The Armistice came, the day we had dreamed of. The guns stopped, the fighting stopped. Four years of noise and bangs ended in silence. The killings had stopped.
We were stunned. I had been out since 1914. I should have been happy. I was sad. I thought of the slaughter, the hardships, the waste and the friends I had lost.
Sergeant-Major Richard Tobin, Forgotten Voices of The Great War, Max Arthur, 2002
My grandfather, Sidney Skelton, at a family picnic, 1967
In last month’s post (see Portrait of my Grandfather as a Soldier), I described my London-born grandfather’s service in the British army during WW1, relying on the war diaries of the 19th Hussars held by the National Archives to give me a more accurate picture of a cavalryman’s life on the Western Front. Contrary to what I’d imagined, it wasn’t all trench warfare, and I was rather surprised at the varied tasks the troops had to undertake, as well as the number of other activities that went on ‘behind the line’, such as parades, horse shows and football games.
The November 1918 entries for the war diary finished abruptly on the morning of the 11th at around 8:30am – with unfortunately no mention of the Armistice. The diary was restarted the following month when the batallions were in Germany and continued to detail the clean-up operations (as well as the fate of the horses) until the troops left for Southampton on the 30th of March the following year. Sadly, many of the entries list the large numbers of men who died from the 1918 influenza outbreak, so-called Spanish Flu, something which must have been a terrible finale to a terrible war.
While back in the UK recently, I attended a screening of Peter Jackson’s documentary about the Great War, They Shall Not Grow Old, which was created using digitalised footage from the Imperial War Museum and sound recordings with veterans made fifty years after the outbreak of war. The film (which was shown on BBC2 on the evening of the 11th of November to coincide with the centenary of the Armistice) was an incredible piece of cinematography that brought home the horrors of the First World War in a way that was more relatable than any other documentary I have seen about the conflict.
As many reviewers of the film have pointed out, watching this modern-looking footage of the soldiers engaged in trench warfare was akin to seeing ghosts rising from the dead and reaching out to us. Particularly poignant were the moments when individual soldiers casually called out to the camera (and thus to us in the audience), with comments such as Hey lads, we’re in the cinema! and Hello, Mum! Hearing the men speak (through a judicious combination of lip-reading and actors’ voiceovers) gave the clips of the troops an eerie timelessness that only served to underscore the horror of the battle scenes. Did those men – who so jauntily call out to us today – live to see old age, as my grandfather did; or did they end up as one of the many bloated and disfigured corpses that the film did not hesitate to hide from the viewer?
Perhaps the saddest scenes in the film were the clips taken at the end of the conflict, when the British soldiers fraternised with some of the German prisoners-of-war, declaring them to be ‘just like us’ and ‘decent family men’. It was heart-breaking to see them larking around together, albeit warily, for the camera, trying on each other’s hats and swapping cigarettes and photographs of their families ‘back home’, underscoring the futility of the whole venture. But in those days ‘the other’ was most certainly an unknown quantity: an ordinary soldier would never have had the chance to travel (or live and work abroad), mixing with other nationalities, as we do now. And thus it was easier to brainwash (for want of a better word) the troops into hating the enemy, who likewise had been taught to hate them. If anything, this makes a plea for more integration and cultural understanding.
Another point the film impressed on me was the question of what happened to the ex-servicemen after the war, and the callous way that many were almost thrown on the scrap heap when they returned home, particularly those who had suffered injuries. This puts my grandfather’s thirty-year stint as a tram (and later, bus) conductor with London County Council Tramways into perspective, and I feel ashamed that I (blessed with a free university education in the 1980s) had always deemed this job as beneath him. Grandad felt himself lucky to be able to take up regular work once he came out of the army after serving his allotted twelve years. And whether he wanted to leave then or not, by 1922, the 19th Hussars had amalgamated with the 15th Hussars as cavalry troops ceased to be of importance due to the technological advances in warfare that had escalated throughout the four years of conflict.
Tram Conductor, London, 11th Nov 1929 (c) Imagno/Getty Images
After finding stable employment, my grandfather possibly felt even luckier to marry his Brixton landlady’s 26-year-old daughter, and have the financial security to start a family of his own, while taking over the role of ‘man of the house’ at 95 Denmark Road. There the couple were to remain (with Edith’s widowed mother living out the rest of her life with them) until almost the outbreak of the next war. Denmark Road was just round the corner from the Camberwell Tram Depot and was no doubt why Sidney took lodgings there in the first place. The house is no longer there as the street was bombed during the Blitz and the damaged properties later torn down to make way for post-war housing schemes. However, similar terraced streets in the neighbourhood are very appealing and I imagine that if 95 Denmark Road still existed it would be a much sought after property (as other period houses in the area have become).
