Tag Archives: Bellringing

Army-Navy peal 1914: Frederick James Souter (1892-3 June 1953)

This is the fourth in the series on the eight ringers who rang the first peal by an armed forces band, it follows on from the previous article on Alfred Arthur Playle.

Frederick James Souter (1892-3 June 1953). Served c1913-c1934.

The birth of Frederick James Souter was registered in the Bosmere registration district, Suffolk, in the third quarter of 1892. He must in fact have been born right at the beginning of June, or maybe later May as at his death on 3 June 1953 he was stated to be 61 years of age. It’s also worth noting that his name was actually registered as James Frederick, but as his father was also James, presumably he was known as Frederick right from the beginning. The family lived in Mendham, Suffolk. The marriage of the elder James Souter and Eliza Prentice had been registered in the Ipswich registration district in the fourth quarter 1891.

The family was already full of bell ringers, with the elder James’ himself along with other Souter’s, Charles, James and William all being ringers in and around Stowmarket (I haven’t quite established the exact family links). They all appear regularly in the columns of Bell News in 1891 and early 1892. Soon after Frederick’s birth, the family moved to Essex. The first record indicating this is ringing at Ardleigh on 9 October 1892 where J Souter is said to be a Little Bentley ringer, late of Stowmarket. However, he then seems to disappear from ringing records for a few years. Charles Henry Souter was born in the Tendring registration district (which included Little Bentley) mid 1894, sadly he died aged 3, in the first quarter 1897. The birth of William Stanley Souter was registered in the third quarter 1896, the 1901 census gives his place of birth as Mistley.

A new ring of bells was dedicated at Mistley on 25 April, cast the previous year to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria. Presumably James Souter soon started ringing there, but the report of J Souter (presumably Frederick’s father) as a bellringer at Mistley, is of his ringing 720 changes of Kent Treble Bob on 14 January 1900, and the same method on 4 February and 7 February. The band rang the same again on 1 March, in honour of the Relief of Ladysmith the same day, and on that occasion J Souter conducted. On 16 April they rang 720 Oxford Bob Minor. On 4 July, they were ringing Double Court Minor. On 2 December they rang Double Court and Plain Bob minor. According to the later obituary for Frederick Souter, he was taught to ring by his father and uncle aged just 8, but that was supposed to have been at Stowmarket – his age would put this around 1900. On 31 January 1901, James Souter rang Oxford Bob Minor and on 20 March 1901, Double Court and Plain Bob minor. At the time of the 1901 census the family were living at Cross Road, Mistley. James (33) is shown as being a carter on a farm, Eliza (32), James Frederick (8) and William (4). Around the end of July (no precise date is given) “Jas Souter” rang in a 720 of Cambridge Minor at Mistley, claimed to be the first time the method had been rung at Mistley, though it was subsequently pointed out that the method had been rung at the opening of the bells. After this success, no reports of ringing have been found until a peal of various minor methods was rung at Mistley on 13 April 1904, with James Souter on the treble. This was the first peal on the bells at Mistley. The next report that’s been found is for a 720 of Bob Minor on 9 October 1904 at Mistley.

The reports then again dry up for a few years, until on 9 January both Frederick (aged 14), and James, are reported to have rung in a 720 of Cambridge at Mistley, the first by an entirely local band (and the first 720 rung by Frederick at all). Frederick (listed as J F, aged 15) repeated the feat at Great Bromley on 2 March. Frederick was obviously now a keen ringer, as he was ringing Bob Minor at Mistley on 12 March, though the specific reports then dry up until 16 November when father and son rang 720s of Cambridge and Double Norwich at Great Bentley (the ringing having been arranged specially for them). In December, both rang at the dedication of a new ring at Tendring. On 9 February 1908, both rang in a 720 of Oxford Treble Bob at Mistley, and a touch of Cambridge. Frederick also rang a 720 of Plain Bob Minor on 12 March. On 17 June father and son rang in a date touch of 1908 Bob Minor at Mistley, along with some shorter touches. This was repeated six months later on 16 December.

On 10 January 1909 father and son rang in various touches which marked the departure of the Revd Noel H Johnson (probably a curate) who was about to take up missionary work in India. No further reports of ringing have been traced until 24 June 1910 when Frederick and James, along with S Souter (Stanley?, who would now have been about 14) rang 1910 Bob Minor at Manningtree, where the Revd T Kensit Norman (also Rector of Mistley) was being inducted as Vicar.

At the time of the census in 1911 the family was at Horseley, Cross Road, Mistley. James and Frederick are both described as horsemen, while William Stanley is listed as a general farm hand. No occupation is given for Eliza, but it is shown that she had been married for 19 years, and had had 3 children, one of whom had died. In September 1911, James, Frederick and, presumably, Stanley rang a date touch of Plain Bob Minor on 9 September, and on 28 September 720 of the same method. In 1912 there was a date touch of Plain Bob Minor again on 24 February, along with some other ringing, and more the following day, all in honour of the birthday of the rector’s wife. On 25 September, James and Frederick rang a 720 of Bob Minor.

Frederick joined the Essex Regiment around March or April 1913 (his service record will still be held by the Ministry of Defence, but analysis of regimental numbers close to his of 10188 suggest this date). He would probably first have trained at the regimental depot at Warley, and was then posted to 2nd Battalion which in 1913 was at Bordon, near Aldershot, but was then transferred to Chatham by 1914. Although no reports of ringing by him have been traced in this period, he must have made himself known to the local ringers, and more importantly those who were also members of the armed forces, as he was selected to join the peal band on 8 January which was the first peal by an all armed forces band, and his first peal at all. His younger brother, William Stanley also joined the 3rd (Special Reserve) Battalion in about June of 1913 (he was given the number 3/1937, 3/1938 joined on 11 June). It was actually quite common to join the Special Reserve, and then subsequently transfer to the regulars, so it’s possible that Frederick also followed that route, but as he would have been given a new number on becoming a regular, it is impossible to be certain without obtaining his service record.

