Springfield Road: Ordinary street – extraordinary sacrifice

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Nowhere in East Wickham and Welling was the loss of so many men in the First World War felt more strongly than in Springfield Road (which runs behind Morrisons supermarket).  Such were the number of houses touched by the death of a husband, son or brother, the road could have had its own war memorial. The stories of the men who died were researched by the volunteers of the Trust’s WElling WILL REMEMBER THEM project. Moved by the extrordinary number of deaths in this one road, Sophie Pigott, one of the researchers, wrote the following article  which was published in the magazine Family Tree (June 2016). It is reproduced here in full by kind permission of Family Tree’s editor:

While researching the soldiers named on the Welling and East Wickham war memorials in Kent, the name of one street kept cropping up as the residence of men who had died. It was the trigger for this small study of a particular street during the Great War.

An ordinary street
Today, Springfield Road in Welling is a quiet residential street. Welling was only a village before the end of the 19th century and the 1895-1897 Ordnance Survey map shows mainly the houses around the crossroad of Watling Street, the Roman road from Canterbury to London forming the High Street of the village, and Upper Wickham Lane, leading north to East Wickham St Michael church. Around were fields and orchards. In 1901, Welling had 1,661 inhabitants. It was always linked to East Wickham and many men named on one memorial also appear on the other. In local directories, the two places are always listed together. But not so in county directories where Welling is attached to Bexleyheath.

The street I have researched was developed c1900 at the north-east of the central crossroad, running parallel to the High Street, east from Upper Wickham Lane, leading nowhere at the beginning, although a small lane was giving access to the High Street beside the Nag’s Head public house (see map of 1909). Around were allotment gardens. It was then named Talfourd Road, after Edward Talfourd Hughes, who owned the pub. In 1912, the road changed name and became Springfield Road, still its name today.

The street is straight, not very long (about 200m), and bordered on both sides by terraced houses, except at the west end where there are three semi-detached houses. Another detached house, Acuba Villas, sits on the north side, just before the row of terraces (odd numbers 1 to 35, 18 houses). The south side is an uninterrupted row of 27 terraced houses (numbers 2 to 54), the last one at the east end being used as a shop. For simplicity, I only deal with the 45 terraced houses in this article.

Occupancy findings
At the beginning of th street’s existence, many houses stayed empty. The Jenkins local directory of 1903 notes ‘twenty empty houses (new)’ after number 11, and lists all the houses with an even number, four of which are listed as ‘empty’. At number 54 are ‘General Stores’. While the semi-detached houses seem to have always been occupied, residents moved in and out of the terraced houses a lot, although they often stayed in the same street.

The 1905 directory lists only 15 of the even numbers, noting that two houses are empty, and only six houses on the north side, especially the last ones which were empty two years before. This of course may be because they did not bother to list every family. But the 1909 directory, which can be matched with a map of the same year, gives a full list of the houses (see below), noting precisely the empty ones, 12 on the north side and 10 on the south side, out of 45 houses. The General Stores are still there, but with a different manager.

The 1911 Census gives the same impression of Talfourd Road as half-empty, and this is confirmed by the rate books of October 1910 and October 1911. About 34 families lived in the terraced houses in the road. Considering that these 45 terraces could accommodate two families each, as proved by the rate books that list numbers 2, 2a, 4, 4a, etc, it means people moved in quite slowly. The number of rooms for one house is seven: for instance at number 38, the Fairweather family (two adults and six children) says it has four rooms while the other occupier, a Mrs Gamble, with her son and two grandchildren,  says she has a ‘3 (room) apartment’.

For the poor rates taken just after the start of the war, the rate book of 2 October 1914 lists 40 families living on the south side of the street, with 23 on the north side.

A heavy toll
It was not possible to research every young man living in the street at the start of the hostilities of the First World War, nor who went to live there later. My study is based only on the families who are directly linked in the military records to Springfield Road.

