“I feel one can say with some conviction that no man should willingly leave his home to fight, wound, maim or kill other men about whom he knows little and whom he certainly does not hate. When all men refuse to commit such follies the foundations of a true civilisation will have only just started to be laid.”
- Sam Sutcliffe, circa 1974 (extracted from his Memoir)
Sunday 25 June 2017
The Making Of Foot Soldier Sam, 1904-14 – poverty and the outdoor life for all the family in London! Plus Sam’s Big Fight against the School Bully… and the Boy Scout ideal meets the wider world on the brink of war…
For details of how to buy Sam’s full Memoir* in paperback or e-book & excerpted Gallipoli & Somme episode mini-e-books & reader reviews see right-hand column
All proceeds to the British Red Cross
A hundred years ago this week… The Allies seemed to have a slight advantage in the Western Front to and fro without any significant change to the relentless attrition. The British advanced across the Souchez river on a two-mile front to occupy La Coulotte (June 27) and Avion (29), and capture German defences around Lens (30). The French took a hillcrest called Dragon’s Cave near Hurtebise, but otherwise held off counterattacks at best on the Chemin Des Dames and near Reims (29), and Cerny and Ailles despite a heavy artillery bombardment (July 1) – and lost out somewhat in the Verdun sector, which hadn’t gone quiet after all (28-30).
Two landmark moments occurred – the arrival of the first American troops in Europe (from June 25; 14,000 by the end of the month although they didn’t see action until October), and the world’s largest gun fired for the first time, “Lange Max” hitting Dieppe from Koekelare, 50 kilometres away in West Flanders (27).
Hostilities resumed on the Eastern Front after a semi-hiatus while the Russians had their February Revolution and sorted themselves out. The Kerensky Offensive (July 1-19), named for the War Minister who ordered it, had a good first day. The Russians attacked German and Austro-Hungarian forces on a 50-mile front on either side of Brzezany, Galicia (now western Ukraine), starting with the greatest artillery barrage they’d ever mustered and boosted by the immediate success of the Czechoslovak Legions in the Battle Of Zborov (also now in Ukraine).
However, the last day of the Battle Of Mount Ortigara (June 10-25), which had begun so well for the Italians, saw them lose all their original gains back to the Austrians (casualties: Italians 23,000, Austro-Hungarians 9,000).
Other subplots saw: Eleftherios Venizelos regain the Prime Ministership of Greece (June 26) and swiftly declare war on the Central Powers (30) – this followed the abdication of the anti-war King Constantine; the Russians way over in Persia continue their steady advance (remarkable for its remoteness from Moscow) when they took Serdesht (26); German forces in Nyasaland driven towards the Mozambique border by British and Portuguese troops (30).
[Memoir background: my father, Lance Corporal Sam Sutcliffe from Edmonton, north London, under-age 2/1st Royal Fusiliers volunteer and Gallipoli veteran [Blogs September 20, 2015, to January 3, 2016], had fought on the Somme Front with his second outfit the Kensingtons (Blogs May 15 to September 25, 2016)… until officialdom spotted his age – 18 on July 6, 1916, legally too young for the battlefield – and told him he could take a break from the fighting until he was 19. He did so, though with an enduring sense of guilt. By December, 1916, he ended up posted to Harrogate, Yorkshire, and re-allocated again, this time to the Essex Regiment 2/7th Battalion, along with a bunch of other under-age Tommies training/marking time – and in Sam’s case dicing with meningitis and other battle-fatigue enhanced ailments – until such time as they severally became eligible for the trenches once more… Well, my father didn’t write enough about his year “off” in England to cover 1917 in weekly chunks (I can hardly blame him; writing his Memoir in the 1970s he wasn’t really thinking about blog requirements). So for now the blog continues with themed childhood and teens material – his formative years – under the title The Making Of FootSoldierSam.]
Last week, The Making Of Foot Soldier Sam covered the many ways in which Edmonton’s “tin church” missions to the poor and then the main parish church itself developed and influenced Sam’s life from the time he was five, and the family still new to both London and poverty, onwards to WW1. He rarely mentioned the religious side of churchgoing per se, it was all about involvement in entertaining and/or useful activity, exercising people’s abilities purposefully – say, in organising a fete to raise funds for a new church hall – and gathering self-respect. Sam seemed as pleased to observe this small magic working on his parents as he was to take part himself.
This week, I’m turning to the family’s outdoor recreational life, perhaps a surprising aspect of life in a down-at-heel 1900s London suburb, but something that, crucially, could be enjoyed for free on the outer edge of the city, as Edmonton was back then.