2nd Battalion remained stationed at Chatham, a quiet posting, but then on 28 June 1914 came the assassination in Sarajevo, and ultimately, Britain’s declaration of war on 4 August. On mobilisation, 2nd Battalion, Essex Regiment formed part of 12 Infantry Brigade, 4th Division which was initially retained on home service, in case of German invasion. Stationed first in Norwich, and then on the Norfolk coast at Cromer, they were then moved to Harrow, Middlesex. On 22 August they moved at last to France. This was the very day that British forces first came into contact with those of Germany. They moved up from their landing place at Le Havre, and made contact with the rest of the British Expeditionary Force on 25 August. The BEF had now entered into the Retreat from Mons, and the following day Souter’s battalion was thrown into the holding action at Le Cateau. Of around 40,000 British troops committed to the action during the day, 7,812 would end it killed, wounded, missing or captured. Fortunately, Souter was not one of them so far as we can tell. He remained with the battalion throughout the war, which played its part in most of the major actions of the war. He is known to have had some leave in February 1918 (by which time he was a corporal), and took that chance to return to the bell tower at Great Bromley, along with his father, on 24 February. He ended the war an acting serjeant. So far as is known, he did not receive any major injuries. His brother William was not so lucky. He was presumably called up from the reserve at the outbreak of war. Still only 18, he would not have been eligible to go overseas immediately (the minimum age was 19). As soon as he reached that age, he was posted to 1st Battalion, Essex Regiment, which had landed on the Gallipoli peninsular on 25 April. He arrived on 25 May, unusually arriving as a lance corporal (generally those who had obtained rank at home reverted to private on posting overseas). Five days later he was dead. He is remembered on the Helles Memorial.

The war over, Souter could have left the army with his basic five year service with the colours complete, and served out the remainder of his 12 year enlistment on the reserve. However, he opted to continue serving. 4th Division was broken up in early 1919, and 2nd Battalion, Essex Regiment, was posted to Malta, and then in 1920 to occupation duties in Turkey. However, based on the evidence of his personal life, it seems likely that Souter was transferred to 1st Battalion, which after the war went to Kinsale, Ireland, and was involved in trying to put down the Irish War of Independence. Following the Anglo-Irish Treaty, 1st Battalion was posted to Bordon in 1922. Souter married Kate Griggs back in the Tendring registration district in the 2nd quarter 1920. The birth of Lillian K Souter (mother’s maiden name Griggs) was registered in the Tendring registration district in the 4th quarter 1922, followed by Dorothy J Souter registered Romford RD, 3rd quarter 1924, and Robert J Griggs, Colchester RD, 3rd quarter 1926. 1st Battalion had been posted to Colchester in 1925.

Despite these home postings, Souter does not seem to have found any time for ringing during this time – or at least not for quarter peals and peals (1st battalion moved on to Pembroke Dock in 1929 and Catterick in 1932). The first report of a return to the belfry was a halfmuffled peal of Kent Minor on 12 March 1932 marking the death of his father (registered Tendring RD, 1st quarter 1932). It is described as his first peal of minor. James Souter had been a member of the Mistley ringers for 34 years. Souter presumably left the army about 1934, but remains elusive in ringing reports. At some point he settled in Prittlewell (near Southend), but exactly when is not clear. No more ringing has been traced before the outbreak of the Second World War. This of course largely curtailed ringing until 1943 when the danger of invasion was past, and permission was granted for bells to be rung normally again. During this conflict Souter reportedly trained the Home Guard.

Rather unexpectedly the birth of David M C Souter (mother’s maiden name Griggs) was registered in the 1st quarter 1944, in the Southend RD. I cannot trace another Souter-Griggs marriage, so presumably this was their son, despite the gap of almost 20 years from their previous child! Unfortunately the brief obituary published subsequently makes no mention of his family.

On 19 May 1945 he rang in a peal of Bob Major at Fobbing (near Basildon), and later in the year a quarter peal of Kent Major at Prittlewell on 28 October, followed by Grandsire Triples there on 11 November (despite the date, this does not appear to have been halfmuffled, or explicitly for Armistice Day). He finished the year with a peal of Kent Royal (his first) on 15 December, and a quarter of Bob Major on Christmas Eve at Prittlewell (his surname is given as Sowter in this report). A report of a touch of Grandsire Doubles on 27 January 1945 was stated to include a Frederick Lowler – possibly this was a misreading of Souter.

1946 began with a quarter peal of Grandsire Caters on 6 January at Prittlewell, followed by a peal of the same on 20 January (the 100th peal on the bells). On 23 February a peal of Grandsire Cater, his first (and the first for several other members of the band). The quarter of Grandsire Triples was repeated on 24 March. On 6 April he rang a peal of Bob Royal. On 21 July, a quarter of Kent Major. On 19 October a peal of Kent Royal. Two days later, on 21 October, came a handbell peal (his first) of Bob Minor. This was rung at 73 St Mary’s Road, Prittlewell, presumably either Souter’s home, or that of one of the other two ringers, Edgar Rapley and Frank Lufkin.

