When the newly completed St Laurence church hall had opened on 17 April 1914, “the result of a year’s labour”, few would have guessed that within four months it would be pressed into emergency service as a hospital as part of the war effort. Within a few days of the outbreak of war on 4 August 1914 a proposal to convert the new premises “into a convalescent home for the care of men discharged from hospital”, initially with twelve beds but with the capacity to expand to 20 beds if so required was put forward. The maintenance costs of £1 per bed per week were to be funded by pledges of help and public appeals, with Cranham parish prepared to do the whole of the laundry, provide a cook “and other necessary services”; Dr J S Brookfield of Hill Place was to be the medical superintendent. An organised ambulance corps at Upminster station could provide “two parties of bearers, with stretchers and equipment”.
Another early local response was the setting up of ladies’ working parties to provide garments for troops. Shirts, bed jackets, helmets or sleeping caps, socks or mufflers and other items were assembled, with Miss Sophia Reilly of High House coordinating contributions. By the start of October 1914 some 400 garments had been made, some new, others adapted from old ones. The main beneficiaries were the 4th Battalion Essex Regiment who received a supply of helmets, shirts, socks, and mufflers, while other garments went to Upminster men serving with other regiments. Other clothes were sent to Purfleet camp, while about 50 articles were retained for use in the convalescent home in the church hall.
Men already in the regular forces or in the Territorial Reserve were drafted to form the first ranks of Britain’s Expeditionary Force (BEF) or were called to arms and, as the parish magazine noted, Upminster men were involved from the outset. The BEF had been on the European mainland for less than a week when on 22 August the first casualty with Upminster connections occurred. The wounded man was Sergeant-Major D S Jillings, of No.2 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps whose parents, Mr & Mrs A Jillings, lived at Hill Place. Jillings was a regular soldier of some 14 years service, having served in the Grenadier Guards until about twelve months previously.
But there were not enough regulars or reservists to take on the Kaiser’s forces so volunteers were needed. A local recruitment office was soon established in Brook Street, Grays with the aim of recruiting 500 men from the surrounding districts. By 12 September 312 local men had enlisted but this included just four Upminster volunteers. But by 3 October at least 19 men of Upminster from the Congregational Church alone were in uniform. The church sent a letter to each, “expressing the good wishes of the church a a pocket New Testament, bound in khaki”. Three of the nineteen were to die on active service, the first (Leonard Cooper) perishing just seven months later in May 1915.
A better response was experienced following the call for special constables. By the end of September some 72 local men had been sworn in to “defend” their parish, with seven more added the following week. These recruits were briefed “as to their duties and what was required of them” and issued with armbands, whistles, truncheons and warrant-cards. The force paraded initially “nearly every night at the railway station for drill” before taking up their nightly patrol duties around the parish. Like other places Upminster was swept with “spy-mania” with the appearance of any stranger to the district met with suspicion and rumours. Anyone with a foreign- or uncommon-sounding name came under the spotlight, including the long-established baker Mr Frizzell. At the end of October 1914 Police Sergeant Beasley had arrested three Germans, who were shipped off to a transit camp at Newbury.
But the arrival of other foreigners in the area around the same time was cause for sympathy rather than concern. Belgian refugees, fleeing their invaded country, were welcomed warmly to Upminster and private houses in Gaynes Road were rented for them, funded by local donations. First-hand news about German atrocities against the Belgian people would have spread quickly in the village.
The war must also have seemed closer to home with the announcement in early October that Private Charles Morant of the City of London Fusiliers was the first from the parish to be killed in action, dying in France on 10 September. The 30 year-old resident of Hacton hamlet was the first of over 60 men with parish links to perish in the conflict over the next four years.
When the war began in August the commonly held view was that it would be over by Christmas, but by Christmas Day there was firm evidence that the war was far from over. At lunchtime that day the sound of firing between British and German airplanes in the Thames estuary was heard in Upminster, and it was reported that the enemy had been fired upon in nearby Purfleet.
