Author Archives: Stuart

Gardening for the Fallen: the Bicknell brothers and the War Graves Commission

Whether we are visiting the battlefields of the Great War or a cemetery near to home, it’s likely that the most visible reminder of the war will be the bright, neat headstones of the war dead or the tall Cross of Sacrifice – the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The Commission’s archive catalogue is available online, with many items digitised and newly accessible to us all from home. Using those archives, this blog post tells the story of two ex-serviceman brothers from London who spent their post-war lives working for the Commission, helping to create and maintain the memorials to their fallen comrades.

The Imperial (since 1960 Commonwealth) War Graves Commission was established by Royal Charter in 1917, with the mission of caring for the graves of the fallen and memorials to the missing, following the earlier decision not to repatriate the bodies of those who died overseas during the war. It was a huge task, as their website says: “The Commission’s work began in earnest after the Armistice. Once land for cemeteries and memorials had been guaranteed, the enormous task of recording the details of the dead began. By 1918, some 587,000 graves had been identified and a further 559,000 casualties were registered as having no known grave.” The last of its Great War memorials was completed twenty years after the war’s end, only a year before a new war engulfed the continent.

Two of those who helped to create and maintain the war cemeteries we now see in France and Flanders were the Bicknell brothers from London.

Ernest Hugh Bicknell and his brother William George were born in Battersea, the sons of William George Bicknell, a butcher, and his wife Emily (née Self) who had married in 1897 at St George’s Church in Battersea. William junior was baptised in the same church the following year, although the family’s address by then was in Rawlings Street, Chelsea. Ernest was born in June 1899. The boys were therefore both under two years old when William George senior died in early 1900. In 1901, Emily and her two sons were living at 13 King’s Street, Chelsea (they were one of two families living in the property in what is now St Luke’s Street, close to the church).

It would have been very difficult for a working-class woman to raise a family alone at the start of the twentieth century and, by 1911, the two boys were living at the School of Handicrafts For Poor Boys in Chertsey. The Chertsey Museum Interactive website tells us that:

The School of Handicrafts in Eastworth Road, Chertsey, was founded in 1885 by Dr Thomas Hawksley, an East London doctor. It was established as a school for needy boys and its primary purpose was to give the boys a trade.

There were problems in the early years; children were taken home or ran away, staff resigned and there were complaints that the food and clothing were inadequate. It was not long, however, before the school gained a well-respected reputation.

The boys, who came from all over England, received a basic education until the age 14. Then for a further two years they trained in boot-making and repair, carpentry, farming or gardening. Boys who did not find employment straight away on completing this training could then work at the school in various capacities.

The lifestyle at the school was Spartan. The day beginning at 6:30 a.m. and the diet was described as “wholesome but plain”. Discipline was generally strict but many old-boys, however, look back on their days at the school with fond memories.

In keeping with this description, the 1911 census describes the younger boys (including the two Bicknells) simply as pupils, but those aged 15 and 16 were listed with trades such as tailor and gardener, with ‘pupil’ added in brackets. The census return lists 55 ‘elementary scholars’ and 44 of the older ‘trade pupils’.

By the time the Bicknell boys were in their late teens, following this education in Chertsey, Europe was at war.

William George Bicknell enlisted in the army in May 1916 at the age of 18 and three months. He lists his and Emily’s address as 31 St George’s Square, Pimlico SW1, and gave his employment as messenger. After six months training, he joined 398 Battery Royal Field Artillery in December 1916. A year later he joined a reserve battery, before moving to the Central Signalling Depot in Swanage in January 1918; the medal roll for the RFA lists him as a signaller.

Ernest Hugh Bicknell served for more than two years in the 2nd Battalion, Middlesex Regiment. The medal roll indicates that he served overseas – the battalion was in France and Flanders from 1914 to 1918 – but, as with his brother, it is hard to tell when and where he served.

EH Bicknell

Ernest Hugh Bicknell

At the end of April, Ernest applied for the job of garden labourer with the Imperial War Graves Commission. A few weeks later, on 20 May, he took up the role and went to France with a salary of £2 per week. His UK address is given as 51 Lupus Street, just up the road from the St George’s Square address in Pimlico. In 1922 he was appointed as a general clerk.

We have to assume that Ernest enjoyed working for the Commission, as six months later his older brother applied. Although William applied to be a clerk, he was also appointed as a garden labourer and went to France in November 1920, becoming a gardener in 1923.

WG Bicknell

William George Bicknell

When Ernest applied for his role in March 1920, the Commission had 721 staff in France and Belgium; by March 1921, there were 1,362 staff in the region, largely organised into five (soon to be eight) ‘camps’ covering different areas of the former battlefield. The Bicknells were among 876 gardeners employed at that point.

Even the dry words of the annual report tells us something of the difficulty of undertaking gardening work in the ravaged landscape of the Western Front:

Owing to difficulties of accommodation in some parts of France and Belgium, particularly in the devastated areas, it has been necessary to form travelling gardening parties. These parties are provided with tents, bedding and cooking utensils, and leave Area Headquarters each Monday morning, returning at the end of the week.

The annual report refers to 948 cemeteries having been ‘treated horticulturally’, of which 557 had been sown with grass seed; 15.5 miles of boundary hedges had been planted, along with 75 miles of flower borders and 195 acres of grass – a reminder effort that went to turning the battlefields and the wartime cemeteries into the tidy sites of mourning and pilgrimage we know today.

The Commission’s archive includes an excellent photo album from 1919/20 that provides an interesting contrast with the same sites once the Commission had completed their work.

Faubourg d Amiens Arras

Faubourg d’Amiens cemetery, Arras, Feb 1920 (Copyright CWGC)

Faubourg interwar

Faubourg d’Amiens cemetery before the Second World War (copyright CWGC)

Cite Bonjean Armentieres

Cite Bonjean cemetery, Armentières, Feb 1920 (Copyright CWGC)

Cite Bonjean Armentieres later

Cite Bonjean cemetery, Armentières, in 1978

Both Bicknell brothers spent the rest of their lives with the Commission, each becoming a Senior Clerk after the Second World War, although William reverted to his previous role of gardener caretaker before the end of the 1940s. In 1928, Ernest married a Marie Louise Angèle Becourt in her hometown of Beaumetz-lès-Loges, west of Arras; they had at least one daughter (mentioned on his staff card).

Their work was, of course, interrupted by the Second World War in 1940, when the German army rapidly overran France and Belgium. The Commission managed to get 325 of their staff back to the UK ahead of the German advance, but another 212 did not make it out. The 1940-41 annual report says that of those who were not evacuated 158 were interned, 43 were believed to be at liberty, 5 had died and 6 were unaccounted for. Ernest Hugh Bicknell was one of those who got back to the UK; he was loaned out to the Air Ministry in Bloomsbury in 1943. No particular mention is made of the Second World War on William’s staff card; since other staff cards refer to periods of internment, I would assume that he too was able to get back to the UK.

In January 1945, the Commission began to re-employ people who had remained in France and Belgium during the occupation, or who had already been released from internment. By the end of March (5 weeks before the end of the war), 90 of the 540 who had worked for the Commission in the region in 1940 were back at work, another 266 were waiting in the UK to return to work and 32 were still detained by the Germans (the remaining 152 had resigned, retired or died); by the end of 1945, 245 were back at work. Both Bicknell brothers returned to work in France and Belgium.

William George Bicknell died while still employed by the Commission on 19 March 1955, and was buried in Albert Communal Cemetery in France. Sadly, he did not live to see his brother honoured for his work with the Commission: Ernest was awarded the MBE in the New Year’s Honours list in 1957 and presented with his insignia by the ambassador in Brussels later that year, with his family present.

At this point, Ernest Hugh Bicknell was senior clerk in the North West Europe Region, which covered Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Germany, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland and Sweden (in the last of which there were 118 war graves). He retired from the Commission in 1964 aged 65 and died four years later, living in Amien.

These are sketched biographies of two brothers among the thousands of people who worked over the decades after 1918 to make the cemeteries and memorials on the Great War battlefields what they are today. I’m sure the CWGC archives holds many more stories that remain to be found and explored.


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Posted by on 7 June 2020 in Uncategorized


The Montagues – an Ealing family’s bravery and loss on the Somme

Marjorie Montagu lived in South Ealing during the Great War, in which all three of her sons fought on the battlefields of the Somme – with dramatic results in each case.

The Montagu family moved to Ealing sometime in the first decade of the twentieth century. In the 1901 Census, Marjorie is listed (as Margaret) with her daughter Irene and three sons living in Shepherd’s Bush (where the children were all born), having herself been born in Hampstead in December 1863. She is listed as married but her husband Arthur does not appear in either the 1901 or 1911 censuses; they appear to have married in around 1893 but I haven’t been able to track down the event or anything of her life before then.

Montagu 1911

The Montagu family in 1911

In 1911, the five were living at 28 Overdale Road in Ealing, and by 1914 they had moved just around the corner to 47 Devonshire Road. Then came the Great War…

The oldest of the three boys was Eric and he was the first to volunteer. In November 1914 he volunteered for 9th battalion of the Rifle Brigade. Within a month, however, they decided that he was not fit for active service and he was discharged under provisions in King’s Regulations that allowed men to be rejected within three months of joining up.

