Beta testing Lives of the First World War

In addition to continuing to add the current series on the men who rang in the first Army-Navy peal, I’ve begun doing some of the beta testing on Lives of the First World War. A slow and steady approach is being taken, starting with the simplest features, and building in more complicated ones as time goes by, and the bugs are worked out. This approach also means that the site is less prone to being overwhelmed by the initial inrush of users, as accounts are only being given out slowly. Those involved in the testing can also suggest additional features they would like to see, which can then be voted on by others to help set priorities for development.

Army-Navy peal 1914: Alfred Arthur Playle (12 March 1893-1980)

This post is the third in the series on the eight men who rang the first peal by members of the Armed Services, following on from the second post on Frederick Augustus Holden.

Stoker 1st Class Alfred Arthur Playle (12 March 1893-1980). Served 8 November 1911-21 March 1917.

Alfred Arthur Playle was born at Barking on 12 March 1893 according to his Royal Navy record, although censuses give his birthplace as Dagenham. He was the second child of George William Playle and Alice Amelia (nee Sparrow) – their marriage had taken place in the Romford registration district in the second quarter of 1889. Their first child, Edith Emily, was born two years later, presumably after the census which shows just George and Alice at Crown Street, Dagenham. The birth of Sissy Elizabeth was registered in the third quarter 1895, she seems to be known variously as Lizzie and Cissie in subsequent censuses. George Isaac was born in the second quarter of 1897.

Ringing first came into the family around 1898 when George William is said to have begun ringing at Laindon, he is also reported to have been present at the opening of a new ring of bells at Rayleigh in June 1898. The bells were largely funded by local freemasons, and the report also suggests he was a mason. The family continued to grow, with John William being born around the same time. By the time of the 1901 census, the family were living at 3 Station Road, Dagenham.

Later that year Emily Caroline was born, Ellen Alice was born in early 1904, and Florence May in late 1905, and Rose Bessie in early 1908. George Playle is said to have started ringing at Dagenham around 1904, and became steeplekeeper soon after. There is not much reported of his ringing until 1907, when he seems to have taken a more active part in the band’s ringing activities, including some conducting. The first mention of Alfred ringing is in connection with a touch of Plain Bob Minor at Dagenham on 12 May 1908, followed by another on 17 May (after evening service), both conducted by his father. On 8 July, both rang in a touch of 360 Double Court Minor, George was conducting once again, this ringing was for a wedding. Then, on 20 September, 720 of Double Oxford. Sadly, late in 1908, Ellen Alice Playle died, aged just four.

On 27 January 1909 Alfred made his first peal attempt, they rang for 2 hours 50 minutes, so were probably not far short of success, but the ringing came to grief. Alfred was ringing the second, the report states, “This is the longest length by all except the conductor. The ringer of the 2nd is not sixteen years of age before March next.” (Bell News, V28, 8 May 1909, p143). No more ringing seems to be recorded until 4 July, when there were several pieces of ringing in relation to services and the parish flower show, and then on an outing to North Weald on 10 August.

A tenth child, Lily Dorothy, was born in early 1910. On 10 April Alfred and his father rang in a date touch of 1910 changes in various minor methods. On 12 June they rang at Holy Trinity, Barking Road, Canning Town. Sadly, Lily died in early 1911, before she was a year old, and before the 1911 census. On Sunday 5 February, Alfred and George rang for Sunday service, morning and evening. At the census, the family were living at 21 Vicarage Road, Dagenham. All the children, including the two who had died, were included on the schedule, but Ellen and Lily were subsequently crossed out. George (42) is shown as a farm labourer (as in previous censuses). The eldest daughter, Ellen (19), was a storekeeper at the telephone works (presumably the Sterling Telephone Works). Alfred (18) was following his father as an agricultural labourer. Cissie (15) was a fitter at the telephone works. George Isaac (14) has left school, but has no occupation. John (11), Emily (9) and Florence (5) were all at school. Rose (3) was too young for school, so presumably stayed at home with her mother Alice (39).