1947 proceeded in similar vein, with a peal of Cambridge Major at Stanford-le-Hope (the first in the method on the bells) on 8 March. Then, at Prittlewell on 7 April a record length (9000 changes) of Bob Royal. This marked the bicentenary of the Cumberland Youths, though it was rung for the Essex Association, and the band was mixed, with at least one College Youth among them. An ordinary length peal of Kent Major followed on 15 May, a quarter of Grandsire Caters on 17 August, and a peal of Bob Royal on 8 November. 1948 began with a quarter of Stedman Triples on 18 January but seems to have otherwise seen only a quarter of Grandsire Caters on 7 November, and Bob Royal on 5 December. 1949 began with a quarter peal of Grandsire Caters on 2 January, followed by Kent Royal on 2 May, a peal of Stedman Caters (his first in the principle) on 28 May, a halfmuffled quarter peal of Stedman Caters on 6 November. In 1950 he managed a peal of Stedman Caters on 18 February, Bob Major on 11 May, and a quarter peal of Kent Royal on 28 May.

Sadly about this time his health began to deteriorate, and he disappears form ringing reports, other than his election as a life member of the Essex Association at the AGM on Whit Monday 1952. After three years of illness he died on 3 June 1953, aged 61. His funeral was on 11 June, the bells of Prittlewell being rung halfmuffled by the local band. His obituary describes him as “an enthusiastic ringer and [..] excellent striker”. At the College Youths’ dinner in 1953 he was named as one of the members who had died during the year, but does not actually seem to be included among the online membership lists.

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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 cruiser serving as 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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Major J H R Freeborn FRIBA FRICS (1887-1971), Benhilton’s almost Olympian hammer thrower

John Howard Richard Freeborn moved to Sutton after graduating from Cambridge in 1914. He rang at Benhilton several times in 1915, but then – despite having lost the sight of his left eye following an accident in his youth – managed to obtain a commission in the York and Lancaster Regiment. His existing injury meant he had no overseas service, and finished the war a captain having spent much of his period in the army as an adjutant to regiments of the Volunteer Training Corps (the Sutton unit of which he had been involved with even before receiving his commission). He was a regular ringer in Benhilton again from late 1918 into 1919. He was commissioned again in the Second World War, that time serving between 1940 and 1943, and leaving the army with the honorary rank of major, after which he was universally known as Major Freeborn. He is not listed on the original roll of honour, for reasons that are now a mystery.

Freeborn was the son of the Revd Albert Corsellis Richard Freeborn, Vicar of Kidlington, Oxfordshire, and Miriam Elizabeth (or Elisabeth) Howard of Biddenham, Bedfordshire. They had married at Biddenham in 1886. Freeborn’s paternal grandfather, Dr Richard Fernandez Freeborn was a well-known GP in Oxford, with a wide practice among Oxford’s dons from 38/39 Broad Street (demolished in 1937 to make way for the New Bodleian). Unlike most of those named on the original roll then he was from the professional (upper-)middle class, this makes research somewhat easier as many life events can be traced via announcements in the pages of The Times. He was born on 28 October 1887 in Kidlington Vicarage. A brother, Charles Fernandez Freeborn, was born on 31 March 1890 at Biddenham Manor. At the 1891 census the family were together at Kidlington Vicarage along with three servants, a domestic nurse (Isabella Barker), a cook (Louisa Collis) and a housemaid (Rose E Dawson).

Freeborn went to St Edward’s School, Oxford, in the 1901 census he is shown as a boarder. At school he was a keen rower, eventually Captain of Boats. In 1904 he learnt to ring at Kidlington where there was a strong band. Though his father doesn’t ever appear to have been a ringer himself, he was very supportive of the local ringers, and the Oxford Diocesan Guild.

A Times notice on 19 January 1906 reported that Freeborn had been “elected to the academical clerkship vacant for a bass voice at Magdalen College”, presumably a choral scholarship in effect (his obituary does say that he continued to sing for many years). The 1905 Oxford University Calendar does indeed show a vacancy among the academical clerkships, but the 1906 volume does not include Freeborn among those named. It is not clear if Freeborn only filled the post for the remaining part of the academic year, or if there was some other reason he did not continue in the role. He certainly does not seem to have taken a degree, the University War List does show him as a Magdalen man, and seems to suggest that he matriculated in 1916, by which time he had already been commissioned (1916 may simply be a typo for 1906). It is known that at some point in his youth he had some sort of accident that led to the loss of sight in his left eye, no exact date is given in any source yet found: it may be possible that this is also linked to why he did not continue at Magdalen.

I have not been able to uncover what he did for the next few years. However, the 1911 census shows him staying at a house in Sandwich, Kent, temporarily employed by the firm of J P White, which specialised in architectural woodwork. The house he was staying in, 34 New Street, was the home of Dr John William Harrisson and Charlotte Emily Harrisson. Freeborn was listed merely as a visitor to the household, however, a 1910 silver wedding announcement in The Times shows that Charlotte Emily’s maiden name was Freeborn, and she was a sister of the Revd Albert Corsellis Richard Freeborn (who celebrated at the marriage), so in fact he was staying with his aunt and uncle.

Later in 1911 Freeborn entered Clare College Cambridge to read history, though he would have been on the verge of turning 24, which would have been rather unusual at that time. While at Clare he developed some sort of heart problem which led to his giving up rowing (though he remained a frequent spectator at Henley and other major events), and he took up (or perhaps gave greater focus to) throwing the hammer and was awarded his Blue. Bellringing also remained a major pastime, and he was a well-known member of the Cambridge University Guild of Change Ringers, his name fairly frequently occurs in peal and quarter peal reports from all round the country.

