20-26 June 1916: James Bartaby, underage soldier

The Wandsworth Borough News of 23rd June carried the story ofJames Bartaby of Bedford Hill, with the headline “Balham Youth’s Heroism”.  He was 15, but at 13 and 7 months he had enlisted in the 7th East Surrey Regiment and reached the trenches before he was 14.  Three months of training in England had not shown up that he was underage, and he spent nine months in the trenches before he was wounded by shrapnel.  In hospital they realised that he was underage and sent him home.

This did not put James Bartaby off his desire to join up. He ran away and joined the 3rd East Surrey Regiment, and had nearly finished his training before his mother discovered where he was and alerted the authorities.  A letter from her reached Dover as he was starting for France and he was once again sent home.

A medal card for him shows that he was discharged on 18 November 1915, having entered France on 1st June 1915.  Trying to find out more about him is difficult, as the only James Bartaby coming up on the 1911 census is from Doncaster, the 8 year old son of Walter and Jane – a Walter Bartaby is listed at Cavendish Road in the 1915 Kelly’s directory, but his census entry shows that he and his wife only had daughters living.

James’s army pension form is available on Ancestry, showing that he claimed he was 18 (and 2 months) and a plumber. He appears to have made several attempts to join up – some of the details are from 1917 – so having been brought home this week in 1916, and injured in 1915, obviously didn’t put him off trying to serve.James Bartaby medal card James Bartaby pension

Wandsworth Borough News available on microfilm

Ancestry Library available through all Wandsworth Libraries

Guest post: WW1-Letters.com

Ramsden Rd 15.09.15 letterOn 15th September 1915 David Henry Taylor wrote to his sister Ethel (aka Ginger) Linn. David lived with their mother, Fanny, at 56 Ramsden Rd in Balham and his sister lived in New Jersey USA. David’s letter described the Zeppelin damage in London:

“I have just returned from viewing the damage done by the Zeppelins last week….Just around the corner from Upcot Street a house was smashed, and some of our people were out in the street in their night clothes, but luckily nothing was done to our places….I first went to Farringdon Road, opposite the Goods Station one house had been gutted, the front wall of the two top stories blown into the street, and the two houses on either side considerably damaged and of course the windows for some distance either way and opposite were smashed….In Leather Lane, the L.C.C. buildings in which Beatie Bulford lives (only a block at the back of hers) a bomb stripped the roof, blew part of the front wall into the street, tore out the windows bodily, the bedding is hanging down the front of the building, (some of it in the street) and of course the windows and shop fronts up and down the street are all gone. In this case the explosion had a most curious effect, the two windows immediately below the damaged wall are still perfect the glass not being even cracked whilst those opposite and on either side are smashed to atoms….A Public House in Red Lion Street, (just at the back of Bedford Road) looks for all the world as though somebody has lifted it bodily and dropped it again, it has that crumpled appearance and the Penny Bank next door has no windows left and the shop fronts all round are gone. Wood Street (which you remember was burnt a few years back) and Aldermanbury the darlings sprinkled with incendiary bombs setting fire to several large buildings. It was here that the most damage was done as 5 or 6 large blocks of offices and warehouses were gutted.”

David joined the Kings Royal Rifles under the Lord Derby scheme and served in France and Belgium before he was wounded and taken prisoner in July 1917 and spent the rest of the war at Holzminden PoW Camp. The archive is an amazing story of two London families: David’s and his fiancée’s, May Muggridge, who lived in Beckenham and was the most senior woman working at Northern Assurance in Moorgate. May frequently visited Fanny in Balham and her many letters to David described the women’s emotions, leisure activities and practical aspects of their lives. The letters are well written, often humorous, and give amazing detail (although heavily censored) of life as a soldier and life at home. It is a war story, a love story, a true story of WW1.

book cover WW1 memoirsThere are over 400 personal letters covering the period September 1915 to March 1919 in the family archive that is now being made available on-line on www.ww1-letters.com.


7-13 September 1915: Balham’s VC

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

20-26 July 1915: Poetry written whilst waiting in Balham

Last week’s blog post mentioned the letter from Edward Thomas to his friend Eleanor Farjeon about coming to London to be attested.  This week’s post looks at the letters he wrote a few days after he joined up, again to Eleanor.

On Tuesday 20th July, Edward wrote from his parents’ house in Rusham Road, Balham, that “yesterday I was attested”.  Attestation was the start of the process of joining up when the recruit completed the attestation forms.  He also wrote that he had been having trouble with his feet and was due to visit the doctor, apologising for delay in writing:

Otherwise I should wait longer until I had seen the doctor.  I only hope he won’t give me leisure to think why I joined.  Several people have asked me; but I could not answer yet. 

The following day he writes again, also from Balham, having had to be signed off by the doctor until the tendons in his foot had recovered.

