For gallantry and devotion to duty: five sons of the Sevenoaks clergy

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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Fifty years on – veterans remember

Half a century ago, the fiftieth anniversary of the First World War prompted many veterans to remember their wartime service or to recall life at home during the conflict. Fortunately, some of these memories have been preserved as the Sevenoaks Chronicle reported the thoughts of these veterans as they either returned to Sevenoaks where they had once been garrisoned, or looked back to their boyhoods to a time when thousands of soldiers were stationed in the town, along with many wounded at the local VAD hospitals, as well as refugees from Belgium.

Fifty years after he had been stationed in Sevenoaks as a Private with 5th Battalion King’s Own Royal Lancashire Regiment, between November 1914 and February 1914, Harry Burrow returned to Sevenoaks. Harry was interviewed by the Chronicle during his visit and said

Sevenoaks was utterly familiar. I booked into the famous Royal Oak Hotel and it had many of it 1914 qualities. Sevenoaks was still full of riches and Granville Road was no exception. At the junction with Eardley Road, recognisable to me at once, were the two detached houses commandeered for our battalion HQ and Quarter-Master stores. Down at Tubs Hill, to my delight, I found the Elite. This was the local flea pit, a small music hall.

On Thursday nights the local talent tried out its stuff. Entrance was 2d for men in uniform. The stage was still there but the laughing legion of the 5th King’s Own had long since dissolved. On the other side of Tubs Hill station I found Holyoake Terrace and to reach it I drove over the main bridge where we had assembled on the bleak, historic, wet and cold St Valentine’s Day 1915 to embark for France. At Knole Park, all I could do was peer in the gates and see again in flashback our battalion in trench digging practice. Little did I know that within a few months this was to become a stern reality.

In 1914 the main shopping street was full of dignified horse and carriage trade and urbanity. Now much of that personality was lost. The Shambles area retained its antiquity and I was delighted to find the pavilion band stand on the Vine had not changed. I was swept back to a Sunday afternoon where we sat expectantly in the gardens, a great concourse of khaki figures, when a lady mounted the platform. She wore a flimsy hat and, to our delight, Lancastrian red roses on her bosom. In a moment she slipped into the rousing, emotionally, recruiting song that was sweeping the country. A thousand cheers, a thousand pair of clapping hands, a thousand hearts wishing she would do the kissing now. And then her encore, ‘you made me love you, I didn’t want to do it’. She was Mrs Reubens, someone said, the wife of Paul Reubens, the composer.

John Edward Smith was featured in the Sevenoaks Chronicle in 1966 in his workshop at the foot of Wickenden Road. A local resident and a gunmaker during the war, he was also best man at the wedding of the parents of future Prime Minister, Edward Heath.

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John Smith with son, Leslie, in his workshop

Smith worked at Woolwich Arsenal during the war, where he was in charge of a giant steam hammer, which could be adjusted so closely that it would come down on a watch placed on the anvil without breaking the glass. “I used to do it regularly. When the hammer fell, you couldn’t pull the watch out, but the glass was still intact”.

Smith bored 100ft long gun barrels for naval vessels. When the Zeppelin raids came he would climb into a barrel and wait until the bombing as over. “There was never a safer air raid shelter”. He recalled seeing Zeppelins brought down at Potters Bar, Cuffley and Billericay and was closeby when the Silvertown ammunition dump blew up.

Frederick Charles Zealey returned to Sevenoaks from further afield, having emigrated to Australia in 1920. Zealey was born in 1904 at the Limes, St John’s where his father was a well known builder. He attended Cobden Road School before graduating to the school at nearby Bayham Road. Although too young to enlist himself, his brother, Arthur William Zealey (1894 – 1960) served as a corporal with the West Kent Yeomanry and was stationed in India.

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Frederick recalled his memories of wartime Sevenoaks, writing for the Sevenoaks Chronicle that

I can remember when the firm of Quinnells, the removalists and contractors had a traction engine which pulled vans and wagons through the town, in 1911 – the Coronation year.

This engine and three open wagons, all covered in bunting took all the school children up through the town to Knole Castle (sic) where we had a picnic on the green in front of the castle.

I also remember Mr H Hill, the baker at St John’s, with his bread cart and blind white pony – also Mr Kipps, the butcher, with his butcher’s carts and his piebald pony Tetratch It used to pull a governess cart or trap around the town, and in it would be Mr and Mrs Kipps, their daughter, and son George, who was killed in World War One.

