Tooting’s Boy Soldier sent home – September 1916

Last Saturday afternoon there was quite a crowd gathered around an ordinary looking terraced house on Garratt Lane in Tooting. Passengers on passing buses stared out of the windows to try and work out what all the fuss was about.

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The fuss was no greater around this house than it would have been 100 years ago when a 13 year old boy returned there to his family after having fought on the Somme front for six weeks. The boy was Sidney Lewis, tall for his age maybe, but surely not tall enough to pass for the 19 years old he claimed to be upon enrolling with the East Surrey regiment in August 1915. However, he did join up and only much much later did his mother submit his birth certificate to the War Office to prove that he was in fact extremely underage, whereupon he was brought back to England and discharged from service. The Daily Mirror picked up the story and published it along with a photo of the boy soldier in September 1916. 100 years later we all stood outside Sidney’s former house to witness a commemorative plaque being unveiled, funded by public subscription and brought to fruition by the laudable efforts of the Summerstown 182 project.

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Sidney’s son Colin unveiled the plaque and his grandson scattered confetti from an upstairs window where a violin played. Colin has said that his father used to talk about having served in World War One but it was thought to be a tall tale as he wouldn’t have been old enough at the time to have served.

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A small paragraph in the Wandsworth Borough News on 22nd September 1916 reveals that Sidney’s brother had enlisted in the same regiment at the outbreak of war in 1914, so it is clear that Sidney wanted to follow in his brother’s footsteps. In the latter part of 1915 conscription was yet to be introduced, so the army was desperate for volunteers. Serving on the front line seemingly didn’t deter Sidney from further active service though, as he joined the army again in 1918 and later served in the police force.

 

Read more of Sidney Lewis’s story here: Surrey in the Great War: A County Remembers

Find out more about the Summerstown 182 project here

Wandsworth Borough News is available on microfilm at Wandsworth Heritage Service

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21-27 March 1916: A Wandsworth Family

Maree Batstone’s diary entry for 23rd March 1916 begins: “Very cold, wet day, snow fell often”, and continues on to record various domestic concerns and the health of her two daughters.  Her husband Walter came home at “8.30, he had been enquiring about joining a regiment, he will probably be called up on Sat or Mon and will then not be able perhaps to choose a regiment, so he had been to Scotland Yd recruiting office and another, heard that Royal Garrison Artillery men are beasts, went to Kingston to be medically ex’d but too late, talked to a sergeant there.  Wonders if he will join Queen’s Westminster or London Rifle Brigade”.

Maree and Walter were living in Croydon at the time, but Walter grew up in Baskerville Road, Wandsworth Common, and the family later moved back there, which is why they’re featured this week. The couple married in 1907, after a four year engagement, when Maree was 23 and Walter 26.  By 1916 Walter was 35, Maree was 32 and they had two daughters, Frances and Mollie, born in 1909 and 1915.  Walter was a chartered surveyor in the family firm, Batstone Bros, based in the City.

In many ways, the Batstones are an ordinary family, but from the point of view of our blog they are of huge interest as they kept all their letters and diaries. Wandsworth Heritage Service has family letters for their parents, aunts, uncles and children, from the 1840s to the 1960s, including most of the letters written between Walter and Maree – first during their engagement and then whilst Walter was training and subsequently in the trenches in France.

Walter went to Oxford on 31st March with the 29th Royal Fusiliers, writing: “There are 6 of us here and so far they seem very nice men.  We are I believe all te tees one I imagine is a married man but am not sure.  I have got bad news – we are supposed to be moving from here to Edinborough in a few days time”.  In his later letters, he goes to talk more about his fellow soldiers (and to spell his location correctly), and we’ll be coming back to those and to Maree’s letters to him in future weeks.

Walter, Maree Batstone and children, c1917

Maree Batstone’s diary, 1916, ref: D211/1812/14

Walter’s letters to Maree, 1916, ref: D211/2/1/16

8-14 February 1916: Conscription and Free Speech in Battersea

The Battersea Council meeting of 9th February 1916 contains the information that the Battersea Trades and Labour Council made representations to protest that their meeting in Latchmere Baths was cancelled by the Baths Committee. No explanation is given in the minutes as to why the meeting was cancelled – the report submitted to the meeting by the Baths and Wash-houses Committee refers only to their spending and not to any decisions they might have made. The South Western Star, reporting on the Council meeting, had a rather fuller version of events – as is often the case – referring to it as a “noisy demand for ‘free speech’”, which took up two hours of the meeting.