In 1913 (while still an undergraduate, though aged 26) Freeborn married (Catherine) Muriel Holme at the Priory Church, Great Malvern on 14 October (according to a report in The Ringing World. She was about 32 (she is shown as 30 in the 1911 census), so six or seven years older than Freeborn. She was the daughter of George Jackson Holme, a dentist. Curiously there appear to be two sets of registrations for the marriage, one as expected in the 4th quarter 1913, in the Upton-on-Severn registration district, but also in the 3rd quarter in the Bath registration district! Is it possible there was a secret marriage earlier in the year? Muriel’s father was a widower, and earlier censuses show she had older sisters – did she see this as her last chance to escape spinsterhood and looking after her father as he got older (he was 65 in 1911)?

Freeborn graduated in 1914 and it appears he and his wife settled in Sutton, Surrey. By now war had broken out, and given his background it is no surprise that Freeborn was desperate to obtain a commission – he had previously been a member of the OTC at Cambridge (and may have had other Territorial Force experience according to some reports). However, his damaged left eye meant that he was repeatedly turned down. Instead he joined the 9th (Sutton) Surrey Volunteer Training Corps. Through the influence of the retired artillery officer, General Sir Josceline Wodehouse, who commanded the Surrey VTC Freeborn was eventually granted a commission on 4 July 1915. He was commissioned into 2/4th (Hallamshire) Battalion, York and Lancaster Regiment – quite why this regiment (rather than the East Surreys who recruited in Sutton, or the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire given where he was born and grew up) is unclear.

At the time 2/4th York and Lancs were stationed at Beverley. However, on 23 August 1915 Freeborn found himself in Newcastle and rang in a touch of Stedman Caters at the cathedral. Possibly his trip was connected with the battalion’s subsequent move to Gateshead in November 1915. By the time of that move it seems he may have transferred to 3/4th Battalion, the 3 December 1915 Ringing World names him among the ringers at a funeral in Doncaster (the date of the service is not given unfortunately). Such a location wouldn’t make sense if he had moved with 2/4th to Gateshead, but 3/4th were stationed at Clipstone Camp which is a little more plausible. Certainly a short profile (with photo, which unfortunately I don’t have permission to reproduce here) published on 3 March 1916 states he was with 3/4th Battalion at that point. On 25 June he was promoted temporary captain. On 11 April 1917 he was seconded to act as adjutant to a Battalion of a Volunteer Regiment – in effect he returned to the VTC but in a full-time (paid) role. On 27 January 1918 Muriel E H Freeborn was born at Streatham Manor in the Wandsworth registration district. In early December 1918 Freeborn was back at Benhilton, ringing for the funeral of John Webb. As previously described on this blog, Webb was the leader and driving force of the Benhilton ringers, but was a victim of the Spanish flu epidemic.

Page from accounts book used as visitors' book, slightly singed around the edges

Page from the original visitors’ book at Putney with the signatures of the officers who rang a peal there on 15 March 1919 – the page bears the marks of the arson attack which caused major damage to the church in 1973 (destroying the bells).

On 15 March 1919 Freeborn was among the eight officers (two RAF and six army) who rang a peal of Kent Major at Putney: the first peal by an all-officer band. Two of the others were also Surrey men, Lieut Cyril F Johnston, and Major J H B Hesse, who are named on the original roll. This became a busy year of peal ringing for Freeborn (in fact he started with a peal at Beddington 1 March). On 20 March was a halfmuffled peal of Stedman Triples at St George-the-Martyr, Southwark, which marked the deaths (while serving) of three of the tower’s ringers in 1918. Then came another peal at Beddington on 21 April. The officers’ band (with two additions) reconvened at South Croydon on 3 May 1919 for a peal of Grandsire Caters, this marked a parade by various colonial troops through Croydon. This was also reported to be Freeborn’s 50th peal, however, the composition (made specially for the occasion by Lt E Maurice Atkins, RE, who also conducted) was subsequently proved to be false. 10 May saw a peal at Bedford and 22 May at St Giles-in-the-fields. Several of these peals also involved Hesse, and he organised a College Youths trip to Somerset in June (Freeborn had joined the College Youths in 1911), this included a peal at Wrington (with which Hesse was closely connected) on 7 June. Freeborn subsequently wrote an account of the tour which was published in The Ringing World – apparently the local cider made a great contribution to the enjoyment of their activities.

9 July 1919 saw a second attempt for an all-officer ten bell peal at South Croydon (with one change of personnel). There was no mistake in the composition this time, and the peal is marked by a peal board, and I’m told a photo of the band also hangs in the ringing room.

On 16 January 1920 Freeborn relinquished his acting rank as captain as he ceased to be employed as adjutant. This probably marked his demobilisation (I’ve not found the final relinquishment of his commission – after the war he was universally known as Captain Freeborn). On 29 January he boarded SS Peleus for Hong Kong (from Liverpool). He gave his occupation as lecturer, which fits with the statement in his obituary that he taught at the University of Hong Kong. At the time of his departure his wife was either heavily pregnant with their second child (another daughter), or nursing a newborn. the birth of Dorothy M S Freeborn was registered in the Epsom registration district in the first quarter 1920. Prior to his departure, it appears the family were living at Bemerton, Cedar Road, Sutton. He had written to The Times in 1919 complaining that the Amateur Athletics Association had opted to hold their championship on the same weekend previously announced for the Henley Regatta – he couldn’t believe that he would be the only one with an interest in both, and he felt it was important to give as much encouragement as possible to all sports as they were re-established following the war.

Peleus arrived at Singapore around 8 March 1920 and was then to continue to Hong Kong (and ultimately Japan). Freeborn returned the following the year, via Canada, arriving at Liverpool aboard SS Metagama from Montreal. He is again described as a lecturer, but gives his permanent address as Kidlington Vicarage.

