Penge’s War Dead: Research and Remembrance

GWP - War memorial RG

Research

In these centenary years, like many others, I’ve been researching the meaning of the First World War for the place where I live. I’ve looked into the Home Front in Penge – food, drink, recruitment. And most recently, I’ve been finding out about the young men from Penge who went off to fight and never came back.

The sheer volume of material available for this sort of research, the variety of sources, is astonishing. In the case of Penge I have made use of:

  • The local war memorial with its four hundred inscribed names;
  • Local newspapers, some available online through the British Newspaper Archive. The Norwood News has been especially useful, and the Penge & Anerley Press has some good content.
  • The official ‘Penge Roll of Honour’, compiled diligently from 1914 onwards by local school-teacher W.T. Stuart with help from pupils at Oakfield School, written up and published as a bound manuscript after the War, now carefully preserved in the Bromley Archive.

GWP RoH #2

  • The National Archive, which has put a vast amount of its First World War holdings online, including soldiers’ and sailors’ individual ‘medal cards’.
  • The Commonwealth War Graves Commission website, another impressive resource in terms of the data it holds, and its ease of use. The CWGC embodies the moral imperative of ‘remembrance’, charged with remembering the war dead in perpetuity: even today they rededicate graves, and hold burial services when the remains of First World War victims are identified.
  • The Imperial War Museum (also a product of the First World War) and its ‘Lives of the First World War’ project.
  • Regimental histories: in my case, I’ve been looking at The Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment 1914-1919 by C.T. Atkinson, published in 1924, because this was the Regiment that Penge men were most likely to join.

By putting all these together, every so often we can establish the circumstances of a death which would otherwise be just another statistic. For instance: the raw data on Leslie Kitchen of Minden Road in Penge is that he was a Private in the 7th Battalion of the West Kent Regiment, and died at the age of 19 on 28th March 1918. But from Atkinson’s history we can place the 7th battalion, and therefore Leslie, at the village of Gentelles, south of Amiens, on 28th March. Leslie was killed in a sudden and overwhelming German attack in which the battalion was virtually wiped out. This was one episode in the great offensive of spring 1918, Ludendorff’s last gamble, his attempt to exploit his temporary numerical superiority on the Western Front while Russia was out of the War, and the USA not yet properly in it.

One final word: I am enormously indebted to my partner, Dr. Lucie Dutton, for contributing her own research skills, honed in the course of producing her PhD. She has pulled together data from multiple sources to produce a consolidated record of the Penge war dead.

I’ll be talking about our findings, about who these young men were, where they lived, how they met their ends, on Tuesday 6th November, at 7 pm, in Melvin Hall, Melvin Road, Penge.

Remembrance

But is there a danger in this sort of research? Isn’t there something mawkish or prurient about cataloguing the War’s dead? And isn’t there a risk that it will be hi-jacked by the peddlers of cheap sentimental patriotism and Brexit nativism?

These risks are real, but there is also a duty here.

Millions of young men died on the battlefields of the First World War. Four hundred of them came from Penge. The streets where they lived, in many cases the houses where they lived, are still here. They were snatched from suburbia to face horror and death. Of course the same was true in the Second World War, and the other wars, but the fact is that, in this country, it was the First World War which became and remains the symbol of tragic slaughter, the source of the imperative of remembrance. And society is richer for having such a symbol and such a source.

Max Horkheimer put it like this:

“What has happened to the human beings who have fallen, no future can repair … human consciousness alone can become the site where the injustice can be abolished, the only agency that does not give in to it”.

What Horkheimer is saying is that the past is past, the dead are dead, the circumstances of their deaths cannot be undone, but some measure of hope and redemption for them is still possible if we, the living, can find it in ourselves to offer it to them. Our living human consciousness, our grief and sense of shared humanity, offers the only possible site, the only available place, where their suffering may be acknowledged and their humanity sustained despite their absence.

I find this thought immensely moving. It touches not just the First World War’s dead, but the victims of history as such. In fact it defines the moral ground of historical sensibility and historical study. It argues that the practice of history is simultaneously an intellectual and a moral endeavour, an exercise both in diligent research and interpretation, and in human sympathy, imagination and solidarity. This is why remembrance matters.