A lot of Sam’s al fresco fun as a lad came from joining the then all-new Boy Scouts as you’ll see, but these next scenes follow tin-church minister Glanfield Rowe’s beneficent entry into their lives, which led to father’s conversion to CofE from Unitarian and his finding a whole new social life through the church’s men’s committee. This more or less coincided with his promotion to under-manager in the shipping firm he worked for. No panaceas, certainly, but the great outdoors did help… (NB: my father wrote the early chapters in the third person, calling himself “the boy” and then “Tommy”, while he temporarily aliased Ted as “George”, and, when necessary, cunningly switching Sutcliffe to “Norcliffe”):
‘… home life remained variable. Despite recent slight improvements, the trial of all the years since the family’s tile company in Manchester collapsed had sharpened the mother’s temper. Her hand would whip out with a smack at very slight provocation. She frequently recounted the quality and style of their life as it used to be and had ceased to be and the blame for all this, of course, she laid at father’s door. Perhaps he was an easy-going, soft type of chap. She classed him as such. He was working hard doing the best he could in all the circumstances, but got not much credit for anything as far as Tommy could hear.
Even so, about this time the Sunday walks started. The parents would sit back after dinner. Father would look at the paper and have a little doze. But round about 4 he would say, “Well, now we’ll go for a walk”. The children were pleased. Tommy began to learn more and more about the area.
In the winter as they walked the neighbouring streets, father would talk about any interesting building they passed. In the summertime, they’d set out across the fields. One day, father pointed out a house built at the time of Elizabeth 1 and then another large house standing well back from the fence surrounding it, the garden full of trees. He said it was the So-and-so Hall where Judge Jeffreys used to put up, and told them who he was — “the hanging judge” of “the Bloody Assizes” back in the 17th century.
Walking through the outskirts of town, sometimes they had to pass a very smelly sewage farm. In those days sewage was often disposed of by the simple means of letting it flow into some low-lying open space and dry off in the sun. If you have a township of, say, 40,000 people, and all this waste is allowed to just seep out over the countryside, then there is a hell of a stench.
There it all depended on the direction of the wind. If it blew towards the town then from morning to night the air would be heavy with this stench. But people were used to this. It must have dated back to the days when all drains were open and life was lived in the perpetual stink of sewage and rotting rubbish… Past that a canal, a busy one with barges pulled by horses constantly passing through the lock. Over the bridge and on to a large area formerly marshes, but now well drained with a natural river on the far side of it, plenty of good fish in it.**
To cross the river you had to use a footbridge and, at an adjacent cottage, pay the penny toll demanded. Well, adults would pay. Boys seldom did. There was an art in approaching this bridge without being seen. No gates barred entry, so small boys – thinking they were getting away with it – crept up, then made a mad dash across to the other side… Although, actually, the owners didn’t bother too much about small boys.
So across more fields, then… an inn and a huge oak tree outside it – hollow, so it joined the claims of many others to have been the hiding place of King Charles when he was on the run.
Father planned a longer jaunt for them. On one of his own long walks, when he was saving every penny he might have spent on a bus or a train fare, he saw a gap in a fence, went through and found himself in a forest*** … the excursion was thoroughly prepared. Blessed with a fine, hot day, they set off. Mother pushed the pram, carrying sandwiches and bottles of water as well as the baby [at this point, this means Alf, born 1903]. Father walked alongside her and the three children milled about together, a bit ahead or behind.
To reach the forest they had to walk about four miles, the last stretch across marshland and a river. They were stopped twice on this stretch of road, first by a dark, swarthy man; he stood beside a gate, which he held shut. He had only one arm. The other terminated at the elbow with a metal hook. He wanted to collect a toll. We had no money to spare and told him so and he let us through. A mile or so further on, the same thing happened. Another gate. A sort of blackmail but, again, nothing to be squeezed out of this family. Father suggested a genuine tollgate may have restricted access to the path at some earlier time and that these men had just taken them over when they ceased to be “official”.
That day, most of the people of the town seemed to be headed in this direction. A cheery sight. At the end of the walk, at the top of a steep hill with tall, shady trees, the children ran about and gradually ventured further and further away. As he roamed, Tommy suddenly became conscious of the silence in the forest. The rustling of leaves high overhead. A slight breeze. A sensation of loneliness, which he had not experienced before… So he went back to the family. They had settled by some brambles – blackberry bushes, said father. He promised that towards the end of summer they would come again and collect them and have stewed blackberries, perhaps with apple.
The sun was going down. They packed the remains of the picnic in the pram and moved off downhill until, through the bushes beside the path, one of them saw a small cottage in a clearing. Mother said, “We’ve used up all the water. Let’s go and ask if they will let us fill our bottles.”
