Wartime Christmases in Sevenoaks

Mention Christmas and the First World War to most people and they’ll imagine some variation of Christmas truces, football between the warring sides and the seemingly general notion that ‘it will all be over by Christmas’. Certainly Cedric Gordon of the North Staffordshire Regiment wrote this to his mother from France in September 1914. But there would be a further three Christmas Days before the Armistice was signed and I want to look at what that entailed for the people of Sevenoaks, those at war and at home.

In 1914, the popular firm of S.Young and Co. used its regular advertisement in the Kent Messenger to promote its Grand Bazaar, setting the tone by asking the question: Christmas as usual? Why not?

There are thousands of soldiers and sailors to whom Christmas will mean more this year than ever before. There are thousands of children for whom Christmas would be as indeed if the old customs were not kept up.

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With so many local men away and large numbers of Belgian refugees in the town, as well as wounded servicemen at the newly established hospitals, fundraising was the order of the day.

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Patriotic Christmas cards like this were sent in 1914

Lord and Lady Sackville hosted a concert at Knole in aid of the St John’s hospital where their daughter, Vita, was Commandant. Held on the afternoon of 15th December, the concert featured some well known artistes, including Miss Phyllis Dare and Miss Constance Collier. Children of the estate workers were also invited to a Christmas tea on a Wednesday afternoon.

The troops billeted in the town were not forgotten and the Territorials Christmas fund raised £167 17s 5. which was distributed between 4th and 5th Loyal North Lancashires, 4th and 5th King’s Own, the Army Service Corps, and the Army Medical Corps and Divisonal Headquarters division. The remainder being given to the Soldiers’ and Sailors Families Association.

Letters sent home were regularly forwarded to the Sevenoaks Chronicle to be reproduced for popular consumption. In 1914 Private F G Saxby of G Company 4th Battalion Royal West Kent Regiment wrote to local recruiting officer Captain H W Knocker

I am pleased to say that I am quite enjoying myself in my new life. The fellows here are a very sociable lot. The food we have is very good indeed and I have no doubt Major Laurie looks after G Company as well as any.

Our 1st Lieutenant is the Reverend Percy Thompson’s son, and our Second Lieutenant is Archdeacon Dunkerley’s son of St John’s.

I expect to get home for Christmas and I hope I shall as I have always spent it at home up till now. We have some very nice route marches of sixteen to eighteen miles and come home very tired, but full of fun. We have a football XI and are going to play for a cup and shield among the Companies. After all, army life is not all bad.

In January 1915, the Sevenoaks Chronicle printed an article by Thornton Shaw on How Our Troops Fared at Christmas. The article was in fact more of a guide to the men of the north and what was perceived as their strange habits.

“You have got to know the average Northerner before you can hope to understand him. He is, by nature, hardy and brusque, he often omits to lift his cap (which he wears in great preference to a bowler hat) to his lady friends and when he is not on military duty he has an inherent objection in saying “sir” to anybody on earth. But he possesses a heart as big as the wide world itself…”

He continued

“And if some of them seem just a little bit uncouth you must forgive them. And they have done Sevenoaks heaps of good in the matter of trade. Ask any tradesman you like…”
Shaw noted that the residents of Sevenoaks had raised £710 to ensure that the soldiers present in the town during Christmas enjoyed the festivities, with lavish amounts of food and entertainment; one contingent of 25 men “polished off an entire pig between them…as my informant (an officer) laughingly remarked ‘only a collier could have done it’”.

All of the men, wrote Shaw, were grateful but also wistful for the lives they had left at home, one corporal remarking, as he posted home a box of chocolates to his wife
“Ah’d reyther ‘uv bin up at whoam, if ah’d had nowt but kippers”.

News sometimes arrived home from Sevenoaks men being held as prisoner of war. One such man was twenty year old Albert Hayward, the son of William, an old soldier and his wife Jane, who resided at 13, Buckhurst Avenue, Sevenoaks. Albert was working as an apprentice printer before the war and enlisted in London in November 1914. He fought at Ypres With 2nd Battalion The Buffs, where he was taken prisoner in April 1915.

