Tag Archives: Sidney Skelton

Portrait of my Grandfather as a Civilian

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

P1050403 (3).JPGMy grandfather, Sidney Skelton, at a family picnic, 1966

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.

gettyimages-82094211-1024x1024Tram 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).

Edith_Stops_at_95_Denmark_Road,_Camberwell (3)My grandmother outside 95 Denmark Road, circa 1910

denmark-road-00253-640 (2).jpgDenmark Road after bombing in WW2 (c) Ideal Homes

P1030829 (2)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.

P1030886 (2)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.

2624182_1024x1024Camberwell 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).

gettyimages-464494493-1024x1024LCC 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.

P1040720 (2).JPGWith 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.

AWM_E01202-L

CEM1988316_1436080540

tyne-cot-cem-2015-n13_orig (2)

tyne-cot-cemetery-belgium-123rf-15203002-rf_tablet.jpgTyne 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.

P1070475 (2)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.

P1040559 (3)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.

P1040615 (3)

Wishing all my readers a very Merry Christmas!

The Incidental Genealogist, December 2018

 

 

 

 

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Portrait of my Grandfather as a Soldier

The children of the street are equally different from one another in character and appearance, and are often startlingly good-looking. They have shrill voices, clumsy clothes, the look of being small for their age, and they are liable to be comfortably dirty, but there the characteristics they have in common cease. They may be wonderfully fair, with delicate skins and pale hair; they may have red hair with snub-nosed, freckled faces; or they may be dark and intense, with long, thick eyelashes and slender, lithe bodies. Some are apathetic, some are restless. They are often intelligent; but while some are able to bring their intelligence to bear on their daily life, others seem quite unable to do so. They are abnormally noisy. Had they been well housed, well fed, well clothed and well tended, from birth, what kind of raw material would they have shown themselves to be?

Maud Pember Reeves, Round About a Pound a Week, (1913)

GRANDAD SMy paternal grandfather, Sidney Skelton, c1908

As November marks the centenary of the end of the First World War and the signing of the Armistice, I have decided to devote this month’s post to the early life of my English grandfather, Sidney Skelton, who fought in France and Flanders during the Great War. Sidney was always referred to in our family as ‘Grandad Skelton’, whereas our younger Scottish grandfather (whom we saw more regularly by dint of basic geography) was simply called ‘Grandad’. As a child, this difference in appellation used to worry me – I always thought that my English grandparents would feel that they had been relegated to second-best. Thus I hope by writing this post I can make amends for the fact that I never really knew my English grandfather well enough to learn to love him.

As a working-class Londoner who was born at the tail end of the Victorian period, not only did Sidney experience two world wars – firstly as a soldier, then as a working civilian –  but also the resulting social changes which swept through the 20th century.  I have written about my grandfather before (see Of Lost Toys and Mothers), and those who have followed my genealogical quest from the beginning may recall that he has cropped up at various points throughout my story, most notably in connection with his father and oldest brother, both of whom were named Arthur (see The Two Arthurs). Arthur Senior’s  mustachioed face can be seen in my grandparent’s wedding photograph in the banner image above, looking like a leftover from another era. Known as ‘Grandad Arthur’, his jolly-looking countenance belied the harsh life he had led – when this photograph was taken he’d already lost two wives and had endured periods of great poverty that would seem Dickensian today.

Perhaps Sidney had not expected his father to still be around for his wedding day in the autumn of 1924, when he himself was already a relatively mature man (for those days) of thirty-two. Perhaps he’d not even expected to have survived to that age – he had spent many years as a professional soldier, serving in the Great War, and had suffered the loss of an older brother and step-brother in the conflict. For my grandfather, the marriage must have been a bittersweet moment as his thoughts turned to those of his family who could not be there, including his own mother who had died when he was just three, and his step-mother whom he’d lost the year previously.

