The vicars of Sevenoaks and the surrounding district took an active leadership role during the war. The daily life of the churches continued, despite some unavoidable changes, such as the alteration of service times because of the evening curfew. They continued to minister to their congregations and to support all affected by the conflict; burying those who died of their wounds at home and comforting the bereaved. Each congregation was affected by the war and many former members were now serving aboard. A Roll of Honour was compiled and kept in many churches. Vicars also played an active role in encouraging volunteering and spoke at many of the public meetings that were regularly held and, in some cases, their wives did the same and spoke directly to the women of Sevenoaks. It was perhaps inevitable that many of their children served in the army, worked as chaplains or nursed at home, following in the example of their parents.
The Reverend Thompson officiated at St Mary’s Kippington, living with his wife, Lillian Gilchrist Thompson. The couple had three sons, Piers, Austen, and Sidney and two daughters, Vera and Malys. Through the Thompson line they were cousins to the Rector of Sevenoaks, Reverend John Rooker and his wife, Adele nee Thompson. Archdeacon Dunkerley officiated at St John’s and Reverend Septimus Hebert ministered to his parish at nearby Seal.
The boys were educated locally and the 1901 census recorded Sidney Thompson as a pupil at the New Beacon Preparatory School, along with his distant cousins, the Rector’s sons, Guy and (John) Kingsley Rooker. Their fellow pupils included the future war poet Siegfried Sassoon and his younger brother, Hamo, who died in November 1915 in Turkey.
In all, five of the sons of these clergymen who were old enough to do so enlisted in the early days of the war and served for its duration. It was perhaps unusual that from one small town, these five sons of the local clergy were each awarded the Military Cross for various acts of gallantry during the war. The Bishop of Rochester certainly thought so, writing to the Sevenoaks Chronicle in 1918 to highlight “an interesting fact“.
All three of the Thompson brothers who wore the King’s uniform took advantage of the opportunity afforded by the Essenhigh Corke photographic studio, where Henry Essenhigh Corke offered to photograph any serviceman or woman at no charge.
Some decades later, several hundred glass negatives were discovered during works at 43 London Road, one of the buildings used as a studio by Essenhigh Corke. Over five hundred of these negatives are black & white portraits of First World War soldiers of various ranks and regiments. These glass plates, including the images of the Thompson brothers, are now cared for by the Kent History and Library Centre, Maidstone.
Sidney Gilchrist Thompson
Despite his poor health and eyesight, Sidney Gilchrist Thompson obtained his Commission in August 1914 and was gazetted to the West Kent Yeomanry, in which he eventually became a temporary major and then was appointed to the permanent rank of captain. He was sent to France in 1917 attached to the Royal West Kents and was awarded the Military Cross that March.
The citation for Sydney’s award read
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty during an enemy attack. He commanded his Company most successfully, showing fine courage and sound judgement. He was of great assistance to his commanding officer under very difficult circumstances, and throughout set a high example to his men.
His brother, Austen, had passed through the Officer Training Corps at Winchester College and was working as a clerk to a tea broker when he was commissioned to the South Lancashire Regiment in October 1914. The following year he was sent first to France and then on to Salonika, where he was awarded the Military Cross in June 1918.
Austen Thompson wrote home to his parents in 1915 from the front
We have now been in these trenches since Friday, my Platoon is in small dug-outs along the road which goes past British Headquarters, the firing line is just over the ridge. I have got a dug-out which is fairly free from rats. The first night they ate all the food I had in my haversack, also my soap and my candles, the next night I had nothing for them to eat, and so they did not trouble me much. It is not pleasant to have them scrambling overt you and dropping on to you from the roof during the night, but one can get used to anything.
Luckily it is still dry, but cold; we are in a hollow near some trees, so it will be damp later. The snipers are very troublesome – was wounded yesterday by one, but on the whole it I fairly quiet. I marvel at the way the men write to a selection of their relatives every day if they can get the paper, but I find it difficult to emulate them myself.
Piers, Sidney, and Austen Thompson
His brother, Piers, served with the 4th Battalion Royal West Kents and wrote to his parents on 13th January 1916, giving his address as A Tent on the Beach, Egypt.