Intriguingly, Zealey continued

I have a photo of the men of the Royal West Kent Regiment on the Tubs Hill Station, waiting for the train to France on about August 4, 1914. Sevenoaks in those days became a garrison town for troops, and many were in billets and empty houses. Regiments such as the Loyal North Lancashires, Yorkshires, and King’s Own were stationed in Sevenoaks. I attended the unveiling of the war memorial at the Vine after the war.

 

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Bat & Ball from Zealey’s own photographs

The old cinema was opened before World War One and the prices listed in the Sevenoaks Courier were listed as twopence a seat for children and nice plush seats for 6d and 9d and 1s for the gallery. There used to be a pianist to play and sometimes a violinist. You could hear us roar the house down at Charlie Chaplin, Steve Hart, Broncho Bill, John Bunny, and Flo Finch, and other old time film actors.

We used to play in the old Oast House or hop kiln opposite the cinema, long since pulled down.

I’d be very pleased to hear from anyone related to these men, especially if any photographs from the time are still in their possession.

 

 

Echoes across the century – a memorial for William Goss Hicks

An exhibition at the Guildhall Art Gallery in the City of London is telling the story of local man, William Goss Hicks, who died as a result of his wounds on 3rd July 1917. The exhibition has been curated by artist Jane Churchill, a Great Great Niece of Hicks, and Alison Truphet. Based on Hicks’ life and drawing on family documents and his romance with fiancée, Jessie Ellman, Jane has worked with City livery companies and local school children to produce a moving chronicle of her uncle’s life, including many creative responses to the story from the children. The exhibition features over 600 objects through which real and imagined tales are told through heritage artefacts and reactive ‘response’ artworks.

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This Monday, 3rd July, on the anniversary of his death, family and local residents remembered Second Lieutenant William Goss Hicks at St Nicholas, the church where, with his fine singing voice, he was a member of the choir and helped run the Sunday School. Children from Lady Boswell’s School and scouts from the 1st Sevenoaks (Hicks Own)  took part to remember their former headmaster.

William Goss Hicks was born in 1882 in Fulham, the son of William, a footman and then butler at Eton College and his wife, Mary.

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Second Lieutenant William Goss Hicks

260th Siege Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery

In 1881, the family were living on Chipstead Lane, with William senior now working as a butler at Knole. The 1901 census, shows William Goss Hicks  living with his mother and sisters at 1, Surrey Villas, Sevenoaks and working as a teacher. This arrangement continued to 1911 with the family now living at 8, High Street.

William had joined the staff of the Lady Boswell’s School in 1898 as an assistant teacher and by the outbreak of war had risen to become its Headmaster. He is credited with having brought the new scouting movement to Sevenoaks and would have been well known to many of the other men who are remembered on the Sevenoaks war memorial, such as Ernest Chatfield, Arnold Jarvis and George Marshall, as their former teacher or scout master.

Hicks was a popular figure; on his last leave home, he was spotted by his former scouts and pupils and carried shoulder high through the town.

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Hicks, on right of group

He was an active member of the congregation at St Nicholas, and a long standing member of it’s choir. After his death, the Sevenoaks Chronicle carried an appreciation of him by Reverend J Rooker, Rector of St Nicholas

He was amazingly brave and smiling quite up to the last”, wrote the chaplain in a letter to the parents, the words brought up to one’s mind the picture of Mr Hicks as he always was. bright, alert and cheery, with a breezy swinging carriage, he moved about his boys and friends as one who rejoiced in life, and wanted others to share his joy…When the war broke out he was in some doubt as to his duty. It was at my request he waited, for I put it to him that while many could fight, few could teach. But as the war went on he felt he must go and it was plainly his duty. He joined the R.F.A and had rough times but was always cheery. When he came home there were no complaints, but he was full of fun about his adventures. Then he applied for a commission and was gazetted a Lieutenant in the R.G.A. It was not long after that he went out to France. His letters were still buoyant and hopeful – even when he got up to the line…

Lieutenant Hicks was in charge of the Battery on Monday 2nd July. A German shell came over and struck him. He was removed to the clearing station but the loss of blood was great. Transfusion was tried and it is a witness to his popularity that many men offered to give their blood to him. The operation was tried and he seemed to rally. It was only temporary, however, and about mid-day on the Tuesday he began to collapse and died about half past four. He knew he was dying but was quite happy. He left messages for those he loved and thanked all who had been kind to him, and passed away smiling”.