 

Home Front Penge: Demon Drink


Pubs Crystal Palace Station

One day in late 1916, in the Refreshment Rooms at Crystal Palace Low Level Station (today’s Crystal Palace Station), Walter Stamforth bought a drink for his friend Harold Manley. The drink was served by the barmaid Kate Truett, whose employer was Frank Hayward, the licensee. 

In January 1917, all four of them appeared at Penge Police Court, charged with committing or facilitating the crime of buying intoxicating liquor to be consumed by another person. Stamforth had broken the law by buying the drink, Truett by serving it, Manley by drinking it, and Hayward because it had all happened on his premises. The first three were fined, and Hayward lost his licence. All of this may strike us as barmy, but in 1917 it was the law. 

It had been illegal to ‘treat’ or ‘stand a drink’ since the spring of 1915, when David Lloyd George launched a full frontal assault on Britain’s drinking culture in the name of winning the First World War.  

In late 1914 and early 1915 the Western Front was taking shape, as the German Army dug in to defend its territorial gains in France and Belgium. British soldiers and politicians were trying to get to grips with the new phenomenon of trench warfare, in which artillery would clearly play a major role. But the Army lacked ammunition: there was a ‘Shell Crisis’. Lloyd George spotted an opportunity to play a bit of politics, by drawing a link between the Shell Crisis on the Front and industrial discipline at home. With no solid evidence, he asserted that the main reason for the shortage of shells was that munitions workers were drunk.

Rt Hon DLG commons wikimedia org

He quickly found a ready audience, because the War had unleashed a storm of moral panics and crusades. Self-appointed guardians of public morals insisted that, with the country at war, it was outrageous that some still sought entertainment in pubs, cinemas, football grounds or music halls. Even sex wasn’t safe. Lord Kitchener refused to allow condoms to be issued to British soldiers, insisting instead that they should ‘abstain’, for which he was publicly praised by the Archbishop of Canterbury. The prominent suffragette Christabel Pankhurst also chimed in, claiming that most men had VD and should learn to be ‘chaste’. 

Even with Lord Kitchener and Christabel Pankhurst on board, a campaign against sex was doomed. But Lloyd George calculated that a campaign against drink might succeed; and if he could position himself as its champion, rich political rewards may come his way. The temperance movement was, after all, part of the cultural landscape, part of the whole non-conformist and evangelical Christian tradition. Leading figures in all political parties were declared teetotallers. Here in Penge the local Band of Hope had been active since the 1870s, working closely with the Baptist and Congregationalist churches, running weekly services for children, and public meetings for adults, preaching the evils of drink. Similar groups were at work all over the country, providing a ready-made body of support for Lloyd George’s new measures. And the measures were drastic: in addition to making ‘treating’ illegal, he raised the price of drink, reduced its strength, and cut pub opening hours to two hours at lunchtime and three in the evening.

Pubs Crooked Billet

Pubs everywhere were affected, but for Penge’s pubs these new laws came on top of another sudden wartime measure, the closure of the Crystal Palace.

The vast Crystal Palace complex, combining museum and sports arenas and concert hall and conference centre and an ever-changing kaleidoscope of amusements, was mostly located within Penge’s boundary. And for sixty years it had provided reliable passing trade for Penge’s shopkeepers and landlords, as visitors wandered down to browse in local shops, or to have a drink in one of the sixteen pubs lining the High Street between the Penge Gate on Thicket Road, and the junction with Croydon Road. Then suddenly, out of the blue, in February 1915, the site was abruptly closed to the public and occupied by the Royal Navy which used it for the rest of the War as a ‘training depot’.  

Whether this led to a loss of trade for Penge’s pubs is hard to say: it may be that the loss of civilian customers was recompensed by a new influx of thirsty naval trainees. But even so it must have required some adjustment to deal with this sudden alteration at the same time as beer became weaker, prices higher, hours shorter, and landlords’ livelihoods were put at risk every time someone took it into his head to buy a drink for a mate.