P1060932 (2)Sidney and Edith on their wedding day, 25th October, 1924

Despite his unease in his borrowed wedding suit (it surely couldn’t have been made for him), he does appear to look vaguely triumphant in his wedding photograph. Perhaps this is not as much in evidence as in the portrait taken to mark his official entry into the 19th Royal Hussars – after all, by 1924 he was no longer an innocent young man who was excited by the prospect a life of adventure, having finally experienced what real war meant. However, on that mild October day, when he married the daughter of his Brixton landlady, he was surely a contented man. His new bride, twenty-six year old Edith Matilda Stops (a name I’m ashamed to say I found ridiculously old-fashioned as a child), was an outgoing young woman who’d started work as a telephonist towards the end of the war, while no doubt still helping her widowed mother out around the house. As both her older brothers had served in the war, she was no stranger to the emotional impact of the conflict, something which was perhaps a comfort to my grandfather.

Whenever I think about my grandparents, it seems hard to reconcile their older selves with the young couple in the photograph above. By the time I came along, Grandma Skelton was already a dumpy women with thick grey hair tied back in a bun (strands of which still kept slipping out) and long, yellow teeth. She had a strange line in pork-pie hats and shiny dresses, and walked in her ugly lace-up shoes with a peculiar flat-footed gait. But I can also remember her lively dark eyes and olive complexion, her easy smile and wonderful cackling laugh. As I child I sensed that she was a happy person, despite the hardships I later discovered she’d endured. In contrast, my grandfather was thin and wiry with pale gnarled limbs and a sunken face, and always seemed to be on the verge of a bad mood. He was also rarely without a hand-rolled cigarette drooping from a corner of his mouth, which was slightly off-putting for the children of non-smokers. So we turned to our plumpish grandmother for hugs instead.

P1040821 (2)With Grandad Skelton, Christmas 1966

Thus poor Grandad suffered by comparison to his easy-going wife. It was a while after his death before I realised how varied his talents were – for woodworking, knitting, growing fruit and vegetables, and anything else he put his mind to. He was the sharp ‘brains’ of the family, but also the most tortured of all my grandparents. As my father inherited many of his characteristics (both good and bad), I know it is too simplistic to blame his experiences on the Western Front for his grumpiness in later life. But it breaks my heart to think that such a talented man ended up spending more than half his working life as a tram (and later, bus) conductor. This is not to denigrate such a job – he’d been delighted to be given such an opportunity in the lean years after the war – it is more that I believe he was the type of young man who would have greatly benefited from a recognised apprenticeship (as my Scottish grandfather did). However, his father was not in any position to support him in such a way.

When Sidney Skelton was born in Lambeth on 12th February 1892, Grandad Arthur and his first wife, Elisabeth (neé Holton), were living in rented rooms at 78, Cator street, near the Surrey Canal. A year later, when Sidney was baptised at the brand new church of All Saints, North Peckham (since dismantled), they had already moved to number 116, where they rented two unfurnished upstairs rooms from the live-in downstairs owner. This part of London was heavily bombed in WW2, resulting in a large area being turned into Burgess Park after the war (see A Tale of Two Parks), a process that took several decades to complete (and is still ongoing). Although these Cator Street houses no longer exist, the last remaining ones in the last remaining part of the street are now very much sought after residences. These period houses have a cottagey feel, yet it is also possible to imagine rows and rows of such identical multi-occupancy terraced houses, grimy in the soot-laden air, and understand why post-war planners were itching to eradicate them.

CATOR STREET (2).pngOriginal houses in Cator Street, Peckham, today

I have a strong feeling that Sidney’s mother was already ailing when she gave birth to him, her fifth child, that winter. Three years later she would be dead from cirrhosis of the liver, her new-born son, Frederick Edward, following her to the grave shortly afterwards. His malnourished rickety body was simply too weak to carry on without her. So little Sidney already had a rocky start in life, which possibly became even rockier when his father quickly remarried a widow with her own children, and the new patchwork family continued to move around south London, the youngest members being registered in different board schools every few months. Although Arthur was a shoemaker by trade, he’d never attained the level of master (as his own father had with his tailoring business), so led a more precarious existence as a journeyman, mending his customers’ shoes in whatever home the Skelton family happened to be living at the time. This would explain why my grandfather once told my aunt that he and his brothers had to walk long distances over south London in order to collect and deliver shoes for their father.