The Chronicle carried a report in January 1916 under the title A Sevenoaks Soldier in Germany, Xmas in an Internment Camp, which featured a postcard that Albert had written to his parents:

Just a hurried line to thank you for the two parcels which I received in quite good condition. I think I told you that the pudding was quite good, and that the cigars were quite nice and mild. I enjoyed my ‘Xmas quite well under the circumstances. My chum and I had a tin of mutton chops, ‘Xmas pudding, beef and vegetables, for dinner. Of course we managed to forget nuts, oranges, apples etc. the ‘boss’ gave us a bag containing 50 cigarettes, buns and lbs of apples; we also had a ‘Xmas tree decorated up, and we were allowed one bottle of lager beer, which was half the dinner. I hope you all had a very enjoyable ‘Xmas and New Year, and good weather, for we have had some heavy falls of snow lately, but it has changed to rain now. Please tender my thanks to the Rev J Rooker for the card he sent me of the Parish Church. I hope you are all as well at home as this letter leaves me – in the best of health.”

Albert saw one more Christmas before he died as a result of his diabetes in Otcober 1917. He is buried in the Niederzwehren Cemetery in Hessen, Germany and both brothers are remembered on the family grave at St Nicholas’ Church, Sevenoaks.

Throughout the war years, the Chronicle reported how Christmas was spent in the local VAD hospitals, where staff and patients celebrated the festive season together. In 1916, the large ward at Cornwall Hall was decorated with holly and laurel. Another ward featuring ‘a model of a gigantic Zeppelin, with excellent models of aeroplanes in close proximity to it’.

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The paper printed a letter from A PATIENT, who outlined what he and his fellow patients had enjoyed

On Christmas Day, after many of the nurses and patients had attended Divine Service at the Parish Church, there was an incessant round of festivities, commencing with a splendid dinner, served in the large ward (cooked at the Royal Crown Hotel, through the kind thoughtfulness of Mr Marshall). Crackers and flowers made the tables look inviting, but when the board was covered with turkeys, mince pies, plum puddings and dessert, the effect was greatly increased.

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At St John’s Hall hospital,

The festivities began in the early morning with the good old custom of Santa Claus, each man waking up to find  bulging sock in his bed; a surprise provided by the staff and much appreciated by the patients.

In the afternoon, after a typical Christmas tea, there was the stripping of a fine Christmas tree laden with gifts of all kinds, both or the staff and patients. A first-rate football from the nurses to the patients caused much applause as being a happy omen of future victories.

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In its 1918 Christmas editorial, the Chronicle noted that despite the still somewhat dimly lighted streets, Sevenoaks has been wearing during the past week or so, a cheerier aspect. The Christmas of 1918 promises to carry with it some of the old-time gaiety. Peace on earth has a greater meaning than, perhaps, it ever had before.

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

‘The gallant sons of Sevenoaks’ – the story of our war memorial

The Sevenoaks War Memorial was unveiled on an autumn day in October 1920 when thousands of local people assembled on The Vine to pay their public tribute to the memory of two hundred and twenty five sons of Sevenoaks, who lost their lives during the conflict. The Sevenoaks Chronicle subsequently noted in its report of the event how every class was represented and had suffered loss, all had been bound together in one great act of sacrifice.

The Memorial was funded by public subscription, including from house-to-house collections, with individual donations of up to £500. The total raised being £5,663. On the afternoon of the unveiling the memorial was covered with the Union Jack, with the town’s coat of arms. Lord Sackville and the Bishop of Rochester led proceedings and were joined by many other official representatives of the town. The relatives of the men stood in their own enclosure and a boy scout stood at each corner of the mound. Representatives of the VAD also attended as did many of the local churches and other organisations, all gathered to honour their fellow townsmen.

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Order of Service for the unveiling ceremony

The choirs of St Nicholas, St Mary, Kippington, and St John’s led the singing and the ex servicemen marched to their places from nearby St John’s Congregational Church.

After hymns had been sung and prayers said, Lord Sackville, who had served throughout the war himself, spoke movingly

“I suppose there can be no occasion which calls for greater unity of feeling than an occasion like the present, when we meet here together for the purpose of unveiling and dedicating a Memorial to our fellow towns-men who fought and died in the Great War. It was inevitable that there should be divergence of opinion as to the particular form that any Memorial should take; it is inevitable that there should be criticism of the site chosen and of a dozen other matters: but I think that I may safely say that this gathering, as fully representative of all the various interests in this town of Sevenoaks, is united here today with one common thought, to pay tribute to the memory of those whose names you will find inscribed on this Memorial”.

“Many of these men were known to many of us: some of them met their end in my own regiment with me, and they went forth from Sevenoaks, hoping no doubt, that they might be safely spared to return in all safety, knowing full well the dangers they were going to encounter and yet facing those dangers with that cheerful uncomplaining acquiescence for the call of duty which has won for them a place in our esteem which no Memorial can ever adequately fill… I am glad to know that there are many in the assembly today of the men who were the comrades in arms of those whose memory we are honouring today”.