As the war dragged on past 12 months, Eric apparently became acceptable to the army – whether through improvement in his physique or through lowered standards is not clear – and he joined the 30th (Reserve) battalion of the Royal Fusiliers on 18 September 1915. In November, he was transferred to the 24th Battalion (the 2nd Sportsmen’s), and was sent to the Western Front to serve with them. The battalion joined the 2nd Division in late 1915.

The middle brother, Graham, joined the King’s Royal Rifle Corps in November 1915 (during the Derby Scheme period), aged 18. Like Eric, his enlistment papers record his employment as ‘clerk’. After four months training with the 15th (Reserve) Battalion, he was sent to the 12th Battalion in March 1916. As part in the 60th Brigade, in the 20th (Light) Division, the battalion was on the Somme battlefield in August 1916. After five days under bivouacs, the battalion went into the trenches at Guillemont on 27 August. The battalion war diary tells us that they were in the trenches until the 30th, during which time they were bombarded and fought off two German attacks. During that period in the trenches, Graham Montague was killed in action – on 28 August.

He has no known grave and is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing, although with a slightly different date of date to that in other records. (This is the only record I could find the name of their father, Arthur, who is listed as being deceased)

Guillemont 1916

Battle of Guillemont. 3-6 September 1916. Stretcher bearers and dressing station at Guillemont. Copyright: © IWM (Q 4221)

A few months later, Eric was at Mailly-Maillet, some 30 miles from Guillemont. What happened to him was syndicated across many papers in December 1916 – the fullest account, unsurprisingly, comes from the local paper, the Ealing Gazette and West Middlesex Observer, which told the tale with gusto:

Private Eric Montague [sic], Royal Fusiliers, the eldest son of Mrs Montague, of 47, Devonshire-road, South Ealing, is among the eight hundred patients at Mile End Military Hospital. He has returned from France minus his right arm, and deserves to figure at the very top of the list of local heroes, since on his own initiative, and utterly regardless of personal danger, he undertook the severance of the limb, and by so doing made possible the rescue of two of his comrades, whose position at the time was extremely critical.[…]

“One of the bravest and coolest men I have ever met,” is the Captain and Adjutant’s description of our gallant hero […] after referring to the pluck and conspicuous bravery displayed by him in the performance of one of the most noteworthy deeds – a deed thoroughly deserving of the award of the Victoria Cross.

The story is a thrilling one. October 24th found Private Montague, along with others, in a dug-out captured from the Germans. It was supposed to be bomb-proof, but heavy shelling by the enemy soon proved the contrary, and Private Montague and those with him had to recognise they were in “a tight corner.” Escape, of course, as impossible. The enemy’s deadly fire meant the dug-out’s total destruction; and Private Montague became wedged in by the debris, and two of his comrades were buried with him. To extricate him seemed like attempting the impossible, and was rendered the more difficult through his right arm being pinned down by a large tree. But coolness and bravery exerted itself, and found Private Montague equal to the occasion. With the cries in his ears for assistance on the part of the two “Tommies” buried beneath him, he never wavered in his determination to free himself if possible, and thus endeavour to make the way clear for their rescue.

There was only one way out – his right arm must go! A moment later he had brought his knife into play, and was hacking away at the limb. There was no time to be lost, and this apparently was his only fear, since he found the instrument not sharp enough. Fortunately a doctor was at hand with a much sharper blade, which was passed down to Private Montague, and the terrible operation was completed. Displaying courage and endurance remarkable to witness, he was happily got out alive, and by his self-sacrifice the other two men were also brought to safety – one found to be suffering from shell-shock and the other having a fractured thigh.

The letter to Marjorie from the adjutant (possibly Cecil Palmer Harvey, a former student at the University of London), is quoted at length:

 “He has been working under me for the last two months, and has always done his work extremely well, showing keenness and a desire to help to the utmost of his ability. He is a great loss to me, and his place will be difficult to fill. I am sure it will be a pleasure to you when I tell you that he was one of the bravest and coolest men I have ever met. He displayed the most remarkable courage and endurance during the time that he was wedged in by the debris of the dug-out, and I really thank God that we managed to extricate him alive.”

From this and the war diary, it looks as though Eric was in the headquarters dug-out, which was apparently shelled on the afternoon of the 24th and “throughout the day” on the 25th. Montague is recorded as being wounded on the 25th, along with four other men – perhaps two of them were those men trapped with Eric in the dug-out, whom his bravery helped to save. (L/Cpl T Ryder, and Privates EE Keeley, FA Holingworth and A R Evans).

The details of the event are quite striking. The day-long shelling to destroy a ‘bomb-proof’ dug-out; Eric being trapped in a way that somehow blocked the rescue of those two comrades; that the situation apparently meant that the doctor was not able to reach Eric to perform the amputation; the sheer horror and bravery of having to cut off ones own arm to save two comrades.

Captain Harvey hinted to Marjorie that some form of gallantry award was possible – and the Gazette clearly agreed. The Commander of 2nd Division, writing to Eric directly, played down that possibility but said “I should like you to know that your gallant action is recognised, and how greatly it is appreciated.”

Eric Montague, Daily Mirror 6 Dec 1916

Account of Montague’s injury from Daily Mirror 6 Dec 1916

Eric’s army service papers show one impact of his amputation: the change in his handwriting and signature:

Montague's signature on enlistment in 1915

Montague’s signature on enlistment in 1915

Montague's signature on demobilisation from the army

Montague’s signature on demobilisation from the army

In July 1917, nine months after his treatment at Mile End, Eric went to Roehampton to be fitted with an artificial arm. On leaving the army that Summer, he was given a pension of 27 shillings and 6 pence a week for an initial 9 weeks, followed by 19s 3d per week for life. He appears to have lived most of his life with his mother. In the 1939 Register they are listed together at 47 Devonshire Road; he is recorded as being a senior clerk for a scientific instrument maker. His sister, Irene, had left Ealing some time earlier and had died in 1923 while living on Westbourne Terrace near Paddington Station.

Beresford Montagu, the youngest son born in December 1898, served in the Royal Field Artillery. It’s not clear when he joined the army but he may have done so underage. Although only 12 in April 1911, he was apparently serving in the RFA in 1916 when he became a member of the Simplifyd Speling Sosyeti (as recorded in their journal The Pyoneer ov simplifyed speling – which has some trouble transcribing accurately!).

By late 1918, he was a lance bombardier (equivalent to a lance corporal in the infantry), serving with A battery, 86th (Army) Brigade. In September he was – like his brothers at the defining moments of their war experience – serving on the Somme battlefield at Ronssoy (about 30 miles East of Guillemont where his brother died two years earlier). On 29 September, his artillery brigade were supporting the 27th American Division in their attack on the German line between Nouroy and Gouy, between St Quentin and Cambrai, as part of a more general push to break the Hindenburg Line. The brigade war diary records the successful actions of the day and concludes, “Batteries suffered severe casualties from [Machine Gun] and shell fire.”

His actions under that intense fire earned Beresford the Distinguished Conduct Medal. In the words of the London Gazette:

For fine courage and devotion to duty on 29th September, 1918, at Ronssoy, under intense enemy shelling. When the No. 1 was wounded he took over his gun. Twice the remainder of the detachment became casualties, but he maintained his gun in action in spite of being wounded himself. He refused to be taken away until the barrage was finished.

Like Eric, Beresford Montagu survived his experiences on the Somme and returned to Ealing. He married a Lilian Cox in 1925 and moved frequently between the UK and the USA in the 1920, recorded variously as a valet, a chauffeur and a motor mechanic, with 47 Devonshire Road given as his UK address. By the Second World War, he was living on Pheonix Avenue, Elmira, in up-state New York; his US Army draft card records him as working for the Merchants Acceptance Corp in the same town. He died there in 1964.

Beresford had outlived his mother by 8 years, she died in 1956. Eric lived at 47 Devonshire Road until his death in July 1970 more than 50 years after his and his brothers’ experiences on the Somme during the Great War.


  • Ancestry records – various military and census
  • National Archives – war diaries (currently free to download)
  • Ealing Gazette and West Middlesex Observer (on British Newspaper Archive)
  • History of the 27th American Division (pdf)
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Posted by on 11 May 2020 in Ordinary Londoners


Parallels and echoes?

The coronavirus/covid-19 pandemic is not like the First World War. There are a whole host of ways in which they are different, but there are ways in which life over the last month or so has echoed features of life in Great Britain – and London in particular – in 1914-1918. I’ve already mentioned one in my previous post – the closure of major museums in London (which I covered in an earlier blog post). Let’s take a look at a few more:

Kensington Olympia used for stores

You may have seen a recent news story that the Olympia in Kensington has “been turned into a huge foodbank centre” in response to the coronavirus crisis.  The pictures accompanying the story (borrowed here from MyLondon) made me think of the images of the same space used a century ago as a storage space for the Army Clothing Depot:


Now: Hammersmith and Fulham council is using Olympia London to help Hammersmith and Fulham Foodbank step up the amount of food parcels it gives to residents from 160 a week to nearly 1,000. (Image from MyLondon story)


Then: Olympia in War Time: Royal Army Clothing Depot (Art.IWM ART 2919) The interior of Kensington Olympia, filled with enormous stacks of material bundled as cubes.