The children ran ahead, feeling safe together, and tapped on the door. An old lady in black answered, looking rough, but kind enough for the children to make their request. She said, “I’ll come and speak to your parents”. The two women had a chat and she said, “For 3d I could make you a nice pot of tea. A nice drink for all of you. Could you spare 3d for that?” Mother and father discussed it. It was a lot of money, bearing in mind that tuppence ha’penny would buy a pound of the cheapest breast of mutton. They agreed and the old lady brought them a large pot, which she placed, on a wooden bench. They gathered round and the children thoroughly enjoyed their first bought cup of tea. Somehow the smoke from the wood fire in the cottage had penetrated the water. A new flavour, a new taste. They felt adventurous. They were drinking a cup of tea which father had paid for.
The long journey home began. They paused at one point on the opposite side of the road to a country inn where a large party of costermongers had gathered. By chance, Tommy had gradually come to know quite a lot about the costermongers because Mr Phillips, the brickmaker next door, was one of them, although he didn’t seem to mix with his fellows very much and he could be friendly enough as a neighbour.
While not separated from the populace by blood like, say, gypsies, costermongers made themselves a race apart in those days, identifiable by how they dressed when wearing their best. The women had large feathers in their hats, their dresses long, wide, ankle-length, and all black, except possibly a touch of white lace round the neck. The men favoured black as well for the most part: bright-coloured mufflers, but black caps and suits – which they customarily had made to measure when they married – of heavy, good-quality cloth with long jackets not stopping much short of the knee, and trousers narrow at the waist but bell-bottomed, not quite so full as a sailor’s. These suits had to last a lifetime of Sunday walks to the pub, weddings and, particularly, funerals – elaborate affairs for which they would stretch all their resources.
Although formally clad, they really let themselves go, dancing and singing out in the open air in front of the inn. Looking on as they rested Tommy’s family felt very aware of being outsiders. Had they attempted to join in or even talk to the costermongers they would probably have been laughed at, insulted you might say. Costermongers looked down on poor clerks and the like and their pretensions to correct speech, behaviour and dress and would mock them on the street without any direct provocation. That barrier – which seemed to be of distrust on the costers’ side – could never be broken.
In public, between themselves, they talked incomprehensible backslang – turning words back to front and still speaking at great speed****
Naturally, when working, they didn’t wear their finery, just a jacket with corduroy trousers and a bright neckerchief. Again typically, they would carry cooked meals to work in a basin with a red and white-spotted handkerchief over the top of it. And, when selling their fruit and vegetables from barrows in the street, they could still cajole and charm and persuade the very people they scorned into believing they offered the best bargains available.’
** The river is the Lea, probably in the vicinity of what’s now known as Pickett’s Lock; I can’t find the name of the canal.
*** Researcher and FSS reader Stephanie M. McDuff showed me on an old map that this must have been Epping Forest – ancient woodland, but declared “the people’s forest” by Queen Victoria and still “London’s largest open space”. It’s west of Edmonton, but not much more than the four miles my father reckoned his family walked to get there.
**** For example, backslang created “yob” by reversing “boy”; “pot of beer” became “top o’ reeb”, “tobacco” ”occabot”; at http://www.victorianweb.org/history/slang2.html researcher Dick Sullivan points out how many words suggest backslang relates to written as well as spoken English, e.g. “talk” is “klat” where, phonetically, it would be “kwat”, “knife” is “efink” rather than “fine”; no absolute rules though, given the difficulty of pronouncing an “h” at the end of a word is overcome by pronouncing and writing it “tch”, so “half” is “flatch”, “horse” is “esrotch”, “have” is “vatch”; moreover, backslang retained the phonetics of “th” and “sh” in preference to attempting a pronunciation based on spelling, so “three” is “earth”, fish is “shif” and so on.
Those early family walks probably happened when Sam was six or seven (1904-5). He didn’t give a date for the momentous occasion of his joining the Boy Scouts, but I reckon it must have been in 1909 when he was 11. That comes from relating it to his progress through the school system, but also the nuts and bolts of the Scouts’ foundation; the organisation began in 1908 as the Battersea Boy Scouts, then went national in May, 1909 (Cubs, for seven-12-year-olds weren’t introduced until 1916). For “Tommy”/Sam it was rather like first-sight love:
‘… on one of the very rare occasions when he stayed out after dark, he saw something that thrilled him: simply a boy standing under a lamp-post, with the gas light shining down on him, looking at a book – but wearing a uniform Tommy had never seen before. A hat with three dents in it and a wide brim; a bright-coloured scarf tied around his neck and hanging down the front of his shirt; short trousers held up by a belt; long socks and short boots; and in one hand he carried a staff, a pole. Tommy had to find out who he was, what he belonged to, and why he dressed like that. He couldn’t bring himself to approach the boy and ask him, but he soon found out that he must have been an early member of the Boy Scouts.
With family fortunes gradually improving, shortly after Tommy had seen his first Scout, his brother joined them, got rigged out in that uniform, and was soon acquiring many skills and the badges that went with them. Tommy looked forward to the day when his parents could afford to buy a uniform for him – and it wasn’t too long in coming.