Pubs Goldsmiths

 

The anti-drink laws of 1915 matter. They were an early signal that the First World War would be unlike any previous war; a ‘total war’, a national mobilisation, leaving no-one untouched. Many other aspects of ‘total war’ would follow in the months and years ahead: state direction of industry, mass employment of women, conscription, food controls, rationing. But drink – or rather the campaign against it – pointed the way.  
Pubs Pawleyne

 

Home Front Penge: Allotments

 

GWP Allotment lead 

The single most pressing issue on the Home Front throughout the First World War, in Penge as elsewhere, was food. Britain relied on food imports; if they were cut off, within three months people would be starving. So alongside the naval effort to protect supplies from abroad, a domestic effort took shape, slowly and fitfully, to grow more food at home. And this effort took in not just the countryside but also the cities.

 Urban allotments were nothing new in 1914: Penge’s neighbours in Beckenham could boast several allotment sites dating back to the 1890s. But within the boundaries of Penge – which included Anerley and part of Upper Norwood as well as ‘Penge proper’ – there were none.

 Enter Edward George Hopper.  

GWP Hopper (3)

 

Hopper was a florist, a local councillor (‘Independent’, which in those days was code for Liberal), blessed with green fingers and boundless enthusiam. From the summer of 1915 he argued that Penge Urban District Council should take the initiative on allotments, and at a public meeting at the Co-op Hall in August many would-be plot-holders agreed. 

Penge was densely housed, but not as densely as it is today. In principle there was plenty of open ground which could be used for allotments, especially in the largely-undeveloped area bounded by Croydon Road, the High Street, Ravenscroft Road, and Elmers End Road. This map from 1909 shows the potential. 
GWP Allotment potential map

 But even where land was undeveloped, it was still privately-owned, and the Council had no powers of requisition or compulsory purchase. Some landowners acted voluntarily – Mr. and Mrs. Grose made land available at Chesham Park for allotments – but most didn’t.

Things changed when the Government brought in the Land Cultivation Order in December 1916. This gave local councils not just a right, but a duty, to identify and take over ‘unused’ land and make it available to local residents as allotments; in effect, allotment-holders became tenants imposed on the landowner, under the protection of the local council. Significantly, the Order was introduced under the auspices of the Defence of the Realm Act or ‘DORA’, the catch-all law passed in 1914 which gave the Government emergency wartime powers. In other words, allotments were officially defined as part of the war effort.

 In the early months of 1917 Penge Council identified and took over six sites. In Anerley there were two small sites at Stembridge Road and Bourdon Road, with room for 12 plots. In Upper Norwood there was a single 13-plot site at Milestone Road. But the large sites were in Penge proper, in the open area described above: 7 plots at Oak Grove, 41 at Chesham Park and 43 at the ‘Royston Estate’. The whole effort was overseen by the Council, and especially by Councillor Hopper. He presided at monthly Plot-holders Meetings at the Town Hall on Anerley Road, dispensing practical advice to first-time growers; co-ordinated bulk purchase of seed potatoes and other basics; and organised Summer and Winter Shows at which allotment holders could show off their produce.

The Council also negotiated water supplies for the different sites – though this provoked an angry debate about who should pay. Some councillors argued that allotment-holders should pay since they were the beneficiaries. Others argued that their efforts were benefitting the whole community, so that the cost should be met from the rates.

Today there are two allotment-sites within the old Penge boundary, at Upper Chesham, and Lower Chesham. Penge Green Gym’s impressive online history suggests that the modern Upper Chesham Allotments are on the site of the old Chesham Park, 

GWP Allotment Upper Chesham

 with the further implication that they are directly descended from the First World War allotments donated by Mr. and Mrs. Grose. Lower Chesham Allotments, meanwhile, are a few yards from Royston Road and Royston Field, and clearly within the old ‘Royston Estate’.

 
GWP Allotment Lower Chesham

 All of which suggests that they too owe their existence to the First World War, to Penge Urban District Council, and to Councillor Edward George Hopper.

Home Front Penge: Conshies

GWP Recruiting Officer

 May 15th was International Conscientious Objectors Day, which makes this a good time to look back to the First World War, when the concept of the ‘conscientious objector’ first appeared. I’ve been researching the home front in Penge during that War, when ‘conshies’ stirred up real passions.