William Hicks was buried in the Barlin Communal Cemetery Extension, France.

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Voces8 perform at the memorial

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Local schoolchildren performed wartime songs

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A wreath to remember William beneath his memorial plaque

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Local Scout leaders and former members of Hicks Own

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William’s niece, Jean, remembers her uncle

For King and Country – a memorial to the sons of Henry Forster MP

By 1914, Henry William Forster had been the MP for Sevenoaks for twenty two years, holding the seat from 1892. A Deputy Lieutenant of Kent he went on to serve as Financial Secretary to the War Office from 1915. Forster had married his wife, Rachel, daughter of the 1st Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, in 1890 and the couple had four children, John, Alfred Henry, Rachel and Emily.

Henry Forster later became MP for Bromley in 1918 and was ennobled in 1920 becoming 1st Baron Forster of Lepe in Southampton. From 1920 until 1925 he  served as Governor General of Australia before returning home to live at Exbury House until his death in 1936 aged sixty nine.

Forster’s eldest son, John, was born on 13th May 1893 and was gazetted as a Second Lieutenant in the King’s Royal Rifles on 3rd September 1913.

In the early days of the war the fact that the son of the local Member of Parliament was already at the front was mentioned several times at public recruitment meetings in Sevenoaks, to demonstrate that the sons of the politicians and the gentry were already ‘doing their bit’.

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Second Lieutenant John Forster

John Forster was killed in the early hours of 14th September 1914 during the First Battle of the Aisne. His battalion had been ordered to advance to the plateau of Troyon and dig in.  They went forward in bad weather and when they reached the crest, were unable to continue further and found themselves pinned down by enemy fire coming from the occupied sugar factory at the crossroads above Troyon.

John’s death was reported in the Sevenoaks Chronicle, along with a letter that had been written to his parents

“I ought to have written before about your dear brave Jack, but I was shot through the head the same day and it has been impossible. He died like the gallant English gentleman that he was, leading his men at a critical time when men wanted leading. He was shot right through the head and never recovered. He was my best and brightest officer under all the most trying circumstances and his men all adored him – as of course we all did”.

“The circumstances were as follows:

Our Battalion was ordered out in advance of the Division to occupy some high ground and hold it while the Division passed. We were just getting up to the top at 4 a.m., when, at a point where the space between us and the top was almost perpendicular, we suddenly found ourselves being fired at in the dark by hundreds of Germans, who were firing right down on us as if we were in a rat-pit, so to speak. We had to force our way up to the top of the hill, and when we arrived there we found ourselves confronted by a strong force of Germans, entrenched with machine guns in position, and only 200 yards off. We remained there all day under a heavy shell and rifle fire”.

 “It was a terrible day for our Battalion. By mid-day there were only six Company officers left. We lost 15 officers out of 24 and 283 men. These heavy losses were mostly caused by those dirty Germans holding up their hands in token of surrender and then opening fire on us when we got within 20 yards of their trenches. I am so very sorry about your son, He was a first-class officer and a great favourite with his brother officers as well as his N.C.O’s and men”

John’s brother, Alfred Henry was born on 7th February, 1898 and educated at Winchester College before attending the Royal Military College, Sandhurst. He was commissioned in the 2nd Dragoons Guards (Royal Scots Greys) in July 1916.

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Lieutenant Alfred Henry Forster

Alfred was sent to France the following February and was promoted to Lieutenant on 19th January, 1918. On 17th October 1918 he was seriously wounded near Le Cateau and transferred to the Gerstley-Hoare Hospital for Officers at 53 Cadogan Square, Belgravia, London, where he spent five months before dying of his wounds on 10th March 1919.

While at the hospital, Alfred became friends with fellow patient, the sculptor Cecil Thomas (1885-1976). After Alfred’s death, Lord and Lady Forster commissioned Thomas to design the remarkable memorial to John and his brother, which is in the church of St Katherine at Exbury in the New Forest. The bronze figure was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1924 and a model is held by the Victoria and Albert Museum.

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Memorial to the Forster brothers at St Katherine’s, Exbury

All images ©Come Step Back in Time

The memorial, which displays a recumbent figure of Alfred, is inscribed

To the glory of god and in loving memory of their two sons John and Alfred who gave their lives for king and country in the Great War 1914 -1918 this monument is erected by Lord and Lady Forster of Lepe.