He enjoyed everything about it. The pleasure of going to the outfitter’s shop. The smell of the clothing. The khaki shirt, red scarf, blue trousers, black hose with scarlet tops. In addition, he had to buy a lanyard with a whistle, a belt to which he attached a clasp knife, and a staff with three dents in it, like the hat – to remind him of the three main promises he would make on becoming enrolled as a Scout*****. Each patrol had its own flag; Tommy’s bore the head of a buffalo in red. But even when he got used to the uniform, Tommy never felt he looked so eye-catching as that boy standing under the street gas lamp…
Baden Powell, the movement’s founder, had carefully considered the significance of every detail and set out the principles and rules in a book called Scouting For Boys******. He had organised the first experiment in camp living on Brownsea Island******* and formed the first Scout Troops shortly after that.
Becoming a member of this movement opened a new phase of living for Tommy. Life had been hard and grim. Now very pleasant pastimes came to occupy many of his out-of-school hours and he began to enjoy the company of other boys under happy conditions, free from the pressures of schoolwork and the overseeing of the form teacher. He experienced more tolerance and kindness from the Scoutmaster and his assistants, this being a voluntary organisation. The object was to give the boys the greatest possible amount of good.
Troop members had a complete gym available to them for one hour every Thursday night, and several hours on Saturday afternoons. Vaulting horses, parallel bars, and rings stood or hung eight feet apart in rows the length of the hall. They could stand on a platform at one end, grasp a ring one-handed and jump and swing through the air and grasp the next ring with the other hand, then work themselves backwards and forwards to gather momentum before swinging on to the next ring and so on. A refinement, known as a half-dislocation, was to swing your body right around clockwise, heels over head, while holding on to a ring one-handed ready to reach out to the next row.
They worked on climbing ropes too. Up to the top and down again with legs crossed in the approved manner. Tommy’s brother wanted to demonstrate his skill and climbed up faster than anyone else could. Then, to descend, he almost let go and just slid down. The boys thought this was fine. But then they saw the friction had burnt the insides of both legs. He had to have dressings on these abrasions and they took some weeks to heal. Tommy did not try to emulate that trick.
At the Easter and Whitsun holidays – and sometimes on ordinary Saturdays, as an alternative to gym – the Troop would assemble outside their hut and put together what they called their trek cart. They fitted the wheels on the shaft and loaded up with tents, containers of water, packed lunches, and anything else the leaders thought useful. They formed up and marched off – usually in the direction of that large forest, four or five miles distant. The boys hauled the cart along by means of long ropes attached to the wheel hubs on each side, three boys on each rope – and a couple behind, pushing.
At the selected place, they set up their tents and a day of fun and games and sports would commence. They practiced running, vaulting with the pole over brooks and other obstacles, tracking in woodland areas – and tying knots, of course. The leaders imparted some knowledge of wildlife and they collected wild flowers to dry and place in a book with its name and details underneath. They fenced, not with swords, but stout sticks. They tried cock-fighting, as it was called, with the pole passed behind the bent knees, the arms underneath the pole, each boy edging up to the other and trying to upset him by swinging the pole round to get him off balance. The older boys took boxing lessons – Tommy did, in due course. And yet they still seemed to have plenty of leisure time when they could wander through the forest by themselves or in groups.
Even from those early days, the Scouts would also take care to show the parents what their sons could do, given the opportunity. Every three months the Troop presented an entertainment in the hall where they held their gym sessions. Some of the mothers volunteered to serve a light meal beforehand with tea, orange drinks and so forth all arranged on a long, trestle table covered with white, cotton cloths. Then, the older boys and the Scoutmasters entertained to the best of their abilities, and a happy afternoon would be had by all…
The Scouts demanded discipline – particularly self-discipline – of all. Any who rebelled against it, especially more senior boys, found themselves quickly turned out of the Troop. The Scoutmaster, Mr Frusher [see last week for more detail on the Vicar/choirmaster/Scoutmaster/music teacher and all-round mentor], believed that an older boy who elected to rebel against accepted rules of conduct would contaminate younger members and must be got rid of.’
***** the American Boy Scouts Handbook, 1911, the oldest I could find online, listed the promises as: “On my honor I will do my best: 1. To do my duty to God and my country, and to obey the Scout law; 2. To help other people at all times; 3. To keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.”
****** Published 1908.
******* In Poole Harbour, Dorset, August 1-8, 1907; the National Trust now owns the island.
What do Scouts do, apart from the high ideals and badges and walking about a lot? They camp! But first some fundraising. By now, we’re in 1910, and “Tommy”/Sam’s about 12:
‘… to raise money for the Scout movement, Mr Frusher began to train the lads to sing choruses from the Gilbert and Sullivan light operas – The Mikado, HMS Pinafore, and one or two others. It was work Mr Frusher loved. The time came when the parts had been fairly well mastered and they took to the stage of the local institute opposite the church********. He had no difficulty in persuading quite good professionals and semi-professionals to come along for one rehearsal and then three productions of the show. Full houses provided useful money to hire tents for the annual Scout camp.