An unusually large number of persons, several being women, were in the gallery. Mr Grundy, leaning over the rail, was prominent. The explanation of this is that an unpatriotic movement was suspected.

The meeting had been to consider action to repeal the Military Service Bill, passed on 27th January, which brought in conscription. It appeared that the hall had been hired by the Battersea Trades and Labour Council, but was in fact hired by the local branch of the No Conscription Fellowship, according to the paper. The letter from the Trades and Labour Council stated that they had “decided to enter an emphatic protest at such action in attempting to stifle free criticism of the measure” – hence their deputation and the rather more lively meeting described by the Star. The fact that the hall had been hired by the No Conscription Fellowship lead to accusations of duplicity, as the Trades and Labour Council did not have a direct interest in the matter. The leader of the deputation, Mr Carmichael, claimed to be astounded that the cancellation had taken place in Battersea, a borough noted for its free speech, especially during the Boer War – there was an active Stop the War Committee during the Boer War – and with an MP who had done six weeks in prison for free speech thirty years ago. Comments on “where John Burns was now” came from the gallery, as his opposition to the war was well known, although Mr Carmichael pointed out that Burns had voted against the Military Service Bill. He also pointed out that Trade Unions had assisted with recruitment because they thought it would keep away conscription and that the Trade and Labour Council had held a practically unanimous vote to affirm their own opposition to conscription.

The clerk who booked the hall had been under the impression that it was for a Trade and Labour Council meeting, and when the Committee realised that it was not they had held long discussions over what to do. A small majority had concluded that the best decision was to cancel the meeting, a decision upheld by their chair, Mr Simmonds, who thought that “in the present circumstances…the committee were justified”. Mr Bigden argued that it was “most monstrous that the Council should allow the use of the hall” for a No Conscription meeting, and other members argued that the Council should not be the arbiter of patriotism in the borough. This was followed by Mr Brogan launching what the Star called “a tremendous onslaught on rebels and labour, and unpatriotism”, an accusation which caused Carmichael to shout that he was a liar, resulting in him being removed from the chamber whilst Mr Brogan continued that “conscription has come, partly as a result of their apathy in regard to recruiting…Now they had conscription he felt it was his duty to loyally accept it”. The paper records insults to the No Conscription Fellowship and arguments about past bad behaviour at meetings and if that would be comparable to holding a No Conscription meeting, before eventually the Council decided not to refer the matter back to Committee and to carry on with the rest of the business of the day.

Very little of the debate is reflected in the minutes, even though it took up two hours of the Council meeting and showed that the matter of conscription was a controversial one. Many members of the No Conscription Fellowship ended up before the Military Service Tribunals, including Clifford Allen, who write extensively for Fellowship’s news-sheet, The Tribunal, which we will be coming back to in future posts.

Battersea Borough Council minutes, ref: MBB/1/16

South Western Star available on microfilm

18-24 January 1916: The Military Service Tribunals and Tooting

The Tooting and Balham Gazette of 22nd January 1916 carried several columns by the owner/editor of the paper, A J Hurley, on the lack of a Tooting representative on the Wandsworth Military Tribunal.  Hurley was one of the councillors for Tooting, and last year was vocal about the levels of pay in the Tooting workrooms in the paper, so often used it as an extra platform to promote his area with the Council.  The Prime Minister and the President of the Local Government Board had given assurances that the Tribunals would be made up of men with local knowledge – but there was no representative for Tooting on the Wandsworth Tribunal, although Hurley described it as “that densely populated portion of the borough which has given such a huge proportion of its male population to the service of the country”.