In the 1911 census, I was rather surprised to find that 52 year-old Grandad Arthur was found to be staying at Rowton House (at the Elephant and Castle), which was a fee-paying – albeit philanthropic – hostel for impoverished men. He was still married to his second wife, a widow named Harriet Pushman, but had possibly separated from her at this point (divorce being only for the wealthy). Unfortunately, after having been later used as a hotel and then a hostel, the old Rowton House building was demolished in 2007 after falling into disrepair, so I was unable to see it for myself. Yet, in 1897, when it was newly built, it was described as an impressive six-storey building, housing over 800 men, each of whom had their own small sleeping cubicle, open at the top. In addition, there were cooking facilities, opportunities to buy food and hot drinks, as well as communal living rooms, games rooms and libraries, alongside toilets and washing facilities. As one night cost around six old pence – although a room could also be booked on a weekly basis – the hostel was designed for ‘bona-fide working men’ who happened to be down on their luck. Residents who were tailors, shoemakers and barbers also offered their services, and I wonder whether Grandad Arthur was able to pick up some work while staying there.

ROWTON HOUSE (2)Rowton House, Newington Butts, c1900

By then, Arthur Skelton’s youngest son Sidney was already enlisted in the army and was most likely out of the country at that time (as he cannot be found on the 1911 census). Years later he told my father that before the Great War he had served overseas ‘somewhere hot’ (my mother thinks it was India, although it could have been in the Middle East) and there he had worn a special hat with a fold down part at the nape of the neck to protect against the sun – a style that is commonplace today due to increased concerns about UV radiation. However, in those days this issue was not people’s chief concern, and when my father was sent out to Africa with the air force in the early 1950s, my grandfather’s advised him to get out in the sun as much as possible right away, so he would quickly become acclimatised. As my father had inherited the olive skin tone of his mother, this was not a problem for him, and it seemed to me as a child that he was forever looking tanned and healthy. In fact, after years of living overseas, one of his major gripes about Scotland (and Britain as a whole – that damp dreary island in the North Atlantic) was the awful weather. So from an early age, I was picking up subliminal messages that life might be warmer and more exciting elsewhere.

My grandfather’s decision to join the British army was most likely financial. Prior to that, he had only been able to take short-term labouring jobs (as did his brothers), and years later told my parents about how he used to have to go down to the docks (possibly the Surrey Docks) to try to find daily work. As my mother once remarked, being small and wiry, Sidney might not have immediately stood out as one of the obvious men to employ for physically demanding work, and he often had to return home empty-handed. So signing up to the army gave working-class boys like Sidney a chance to have paid regular employment, to be housed, clothed and fed, and to be trained in various skills. My mother remembers how surprised she was to once come across Sidney knitting an intricate aran pullover as an old man, an unexpected benefit of being in the army.

It was only when I recently accessed the war diaries from Sidney’s regiment, the 19th Hussars, that I realised why the soldiers would have learnt such skills as knitting. Despite how I imagined life at the Western Front, it seems that in between the skirmishes there was a certain amount of time waiting and preparing for the next stage of warfare, so keeping busy would have been paramount. From 17th October 1915 (when Sidney arrived in Wardrecques, France, as part of one-hundred strong reinforcements) there are many entries which describe several days staying in billets (while waiting on commands), interspersed with trench digging, reconnoissance parties, transporting weapons etc.

In addition, soldiers constantly had to undertake bayonet and rifle drills, as well as keeping their horses fit and trained, and most unexpectedly, regularly playing football. In fact, while reading the diaries for 1916, I actually began to think that ‘playing football’ was a euphemism for some sort of military tactic. But of course, such ‘games’ would not only have improved physical skills, but also increased cohesion within the battalion and improved the soldiers’ morale. There were also descriptions of church visits, inspections, parades and horse shows (which the local population often came to watch), some of which had to be cancelled due to last-minute manoeuvres, and soldiers occasionally helped local farmers with harvests, in return for food and grazing.

