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.