He concluded by speaking of the relatives gathered before him

May I, on behalf of the whole community, offer to them our heartfelt sympathy, our reverent gratitude for the sacrifices which they were called upon to make, and may I tell them that in erecting this monument, we are not unmindful of their sorrows but that we are erecting it as a sign to this generation and to future generations with the high honour and esteem with which we regard those so dear to them, who gave all, who lost all and yet who gained all”.

He then unveiled the memorial with the words “Let us ever remember with thanksgiving and all honour before God and man the gallant sons of Sevenoaks who laid down their lives for their country in the Great War”.

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Postcard of the war memorial with flowers laid by relatives, October 1920

Mr Frank Robinson, Chairman of the Urban District Council, then read the list of the 225 names, which included those of his son, Frank, and nephew, Herbert Lethebe. He noted that it was unknown how many men from Sevenoaks had gone to war but 225 were remembered on the memorial and 1,265 had returned. He remarked, perhaps with his own loss at the front of his mind, that Sevenoaks had paid rather heavily.

The Bishop of Rochester then spoke saying , according to the newspaper report, that

The monument stands on a great highway along which hundreds of thousands of people would pass through from the great Metropolis to the seaboard. It would stand when all present that day had followed those men beyond the grave into the great Hereafter. It would stand to inspire those that came after us to be worthy of the heroisms of those men…He wanted the monument to uplift them and make them stand as the man on the monument stood, sentry-like, prepared not only to fight for their country but to fight against all that was evil, all that was of discord and all that prevented the country from rising in the time of peace to the high position it attained during the years of war. It was only Christ who would enable them to do so”

After the Bishop’s address wreaths and flowers were placed at the foot of the memorial by the relatives, helped by the Boy Scouts. Then came the Blessing, Chopin’s Funeral March and then the Last Post, sounded by two buglers of the Royal West Kent Regiment. After the silence came Reveille and the end of the service.

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List of names from the Order of Service, 1920

The Memorial was designed by sculptor and painter, Arthur George Walker, who designed several others, including those of Dartford and Ironbridge which bear the same figure. The inscription on the Memorial reads ‘To keep in mind those from this place who gave their lives in the Great War 1914-1918’.

Private Bartholomew

There were  225 names listed on the memorial when it was unveiled. Two more were later added and one was removed, that of Adrian Maurice Bartholomew of the Royal Army Medical Corps.

Adrian’s service records survive and show that he enlisted in 1914 and was sent for instruction at the Royal Army Medical Corps School in Chatham before being posted.

He survived the war and lived to see his own name commemorated. His name is listed in the order of service for the unveiling of the memorial in 1920 (above) and is visible on a postcard of the memorial taken shortly after its unveiling.

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Side view of memorial, October 1920

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Panel showing where Private Bartholomew’s name had been

Adrian was born in 1895, one of seven children born to Frank Bartholomew, a house painter and his wife, Annie. The 1911 census shows that Adrian was working as a grocer’s boy and the family living at 3, Bradbourne Road Cottages.

His inclusion on the memorial is curious as there were plenty of family members living locally, none of whom would have requested his name to be included. His brother-in-law, John Tester, had been killed in 1915 and was remembered on the memorial, although not under his regiment, the Royal West Kents but with five other unassigned names. Adrian’s two nephews, John’s sons, Eric and Leslie Tester, were later included on the memorial as both died in the Far East at the end of the Second World War. However, their names were only added after their mother’s death in 1979 as she could not bear to see them named on the memorial while she lived.

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Adrian’s obituary in the Sevenoaks Chronicle

Adrian Bartholomew died in Sevenoaks in 1966, aged seventy.

In August 1914, our memorial project gathered descendants of the men from across the country to remember them in a special service and family members lay crosses at the foot of the memorial as the names of the men were read out once more in remembrance.

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Descendants of those remembered gather at the memorial, August 2014

 

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.

 

Remember Me – a postcard home

Just this weekend I purchased an embroidered silk postcard from the First World War, in good condition and with the soldier’s name and number written clearly, as well as the name of the recipient.

I try and collect postcards and other ephemera related to Sevenoaks during the First World War, many of which are on display in our postcard gallery to give some idea of what the town would have looked like during this period. This postcard was unusual as the details of sender and addresses meant that it was possible to try and discover more about them.

There is no postmarked envelope to give a date so all I had to go on was the detail given. It was sent by Sapper 24682 C Draper of WR 334 Road Construction Company of the Royal Engineers.

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A quick search on the ancestry website revealed that this was Charlie Draper of Sevenoaks and, fortunately, his service records survive. Charlie’s records show that he was twenty nine and working as an engine driver when he was called up in March 1917, having enlisted the previous March. On enlistment he had expressed a desire to join the Royal Engineers Road Construction Company.

