Walter Hodges (1887-1958) – Benhilton’s Old Contemptible

Walter Hodges of Benhilton has been one of the harder men to research fully. Listed on the roll as W Hodges, Pte, 1st Royal Scots Fusiliers; Wounded 1914.

It was a moment’s work to find that there were two medal cards for a Pte 8436 W Hodges serving with the Royal Scots Fusiliers: though confusingly, one gave his forename as Walter, the other as William. One of these was for the issue of a Silver War Badge and showed that Walter was discharged from the army 21 November 1914, having originally enlisted on 31 December 1904. This seemed to fit well with the information on the roll, though the card indicated that his discharge was due to illness rather than a wound. However, the Silver War Badge was not instituted until 1916, so Walter would have only applied for it at that point, to show that he had already served honourably, and was not avoiding fighting. Errors are known to occur on these cards. However, the original list authorising issue also indicates that the discharge was through illness. It is of course possible that he was wounded as well, but not sufficiently affected by that for it to be indicated as a reason for his discharge. Unfortunately the particular Silver War Badge did not indicate his age which they often do. This meant it was very difficult to try and track him down in earlier records, and I also had no clear evidence as to whether his lived in Benhilton before his original enlistment, or if he merely settled there after his discharge. In fact, given his service in a Scottish regiment, there was no particular reason to believe that he had any longstanding attachment to Benhilton.

Given the original enlistment date stated on the SWB card it was likely that Walter had transferred to the reserves at the end of 1911 – the standard term of service was for “seven years with the colours, five in the reserve”, though this could be varied. During the initial phase of my research I couldn’t find any Hodges family around Benhilton, but it slowly became clear that in the census people are often simply recorded as being in Sutton. When I started writing his individual page I took another look at the 1901 census. There was a Hodges family, father and son both called Walter. Moving forward to 1911, the family was still there, in fact at exactly the same house, 31 Elm Grove, Sutton, but while Walter senior was still there, the son Walter was nowhere to be found, not even with the Royal Scots Fusiliers’ battalion (1st Battalion) based in South Africa at the time of the 1911 census (overseas military postings were included in the 1911 census). However, the other battalion was then based in Ireland. Though the Irish census is freely available online, military personnel were generally only listed by their initials, so it is very hard to track an individual down conclusively.

The other slight problem with the Benhilton hodges family is that the younger Walter Hodges was only 13 in 1901, meaning he would only have been 16 or 17 on enlistment in 1904. However, it was possibly to enlist legitimately at that age as a boy soldier, and many lied about their age, the higher wage for adult soldiers providing a good incentive, so this was not conclusive.

I then tracked this family back to the 1891 census when they were living at 3, Manor Road, Wallington, and found the marriage of Walter Hodges and Isabella Gardner registered in the Croydon registration district in the 1st quarter 1883. For virtually all the members of the family there were slight variations in the descriptions of the birth place from one census to the next, but Isabella (name often given as Isabel) is consistently stated to have been born in Croydon, Walter senior’s birthplace is given variously as Beddington; Beddington Corner, near Mitcham; or Wallington, which are in reasonably close proximity. The birth of their first child, Isabel Ellen (presumably named after her mother) was registered in the Croydon registration ditrict in the 1st quarter 1884. She was followed by George Joseph in the first quarter 1886 in the Whitechapel registration district. Then came Walter, he is the only child for whom I’ve been able to trace a baptismal registration in addition to the birth registration index entry. This shows that he was baptised at St Mary’s, Whitechapel on 26 April 1887 having been born on 9 April. The family were then living at 11 The Mount, Whitechapel (this seems to now be Mount Terrace, and is right beside The London Hospital). Walter senior is described as a manager. The birth of William James was registered in the Mile End Old Town registration district in 3rd quarter 1889 (though the 1891 census actually gives his place of birth as Stepney, which was a separate registration district).

By 1891 there were (as already mentioned) in Wallington. Walter senior (28) is described as an oil and colour man (so presumably selling the various ingredients required for paints). Isabel (25) had no occupation, and the children are all listed as scholars, except William James who was only 2. At this time the family also employed a servant, Bunny King (19), originally from Kent.

They seem to have moved again quite quickly, the birth of the next child, Winifred Grace was registered in the Tonbridge Registration District in 4th quarter 1892 (the 1901 census states that she was born in Golden Green, Kent). She was followed by May Edith, whose birth was registered in the Epsom registration district (which included Sutton) in 3rd quarter 1895; Bertha Mary, registered Epsom RD 1st quarter 1898; and David Roberts registered 2nd quarter 1899.

The 1901 census found the family at 31 Elm Grove. Walter senior now shown as coffe stall holder and house painter, Isabel as a sweet stall holder – the first time she has been shown with an occupation, and despite the fact she had an 11-month-old son at the time. Walter junior (13) was working as a drpaer’s errand boy, and his elder brother George as a chemist’s errand boy. Isabel junior was staying with friend in South Norwood (no occupation given), and the younger siblings were all given no occupation. The youngest three are all described as being born Sutton.

The birth of Violet Eva Hodges was registered in Epsom RD, 2nd quarter 1903. As we have previously seen, it appears Walter enlisted at the end of 1904. No further light has yet been shed on why he chose the Royal Scots Fusiliers, rather than a local regiment. Nor, in the absence of a surviving service record, is it possible to determine which battalion of the regiment he first served with.