The week after the census, on 9 April, George and Alfred were among the band (both morning and evening) who rang the first touches of Cambridge Surprise Minor rung by the local band in Dagenham. On 18 June the ringing again included Cambridge, among various other methods. On 16 August, the Dagenham ringers went on an outing, by horsedrawn brake, leaving at 8:30am, they travelled the 15 miles to Orsett via Rainham, Wennington, Aveley and Stitford. They spent the rest of the morning ringing at Orsett (joined by some of the locals), and then lunched at the Fox and Hounds. They then travelled to Stanford-le-Hope and rang there. There was going to be a service there at 6pm, so they headed back to Orsett for a little more ringing. After a photo, and a little more ringing, they had tea, and then rang some more. A final drink, and then they set off for home, arriving back in Dagenham at 10:30pm. On 22 October they made the trip to Canning Town again, ringing for evening service there. On 5 November they were back home ringing at Dagenham, now also joined by Miss C Playle – Cissie. Female ringers were still a rarity at this time, with the Ladies’ Guild of Change Ringers not being formed until 1912.

On 8 November Playle joined the Royal Navy as a Stoker 2nd Class. He joined for the standard 12-year engagement, he was described as 5’5″ tall, with a 35″ chest, dark brown hair and eyes and a fresh complexion. He went to Chatham for his initial training at the shore base and barracks, HMS Pembroke. He was home on 26 November for Sunday evening ringing, when Cissie rang her first touch of 720 Plain Bob. Alfred was home again on 3 March 1912, ringing for morning and evening services, along with his father and Cissie.

Playle was posted to HMS Vanguard, a dreadnought battleship, on 10 April 1912. She was part of the Home Fleet, based at Devonport. A year after joining the navy, was promoted Stoker 1st Class. On 12 January he and his father rang with the College Youths at St George-the-Martyr, Southwark, it does not appear that either was ever elected a member. On 26 March 1913 he returned to shore at Chatham. It seems his sister Cissie may actually have beaten him to ringing a first peal, she trebled to Bob Minor at Dagenham on 16 April, conducted by their father. She was the first woman to ring a peal for the Essex Association (and was the only female ringing member of the association at the time). Alfred was posted to HMS Endeavour, a survey ship on 6 June. Cissie and their father visited Kent in July, ringing at Milton-next-Gravesend on 12 July. Alfred wasn’t ringing, although both Victor Jarrett and James Bennett who would ring in the 1914 peal did take part. On 4 September, Alfred’s younger brother, George Isaac, followed in his brother’s footsteps and joined the Royal Navy as a Boy 2nd Class, he was just 16, he went to HMS Impregnable, the boys’ training establishment at Devonport. He had also been learning to ring for about four months before joining up. Alfred rang a peal at home in Dagenham on 1 December, it’s not actually marked as his first peal, so it may be he had actually rung one previously which is yet to be found. All three were ringing at Dagenham on Christmas Day, and rang together in another peal at Dagenham on 27 December.

On 8 January came the armed forces peal at Gillingham, Alfred’s first peal on eight bells. He was still posted to HMS Endeavour, which was based at Sheerness at the time. George Isaac was promoted to Boy 1st Class on 14 May 1914, and posted to the elderly cruiser HMS Gibraltar. Alfred remained posted to Endeavour until with war imminent, he was posted to HMS Leander, an elderly second class cruise serving a destroyer depot ship, on 1 August. He probably just missed George Isaac who was posted to Chatham that day. Alfred probably actually served on HMS Esther, originally a surveying vessel (based on a trawler design), which in wartime was to serve as a minesweeper. He transferred to HMS Halcyon, another minesweeper, on 14 November. George Isaac was briefly posted to the Union-Castle liner, Edinburgh Castle, pressed into naval service as an Armed Merchant Cruiser from 17-24 September, and thence to the pre-dreadnought battleship HMS Goliath on 25 September. Goliath had been ordered to the East Indies station on 20 September, so it’s not clear exactly when George Isaac physically joined the ship. She was involved in escorting convoys carrying Indian Army troops in the Persian Gulf in October, and then in operations off German East Africa, including the bombardment of Dar es Salaam towards the end of November. From December 1914-February 1915 she was refitted at Simonstown, South Africa, before briefly rejoining operations off German East Africa, and was then ordered to the Dardanelles on 25 March 1915, in preparation for the campaign there.