Following his return Freeborn took hammer throwing increasingly seriously, and won international selection on more than one occasion. In 1924 he gained pre-selection for the Summer Olympics to be held in Paris that year. Entries for the Games had to be made prior to the British Championships on 20-21 June when the final British selections would be confirmed. In the event the only British hammer thrower to be selected was Malcolm Nokes. This reflected the general situation throughout the period with Freeborn generally being the British number two to Nokes as British number one. He generally competed as a member of the Achilles Club, he was placed at the AAA championships several times, and between 1924-7 won the Southern title four times. Later in life he was the official surveyor to the AAA. He continued to support hammer throwing and served as both President and Vice-President of the Hammer Circle, and in 1953 donated the Freeborn Cup – after a few changes over the years this is now awarded each year to the British hammer thrower who throws the furthest each year.

Kelly’s Directory for Buckinghamshire for the years 1924-1931 (at least) gives Freeborn’s address as The Dell, Chalfont Station village, Amersham. He was presumably training as an architect (and surveyor) throughout this period – in 1933 he was elected an Associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, it would appear Freeborn was no less keen to serve his country again. Once more there was a bit of a delay before he was commissioned, this time in the Pioneer Corps, reverting to the rank of lieutenant. The war also saw the marriage of his two daughters, first the younger, (Dorothy M) Sonia married Hamilton James Elverson at St Mary Magdalene, Munster Square on 27 June 1942. He was the son of Major and Mrs Elverson on 10 The Green, Marlborough. The Times announcement gave the Freeborn’s address at the time of the marriage as Coombe House, Oxford (presumably the building in the churchyard of St Thomas described in a report in this edition of The Oxon Recorder). Elverson was commissioned into the Royal Army Medical Corps soon after. Freeborn resigned his commission on 13 March 1943, by then he held war substantive rank as a captain, but was granted the honorary rank of major, suggesting he had acted in that capacity at some point. He was ever after known as Major Freeborn. His elder daughter, Muriel E H Freeborn, married Robert W Mathews in the Amersham registration district in the 4th quarter 1944.

Freeborn celebrated his Golden Wedding on 14 October 1963, ringing a peal of Stedman Triples at Kidlington to mark the day. Sadly Muriel died in Churchill Hospital, Oxford, on 4 January 1964 aged 85. She was cremated at Headington on 9 January. Probate was granted to Freeborn (described as a retired chartered architect) on 7 February, she left an estate of £1596. After this Freeborn went to live with one of his daughters in Cambridge.

He continued to ring, being a regular Sunday ringer at Great St Mary’s. He also still rang the odd peal, including one of Stedman Cinques at Saffron Walden on his 80th birthday, 28 October 1967. Having now been widowed for just over four years, he remarried on 26 April 1968, to Mrs (Mary) Ada Miller, he first husband, Cambridge solicitor S T Miller, having died a year earlier. His address prior to the wedding was 17 Luard Road (and hers 246 Hills Road). After the wedding they moved to 52 Queen Edith’s Way. The wedding was at Great St Mary’s, and was naturally accompanied by bellringing. The bells of Kidlington were also rung.

After just over three years of this new marriage, Freeborn died on 5 June 1971. His funeral was at Great St Mary’s on Thursday 10 June. A quarter peal was rung at St Andrew’s, Cambridge, the band comprising former masters of the Cambridge University Guild. His ashes were interred at Kidlington on Sunday 13 June, once again accompanied by ringing, both at Kidlington and Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, where he had also often rung in his younger days.

Obituaries were published in The Ringing World and in the Clare College magazine. The Clare College obit reveals that he enjoyed exercising his dining rights in college after his return to Cambridge, and he continued to support the college boat. It also shows that he advanced to Fellow of the Royal Institution of British Architects (FRIBA) and been made a Fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (FRICS).

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.

Serjeant Major John Webb (1883-1918†), “leading light of the Benhilton ringers”

John Webb was born in Sutton in 1883, he was the fourth child of John and Susan Webb, although their first child died only a few months old. He was tower captain at Benhilton from about 1903, and his death seems to have dealt a major blow to ringing there.

John Webb (sr) married Susan Lusher at St Leonard’s, Streatham on 25 February 1871. They were both living in Balham, John was 28 and a gardener, Susan 32. By the time of the 1871 census a month later, they were living together at 6 Albert Terrace, Kate Street, Balham. Four other people in a separate household were living at the same address. William Sharman Webb was born on 24 July 1872, but was buried at West Norwood Cemetery on 25 October, aged just three months. Elizabeth Mary Webb was born on 6 February 1874, and Thomas Sharman Webb on 30 December 1876. All the first three children were baptised at St Mary’s, Balham. By the 1881 census on 3 April the family were living at 16 Kate Street, Balham. Susan’s sister-in-law, Sarah (45, a widow), was visiting, and they had a lodger, Walter Watts (25) – like John Webb he was a gardener. Elizabeth (7) and Thomas (4) are both listed as scholars.

The family must have moved soon after, as by the time of John Webb’s own birth in 1883 they were in Sutton. Two John Webb’s were registered in the Epsom Registration District that year, in the 3rd and 4th quarters – it is not clear which is the correct one, and no baptismal entry has yet been found. By 1891, the family were living at 2 Elm Grove Cottages, Sutton. John Webb sr (47) was still a gardener, and Susan was now 52. Elizabeth was now 17, but has no occupation listed; Thomas was 14 and already working as a gardener’s boy, perhaps with his father. John jr was seven and still at school.