My grandmother outside 95 Denmark Road, circa 1910
Denmark Road after bombing in WW2 (c) Ideal Homes
Similar remaining houses in the Denmark Road neighbourhood
This house, which I have written about before (see I Remember, I Remember), must have witnessed a great deal in its 75 year lifespan. All three of the couple’s children were born in that crumbling Victorian terrace: my aunt in 1925, my father in 1928, and my uncle in 1935. Today it is hard to imagine choosing to give birth in a house which did not have electricity or an inside toilet, or the other mod cons we now take for granted.
By 1938, the family were glad to escape from what I imagine to then be a rather dark and dreary house when they moved to the newish cottage-style, council-owned, Bloomfield Estate in West Norwood. Not only had all these semi-detached houses electricity and a bathroom, but a side passageway from the front to the back garden (or yard in those days), meant that messy coal could be directly deposited in the coal shed at the back. And when Denmark Road was eventually bombed, my grandparents were pleased they’d not taken the advice of my grandfather’s brother, Arthur, to buy number 95 outright for £100.
The ‘new’ house at Durning Road, West Norwood
My grandparent’s relationship was to all accounts a very traditional one, with Edith’s role that of mother and housewife, despite working as a telephonist in the years prior to her marriage. My mother told me that even when they had retired, my grandmother always had to ‘get home’ in time to make the evening meal if she had been out visiting friends or family, mostly spending time with her grandchildren. But what might seem chauvinistic today was the norm for most families at that time, even until relatively recently. In fact, my own parents, while believing themselves to be very modern, still had very traditional roles, and I remember my father’s occasional hissy fits when my mother was delayed in her part-time job and not back home in time to help prepare dinner.
When researching my grandfather’s life, post-war, I was fortunate enough to discover a chapter entitled ‘Omnibus and Tramway Services’ in the New Survey of London Life and Labour (Vol. 8, London Industries 3), published in 1934. This survey of working class households in London was conducted during 1928-32 (mostly in 1929-31), and was based at the London School of Economics. It was led by the retired government official and social reformer, Sir Hubert Llewellyn Smith*, with the objective being to measure the current levels of poverty in London, in order to chart the changes in living standards (and other aspects of working class life) since Charles Booth’s pioneering investigations forty years earlier in the 1880s and 90s.
*Interestingly (in terms of the Great War), Sir Hubert Llewellyn Smith headed the British economic section at the Paris Peace Conference in 1918-19, and became chief economic adviser to the post-war government. He was a strong supporter of the League of Nations, and was the British member of the economic committee from 1920 to 1927. He was also a leading personality in all negotiations affecting international trade and the commercial repercussions of the war.
Smith’s New Survey outlined some of the conditions for tram and bus conductors prior to the 1933 London Passenger Transport Act, which consolidated the services under the one public authority of the London Passenger Transport Board. It described how the new electric trams (previously they had been powered by steam or horse-drawn) were a growth industry, with the number of conductors and drivers almost doubling throughout the 1920s, due to the increase in services throughout the expanding London suburbs. By the 1930s, diesel buses had begun to play an even greater role, although my grandfather remained as a tram conductor until this mode of transport was phased out in the 1952 under the ominously named ‘Operation Tramaway’, which came into effect in 1950. Thus for the last few years before his retirement he worked ‘on the buses’ – a phrase which brings back memories of that irreverent 1970s sitcom set in a London bus depot that once so entertained us as a family!
However, in the inter-war period many more men applied for the job of tram driver or conductor than there were jobs available, although it would seem that preference was given to returning servicemen who were able to fit the job description in terms of age (over 25) and height (over 5 foot 6 inches, but less than 5 foot 11 inches). I am of course assuming that this was what enabled my grandfather to obtain employment at the Camberwell Tram Depot, particularly after having been a professional soldier for over a decade, having enlisted with the 19th Hussars several years before the outbreak of war. With no proper education after his basic schooling, the army was the only training he knew, but would have given him a number of transferable skills (in today’s parlance), not least discipline and stamina, and being seen as a good team worker.
