected and Henry died of heart failure on 11 March 1918.

March 11th was just short of Lumley’s 26th birthday and twenty months after his accident.  His death led to a change in procedure, with future operations of that scale being done more slowly and in smaller steps, with multiple smaller sections of skin being grafted rather than one large piece.

Lumley is buried in Hampstead cemetery. He joined the Royal Flying Corps to fly and fight for his country, but he never got the chance. The photos of him before and after his crash are a striking reminder of how person’s life can be turned around in an instant by an accident or incident (especially one involving fire), rendering them unrecognisable. Efforts were made to reconstruct Lumley’s face but he did not survive them. His death helped the development of plastic surgery that has restored people’s disfigured bodies over the decades since 1918.


Gillies Archive website – very interesting.

Wikipedia page on Lumley

HR Lumley’s service record at the National Archives

Thanks to Dr Andrew Bamji for his help on details of Gillies and his work.


Posted by on 24 October 2012 in Ordinary Londoners, Places


Thomas Harper: propaganda speaker

I was pleased, during this blog’s hiatus, to hear from Sean Creighton, who was able to provide me with Thomas Harper’s full name and some interesting additional information about him.  Here is the original blog post from October 2012, followed by an update:


For black history month, I am highlighting a few different aspects of black history in London in the Great War. Black and ‘coloured’ men could find themselves in different roles: soldiers, sailors, workers, and even propagandists, like Thomas Harper.

In 1917 semi-official National War Aims Committee was set it. The NWAC published propaganda material and, through its branches in the nation’s parliamentary constituencies (often organised by local political party agents), set up meetings and speeches to promote the nation’s war aims.  These are generally targeted at areas where low morale was suspected, particularly in urban areas.

One location that was used for several meetings in West Ham was outside the Boleyn pub (meetings were generally held out of doors). A pair of speakers set up their stage there in July 1918 to tell the crowd about the nation’s cause and the need for continued effort to win the war: Mr E. Smith and Mr. Thomas G. Harper. Two of the meetings were abandoned because of rain, but two went ahead on Monday 22 and Tuesday 23 July.

Mr Smith’s report of the 22 July 1918 meeting at the Boleyn (National Archive T 102/25)

After a successful session on the still-rainy evening of 22 July, Smith and Harper wrote out their reports to send to NWAC headquarters. Smith noted the size of the crowd, around 250-275; on the reverse, he commented on how the meeting went and the performance of his colleague (before having a change of heart and crossing part of it out):

A very good meeting. A few Pacifists present, but only one interrupted, who demanded questions. It had been raining heavily, but audience stood, and rather a good meeting ended about 9.25 with some applause. Strength and fortitude is required just here by speakers, as audience is at times very rough, and the least sign of weakness is immediately detected by the audience. It was rather funny for my colleague to apologise for the colour of his skin (he being a coloured man)

Smith’s report of the meeting

The report is fairly standard for the period: we were well received, but people are not automatically supportive. His comment about Harper is intriguing though.

I haven’t been able to find out more about Harper.  He gave his address as Statheim (an interesting house-name during a war against Germany), Graham Road, Mitcham. But at this point the trail goes cold.  He was presumably an effective speaker to have been invited to speak in West Ham, which had been a tough place to speak at times in 1917.

Who was Thomas G Harper? How had a ‘coloured man’ come to be an NWAC speaker in East London/South Essex in 1918?


Update: May 2020:

Well, I now have more information on Thomas Harper, thanks to Sean.

Thomas Greathead Harper was a preacher, speaker and writer born in British Guiana (now Guyana) in around 1859. He and his African-American wife Ella Louisa moved to the UK in 1891 and had two children in England: Albert Stanley Eugene Harper, born in Oxford in 1892, and George Donald Harper, born around 1897. By 1901, however, the couple had separated.  Ella appealed for maintenance support and they appeared in court in Stratford in November, with Thomas described rather condescendingly by The Barking, East Ham & Ilford Advertiser as “a respectably-dressed man of color”. That year’s Census lists Ella in Leyton with the two sons, and Thomas boarding in a house in Stoke Newington. In court, they disputed their relative financial situations, Thomas revealing that Ella’s family owned property in America. The court did not make a maintenance order.