Now old enough to be appointed a Patrol Leader, Tommy had his own group of lads to look after and a certain responsibility at these beautifully organised camps. The lads had the assistance of four or five young men in their late teens or early twenties who would go ahead and set up the tents and make arrangements for the supply of food in quantity. By the time the Troops arrived with their kit bags, everything was prepared.
The site comprised a hill at the edge of a large farming estate, with the tents set up in a row at the top, their water supply a spring at the bottom. A line of youngsters took it in turns to lower their buckets into the small pool around the spring – very carefully, so as not to disturb the silt at the bottom. The water looked clean and unadulterated, but for safety’s sake they boiled it anyway.
At 6.30 each morning, a bugle call, reveille! Up and out of those beds and, given fine weather, the Scoutmaster, assistant Scoutmasters, and all of the boys in their pants and vests rushed down to the river and in they went. The water came up to their waists or shoulders. They took their soap, so a cold bath and a quick towelling on the riverbank, then back up the hill to breakfast; large containers of hard-boiled eggs or saveloys********* – very popular with the lads – and bacon with plenty of bread and butter and boiling tea. Done over campfires, it all went off with the precision of a military camp.
On the first morning, just after breakfast, the senior assistant dashed into his tent, reappeared with a sports gun and fired at a few ducks flying overhead. No duck for dinner, but it brought a shocked Mr Frusher hurrying from his tent. Shooting was not on the agenda and he didn’t approve. But the same young man took them running across the fields, after which they formed into a square and some exercises did them a power of good.
Nearby lived a family who, from the old, bearded, grandfather down, worked on this huge farm. Tommy learned that the old man earned the princely sum of 18/- a week [not sarcastic, a very big wage at the time]. Other family members got proportionate sums, the boys probably 4/- or 5/-. But they had certain perquisites which helped them along; for instance, at the back of the barn behind their house, free-running poultry nested – they ranged over the fields to feed themselves, but the majority came to this row of nest boxes to lay their eggs. The family could take as many as they wished and, no doubt, a cockerel whenever they felt like it.
They had enough ground to grow all the vegetables they needed too – all this far more valuable than their wages. Lots of rabbits to be trapped, milk from the dairy a mile or so across the field – a gallon for a few coppers. They seemed a remarkably happy family. Full of jokes. They gave the lads a good impression of life on the land. The farmer seldom came round the place. As head of the family, the grandfather took responsibility for organising the work and employing any extra labourers.
One of the farm girls was a merry lass, 20 or so, considerably older than the boys and her name was Mary Anne. A popular song of the time went, “Mary Anne she’s after me/Full of love she seems to be/My mother says that Mary Anne/Wants me for her young man”. Once or twice groups of the young lads got under Mary Anne’s bedroom window late at night and serenaded her with this beautiful song**********. Mr Frusher was inclined to frown on these efforts, but Mary Anne appeared to be flattered and very well pleased.
One wet night, rain leaked into some of the tents. The boys were quickly moved into the barn. They threw their camp mattresses down on the floor – covered with hay, fresh and sweet-smelling – wrapped themselves up in their blankets, snug and warm, and spent what was, to them, quite a thrilling night – for the barn had other occupants, owls and bats, who flew in and out, a busy traffic.
On one occasion in camp, when Tommy got a rather nasty cold he was given a bed in the tent with the four assistant Scoutmasters. He enjoyed that. Waking in the morning he looked at them as they lay there.
The senior one attracted his attention. His face still, absolutely immobile. Tommy thought, “How different, how young he looks, compared to when I’ve seen him going to the station for work”. Employed by a firm of stockbrokers, on some occasions the Scoutmaster had to wear the uniform of tall, silk hat, cutaway morning coat and striped trousers. Tommy had seen him with his coat tails flying and tightly rolled umbrella, the picture of health and activity. Yet here he slept, almost boyish.
How could Tommy possibly have known that, soon, this splendid young chap, with many others, would be lying at the bottom of the North Sea after the Battle Of Jutland…
Near him lay a younger man, the soul of kindness. He could not be faulted in his treatment of the lads. He was liked and Tommy admired him. He was shattered on the Somme battlefield…’
******** Charles Lamb Institute, Church Street, opened 1908 –now a gym apparently.
********* English, red, pork sausages.
********** Mary Anne: written by Fred W. Leigh (1871-1924) and music-hall singer George Bastow (1872-1914), who recorded it in 1911; see lyrics at http://mainlynorfolk.info/folk/songs/maryanne.html
And now two anecdotes of the outdoor life, in different senses, one a farcical night “in the wilds” with a bunch of mates (this vaguely reminds me of The Blair Witch Project), the other one of the main events of “Tommy”/Sam’s late schooldays – The Big Fight:
‘That summer***********, Tommy sometimes joined a group headed by an Irish lad called Joe Sheahan who was a couple of years older than him and a very enthusiastic outdoors man.