The foodbank story is also reminiscent of the efforts to help feed working people who might not be able to afford – or have time to prepare – full meals. Public kitchens were opened from 1917 onwards, and we widely known as ‘municipal’ or ‘national’ kitchens (not ‘communal’ kitchens for fear of suggesting a communist influence in the era of the Russian revolutions). At these kitchens, working people were able to buy a full hot meal at cost price, or cooked potatoes to take home as part of their meal there.

Sylvia Pankhurst and the Women’s Social and Political Union had opened similar kitchens in poor districts early in the war, but they did not catch on until 1917, when the Queen opened the first ‘national kitchen’ on Westminster Bridge Street. The kitchens enabled people to eat there or, more often, to take full meals – or significant portions – away to eat at home.

National Kitchen

Then: A long queue of children and women awaiting their turn to receive hot food at the public kitchen at 104 Westminster Bridge Road, London, opened by Queen Mary. Copyright: © IWM (Q 54564)


Supporting those on the front line

Speaking of food…many charitable efforts have been launched at a local and national level to provide for those on the frontline – particularly the doctors and nurses and other workers in the NHS – while restaurants and cafes are shut. The most prominent is probably the #FeedNHS campaign, supported by celebrities like Damian Lewis, Helen McCrory and Matt Lucas, but there have been a range of similar efforts across London and elsewhere across the UK to provide free or discounted meals (see more in this Evening Standard story).


Now: Damian Lewis and Helen McCrory are helping to raise money to feed NHS workers

A similar spirit drove the provision of free buffets at the major London terminal stations for service personnel travelling to and from the battlefields during the Great War. Following appeals in the papers for something to be done to greet those arriving on leave, groups of ladies volunteered to run free buffets. The first was set up at London Bridge in late 1914, followed in early 1915 by Victoria and Liverpool Street; soon there were buffets at all of the major termini.

These buffets supplied a hot drink and a meal to men as they arrived in London or waited for their train back to the front. They were also useful for the London Ambulance Column volunteers who met trains full of wounded and could end up spending the whole day or night either in the station or on the road. By the time it was closed in April 1920, the buffet at Waterloo (located in a pedestrian tunnel under the platforms, and commemorated there by a memorial plaque) had served meals and refreshments to eight million service personnel; at Victoria they had served 12 million.

Euston buffet

Then: British troops celebrating Christmas meal with staff at the free buffet on Euston station, probably 25 December 1917. Note a soldier pulling a Christmas cracker with a boy with a dog. Copyright: © IWM (Q 54274)


New and expanded hospital space

One of the major news stories of the current crisis has been the new Nightingale hospitals opened across the country, starting at the ExCel centre in London.


Now: The Nightingale Hospital in the Excel Centre (from Bloomberg news)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Great War saw an enormous increase in London’s hospital capacity. From only seven thousand before the war, the number of military hospital beds in the UK rose to 364,113 by the time of the Armistice. London housed 36,664 of these beds, slightly over ten percent. This included beds in five ‘General Hospitals’, mainly in South London.

These were made up of existing hospital buildings, other public buildings, new temporary huts and other local buildings given over to the war effort. For example the 2nd London General Hospital in Chelsea (with over 1,500 beds) was made up of St Mark’s College, an LCC Secondary School and beds in four civil hospitals (Central London, Freemasons’, Great Northern, St Andrew’s). The others were in Camberwell, Wandsworth, Denmark Hill and Lambeth.

Wandsworth hospital

Then: 3rd London General Hospital, Wandsworth Common. Officers’ Ward seen from the Water Tank. Copyright: © IWM (Q 49602)

Twelve thousand more beds were provided in fourteen hospitals housed in poor law buildings, infirmaries and workhouses. Five more hospitals were housed in pre-war hospital buildings, including the Maudsley in Denmark Hill and fever hospitals in Woolwich and Tooting.

A range of private hospitals, paid for by charities and individuals, housed more men, especially convalescents. Many wealthy individuals turned their London houses over to become hospitals and convalescent homes, particularly in the wealthy areas of Central and West London, where residents had rooms (or whole houses) spare to cater for recuperating patients. 

Station closures

In March, TfL announced the closure of 40 tube stations that were not intersections between lines.


Covent Garden station, one of 40 shut during the lockdown – Picture copyright BBC

During the First World War, it was overground train stations that were closed. Wikipedia lists over 30 stations that were closed during the war years, many of them never to reopen – including a station south of Shepherd’s Bush Green, and a whole branch line from Nunhead to Greenwich Park (the latter station having now disappeared without trace). Some did reopen, however, including Honor Oak, Brentford and Shadwell & St George’s East.

The main reason for closing all of these stations was the lack of passengers using them – the rather haphazard growth of the railways in the nineteenth century meant that there were many lines with few users. There don’t appear to have been any closures of tube stations, although a planned extension of the Central Line to Richmond was cancelled, having been postponed by the war.

The crisis can reach any family, even in No 10

There was a real sense of shock a few weeks ago, when the Prime Minister was admitted to hospital suffering from covid-19. Combined with the earlier news that the Prince of Wales had had the disease, it demonstrated that it could strike anyone (even if it is not evenly distributed among the population) .

Similarly, wartime Prime Minister H.H. Asquith suffered the anguish shared by many of his contemporaries when his son Raymond was killed in action serving in the Grenadier Guards at Ginchy on 15 September 1916, at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette.


Then: Start of the report of Lt Raymond Asquith’s death in the Birmingham Mail, 19 Sept 1916 (Copyright British Newspaper Archive)

And finally…The food queue

One of the words to gain prominence during the Great War were ‘queue’ and ‘queuing’. Although they pre-dated the war, they were not previously common parlance. Just as we have become newly accustomed to talk of PPE and people being immuno-compromised, our ancestors came to talk of queues, no-man’s land and a host of other new terms.

The Walthamstow Gazette published a poem by “A.B.F.” about queues in early 1918, when the food queues were at their peak:

Q stands for Quest of a Quarrelling Queue,

Things are unequal for me and for you.

Q for the Quarter of butter or “marge,”

Also for Quantity little or large.

Q for the Question on which all agree,

Have they butter or margarine, sugar or tea?

Q for the Queue-ite (or should it be Queue-er?),

Quietly waiting while Queue-ers grow fewer.

Quotidian Queues must Quickly be Quashed!

Curiously Question “the great unwashed” –

“Queenie” and “Quartos” have lined up as well,

‘Tis “Queer Street” for children – the Queue we MUST Quell.

Cute their Cupidity for getting the Cue,

Quarters and half-pounds they buy not a few.

The “powers that be” no one can excuse

For letting the “multiples” encourage Queues.

Multiples was the word in that era for chain shops – by contrast to individual shops that were the norm. As was the case when certain foods seemed to run short in March 2020, the problem as more one of distribution than of supply. ‘Multiples’ were blamed for the queues, presumably because they were where the queues formed, which was because they actually had stocks of the food people wanted – their supply chains being more resilient than individual butchers’ or dairies’ were.

One weekend in January 1918, over a thousand people queued outside a multiple shop in New Bond Street for margarine and around 3,000 in Walworth, a thousand of the latter going away empty-handed. By the end of the month, an an estimated half million people were queuing for food across London. In many places at this point, local councils commandeered supplies being delivered to multiples (particularly the Maypole Dairy) and distributed them around their area to disperse the queues. In the end it was rationing – first in London and the Home Counties at the end of February, then across the country – that quelled the queues.


Then: The Food Queue by CRW Nevinson, 1918. Copyright: © IWM (Art.IWM ART 840)

With our social distancing, our queues now look rather different of course:


Now: customers queue outside Waitrose (image from the Guardian)


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Posted by on 24 April 2020 in Uncategorized


Resumption of business

While we are all cooped up at home, I am planning to resume this blog. I can’t promise a huge amount of new content, but I plan to post a few new articles and update some old ones. So watch this space.

For the time being, here is a reminder that this is not the first time that London’s museums have closed to the public:

BM Assyrian

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

Read more in a 2012 blog post here.


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Posted by on 6 April 2020 in Uncategorized


De Keyser: a London Hotel and the Royal Prerogative

On Tuesday, the UK’s Supreme Court will issue its judgment on a case about whether the Government needs Parliament’s permission (most likely in the form of an Act of Parliament) in order to trigger Article 50 of the Treaty of the European Union and begin the process for the UK to leave the EU. The court case included numerous references to an incident in  London in the Great War – watch out for the name ‘De Keyser’ in the judgment if you’re inclined to read the whole thing. This is the story of the prominent London hotel of that name during the Great War, which provides a precedent for one of the key principles in the Article 50 case.

The Royal Hotel was founded by Joost Constant Fidel Armand de Keyser in 1845 on the Victoria Embankment next to Blackfriar’s Bridge. De Keyser was a Belgian who came to the UK in the 1830s to escape turmoil in Belgium. His son Polydor de Keyser followed him after his initial schooling in Ghent and – after the death of his elder brother – joined the family business. Polydor is often cited as the founder of the hotel, which doesn’t seem to be accurate but perhaps reflects his prominent role both in the history of the hotel and in his adopted city.