The 1902 Post Office directory lists him as a commission agent based at Lonsdale Chambers, Chancery Lane. In the 1911 Census, Thomas described himself as a lecturer and author; by then he was living at 16 Southcroft Rd, Tooting, with a Suffolk-born woman, Ada Cunningham, who is described as a secretary.

Thomas Harper wrote at least two books: Christ in Evolution in 1908, and Contemporary Evolution of the Negro Race in 1910. This second book appears to have been based on lectures he had been giving in the USA over the previous decade, including at the Sixth Annual Meeting of the American Negro Academy, in Washington DC inDecember 1902. He was also an experienced speaker and preacher; he appears to have been a priest in New Jersey in the 1880s, and various records appear of him speaking in the UK and the USA, including another appearance during the war – speaking on land issues in late 1917.

As we have seen, by 1918 he had moved to Mitcham. Thomas and Ada then lived at 103 Carshalton Park Road after the war until his death in 1937. Ada subsequently married a Yorkshireman named Harry Brook, who made masks for people with facial disfigurements, with whom she lived at number 103 until her death in 1948.

Thomas and Ella Harper’s son Albert was a music-hall performer prior to the First World War. During the war, he first worked in a munitions factory in Newcastle and then, sometime in 1917 or 1918, joined the Northumberland Fusiliers; his entry in their medal roll tells us he served in the 1/5th (Territorial) Battalion and the 14th (Pioneers). Sadly, like his parents’, Albert’s marriage in 1914 did not last; a newspaper report in 1916 paints a picture of a brief and acrimonious marriage in Chesterfield, prior to his moving to Newcastle. His brother George Donald Harper served in the Merchant Navy. There is a record of a George Donald Harper travelling to the USA in 1913 and back to the UK in 1915, giving an address in Durham – possibly Ella and her sons had moved there, prompting Albert to join the local regiment.

So there are some brief details of this British West Indian speaker who spoke to two hundred people outside the Boleyn pub in West Ham in 1918, and his two sons who served in the war. As ever, I would be happy to hear from anyone else with more information about Harper and his life during, before or after the Great War.


Posted by on 20 October 2012 in Ordinary Londoners, Places


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Wilkinson’s Bullet-proof tunic

With high casualty rates in the Great War – especially for junior officers – efforts were made to protect men’s bodies. Steel helmets were introduced for British soldiers from 1916. Officers could also buy body armour for the trenches!

Wilkinson’s were a major producer of swords for the British Army. Pre-war officers all had to own swords and many bought them from the company. In 1889 they became Wilkinson Sword and soon they also began making razors.

During the Great War, their tailoring department in Pall Mall produced a bullet-proof jacket to save the lives of ‘our gallant officers in the fighting line’:

Wilkinson Sword Ltd ‘Bullet-Proof Jacket’ for officers

A member of the war relics forum posted some excellent photos of a real wartime example of this tunic in a discussion thread there. The jackets didn’t really catch on, perhaps because they were so heavy.

Others were also produced, as this discussion on the excellent Great War Forum shows.

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Posted by on 18 October 2012 in Famous companies


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Commander Buckle: a hero’s grave restored

Today, a campaign to restore the grave of a London Great War hero comes to its end with a service at the Grave of Commander A.W. Buckle, who was repeatedly decorated for gallantry
while serving as the commander of the Anson Battalion, Royal Naval Division.

Archibald Walter Buckle was a London schoolteacher. When war was declared in 1914, he was away on his honeymoon, but cut it short to join his unit in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. He was commissioned as an officer after serving at Antwerp during the German advance through Belgium in 1914.

He was sent to the Western Front again in 1916, when the Royal Naval Division (naval officers and men fighting as infantry) was deployed there towards the end of the year. He served his distinction in the battles of Arras and Third Ypres (Passchendaele), the German Spring Offensive and the Hundred Days campaign that brought the Allies victory in 1918. By the end of the war he had risen to be the commanding officer of the Anson Battalion.

Commander A.W. Buckle DSO

In the last few years of the war, Buckle earned the Distinguished Service Order four times. This medal was awarded to senior field officers (such as battalion commanders like Buckle) for bravery, leadership and other good work. He was said to have been recommended for the Victoria Cross, but really earning four DSOs is just as impressive – showing repeated bravery and leadership rather than a single act to earned the higher award.