Several of the lads followed Joe on one of his enterprises which was to get up early two or three mornings a week – before breakfast, around 6 o’clock – and run the three or four miles to a nearby town and a lake where swimming was allowed. Although it had an irregular shape, with islands and trees, chains fixed around the outer banks ensured you could always get hold of something to help you out of the water. They would run back home in time to eat and go to school.
As the summer sun continued until autumn, Joe proposed they go and camp in the forest for a night or two. Tommy’s parents were difficult to persuade, but they agreed and furnished him with a little tea and something to eat. Joe provided two methylated water heaters. Each could boil a pint of water.
They spent the day in and around the forest and, when it began to get dark, they brewed up. As night came on, the birds ceased their singing and new noises took over: the rustling of the trees, the leaves, odd branches cracking. Unexpected movements around them… in the end, without too much discussion, they grabbed up all their equipment and ran for it to the nearest road. They arrived home about 9 or 10, but in no mind to admit what had made them forsake their intended adventure.
When he wasn’t off with Joe Sheahan’s group, Tommy often joined his schoolfriends, all aged 13 or so by then, to stage mock battles on the old brickfields. Each kiln had an open space in the middle, so they made good forts. But came the day when a rival gang, led by a boy called Wayland, started a quite vicious and serious attack — because, it seemed, they had a grudge against Tommy.
This was hard for him to understand. No particular incident had provoked it. But he sensed it may have arisen from his close friendship with Charlie Bolton, the brainiest lad in the school (once Tommy’s brother George had left to go out to work). Within their own group, Charlie insisted on Tommy taking the lead in any activity such as the brickfield battles. Maybe he saw himself as the organiser of strategy and Tommy as the chief when it came to fighting (albeit play-fighting, usually). People did tend to cast Tommy in that role in his later life, for reasons he could never fathom; he always shed the ill-fitting cloak at the earliest possible moment.
But Tommy had become aware that Wayland’s crowd referred to his group of quieter types who tried their best in class and did quite well as “The Good Boys”. When Tommy considered this, he realised that, while he and his friends pitched into school activities like the bazaar and the waxworks show, Wayland and company did not. Even though Wayland always appeared assured and competent, he spent his time criticising and complaining about teachers or anyone else in authority over the children. After the waxworks show [see last week], particularly, he started to behave towards Tommy as if he hated his guts. He insulted and persecuted him, as children can.
Then came the battle at the brickfield. Tommy and his friends took shelter in the middle of a kiln and returned the shower of bricks and pieces of brick coming their way. It went on for some time quite evenly until Tommy, standing up to look for a possible target, caught a brick on the top of his head. Then the battle stopped. A great deal of blood poured from the wound. The aggressors departed in a hurry and Tommy’s friends saw him home.
Over the following weeks, the one-sided feud took a strange turn. A boy called Hoy, normally a bad-tempered lone wolf who snapped at anybody who dared to disagree with him, seemed to appoint himself Wayland’s deputy. At school, he picked a quarrel with Tommy and a fight started. Tommy’s pals stopped it, but all agreed that the matter needed settling. Between them, they fixed a time and venue: lunch break the following day in the neglected field in front of the school (in a spot concealed from the main road by tall hoardings which Tommy remembered carrying huge pictures of the great John Philip Sousa************ and his Military Band).
They didn’t make the arrangements in any casual way. Both boys appointed seconds – Tommy, naturally, had Charlie – and they asked another boy, Arthur Fowler, to referee because he had nothing to do with the conflict and both sides rated him a “good sport”. Son of a carpenter and joiner, Arthur was considered very affluent because he had a halfpenny a day pocket money compared to Tommy’s penny a week, but he’d often share his sweets with other boys, including Tommy.
So, at midday, a crowd gathered, the two gangs among them, but keeping well apart as they filed through a gate into the field; fighting on school premises was forbidden but they understood this pre-arranged affair outside the grounds had the approval of AEP himself [teacher AE Page, see two weeks ago]. The two sides had agreed that each round should last only a minute, Arthur blowing his Scout whistle to signify start and end, as they didn’t have a bell. Between rounds they rested for two minutes and the bout was to continue for as long as they could keep going. All the “officials” saw that everything went according to the book*************.
Tommy fell into the boxer’s stance he’d learnt during Boy Scout training and shuffled about. Bigger and stronger, Hoy lashed out frequently, but somewhat blindly. His face evinced murderous malice throughout. Tommy himself found real hatred rising in him as soon as the bout got going. He was being hurt. Yet a certain coolness, fruit of those boxing lessons, kept his emotions in check and helped to compensate for Hoy’s physical superiority.
