February’s Lewes casualties provide a glimpse of the contrasting life experiences and backgrounds of residents of different Lewes streets, amongst whom three men’s very different stories stand out.
Private Daniel Todman of the 9th Royal Sussex Regiment, who died of wounds at a field dressing station near Ypres on 18th February 1916, lived with his parents and six siblings in Soap Factory Lane. A regular truant from school over several years, on one occasion he was caught stealing duck eggs from the Pells, resulting in 12 strokes of the birch before finally being sent by the magistrates to Portslade Industrial School, a boys’ reformatory in November 1903 when he was 13 because of his serial truancy, possibly exacerbated by the death of his father, a general labourer, earlier that year.
His mother remarried in 1904 and the family moved to Portslade High Street, where Daniel, now aged 23, while heavily drunk, came in late and attacked his stepfather, who was in bed, with a razor, resulting in 12 months hard labour in July 1914. When he came out of prison, Daniel enlisted in the Royal Sussex Regiment, disembarking in France on 23rd September 1915, serving there for five months until his death. His name is on the Portslade War Memorial and would have been on the Lewes one too except that his mother only returned the form on 25th July 1922, after the bronze plaques had already been cast.
By contrast Private Timothy Cox’s father, who ran a livery stables in Lewes, was sufficiently well off to send his son to Lewes Grammar School, where Tim was a member of the cricket team and where his cousin Corporal A. T. Langridge was a fellow pupil. By 1903 his name regularly appears in the Sussex Express in connection with his cricketing and football activities, latterly for the East Sussex County Council staff team and Lewes Football Club’s second team.
He was also in considerable demand for his comic songs, which he often performed for such worthy causes as St Anne’s Social Club, the Cliffe Church Room Extension Fund and St Michael’s organ refurbishment. Equipping himself for Lewes’s flourishing middle class social life, he joined Miss Amy Shelley’s weekly dancing classes and took part, with his classmates, in their amateur theatrical performances in the Town Hall. A Conservative in politics, like his father, he sang his songs at the Constitutional Club and also featured in a comedy sketch for the Primrose League at Kingston just after the 1906 Liberal landslide in the General Election.
When war broke out, Tim Cox was a valued assistant to the County Accountant, who sought to retain his services even after conscription was introduced. Twice his boss appeared before the Appeals Tribunal, arguing that Mr Cox was an experienced and essential member of his team who it would be extremely difficult to replace, engaged in the collection of licence duties. When he was eventually called up in March 1917, Private Tim Cox joined the 13th East Surreys, being wounded by a gas shell near Cambrai on 24th December 1917. Returned home and transferred to the Army Pay Corps, he eventually died of gas poisoning in hospital at St Albans on 26th February 1919 and was buried in Lewes Cemetery. He is remembered on Lewes War Memorial and at St Anne’s Church.
Further up the social scale was Lewes’s professional, business and mercantile elite, amongst whom were Henry John Redman, of Southover High Street, auctioneer and land agent of Messrs J. R. Thornton and Co and his younger brother Geoffrey who was for some time in business with him and well known in Lewes.
Born in Winterbourne Bassett in 1892, Geoffrey Redman was educated at Bradfield College, a public school just outside Reading from 1903 to 1909 and then by a private tutor in London. Travelling to South Africa in March 1914, he was there at the outbreak of war and joined the 3rd (Transvaal and Rhodesia) South African Infantry Regiment, one of four South African regiments which sailed to England between August and October 1915.
By early November the whole South African Brigade, comprising 160 officers and 5648 other ranks, including Private Geoffrey Redman, was in camp at Bordon, Hampshire, where they were reviewed by Queen Mary on 2nd December before sailing for Alexandria on 30th December.
In Egypt the 1st and 3rd South African regiments were sent west along the coast together with British units, comprising the Western Frontier Force to put down a Turkish inspired Bedouin revolt by Sanussi tribesmen in what is now Libya, threatening British control.
Following the old Khedivial road they regrouped at Mersa Matruh before setting out on 20th February in pursuit of the enemy tribesmen. They finally engaged them at the Battle of Agagia on 26th February 1916, with the 1st South African Infantry in the centre and British forces, including mounted troops and armoured cars on their flanks, the 3rd South African Infantry Regiment in support. In the rout which followed, several hundred tribesmen were killed. Gaafer Pasha, the Senussi commander and his Ottoman advisors were captured, together with the enemy camels, supplies, including 40,000 rounds of ammunition and 39 prisoners.
The battle effectively ended the uprising and secured British control of Egypt and Libya for the rest of the war. Amongst the 184 British losses were one South African officer and 13 men, one of whom was Geoffrey Redman, who is buried in the Alexandria (Hadra) War Memorial Cemetery and commemorated on the Bradfield College Memorial Cross.