There is a similar memorial in the church of All Hallows-by-the-Tower, London. It was Lord Forster’s wish that this would not be a personal memorial but one to all those who had died. There are similar memorials at the church of St John, Southend and in Newcastle Cathedral, Australia.

There is also a memorial plaque to John Forster at the church in Exbury.

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Memorial plaque to John Forster

All images ©Come Step Back in Time

The Forster family had previously lived at Southend Hall in Lewisham (now demolished) and Lord Forster donated the land for Forster Memorial Park near Catford in memory of his sons and the park was opened by his daughter, Dorothy, in 1922.

The brothers are also remembered at their schools and in the parliamentary books of remembrance at Westminster.

 

All images of the Forster memorial are reproduced with kind permission by ©Come Step Back in Time

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Letters home – ‘The Full Story of the Arethusa by a Sevenoaks Jack Tar’

In the early weeks of the war, a number of men from Sevenoaks who were by then in training or already on active service, wrote to the Sevenoaks Chronicle with tales of their exploits. One of the first to do so was Thomas Porter. Thomas was born in Sevenoaks in 1891, the son of Thomas Porter and his wife, Ellen. The 1911 census showed Thomas as aged twenty four, living at 13, Redman Place, High Street, Sevenoaks, with his parents and four of his siblings.

Thomas’s letters are accounts of his time as a Stoker on the Arethusa during the Battle of Heligoland Bight, the first naval battle of the war, which was fought on the 28th August 1914.

Thomas had joined the Royal Navy on 6th August 1909, for the usual period of twelve years. At the time of his joining up he was working as a plumber and his papers show that he was nearly 5’4 tall, with a fresh complexion, brown eyes and hair. Thomas served on a number of ships before joining the Arethusa. From 1909 he was part of the crew of nine ships including the Pembroke, Agamenon, and Blenheim. He was promoted Acting Stoker while still with the Arethusa in January 1915 but left the ship that March and continued to serve with the Navy until October 1919 when, as Leading Stoker, he was invalided out of the service with his character having been ‘Very Good’ throughout.

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Thomas’s first letter in the Sevenoaks Chronicle

Thomas wrote two letters that were published, the first to his mother, the second to the Sevenoaks Chronicle. He tries to strike a reassuring tone in the letter to his mother

Don’t worry over me as I am as safe as ‘houses’. Since I said goodbye to Dad and the boys, I have been in the thick of the war and thank God for that. He has spared me to come back. We were in the great battle of Heligoland and I am sorry to say we have eleven killed and two wounded. We were engaged in the battle for six hours and our ship sunk four German cruisers, eight submarines and two torpedo destroyers. You talk about the charge of the Light Brigade, it was not in it. Now no more. We had a very rough time so now I will close. I have a lot to tell you when I write again, so goodbye, I remain, your loving son, Tom.

The second letter was published the following week billed as the Full Story of the Arethusa by a Sevenoaks Jack Tar.

This is an account of the great battle of Heligoland. I am just writing as I was an eye witness. It was a sight I shall never forget. We had only been in commission a week. We left on the Thursday from Harwich to try and decoy the skulkers out into the North Sea.

My captain told us the night before we went into action that we were going to have a rub at them sometime next morning. We were steaming all night long without lights, which was a very dangerous job, as there were forty seven destroyers of the British and two 2nd class cruisers about – the Arethusa and HMS Fearless. Well, all went well until about 7 o’clock next morning, and then we were at it.

There was a black fog all around us, but we were not more than three miles off the big forts of Heligoland, and we could see the German destroyers coming to meet us. But we had no idea we were going to meet cruisers. We opened fire on them and of course they retaliated and we had not been in action more than 20 minutes when we sunk one of their destroyers. Yes! Our boats peppered it into them. Then all of a sudden we saw a big cruiser coming towards us, so of course we had to do our best. I had just come off watch, and the fog was still very black, and as I came on deck a terrible sight I saw. Dead and wounded all around me, and the shells of the Germans still bursting over our heads. But we had to stick it. I did my best. I gave a hand with the wounded but I could not see a stretcher, and so I picked up a piece of old canvas, carried two poor chaps to sick bay in it, and back I came.

