Bert Hanscombe, the dustman who replaced Earl Haig

01 Nov

At a major crossroad in Beckenham stands the local memorial to the dead of the Great War, which was unveiled on 24 July 1921. Instead of Field Marshal Douglas Haig, who had been invited to attend, the monument was unveiled by local war hero Bert Hanscombe, a local dustman.

Beckenham War Memorial - (c) David Anstiss and licenced for reused under Creative Commons

Beckenham War Memorial – (c) David Anstiss and licenced for reused under Creative Commons


Beckenham war memorial was designed by Newbury Abbot Trent, a prominent sculptor from Forest Gate. The Times described the design:

The monument is of the cenotaph type, and stands 23ft high and is built of Portland Stone. It stands at the junction of Beckenham’s principal roads and has cost about £2,500. There are 711 names inscribed on twelve tablets.

Field Marshal Earl Haig – commander of the British Forces in France and Flanders from December 1915 to the end of the war – was invited to unveil the monument but was apparently unable to attend. Instead of seeking another top-brass figure to carry out the ceremony alongside the Bishop of Rochester, the organisers asked local war hero Bert Hanscombe to do it.

Beckenham War Memorial being unveiled in 1921 - Illustrated London News 30/6/1921

Beckenham War Memorial being unveiled in 1921 – Illustrated London News 30/6/1921

Bert is described in all the national newspaper stories as having earned the Distinguished Conduct Medal and the Military Medal during the war.  “He was mentioned in despatches and was promoted to sergeant on the field [sic] for bravery at Hulluch in 1915. At Cambrai in 1917 he was one of seven men in his battalion to escape capture by the Germans.” (Times 25/7/1921)

Bert Hanscombe - Daily Mirror 16/6/1921

Bert Hanscombe – Daily Mirror 16/6/1921

The newspapers also referred to the fact that he was one of nine brothers who served.  In 1901 census, Bert is listed at 2 Rosemeath Terrace, Arthur Road, Beckenham with his widowed mother Sarah Ann Hanscombe and six other brothers: Frank, Frederick John, Richard Arthur, Joseph, David and Stephen. Bert himself was born in 1887 and, in 1909, he married Ellen Cromwell. In 1911 he was working as a dustman for Beckenham urban district council and they lived at 173 Churchfields Road. Sarah and most of the other brothers were living at number 93 (possibly the same house as in 1901, as Arthur Road had been renamed Churchfields): Frederick and Richard working as carmen (i.e. drivers) and Joseph and Stephen as landscape gardeners. Thee eldest brother, George Edward, is listed with his wife Annie on a separate entry for the same address – 93 Churchfields. The ninth brother, James (b 1880), was living with his wife in Wales by 1911, working as a stoker.

By 1914, several of the Hanscombe boys had military connections. David had joined up as a regular soldier in the 2nd East Surreys and was serving in Burma, while Joseph was in the same regiment’s Special Reserve 3rd Battalion. George Edward had served in the East Kents (the Buffs) from 1898-1910, including five years in India where he contracted Malaria and was sent back to the UK via Aden. Once the war had begun the all other brothers did indeed serve.

With thanks to Roy Hanscombe (James Hanscombe’s grandson), here is a summary the brothers’ war service:

  • George Edward rejoined the Buffs in November 1914. He arrived in France in April 1916 and, in October that year, was wounded in the arm. Almost a year later – in September 1917 – he returned to the front with the 7th Buffs, serving as a Lewis Gunner. The battalion took part in the fighting at Cambrai in late November and Hanscombe was posted as missing on the 30th. In fact, he had been serious injured and captured by the Germans; he was held as a prisoner of war for the next year. The difference in him after his service and period as a prisoner was marked, his mother told the local paper that ‘I hardly knew him when he came home, he was so thin and so old and worn.’
  • Frank served in the 9th East Surreys, arriving in France in August 1915; later he served in the Queen’s (West Surrey Regiment)
  • Stephen served in the Royal Field Artillery and the Garrison Artillery, arriving in France in July 1915
  • Joseph served with the East Surreys in Salonika and contracted malaria in September 1917. In November-December 1918 he was in hospital again with a relapse, treated in the malaria camp in Great Baddow, Essex.
  • David arrived in France in January 1915 and was wounded, being discharged (after a transfer to the Royal Welsh Fusiliers) in November 1916. He later rejoined the army and served with the RWF again.
  • Frederick John Hanscombe joined the 1/22nd London Regiment (the Queen’s). He was retained at home by his unit, to work in ordnance depots. Sadly, he was not safe even there and suffered severely injuries to his head after an accident while loading ammunition. After being demobilized in 1919, he returned home to his wife Louisa Annie Hanscombe in Rotherhithe. He continued to suffer the effects of his accident and was sent away to a hospital in Wiltshire; he died in 1940, never having fully recovered from his accident in the Great War.
  • James joined the East Surrey Regiment in May 1915 – declaring that he previously served in the East Kents. Three months later, he was sent to France. After a few months back in the UK, he returned to France in April 1916 but was wounded in the head in October that year and eventually discharged suffering from “shrapnel wound to the head and loss of teeth” in August 1917
  • Richard served in the Royal West Kent Regiment, in their 1st and 8th battalions, arriving in France in August 1915. His bravery at Nieppe Forest in 1918 is decribed in the 1st Battalion’s history, ‘Invicta’ by Major C.V. Maloney: “During the operation of 28th-30th June 1918, when all the company runners had become casualties, [he] repeatedly took messages to Battalion H.Q.under heavy shellfire. His fearless conduct and fine sense of duty set a fine example to all.” In 1920, he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for “continuous gallant conduct, covering a long period of service in France. This soldier has on every occasion showed exceptional gallantry and very high sense of duty and has taken part in many actions.” (LG 11/3/1920) High praise indeed for a private soldier!
  • Bert himself arrived in France as a private in the East Surrey Regiment on 1 June 1915 and was promoted to Sergeant, according the newspapers this was during the battle of Hulloch, part of the Battle of Loos. He was serving in the 7th battalion in 1916 when his son Stan was born (see entry at the bottom of this page), but it’s not clear whether this was his unit throughout. In September 1916, he was awarded the Miltary Medal for bravery in the field.