74300666_3Horse show behind the lines (c) National Libraries of Scotland

The British army war diaries, which have only been available for the general public since 2014, can be read in situ at the National Archives in Kew, or can be ordered on-line for the price of a pint of beer. They are not always easy to decipher as some of the entries have been written (or scrawled) in pencil, and individual officers varied in how much information they recorded. Without prior military knowledge, it can also be challenging to follow many of the manoeuvres described, and the very matter-of-fact descriptions sometimes makes it difficult to work out when the important events are taking place. But to anyone wanting to know more about an ancestor’s movements during that period, they are certainly worthwhile reading, particularly if key battle dates are known. It is also relatively easy to plot the movements of troops if a detailed map of the area described can be accessed at the same time. Thus the diaries are an invaluable guide to visiting the battlefields, something I hope to do at some point in the future.

74300538_3British cavalry waiting for the order to move up (c) SNL

57_3British cavalry preparing to advance (c) SNL

And so it was that I found myself honing in on the 8th August 1918, when  I saw (with a horrible thrill) that for the first time in the diary the officer in charge had simply written Battle Front in the space designated for the name of the town or village in which the 19th Hussars were billeted. To follow the Battle of Amiens in ‘real time’ was an uncanny feeling, particularly in light of the fact that we know what those who were fighting cannot. I am able to read about the conflict, knowing that the war would soon come to an end and my grandfather would survive. Yet, how harrowing it must be for those who are following the hour-by-hour descriptions of a battle where their ancestors lost their lives.

74408646_3Cavalry patrols advancing over open countryside (c) SNL

74407759_3 (2)Cavalry passing Albert Cathedral, August 1918, Tom Aitken (c) SNL

Some of the notes taken during the battle were particularly descriptive. For example, at 7pm on the evening of the 8th of August, the officer in charge wrote: Enemy aeroplanes appeared in large numbers, as many as 20 or 30 being in the air above us at the same time, and commenced shooting at our horses, no damage. A few of our Scouts (S.E.5’s) were in among them, and we had the satisfaction of seeing one machine burst into flames at a height of about 1,500 feet, and fall rapidly down on the west side of the valley in which the horses were standing. The pilot jumped out and fell a little further looking like a little rag.

74407355_3British scouting planes (S.E.5s), France 1918, David McLellan (c) SNL

But perhaps the notes that enthralled me the most were those which captured the often petty-sounding (but obviously important for discipline and morale) issues of everyday life on the Western Front. Soldiers were admonished for smoking while on horseback, for shooting rabbits in the French countryside, for not changing their socks within a 24 hour period. And so the list of regulations and demeanours went on. Food was also an important topic for the troops; for example, on the 2nd of May, 1918, the reporting officer wrote the following: Information received that the peanut cake now being issued, is better boiled, this producing a less irritating and purging effect. Day passed quietly. I don’t think he realised the unintended humour of these two, possibly unrelated, statements!

74406582_3Cavalry soldiers relaxing, while their horses graze (c) SNL

A family anecdote relating to my grandfather’s time in the army which I have always found particularly fascinating is an event which took place on a cold winter’s morning when my grandfather was coming home on leave. As Sidney was walking through the suburban streets of south London in his cavalry uniform, there was a commotion when the local milkman’s horse slipped on the ice and fell over. Knowing that a fallen horse is in a difficult situation – especially on ice – and that it needs to be helped up onto its feet before it does any damage to itself, Sidney ran over to the horse and kneeled on its neck. This was presumably to prevent the animal struggling, and would have been second nature to him after his army training – as to lose a horse in wartime is obviously a grave concern. However, it would appear that the milkman was not best pleased to see this soldier diving onto his horse, and used some choice swearwords to show his disapproval.

img004Edwardian milkman, Norwood Dairies, South London

4f02678fe8e81fda7a561677109e2816--war-horses-climbingHorse falling down railway embankment, Western Front 1917-18,

Although everyone in the family seemed to find this tale quite funny, I have always thought it rather sad. I wonder if this is because it illustrates the different worlds that the two men inhabited. Sidney would have been proud of his equine skills and no doubt believed that his role in the army was for the greater good; the milkman may have felt that he was being shown up by this younger serviceman, and may have had conflicted emotions about not actively fighting in the war himself (despite the fact he may have been too old for service). For soldiers coming home on leave from the front, it must have been a strange, unsettling experience.

But perhaps it was even harder when the war was finally over.

74408227_3 (3)A cavalry patrol (c) SNL

To be continued next month in Portrait of my Grandfather as a Civilian.

The Incidental Genealogist, November 2018