We came out of action and we had not been out about half an hour when our skipper sighted another two cruisers of the enemy, so of course we had to face the music once more. And this time we all thought it was all up with us, as we were badly damaged. We had our gunners shot away from their guns like nine-pins, and others came up to take their places and then we had four guns out of action, but we had two or three to carry on with, as we meant to fight until the last. Then all of a sudden we sighted the cruisers and battle cruisers of our own Fleet coming to our assistance. It was a Godsend, because we were hit badly below the waterline. We could only steam 20 knots then, as our engines had nearly been put out of action, and afterwards we had to be towed home to Bonny England by the cruiser Hague, and when we got to Sheerness we did get a “chuck-up” by the lads on the battleships.

Mr Churchill came aboard and had a look over our ship to see the damage and to look at our poor lads who had fallen in the battle. After all we went through, it was a marvel to come out of it all. And last of all I must tell you that our captain told us that we had all done our duty and the next time we went in action he hoped we would put our trust in him as we had put our trust in us. We are going to have another out later on to see if we can make some more of them come out and go under.

Apart from a brief reference to Thomas when his brother George was mentioned in the Sevenoaks Chronicle, I haven’t yet been able to find further reference to him, either during the war or after. On 21st September 1917, in its regular ‘Our Boys’ column, George Porter was mentioned as a Sapper in the Royal Engineers home on leave from his current base at Canterbury. According to the brief article, George’s brother Ernest was serving with the Kent Cyclists while Tom was noted as being ‘for some time on board the Arethusa when she did saucy things in the North Sea’.

This short but detailed piece was the first account of any Sevenoaks man who had experienced combat to be published and read by local people.

All of the Porter brothers appear to have survived the war but there was one wartime casualty in the family with the death of their sister, Clarice May Cross nee Porter  (1892-1918). In its report of her burial, the Chronicle reported that Clarice had died of blood poisoning in hospital in Folkestone. Her obituary noted briefly that Clarice had worked in a munitions factory during the war ‘and there contracted the disease of which she died’. Clarice was buried in the cemetery at St Nicholas and left behind her husband, Clarence, and baby daughter, Clarice, who was just a few weeks old.

Another of Thomas’s sisters, Elsie Nellie (1886-1975) married Charlie Draper, the soldier whom I wrote about in my post Remember Me 

As ever, I would be very interested to hear from anyone with further information regarding this local family, at least four of whom served either abroad or on the home front.

 

Searching for the Sevenoaks airmen

There are five men who served with the Royal Flying Corps named on the Sevenoaks war memorial: Bernard Vernon Gordon, George Walford, Nimrod King, Thomas Sillis and George Walford.

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Tom Silliss

Bernard Gordon’s brother, Cedric Foskett Gordon went on to serve with the RFC as an observer after losing a leg whilst serving with the North Staffordshire regiment. We know a lot about the Gordon family as their archive, especially Cedric’s letters of that period survive. Just over a week before Bernard’s death, Cedric wrote to his younger brother who was then in training:

9 December, letter to 2nd Lieut BV Gordon at the Aerodrome, Cramlington.

How are you getting on?   I am glad you have got over your Preliminary part.   I hope you still like flying.   What sort of a pilot are you turning out to be?   How long will it probably be before you get your wings?   Life out here in the Winter is pretty dull.   I have only been up twice in the last 3 weeks & there is nothing to do.   They have just started quite a decent officers’ club here.   I am going there for dinner tonight.   We have been having dreadfully dud weather here.   Not much chance of it clearing up ‘till about April.   A Hun who was out on a night bombing raid lost his way & landed about 2 miles from here 3 nights ago.   He only broke his prop. so he did pretty well. There was a great soccer match this afternoon.   There is quite a lot of footer out here;  I wish I could play & the fellows who can play don’t want to!   We have got a very good aerodrome here.   The Hun prisoners have made a good job of it.   There have been one or two very good concert parties down this way lately & there is to be a boxing show on this week.   You ought to try boxing one day, it’s quite good fun & very good exercise.   Let me know if I can do anything for you.   Who have you got as your Sqdn Commander & Flight Commanders?   Nice people I hope.    There are a lot of blighters in the Corps.   Well, very best of luck.   Cheerho.

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Bernard Vernon Gordon

Bernard was killed, aged 18, in an aircraft crash near Newcastle on 14 December, his 13th Solo sortie.

