We tend to think of families in the Great War in terms of the service of the sons, brothers or fathers in the armed forces. They were not necessarily the only ones to play a part, though – many women went to work in munitions or other jobs as more men left civilian life. One example of this is the Holton family who lived in Bermondsey.
In 1911, leather finisher James W Holton and his wife Sarah Ann (nee Longhurst) lived at 33 Marcia Road, off the Old Kent Road, with seven of their children, who ranged in age from 11 to 24. They had married on Christmas day 1883 and had a total of 16 children before James died in 1913 (Sadly, seven of their children had died before 1911, another two lived elsewhere).
Reginald George Holton, a 14-year-old errand boy in 1911, was working as a warehouseman in 1915 when he went to East Dulwich to enlist in the Royal Field Artillery. He was a 5 feet 4 inches tall, with a tattoo on his right arm. Before going to the front, he got in trouble for going absent without leave for a week in November 1915.
Despite his indiscretion, he joined 167 Brigade’s artillery in France as a drvier on 12 December 1915 and remained on the Western Front for the next three and a half years. In May 1916, Driver Holton joined the D battery of 162 Brigade’s artillery.
Meanwhile Sarah Holton and her youngest daughter Ethel went to work for John Bell, Hill and Lucas, Ltd, making gas masks in their factory on Tower Bridge Road, Bermondsey. The company were pharmaceutical chemists in peace, so well placed to make gas masks to keep up with the advances in chemicals used in gas warfare in the Great War. They had opened their London Works on Tower Bridge Road in 1909.
According to the National Roll of The Great War, Sarah worked in the factory for three years (presumably from 1915 until the end of the war) and was joined there by 17-year-old Ethel from August 1917 until September 1918.
In the Holton family – like many others – at least three members took part in the war effort. Reginald drove for the artillery in France and Flanders, while his mother and sisters were making gas masks to counter the gas shells fired by his counterparts in the German artillery.