Polydor de Keyser 'The Lord Mayor', as depicted by Spy in Vanity Fair, November 1887

Polydor de Keyser ‘The Lord Mayor’, as depicted by Spy in Vanity Fair, November 1887

And Polydor certainly was prominent in the life of the city. To quote from his entry in the Dictionary of National Biography:

As president of the Belgian Benevolent Society he promoted the British section at the International Exhibition on Hygiene and Lifesaving, held at Brussels in 1876, for which he was made a knight of the order of St Léopold; he was later raised to commander. He was a founder of the Guildhall School of Music and an early president of its management committee. In the autumn of 1887 he became lord mayor of London, the first Catholic to hold this office since the Reformation… His mayoralty coincided with Queen Victoria’s jubilee and the silver wedding of the prince and princess of Wales. His desire to celebrate this latter event was frustrated by the period of court mourning which followed the deaths of Kaiser Wilhelm I and (shortly afterwards) Friedrich III, though he was later able to present the royal couple with a silver model of the Imperial Institute. He was knighted in December 1888.

De Keyser accepted the task of presiding over the organization of the British section at the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1889. His efforts bore fruit; the British exhibitors made a good showing at this very successful event, located close to the brand-new Eiffel Tower, and the French government created him a chevalier of the Légion d’honneur. He was a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, the Royal Geographical and the Statistical societies, a member of the Loriners’, Butchers’, Innholders’, Poulters’, and Wyre-Drawers’ companies, and held high masonic office.

Along with his father, and after the latter’s death, Sir Polydor also oversaw the expansion of the Royal Hotel. The DNB describes its growth: “The hotel was rebuilt to five storeys in 1874, decorated in the best French taste, with 230 guest rooms and a vast dining-room to seat 400 people. Another wing was added in 1882, making it the largest in London with a total capacity of 480 guests. It had a second dining-room, seating 250, many recreation rooms, gardens, and accommodation for 150 staff.”

De Keyser's Hotel from Blackfriar's Bridge, from A London Inheritance blog post

De Keyser’s Hotel (the large curved-fronted building) from Blackfriar’s Bridge, from A London Inheritance blog post

Sir Polydor de Keyser died in 1898 and is buried in Nunhead Cemetery in South London. The hotel lived on under the stewardship of Polydor Weichand de Keyser, the nephew and heir of Polydor and his wife Louise.

When war came, the Royal Hotel – which was widely known as de Keyser’s Hotel, was badly hit. From June 1915, the De Keyser Hotel Co Ltd was in the hands of a ‘Receiver and manager’ appointed by the Chancery Court.

Times were hard. As a writer in The Sphere put it on 22 January 1916:

The misfortune of having a foreign name is exemplified in the case of that old-established institution the De Keyser Hotel, hitherto the favourite haunt of opulent European people of all nationalities. Although the proprietor and founder of this caravanserie was a Belgian and sometime Lord Mayor of London, and although the staff contains no enemy waiters or Germans who have been naturalised, the hotel has suffered to such an extent since the war opened that a receiver and manager has had to be appointed by the Chancery Court. It is understood that a new company has been formed to carry on the business under the auspices of Mr R.C.Vaughan, recently the successful manager of the Grand Pump Room, Bath, and it is hoped that when it becomes known that the hotel is in all respects English in its ownership and managership there may return an era of prosperity such as the hotel formerly enjoyed for so many years.

This article hints at the difficulties around nationality and Britishness in the Great War. That a hotel with no ‘enemy’ staff (i.e. citizens of enemy states) and no British staff who had been born a Germans that had been run by the Clapham-born nephew of a former Lord Mayor of London was struggling to convince people that it was British tells us something about problems people and businesses suffered if their names and/or backgrounds were at all Germanic sounding. A name that sounds like the title of the hated German Kaiser must have been particularly unhelpful (the pronunciation of the hotel’s name caused a bit of unusual banter during the Supreme Court case).

Advert for De Keyser's Royal Hotel, in the Scotsman, 12 Feb 1916

Advert for De Keyser’s Royal Hotel, in the Scotsman, 12 Feb 1916

An alternative appeal: De Keyser's Hotel as a place for Belgians in London, from Folkestone, Hythe, Sandgate & Cheriton Herald,15 April 1916

An alternative appeal: De Keyser’s Hotel as a rendezvous location for Belgians in London, from Folkestone, Hythe, Sandgate & Cheriton Herald,15 April 1916

The De Keyser Hotel story that is particularly pertinent today, is not, however, about the difficulties of running a foreign-sounding hotel in London but about the powers of the Government in wartime.

In May 1916, the War Office took over the Hotel to house its growing aeronautics staff – the civil servants supporting the Royal Flying Corps. The Government took over the entire hotel of around 400 rooms – an article about the introduction of British Summertime in 1916 noted that there were 400 clocks in the hotel that would need to be changed by Government clock-winders. This was part of a large-scale take over of buildings and open spaces by the Government, as we have seen before on this blog.

The Government moves in to De Keyser's Hotel, Daily Mirror 18 May 1916

The Government moves in to de Keyser’s Hotel, Daily Mirror 18 May 1916

The Government’s takeover of de Keyser’s Hotel was not a happy one for either party. In April 1916, the Board of Works and the De Keyser Hotel Co Ltd had been in negotiations over the Government renting the hotel but these came to nothing. On April 29th, the Board wrote to the company that they were recommending that the hotel should be requisitioned under the Defence of the Realm Act 1914 (the notorious and wide-ranging ‘DORA‘) and the company would receive compensation for losses incurred, to be decided by the Defence of the Realm Losses Commission.

The company wrote back denying the right of the Government to do this. The company’s Receiver wrote on 5 May “it does not seem to me that the acquisition of this building as offices is necessary for the purpose of securing the public safety or the Defence of the Realm”, which was the phrase used in Defence of the Realm Regulation 2 to allow requisitioning of property. he suggested that a reasonable agreement on terms could be reached, or arbitration used. The Office of Works replied reasserting the right to requisition the hotel under DORA and the Royal Prerogative (the remaining powers of the Crown – exercised by the Government – that have not been superseded or restricted by Acts of Parliament) and the need for the company to apply to the Losses Commission.

The company refused to go to the Commission and presented a Petition of Right to the King calling for payment of an annual rent while the Government used the building (£13,520 for the year May 1916-Feb 1917) and asking for “a declaration that your supplicants [the company] are entitled to a fair rent for use and occupation by way of compensation under the Defence Act 1842.” The Attorney General responded for the monarch, reasserting that the DORA powers and Royal Prerogative were sufficient, and compensation scheme was applicable in this case.

The company took the case to court. The first judge sided with the Government, saying that the DORA powers were sufficient, but the Appeal Court overturned that decision. The Government then appealed to the House of Lords. In the UK’s unusual constitution, the highest court in the land was the House of Lords – or more accurately the Lords of Appeal in Ordinary, known as the Law Lords, who were appointed to decide important cases (since the Appellate Jurisdiction Act 1876). This was the arrangement until the creation of the modern UK Supreme Court in 2009 – some of the current Supreme Court Justices were Law Lords before they moved across Parliament Square to their current location.

In May 1920, the Law Lords decided the case in favour of the company. Essentially, they decided that the acquisition of the hotel by the Government had not taken place under the Defence of the Realm Regulations, which did not permit it. The use of the Losses Commission to pay the hotel’s managers was therefore a use of the Royal Prerogative, which was invalid because there was already legislation in the form of the Defence Act 1842 providing for compensation where property was requisitioned by the Crown.


The case helped to establish the extent of prerogative powers. It decided that the Crown could not requisition citizens’ property under the Royal Prerogative without paying compensation. It is also cited as an authority for the key constitutional principle that statute law (passed by Parliament) trumps the Royal Prerogative, meaning that if the Crown used to be able to do something on the basis of the Royal Prerogative but is now has a legal basis to do it under statute, the Prerogative falls into abeyance and cannot be resumed. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 is an example of this, ending the Crown’s right to dissolve Parliament (by setting out fixed dates for elections and mechanisms for Parliament to call early elections).

Technical though it sounds, this is a ‘leading’ (i.e. important) case in constitutional law, helping to establish the balance of rights between the citizen and the Government. As Sir John Simon QC (Counsel for the De Keyser Hotel Co Ltd in the case, former MP for Walthamstow, former Attorney-General and Home Secretary, and later Lord Chancellor during the Second World War) wrote in an introduction to a book on the case:

“Leading cases in Constitutional Law are chiefly concerned with establishing the rights of individual citizens in the face of exceptional interference by the Executive, and a heavy crop of judicial decisions on this subject might, at first sight, have been expected in the years 1914-19. But in fact the instances in which such questions were raised and decided by Enghsh Courts are few.”

The ‘Article 50′ case being considered by the Supreme Court touches on the same issue as the de Keyser case. The argument accepted by the High Court was that UK citizens’ rights as EU citizens, conferred by Acts of Parliament, cannot be taken away by use of the Royal Prerogative – i.e. the Government cannot trigger article 50 and therefore remove those rights without a statutory basis for doing so. That (and not whether Brexit should happen) is the gist of the court case. We will find out the Supreme Court’s decision on Tuesday morning.

