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
The South Western Star of 22 January 1915 carried two letters from Battersea men who had been at the front and were now prisoners of war. The first letter came from Private J H Gardiner, of Hut 32A, Gottinggen, Hanover and was dated 15 December, although it did not reach the offices of the Star until the beginning of the week it was published. He encourages everyone at home to carry on doing all they can for soldiers at the front, including noting how welcome parcels containing warm clothing are – proof that the girls of Upper Tooting School were right to be knitting socks.
…I am sorry to say that those who have had the misfortune to be taken prisoners often get forgotten. A lot of the soldiers here are receiving parcels from friends, which are very welcome – such as warm clothing and parcels of eatables. We are always on the look-out for parcels of eatables. We have here several Battersea men who are not so fortunate as others and are unable to get parcels sent them, and it adds to the hardships to see other men receiving parcels when we are unable to have them sent. It is on account of these men of Battersea that I am writing to ask you if you could use your influence to get some Battersea people to send parcels of eatables and clothing to their townsfolk out here. Parcels of eatables and clothing we are allowed to receive and anything such as cake, biscuits, tarts, pies, jam, potted meat etc are very welcome…
The second letter came from a group of Battersea men who were held elsewhere, as they note that “we are the only Battersea men here”. They wrote to ask for “a change of underclothing, also a parcel of provisions and tobacco and a pipe each”. In response to this being published they all promised to “call at the South Western Star offices the first day we reach Battersea”. It was signed from E Locke, T Walsh, G Dyer and B Golder and each man had included his number and regiment.
The Red Cross has records relating to Prisoners of War and these can be searched online. An initial search has discovered that Private Golder was Benjamin Golder, the information beside is name is “La Bassee”, which is presumably where he was captured. This information was supplied to the Red Cross in 1916 and the digitised records are available online here. The site can be difficult to use – the only other record found easily was that of George Dyer, who was held near Munster – and the original lists of prisoners have all the information bar the names and regiments in German.
The South Western Star is available on microfilm