Armistice 1918. A parish remembers

09 November 2018

When Phillip Dawson began researching the wartime history of his parish, a wealth of stories came to light

PHILLIP DAWSON

A member of the local Cubs group with a representation of one of the fallen men of the parish (see gallery for more images)

A member of the local Cubs group with a representation of one of the fallen men of the parish (see gallery for more images)

THE image of God’s people as “living stones” of the Church was a constant source of inspiration when I served as a churchwarden at Christ Church, Southgate, in London.

A favourite “party piece” when giving tours was to use the chronology of the beautiful Morris & Co. windows to chart the evolution of the parish, from a village dominated by the manor houses of the great and the good to the modest but respectable suburb we see today, the colours of the glass illustrating the changing social and economic fortunes of the population. (The first window to be coloured in the nave commemorates the sister of a Viceroy of India; the last to be decorated commemorates a head sidesman).

In sharing some of the stories of the faithful named on the plaques beneath the windows, connections were made; the names of streets and buildings took on renewed meaning; people saw their own homes — and lives — as part of the evolving story of the church in Southgate; the walls of the church were broken down; and we became aware of ourselves as “living stones”.

PHILLIP DAWSONThe First World War memorial at Christ Church, Southgate

It was in 2015 while interviewing the Revd Chrichton Limbert, who was to become our next Vicar, that it became apparent that there was one memorial about which I knew nothing. The stories of the 146 men listed on our war memorial had fallen out of use. This prompted an addictive period of research; cross referencing the names on our war memorial with obituaries recorded in the parish magazine, records from the 1911 Census, details from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and a great deal of information gleaned from the tireless research of others, via the internet.

The result was a near-complete list of basic biographical information about these men: when and where they died, and where they lived in the parish, together with photographs, stories, and letters that were unearthed along the way, which I used to put together a small exhibition.

Since the war, the population of Southgate has grown, and boundaries have changed: much of the parish was developed long after 1918. At first, bringing this history closer to home meant actively taking it out to people’s houses, door by door. This involved a letter, by hand, to the present-day residents of the homes of the fallen (many are now blocks of flats), sharing information about the men who used to live there, and explaining when and where they died, together with an invitation to our Remembrance Sunday service and exhibition.

I made copies of the exhibition boards and sent them to the head teachers of local schools and the leaders of uniformed groups, and was invited to talk to local residents’ associations and civic trust groups, including Civic Voice. By the time the exhibition closed at the end of November 2016, hundreds of people had heard the stories of the men on our war memorial.

It was a new experience to write on behalf of the church to so many parishioners about death (rather than advertising the May Fair, or the choir’s latest concert). Any unease paled into insignificance, however, after reading the hundreds of obituaries written during and after the war by the Revd Charles Peploe (Vicar of Christ Church 1909-37) in the parish magazine.

 

WE HAVE all seen documentaries about the consequences of the military strategy deployed in the Great War, and are taught about the unprecedented loss of life. So many people have (sometimes unspoken) family histories touched by the war. We have gathered and worshipped beneath the war memorial in church for decades. But seeing a poppy marking the home of each of the fallen on a map of the parish provided a vivid illustration of the scale of the impact of the war on this place.

Perhaps for the first time in generations, we realised that we all lived in or near to a house where at least one of the fallen and their families had lived. It was then that the memorial stone became more than a list of 146 names.

PHILLIP DAWSONThe Poppy Map

The “poppy map” also intimated something about the lives of these men and their families — and how income was no barrier to grief. The map showed one fatality in each of the streets of Edwardian villas opposite Broomfield Park; the new spacious homes of the officer classes, with up to ten deaths per street in the small Victorian terraces of Ivy Road to the north of the parish; and the homes of the Privates, Sappers, Riflemen, and Kingsmen.

Many who saw the exhibition were struck by the global reach of the stories of those who set out from this small village in Middlesex to serve their country. The youngest to be recorded on the memorial, Alan Wale, was a Second Lieutenant. in the Royal Flying Corps. He died in November 1917, aged 18, when his B.E.2 plane stalled and crashed just outside an airstrip in Norwich. He had previously served in Salonika and Egypt. One of the oldest men listed, Charles Mardell, from Grovelands Road, in Palmers Green, died, aged 41, near the Arctic Circle, after serving at Arras and Vimy Ridge.

In a similar way, perhaps, to customers’ listening more actively to marketeers when they hear their own names being mentioned, visitors to our exhibition who noticed these global connections explained how they later came to see news reports of today’s conflicts with different eyes. They came, perhaps, to see the world as a global village connected by compassion, as well as commerce.