The first record of any member of the family ringing is the report of a T S Webb, presumably Thomas Sharman Webb, ringing the third to a 720 of Plain Bob Minor at Benhilton on 12 February 1893, though this seems to be the only time he’s reported as a ringer. It’s not clear how quickly John jr followed in his footsteps.

In 1900 Elizabeth married William Thomas Thurley, by 1901 they were living at 2 East Terrace, Crayford Road, Erith, Kent, and William (25) was a stationary engine driver on a coal wharf. Thomas Webb had also moved away, he was working at the Royal Small Arms Factory, Enfield Lock (manufacturer of the Lee-Enfield rifle which equipped the British Army throughout the First World War), and lodging with the Dudley family at 34 Hanby Terrace. In 1901 to the John Webb’s, father now 56 and still a gardener, son 17 and working for a corn merchant. Susan was now 62. All three were living at 2 Ingleside Villas, Brandon Road, Sutton.

John Webb jr had certainly learnt to ring before 1903, as sometime around then he was appointed tower captain and steeple keeper. Presumably he was ringing regularly for Sunday service at Benhilton, but much of his early serious ringing seems to have actually taken place at neighbouring Carshalton. The earliest peal he rang so far identified (it is not marked as his first peal) was at Carshalton on 9 December 1903 when he rang the fifth to a peal of Grandsire Triples. This was followed by a peal of Oxford Bob triples on 24 August 1904 (on the fourth), again at Carshalton. On 7 February 1906 he conducted his first peal, at Carshalton again, ringing the second to Grandsire Triples. This was also the first peal of the two Rayner brothers, Sidney and George (and possibly also the middle brother, Henry), I failed to identify this peal when researching the two brothers, but it has now been added to their respective pages.

1907 also saw a single peal, again at Carshalton. Webb does not seem to have rung any peals in 1908 (or at least not at Carshalton or Benhilton), but 1909 saw four. The first two, on 19 January and 10 February were at Carshalton, but the second pair, on 10 November and 14 December were on home turf at Benhilton.

On 2 April 1911 the family of the two John Webbs, and Susan were still living at 2 Ingleside Villas. John Webb sr is still a jobbing gardener, though his age is now given as 71 – this is inconsistent with earlier censuses, it would be expected to see him listed as 66 or 67. Susan was now 72. John Webb jr (27) is described as a manager and corn merchant in a corn merchant’s firm.

The succeeding years saw a variety of further ringing, mostly at Benhilton itself now. There are also signs of an increasing connection with the Mitcham ringers with the names of Albert Carver, William Joiner and Benjamin Morris, all listed on the original roll as Mitcham men appearing along with Benhilton locals such as the Rayner brothers.

In April 1914 Webb was presented with gifts from the vicar and churchwardens and the ringers in appreciation of his services as tower captain and steeple keeper over the past eleven years, and to mark his impending wedding. The gifts made up a complete set of fireplace tools, so were obviously intended to help set up a cosy new married life.

It was on 18 April 1914 that John Webb (30) married Jane Eliza Bullen (33) at St Matthew’s, Surbiton. Webb’s address is given as 2 Ingleside Villas once more, and his occupation is given as corn merchant. No occupation is listed for Jane, at the time of the wedding her address is given as 1 Woodside Villas, Dennan Road, Surbiton. Her father, Daniel, was a carpenter. In 1911 she appears to have been working as a cook for the Colegate sisters at Earlywood, Albion Road, Carshalton.

Just over a month later, on 24 May 1914, the Benhilton ringers rang another quarter peal. John Webb conducted from the seventh. The peal was for Empire Day, but also marked the birthday of Jane, and the wife of F Ford, another of the ringers.

Even after the outbreak of war ringing carried on with a peal of Grandsire Triples. Webb rang the sixth, George Rayner the fifth, and J Howard R Freeborn the seventh. Freeborn is not listed among the Benhilton ringers on the roll, but my current research shows he did indeed serve.

Then on 31 October 1915 was a quarter peal of Stedman Triples at Benhilton. This also included Alfred Winch of Leatherhead and W H Joiner of Mitcham. They had been intending to ring London Surprise Major, but something went wrong in the arrangements and they didn’t have enough who knew the method. On 10 November he did get his quarter peal of London, though it was rung at Mitcham. The band also included D W Drewett of Mitcham who would also be killed during the war. It was the first quarter peal in the method by seven of the band, the only exception being A J Perkins of Mitcham.

On 26 October 1916 Webb was called up. He had probably gone through the enlistement formalities some time previously at Kingston-on-Thames, but the surviving two pages of his service record do not show the date of that. He was medically inspected at the Army Service Corps depot at Grove Park. He had indicated a preference for service with the forage department of the ASC (which of course fitted with his civilian occupation), forage was still a vital part of the army’s logistic support, with much transport, and many guns, still relying on literal horse power, and of course there was still mounted cavalry. Over the course of the war, the weight of forage shipped to France actually slightly exceeded the weight of munitions. However, the army was increasingly mechanising, and Webb was actually assigned as a motor transport learner, indicated explicitly on his service record, and also implied by the prefix of his service number, DM2/228893.

Unfortunately only two pages of his record survive, and they are quite badly damaged. Of the medical information all that is readable is his height (and even that is unclear), which appears to be 5’8.75″. No information is given on his postings, so all we know is that at the time of his death he was serving with Q Motor Transport Company in Kent. Given that he had managerial experience in civilian life, and had been running the band at Benhilton from about the age of 19, it is perhaps no great surprise that in the just over two years he was in the army he rose from driver to company serjeant major.