Commander Buckle’s story is told in greater depth on other websites, such as an extensive biography on the Friends of Brockley and Ladywell Cemetery website, as well as his obituary and a contemporary account by a comrade.

1st bar, July 1918 (after first award in March).

T./Lt.-Cmdr. Archibald  Walter Buckle, D.S.O., R.N.D., R.N.V.R. For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty when in command of a battalion. He repelled the enemy’s attack, organised a counter-attack, and drove the enemy completely out of the menaced area. It was largely due to his courage, initiative and leadership that this important success was obtained.

2nd bar: January 1919

T./Comdr. Archibald Walter Buckle, D.S.O., Anson Bn., R.N.D., R.N.V.R. For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. When the progress of the brigade at a critical moment was checked by machine-gun fire, he went forward himself with his battalion staff, reorganised his battalion and led it forward on to commanding ground, seriously threatening the enemy’s retreat. The success of the operation was largely due to his courage and fine leadership.  

3rd bar: October 1919

T./Comdr. Archibald Walter Buckle, D.S.O., Anson Bn., R.N.D., R.N.V.R. During the fighting round Niergnies on 8th October, 1918, he showed great courage and powers of leadership. After the enemy had counter-attacked and succeeded in entering our lines, he seized an enemy antitank rifle and engaged three hostile tanks with it and drove them off. He then rallied men of various units in his neighbourhood and led them forward to the positions whence they had been forced. Throughout he did excellent work.

Buckle returned from the war to Brockley and to his job as a teacher, becoming headmaster master of the council school in New Road, Rotherhithe. He suffered from his war wounds though, and his premature death in 1927 from bronchialpneumonia through osteomyelitiswas judged to have have been accelerated by his war wounds.

Commander Buckle was a London war hero. According to his obituary, ‘Mr Winston Churchillhas referred to Buckle as one of the “salamanders born in the furnace,” who survived “to lead,to command, and to preserve the sacred continuity”.’ Today his grave has been restored as a mark of respect and his story has become public knowledge again

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Posted by on 14 October 2012 in Award-winners, Ordinary Londoners


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Arthur Feldwick, life saver on the battlefield

Heroism in wartime takes a variety of forms. One that was probably unexpected by those who carried it out was to disarm a ‘mad’ comrade firing his weapon wildly. Bermondsey lad Arthur Edward Feldwick did just that in May 1916.

Arthur Edward Feldwick was born in St Olave, Bermondsey in 1890 and lived there until the start of the Great War. He worked as a postman for the General Post Office; his father Thomas had taught at the London Postal School and died serving in the army during the Boer War. On 4 April 1914, Arthur married a neighbour in his block of flats (Russell Scott Buildings, on the corner of Jamaica Road and Cherry Garden Street) named Ada Legon.

Arthur and Ada Feldwick’s marriage record, 1914

When the war started, Feldwick was mobilised in the 1/8th London Regiment – the Post Office Rifles, a Territorial Force unit (at least he has a low enough number that he was probably a pre-war territorial). The battalion went to France in 1915 as part of the 2nd London Division; Corporal Feldwick arrived there with them on 18 March 1915.

Arthur Edward Feldwick, c 1916 - picture (c) Michael Feldwick

Arthur Edward Feldwick, c 1916 – picture (c) Michael Feldwick

On 6 May 1916, Feldwick and his comrades were fired upon behind the British lines.  The London Gazette describes their actions, led by Second Lieutenant William Rathbone:

As a working party under Second Lieutenant Rathbone, 15th London Regiment was proceeding down a communication trench by night, they were fired upon from close quarters. Second Lieutenant Rathbone ascertained that the shots came from a soldier who had run amok, and had posted himself with loaded rifle and fixed bayonet farther down the trench. Second Lieutenant Rathbone borrowed a rifle and, accompanied by Corporal Feldwick, advanced along the trench until in view of the mentally deranged man. They then advanced with rifles at the ready; the officer calling upon the man to surrender. Receiving no reply, they then dropped their rifles and rushed him, and after disarming him took him to the nearest dresing station. (London Gazette, 4 August 1917)

