A few weeks ago I was in St Mary’s Church showing someone the war memorial around which the Summerstown182 project is based. I was full of stories about the individuals on it, where they lived, where they were buried, whose relative had been on one of our walks. It suddenly dawned on me that in a little under a year, what was a wall of unknown names is slowly coming spectacularly to life. The two soldiers buried in Jerusalem. The three brothers from Thurso Street killed in successive years. The young man who was lost in the North Sea on a submarine. The brothers who died of tuberculosis and are buried in unmarked graves in Streatham Cemetery. The jilted soldier who threw himself under a tram in Garratt Lane. We know something now about 174 of the names, only eight can’t so far be connected with this area.
It surprised and saddened me that very little seemed to be known about the men on the war memorial. The blog which I started has evolved into a collection of stories about them. Each post is centred around one of the individuals using information from the parish magazines of the period and Commonwealth War Graves Commission database. This is blended together with census records and other material which local enthusiasts keen to get involved in the project have kindly provided. Without their help this project just wouldn’t be possible. Now relatives are slowly coming forward, providing photographs and nuggets of precious detail to add to the stories. We have established connections with descendants in Taunton, Tamworth, Cambridge, Luton and as faraway as Melbourne, Australia.
Closely related to the stories of the soldiers themselves has been a developing desire to understand the world which they inhabited. Local newspapers from the time, available for study through Wandsworth Heritage Service at Battersea Library, have been invaluable for providing an impression, though it has amazed me that there seemed sometimes more concern with ‘interesting local weddings’ than what was happening across the Channel. Lists of names which followed the immense 1915 losses at the battles of Festubert and Loos soon trickled away, undoubtedly to preserve morale. What is of more interest to me is the conditions at home that the war created. How a German baker in Tooting had his premises repeatedly trashed, despite the fact his son was serving in the British army. How a soldier’s impoverished wife was imprisoned for being unable to care for her starving children. Undeniably the conditions for people living around here were difficult in the extreme. Occasionally I recognise names, an inquest into the soldier who walked out of the Fountain pub and under a tram, the young lad who a few months before joining the Welsh Fusiliers was arrested in Khartoum Road for playing ‘pitch-and-toss’. The barmaid who got into hot water for serving a wounded soldier in The Castle. There are many more to discover. I’ve just pricked the surface. What a wonderful resource we have there.
If you would like to hear more about the project or the guided walks which have been developed to promote it, please come along to hear me talk about it at the next meeting of Tooting History Group. This is in the United Reformed Church, Rookstone Road, Tooting on Tuesday 11th November at 730pm.The next guided walk will be on Saturday 6th December.
Geoff Simmons, @summerstown182