The war in the air began in earnest in Spring 1915, particularly after 31 May 1915 when Zeppelin LZ-38 became the first airship to reach London. Living beneath a common German flight path the residents of Upminster would have sensed a constant threat to their safety. The British defences comprised a series of planes operating from airfields around the South East, a series of ground observation posts, with telephone contacts inland to relay warnings of the advancing threat, and mobile and fixed anti-aircraft batteries and searchlights. Locally these were to be found at Beacontree Heath in Dagenham, Buckhurst Hill and Chigwell Row, in addition to a searchlight station at Upminster Common. It was noted many years later that William Garbutt Key, Director of W P Griggs & Co, as Sergeant of the Special Constables and 2nd Essex Volunteer Regiment, transported men to this latter emplacement which the local volunteers manned for six months until it was taken over by the Royal Engineers.
Another local line of air defences came in October 1915 with the opening of Suttons Farm airfield in Hornchurch: early local action came on 13 October when an anti-Zeppelin patrol spotted airship L15 over Romford.
The most dramatic incident in the locality was probably the occasion on the night of 2/3 September 1916 when Lt William Leefe Robinson, flying out of Suttons Farm, became the first Allied airman to shoot down a German airship. Airship SL11 met its fate at his hands at Cuffley, Hertfordshire with the death of the Commander and 16 crew. The flames, said to be visible 40 or 50 miles away, would certainly have been seen at Upminster. Another incident came three weeks later with the shooting down of two Zeps in Essex at Great Burstead and Mersea Island. In neighbouring Hornchurch C T Perfect reported on the former’s “crimson glow, lighting up the country all around as it plunged earthwards”.
From Spring 1915 onwards another dimension to the war was apparent with news of the ill-judged assault on the Gallipoli peninsular. The 1st Battalion Essex Regiment was amongst those involved in this disastrous campaign which cost 20,000 lives from April 1915, with two men with Upminster connections, Privates William Wenden and Arthur Hall, amongst that regiment’s fatalities in the summer of 1915.
The mounting casualty lists for the British forces meant that a constant supply of recruits was needed to replace these losses. Recruitment meetings, such as that held in Upminster on 20 November 1914, obviously played their part in calling men to arms, but the flow of volunteers alone was not enough to meet the demand. In July 1915 the National Registration Act compelled everyone between 15 and 65 years of age to register, followed by a last chance to enlist voluntarily with the so-called Derby Scheme, introduced in October 1915 by Lord Derby. Those who chose not to volunteer could “attest”, with an obligation to come forward if called to do so and on 9-11 December from 8pm-10pm a “sub-recruiting office for attestation and enlistment” was opened at Upminster’s British School. The Military Service Act of January 1916 introduced compulsory military service for all single men aged 18 to 41; an act four months later extended conscription to married men too.
The war in Europe reached new horrors on 1 July 1916, the so-called first day of the Somme, when British soldiers were mown down in their thousands by the merciless German machine-gun fire. Among those regiments badly affected were the 10th Essex: two Upminster fatalities from that regiment were Pte Edward Butler, and L/Cpl Albion Caldecourt, son of John Richard Caldecourt, plumber, glazier and gas fitter of Elmhurst, Station Road (adjacent to A E Talbot’s wheelwright’s shop, later to be Talbot’s garage). Caldecourt was an early volunteer, enlisting at Grays on 16 November 1914; his brother Frederick was to die in action two months later.
A visible reminder of the war came in September 1916 with the military funeral in Upminster of Pte Tom Hills MM, a popular local figure. Hills, had been born 22 years previously at Tadlows, where his parents Mr & Mrs Jonathan Hills, head gardener at Gaynes, still lived. Unable to enlist in the army due to water on the knee, he gained a first-class ambulance certificate, enlisting in the Royal Army Medical Corps. He was fatally wounded on 9 September 1916 when attempting to reach a wounded man, having rescued one man already, and for his bravery under fire was awarded the Military Medal. He was sent back from the front to Netley Hospital, Southampton but before his parents could reach him, he passed away on 16 September, seven days after receiving his fatal wounds. Upminster parish church hosted his funeral with full military honours on 20 September, before the funeral procession made its way to the cemetery at Corbets Tey.