Appeals to the Tribunal made from Tooting men had been rejected “by men who possess no local knowledge of Tooting” – although as this post on the Battersea Tribunal shows, many appeals were rejected by that Tribunal.  Representations were made to the Local Government Board and the Tooting Recruiting Committee unanimously agreed that Alderman Mellhuish should represent the ward.  The Mayor interviewed the Alderman and obtained his consent to serve, but the Council’s General Purposes Committee rejected it.  TheGazette also objected to the timing of the Tribunals – they were held during the day, usually in the mornings – as it was bad for workers and for employers, suggesting that members of the Tribunal “were only prepared to meet at times convenient to themselves” and that they should be prepared to make a sacrifice for the war effort and meet at other times of day.  Cllr Hurley also said that if he were Mayor, “my resignation…would have been both prompt and emphatic”.  At a Special Meeting of the Council on 9th February, Alderman Mellhuish and Cllr Garrett – one of the Balham Ward councillors – were added to the members of the Tribunal, so the Gazette’s campaign was a successful one.

Elsewhere in the local papers, the main Tooting-related story this week was the story of Robert Lubbock – reported in the Wandsworth Borough News. Robert was 17 and ineligible for military service due to poor eyesight so was the mess-room steward on a Government employed ship, currently moored in a semi-tropical harbour.  One of the fire-men fell overboard into shark infested waters, Robert and one of the ship’s apprentices dived in to try and save him.  According to the paper “The Fireman was unfortunately killed by a shark, but happily both boys got back to the ship unharmed”, and the paper was clearly proud of the local boy’s efforts.

Tooting and Balham Gazette and Wandsworth Borough News both available on microfilm.

Minutes of the Wandsworth Military Service Tribunal, ref: MBW/2/30/1

30 November – 6 December 1915: Military Service Tribunals

6 December saw the first meeting of the Battersea Local Tribunal, also known as a Military Service Tribunal. This was just a meeting of the Tribunal members, with no cases to hear as yet, but would act for the next almost three years – deciding whether or not applications to defer or be excused from military service would be permitted or not. The same week, on 1st December, Wandsworth Borough Council agreed a committee to act as the Local Tribunal – after some debate within the Council, it had been agreed that one of the members of the tribunal would be a shop-keeper who would understand the needs of small businesses. The minutes do not record which of the members that was.

The Battersea meeting agreed that the Tribunal would be formed of those present, the Mayor [William Moore], W Hammond JP, A Winfield, H G White and W Watts, with a quorum of 3 people – meaning the tribunal could not act unless at least three of them were present. Present at the first meeting was also Lieutenant Gost, who was the recruiting officer for Battersea and was later replaced by a military representative, Captain Briggs, to argue the case for the Armed Forces.

Tribunals were set up after the National Registration Act, which was passed in July 1915 – partially to boost recruitment but also as a way of establishing how many men were in each occupation. Certain occupations were exempt from being called upon for military service, as they were deemed of national importance themselves. Following on from Registration, the Group Scheme of recruitment was devised, where men were encouraged to sign up and be placed into a particular group, which would mark when they were to be called up for service. A much more detailed explanation of the scheme can be found here, with links to articles on how to research this further for particular soldiers.

After the war, the records of the Military Service tribunals were supposed to be destroyed, with only the Middlesex Appeals Tribunal being kept officially for England, and the Edinburgh and Peebles Tribunals kept for Scotland (see here for more information). Several of the local ones survive however, with both Battersea and Wandsworth having kept their minutes. The Wandsworth minutes are largely just minutes, with the names of the men who came before the tribunal having been kept in a separate register – which has not survived. The Battersea minutes do list the cases heard, and we will be coming back to the registers in future weeks.

Battersea Military Service Tribunals, 1915-1918, ref: MBB/2/25/2-4

Wandsworth Military Service Tribunals, 1915-1918, ref: MBW/2/30

23-29 November 1915: Putney St Mary’s School

The log book of the boys school at Putney St Mary’s School is divided into several sections, each recording different aspects of school life that the standardised book thought were important. Some of these are in the miscellaneous section and details visits to the school, school holidays and other special occasions. For November 1915, the only two events recorded in this section were a visit from the Nurse to examine all the boys and a visit from Dr Verdon Roe to carry out a medical inspection.

