The title of this post is slightly misleading, as Corporal Issy Smith was not from Balham. He is a fascinating character though, and when he was awarded the Victoria Cross in September 1915 the Tooting and Balham Gazette reported the news under the headline “Balham’s Gallant V.C.”. At one stage he had lived in Chestnut Grove, although trying to establish precisely when he lived there has proved difficult. The newspaper certainly claimed him as Balham’s own.
Issy Smith was born Ishroulch Shmeilowitz in Alexandria, Egypt in 1890, stowing away to come to London when he was 11. He then attended school in Berner Street in the East End – the newspaper reports his visit there the previous week to be presented with a gold watch and chain by the Mayor of Stepney. In 1904 he joined the Manchester Regiment, claiming to be 18 and to have been born in St Georges in the East parish – both of which were untrue. His Army pension records are available on Ancestry, and also show that he was twice on a charge for using insubordinate language, as well as noting that he had a tattoo of clasped hands and flags on his right forearm. He transferred to the Army Reserves in 1912, which is perhaps when he became resident in Chestnut Grove –although evidence of him living there is hard to find, he doesn’t appear in the electoral registers as even if he had met the property qualification for voting he would have been under 21. Corporal Smith was the first non-commissioned Jewish officer to receive the award, and only the second Jewish recipient.
The incident which earned Corporal Smith his VC had another local connection. Smith had gone to assist a severely wounded man, carrying him to safety under heavy machine-gun and rifle fire and had then continued to bring in more wounded men throughout the day, “with the greatest devotion to duty regardless of personal risk”. An additional connection to the area was that the officer he rescued was Second Lieutenant A H Robinson, who was from Marius Road in Tooting. Since then Lieutenant Robinson had been reported wounded and missing, believed to be a prisoner of war in Germany – there is a record card for him with the International Committee of the Red Cross, proving this theory to be correct.
Issy Smith later moved to Australia and died there in 1940. More information about his life, and photographs of him, can be found here.
Tooting and Balham Gazette available on microfilm