PHILLIP DAWSONA close-up of the Poppy Map

 

THOSE actively involved in the ministry of Christ Church today found a connection to at least one of the stories that we uncovered.

The minutes of the PCC meetings during the war chart the familiar issues of fund-raising and fabric, but are overshadowed by the matter of how to commemorate death on a scale never seen before. Even within the clipped records of officialdom, the tensions emerge.

Mr Peploe initially appears unconvinced by the need for a memorial tablet — suggesting instead a new pulpit to commemorate the war dead — but the growing demand from the parish, expressed by individual families’ erecting their own brass plaques on the wall of the church, and the temporary shrines erected by those of lesser means, seems to have forced an about-turn.

It was not until 1921 that a tablet and pulpit — designed by Charles Marriott Oldrid Scott, a descendant of the architect of the church — was unveiled.

Individual voices from the past — recorded in letters from the Front that were published in the parish magazine, as well as the obituaries of the fallen — have been used in services throughout the centenary, and many were selected to form a sequence of music and readings produced by Kate Carroll that were to be performed last night.

At evensong on 21 May 2017, the choir fell silent as Fr Chrichton read out the obituaries of Ernest Wolsoncroft and Charlie Dearmer, who had died 100 years ago, aged 21 and 20. They sang together in the choir as boys and seniors, joined up together and died from injuries sustained fighting alongside each other. Both were Serjeants in the London Regiment of the Royal Fusiliers.

BISHOPSGATE INSTITUTEFrederick Wensley, who died, aged 22, in August 1916

Later last year, we remembered another chorister and server, William Frank Anthony, who died, aged 19, in August 1917. Fr Chrichton again read the words of his predecessor, Charles Peploe: “Although there was that in his kindly, somewhat sensitive nature which inevitably shrank from much in a solider’s life — yet, at the call of duty, he cheerfully and bravely went forth to fight, and if so it were God’s will, to die for his country. We cannot but realise how great is our loss. We have lost a true friend and a devoted worker.”

Frederick Tegg was killed in action on 26 October 1917. In his youth, he had been a bell-ringer at the church, but his name had been left off the national register of bell-ringers who fell. On the centenary of his death, our bell-ringers rang a 90-minute quarter-peal, the voices of the bells that he once rang resonating across the parish in his memory.

Local links to famous events were uncovered. Ernest Whiskin, of “Bancroft” in Powys Lane, had worked as a reporter in Aylesbury before moving to Southgate. He gave a first-hand account of the Christmas Day Truce: “We exchanged gifts of cigarettes and various Christmas good things and altogether spent quite a pleasant time in each other’s company.” He died in May 1915 — aged 43 — the oldest man listed on our war memorial.

 

THE research made it possible to put faces to the names of some of the 146 men. The archive favoured officers and the upper ranks — faces looking out at us which look older than their years, of men who shall grow not old.

BISHOPSGATE INSTITUTEHarold Wensley, who died in November 1918, aged 19

Much of the material came from the Bishopsgate Institute, and was reproduced with its kind permission, thanks to the assistance of the archivist Stef Dickers. The personal papers of Detective Frederick Porter Wensley (who played an important part in the Houndsditch Murders and the Siege of Sidney Street) are held there.

The family moved to Powys Lane, in the parish, in 1913, and, thanks largely to the care of his daughter, Edith, the archive contains letters and photographs from his sons Frederick (who died, in August 1916, aged 22), and Harold (who died in November 1918, aged 19), both of whom are named on our war memorial.

Thanks to this archive, we were able to include in the exhibition copies of correspondence that provide a glimpse into the relationship between Fred, his parents, and his commanding officers. “I have had some glorious fun here already,” he wrote home on arriving in France in February 1916. “Neither my friend or myself can speak French but we make ourselves understood all the same.”

A letter of 16 April to his commanding officer, Colonel Newbury, is more graphic about the conditions, albeit still veiled in humour: “In places, the designer of these Communication Trenches has put up canvas screens — whether in the wild hope of stopping any spent bullets or in a praiseworthy endeavour to disguise the place as a cottage, I have yet been unable to determine.”

The chain of correspondence ends with a telegram from the King, informing Mr and Mrs Wensley that their son has died, and photographs of them at his grave.