The following statement which was written by Second Lieutenant Rathbone on 7 May 1916, the day after the event is included in his Albert Medal recommendation file, and was located by auctioneers selling his medals in 2007:

‘I was taking a working party along Cabaret Road and had nearly reached the artillery positions when I heard a shot and the bullet seemed to pass close to the party. I concluded that it had probably come from an incinerator and took no notice. A little further on the artillerymen shouted to us to stop, which I did thinking some guns were going to fire. As nothing happened for some time I called out to know what was the matter. The artillerymen then shouted “There is a man who has gone dotty further up the trench with a loaded rifle”. This explained the shot and as the trench is shallow I ordered the men to get down. The artillery did not appear to be making any attempt to deal with the situation so I borrowed a rifle – loaded – from Corporal Feldwick of the 8th and told him to get another and load that. I then worked my way along until I could see the madman and ordered him to put his hands up. He took no notice so I walked towards him with my rifle at the ready. As soon as I got near enough I dropped my rifle and grasped that of the man, holding it so that he could neither shoot nor use his bayonet. The Corporal and others then rushed up and collared him. The bayonet was fixed and the rifle was at full cock with a round in the chamber and one on the magazine. The man was with difficulty removed to the dressing station in Hospital Road. I do not know to what regiment the man belonged. The two men of my own party who were nearest were Corporal Feldwick and Rifleman Haynes, both of the 8th Battalion. Some of the artillerymen must also have seen what occurred.’

The auctioneers state that ‘a note in one of the reports in this file suggests that the soldier who ran amok in the trenches belonged to the Royal Irish Rifles.’

Trench map showing Cabaret Road (coming in from the left side)

Cabaret Road is shown on this trench map segment posted on a Great War forum thread, and ran across the countryside south of Souchez in France – just south of the Cabaret-Rouge Cemetery (googlemap). This is where Feldwick and Rathbone tackled the ‘dotty’ soldier and earned their Albert Medals (Second Class), which Rathbone was lucky enough to receive from the King at Buckingham Palace. By this time, Feldwick had become a prisoner of war. What happened to the crazed soldier who shot at them is not recorded.

Albert Medal (second class)

Cpl Feldwick as a prisoner of war in 1917 (4th from left, back row). Postcard sent to his brother in London. Image (c) Michael Feldwick

Cpl Feldwick as a prisoner of war in 1917 (4th from left, back row). Postcard sent to his brother living on the Old Kent Road in London. Image (c) Michael Feldwick

After he was repatriated (presumably at the end of the war) Feldwick went home to Bermondsey and to Ada. They had four children in the 1920s, although sadly only two (Joan and Arthur) survived infancy. Ada died in 1947 and Arthur in 1950.


Many thanks to Michael Feldwick who contacted me about this post and sent through images of his grandfather to add to it. 16/9/2013

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Posted by on 12 October 2012 in Award-winners, Ordinary Londoners


George Edward Kingsley Bemand – the first black officer in the British Army?

Since writing about Walter Tull, I have been informed that there was another black or mixed-race officer in the British Army: George Edward Kingsley Bemand. Was he the British Army’s first non-white officer?

2Lt G.E.K. Bemand, RFA

The life of George Edward Kingsley Bemand was starkly different to that of Walter Tull. Bemand’s story has been investigated by the members of the excellent Great War Forum (in an interesting thread begun by Simon Jervis, who posts as High Wood) and I have done a bit of extra research myself. He was born in Jamaica in 1892 and moved to Britain in 1908 on the Lusitania at the age of 16. Passenger lists for their journey (via the USA) record that Minnie Bemand and her children were going to join George Bemand (senior) at Upper House Farm, near Leominster. Mrs Bemand, George junior and his siblings are recorded as ‘African’ in the ‘race or people’ column.

George Bemand senior (if my research is correct) was born in 1865, the son of Robert Bemand, the owner of the 300-acre Upper House Farm in Risbury (in Humber parish) and his wife Sarah. His younger brother James Thomas Bemand later ran a draper’s shop in Southwark and wrote to the War Office about his nephew, George junior. The family still owned the farm in 1913 (although Robert died in 1899); I think it is reasonable to expect that this was a white British family. George senior must have moved to Jamaica at some point in the 1880s or ’90s.