Camberwell Tram Depot, 1930s (c) London Transport Museum
From what I can gather, Sidney was relatively happy in his employment and I believe it suited him more than a desk-bound job. The tram driver and conductor had to work closely together, coordinating their movements, something with which an ex-soldier would have been familiar. In addition, there were many opportunities to help the public (see poster below), to quip with the passengers – particularly the regulars, and perhaps more importantly for someone used to military life, to keep moving around and with opportunities to be ‘outside’. (Although perhaps breathing in the often smog-laden air of London was not ideal).
LCC Tramways poster, 1932, by J. S. Anderson © Guildhall Library & Art Gallery/Heritage Images/Getty Images
I have a strong memory of riding on the top deck of a London bus with my grandfather on a warm summer’s day in the early 1970s (when there still were conductors and the jump-on-jump-off system at the back) and witnessing him admonish a couple of boys in the seat in front of us who had thrown something from the window (a red sweet I think it was) onto the head of an older bald man waiting at the bus stop in the street below us. I remember how I felt, shrinking into my seat, while Grandad gave those lads a colourful earful: pride, fear, embarrassment, all these emotions were going through my mind, and I wondered why he had spoken up when no-one else had. But of course it all makes sense now, given his earlier career. Like most children, I did not know or even care much about what my grandfather had done for a living before I was alive, although for some reason I cannot remember a time when we had not known about his role in the Great War.
With my grandfather, Sidney Skelton, early 1970s.
According to Smith’s New Survey of London Life and Labour, mentioned above, a tram conductor working for the London County Council in the early 1930s would have been paid around 72 shillings a week* (with a penny bonus per day for an accident-free day). He was expected to work 8 hours a day, 6 days a week, completing a 48-hour week. Holiday pay was given for a fortnight every year (starting after the first year’s service), and there was a staff benevolent fund of which most were subscribers, allowing payouts in times of hardship (employees payed in a penny a day, which was matched by the employer). In addition to this, there was also voluntary schemes with staff-organised friendly societies.
*This amount could be augmented by Sunday and public holiday bonuses, as well as extra earnings for split shifts.
All this would have been a far cry from the situation which existed before the war, where casual labour would have been more prevalent, and men would sleep out at night near to the stables and garages, hoping for paid work the following day. As Sidney had experience of these conditions at the docks, before enlisting in the 19th Hussars, he would have been grateful to find this improvement in working conditions that social reformers, such as Sir Hugh Lewellyn Smith, had brought about.
During the 2nd World War, my now middle-aged grandfather continued to work as a tram conductor (a reserved occupation), while Edith and the three children were eventually all evacuated to the Somerset village of East Coker, this story being the starting point for my genealogical quest (see In my Beginning is my End). Up until the that time, they appear to have been a close family unit, and Sidney was also used to making regular trips to Thornton Heath to visit his older brother, Arthur, and his family.
Perhaps this was because Arthur had also experienced life in the Western Front, spending the final year of the conflict as a prisoner of war in Germany. In addition, their middle brother, James Francis Skelton (who was named after his paternal and maternal grandfathers respectively) had been killed in September 1917 during the Third Battle of Ypres, leaving behind a young widow and baby who lived in Arthur’s household during and after the war, becoming a mother figure to the children when Arthur’s wife Harriet died of breast cancer at the age of 41 in 1925. James (nicknamed Ginger, presumably on account of having red hair) had been in the Royal West Surrey Regiment along with Arthur after they both signed up at the outbreak of war.
This loss no doubt brought the two remaining brothers closer together, particularly as they would have known of the horrors that James went through in the mud of Flanders. In addition, one of their three step-brothers, Peter Pushman, was killed in April 1915 during the Second Battle of Ypres. (Records indicate that their other two step-brothers – George and Bertie Pushman – seem to have survived the war).
In the course of my research for this post, I discovered that James Skelton’s name is inscribed on the Tyne Cot Memorial, near to where he was killed at Passchendaele, while Peter Pushman is commemorated at the earlier (pre-1917) memorial at the Menin Gate in Ypres. I doubt that any of the family has been to visit these sites, so I have already planned to make the trip next year – something I can perhaps do for my grandfather, who possibly would never have wanted to return to Ypres*. As Arthur’s youngest son, Peter Sidney (born in February 1915) appears to be named after both Peter Pushman and my grandfather, I believe this indicates that Arthur was close to his step-brother. Peter was only a year older than Sidney, and they had lived in the same household from a young age, so there may have also been a strong bond between them.
