Tag Archives: Benhilton

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

The third ringer to be covered in this series on those who rang in the officers’ peals of 1919 is Major J H R Freeborn who has already been extensively covered on this blog as he was a ringer at Benhilton before the war, although he was not actually included on the original Surrey Association roll of honour. The original blog post on him is therefore reposted below for completeness. He was a captain at the time of the peal, only gaining the rank of major during the Second World War.

Head and shoulders sot of a moustached man in army uniform, standing just in front of the right hand end of the arch over a church doorway.

Major John Harley Bridges Hesse, from the photo taken of the band at the peal attempt at South Croydon on 3 May 1919 (he is back, second from right, in the full photo)

halfmuffled

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…

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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.

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Thanks to Alan Seymour who is beginning a similar exercise for the ringers of the Sussex County Association. He originally hails from the Sutton area and has supplied me with photos of Rayner and Webb’s names among other information (both were Benhilton ringers.

He was also able to tell me that the original CWGC registers show that Webb died of pneumonia, increasing the likelihood that he was a Spanish flu victim.

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Benhilton page added

Today I’ve added the page for Benhilton. Four men served, two would not return to the tower, though unusually both lie in the churchyard in Benhilton. One possibly the victim of some sort of accident while working with an agricultural company of the Labour Corps (soldiers not at full fitness following wounds or illness were sometimes employed working on the land to help make up for the shortage of labour caused by the war), he died the day before the Armistice; the other died later in November 1918 and may well have been a victim of the Spanish Flu which was raging at the time.