Walter’s sister, Isabel Ellen, married Thomas Henry Fuller in the Epsom registration district, the marriage was registered in the 4th quarter 1905. Finally, in 3rd quarter of 1909 the birth of Henry John Hodges was registered in Epsom RD.

On the night of the 1911 census, 2 April, the family home was still at 31 Elm Grove. Walter senior (48) was now described as a house painter, paperhanger and French polisher, his wife, Isabel (45), no occupation. Of the children, still in the house are William (21), a painter; May (15), maid domestic; Bertha (13), David (10) and Violet
(7) at school; and Henry (1). We are also told that Walter and Isabel had been married 28 years, and had had 10 children, all of whom were still alive. The younger Isabel (27) was living with her husband Thomas (30), a coachman, in the household of the Knight family at Wingfield House, High Street, Banstead. The Knight’s were in the insurance business. Thomas and Isabel had two children of their own, also Thomas and Isabel. Winfred (18) was working as a general servant in the household of the Walker family at Boisland, Burnell Road, Sutton.

1st Battalion, Royal Scots Fusiliers, was stationed in South Africa at the time of the census – there is no sign of Walter with them. 2nd Battalion were in Ebrington Barracks, Londonderry. Though the men are listed only with initials, there is one W H, aged 25, born England, occupation (as transcribed) printer – this seems to be the occupation of the man before joining up. Looking at the original return, it’s possible this should actually be painter, which would fit better with the rest of the family.

At the end of 1911, or early in 1912, Walter would have completed his seven years service with the colours, and have transferred to the reserve. It seems he returned home to Benhilton. In the 4th quarter 1913 his marriage to Henrietta Russell was registered in Epsom RD. In the 1911 census she was 20 and living with her parents Albert Henry (43) and Sarah Jane (45) and younger brothers Charles Albert (17) and William Ernest at 59 William Road, Sutton. Interestingly her father is described as corn merchant’s carman (ie delivery driver) which raises the possibility that he worked for the same firm as John Webb.

On 4 August 1914 war was declared on Germany and the reserves called up. Walter would have had to have reported to the regimental depot in Ayr, Scotland, to be issued with kit and given a brief medical. He was then posted to 1st Battalion who were in Gosport (2nd Battalion were in Gibraltar). The battalion war diary suggests that there were as many as 750 reservists with the battalion by 9 August. On 13 August the battalion travelled by two trains to Southampton, leaving Gosport at 1230, from 1500 they embarked on SS Martaban and SS Appam. Walter’s medal roll entry for the 1914 Star shows that he was with the battalion on this journey. They arrived at Le Havre on 14 August, it was “V wet; continuous rain”.

After 2 days in a rest camp, it was back in a train, and towards the front. They arrived at Landrecies at 0400 on 17 August and then marched 7 miles to Noyelles. 9th Brigade concentrated there, and at 0800 on 20 August marched 3 miles to Taisnieres and at 0530 on 21 August 11 miles to La Longueville. After the damp weather on their arrival, it had now turned very hot, and even these short marches found out some of the reservists who had had little chance to regain fighting fitness. The war diary notes that the Medical Officer sent back 23 men sick, 17 with debility. However, Walter’s 1914 Star medal index card shows he received the “clasp and roses” which indicated he served within range of the German guns, so he was probably not among them. The battalion crossed the border into Belgium in the morning of 22 August. They were not involved in the intial fighting that day, but took up defensive positions at Jemappes about 1700. At 1100 the next morning, 23 August, the Germans attacked. The units either side pulled back, forcing their withdrawal to the northern edge of Flameries at about 1500. This initial action saw two officers wounded and 50 other ranks killed and wounded. More fighting and a further withdrawal the next day saw two officers wounded and missing and another 100 other ranks killed and wounded. The fighting withdrawal continued for several weeks, but by 15 September the trench lines began to be formed. The weather had broken a week previously and turned wet and cold. On 21 September the battalion was finally pulled out of line for a rest. It’s not clear exactly when Walter’s health broke down, but since he was discharged on 21 November, by which time he was presumably back in the UK and had had treatment and medical boards, it seems unlikely he was with the battalion much beyond this point.

In the 1st quarter 1915 the birth of Walter A Hodges (mother’s maiden name Russell) was registered in Epsom RD. Charles G Hodges followed, registered 4th quarter 1916 and Joyce D Hodges 4th quarter 1918. No evidence has been found of Walter being involved in ringing before this point. But on 9 December 1918 W Hodges is recorded involved in the ringing to mark the death and funeral of John Webb. Presumably he had helped fill the gaps in the ranks of the ringers caused by John Webb and the two Rayner brothers going off to war. With John Webb dead, Walter seems to have taken on one of his jobs, tower secretary, with notices published in The Ringing World in early 1920 requesting that those attending the Surrey Association meeting at Benhilton on 24 January should send their names to W Hodges at 265 High Street, Sutton, if they wished to have tea. This is the last mention so far found in connection with ringing.

Walter died on 9 November 1958, aged 71. Administration of his estate was granted to his widow, Henrietta, on 24 December 1958. He left effects of £375 15 shillings. His address at death was 22 Leatherhead Road, Chessington.

The various pieces of information seem to stack together fairly to connect the man on the roll with the Benhilton Hodges family, but I still feel I’m missing the clinching evidence so far. He must have been one of the earliest soldiers to return to Benhilton with first hand stories of the action, so it may be there are local press reports which will provide this.

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