It is not often that a story from London in the Great War has a bearing on 21st century UK politics, but it in this case, De Keyser’s Hotel, its forced acquisition by the Government and the competing arguments about compensation are playing just such a role.

What happened to the hotel itself? In 1920, the site was leased by Lever Brothers as their London headquarters. They demolished the old hotel and built Unilever House in 1930, the building that currently stands on that spot. The blog A London Inheritance tells of the demolition and the new building, with a good set of photos.


Disclaimer: I know quite a bit about the Great War and about the constitution, but I am not a constitutional lawyer. I am happy to correct any errors in my interpretation of the de Keyser case and the Royal Prerogative.

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Posted by on 23 January 2017 in Famous companies, Places


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“I am content to have done my bit” – the death John William Irons

What would you want to tell your loved ones if you were killed in action? It must have been a question that many soldiers, sailors and airmen considered during the Great War. This is the story of one Londoner’s last words to his mother.

John William Irons was born in Islington in 1884, the eldest son of John and Mary Irons. By 1901, John senior had died and Mary was working as an office cleaner, living in Lambeth with her 18-year-old daughter Ellen (working as a “fur machinist”), 16-year old John William who was working as an assistant in a stationer’s shop, and two younger sons, Frederick and George. Later that year, Mary married widower Ernest William Collett, who was living in Camberwell. They had three children, one of whom died in infancy. In 1911, Mary, Ernest, their two daughters, Mary’s three sons (Ellen had moved out), and four boarders, were living at 112 Kennington Road – close to the current location of the Imperial War Museum.

Lance Corporal J.W. Irons © IWM (HU 116215)

Lance Corporal J.W. Irons © IWM (HU 116215)

John William Irons was listed in the census return as a clerk. By 1914, he was working for Messrs Adams Bros and Shardlow Ltd, a printing firm based at 72 Chiswell Street, London EC. In August 1914, he left the firm to join the army. When he went out to the front in May 1915, the firm sent him gift boxes every fortnight.

The 5th Berkshires were at Noyelles from 27th February 1916 until the 29th, when they moved into the frontline trenches. According to the war diary “C and D [Companies were] in front line A and B Coys in support trenches”. The battalion also received a “Draft of 43 N.C.O’s and Men arrived from Etaples”. On 1 March, one soldier died, but the war diary doesn’t give any details.

On 2 March, the war diary tells us that a “Mine exploded in front of D Coy and Crator [sic] occupied by Coy Bombers Casualties O.R. 3 killed 7 wounded”. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission lists three men of the battalion who died that day: L/Cpl Victor J Stokes, Pte William E Carter and L/Cpl John William Irons.

A few days later, Mary Collett back in Kennington received a letter from Revd Jospeh O’Reilly. The letter describes Irons having been killed by a shell; whether this was separate from the mine explosion, part of the occupation of the crater, or simply the generic description of death resulting from an explosion (rather than gunfire) is hard to say.

Dear Mrs Collett

Possibly you may have received a telegram recently with news of your son John, but if not it falls to me to inform you that your poor boy has made the Great Sacrifice for God and Country. The letter enclosed was found on him in an envelope upon which was the written request that the finder might past [sic] it to you.

I sincerely simpathise [sic] with you in your sorrow. He was a very good Catholic boy – always receiving the sacraments when opportunity permitted. He was killed by a shell on the night of March 2nd. Death was instantaneous.

I buried him yesterday and possibly I shall be able to have a photo of his last resting place sent to you.

(Revd) Joseph C O’Reilly, CF

36 F[iel]d Amb



The letter Revd O’Reily sent back was addressed to Mary Collett and had clearly been written by L/Cpl Irons when contemplating going into the front line as it is dated “Armentieres, June 7, 1915”, the location and date that the 5th Berkshires went into billets for a week before going into the trenches for the first time:

Dear Mum,

In case I get bowled out I have scribbled this line to you.

Now, Mum, do not worry about me as I am contented at having done my bit. Keep up your spirit and work on as you have always done. Remember me to all at home, also Nell and Sam, and all my chums when you can.

In is hard to imagine the emotions Mary must have felt when she received that letter from her son. In a letter she sent to the Imperial War Museum, she told them that a “Better son a mother never had”.

Mrs Collett was clearly very proud of her son. She sent information about him and a photo of his grave to the Imperial War Museum in 1918. Possibly this was the same photo sent by Revd O’Reily in 1916:

LCpl Irons

Lance Cpl Irons’s original grave marker © IWM (HU 116216)


The grave is in Vermelles British Cemetery, where Irons lies alongside Stokes and Carter. After the war, the Imperial War Graves Commission (as they were then known) offered the families of the fallen the chance to add an inscription to the otherwise-uniform headstones. Mary Collett clearly took her son’s letter to heart when she composed his inscription, which reads:





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Posted by on 30 September 2016 in Ordinary Londoners, War Dead, Women


One road at war: Arthurdon Road, SE4

The Great War had a global impact, but it was experienced my millions of individuals, families and communities across the world. By focussing on one street in South London, we can see something of the variety of war experiences.

In 1918, all men aged 21 or over and servicemen aged 19 or over were eligible to vote. The register for that year therefore lists (or should list) every man on military service in July 1918, when the register was compiled. Those who were absent on military service were marked with a lower-case ‘a’ next to their name and NM in the ‘qualification’ column (as opposed to HO for home owner and R for resident). Unfortunately, the more restrictive franchise for women means that very few female service personnel are listed.

Some boroughs published separate registers listing the military details of those men on war service. Lewisham was one of these boroughs and I have picked Arthurdon Road in Ladywell. The road is opposite the Ladywell entrance to Brockley and Ladywell Cemetery, part of a series of roads with odd names: Phoebeth, Francemary, Maybuth. They were built around the turn of the century (the streets south of Ladywell road are not on the famous and fascinating Booth Poverty maps), so the people living there in the 1910s must have been among the first to occupy Arthurdon Road.

1930s map of Ladywell showing Arthurdon Road - from

1930s map of Ladywell showing Arthurdon Road – from

There were 148 voters for parliamentary elections registered in Arthurdon Road in 1918 (the local franchise was different, but the general election register is the key one for our purposes). Thirty one men were listed as absent on war service, or 21 %. These were men away on military service aged 19 or older (civilian voters were men over 21, and women over 30 with a property qualification – there were some women on the absent registers but not many, and none on Arthurdon Road).

These servicemen of Arthurdon Road were 31 of the 17,589 absent in Lewisham borough, which was smaller then than today with 81,220 voters, meaning that 31.6% were absent on military service. Across London 433,800 were registered absent of 1.96 million voters (male and female), or 22.1%.

Arthurdon Road today(from googlestreetview)

Arthurdon Road today(from googlestreetview)

Going along house by house, these are the men who were listed as absent voters in 1918:


1 – At the top of the street were the Youngs brothers, both of them confirmed war heroes:

  • Harold William Youngs was born in 1889 and married Violet Lillian Bellsham in 1911; their daughter Betty was born in 1913. In January 1917, he joined the Royal Flying Corps and in April he went out to France. In June 1918, he is noted as moving from 16th Balloon Company to 24 Squadron, but he appears later to have returned to ballooning. Sadly, he then died in March 1919 in France, serving with 14th Balloon Section; his death was officially attributed to his own negligence. This did not, however, stop the authorities from awarding him the Military Medal in July 1919. The medal was awarded for bravery in action, but sadly no citation explaining what he had done was published.
  • Arthur Leslie Youngs was two years younger than his brother. He joined up first, though, joining the Royal Army Medical Corps on 1 September 1914, leaving his job as a schoolmaster in Tottenham. He went to the Western Front in May 1915 with the 4th London Field Ambulance and remained there for nearly three years. In August 1916, he was awarded the Military Medal (three years ahead of his ill-fated older brother). He did not get through unscathed, however. On 8 April 1918, he was wounded in the right leg. His medical report states “Bricks from a house fell on him and bruised his right side. Was sea sick coming across [back to the UK] and brought up some blood. States he got some gas several days previously. Piece of metal taken from knee in France”. An x-ray showed there was still shrapnel in his leg. He was eventually discharged in March 1919.

3 – Their neighbour George Douglas Sylvester was a tea buyer born in Brighton in 1884, who lived with his mother and stepfather (in 1911 he was in nearby Tresillian Road). He joined the Royal Naval Air Service in September 1917 and later served in the newly-formed Royal Air Force. He served in Italy from November 1917 with 66 and 67 Wings. He was discharged in 1920.

9 – Harry Hayden Ellis was born in Stepney in 1878 and married Emma Frances Thornbury in 1903. In the 1911 census, he is listed as a journalist. During the war, he served in the 6th Battalion of the London Regiment as a rifleman. He died in 1951.

17 – Henry Emerson Sanderson, a bank clerk who had married in 1909, served in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. He survived the war, but died in 1931.