The Hanscombes served en masse and for a long time – most were a theatre of war by September 1915, with old-soldier George following early in 1916 (and only Frederick remaining in the UK). Oddly, though, Bert Hanscombe does not appear to have earned the DCM, despite the decoration being mentioned in all the papers at the time.  Perhaps the reports confused Bert and Richard and conflated their decorations (it may be possible – but it less likely – that Bert’s DCM is simply not recorded in the available London Gazettes, but he also does not have a DCM medal card, unlike his brother). Both brothers were heroes so it doesn’t really make too much difference – they were the two who were given gallantry medals out of a set of brothers who served in the war.

At Christmas 1918, Mrs Hanscombe was interviewed by the Weekly Dispatch about her sons’ service – they were all expected home for Christmas that year. ‘I never believed they would all come back’ she told the paper, relating basic accounts of where each son had served.

The Hanscombes' reunion marked in a newspaper.

The Hanscombes’ service and reunion marked in the Weekly Dispatch.

Mrs Hanscombe also told the paper that she had had a letter from the Buckingham Palace to thank her for the the patriotic effort and sacrifice her family had made in answering their nation’s call.

Letter congratulating Mrs Hanscombe on her family's patriotism

Letter congratulating Mrs Hanscombe on her family’s patriotism

Two years after the family reunion, Bert was given the honour of unveiling the Beck war memorial, in front of a crowd that reportedly number 10,000. In October 1932, Prince George, the Duke of Kent, visited Beckenham to open the new Town Hall. Earlier that afternoon visited the memorial to lay a wreath in 1932; a one of the Hanscombes played a part (it is not clear which, but it seems like it was probably Bert) – this time as the chairman of the local British Legion, whose guard of honour the Duke inspected.

Prince George visiting the war memorial before opening the town hall - Daily Mirror 21/10/1932

Prince George visiting the war memorial before opening the town hall – Daily Mirror 21/10/1932


Sadly, Sarah Ann Hanscombe did not live to see her son acting as a local VIP in unveiling the local war memorial. She died in early 1920.  All of her sons who had served in the war survived it though.  Unfortunately, David (who appears to have been the only one to remain a soldier) was killed in action in Waziristan in May 1922, though – shot by a sniper at Ladha.


I am very grateful to Roy Hanscombe for providing me with the extra information and images in the update of this post – 21/12/2013.


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17 responses to “Bert Hanscombe, the dustman who replaced Earl Haig

  1. SilverTiger

    6 November 2013 at 8:33 am

    I like this story. How liberal of Beckenham too, to choose an ordinary chap, albeit a war hero, to unveil the monument. I wonder how often such a thing has happened.

    It is remarkable too that all the brothers survived the Great War in which so many were killed and so many families torn apart. It is sad that one was killed in a later conflict.

    Next time I go to Beckenham, I shall pay special attention to this war memorial and think of it being unveiled by Bert, dustman and local hero.

  2. Roy

    6 November 2013 at 12:04 pm

    My grandfather James Hanscombe was the brother of Bert Hanscombe of Beckenham.
    James Hanscombe served in the 2nd East Surrey Regiment.
    Another brother George Edward Hanscombe served in the East Kent Regiment (The Buffs).
    Another brother Frederick John Hanscombe served in The Queens Regiment.
    As to Bert’s date of birth you put 1897 his birth year was 1887, I have done a lot of research on my great uncles.
    I have more information if you are interested.