Webb seems to have been caught up in the first great wave of Spanish Flu. His obituary in The Ringing World tells us he died of double pneumonia on 28 November 1918 following influenza, and the CWGC cemetery register also records his eath as being due to pneumonia. The funeral was at Benhilton on Wednesday 4 December, and he was interred as close to the tower as could be managed. Before and after the funeral ringers from Benhilton, Mitcham, Beddington and Carshalton (Captain Freeborn, F Ford, A J Perkins, A Boxall, C Dean, C Bance, F Holder and W Joiner) rang touches of Stedman and Grandsire Triples (conducted by Freeborn, Holder and Perkins). Ford (1-2), Freeborn (3-4), Perkins (5-6) and Joiner (7-8) rang a course of Grandsire Triples over the open grave on handbells. In the evening a touch of 500 Grandsire Triples was rung by J Lambert (conductor), E Walker, W Joiner, F Ford, A Calver, W Smith, L Ferridge and A Bundle. The following Monday, 9 December, the bells were rung half-muffled to a 720 of Bob Minor with 7 and 8 being rung behind as covers by A Boxall, W Smith, J A Lambert, A Mason, A Calver, F Ford, Captain Freeborn and W Hodges.

The obituary was written by “A J P”: probably A J Perkins. He describes Webb as the “leading light of the Benhilton (Sutton, Surrey), ringers”, and “an enthusiast”. Perkins explains how he helped Webb to learn the calling for Holt’s Original peal of Grandsire Triples, and that he had no doubt that Webb would have rung a peal of London but for the war, at the time it seems to have been near the pinnacle of ambition for ringers to have called Holt’s Original, and rung a peal of London. As described in the previous post on the Rayner brothers without Webb the band at Benhilton continued for a little while after the war, but then the bells fell virtually silent until they were rehung in 1929. One suspects that Webb would have kept the bells in better ringing order, or would have arranged for rehanging much sooner, given what seems to have been a very energetic character.

The Rayner brothers, Sidney Frank (1884-1918†) and George Thomas (1880-1957), Benhilton

George Thomas Rayner and Sidney Frank Rayner were the first and third sons of Thomas and Rhoda Rayner (nee Miller). Despite research in a variety of sources, details of their military service remain sketchy. The fact that Sidney sadly died while serving in the UK with an Agricultural Company of the Labour Corps allows some more defiinite understanding of his service to be derived. For George, we have little more than the details given in the association roll of honour to go on, which states that he served with the Royal Fusiliers. There is only medal index card for a George Rayner in the Royal Fusiliers, but there is no means of definitively tying that card to this George Rayner.

Thomas and Rhoda married in Godstone, Surrey on 7 June 1880. Godstone was Rhoda’s home town, but Thomas was living in the Parish of St Saviour (possibly Southwark, but it’s not readable on the image of the register, and the second letter looks more like an h) and was originally from Sutton. Thomas was a cab driver, and his father a coachman. Rhoda’s father was a labourer. Rhoda was 32 and Thomas just 25. George Thomas Rayner was born just six months later on 12 December 1880 in Sutton. He was baptised at Benhilton on 3 April 1881, which was also the day the 1881 census was taken. The family were then living at 4 Claremont Terrace, Lind Road, Sutton. The census shows that there was another family, the Townsends (husband, wife and three children) living at the same address, though a separate household.

A second son, Henry William, was born on 30 August 1882 and baptised on 3 December 1882. Sidney Frank followed in late 1884 – no precise date has been found. By 1891 the family were living at 6 Elm Grove, Sutton. Thomas was then working as general labourer; the three boys, now 10, 8 and 6, were at school. The family were still at the same house in 1901. Thomas had now returned to cab driving, while the older two boys were working as grocer’s porters and Sidney as a stationer’s porter.

William Henry Rayner married Beatrice Shiner in 1907 in the Steyning Registration District, Sussex. It seems to have been after this that the other two brothers learnt to ring. The first reports of their ringing are form late 1909 when Sidney rang the treble to a peal of Grandsire Triples at Benhilton on 10 November. It is not noted as being his first peal, so he may previously have rung one elsewhere which has not yet been identified. Both rang in a quarter peal of Grandsire Triples at Benhilton on 29 May 1910, Sidney on the third, and George on the fifth. Sidney rang his first peal inside (on the second) at Benhilton on 9 November 1910, again of Grandsire Triples.

At the 1911 census on 2 April 1911 both Sidney and George are listed as grocer’s porters, their father, Thomas had returned to cab driving. This census also confirms that Thomas and Rhoda had had just the three children. Henry William was in service with his wife Beatrice at the home of the Hoskyns-Abrahmall family, Rubers Law in West Byfleet, Surrey.

Throughout 1911 and up to 1914 Sidney and George continue to be reported in a variety of ringing at Benhilton. The last time Sidney is known to have rung is on 24 May 1914 when he rang the trble to a quarter peal of Grandsire Triples for Empire Day. George rang a quarter on 2 November 1914 – this was dedicated to all those who had already died in the war (of course at this time there was no special meaning to 11 November, but much memorial ringing took place around the beginning of November as that is when the ancient feast of All Saints and All Souls fall, and the church at Benhilton is also dedicated to All Saints).