Head and shoulders shot of a boy in seaman's uniform, cap ribbon reads HMS Impregnable

Seaman G I Playle, published in The Ringing World, 2 July 1915, page 335

On 21 February 1915, Alfred rang at home in Dagenham for evening service with his father and sister. On 29 March, George Isaac, turned 18 and was rated Ordinary Seaman. Less than two months later he was dead, along with almost 570 of his crewmates, when Goliath was torpedoed on the night of 12-13 May. A memorial service was held at Dagenham on 26 May, followed by halfmuffled ringing. A brief obituary was published in The Ringing World on 11 June, followed by a photograph on 2 July, taken probably not long after he joined the navy, his cap tally reads HMS Impregnable.

Alfred remained posted to Halcyon until 30 June 1916, when he returned to Chatham. He had managed to ring at home on 18 June, halfmuffled following a memorial service for Lord Kitchener. He was promoted to Leading Stoker on 23 September. On 19 October, he was posted to the destroyer, HMS Archer, she seems to have been based at Devonport at this time, as he was carried on the books of HMS Vivid II. He returned to Chatham on 25 November. On Sunday 28 January 1917 Alfred rang for evening service (with his sister and father) while home for a few days’ leave.

At some point in the first quarter of 1917 Alfred married Ellen Williams in the Medway registration district (which included both Chatham and Gillingham). On 21 March 1917 Alfred was discharged from the Royal Navy as a result of “fibroid phthisis” – tuberculosis. As we saw previously with Frederick Holden, TB was rife in the navy due to the living conditions onboard ship, and in the barracks ashore. Despite this, Cissie C Playle was born in the 1st quarter 1918, Betty G in the 4th quarter 1919, George A H in the 3rd quarter 1923, Megan W A in the 2nd quarter 1930 and Barrington I in the 1st quarter 1934 – all in the Romford registration district. However, there does not seem to be any further trace of Alfred ringing. He is not mentioned in the obituary of his father published in The Ringing World on 18 December 1953. Alfred’s death was registered in the 1st quarter 1980, in the Havering registration district.

Army-Navy peal 1914: Frederick Augustus Holden (1884-1931)

This post continues the series on the eight men who rang the first peal by members of the Armed Services, following on from the previous post on William Austin Cooke.

Flight Sergeant Frederick Augustus Holden (31 August 1884-6 August 1931). Served 23 September 1904-11 January 1928.

On his enlistment in the Royal Navy Holden stated he was born in Bath on 31 August 1884, but no birth registration has yet been found. The 1891 census however, while agreeing about the place of birth, states his age as eight (putting his birth in 1882 or 1883, but again no birth registration). His short obituary in The Ringing World in 1931 describes him as about 48. In 1891 he was living at 19 Queen Street, Aldershot, with his grandmother, Emma Squire, a 58-year-old laundress. She is listed as married, but her husband was not present. By 1901 they were both with his aunt, Constance S Sykes and her daughter Vera Isabel Sykes, at 8 Camden Cottages, Church Walk, Weybridge. Emma was now widowed, but though aged 69 still working as a laundress. No occupation is shown for Constance (29), and she is listed as married and only as wife to head of household, but again her husband is not present. A wide range of birthplaces are given: Constance in Cork, Vera in London and Emma in Exeter – was there previous history of military service in the family? To add to the confusion, there a baptismal register entry for Frederick Augustus Holden in Weybridge on 1 April 1898, giving his date of birth as 1 September 1882, and his parents’ names as Henry and Georgina, and Henry’s occupation as storekeeper. Interestingly several of the baptisms around this time were of teenagers. The 1891 census does list a Henry (46), a wine merchant, and Georgina R Holden (28) living at 13(?) London Street, Paddington (right next to Paddington Station). Henry was born on the Isle of Wight and Georgina on the Cape of Good Hope. They also had an 11-month-old daughter, May R, born Kilburn. They have not been traced in the 1901 census.