The exploits of other local RFC men were often reported in the Sevenoaks Chronicle but I am very keen to hear from anyone who might be able to shed more light on our airmen and their stories.

Ernest Horncastle was one such man. A son of Walter Horncastle, a tailor based in the High Street (a family business which still operates today), Ernest was born in Sevenoaks in 1890.  Aged twenty three and at 6’1  and in good health, he enlisted in August 1914 and soon received a temporary commission with the Royal Field Artillery, arriving in France that December. After a few months he was attached to the Royal Flying Corps Balloon Section. In August 1917 the Sevenoaks Chronicle reported that Ernest

…has seen some very stiff work and had some thrilling experiences.

By 1916, Ernest was suffering from shell shock and fever and spent a period of five weeks on leave at home. A Medical Board report concluded that his illness was due to active service and that he ‘is very neurotic and complaining of subjective symptoms’.

Ernest recovered well enough to return to service and continued until early 1918 when he was diagnosed with bronchitis and neurasthenia and was sent to hospital before returning home on leave to England. A Medical Board held in that March noted that his bronchitis had cleared but that he still suffered from muscular pains and other symptoms.

The medical officer’s opinion was that

He has done a good deal of active service. It is highly probable that his nerve for flying is failing or has done so. He is otherwise perfectly well.

In fact, by this time, Ernest had clocked up over 150 hours flying. The board concluded that Ernest should return to some duty, in order for his ‘mind to be distracted from himself’.

(he) leads an ordinary life of pleasure and enjoyment and takes plenty of exercise. He has greatly improved in every way since admission.

Ernest survived the war and lived until 1964.

Another Ernest, a brother of soldier Leonard Brooker who is remembered on the town war memorial, initially served with the Royal Engineers.

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Ernest Brooker

The Sevenoaks Chronicle reported in September 1917 that Ernest

is engaged in wireless telegraphy work. He has been in France eighteen months and finds his work pleasurable.

A chemist before the war, Ernest joined the RFC and survived the war but was tragically killed in a motor accident in 1929.

Horace Owen was born in 1890, he son of local councillor, Richard and his wife, Laura.

Initially joining the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve,  Horace later transferred to be the Flying Corps, where he served as a Temporary Lieutenant.

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Horace William Owen

The Chronicle reported in early 1917 that Horace had only recently left Sevenoaks to commence his duties in France as a member of the RFC and went missing after his first flight. After weeks of uncertainty, a letter from Horace arrived home informing his parents that he was now a prisoner of war and had been shot down while flying. Horace had been captured on 28th March 1917 and was repatriated on 14th January 1919. He lived on until 1969.

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Ivan Hart Davies

Ivan Hart Davies (1878-1917), had been  a schoolmaster at the Beacon School in Sevenoaks and counted Siegfried Sassoon amongst his pupils. Himself the son of a vicar, he also taught the sons of the Rector of St Nicholas and  the Rev. Thompson of St Mary, Kippington. Hart Davies had left the school by the time of his death, which was reported in The Times

Lieutenant Ivan Beauclerk Hart-Davies, RFC, who was killed in an aeroplane accident in England was the son of the late Rev John Hart-Davies of Southam Rectory, Warwickshire and was 39 years of age. He was educated at a school at Maidenhead and at King’s School, Canterbury, and began life as a schoolmaster at New Beacon, Sevenoaks. Afterwards, however, he worked up a wide life insurance and motor insurance business in the Midlands. He held the “end-to-end” “record” for motor cycles and light cars, and in 1913, with three other motorcyclists, won the Murren Cup, though none of the four had done any bobsleighing before. He took to flying before the war as an amateur, but last year he obtained a commission in the RFC and was on the eve of going to the front. A brother officer writes ‘A gallant fellow who we all liked immensely, and are deeply grieved that he should have been fatally injured when he so much wished to go to France, where doubtless he would have won honours’.

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Harry Watson Durtnell

Harry Watson Durtnell was a scion of the Durtnell family of Brasted, builders since the reign of Elizabeth I. Harry was a cousin of Richard Neville Durtnell who was killed in action in 1917. Initially serving with the Welch regiment, Harry later transferred to serve with the RFC. He survived the war, living until 1971.

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Frederick Whyntie

Fred Whyntie was the brother of Jack Whyntie, whom I recently wrote about. Like his brother, Fred survived the war but died in 1937 aged 48. His grandson, Adrian Whyntie, told me that the family believed his health had suffered by his job of ‘applying aircraft dope to the fabric. This damaged his lungs badly, which resulted in his early death’.