As far as I know, George Robert Mills’s family at number 48 was the first in the street to learn it had lost a relative in the war. George’s brother William, who was born in Welling, had married in 1911 and moved with his wife to Hertfordshire. William lost his life when HMS Cressy was sunk on 22 September 1914.

Only 10 months after the beginning of the war the first death of a ‘local’ young man occurred. His name was John Charles Fairweather and his parents and siblings lived at number 33 (in 1911 the family had been at number 38). John was killed in action, aged 19, on 27 May 1915, after spending less than three months fighting in France.

Surprisingly, it is possible this was the only bad news touching the Springfield Road community in the whole year, although Alice Skinner, a widow living at number 19, lost her son Edward John in September. But did she hear of it quickly? At the time of the 1911 Census, Edward was living in Walworth, probably with a common law wife. When he enlisted, he did it under a different name, George Bigland. According to the files on soldiers’ effects, the British Army knew of his real name, and his mother received some money in March 1916. He probably died of an accident while training.

In Springfield Road, the year 1916 started as quietly as the one before. The minutes from the War Memorial Committee gives number 17 Springfield Road as the address of Robert G Cook, who died of wounds in April 1916, but it is probably a mistake. The Cooks living at this address are Thomas and Ethel, while Robert’s parents were George and Selina. Cook is a very common name.

So two years after the beginning of the war, few families in Springfield Road were in mourning, at least for the death of a very close member. However, this all changed after the offensive on the Somme and, in the autumn of 1916, three families lost a son. In October, Ernest Clement Brewer, aged 25, was killed in action. He had lived for a while at number 28 but had moved to Bexleyheath after his marriage to Elizabeth Titcombe. His brother George Arthur was living at number 38. In November, the Janes, who had lived in the street at number 6 before moving to number 8, lost their first-born son William Alfred aged only 19, also killed in action. Exactly a month later in December, Thomas Richard Dinmore died of tuberculosis at the family home at number 5, having being discharged from the Army in September. He had lied about his age to join up in 1915. Another local lad, from number 31, George William Ricketts, was sent back from France in October, suffering from shell shock.

The spring of 1917 did not bring good news either for the people of Springfield Road. At the end of the road, again three families were to be told of the death of their sons: in April, poor shell-shocked George William Ricketts died at the Bermondsey Infirmary, aged 24, and his older sister living at number 31 registered his death. Ten days later, James Steel, 23, whose large family lived at number 34 (number 40 in the 1911 Census) died of wounds. He had eight brothers said to be fighting, although this was probably exaggerated as some would have been too young (it’s possible they tried to enrol but were sent home). Little their neighbours knew, at number 36, that the next death would be that of their son, Walter George Spencer. He was still living with his parents in 1911 and was killed in action on 22 May 1917 aged 27.

Later in July, George Brewer, already mourning his brother Ernest, learned of the death of another brother, William Thomas, who died of wounds aged 39. He had joined the Army as early as 1901, had been fighting in Africa. He was living with his wife in Bromley and had enrolled again in 1915. Their parents lived in Bexleyheath.

Another death, that of Joseph Richard Briggs killed in action aged 35, occurred at the end of September. Although it is not sure he had been living in the road, his wife Minnie was at number 13 not long after his death, according to the rate books.

But the worst year for the residents of Springfield Road was 1918. A total of seven deaths between March and October directly affected local people.  This glut of tragedy started with the death of Harry Price (born Henry Thomas) killed in action on 21 March. He was 28 and had just moved with his wife Emily to number 35 (details from the rate book of 5 April).