Where Walter Tull grew up in an orphanage, G.E.K. Bemand went to Dulwich College in South London. Tull became a professional footballer, while Bemand went to University College, London, to study Engineering in 1913.  In the first year of the Great War, though, both joined the army.

Bemand joined the University of London OTC in October 1914 and (in May 1915) applied for a commission in the 30th (County Palatine) Divisional Artillery. His form is countersigned by the  commanding officer Brig-Gen A.J. Abdy:

Brig-Gen Abdy’s confirmation that he wanted Bemand as one of his officers.

The address Bemand gave was 56 Sinclair Road, South Kensington, close to Kensington Olympia station.

Interestingly, Bemand stated that he was of pure European descent on the front of his application form:

G. E. K. Bemand’s application form for an army commission

Did George Bemand consider himself to be of ‘pure European descent’? Clearly the officials of the shipping lines that brought him to the UK did not – they considered him to be black or African – but perhaps he simply considered himself as English as any other officer cadet. Perhaps he was light-skinned enough to pass as European when not seen alongside his family. Perhaps Bemand was told that he should write ‘yes’ because otherwise he would not be accepted. If so, was it Anthony Abdy who told him to do this?  He clearly wanted this young man as one of his officers.  We will never know what happened and why Bemand filled the form in as he did.

In May 1915 Bemand became a Second Lieutenant in the Royal Field Artillery. He went to the Front in August 1916 (according to his medal card, or November 1915 according to his school’s roll of honour), joining 148 Brigade’s Ammunition Column. In October 1916, he transferred to “Y” 5 Trench Mortar Battery, attached to 5th Division. On Boxing Day 1916, he was killed by a shell.

His brother also served in the artillery: Harold Leslie Bemand (who had also been at Dulwich) joined in the ranks and also served on the Western Front. He died of his wounds in Belgium in 1917

Gnr H.L. Bemand, RFA

In essence, this is simply an all-too-familiar story of a family that lost two sons in the Great War. In this case it was a West Indian mother living in Denmark Hill. It is intriguing that Bemand appears to have been the first mixed-race officer in the British Army (as far as I know, anyway). He seems to have got away with saying that he was of pure European descent, when officials apparently felt that he was not.

What does the Bemand story mean for story of Walter Tull and the early black officers in the British Army. Tull remains the earliest (known) example of an officer who said ‘no’ to the European descent question. He (Tull) was also a good example of the broader social change going on in the British Army – whereas Bemand, as an ex-public-schoolboy and university undergraduate, was of the social type the army wanted in 1915, Tull was the son of a carpenter and became a footballer – playing a working-class sport. Both men were clearly considered officer material, though, and both became officers despite the racial bar. Bemand had the education and (it seems) connections to get in in 1915, Tull had to prove himself in the ranks and in the field.

George Edward Kingsley Bemand and Walter Tull are both interesting characters in the history of Britain’s Great War army. They both deserve to be remembered for their wartime sacrifice and for their part in the history of Britain’s ethnic minority population. Tull has achieved acclaim in recent years. Bemand has not and his story remains intriguing and deserving of further research beyond that of the Great War Forum and this blog.


Posted by on 7 October 2012 in Ordinary Londoners, People


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The British Museum in wartime

The wartime, many of people’s favourite pastimes were curtailed. Professional football was suspended, bank holidays were (temporarily) cancelled, and some of London’s best-loved museums shut their doors. The British Museum closed to the public in March 1916 and did not fully reopen for nearly three years.

The British Museum : Removing sandbags in the Assyrian Saloon” by Sir Henry Rushby, 1918 ( (c) IWM)

The British Museum is one of London’s (many) iconic buildings. Free to enter since opening its doors to the public in 1759, it is one of the world’s great museums. In 1914 it still also housed the Reading Room that later became the British Library; it also had a branch in South Kensington that became the Natural History Museum.

For the first months of the war the Museum continued as usual, albeit with many of its staff off in the armed forces. By March 1916, 110 British Museum staff (and 53 at the Natural History Museum) were serving in the armed forces, while another 42 were sent to work in other government departments.