Many other local men served with the RFC at all levels in the new service. John Potter  had worked with his father for five years in the Blacksmiths Forge at Knole and had joined the army in November 1916 aged 19. Putting his training to good use,  the Sevenoaks Chronicle reported that he had been selected for ‘flying machines repair work’ and was employed in the Royal Naval Flying Corps workshops.

Little is known about Howard Reeder Daws (1898-1969) beyond this excellent photo of him and I’d be very pleased to hear from relatives of any of these men and those listed below whose service is mentioned only briefly in local papers.

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Howard Reeder Daws

Sevenoaks airmen mentioned in the Chronicle
Capt Nevill Hudson
Lieut Halliday
Lieut A Sargent

Air Mechanic Charlie Bassett
Air Mechanic George Dawson
Air Mechanic A Diamond
Air Mechanic Anthony Holmden
Air Mechanic Charlie Martin
Air Mechanic Arthur Terrry
Air Mechanic Frank Thorogood
First Class Air Mechanic B Frank Townsend
Second Air Mechanic Gordon A Waters

Private S Brazier
George Dawson
Private Harrington
Lionel Hicks
Private W Hoadley
Private Charlie Martin
Corporal R Morris
Private Rich
T E Weller

Air Mechanic (First Class) E C House, RNAS
Bernard Sears RNAS
Arthur Smithurst RNAS
F W Weller, RNAS

 

 

Mollie’s story, ‘My father was a conscientious objector’

When I wrote about conscientious objectors in Sevenoaks earlier this year, I tried to convey a sense of how the men who objected and their families were viewed and treated in the town but any personal testimony was difficult to find. In the last week, I have been extremely lucky to find exactly what I was looking for in a book of reminiscences from Somerset.

Mollie Wren was born Ivy Florence Tester in 1912 in Sevenoaks to George Tester (1883-1962) and Emma nee Banfield (18881-1960). Known as Mollie, she married Philip Wren and later in life moved to Somerset. In the early 1990’s, Mollie, along with several other elderly women living in the Winsham area, talked about her childhood memories in an initiative run by the South Somerset Reminiscence Project, the results of which were published, with several of Mollie’s family photos included. Mollie died in 1996 and the couple do not appear to have had any children. Fortunately, her memories are clear and evocative of the challenges her family faced as a result of her father’s stance, as the family were abused, ignored and faced financial hardship.

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George Tester and Emma Banfield on their wedding day

The 1911 census shows Mollie’s parents, George and Emma, living at 13, St Botolph’s Road with their son, George Albert (1906-1994) with George recorded as a builder. The family were active members of the Vine Baptist Church. By 1916 the family had moved to Cedar Villa, Cedar Terrace and, that June, George was mentioned in the Sevenoaks Chronicle in its report on the proceedings of the  local Military Tribunal. The paper noted that George

wanted to save life rather than take it, but did not object to non-combatant service, to which he was referred.

George’s military records show that he was thirty three and a half, five feet tall, and working as a painter when he subsequently  enrolled with the Non Combatant Corps in July 1916. That December, George was working at Newhaven when he was charged with disobeying a lawful command given to him by an officer while on active service. He was tried by court martial and sentenced to be detained at Wormwood Scrubs.

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The family at Seaford Cliffs

Mollie recalled this these events in a number of interviews that were edited and published in 1995.

Father said no, he wasn’t going to fight. He just simply believed Thou Shalt Not Kill. He was sent with a lot of others to Seaford Cliffs to load food ships for the troops. He continued with that until they wanted him to load firearms. They all refused. So then we was sent to Lewes gaol and court-martialled. He was tried by Lord Salisbury, who was sympathetic to conscientious objectors. Even so, he sent my father to Wandsworth prison for a year in solitary confinement, and then to Dartmoor Prison for two years and seven months.

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George (third right) in the workshop at Wormwood Scrubs

As a family, we were ostracised. I remember walking hand in hand with mother along St John’s Road. Two men, up ladders, shouted something abusive at my mother. She gripped my hand tightly and hurried me away. Father had said mother must continue to go to the Baptist church, although no-one spoke to her. I remember walking up the aisle to our pew, which was halfway up the church. My mother held my hand tightly.