A near neighbour of the Hills, Mrs Miles of Tadlows Cottage, received notice that her husband Edward, another of Joslin’s employees at Gaynes Park, had been wounded on 19 July 1916 and was reported missing. By early October she was still awaiting news of his fate, having advertised and written letter after letter to anyone she thought might have news. The official notice of his death came the following week. Mrs Coppen of Lynton Branfill Road also had to endure the anguish of waiting for news, in this case of her son, Bert (Herbert) Coppen of the “Bankers’ Battalion” (26th Royal Fusiliers). As the Grays and Tilbury Gazette reported on 3 November 1916: getting no further news of him seemed to prey on her mind to such an extent that she developed a brain fever … and passed away in St Thomas’ hospital without practically regaining consciousness”. Almost exactly twelve months after her death, her eldest son Lt William Coppen too was also killed in action.
Mr William J Gooderham, who carried out the triple business as grocer, draper and postmaster, was another affected badly by the death of his son. Seven months after the death in November 1916 of Pte John Gooderham of the Honourable Artillery Company after the capture of Beaumont Hamel, Gooderham circulated his customers with the news that “owing to the sad loss I sustained last year, I have decided to dispose of my business … after 26 years”. A lasting monument to John Gooderham, “the gift of his parents”, erected in October 1917, can still be seen in the east end of the Lady Chapel in St Laurence church: a stained glass window depicting the adoration of the Magi.
A new terror was inflicted on the skies above Upminster from May 1917 when daylight air raids were launched on London by flights of German Gotha bombers. Just before lunchtime on 13 June 1917 a flight of 14 Gothas, making their way westwards along the north banks of the Thames via Wickford, Brentwood, Romford and West Ham, were visible above the garden suburb. Upminster was left “busied with conjectures as to what damage the visitors would do” – in fact the bombers inflicted heavy casualties in the capital – some 152 dead and 432 wounded – including the tragic death of 18 children at Upper North Street School, Poplar.
Towards the end of 1917 a re-organisation of the by-now Royal Air Force brought another aspect of the war to the people of Upminster: the newly-formed RAF 49 Wing, the administrative branch which commanded the local airfields of Suttons Farm, North Weald Basset and Hainault Farm, set up its HQ at Upminster Hall under Capt Malcolm Christie. This development provided employment opportunities for local women who, in the absence of the bulk of the parish’s menfolk, were recruited for service as cooks, drivers, clerks, typists, riggers and magneto repairers.
Despite many women’s willingness to “do their bit”, not every man was keen to serve. In January 1917, William Thomas Pike, a 38 year-old married insurance clerk of Esdaile Gardens, was summonsed for failing to report when called up. He successfully claimed exemption on the grounds that he was a minister of the Upminster assembly of the Plymouth Brethren, whose assembly of around 40 met in the former Congregational Chapel on Upminster Hill. Most claims for exemption came from local employers, particularly shopkeepers like Mr Gooderham and his successor Green who consistently sought the exemption from service of their remaining key staff, a 39 year-old manager and 31 year-old warehouseman and foreman, eight others having already left forward service.
One effect of the conscription of nearly all the adult males was that the social and sporting life of the parish virtually came to a halt. In the early war years many societies had managed to continue a restricted programme of events but as time went on even this became impossible. The Upminster Lawn Tennis Association formed in 1907 with their courts and pavilion in Deyncourt Gardens, “became practically extinct” in 1917 “owing to the war and causes therefrom”.
Even as the war neared an end, news came of the deaths of more Upminster servicemen, not all as a direct effect of the enemy. Charles Arthur Riggall of Oak Cottage, Cranham Road was a sailor aboard the Royal Navy ship HMS Otranto, part of a convoy of food and troop ships. A Royal Navy reservist, he had been drafted into the navy at the outbreak of war. He returned to England in June 1918 for seven days leave and sailed again on 7 July, writing home that he had a touch of flu, but six days later died of acute pneumonia, leaving a widow, two children and widowed invalided mother to share their grief.