By the end of January 1915 Lewes had already lost 21 men to the war, almost double the number killed during the whole of the Boer War. February 1915 brought a brief respite with no further casualties reported. By now over 750 Lewes men appeared on the Rolls of Honour listing those on active service. But even though this number had doubled by the end of 1915 it was clear to the authorities that voluntary enlistment was not enough and conscription was introduced.
On 9th February 1916 the Lewes Military Tribunal met for the first time to hear local appeals against conscription into the military. Clerked by the Town Clerk, Reginald T Baxter and chaired by Frank Whitfield JP of the Old Bank, the tribunal had eight members made up of the mayor, Councillor T G Roberts, Alderman George Holman JP, three other councillors, Mr Reginald Powell, a land agent, of Malling House, and Mr Horace Simmons, an insurance agent and jobbing gardener of 2 Castle Terrace who was appointed as labour representative.
By 21st July, at the end of the first phase of its work, the Lewes Tribunal had heard 459 cases in a total of 44 sittings. It continued to meet regularly for the rest of the war. Reported extensively in the Sussex Express, its deliberations reveal a local economy increasingly struggling to keep going in the face of losses of large numbers of skilled operatives, not all of whom could be easily replaced.
The first anniversary of the tribunal’s establishment was marked by skills shortages in all three local printing works. The town’s four breweries were facing amalgamation and closures for the duration and most establishments had replaced their male employees with females, old men and youths below military service age as far as they were able to do so.
There were particular problems associated with heavy lifting. The smallest sized standard flour sack was 140lbs – too much for anyone other than able-bodied men; full beer barrels presented another difficulty, while butchers argued for the need to retain at least one able-bodied man to assist with slaughtering livestock.
Within six months of the introduction of conscription, of the 360 men working for the County Surveyor on the roads at the outbreak of war, barely half were left. By February 1917 there were only 184, of whom 146 were over military age, 96 of them over 50. If it hadn’t been for the 250 Conscientious Objectors drafted in because of the military necessity of maintaining the route to Newhaven, in particular, he would have been unable to keep the roads in a serviceable state.
Even the Phoenix Ironworks was struggling. In March 1916 John Every told the tribunal that in one workshop alone, employing 11 men, three had enlisted and two had died, being replaced by three boys and a man over 40. This was typical throughout the works. Unfortunately this was the last time the Phoenix Ironworks was reported because of its engagement on military contracts.
The biggest problem was with skilled men. The Portland Cement Company complained that it was having to turn away orders and couldn’t afford to lose its works chemist and mechanical tester. The Lewes and District Electricity Supply Company feared they would be unable to carry out essential repairs if they lost either their engine fitter and cable jointer or their chief clerk, collector and store superintendent, who also carried out minor repairs on consumers’ premises.
By August 1916 Lewes Gas Company had lost 22 of their 41 employees and couldn’t afford to lose their assistant manager and chemist, whose munitions badge, granting him exemption, had been withdrawn. The Borough Council pleaded to be allowed to retain a minimum of two qualified engineers to keep its fire engines running and four able-bodied men for ladder work, who were the only remaining members of military age, the others having all been called up.
The main beneficiaries of these labour shortages were women, who were suddenly in great demand. By March 1916 all but one of the men in the County Surveyor’s office had been replaced by females. J C H Martin’s garage had lost 23 of its 35 employees to the military by June 1916 and had so far taken on three female drivers, one of whom also changed tyres. They had also trained three female chauffeurs, but as soon as they had completed their training they left for more lucrative employment elsewhere.
The biggest change was in retail premises. Many shops were now staffed almost entirely by female shop assistants, although Browne and Crosskey’s outfitters insisted they still needed one man to carry out fittings for male customers. Walkers Stores, a large grocery business which had 27 branches throughout the area reported in June 1916 that they had lost 200 of their 274 employees and now had 254 women working for them whereas before the war they had none.
Only Councillor T G Roberts, the Mayor, held out against the trend, in July 1916 refusing point blank to even consider the idea of employing women in his grocery business, although eventually even he had to succumb to the general trend. Undoubtedly the roles which women increasingly came to take on as the war progressed hastened the change in attitude which led in 1918 to the granting of votes for women, even if, at first, it was only to those over 30!
The coldest of the winter months on the Western Front, February was a month of attrition and preparation for the spring offensive which every soldier knew was coming. On Sunday 14th February 1915, in scenes reminiscent of the Boer War, the Corn Exchange was packed with friends and relatives giving a rousing send-off to 60 Lewes men of D Company, 5th (Cinque Ports) Battalion of the Royal Sussex Regiment who had been given 48 hours home leave to mark the completion of their training at the Tower of London before sailing for France.