*I am delighted to have since discovered (see comments) that one of Arthur’s grandaughters attended a ceremony in Tyne Cot last year to honour the fallen, in which James’ name was read out. It is wonderful to think this young man has not been forgotten, even though he has been ‘lost’ to living memory.
Tyne Cot Cemetery and Memorial over the last century
Despite the fact that my grandmother was not so happy about Sidney’s trips to Thornton Heath (she was none too keen on Arthur, I believe), my aunt has fond memories of spending time with her cousins, which I have mentioned before (see The Two Arthurs). However, all these visits came to an end when the next war broke out and were never re-established. As my aunt once wrote: the war seemed to be the beginning of time – what happened before was rather like a dream.
After 1945, things changed completely for the family. My aunt married her teenage sweetheart from East Coker and became a teacher, the young couple living first with my grandparents (as was normal at the time), before setting up home nearby. The family had been rehoused (their West Norwood ‘dream home’ had also been bombed during the Blitz) in Teddington, temporarily at Bushy Park Road until they moved to Bishop’s Grove, where they remained until the early 1970s.
For my father, who’d spent the majority of the war as an evacuee in Somerset, Teddington was not a place which held memories or old friends. He was not particularly close to his sister, and the seven-year gulf between him and his younger brother was not surmountable until later in life. My own belief is that there was a feeling of impermanence about the family at this time: the halcyon family years of the 1930s were long gone, and the children were now growing up and had to find their own way in the new post-war world. Like many families, the war changed the dynamics of family relationships, the consequences of which I believe have rippled down to the next generations.
For my grandparents, the years immediately following the Second World War were mainly about helping to look after my aunt’s three young children (at least for my grandmother) while later in retirement Sidney threw himself into woodwork and gardening and learning to drive, as well as having a mysterious part-time job in the neighbourhood which no-one alive can now remember (although it possibly involved joinery). But it illustrates the fact that Sidney liked being busy, making and mending, and co-operating with others. Whether this was his personality or because of his time in the army, or both, it is difficult to say.
With their new Morris car, Sid and Edie Skelton, Hayling Island, 1955
I think of Grandad Skelton now as an ‘old school’ pensioner: the type I remember from my childhood who was always working on allotments or building or painting things. These men would invariably always wear a checked flat cap, have rolled up shirtsleeves and a handknitted tank top sweater in a muddy colour or with a fair isle pattern. Shapeless grey or brown trousers were often held up with braces, while strange contraptions kept up woollen socks and held back unruly shirtsleeves. Long johns were worn under trousers in winter, but apart from that the uniform did not seem to change much with the seasons. Whether at the beach with us in summer, or walking through Bushy Park in autumn, collecting conkers, the outfit was always the same.
Grandad Skelton in his pensioner’s ‘uniform’, c1967 (age 75)
While it seems strange to imagine my grandfather sporting the jeans and fleece combo of today’s pensioners, it seems stranger still to think that all our allotments, sheds and parks were once full of old men who had served at the Western Front. Now that there are no veterans left – and we are fast approaching the same scenario for the 2nd World War – it is hard to imagine that communities were once full of ex-soldiers who had experienced the horrors of trench warfare, and yet were mostly quietly getting on with their retirement, appreciating their years of freedom, but certainly aware of the fact that this was something many of their fellow servicemen had been denied.
Although it is common knowledge that most returning veterans did not want to talk about the war to their families, I have since come across the theory that this was not necessarily simply because they did not want to relive the horrors, as previously assumed, but more due to the fact that those who had not experienced life on the Western Front could not be expected to understand what they had gone through. Yet, amongst themselves old soldiers would privately reminisce, particularly about those who had not survived the conflict. And I believe it was this bond which held Sidney and Arthur together during the interwar years.
As I look through the few photographs I have of my grandfather, I realise that he never seemed to look terribly happy – always a little uncomfortable, never smiling. But I do not want to leave my readers with the sense that Sidney was permanently melancholic. So I have managed to unearth a rare image in which he seems to be genuinely relaxed: one which which was taken on a summer’s day just a couple of years before he died in 1974 at the age of 82.
Wishing all my readers a very Merry Christmas!
The Incidental Genealogist, December 2018