According to his records, Charlie was living at 3, Morants Cottages, Cramptons Road, Sevenoaks with his wife, Elsie Nellie Draper nee Porter, (whom he had married on Boxing Day 1911 in Kippington, Sevenoaks) and his daughter, Elsie Doris, born 1912.

It seems likely that Charlie was employed by the Kent County Council as a letter from the County Surveyor is preserved in his file, which shows that the Council had supported his request to work for the road units in France.

Charlie was sent overseas on 1st March 1917 when he embarked at Southampton bound for Le Havre. In October 1917 he passed a test and was regraded to the skilled rate of engineer pay. The Road Construction Companies performed vital work throughout the war and Charlie’s peacetime skills were no doubt invaluable. It is likely that he was present with 334 Company at Beaumont Hamel in 1917 and I would be interested to hear from anyone who has any more information on this company and its movements during the war. Charlie’s army service continued  until January 1920. He served with 334 Road Construction Company until 24th May 1919, and was then transferred via the base depot to the 5th Transportation Stores Company.

Charlie, as he was christened, was one of seven children born to Charles Draper and his wife, Bertha nee Welfare. Charles Draper senior was well known locally as a cricketer and the landlord of The Halfway House, a pub still open today, not far from Sevenoaks train station on the way to Riverhead.

Through his mother, Bertha, granddaughter of John Wells, Charlie was a second cousin once removed of the writer H . G. Wells. who wrote his novel The Time Machine whilst living at 23, Eardley Road, Sevenoaks.

Charles Draper was born in Penshurst in 1860 and had been landlord of the Halfway House for fifteen years when he died on 14 May 1903 at Guy’s Hospital in London. For a pub landlord, Charles received a fulsome obituary in the Sevenoaks Chronicle, a testament perhaps not only to his prowess as a cricketer but also to his personality and he appears to have been much mourned.

The Sevenoaks Chronicle reported that

By his death Sevenoaks loses one of its most celebrated cricketers. From an early age he was more than ordinarily proficient both with the bat and ball and all through his life, up to the last season or so, he has been a most consistent and successful player. For many years he was groundsman to the Vine and it was largely owing to his exertions that the old Vine club was enabled for so many years to maintain its reputation.

Cricket clearly ran in the family as Charles’s father, William (1823-1901), had been a cricket ball maker, while his brother, William (1848-1919) had played first class cricket for Kent from 1874-1880. Another brother, Henry (1847-1896), was a test match umpire. William’s son, Herbert, also served during the war with the Royal Engineers only to die during the Spanish Flu pandemic in November 1919.

Charles’s obituary noted that he left a widow and seven children, the eldest being seventeen.

Charles Draper obituaryThe Sevenoaks Chronicle carried an obituary of Charles Draper

The Chronicle later recorded that the pub licence had been transferred to Bertha but by 1911 she was living at 14, Holyoake Terrace with Charlie, aged twenty three and recorded as a traction engine driver, and five of her other children, including Frank, aged fifteen, a butcher’s assistant . A daughter, Bertha, was residing at 118 High Street at Whyntie & Co. the subject of my last blog post on Cyril John Whyntie.

Charlie survived the war, leaving the army in 1920 and living until 1959 when it appears that he died, aged seventy one, in the St Albans area

Charlie’s younger brother, Frank Draper, enlisted shortly after the outbreak of war,  at Tonbridge in September 1914, was posted abroad in June 1915, and by 1916 had been promoted to Corporal, serving with 6th Battalion of the Royal West Kents. Unlike his brother, Frank did not survive the war and was killed in action in May 1917; the date of his death assumed to be 3rd. Frank is remembered at the Arras Memorial and on the Sevenoaks War Memorial.

What of the the of recipient of the postcard, Miss West, who was perhaps living or visiting at Charlie’s home at Morants Cottages when the postcard was sent? At the moment there is no way of identifying her with any degree of certainty. None of Charlie’s sisters appears to have married a Mr West. The one family of that surname who lived nearby to the Draper family, on Moor Road, did have one daughter of the right age in the 1911 census but she had died by the likely posting of the card in early 1917.

Despite the Draper family being large and well known, I have not been able to trace any descendants of the family, and there are no available photos. I would be very pleased to her from anyone who can shed further light on this story, from more detail of where 334 Road Construction Company was during the war, to any members of the Draper family who may be interested in this snapshot of their family history, all inspired by the detail on one postcard, sent home by a local man with the simple request, Remember Me.