It seems that the last Upminster soldier to lose his life during the war was Pte John Flack of the Essex Regiment whose death occurred on 5 November 1918, six days before the signing of the Armistice. Yet this was not the final serviceman’s death. Two months later, on 8 January 1919 Lt Cyril Horncastle of Freshfields, Gaynes Park died of pneumonia in Cairo: he had served in the Middle East for over three and a half years since 1915 seeing and surviving “much arduous service” and had never been home on leave.
Only slowly did parish life return to some kind of normality, as over a long period soldiers were progressively demobilised and returned to civilian life. Others were released from their enforced captivity as prisoners of war: in January 1919 for instance, the release of three local men, Lance-Cpl T Williams, Pte W Gorden and Driver H Nice, were reported. Belatedly, in late February, came the notification of the award of a Military Medal for Pte W Mansfield of the 26th Royal Fusiliers. By March 1919 only two cases remained at St Laurence Auxiliary Military Hospital and it was felt that the work of the unit, which had “attended upwards of 300 men sent to them from Colchester, Warley and elsewhere” could now draw to a close. The final phase of its activities was “a social gathering of an informal character … which evoked much gratitude from the patients”. On the 15 March the Grays and Tilbury Gazette reported a presentation made in recognition of work as Assistant Commander of the hospital by Miss Sophia C Reilly, daughter of Charles Reilly of High House.
The parish celebrated peace with a number of thanksgiving services but the parading of captured German guns in February 1919 was a more public expression of the victory celebrations. At the start of December 1918 the parish council proposed a permanent memorial to the war dead, with a public meeting arranged as a first step. Discussions began in earnest in February 1919 but there was no agreement about the form of the memorial. What was in no doubt was that public subscriptions would be needed to meet the costs but there was no great enthusiasm to dig deep for this. By 31 March only £31 had been raised and the headline ran “Is the war memorial in jeopardy?” A long debate at the annual parish meeting probably stirred more consciences but the fund crept up only slowly, reaching £100 by late May. Things were obviously not going well, for a new committee was elected.
While Upminster was still considering what to do, other nearby parishes were already unveiling their memorials or other tributes. In December 1919, a full year after the question of a memorial was first raised, Upminster held a referendum of parishioners who were asked to choose between a memorial hall or a monumental memorial. Votes split evenly between the two options and as there were insufficient funds for the hall, the monument finally won the day. It was almost a further eight months before work was about to start only £360 of the estimated £610 cost had been raised.
A “roll of honour” was exhibited at St Laurence church in August 1919, listing the names of 43 war dead with local connections. By June 1920 the church was displaying a “substantially framed roll of honour in perpetual memory of those men resident in or closely associated with the parish”; this listed 58 names, not all of which were on the first list. On the last Sunday in September 1920 Upminster gained its first permanent memorial to those who fell, with the unveiling by Mr Henry Joslin JP DL of Gaynes of a brass commemorative plaque, naming 13 members of the Congregational church.
Yet it was to be seven months before the parish memorial on Corbets Tey Road was unveiled. The public ceremony was finally held before a large crowd on Sunday 8 May 1921 with Brigadier-General C H De Rougemont DSO MVO performing the official duties. Those present would have formally witnessed for the first time memorial, designed by Mr C Harrap, with “a cross with Celtic ornamentation … rising from the massive Portland Stone cenotaph base”, standing on three York stone steps; inscribed on the base were to be seen the names of 66 men with Upminster connections. The deliberations of the organising committee headed by Mr J W Gunnell in drawing up the final list and arranging the inscription of these names have not been preserved. Yet if they had intended the memorial to be a worthy commemoration of the parish’s losses, then surely in the long time from conception to completion they could have taken more care in ensuring that the names of the fallen were accurately recorded, avoiding the several errors which somehow crept in.
If anyone has any information on the WW1 fatalities named on Upminster’s War Memorial, or would like me to check any information I may have then please leave a comment below.
Abridged from pages 32-42 of “Upminster: the Story of a Garden Suburb” by Tony Benton, with Albert Parish (self-published, 1996, revised & reprinted by Amberley Books, 2009, )
Available from Swan Books