Research at a Walthamstow museum has uncovered the stories of three local casualties of the First World War
Around 22,000 Walthamstow men and women served in the First World War. Most returned home; many died overseas and were buried there, while 130 were brought home only to later die of their injuries.
Historian Chris Hunt has been researching the stories behind the names on the Walthamstow Roll of Honour and the Roll of Sacrifice at Vestry House Museum. His research was invaluable when I decided to get involved with the Big Ideas Company’s government-funded project Passchendaele at Home, seeking local soldiers who were wounded at Passchendaele and died in the UK.
Privates Sidney Freeburgh, Arthur Grimley, and Alfred Pledger, were three such people. Their biographies are based on the information available but, with over 60 percent of First World War service records destroyed or damaged in the Second World War, they are incomplete. Chris, however, has reconstructed the story of their lives.
Sidney Freeburgh was born into an army family in Streatham on 5th August 1891, his father, David, being a farrier with the cavalry in Woolwich. By 1901, they had moved to 34 Palmerston Road, Walthamstow, and then to 62 on the same street with David working as a farrier and then blacksmith for a stone mason. In 1911, Sidney was a tobacconist’s assistant. His service record has not survived, but he joined the Territorial Force, probably the local 7th Essex Regiment, with its Drill Hall at Walthamstow Lodge, Church Hill. Sidney married Violet Pook, a widow, in the spring of 1915. She moved to Walthamstow and gave birth to a son, David, on 6th February 1916.
In January 1917 Sidney agreed to serve abroad and was sent to the 2nd Essex Regiment on the Western Front. The Battalion had fought at the Battle of Arras in spring 1917 and Sidney was part the replacements for casualties sustained there. At 5.20am on 9th October the battalion launched an attack in the Poelcappelle area. They were subjected to heavy rifle and machine gun fire and they were forced to take cover. Between 9th and 14th October, they suffered 274 casualties, including Sidney. He returned to England and was treated at the Kitchener Hospital, Brighton, where he died on 18th October. He was buried in Queens Road Cemetery.
Arthur Grimley was born in Southwark in 1878, as one of ten children. In 1891 he was employed as an errand boy and, by 1901, was living at 21 Colebrook Road, Walthamstow, and was working as a warehouseman in the woollen trade. On 25th December 1902 he
married Jennie Ingham, his landlady’s daughter, at St Anne’s Parish Church. After initially living with Arthur’s parents, they lived at 38 Coppermill Lane, and Arthur became foreman in a dress trimming warehouse while Jennie looked after their three children.
Most of Arthur’s brothers served in the war, two were killed. Arthur attested on 15th September 1916 and joined the 7th (Extra Reserve) Battalion, Royal Fusiliers (City of London) Regiment. His service record did not survive but it is likely he joined the battalion in spring 1917 as one of the replacements for casualties of the Battle of Arras. His first experience of a major offensive would also have been his last. The Second Battle of Passchendaele was two days old on 28th October, when the 7th Royal Fusiliers moved to their position, coming under artillery bombardment. Casualties were heavy and Arthur was wounded.
He was returned to England and taken to Fusehill War Hospital, Carlisle, where he died on 10th November almost twice as far from home as the place where he was wounded. He too was buried in Queens Road Cemetery.
Alfred Pledger was born in Walthamstow in 1879. His parents lived at 2 Linford Road. Alfred and three brothers followed their father into the building trade. On 22nd May 1899 he married Amelia Richardson of Saffron Walden, and they moved to 9 Corbett Road. Their first child, Alfred, was born in 1901 but died in 1907. Freddy was born in 1903, and James in April 1911, and the family lived at 34 Brunswick Street.
In 1914, Alfred was 35. No service record exists, but in September 1916 he enlisted in the 1/17th County of London Regiment, the Poplar and Stepney Rifles. By the middle of 1917, the 17th Battalion had participated in the attack on Messines, and it is likely Alfred was part of the replacements.
Between mid-August and mid-October, Alfred was wounded. Returned to England, he was sent to Napsbury Hospital, St Albans, but died of his wounds on 27th October. He was buried at St Mary’s Church, Walthamstow. His widow, Amelia, continued to live locally until her death in 1968.
In November I organised a ceremony to honour these three men. I was keen to find any descendants, and managed to trace a granddaughter and great-granddaughter of Sidney Freeburgh, who still live locally. Mark Carroll of the Walthamstow Family History Society then later traced Arthur Grimley’s grandson and great-grandson, John and Steve Grimley, who live in Essex. John’s mother is buried near Arthur and John visits regularly, but was unaware of his grandfather’s grave.
At the commemorative ceremony, John laid a tribute on Arthur’s grave on what I commented was “a special day with a moving ceremony, made very special by the presence of John and Steve Grimley and the tree planting, ensuring that the day would not be forgotten”.
The booklet containing Chris Hunt’s research is available from Malcolm Doolin.