23 was the home of the Squires brothers, whom we have met before. Alfred Webb Squires was a clerk working for Nestlé before the war and joined Queen Victoria’s Rifles (1/9 Battalion, London Regiment) in August 1914, he went to France in November that year and served there until he was wounded at Gommecourt, where he was a stretcher-bearer during in the fighting on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. He was awarded the Military Medal, possibly for his actions that day. He spent the rest of the war in the UK and got married in 1918. His brother Sidney Charles Squires was already in the Royal Navy in 1914 and served as a sick-bay attendant through the war, on a variety of ships – including one that was involved in a minor way in the Battle of Jutland. Both Squires brothers survived the war.

25 – Their neighbour was Frederick John Bryan Lucas, born in 1874. He does not appear to have married and the other people at number 25 were Wilfred and Katie Kent, so perhaps he was a boarder or relative of theirs. He was commissioned into the Worcestershire Regiment in 1917 but was seconded to the East Yorkshire Regiment. He is listed in the electoral register as a Lieutenant in their 2/4th Battalion, which was then based in Bermuda.

27 – At the next house lived Frank Moorhouse, who lived there with his wife Julia and two children and was working as a traveller (i.e. travelling salesman) when he attested in the Derby Scheme in December 1915 aged 32. He attested the day after his younger child Geoffrey was born. In June 1916, he joined the Royal Garrison Artillery, before transferring to the Military Foot Police, with whom he served in France from May/June 1917 and became a Lance Corporal. He served on the Western Front from May 1917 until he was discharged from the army in September 1919.

Communication sent to Moorhouse in Arthurdon Road in late 1919

Communication sent to Moorhouse in Arthurdon Road in late 1919

35 – Charles Bray served in the RAF, having joined the RFC in Jan 1916 when he was a student aged 18. He served as a wireless operator and was in France from May 1917 to March 1919, when he was demobilised.

49 – Frederick George Hunt was another RAF man. He was born in 1880 in Rotherhithe and worked as a clerk before joining the Royal Naval Air Service in April 1916. He doesn’t seem to have served abroad. In the electoral register, he is described as serving in Group 5, No 1 Area, RAF.

55 – Completing the odd side of the road is Reginald Thomas Wilding, who was born in Dulwich in 1898 and lived in New Cross in 1911. During the war, he served in the Ammunition Column for 57th Brigade, Royal Field Artillery. He served in France from 4 October 1915. He survived the war and died in 1969.



12 – On the opposite side of the road William Francis Halfpenny is the first entry at number 12. He was born in 1883 in Walworth and worked as a carpenter and joiner before he joined the Royal Navy in September 1916. He served on a number of ships, including HMS Greenwich. In September 1917, he distinguished himself by his behaviour when HMS Contest was sunk (sadly, the details of his behaviour are not recorded). He was demobilised in early 1919. He died in Lewisham in 1954.


HMS Contest, torpedoed by German submarine U-106, 18 September 1917 ©IWM (Q 38536)

14 – The Halfpennys neighbours included George Sidney Bird and his parents George William and Sophia Emma Bird. George junior was born in a clerk, in 1911 he worked for the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich, but when he joined up in November 1915, he was working for St John’s School, Wellington Street, Woolwich – and the school promised to top up his army pay to the level of his civilian pay. Bird joined the Queen’s Westminster Rifles (16th Londons) on 10 November 1915; he was sent to the Western Front in June 1916 and joined the unit a week into the Battle of the Somme. A year later, Bird was wounded in the thigh and was away from the unit until early October. Soon after that, he was allowed home for ten days to get married to a Sydenham woman named Lilian on October 24th. He was in action again at the start of the German Spring Offensive in 1918 where he was badly gassed on 22 March, as a result of which he was sent back to England at the start of April and remained in the UK for the rest of the war. He was sent out to France again on 20 November but returned to be demobilised in January 1919.

16 – The next household included two servicemen, the youngest of the seven children of Mary Rebecca Gooding and her late husband Charles: Horace Rason Gooding was born in 1889 and was a gas fitter; he served in the Army Service Corps – the register lists his unit as 3rd DMT (District Mounted Troops) Company. Thomas Edgar Gooding managed to serve in both the army and the navy. He was an 18 year old clerk at the Home and Colonial Stores when he signed up for the 21st London Regiment (First Surrey Rifles) in 1909. He remained in this territorial unit through to its mobilisation in 1914. In March 1915, he went to France with them and served out the rest of his contractual period in the battalion before being sent home in January 1916 and leaving the army the February. A year later, he joined the Royal Navy and served out the rest of the war on various ships including NHS Devonshire.

18 – There were three voters registered at number 18. Two were a couple Richard John Walsh and Elizabeth Martha Walsh, who had married in 1902 and had at least three children (three are listed on their census return for 1911). Richard was from Bermondsey and worked as a jewellery buyer for a general store in 1911; he served in the Royal Field Artillery as a gunner during the war. The third voter was Frank Ernest Lancaster, who was serving in the Royal Marines Light Infantry, having joined up in 1901. He was born in 1879 in Walthamstow and worked as a slater for Walthamstow Council, taking after his father who had the same job for London Country Council (Walthamstow was then in Essex). Quite why he ended up being being registered at the Walshes’ house – did he know them? Had to lived there at some point earlier in the war? I simply don’t know.

20 – William Albert B. Thornbury was another Arthurdon Road man serving in the London regiment. He was born in Forest Hill in 1898; in 1911 he was a schoolboy living in Honor Oak Park. During the war he joined the London Regiment – I don’t know when, but he was serving before 1917 and in 1918 was in the 6th Londons and ended up as a Corporal. He married Dora Brightwell in Sussex in 1926 and they had at least one child (a son, Hugh was born in 1931), but William died in 1936.

26 – Edward Richard Pettitt was a shipping clerk and enlisted in the London Regiment on 17 April 1917, having already registered with them before his 18th birthday. He later served in the Royal Engineers as a switchboard operator and was discharged in 1919, having served only in the UK.

28 – Herbert Thomas Barnes was born in November 1879 and worked as a “handicraft instructor” for London County Council. He lived at number 28 with his wife Ellen. He joined the Royal Naval Air Service on 2 June 1916 and was absorbed with it in into the RAF in 1918, with whom he served until his demobilisation in February 1919.

32 – Charles Edward Calnan was a Sergeant in the Royal Field Artillery, but I have not been able to find out any more information about his military service. There was a Charles Edward Calnan living in Rotherhithe in 1911, a shorthand typist born in the area in 1890, who died in 1977. Perhaps that was this Arthurdon Road man.

36 – Albert George Maxted (or Manstead) was a theatre manager in 1911. His war service is neatly summed up in the National Roll of the Great War: “He joined in February 1917, and in the following year went to France, where he was engaged with the Cinema Section of the RASC, entertaining the troops in the forward areas.” He ended up as a Sergeant and was discharged in February 1920. He lived another 50 years and died in September 1970.

38 – Lawrence Sydney Pudney was born near Sittingborne in Kent, but lived in South East London before the war. He was married to Marian Bowes in 1912 and was a teacher employed by London County Council when he enlisted in the Royal Engineers in 1916. He served in France for 9 months and left the army in 1919. He lived until 1978.

40 – Bookbinder’s overseer Richard Nathaniel Lamb and his wife Lilian were registered at number 40, with Richard absent in the RAF. Initially, though, he was an orderly working with the British Red Cross, having previously been a territorial member of the RAMC. He went to France in May 1915 and rose to the rank of sergeant-major, working at the Anglo-American Hospital at Wimereux. Then in July 1917 he applied for a commission in the Royal Flying Corps. He became an officer in November that year and served through to 1919 as a Lieutenant in the new Royal Air Force, but doesn’t appear to have gone out to the front with them.

R.N.Lamb's service record, showing the name his house in Arthurdon Road went by in 1918: "Inverkeithing"

R.N.Lamb’s service record, showing the name his house in Arthurdon Road went by in 1918: “Inverkeithing”

44 – Another RAF man lived a few doors down: John Sinclair Jenkins, a civil servant from Peckham who had joined the RNAS as a carpenter in November 1915 aged 29, served in France from June 1916 and by 1918 was a Corporal, serving with number 217 Squadron RAF.

48 – Frederick Kitchenmaster served as a Sergeant in the 4th (Ross Highland) Battalion of the Seaforth Highlanders. He was killed in action on 21 March 1918, the first day of the last great German Offensive on the Western Front. He is commemorated on the Arras Memorial, meaning that he has no known grave; given that this was months before the register was compiled, one must assume that his family did not know of his fate in the summer of 1918 – months after his death.

4th Seaforth

A gas sentry of the 4th (Ross Highland) Battalion, Seaforth Highlanders, Frederick Kitchenmaster’s unit, at Wancourt, 23 October 1917. ©IWM (Q 6132)

52 – Harry George Kennedy appears to have served twice. Originally a private in the 20th London Regiment (Blackheath and Woolwich Battalion), having enlisted on 3 September 1915 he served on the Western Front for exactly six months in 1915. He then suffered from elipeptic fits, which had happened before the war. He was discharged in December 1915, but seems to have rejoined and served in the Labour Corps. On the electoral register he is listed as serving in the Officers’ Mess, 16th Corps HQ.

54 – Victor Robert Stotesbury  was born in Greenwich in 1888 and grew up in Deptford; before the war he was a house decorator. He served as a gunner in 189th Siege Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery and survived the war. He lived until 1979.