A couple of teachers at Sevenoaks Council School were horrible to me because my dad had been a conscientious objector. They felt very strongly.

As my father was a conscientious objector, my mother had no government pay, and in the end she was virtually penniless. One night she knelt at the armchair by the cold grate in the kitchen, and prayed to God to help her. Even as she prayed the front door rattled, and she heard something put through the letterbox. She went through the passage and there was an envelope on the mat. No letter in it, but a five pound note, which in those days was a great deal of money. Mother never forgot this, and she always used to quote me afterwards: The barrel of meal shall not waste, neither shall the cruse of oil fail. And it never did. Finally, kind people came to their senses and brought Mother sewing. She was extremely able. People would bring their sewing on the quiet to start with, but at least it came.

Lord Mons (actually Robert Mond of Combe Bank), who lived at Sundridge Place, gave Home Farm over as a convalescent home for wounded officers and their batmen. Mother became the sewing woman here. Her eldest sister, Fanny, became cook-housekeeper, and my uncle became head cowman.

There was no shortage of food there, despite the war. My aunt was a typical cook of that generation: a large lady in a blue-print dress and snow-white apron, with her lovely hair brushed back. I can see her now, standing at the kitchen table with enormous tin plates covered in pastry, and a gallipot of jam clasped to her bosom, ladling jam onto these plates. Then they were cut in six for the wounded soldiers. They loved her pastry.

Not only was  I spoiled by my aunt, but by the soldiers, I walked out with them in the country lanes and into Sundridge village, where they bought me sweets. A lot of them were married and had children of their own.

There was a great bronze gong hanging on a stand and a stick with a leather ball at the top, I loved sloshing this gong. The soldiers tried to teach me how to work up a real crescendo, but I was too little. I just loved banging it! On Sundays we went to Chevening church in a horse brake, which had seats on either side. There was I, in the middle of all these soldiers, going off to church!

There was one ward for the batmen, and the officers were in another. I remember the long rows of beds and red blankets. One particular officer was very fond of me, and when he was he dying asked to see me. Mother carried me upstairs and told me to be good. We went in with the Matron. I remember being sat on the bed. He held my hand, and his hand was very hot. I remember that clearly but no more. 

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Mollie and her ‘particular officer’ at Combe Bank

In 1916, my mother took in a lodger, a Miss Bunting. This lady was a brilliant dressmaker. She’d been very adventurous and gone off to Russia and become one of the Tsarina’s court dressmakers. When the Revolution was boiling up, she fled home quickly. One night she tapped at the bedroom door and said, ‘Mrs Tester, you must come quickly! You must see this!’. My mother picked me up out of the cot, wrapped a shawl round me and carried me into her bedroom, which had a wonderful view over the North Downs. And there was this airship going along, a German airship. It had caught fire: it was blazing as it went along. I remember my mother murmuring over my head, ‘Poor souls, poor souls!’.

Father wasn’t released from Dartmoor until 1919. I was seven. Mother couldn’t go to the station to meet him after that separation, so my brother and I went. I remember running round the garden picking a bunch of flowers. It was perfectly ridiculous: I was going to meet this unknown ‘Dad’. I remember getting to the station, and a cloud of steam; and out of it came this man whom my brother rushed to, because he remembered him. Then I remember being crushed, flowers and all, against this man. When we got to the garden gate, Mother, who had been standing watching in the sitting-room window, came to the front door. Father went in, and I was going to prance in after, but my brother hung on to the back of my frock and took me round the garden. He was more sensitive that for just a little while they wanted to be alone.

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George senior, George and Mollie after the war

George Tester lived on until 1962, surviving his wife, Emma, by two years. His own mother, Martha Tester nee Letchford (1845-1946) lived to see her 101st birthday. Interestingly, she had been born at Chatham Barracks where her own father, Frederick Letchford (1806-1887) was Colour Sergeant with (according to the Sevenoaks Chronicle) ‘the old 50th regiment, known as the Blind Half Hundred’. He had been born in Sevenoaks in the house which eventually became a pub, The Halfway House, and at one point, home to Charlie Draper the subject of a recent post.

Mollie and Philip do not appear to have had children but I would be very interested to hear from anyone who remembers her or any family members who may be able to share more of her and her father’s story. Thanks to Mollie and the oral history team in Somerset, we have this insight into the life of a conscientious objector and his family in Sevenoaks during the war.