At some point in late 1914 Sidney married Ethel M West, the marriage being registered in the 4th quarter 1914 in the Kingston registration district. No precise details have been found so far. Similarly, it is has not been possible to find details of his enlistment into the army, but at some point after December 1915 he went overseas as a private in the East Surrey Regiment. At some point subsequently, after the Labour Corps was formed in 1917, he was transferred to it. His number in the Labour Corps (255944) was not in the initial range of numbers assigned to those who joined the Labour Corps on its formation. Such transfers often followed a wound or sickness which led to a medical downgrade, unfortunately his medal records do not show even which East Surrey Battalion he served with, which makes it impossible to know where he served. On 10 November 1918 – the day before the Armistice – Sidney died. At the time he was serving with 437 Agricultural Company, Labour Corps, which was based near Maidstone, Kent. However, his death was registered in the Malling Registration District, Kent: which was does not include Maidstone (the civil parishes which were included are listed here). He was buried in Benhilton churchyard, within easy sound of the bells he had known so well. The cause of death is not known – nothing is given in the original CWGC registers, although for John Webb (the other Benhilton casualty, also buried in the churchyard), the cause of death is given as pneumonia, probably a consequence of Spanish flu. Possibly it was some sort of accident with the agricultural machinery they would have been using.

Meanwhile, George Rayner married Ethel May Galton in Woolwich in late 1916. She was originally from Poole, but in 1911 had been in domestic service in Cheam, not far from Benhilton. The exact place they married has not been found, nor is it clear why the marriage took place in Woolwich, perhaps one of them was working there at the time. He is stated on the original roll to have served with the Royal Fusiliers. There is only one medal index card for a George Rayner serving with the Royal Fusiliers, unfortunately there is nothing to tie it definitively with this George Rayner. Assuming it is the right George Rayner, the associated medal roll entry (shown below), indicates he served with 7th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers in France from 23 October 1918.

Army ledger listing number, rank, surname and forenames and postings, with dates.

This medal roll shows the entitlement of Private George Rayner to the British War Medal and Victory Medal. He was posted to a 7th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers in France on 23 October 1918.


7th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers was part of 63rd (Royal Naval) Division. Originally formed of Royal Marines and naval reservists not required for service at sea, the division was formally absorbed by the army in 1916, and a number of army units added to its order of battle. 7th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers had originally been a reserve battalion, employed on home defence and training recruits for front line units.

The battalion war diary mentions two officers joining on 24 October 1918, but does not mention a draft of men. In fact, a draft is not listed until 21 November, so it is possible George saw no action at all. However, assuming he did actually join the battalion around 23 October, the battalion was then training at Izel-lès-Hameau, France, a short distance west of Arras. On 1 November they moved roughly north west, to Leforest, east of Lens. This village had been left by the Germans three weeks previously. They arrived at 02:00 on 2 November. After resting that day, the following day, 3 November was a Sunday and was marked by church parade. On 4 November a band played for the local residents in a theatre built by the Germans. This was the first time that the locals had heard the Marseillaise since 1914.

5 November saw another move, south west, to Thiant, and then the following day to Saultain, just the other side of Valenciennes, now just a few kilometres from the Belgian border. On 7 November they crossed the border, spending the night in Angres. They were now closing with the Germans. They had crossed one branch of the Honelles river, and over the next few days (until 10 November) took part in a series of actions knwn as the Passage of the Grand Honelles. the battalion came under heavy machine gun fire on several occasions, and also expereinced shelling, including with gas shells. An officer was wounded, and 50 other ranks.

On the 11 November the battalion was at Harvengt (now called Harveng) a little to the south of Mons. At 10:55 they witnessed a cavalry unit capture a German artillery battery, and the final shells it fired were the last to come near them. The Armistice came into effect at 11:00 which was “received with great jubilation by all ranks”.

The battalion remained at Harvengt until 26 November, so it was probably there that George heard of Sidney’s death, which must have punctured the celebratory mood so far as he was concerned. They then moved back west to Athis where they remained until 6 January 1919, when they moved north east to Hornu. On 23 January George was posted out fo the battalion. The medal roll dos not show which unit he went to, so it is not clear if he went home to the UK for demobilisation then, or if he went to some other unit still in France or Belgium (or even into the Army of Occupation in Germany).

He seems to have returned home by around September 1919 at the latest, he is recorded ringing a quarter peal at Benhilton on 21 September 1919. His first child, Sidney George Rayner was born on 9 January 1921. His first name presumably a tribute to George’s brother. A daughter, Gladys J Rayner was born around 4 November 1922 (the exact date is unclear, but a peal rung on 4 November years later was described as being a birthday compliment to her).

Ringing at Benhilton seems to have stopped for a number of years, probably the deaths of Sidney, and also John Webb had some influence, and the physical condition of the bells also seems to have become poor. In 1929 they were rehung, and a new band formed. George does not seem to have returned to the tower immediately, but is reported to have been ringing on 2 November 1930, although there is then a further gap. Several quarter peals and peals are then reported from 1933 onwards. This included ringing to mark the granting of a Borough Charter to Sutton on 12 September 1934. They attempted a peal of surprise, but that failed after about an hour’s ringing, but managed a quarter peal of Grandsire Triples, with George ringing the fourth.

On 31 October 1934 there was another quarter peal (again Grandsire Triples), to mark the dedication of a new altar in the church. George was ringing the fourth once more, and now the 13-year-old Sid Rayner is reported ringing the treble. The last recorded ringing by either at Benhilton is a peal on 6 December 1936, this was rung half-muffled to commemorate the sudden death of the vicar while reading one of the lessons during the morning service!

At some point after this the family seem to have moved to Poole, the home town of George’s wife, Ethel. Sid seems to have married in the Poole registration district in 1940, and Gladys in 1947. Ethel died in 1947 and George himslef in late 1952. So far no record of any further ringing has been found.

Sidney Francis Rayner is commemorated on the war memorial in Benhilton churchyard, and also on the main Sutton memorial.