While resigned to a beating, Tommy got in the occasional whack. Round after round, the battle raged. Tommy’s mouth and face began to feel like a huge, puffed-up thing, ten times their actual size and, although, clearly, both boys were becoming exhausted, neither capable of landing a knockout blow, Tommy felt sure he was going to lose. How much longer could he hold out?, he wondered. When should they finish? When they sank to their knees? It seemed endless.
With Hoy’s friends yelling at him to finish his foe off, by an indescribable piece of luck Tommy swung his arm over, missed his target and struck Hoy on the upper right arm. It dropped to his side and he yelled at Arthur, ”I can’t hold it up! It’s paralysed! It’s paralysed!” That finished it. Arthur awarded the win to Tommy, despite the opposition’s protests. Fearing a general attack, Tommy’s friends hurried him away, shouting congratulations and slapping him on the back – Tommy pretended to be unimpressed and said nothing about the sheer good fortune of the punch hitting a nerve to end the fight.
While the others withdrew to the playground, Tommy ran off home, joyful yet scarcely aware of what he was doing, so great had been the strain of the punishment he had taken. When he got there he dashed to the sink, turned on the tap, and ran icy cold water over his face and neck time after time until the pain eased somewhat. Looking around, he saw a large basin full of Benger’s Food his mother had prepared for the baby**************. Without thought, he snatched this up and drank the lot.
Then he went upstairs and lay down on his bed, hoping to gain strength to face his mother, and then make his way back to school for the afternoon session. He made it, but went about as in a dream for several hours.’
*********** Probably 1911, the year before my father left school; a heat wave set temperature records not broken until 1990 and the weather held until September.
************ John Philip Sousa: 1854-1932, American composer and conductor of marches including The Stars And Stripes Forever; of Spanish and Bavarian ancestry, he started out as an apprentice US Marine Bandsman and later ran his own band; developed the sousaphone!
************* In fact, the Queensbury Rules then in force for boxing included three-minute rounds and a one-minute break.
************** “The baby”? No mention of his birth in my father’s Memoir, but he was named John Fleetwood (from his mother’s maiden name), born April 1, 1911, at 26, Lowden Road, Edmonton. Benger’s Food: an earlier Complan, made in Strangeways, Manchester, originated for the sick but used by the well too – a 1914 ad in The Graphic said “with this food the digestive system, whether enfeebled by illness, overwork or advancing age, is rested and restored, and while this takes place, complete nourishment is maintained… you never tire of it, as with ordinary milk foods”.
This interim passage covers how he maintained contact with the Scouts and Mr Frusher after going out to work in 1912, aged 14:
‘The job and its location made for a longish day. Tommy left home at about 6 in the morning, caught the train at 6.20 and hung about near the works until 8 when they opened, then he worked through to 12, an hour for lunch, and on till 6 with the train journey of about an hour to come.
Even so, he carried on with his Scouting activities, two meetings a week, Thursdays and Saturdays, and he now attended evening classes twice weekly too. It had been decided he should learn commercial book-keeping and typewriting, two useful skills whatever job he chose or had to do. So most of his weekdays concluded at about 9.30pm…
Tommy no longer had the benefit of free piano lessons from Mr Frusher [see last week]. Certain advantages available to a schoolboy were not on offer to the worker, however small his wage packet. But, as Scout- and choirmaster, the Governor – as the boys called Mr Frusher, though only in his absence – did provide compensations relative to Tommy’s age and new standing.
He introduced new subjects to the Troop’s training schemes: so Tommy learnt signalling, semaphore and Morse code (the last, he particularly liked). Using flags — one for Morse, two for semaphore — and, at night, signal lamps, they sent messages across fair distances. Furthermore, after training at the church hall on Saturday afternoons, Tommy and other seniors could go to a rifle club where, for half an hour, they practised shooting on a covered range about 300 yards long, using old Army rifles (surplus from the Boer War, fitted with Morris tubes which allowed them to fire .22 ammunition). Supervisors checked their scores and entered them on competition cards. They paid a nominal sum for bullets used, but some kind person unknown had paid for their club membership. Dear old Frusher, they guessed.
He also undertook courses in first aid. Adapting his instruction from the Red Cross manual, he paid a good deal of attention to treating wounds.’
And now comes a fateful, largely coincidental connection between all that outdoor activity, that fit and healthy life despite varying levels of poverty through the years, those skills learned in the Scouts and… what was to follow for “Tommy”/Sam’s entire generation. It’s early summer, 1914:
‘However, he soon discovered that Scouts were not alone in camping out on the edge of London. Walking by himself one Sunday, Tommy came to a wide open space beside one of the main routes from London to the North*************** and he saw with great excitement that this usually uninspiring area had become a town of tents; soldiers with rifles on their shoulders, men filling bowls with water from tanks on wheels, then holding the bowls for one another to help with shaving and washing. They emptied the used water into a large hole dug for waste disposal.