Letter to Eleanor Farjeon

Letter to Eleanor Farjeon

This letter finishes with him requesting “don’t tell anybody I aren’t a soldier yet, tho I am in uniform”, presumably in relation to being signed off, but the bulk of it refers to the poetry he has been writing whilst in Balham waiting:

…six hours over ten lines which perhaps are not right yet.  But if you would type them for me could see them better.  They are

What matter makes my spade for tears or mirth

Letting down two old pipes into the earth?

The one I smoked, the other a soldier

Of Blenheim, Ramillies, & Malplaquet

Perhaps.  The dead man’s immortality

Lies lightly represented with my own,

A yard or two nearer the air of day

Than bones of ancients who, amazed to see

Almighty God erect the mastodon,

One laughed or wept at what earth had to bear

Detail of "Digging"

Detail of “Digging”

The finished version of the poem can be seen here.  Prior to the war Thomas had mainly written criticism, rather than poetry, the outbreak of the war and the influence of his friend Robert Frost meant that he began writing poems in autumn 1914. He often sent drafts or material for typing to Eleanor, getting her to comment on it as well as to type it up – the commentary was a service he provided for her as well.  Drafts of his poems within the collection include “Lob” and “Lights Out”, the latter we’ll come to in a future blog.

Letters to Eleanor Farjeon, 1915, ref: D112/1/3

Letters quoted are numbers 114 &115 and available on microfilm in the first instance.


22-28 December 1914: Christmas Concerts

The Tooting and Balham Gazette of 26 December reported on a matinee concert held at Balham Hippodrome in aid of the Home Defence League Equipment Fund. The paper praised the artistes involved, saying “it speaks volumes for the profession – probably the hardest hit of any by the war – that so many prominent performers in the music-hall world figured on the programme”. The acts performing included Gus Garrick, singing The Kaiser and Any Old Iron, which was reported as being very funny and a hit with the audience (Garrick appears on this Cambridge postcard in 1898 and was appearing in films in the 1930s, so obviously had a long career). Several of the other acts were highlighted as performing patriotic material, including “local favourites” Will Deller and Ernest Shand.

The afternoon ended with local business man Edwin Evans, president of the South West Division of the Home Defence League, thanking the audience, the performers and the Hippodrome for the fundraising event. The League consisted of nearly 2000 trained men ready to defend Balham and Wandsworth.

(c) Wandsworth Heritage Service

(c) Wandsworth Heritage Service

The Hippodrome had opened in 1899 as the Royal Duchess Theatre on Balham Hill. It became the Hippodrome in 1909 and closed in the 1930s, after various owners had financial difficulties. During the Second World War it was badly damaged and subsequently demolished.

1-7 September 1914: Belgian Refugees in Balham

On 4th September, the South Western Star reported on the receiving depot for Belgian refugees at St Luke’s, Ramsden Road. On the Monday of that week twenty-seven refugees had arrived, nine more came on Tuesday and a further seven on Wednesday. Tents were set up in the church grounds to provide shelter for women and children during the day, and the newspaper reports that many curious locals had come to have a look at the refugees and to offer sweets and fruit to the children. The reporter from the Star was unable to get a great deal of information, as the local Red Cross had been instructed not to discuss the situation. Some of the refugees were from Louvain “the flourishing city which German barbarism has reduced to ruins” and those who had escaped were “thankful to be with the good English”. Nuns from the local convent were allowed in to take some of the women and children out for the afternoon, and the article finishes by commenting on how they were probably instructed to keep them from talking to strangers.

Elsewhere in the paper life in the area seemed to be carrying on much as before the war. The magistrate’s courts were busy with the usual mix of drunkenness, petty crime and assault, with one major difference being that some of those sentenced were not fined or imprisoned but instructed to join the army. One man who should have appeared on a charge of being drunk and disorderly was unable to attend court as he had enlisted, and it was claimed that “after his enlistment he had a drop too much” – the charge was withdrawn. Another man was arrested for brandishing a revolver whilst drunk to “celebrate the victories at the war”.

The Star also reports on the more conventional methods the borough used to mark the outbreak of war by describing a recruiting meeting at Wandsworth Town Hall. As well as a number of men enlisting, the meeting also passed a resolution to say “that those present pledge themselves to enlist, or, if unable to enlist, to do all in their power to help recruiting”. Elsewhere it was reported that a number of pupils from Wandsworth Technical Institute had safely returned from a trip to Switzerland where they had been when war broke out. They were not alone in the borough in finding themselves stuck in Europe, the Board of Guardians recorded the safe return of their Chair, Canon Curtis, to England at their meeting on 3rd September, and two of the teachers in Holy Trinity School, Upper Tooting had a delayed start to the term as they had problems returning from Switzerland. The newspaper does not record quite why so many people from Wandsworth were in Switzerland!

The South Western Star and other local papers are available on microfilm at Wandsworth Heritage Service.