Also then living in Weybridge was Alfred Winch (listed on the roll of honour as a Leatherhead ringer), who would also go on to become a well known bellringer. At 21, he was a few years older than Holden, but was also working as a house painter. The Bell News of 24 August 1901 (V20 p 201) reports them ringing together at Guildford on 14 July. Holden rang his first peal, at Staines, Middlesex, on 2 November 1901 (treble to Grandsire Triples). He and Winch also rang at All Saints’ Fulham and Holy Trinity, Barking Road. The following year he was also elected a member of the Surrey Association, listed as a Leatherhead ringer (which was also Winch’s tower – Bell News 5 April 1902, V20 p578). John Webb was elected a member at the same time. The rest of the year included various further ringing with Winch in Surrey and nearby. In March 1903 it appears Holden was living at Providence Villa, Fairfield Road, Leatherhead, as that was the address published in Bell News when asking a former ringer at Staines to get in touch with him. The rest of 1903 and into 1904 followed a similar pattern of ringing. The 27 February 1904 issue of Bell News (V22, p587) carries an advert from him seeking work as painter “constancy preferred”, and giving his address as 31 Russell Road, Wimbledon, SW (the same road on which Stanley Smith, of Mitcham, and his family lived). The same advert continued to appear for a couple of months. On 7 May 1904 he rang his 50th peal, rung for the Surrey Association but at All Saints’ Fulham. The band also included Winch, Arthur Otway (both of Leatherhead), J H B Hesse (Kingston).
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Army-Navy peal 1914: William Austin Cooke (1870-1938)

On 8 January 1914, eight serving members of the armed forces gathered at St Mary’s, Gillingham, in order to make the first attempt to ring a peal by an all armed forces band. A feat that was recently commemorated a century on by members of the present armed forces guilds of bellringers. The following series of eight posts will examine the lives of those eight ringers in greater detail. Though this is a slight diversion from the main thrust of this blog, we’ll see that they were not entirely without Surrey connections.

The first man was the oldest, and the highest ranking, as he was also ringing the treble bell, there seemed little choice but to research him first.

Shipwright Lieutenant William Austin Cooke (27 January 1870-10 February 1938). Served 2 July 1894-12 August 1922.

Aheavily cropped head and shoulders photograph of a middle-aged man with left side-parting and dressed in jacket, shirt and tie.

W A Cooke pictured in the Kent Messenger, re-used by The Ringing World obituary

Cooke was born in Gillingham on 27 January 1870. However, it has proved impossible to trace him in the 1871 or 1881 censuses – it is possible that his father was also in the armed services. In 1891 he was lodging at 2 Station Road, Gillingham, with Harriet Johnson (30), married, but husband not present, and her daughter Elsie (3). Harriet’s husband was perhaps another naval man. Cooke is listed as a joiner. Cooke married Amelia Alice G Preston in early 1894. He had already learnt to ring under the tutelage of Gabriel Lindoff (who was then serving in the Royal Engineers), ringing in the first peals of Cambridge and Superlative to be rung in Kent. He joined the Royal Navy on 2 July 1894. He was described as being 5’4”, with light brown hair, hazel eyes and a fresh complexion. His civilian skills were obviously taken into account, as he was immediately rated leading carpenter crew. He served ashore in Chatham until January 1895 when he was posted to HMS Dryad, a torpedo gunboat. A daughter, Gladys, was born later in 1895. Three years later he was briefly transferred to HMS Hibernia, an old wooden ship-of-the-line, serving as the depot ship in Malta, before returning to Dryad after just a month.

Cooke came back ashore at Chatham on 29 April 1898. Over the next two years he was re-rated as shipwright, and then promoted to leading shipwright. He was posted to the battleship HMS Repulse on 11 January 1900, and was aboard her on the night of the 1901 census. His wife and daughter were living with her father, a widower, George Preston (70), a pensioned engine fitter, at 72 Duncan Road, Gillingham. His rating was changed again in July 1901, possibly back to carpenter, but the admiralty clerk appears to have taken lessons form a doctor writing prescriptions! He was posted to HMS Jupiter on 9 July 1901 and was still serving on her when she took part in the Fleet Review at Spithead which marked the Coronation of Edward VII in August the following year. He came ashore to Chatham again on 3 July 1903, and was then posted to the brand new battleship, HMS Albemarle, on 12 November 1903.