Other sections give more insight into the life of the school – the recorded absences for teachers this week notes that Albert Hyslop and A H Rood were absent for half a day as they were “at recruiting office – attempting to enlist”. This was obviously not a successful attempt, as on 7th December Albert Hyslop was again absent, having “Gone to Manchester to try to enlist”. A H Rood continued at the school throughout the war, but Albert Hyslop’s trip to Manchester was a success – his marked absence and recorded last day as staff on 10th December carry the note “Enlisted + gone to Dublin”. It is possible that A H Rood was ineligible for service due to health reasons, in March 1916 he was absent as having been called up for a medical exam by the military but as he wasn’t subsequently called up to service we could guess that he failed it.Logbook - half page

Logbook - gone to ManchesterHyslop’s absence meant that the Head Teacher was “obliged to take charge” of his class. Another part of the log book records how often the Head Teacher taught, and through December and January he is noted as frequently in charge of a class through the absence of a teacher, as well as being in “constantly in charge” of the whole school. Eventually a new teacher was transferred to the school from Brandlehow School for the duration of the war – Mrs Evelyn Faulkner.

Logbook - Head teacher

Elsewhere in the borough, a meeting was held of Battersea Borough Council. They too were dealing with issues around staff joining the Forces, a new Group system of recruitment was coming in (the Derby Scheme) which meant they had to consider if staff joining up through that should receive the same benefits as those who had joined up earlier. The recommendation was that they should, if they joined up before 4th December. Staff now had to be given permission to join up, and at the meeting three men were granted it – W Marsh, public lighting attendant, A J Spriggs, coal trimmer, and G Wright, groundman, Morden cemetery. The Derby Scheme recruitment will feature more next week, and in weeks to come, as we look at the Military Service tribunal records.

Putney St Mary’s school log-book, ref: S11/3/3

Battersea Borough Council minutes, ref: MBB/1/15

9-15 November 1915: John Burns and Recruitment

The correspondence file relating to the Battersea Battalion contains a letter addressed to the Director-General of Volunteer Recruiting, forwarding a copy of a resolution made by Battersea Borough Council at their meeting of 9th November. The resolution ran as follows:

That this Council having approached Mr Joh Burns, M.P. in order to induce him to use his great influence in Battersea to encourage recruiting within the Borough, and Mr Burns having refused to receive a deputation from this Council on the matter and having refused in any way to assist recruiting, the Council’s disappointment with, and disapproval of, Mr Burns’ attitude towards recruiting be placed upon the public records of this Council.

Further, that copies of this Resolution be sent to Mr John Burns MP, the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for War and the Director-General of Volunteer Recruiting.

On 22nd October the Mayor, T W Simmons, had written to all members of the Council to inform them that the Borough Recruiting Committee were carrying out Lord Derby’s scheme for recruiting, which included a personal canvas of every eligible man in Battersea. Political Agents were to be involved in arranging this, hence the desirability of securing the support of the local MP, but on top of that it was felt that the scheme was of national importance and “no step should be left untaken to secure its success”. The Recruiting Committee hoped that the public support of John Burns would lead to more men enlisting, and proposed to send a deputation to see him to secure his co-operation. A public meeting was also to be held to discuss the Derby Scheme, and the correspondence file also contains letters sent to local ministers to make announcements at Sunday services and encourage the congregations to attend, and to volunteer as canvassers as well. The file also contains both fliers and posters for the public meeting.

John Burns resolution

John BurnsJohn Burns responded to the request for a meeting with a letter on 2nd November, quoted in the Council minutes – the original is not in the Battalion file. His response was that “as no public advantage can result from complying with the application, he respectfully declines the request”. Acknowledgment letters of the resolution are in the file, none have additional comment beyond receipt of it. Burns was opposed to the war, appointed as President of the Board of Trade in February 1914, he had resigned from the Cabinet two days after war broke out. His son, John Edgar Burns, volunteered soon after the outbreak of war and saw action in what is now Israel, as well as Egypt, before being invalided home with shell-shock.  He then decided to work to commemorate those who had died fighting and worked for the British Graves Commission in France (now the Commonwealth War Graves Commission) and died in 1922, due to long-lasting effects of his war-time experiences.

More information on John Burns can be found here or on the Dictionary of National Biography (Library card log-in required – type Wandsworth followed by library card number).

Battersea Battalion correspondence file, ref: MBB/8/2/15