Tommy watched it all, for an hour or more. In another area, men were cooking a meal in large containers heated by open fires in shallow trenches. They fried bacon, boiled water for tea. When the bugle sounded, the soldiers lined up in orderly fashion until the cooks forked and ladled good helpings of bacon and tea into their mess tins (the lid, with a folding handle, held solid foods or acted as a frying pan, the larger bottom part contained all liquids). Soon afterwards, the clatter of eating changed to the noises of an Army striking camp, taking down tents and packing them and generally getting ready for departure, their work accompanied by much banter and laughter…
Scouting, Tommy realised, had taught him a good deal that would be useful to a soldier. He could help erect a tent, use a rifle, and communicate efficiently by semaphore or Morse code or a simple field telegraph. As a Patrol Leader, he had acquired the ability to stand up in front of a group of lads and give brief orders.
If any of these things might appear to have been intended to prepare youngsters for military service this was certainly not the intention behind Mr Frusher’s work. As a practising Christian, at heart a pacifist, he never said anything to Scout meetings about the war scare and the training had nothing of a military character to it – no yelling of orders or foot-stamping drill. Saluting, with three fingers raised and thumb and little finger touching, served as a frequent reminder of the three promises a Scout made when joining the movement.’
*************** Probably the Great Cambridge Road, aka the Old North Road, now the A10.
By October “Tommy”/Sam and “George”/Ted had enlisted, underage both… and suddenly remembered their regular Scouts meeting. There Mr Frusher made one last, maybe despairing attempt to hold on to them… and, no doubt, their youth and innocence:
‘… in all the excitement, he had overlooked Thursday evening’s meeting of his troop. In fact, having become a soldier, the thought of putting on the uniform of a Boy Scout suddenly seemed incongruous — more so when he briefly imagined appearing in front of the mass of men among whom he had spent recent days wearing the dented frontiersman’s hat, khaki shirt adorned with various badges and shoulder ribbons, short, blue knickers and bare knees, with, final touch, in his hand a stout five-foot staff. Yes, what sort of greeting would this apparition receive from that mixed crowd? Horrible thought.
That Saturday afternoon, Ted and Tommy went along to the hall where the troop assembled. They intended to tell Mr Frusher they were now soldiers and would therefore have to give up membership of the troop. They arrived purposely a little late, perhaps 20 minutes after the usual time, assuming the programme for the afternoon would by then have commenced without help from them. They would have a few words with the Governor, then walk out, severing the association of several years just like that.
“There you are, at last, and not in uniform. Is something wrong, Mr Norcliffe?” This to Ted, now a qualified assistant Scoutmaster, therefore addressed as a man. “Do please tell me about it.” Ted explained and Mr Frusher’s usually pale face flushed. This may have been due to relief that nothing awful had occurred in the Norcliffe family, but Tommy, studying the Governor’s bearded face, suspected that annoyance really caused the blush, which was accompanied by three rapid blinks and a long stare – signs of his inner struggle to subdue anger.
When Ted ventured to speak of leaving the Scouts, back came the assertion, “Once a Scout, always a Scout!” and the brothers found themselves assigned to their respective duties for that afternoon and getting on with them – after having exchanged glances which conveyed the advisability of tolerance and co-operation at this juncture.
Tommy’s feelings were strangely mixed. Facing his patrol he felt it was good to be back among familiar faces and subjects and where his falsehood regarding his age was of no consequence. No exciting, unknown future. Here, he would always be allowed to play his small part. This thought helped to soften his sadness at the coming separation from familiar faces and places. He knew the new life to which he was committed would have some awful periods, but youthful optimism kept him from dwelling on such possibilities.
The meeting over, Mr Frusher called his seniors together, told them of the brothers’ enlistment and expressed the hope that all the others would not desert him. Those able to give assurances did so, but the senior assistant Scoutmaster had to tell him that, as an officer in the Royal Navy Voluntary Reserve, he would have to report for duty shortly. The brothers promised they would give what help they could in future, but they said their goodbyes just in case military duties prevented their return.
The farewells might have been said with deeper regret had those present been able to foresee that years would pass before the few who survived would be able to get together again.’
All the best – FSS
Next week: The Making Of Foot Soldier Sam, 1912-14 – goodbye to school, a menial job and glimpses of opulence in the City, class consciousness as tutored by “the Sergeant”, feeling he’s reached a dead end to life and career at 15…
* In his 70s, Sam Sutcliffe wrote Nobody Of Any Importance, a Memoir of his life from childhood through Gallipoli, the Somme, Arras 1918 and eight months as a POW to the 1919 Peace parade.