Cooke was given an acting warrant on 15 December 1904, and confirmed in the rank of warrant shipwright on 22 December 1905. It is not quite clear if he was serving ashore during this point, or if he remained on Albemarle. He was posted to the cruiser HMS Blenheim on 8 February 1906, serving on her for just under a year. He then joined another cruiser, HMS Sappho on 21 February 1907, and then her sister ship, HMS Brilliant on 1 May 1908. She paid off on 10 December 1909 and he was without a ship until 18 February 1910 when he joined the battleship HMS Charybdis. He was aboard her on the night of the 1911 census. His wife and daughter were again at 72 Duncan Road, their nephew Victor Preston Rowland (23), an engine fitter was also living there. The census return shows (as expected) that they had been married 17 years, but also that they had had two other children who had died – it has not yet been possible to identify these. He transferred to the scout cruiser HMS Foresight (based at Dover) on 4 May 1911, and then the battleship HMS Albion on 10 October 1912. She was initially based at the Nore, so Cooke presumably managed to get ashore to ring quite often, but by the time of the peal was actually stationed at Pembroke Dock, so presumably he had to obtain leave to take part.

On 27 April 1914 Cooke was posted back to HMS Blenheim in Malta. He remained there until 23 February 1917 when he returned to the UK. He was then posted to Illustrious, a former battleship now downgraded to a munitions storeship, on 23 May. She was based on the Tyne, and while serving on her Cooke managed various visits to towers in Newcastle and the surrounding area, including ringing at Newcastle Cathedral for a royal visit over the weekend of 17-18 June. Illustrious was moved to Portsmouth in November 1917, and it seems Cooke went with her as he was nominally transferred to the books of HMS Ganges, a shore establishment at Shotley. He saw out the war there. Cooke was in Harwich on 8 July 1919 when he took part in a peal attempt to mark the funeral of Charles Fryatt. Fryatt had become a cause célèbre during the war, a merchant marine captain, he had rammed a German submarine with his vessel and sunk it. He was captured on a subsequent occasion, and once the Germans realised who he was, he was court martialled and executed for his earlier actions. The Germans held that as he was not a combatant, his actions had been illegal. His death provoked almost as much outrage in the British press as the execution of Edith Cavell. Fryatt had attended school in Harwich before going to sea. The peal attempt failed (Cooke was conducting, Parker’s 12 part peal of Grandsire, but something went one wrong just before the end of the first part). There wasn’t time to restart, so one of the other ringers then started to call a Quarter Peal of Bob Major, but sadly that also came to grief when the muffle of the 6th slipped.

Cooke was then posted to HMS Raleigh on 19 August. She was still under construction, launched on 22 August, but not brought into commission until 1921. She was then assigned as flagship on the North American station. He left her on 26 July 1922 in order to come home and retire. Through the negligence of her captain, she was run aground on 8 August 1922 in thick fog, leading to the deaths of 11 crew. She was a total loss. On 10 August 1922, Cooke was placed on the retired list with the rank of shipwright lieutenant. He then settled in Rainham, joining the band there, and becoming church warden. He was also a freemason and member of TocH. It may well not be a coincidence that Rainham was the hometown of George Gilbert (one of the other ringers in the peal), and his family ran a building firm there, who could have made use of Cooke’s carpentry skills. Cooke died on 12 August 1922. He was known to have rung a fair number of peals, but had kept no record. He was a member of the Kent County Association and the College Youths (1890).

Guest post for the Innovating in Combat project

Today Dr Elizabeth Bruton of the Innovating in Combat project (a collaborative project between University of Leeds and the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford; funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council) has published a guest post on their blog based on my previous research into Lt J W Russell MC DCM MM, Royal Engineers Signal Service, listed on the Surrey Association Roll as a Dorking ringer. It is a lightly revised and updated version of an article which originally appeared in The Ringing World on 19 October 2012, pp1102–1104, 1106–1107. I’m grateful to Robert Lewis, editor of The Ringing World for his permission for it to be reproduced, including material from original wartime ringing newspapers.