In November 1914, a series of lectures were held at the Museum in aid of Belgian refugees. In April 1915 a poem by Edward Shillito (published in the Times) described the visit of a wounded soldier to its galleries. In August, the Museum put out a call for regimental magazines to be sent to the Reading Room so that a national collection of them could be kept.

In February 1916, the Government announced that several London museums would be closed for the duration of the war – much to the shock and indignation of MPs and writers of letters to the editor of the Times.

From March 2nd 1916, a long list of museums were closed:

The National Gallery and Victoria & Albert Museum were not closed, while the National Portrait Gallery had already closed.

Early 1916 must really have felt like a time of change. Conscription was introduced (with single men liable for conscription from the very same day that the museums were shut), bank holidays disappeared, and priceless antiquities disappeared from public view into tunnels under the city (as in the case of the Rosetta Stone and other smallish items) or covered with sandbags in empty galleries to protect them from air raids:

Temporary openings seem to have taken place in August 1917 and again in August 1918, but otherwise the museum remained closed apart from its famous Reading Room.

Another big shock hit the Museum’s supporters in the dark days of the winter of 1917-18, when the Government announced that the Air Ministry was to be housed in the British Museum building in Bloomsbury (as part of the expansion of civil service accomodation that had already seen St James’s Park occupied). There was considerable protest in Parliament, in the press and from learned people and groups.

After a few weeks of these protests, the Government backed down and announced that the building was “no longer necessary” for housing the Ministry. Handily, it turned out that there was enough room at the Hotel Cecil on the Strand and the Ministry moved there – marked today by a plaque on the site.

The British Museum did not remain completely empty, though. When the war ended and calls came to reopen the closed museums, it turned out that part of the Bloomsbury building was being used by government departments (as were the National Gallery and Portrait Gallery) that had to be moved out at the same time that the Museum was being repopulated with antiquities. The building gradually reopened over that first winter of peace.

War returned to the Museum prematurely into the 1920s Great War tank was displayed outside the museum. In late August 1939, with another World War virtually inevitable, the Museum was again closed and largely emptied to protect the contents from air raid damage. This time around, though, there was not the same protest – and the museum was damaged in the bombing of London.

Damage to the British Museum in the Second World War (from the BM’s ‘Local history: the British Museum in the 20th century’ learning pack)




Historic Hansard online

British Museum website


Posted by on 4 October 2012 in Places


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Walter Tull and the black Great War heroes of the British Army

October is black history month in the UK. I will be including a few posts relating to black history and Great War London. First up is the most prominent black Londoner of the war, Walter Tull, and some of his fellow black British Army heroes of 1914-18.

Water Tull’s story is fairly well-known know, and is related in depth on websites including ‘Crossing the White Line’ (link). In short, he was born in Folkestone in 1888, the son of a Barbadian carpenter and his English wife. After both parents died while their children were young, Walter and his brother Edward were sent to the Children’s Home and Orphanage on Bonner Road, Bethnal Green. A keen footballer, the young Walter began playing for local Clapton FC in 1908-09 and was signed up as a professional footballer for Tottenham Hotspur the following season. Although he played well, racists incidents occurred at matches, and he was dropped from the first team. He found a new home, though, at Northampton Town FC, for whom he played 110 matches and scored 9 goals.

After the Great War began in summer 1914, there was much criticism of professional football for keeping men out of the army. In response a ‘Footballers’ Battalion’ was formed in the Middlesex Regiment (the 17th Bn) on 12 December. Tull was one of its earliest recruits, joining in London on 21 December and given the number 55. His rapid promotion over the next few months (lance corporal in February, corporal in June and lance serjeant in July 1915) is evidence of his leadership quality. The battalion – and L/Sgt Tull – arrived in France in November 1915, just in time for a freezing winter in the trenches. He served with them until April 1916 when he was admitted to a field hospital suffering from ‘acute mania’ and eventually sent back to the UK.

After a break in the reserve 27th and 6th battalions, Tull was clearly well enough to serve again and he arrived in the 23rd (2nd Football) Battalion on 20 September 1916, mid-way through the battle of Flers-Courcelette – part of the Battle of the Somme. He served with the unit through the battle of Le Transloy in October. In late November he filled out an application to be commissioned as an officer. A month later, his application was approved and he went to Scotland for officer training – despite a specific rule in Army Orders restricting officer status to men of ‘pure European descent’. He was the first black or mixed-race officer in the British Army.