It is interesting to note at this point that some families received the bad news of the death of a loved one, when later it was discovered the man had been taken prisoner. Some of those who had been announced dead came back. This must have happened many times and one can only imagine the sorrow of those people who were ignorant of the fact their loved one was alive. This is what happened to the Kemp family, who lived at number 10 for a while, with another relative living at number 17. The local newspaper announced the family had received the news that their son Percy had been killed in action in the last week of March. He was only 20. In fact, he had been taken prisoner. Newspapers often did not publish this kind of good news, as it occurred at a time when other events were their focus. Thankfully Percy survived the war and died aged 93 in 1990. The same mistake happened in May 1918 when William Theobald of number 38 was reported missing. He too survived the war and died in 1975.

A month later, at the end of April 1918, another young man of the street, George William Mills, aged 19, was killed in action. His parents lived at number 48. He was the nephew of William Mills whose death, I believe, was the first in September 1914 to affect the people of Springfield Road. George, who had joined up when he was 16, had been wounded in 1915 and been sent to a hospital in Sheppey. He had returned to the Front in November 1917.

Just a few days later, William Bingham died of his wounds 11 days after being shot. His wife Edith (née Titcombe) and their two children lived at number 19. She was the sister of Elizabeth, wife of Clement Brewer, who was already a war widow at number 28. The two houses are almost opposite due to the way the terraced houses are situated in the street.

Worse was to come for the Anderson family who had lived at number 2 for years. In the space of two-and-a-half months they learned of the death of two sons: both were killed in action, Harold, aged 19, on 11 May and John David, aged 26, on 22 July. John had joined the Army before 1911 and had lived through almost four years of war. Two weeks later, another family bore the blow of a second child’s death, the Steels at number 34. The Steels’ son Stephen Joseph was killed in action at the beginning of August. He had been wounded in 1917 and was sent to a hospital in Northampton before being sent back to France.

The last one to die during the war was David Collins who lived at number 52, next to the General Stores. He was 37 and living with his mother Caroline.

Ripples of war
A study of a single street in this way is revealing because it shows a tragic echo of the war, which took some time to reach it. The hostilities were over but not the death toll. In the case of Springfield Road, three more deaths were to occur, two in 1919 and one as late as 31 May 1920.

Strangely, in 1919, the deaths would be of the oldest and the youngest of Springfield Road. Arthur Hughes, who died of pneumonia in February, was 45 years old, whereas John Gilbert Hewson, who succumbed to the Spanish flu epidemic in a hospital in Brighton in August, was only 15. Their families were living at number 19 and number 20 respectively.

The final death linked to Springfield Road was of Sidney Alfred Dinmore, who was 27. He was the older brother of Thomas Richard, who had died of tuberculosis in December 1916. Sidney had enrolled in the Royal Navy at 16 in 1909. He also died of tuberculosis at the seamen hospital in Sheerness in May 1920. His mother, a widow since 1914, lived at number 5.

So many deaths (21 in total, plus the two wrongly announced) in one street over a period of four years seem higher than average, and that is what incited me to write about it. This study is far from being thorough and exhaustive; much more time would be needed to follow what happened to all the boys of the right age in the street, and their older brothers who had already left home, who were wounded and/or who suffered from serious damage – mental and physical. This short project nevertheless gives a snapshot of the impact of the Great War on a small community on a personal level. What is interesting is the fact that, like a stone thrown in calm waters, the war sends ripples of its destructive powers slowly but steadily; and while few deaths are to be deplored in the first two years of the conflict, the full impact reaches the street in 1917 and 1918, and continues well after the guns have fallen silent.

We learn the dates when a war starts and when it finishes but in real life, for ordinary people, it is not so clear cut. We commemorate ‘the glorious dead’ but I wonder sometimes if the survivors did not suffer as much or even more, having lived through several years of war and spending the rest of their lives with horrific memories, and often with disabilities or ill-health due to their time spent in the forces. They deserve to be commemorated like those who died. Perhaps there would have been an official commemorative list of all the men who fought during the Great War if so many records had not been destroyed in the Blitz. I once read that almost nine out of 10 came back from the Great War. They did their bit like those who lost their lives. But where are they named? Where do we officially ‘remember them’?

 By Sophie Pigott

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