Posting the research online led to some unexpected and wonderful connections. We heard from Roberta Tweedy, who had written an opera about her relative Arthur Gordon “Jim” Cade, who was the first Scoutmaster at Christ Church, Southgate, and the first of those serving from the parish to be decorated in battle. He was married in February 1918, and killed in action in April 1918, aged 26, leaving a widow and unborn child.

PHILLIP DAWSONA young member of the parish with a representation of one of the fallen men of the parish

Roberta’s photographs of Jim and his medals inspired our Cubs and Scouts who, in 2017, came into church to select one name from the war memorial and decorate a cardboard silhouette, to fill in the gaps in our record of those, particularly from the lower ranks, for whom we have not yet been able to find a photograph.

These were placed around the nave on Remembrance Sunday and enhanced with window displays by Briony Hadjidaniel, using ribbons to represent rank and regiment and complemented by a floral display by our flower-arranging team.

 

THE British Red Cross has scanned and indexed thousands of volunteer records, which can be searched online: evidence of the hard work and dedication of women up and down the country. Kathleen Peploe, the wife of Christ Church’s wartime Vicar, turned the Southgate vicarage into a war hospital-supply depot. Volunteer records show that many women from the parish assisted her in producing bandages and clothing for use in field hospitals. Each index card records the number of hours volunteered each week.

Anne Marie Sanderson/Enfield Gazette and AdvertiserPhillip Dawson and Fr Chrichton Limbert at the WW1 Lives Remembered Exhibition

Kathleen also co-ordinated food parcels for British prisoners of war, and received hundreds of letters of thanks. She acted as their advocate to raise awareness of their plight in pages of the national newspapers.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that, beneath the plaque on the screen that commemorates Kathleen and her husband, Charles, our social-responsibility committee stores gifts for our annual Christmas shoebox appeal — a small, but no less important, sign of a community that is still striving to live their lives according to the greatest commandment.

Just as today, however, alongside the response to respond to those in need abroad, there was great suffering closer to home. While the obituaries of the parish magazine lament the loss of life in vivid language, the records of the National Archives provide an account of the financial hardship suffered by many of those left behind, and the often less-than-sympathetic attitude of the authorities towards their plight.

Jack Fletcher had worked as a shop assistant in Southgate before being called up. He was killed in action in July 1915, aged 20. Written in his own hand, the appeal of his brother George against conscription describes the difficult family circumstances that ensued: with a blind father unable to work, a sick mother working part-time as a church cleaner, and a sister earning an apprentice wage, George had become the main breadwinner after his brother had been killed.

George’s appeal was rejected by the Southgate Tribunal, in the form of a neatly typed double-spaced letter on official blue paper: “Whilst fully sympathising with the appellant in the circumstances set out by him, the Tribunal were quite of the opinion that, with the Government’s scheme of assistance to dependants of single men, his parents would suffer no financial hardship. With regret, they saw no reason whatever for granting appellant any further exemption.”

George was called up on 31 January 1917. We do not know whether he survived the war. The parish magazine records several fund-raising events to support war widows; we can only hope that the Fletcher family was able to benefit.

 

RESEARCHING the names of the 146 men listed on our war memorial over the past two years has, perhaps more than any other project, convinced me of the relevance of exploring parish history today.

Uncovering their stories, seeing their faces, and knowing something of their lives and where they lived has brought home the impact of the First World War on our community — perhaps for the first time in generations. The global scale of their sacrifice has brought us closer to those affected by war today.

Beginning by actively sharing details of the life and death of these men — going door to door at times — our parish history has been enriched by stories offered in return, to the extent that this year, the week-long “Southgate Remembers” exhibition (4-11 November) incorporates artefacts and family memorabilia brought to church by members of the parish, who have told often difficult and hitherto unspoken stories about their own heritage.

Members of the congregation have curated a cycle of music and readings using the voices of men from the front. Cubs, Scouts, and schoolchildren have produced poetry and pictures to help to give a voice and face to the names of the men about whom we currently know little. Our choir, craft group, flower-arrangers, and bell-ringers have all been inspired to use their skills to add to this story.

This is an Act of Remembrance in which we — the Living Stones of God’s church — are all members of the cast. We will remember them.

 

Phillip Dawson is a former churchwarden of Christ Church, Southgate, and is now based at St Stephen Walbrook. He is a student at St Augustine’s College of Theology.

The First World War research and exhibition boards can be viewed on the website www.christchurch-southgate.org, together with the “Southgate Remembers” programme of events this weekend.

Listen to Phillip Dawson talk about the project and exhibition on The Church Times Podcast.

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