Penge’s population in the early years of the twentieth century was mostly skilled working class, and lower middle class. It was a dormitory suburb for clerks in the City, with regular trains to Blackfriars (then called ‘St. Paul’s’) and London Bridge; and for workers in the West End, catching the train to Victoria. There was also the Crystal Palace, whose visitors spent their money in local shops and pubs. There was poverty, but far less than in other South London districts such as Lambeth or Greenwich. With an Urban District Council dominated by the Conservatives, Penge was quietly respectable.

Respectability was closely linked to religious observance. Active church attendance across London was notoriously low, but this co-existed with a widespread passive acceptance of Christian religion and morality. Most of Penge’s local worthies, councillors and community leaders, declared allegiance to one or other of the area’s churches or chapels, and this was clearly regarded as both normal and creditable.

GWP Congregational Church

But, as in previous eras, there was a tension between respectable church attendance, and the radical potential of the Biblical message. The sixth commandment did not say ‘Thou shalt be respectable’ but ‘Thou shalt not kill’. With the advent of the First World War this tension was exposed. So far I have only found evidence for a handful of men who identified themselves as conscientious objectors in Penge, but all of them rooted their objection in their Christian faith.

In early 1916, soon after conscription (compulsory military service) came in, Mr. A.W. Oakley of Cintra Park appeared before the Penge Tribunal, established by the District Council to deal with local men who objected to being called up. Oakley was a self-employed tailor, with a wife and an elderly mother. He could have argued that he was their only means of support: it was an allowable argument, which sometimes won a reprieve if not an exemption. But he argued on the grounds of his faith. He was a Christian, a Baptist, and “he could not take part in warfare … he would rather go to prison”. The Tribunal gave him non-combatant status.

John Hill, of Station Road in Anerley, was also declared non-combatant when he argued that military service was incompatible with his Christian principles. He was required to join the ‘Non-Combatant Corps’ with the rank of Private. This was an Army Corps set up specifically for conscientious objectors: its members wore uniform and were subject to regular Army discipline, but they were not required to fight, and worked instead in support roles, building, cleaning and so on. Although distant from the killing fields, they were in the Army, and liable to court martial if they made trouble. John Hill made trouble. Once in the Corps he refused to obey orders on the grounds that he had never agreed to be a soldier. In November 1916 he was court-martialled and sentenced to hard labour.

Finally, H. Woodbank and G. Stephenson, lived at Lime Villas in Oakfield Road. They were members of, and may even have been employed by, the Bible Brotherhood. They argued that their Bible work was “essential” and therefore they should be exempt from military service. The Penge Tribunal gave them the benefit of the doubt, but this was over-turned at the next level up, the West Kent Tribunal in Bromley, which ruled that they must fight.

These decisions were taken in an atmosphere of overwhelming hostility to conscientious objectors. By 1916 it was widely understood that this was a war of mass slaughter, but the effect of the slaughter was not to undermine the willingness to fight, but to strengthen it. Because so many had already been lost, the majority view seems to have been that the country must press on so that they would not have died in vain. Hence the hostility to conscientious objectors, who seemed to put their own private principles before the lives of others. And this hostility was expressed not just in the press, or on political platforms, but also within the Christian faith from which the objectors drew their inspiration.

In March 1916 the Reverend Ernest J. Barson, minister at Penge Congregational Church, used his weekly sermon to attack conscientious objectors who claimed that war was contrary to Christianity.

 

GWP Conscientious objector

Theirs was not true Christianity, Barson argued. True Christianity was about fellowship, but conscientious objectors betrayed their fellows and comforted their enemies. True Christianity was about honour, and this was an honourable War. And true Christianity was about sacrifice, and the War had “lifted the manhood of the nation to a higher plane of service and sacrifice than any of us have known before”.

Barson wasn’t particularly reactionary: politically, if anything, he was a progressive. Nor was he the sort to send others into danger while staying safely at home himself; for several months he served as a YMCA volunteer on the Western Front.

GWP Barson in uniform

Barson – who continued as minister at Penge for another 30 years – was simply giving voice to the version of Christianity to which most people in the country subscribed; a no-nonsense, patriotic and utterly respectable version of Christianity, which supported the War and regarded conscientious objectors with contempt.

 

Text images are taken from various editions of the Penge and Anerley Press from 1916.