Behold two sons of the Vicars of Sevenoaks in a tent together, listening to the sea roaring a few yards away, while the wind is whirling half the sands of Egypt against the tent walls. When I landed a terrible thing happened; my baggage suddenly vanished while I was collecting a few last things on the boat, and I was in despair that I would never see again the kit which we chose with such care and thought. However, after spending two days, and a fabulous sum in cab fares – I at last found it.
This place is a sort of Home for Lost Dogs; all men coming out of hospital, or from home, come here for a while before re-joining their units. I am 2nd in command of a Company, and the parades and the work are very much the same as in England.
Sidney, Piers, and Austen Thompson
It was Cecil Dunkerley who took shelter with Piers Thompson in that tent in Egypt. He had been a member of the Cambridge University OTC and served first as a Lieutenant with 2/4th Royal West Kent Regiment and was later Captain with the Welch Divisional Staff. Like the others, Cecil won the MC and went on to serve as Deputy Assistant Provost Marshal in Egypt and entered Jerusalem with Lord Allenby. His Military Cross appeared in the London Gazette on 16th August 1917, according to the citation
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. After all the gun crews of a tank had become casualties he ascertained how to work the gun, and kept up fire during the withdrawal of the tank, thus preventing further counter-attacks on the part of the enemy. He displayed great gallantry and resource at a critical moment.
In July 1917, the Sevenoaks Chronicle reported that the Rector’s son, Guy Rooker, of the Divisional Signal Company in the Indian Army Reserve, was said to have been involved in heavy fighting on the North West Frontier. A telegram later reached the Rectory informing his parents that he had been wounded but was recovering well in hospital.
The Rector’s other, son, Kingsley, had been at the front for a year before he was appointed ADC to General Kelly, who commanded 69th Division East Anglian Division based at Thetford. He was subsequently Assistant Provost Marshal at Rouen and was transferred at his own request to the Machine Gun Corps. In autumn 1917 he was in England undertaking training in Lincolnshire . At the same time, his brother, now recovered from his injuries, was heading to Mesopotamia, having sent the previous three years in India.
Kingsley Rooker was awarded the MC
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty during an evening attack. He displayed the utmost coolness under intense shell and machine gun fire, and gave the greatest confidence to his gun teams, and together with some infantry, held his position with great gallantry. He was finally wounded.
Reverend Hebert’s son, Bernard Theodore Martyn Hebert, a Lieutenant in the Welsh Guards, was awarded his MC for
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in remaining in charge of his platoon though wounded, superintending the relief, and taking out a wiring party and started them to work. He then returned to company headquarters in a fainting condition.
While all of the sons of the vicars of Sevenoaks were fortunate to survive the war, the Vicar of Kippington’s nephew, Arnold Bosanquet Thompson, was killed in the Dardanelles on Christmas Day 1915 and a memorial plaque was unveiled at St Mary Kippington in September 1917.
After the war
Two of these clergymen’s sons followed their father’s example; Cecil Dunkerley was ordained and lived until 1978. His son, Flying Officer Michael Dunkerley was shot down and killed over France in November 1943.
Reverend Cecil Dunkerley
Bernard Hebert was also ordained and lived until 1976 when he died in Wiltshire. His brother Reverend Arthur Gabriel Hebert had served as a chaplain with the YMCA during the war.
Austen was the first of the Thompson brothers to die, being killed in a motor accident in Canada, where he had emigrated, in 1941. After the war his brother, Piers, was briefly a Member of Parliament for the Liberal party in the 1920s. He died in 1969. Sidney lived on until 1985, when he died in Tunbridge Wells.
Of the Rooker brothers, Kingsley had a distinguished career which included working with Duff Cooper as a counsellor at the British Embassy in Paris during the Second World War and was at one point the British minister to the Gaullist National Committee. Kingsley Rooker was appointed to the Order of the British Empire in the Honours List of January 1945 in respect of his war work. He died in 1951. His brother, Guy died in 1964 in Hampshire.
Having survived the war, there is no memorial to the bravery of these men in Sevenoaks but their stories deserve to be remembered and I would be very pleased to hear from anyone with further information on any of these men.
My thanks to Robert Illingworth and Elizabeth Finn at the Kent History and Library Centre, Maidstone, for information and permission to reproduce images from the Essenhigh Corke collection.