    • John Graney

      9 October 2014 at 8:43 pm

      This is a great story from a very ordinary family. George Edward Hanscombe was my great grandfather through his daughter Emily Florence Hanscombe and her daughter Betty Mary Smith both no longer with us. I be very interested to see any other material that you have. Regards. John

      • Roy Hanscombe

        10 October 2014 at 10:25 am

        Hi John,
        nice to hear from a distant relative of mine, for me to give you more information on the Hanscombe family, you can contact me on my email address which is

    • Katie

      10 November 2014 at 9:01 pm

      Hi Roy, George Hanscombe was my great great grandad I remember my Nannie showing me the letter from the king. I see you are in contact with my uncle John this is just an amazing story something I’m proud to tell my children.

      • Roy Hanscombe

        11 November 2014 at 11:34 am

        Hi Katie,
        If you contact me on my personal email address which is on the reply of your uncle John,s comment I will be able to tell you more about George Edward Hanscombe,s army record.

    • Erin

      27 November 2015 at 8:01 pm

      My Grandad was related to James Hanscombe as well I am not sure how but I can try and find out from my Nan if you want?

      • Roy Hanscombe

        29 November 2015 at 3:38 pm

        Hi Erin,
        Would you kindly let me know your granddads full name, also your full name so that I may be able to help you?
        Kindest regards,
        Roy Hanscombe

  3. Stuart

    7 November 2013 at 7:02 pm

    Great to hear from you, Roy. I’ve corrected the date-of-birth typo. I’ve also emailed you offline – would love to update the post with information about the family – especially those brothers you mention whom I’ve missed out here.

    Silver Tiger – yes, it is a great story isn’t it? I think it was an excellent decision by the organisers. From the unveilings I’ve read about, it seems that war widows or mothers of men who have died (especially if they had lost more than one family member in the war) were involved fairly frequently, often unveiling jointly with a General or local dignitary. I don’t remember seeming any where an other-ranks veteran was chosen, but it is a while since I’ve done much research on memorials.

  4. stephenjroberts

    14 November 2013 at 8:29 pm

    Absolutely superb story. Above, we see the beauty of blogs as a relation contacts the researcher. Well done.

  5. richard stanley handscombe

    10 November 2014 at 8:09 pm

    A great story from another branch of the family that branched out from Shillington from the 13th century onwards

  6. Anthony Hanscombe

    15 December 2014 at 5:54 pm

    Hi Roy, like you I have been following the stories of our relations fighting in the great war. My Granddad was Frank Hanscombe, and my Dad was Bert Fred Hanscombe, Dad serving in the second world war….I can remember sitting waiting for Granddad Frank to finish his dinner, then glance at me , and give me his last potato. He was living with us at that time, In Drapers Road ,Bermondsey , Must have been around 1948/9…We moved to Brunel Road ,Rotherhithe after that, and Granddad Frank moved to live with his daughter in Lewisham….I was around sixteen when I visited him in St Olaves hospital, just before he passed away, (1959) I think…..He had pulled all the tubes etc out of his body, and said “leave me to go in peace”….I will always remember him standing there, a big man, in belt and braces, with his big droopy moustache…That’s when men were men…….My dad passed away in 1974 (cancer) aged 67, probably all them woodbines he used to smoke!!…Mum lived at the same house in Brunel Road, Rotherhithe until she passed away in 2009 aged 95. I am one of 10 children, 6 boys and 4 girls. Now 71, I moved out of Rotherhithe 5 years ago to Eccles in Kent……..I would like to say to you Roy , what great work you have done on the unfolding story of our family, well done….Anthony Hanscombe

  7. Pat Manning

    20 July 2015 at 12:44 pm

    The story of the WWI Hanscombes is in my book Lest We Forget Beckenham & the Great War thanks to Roy Hanscombe but nowhere here does anyone mention the boys’ only sister, Mary Elizabeth, who married William John Cousins of the RN in 1900 when they were both 21. Mary died in 1941 and William in 1945 leaving four of their five children, Emily, Mary, Ellen and Robert, William dying as a baby. Where are their descendants today?

  8. Erin

    27 November 2015 at 7:59 pm

    These 9 brothers and Sarah were part of my family. People are going to say “your making it up” “your lying” But I’m honestly telling the truth they were on my Mums side because of my Grandad. By the way everything I just said is true!!

  9. Ron Brightmore

    11 July 2017 at 4:28 am

    Hi from from Ron Brightmore
    A lovely website and many thanks for the extra details about was service. My mum was Florence May Hanscombe, the daughter of Joseph. He was ill with a stroke just before World War 2 and had to leave his rail shunting job. They lived in Penge. Mum had to go into a home and then joined up. She met dad, Morton Brightmore in the war, they married and went to live in Wallasey in the Wirral. I now live in Auckland, New Zealand and have a sister in Wallasey, a brother in Rock Ferry and a brother in Manchester. I am very proud of my great uncles and granddad.


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