Walter Tull’s application to become an officer

Rejoining the 23rd Middlesex as an officer, Tull was popular and effective. The unit fought through the 3rd Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele) before being sent to Italy in November. In clashes on the river Piave, he was praised for his “gallantry and coolness” by Sir Sidney Lawford (commander of the 41st Division), who wrote described his heroism: “You were one of the first to cross the river prior to the raid, and during the raid you took the covering party of the main body across and brought them back without a casualty inspite of heavy fire.” He was recommended for the Military Cross, but was not awarded it.

Walter Tull and two fellow-officers

The 41st Division returned to France in February-March 1918, just in time for the German Spring Offensive, which was launched on 21 March. A few days in, during the First Battle of Bapaume, Tull was killed in action by a machine-gun bullet that hit him in the head. His body was buried by comrades, but as the Germans advanced the 23rd Middlesex retreated and the grave was lost. Tull is now commemorated on the Arras memorial to the missing. (A brother of his also died in the war: William, who is buried in Folkestone)

Walter Tull was an impressive man – coming from an orphanage to become a well-regarded officer is impressive enough, let alone doing so against a military law-book that denied non-white men the right to be officers. There is a campaign to award Tull the Military Cross posthumously, based on the assumption that it was denied purely because he was not white. While this may be the case, I find it unlikely that it was that simple – his commission was approved not only by officers who knew him but those (in administrative and training posts) who had never seen him in action, overlooking both his West Indian origins and his treatment for ‘mania’. The fact is that medals recommended were not always awarded: for example, Siegfried Sassoon was reportedly recommended for the Victoria Cross but did not receive it.

More pertinent to the Tull case is the intriguing example of Private John Williams, whose picture appeared in the African Telegraph in March 1919 with the title ‘The Man whom White Soldiers Call “The Black V.C.”.’ The caption then describes Williams as having been awarded the DCM, MM, Russian Cross of St George, French Médaille militaire and Légion d’honneur. He doesn’t appear to be wearing quite that many medals in the photo, but is certainly decorated and carrying four wound stripes. His ‘many brave deeds’ would supposedly have been enough to “earn any European the V.C.”

“The Black VC” Pte John Williams DCM MM (c)British Library

It is not clear whether Williams was British, West Indian or African, although having been honoured by the French he must have served in a British unit (rather than the British West Indies Regiment, which fought in the Middle East but only did support work in France and Flanders). It seems odd that his story has been forgotten while Tull has become a cause célèbre.

Another intriguing African Telegraph photo is this one – also from the African Telegraph – of ‘A West African Soldier “Walking Out” in London’. The story tells of the number of African soldiers in the British Army, who became known as “Coloured Army Knuts” (knut being a slang term for showy young men).

A West African soldier in London (c)British Library

“Some of these young men left their studies to join the British Army upon the outbreak of hostilities and rendered a very good account of themselves in the trenches and fields of Flanders, many of them wear coveted distinctions, and one form Oxford University won the M.C. for a particularly daring deed with the Tank Corps.”

If this report is accurate (I have no reason to think it false, but have not been able to corroborate it with other sources), then there was a Military Cross awarded to a black man during the Great War. This man’s background – as an African at Oxford University – was very different to Tull’s, but he must have been an officer or at least a Warrant Officer to be awarded the MC. Who was this man?

Telling the stories of these decorated black soldiers in Britain’s Great War army is not an attempt to do down Tull’s story. He was very impressive and brave; we should remember him and his sacrifice. But we should not assume that his lack of reward for his bravery was necessarily due to racism. Nor should we forget the other black soldiers who fought with great bravery in the same army.


Update: since writing this, I have become aware of at least one black/mixed-race officer who was commissioned before Tull (and was also killed in action). Read more about G.E.K. Bemand on this blog post, where I tell his story and consider his and Tull’s parallel stories.


On Tull – resources on the website Crossing the White Line; Tull’s service record online at
The Long, Long Trail.
BL photos tagged ‘black history month’


Posted by on 1 October 2012 in Award-winners, Ordinary Londoners


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