The Innovating in Combat project is examining the usage of telecommunications technology during the war. The fact that Russell was from the Dorking area was particularly interesting to Liz as she is giving a talk on the project to the Dorking and District Radio Society entitled “Waves and Wires: Telegraphy during World War One” on Tuesday 28 January, 19:45, at The Friends Meeting House, Butterhill, Dorking (further details are on the society’s events page).

Russell was born in Mickleham, and subsequently lived in Ewhurst and Abinger. Seeking work as a gardener also took him to Farnham, and to work on what’s now a National Trust property, Standen, in Sussex (near East Grinstead). In due course he’ll get his full page here, which will include full references for some of the things mentioned in passing in the article.

Digitised War Diaries now online, and Operation War Diary

Today The National Archives have announced the release of the first batch of the newly digitised unit war diaries. I’ve had some involvement in this project (checking the mast images to give us the best possible chance of preserving them long-term), so it’s great to see the first fruits appearing.

This first batch covers the divisions (and their sub units) which made up the original BEF, Infantry Divisions 1-7, and Cavalry Divisions 1-3: but the coverage of these is for the whole duration of the war, and into the occupation forces that went into Germany after the Armistice. There’s a more detailed description within our dedicated First World War centenary portal.

However, perhaps the most exciting part of this release is the concurrent launch of Operation War Diary, hosted by Zooniverse (we’ve previously also been involved in their Old Weather project, which extracts climate information from historic ships’ logs). This allows war diary pages to be tagged to extract information about the people, places, times, dates etc contained within them. The war diaries are largely handwritten, so we can’t realistically use OCR or similar technology on them. This information will be fed back into the catalogue descriptions, making it much easier for people to find mentions of relatives or other research subjects, and the dataset will I think also be available for other projects, allowing mapping and timelines of the movements of individual units for example. It’s free, so take a look, and help with the tagging (you can choose particular units, but you won’t be able to download the whole war diary this way).

Lives of the First World War and other new Surrey resources

Earlier in the year I posted about the initial announcement of Lives of the Great War. A few weeks ago they announced that the public launch will be at Who Do You Think You Are? Live 2014 at London Olympia, which starts on 20 February. This will be a major centrepiece of the centenary commemorations, and will provide a lasting memorial to all those who served. It will take some thought to work out how to incorporate this project into Lives, though hopefully it will actually speed up production of the individual stories, which so far has been more time consuming than I had anticipated. The site (from initial reports) is designed to make it easier to pull disparate resources together and produce timelines for life events, exactly what I’ve been trying to do with the individual pages here, but in a far more automated way. It will also allow material such as photographs, and digitised letters and diaries to be uploaded and attached to the records. For another take on how important this project will be, see Steve Clifford’s post on his Doing our Bit blog.

In addition to this forthcoming development, the past few weeks have seen a couple of other new resources and projects which should make life easier for Halfmuffled. Firstly Surrey electoral registers held by Surrey History Centre have been digitised and are now available on Ancestry. See a news release here from Surrey and a bit more information on records that are or will soon be going online (this includes tantalising information on school records which will be digitised soon, and some military sources). The Ancestry search page is here. A quick look through the electoral registers shows most of the men I’ve covered so far (or close relatives) make an appearance – coupled with the earlier appearance of London electoral registers this should give pretty full coverage of the places included in the Surrey roll of honour. So far the Surrey rolls only cover from 1918-1945, pre-war records (up to 1915, rolls were not produced in 1916 or 1917 due to the war) should follow in the future. For the moment, I’ll only incorporate the new source into new pages, rather than updating the ones I’ve already done. Ancestry have also just launched a set of records relating to rate payments in London which may also help with some of the places on the roll. The Surrey History Centre have also announced their own First World War projects some of which will also link into Lives, and Halfmuffled will also be feeding into these where relevant.