60 – Percy Edward George Farrow is listed as a corporal in a Royal Engineers Anti-Aircraft unit (service no 563779), but I have not been able to find any more information about his military career. He appears to have been a library assistant, who was born in Chelsea in 1880 and died in 1968.

68 – Walter Herbert Victor Badger was born in 1883 and in 1911 lived in Ladywell, on Wearside Road, working as a gas company’s representative traveller. In 1916, giving his occupation as “outdoor inspector” he joined the RNAS, later becoming an RAF aircraftman, serving in Kingsnorth, Kent (the airfield was where the power station is now), as a fitter.


As with any attempt to list service personnel from a particular place, the list is imperfect. For one thing, the names were provided by the head of the household, potentially meaning that men who had moved away before the war were listed because they had no other address even if they had left home already. For example, both Youngs brothers gave addresses on Whitehorse Lane, South Norwood in their files at the end of the war.

In addition, those men who were reported missing but who had died or whose deaths had not yet been reported would have been listed (like Sgt Kitchenmaster). On the other hand, men who had already been discharged or died were not listed as absent voters, so it is far from a full list.

The service dates of those whose information I have been able to uncover may suggest that there were some others who joined up earlier but died or were discharged. Three were already serving before the war (one of them as a part-time Territorial soldier), two joined up in 1914, three in 1915, seven in 1916 and five in 1917. Overall there was a broadly-even split in recruiting between those who joined the Army between August 1914 and December 1914 (as volunteers) and those who were called up in 1916-1918, having attested under the Derby Scheme or been conscripted. In this record of Arthurdon Road, those joining up in 1916-17 far outnumber those from 1914-15. This suggests either that the street was quite unusual in its pattern of enlistment, or that earlier recruits had been killed or discharged – or possibly both. Unfortunately, it is hard to identify which young men living in Arthurdon Road had died or been discharged before the summer of 1918.

One of the war dead associated with Arthurdon Road was Sydney William Batchelor – the only entry on the CWGC database with the street listed in his details. He enlisted in Chelsea and served in the Royal Army Medical Corps. He died of wounds in 1918 while serving with the 1st/3rd (North Midland) Field Ambulance, and was buried in a cemetery at Etaples. His parents are listed by CWGC as living at 48 Arthurdon Road, possibly meaning that between the summer of 1918 and the return of the Commission’s information form, Nellie Kitchenmaster had moved out and Mr and Mrs Batchelor had moved in.

It is not a complete list, but hopefully this blog post gives some sense of the range of things that Londoners did during the war. And this is only among the military roles that men played, and it doesn’t include the service or work undertaken by women.

Nonetheless we can see that, at the point in time that their service was registered in 1918:

  • Eight served in the RAF and/or its predecessor units (RFC and RNAS);
  • Five served in the Royal Navy or Royal Marines (excluding RNAS);
  • Four served in the London Regiment;
  • Four served in the Royal Artillery (RFA and RGA);
  • Three served in the Royal Engineers;
  • Two served in the Army Service Corps;And the other others served in other infantry units, the Military Police and the Labour Corps.

Arthurdon Road was probably no different to other roads in the area, or many other areas of the country. There was no dominant industry that kept men out of the forces – or pushed them into it through unemployment. Men from Arthurdon Road served around the world – but primarily on the Western Front or at sea. Among them were heroes, decorated for their bravery. I hope that by highlighting some of their stories, I have shown some of the variety of experiences Londoners had in the armed forces during the Great War.


Posted by on 10 August 2016 in Ordinary Londoners, Places


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Some of London’s fallen of 1 July 1916

The first day of the Battle of the Somme is one of the most remembered and commemorated days in Britain’s military history. On that day the British Army suffered its worst casualties of any single day in its history.

I try not to focus too much on the war dead – it is also important to remember those who served and survived (and to remember the impact of the war at home in London) – but the centenary of the first day of that battle stands out as a day to reflect on the cost of the war in the starkest terms. It is impossible to say how many Londoners were killed or wounded on 1 July 1916, but we can look at the record of London infantry units involved in the battle.

16 Middx

Soldiers of the 16th Battalion (Public Schools), Middlesex Regiment are taken back down the slope after having reached the crater on Hawthorn Ridge, which is on the centre of the horizon. The photograph was taken at 7.45 am, 1st July 1916. © IWM (Q 755)

If we look at the number of fatalities recorded for 1 July and the subsequent four days (many of whom would have died of wounds from 1 July), we can see how badly some of the London and Middlesex battalions were affected by the fighting. These figures come from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s database of the war dead:

Unit 01-Jul-16 02-Jul-16 03-Jul-16 04-Jul-16 05-Jul-16 Total Of which recorded on Thiepval memorial to the missing
1/2nd 1/3rd and 1/4th Bns, London Regiment (Royal Fusiliers) 275 11 7 4 5 302 183
1/12th Bn, London Regiment (The Rangers) 149 2 3 154 100
1/13th Bn, London Regiment (Kensingtons) 58 6 1 2 67 42
1/14th Bn, London Regiment (London Scottish) 220 3 1 224 180
1/15th Bn, London Regiment (London Rifle Brigade) 275 6 1 282 219
1/16th Bn, London Regiment (Queen’s Westminster Rifles) 172 2 1 175 131
1/9th Bn, London Regiment (Queen Victoria’s Rifles) 221 4 1 2 1 229 179
London Regiment total 1370 32 15 9 7 1433 1034
2nd Bn, Middlesex Regiment 270 3 1 0 0 274 237
4th Bn, Middlesex Regiment 90 82 0 2 0 174 113
12th Bn, Middlesex Regiment 6 0 0 0 8 14 4
16th Bn, Middlesex Regiment (Public Schools) 160 7 2 2 0 171 91
Middlesex Regiment total 526 92 3 4 8 633 445
London and Middeseex Regiments 1896 124 18 13 15 2066 1479

So, from these 11 battalions, over 2,000 men died over those days. Almost three quarters of them have no known grave and are recorded on the Thiepval memorial to the missing. (The ‘total’ figures are for these battalions, not the whole London or Middlesex Regiments, each of which suffered a handful of other casualties during those days).

Each figure in the table was, of course, a man – most likely a young men and in this case probably a Londoner. Among them were:

Clifford Hugh Butcher, an 18-year-old from Leyton, whom we met in a previous post about the appeals for information published in the newspapers during the latter half of 1916. His picture appeared in the Daily Sketch in August 1916.

Rfm Clifford H Butcher from Leyton

Rfm Clifford H Butcher from Leyton © IWM (HU 93372)


Private Henry Leicester Oldham from Lavender Hill, SW. He was the son of a retired butler and was serving in 9th Platoon, “C” Company, Queen’s Westminster Rifles when he was reported missing on 1 July.

Pte Henry L Oldham from Lavender Hill, Battersea

Pte Henry L Oldham from Lavender Hill,  Battersea © IWM (HU 93490)



One man who was wounded but not killed that day was Captain George Johnson, an old soldier commissioned from the ranks during the war. The National Army Museum has his tunic, which I discovered and researched for their 2006 exhibition on the Battle of the Somme when I was a curator there.

Tunic of Captain Johnson, 2nd Middlesex. He was wounded in the hip and arm on 1 July 1916, his tunic clearly shows where it was cut away from his wounds. Image © National Army Museum

Tunic of Captain Johnson, 2nd Middlesex. He was wounded in the hip and arm on 1 July 1916, his tunic clearly shows where it was cut away from his wounds. Image © National Army Museum

The caption I wrote for it is used on the NAM website:

“Johnson was wounded on 1 July 1916 during the attack on Ovillers-La Boisselle on the Somme. Machine-gun fire devastated his battalion and although a few men reached the second line of German trenches, by the end of the day all had returned to the British lines or lay in no-man’s land. All but 50 of the battalion were killed, wounded or reported missing. Johnson was wounded in the chest, pelvis and right forearm. You can see where his uniform was cut away from his arm. He survived the war and lived until his 90s.”

These men were just some of the thousands of Londoners who were killed or wounded on 1 July 1916. The British Army suffered nearly 60,000 casualties that day, including 19,000 dead. The sheer number of casualties – and the reality of the fighting that caused them – is almost unimaginable for most of us today. One hundred years on, it is worth taking a moment to reflect on the sacrifice made by the nation, its Empire and its allies that day in Picardy.

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Posted by on 1 July 2016 in Ordinary Londoners, War Dead


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News from Jutland

News of the great battles of the Great War took time to reach home. With no instantaneous method of communicating information to the public, information filtered through newspapers, telegrams, letters and rumours. This was true of the lengthy land battles, but also of the shorter naval battle at Jutland on 31 May-1 June 1916. News came through over the next week and it was confusing. There were great losses, but what should be made of the result?

Damage to the HMS Queen Elizabeth, being worked on in dry dock after the battle of Jutland © IWM (Q 23212)

Damage to the HMS Queen Elizabeth, being worked on in dry dock after the battle of Jutland © IWM (Q 23212)

Londoner Georgina Lee was out of town at the time, but her diary gives a good indication of how the news filtered back:

Saturday June 3: There has been a great naval battle in the North Sea, and it was very serious in our losses. With a naval force which included 28 battleships and 5 battle cruisers we attached a powerful German fleet of 34, off the coast of Jutland, with the result that we have lost 3 battleships Queen Mary, Indefatigable and Invincible and several other warships. Over 2,000 men on the Invincible died: there were only 6 survivors.

Sunday June 4: The naval battle was a far bigger affair than anything we dreamt of. In their endeavour to get through our blockade the German High Fleet were frustrated, for they fled back to their ports when they found Sir John Jellicoe with the main fleet coming to the rescue of Admiral Beatty’s cruiser-fleet. By their hasty retreat, when confronted with our Dreadnoughts, they robbed us of the opportunity of another Trafalgar.

Monday June 5: The Battle of Jutland is now being viewed in the light of a British victory, as news comes into the Admiralty of fresh German losses. It is now stated that the Germans lost 18 ships to our 14. This, taken with the fact that the Germans fled back to their harbours and that Jellicoe remained in possession of the high seas, goes to show that our Fleet got the best of the encounter.

Well-connected business-man F.S. Oliver recorded a similar evolution of news from the battle in his letters to his brother. On Saturday 3 June, he commented “We heard abut the Naval Battle last night, but so far I don’t feel that I understand exactly what it amounts to. One thing, however, is quite clear – it will shake up the British people more than anything which has so far occurred in the war. That is a good thing, whatever evil may be done in other directions.” By the 8th, he was criticising the “lily-livered Liberal papers” for scaremongering in their (accurate) reporting that the Royal Navy had suffered greater losses than the German Imperial Navy. Like Mrs Lee, he also alluded the Trafalgar, in this case to demonstrate that the victors in great naval battles did not immediately scuttle off to their ports pursued by the enemy. Thanks to reports of a German victory, he implies, “Saturday was not a very pleasant day in London, neither was Sunday (no place is more unpleasant I think at times of crises and excitement than a nerve centre)… On Monday morning, however, the situation was set out in quite a rosy light.”

Contrary to what Lee and Oliver had heard in the days after the battle, the Germans had in fact lost fewer ships and men during the battle. It is fair to say, though, that it was a success from the British perspective because, as the London County Council’s record of war service puts it “Their [the Germans’] fleet did not continue the contest, but in the darkness of the early morning of 1st June returned to port. Our blockade was maintained, and never again did they venture to dispute our naval supremacy.


One group of people in London who must have longed for news over those days were the families of the sailors involved in the battle. As Mrs Lee’s diary shows, the loss of ships was known quite early on. Families and friends of sailors would have known what ship they were serving on. According to the ‘British Royal Navy & Royal Marines, Battle of Jutland 1916 servicemen transcription‘ some 38,890 men served at Jutland, of whom 4,856 were born in London (presumably not including the areas of Essex, Surrey and Kent that are now in London) and another 360 from Middlesex.

So great were the casualties on 31 May 1916, that the record-keepers made a stamp to mark service records with men's date of death. In this case Benjamin V. Brown from Wapping.

So great were the casualties on 31 May 1916, that the record-keepers made a stamp to mark service records with men’s date of death. In this case Benjamin V. Brown from Wapping.

The WW1 Naval casualty records shows that 5,705 died on 31 May and 1 June 1916, including over 650 from London and Middlesex – a casualty rate of around 12.5%. Among them were William R.C. Wiseman from Peckham, and George Dorling from Shepherd’s Bush, who had worked for the London Fire Brigade before the war.

Acting Leading Stoker William Richard Charles Wiseman of HMS Invincible.

Acting Leading Stoker William Richard Charles Wiseman of HMS Invincible.

George Dorling from Shepherd's Bush, who died on HMS Queen Mary

George Dorling from Shepherd’s Bush, who died on HMS Queen Mary (image posted on IWM Lives of the First World War by Maggie Coleman)

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Posted by on 2 June 2016 in Events, Ordinary Londoners, War Dead


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Heroism and bloodshed behind the lines

As they do today, local newspapers during the Great War liked to run stories of bravery by local people. In 1916, the Middlesex Chronicle told the story of Charles William Jordan’s bravery under fire when he rescued comrade Frederick Moles.

Moles and Jordan were both young men who had joined their local Territorial battalion – the 8th Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment – in the years before the war. They were called up on 5 August 1914. The battalion proceeded to France in September. Both men saw action in 1915, were wounded and sent back to the UK. By early 1916 they were both back with the battalion, serving in “B” Company, which the press describe was the Brentford Company.

Frederick Moles was born in Chiswick in 1894, the son of Eliza Moles and her farm labourer husband Edward. He was the eldest of the couple’s eight surviving children – they had four more sons and three daughters. In May 1913, 18 year old Frederick – working as a van boy in Ealing – joined the 8th Middlesex as a private. After returning to the front after being wounded in 1915, he got into trouble in his unit, being punished with 3 days of Field Punishment No 2 (and 5 days suspension of pay) in June and 10 days of Field Punishment No 1 (the infamous ‘crucifixion’) in mid-November, both the offence of ‘misconduct’.

Charles William Jordan was born in Brentford in 1893, son of Thames lighterman Thomas Jordan and his second wife Mary. Charles was their eldest child and became a doctor’s assistant, his elder half-brother John followed their father as a lighterman. In November 1912, he joined the 8th Battalion. Although the available records don’t say so, it is fair to assume that he also went to France with the battalion in September 1914. In early 1915, he was hit in the head by both a bullet and a piece of shrapnel, after which he spent several months in hospital. He then returned to the front and was promoted to Corporal.

Jordan’s exploits in January 1916 were also recounted in the pages of the Middlesex Chronicle:

“The 1/8th [Battalion] were in Brigade Reserve during the greater past of January… During the last week of their stay, it was a daily occurrence to turn out of the headquarters billet and stand on the safest side, while the enemy’s shells, directed on an object immediately in the rear, missed the building by a few feet each time. The shelling usually commenced as the men were sitting down to a meal, and they got so used to it that it soon seemed to be in the day’s work. On the afternoon of January 22nd the enemy’s shells were dropping all round “B” Company’s billet, and four when right into it.”

Some of the shells hit a nearby house, killing an 18 year old girl and setting fire to the roof – which some of the Middlesex men extinguished. A letter written by Jordan on January 24th picks up the story about the shells that hit the Brentford Company’s billet:

“It was on Saturday last that the Germans started shelling the farm in which we were billeted. The first shell burst in front of the barn; the next one in the doorway, and as soon as this one had burst one of our chaps (Fred Moles of Isleworth) cried out ‘Charlie, I’m hit.’ I ran over to him and managed to get him outside when a shell plonked clean through the roof. I got Fred on to my back and carried him to a safe place, where his wounds were dressed. In the evening, when the shelling had ceased, our officer had the company on parade and told them what I had done. He then called for three cheers for me, and while the boys were giving them I was blushing like a girl.”

Unfortunately, we can’t know who the poor civilian girl was. But we do know what happened to Private Moles and Corporal Jordan. At the end of his letter, Jordan comments that he had been recommended for a medal for his bravery on the 22nd and on other occasions. Presumably this for the Distinguished Conduct Medal, since he comments “As I daresay you know, Sergt. Titcombe has just got his D.C.M. after waiting nine months for it. I hope I don’t have to wait as long for mine.” He was subsequently given a commendation from the commander of 8 Division (which the 8th Middlesex before joining the London Division in February 1916), which was then sent home and displayed in the window of the Globe Portrait Company in Brentford High Street.” Photographic studios often had displays of war-related photos and ephemera, as did some newspaper offices. Jordan did not get the DCM he appears to have expected, but he was promoted to Sergeant and was awarded the Military Medal later in the year (presumably for his actions on and around 22 January, but possibly for later actions). He was later transferred to the Essex Regiment and left the army in 1919. He died in Brentford in 1934.

Sadly, things did not go well for the man he saved in January 1916, who had a severe shrapnel wound in his buttock. Moles was sent to 26th Field Ambulance (attached to 8th Division) and then on to No 2 Casualty Clearing Station at Bailleul. On 28 January, he was operated on at an Australian Hospital at Boulogne (probably No 2 Australian General Hospital) – doctors removed two pieces of shrapnel from his wound. On 9 February, he arrived at No 1 Reading War Hospital, based in then aptly named Battle Hospital.


A ward at No 2 Australian General Hospital at Wimereux. Image (c) Australian War Memorial

On 6 March, he suffered from a secondary haemorrhage from his gluteal artery, which was ended by medical staff applying pressure to his wound. A month later more ‘foreign bodies’ were removed from his wounds. On 12 April, he suffered another haemorrhage, which was temporarily kept at bay but recurred two days later, after which staff gave him stimulants, a saline infusion and transfusion, but to no avail – Frederick Moles died at the age of 22. He was buried soon afterwards in South Ealing cemetery.


Report of death from Fred Moles’s service record

Such stories of bravery and of young lives cruelly ended abound in wartime. Sadly, Charles William Jordan’s bravery in January 1916 did not ultimately save the life of his comrade Fred Moles; nor could the skills of nurses and doctors at the Reading War Hospital.


  • Middlesex Chronicle, 5 February, 1 April and 1 July 1916
  • Long, Long Trail
  • Service records, census and silver war badge record
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Posted by on 1 May 2016 in Uncategorized