They were addressed by the Mayor, Councillor T G Roberts, who told them “How proud we are in the County Town of the Lewes Company and in fact all those whose names appear on our Lewes Roll of Honour… I hope that you have health and strength to do whatever you are called upon to do, so that this terrible war may be brought speedily to a finish.”
The men then marched off to the railway station with their commander Captain Thorold Stewart-Jones of Southover Grange at their head, followed by crowds of well-wishers who accompanied them to the platform where they boarded the 6.50 train back to London, landing in France four days later. It was the last such scene of patriotic emotion and optimism witnessed in Lewes as the Great War ground relentlessly on and casualties mounted.
Although February 1915 brought no news of any further deaths, in subsequent years the month brought a steady crop of casualties, three each in 1916 and 1917, one in 1918 and five in 1919, of which three occurred in the first few days of the month. On 1st February 1919 Captain Edward Collison Griffith of Barons Down, died of wounds received in France on 14th December 1915; on 5th February 1919 Lilian Parker of Talbot Terrace, a VAD, succumbed to pneumonia following influenza; and on 6th February 1919 Lieutenant Walter Samuel Wyborn of St Anne’s Crescent was another victim of pneumonia brought on by the Spanish ‘flu epidemic sweeping across Europe. Each of their stories provides interesting insights into the age in which they lived.
Captain Griffith was a son of Empire, born in 1874 in Candy, Ceylon, of Anglican missionaries who returned to England a few months after his birth. A public schoolboy, athlete and keen boxer, he joined the Cadet Corps at Bedford Grammar School before sailing at the age of 19 to Cape Town to join the Cape Mounted Rifles with which he served during the Bechuanaland Rebellion of 1897.
In October 1898 he arrived in New York on the SS Campania and promptly enlisted in the 12th U S Infantry at Philadelphia, serving with them in the Philippines during the American takeover of the islands in 1899. In 1901 he became a Lieutenant in the Philippine Islands Constabulary rising to the rank of Lieut-Colonel and director of several provinces in 1907 and in July 1914 Colonel and Assistant Chief of the Philippines Constabulary.
He became a naturalised American citizen in 1908 during home leave with his uncle in New York. But the pull of British patriotism was too great and in March 1915 he resigned his post and returned to Britain, taking a commission as captain in the Royal Irish Rifles, with whom he arrived in Boulogne from Folkestone on 4th October 1915.
A day after he and his men had taken up their positions in the trenches near Acheux, on the Somme, he was wounded in his left thigh, on 14th December, the only recorded casualty in the battalion war diary for that day. Returned home to England and discharged from the army, he married in 1916 and moved to Lewes a year before his death in the Special Surgical Military Hospital in Ducane Road, London on 1st February 1919 and was buried in Lewes Cemetery.
Lilian Lavinia Parker’s life was altogether more mundane, and typifies the experience of thousands of young working class women at the time. Born in 1891, the daughter of a carter of Norton Farm, Bishopstone, in 1911 she was living in Barcombe Rectory as a parlour maid. By this date her mother, Lavinia, a widow aged 53, was matron of a girls’ school with seven pupils in Prince Edward’s Road, Lewes.
Following the outbreak of war, it was in Lewes that Lilian Parker, by now a parlour maid to a Miss Fanshawe of the Avenue, joined the Lewes branch of the Red Cross. Enrolling as a VAD Lilian Parker began work nursing wounded soldiers at the Royal Herbert Hospital, part of the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich, on 5th July 1918. It was there that she contracted influenza from which she died, aged 27, on 5th February 1919 at the Queen Alexandra’s Hospital for Nurses, Millbank, London.
There was obviously some hesitation on the part of her family in deciding whether or not she qualified for inclusion on the War Memorial, and her details were sent in late, her name, with one other, just making it on to one of the bronze plaques, out of sequence at the top and slightly out of alignment with the other names.
Finally, Lieut Walter Samuel Wyborn, 4th Inniskillen Fusiliers, the son of Edward Wyborn, chemist, of 178 High Street, who became a Borough Councillor in 1913. Like other sons of local traders, Walter was an old boy of Lewes Grammar School. A keen cricketer like his father, he also took part in the annual Lewes Victoria Cycling Club sports, was a member of the 1st Lewes Boy Scouts and joined the local territorials as a member of D (Lewes) Company 5th Royal Sussex Regiment on the outbreak of war.
In June 1916 he received a commission in the Royal Inniskillen Fusiliers and was married whilst on home leave. In France he was wounded near Ypres, resulting in the amputation of a finger. After recovering in hospital in Brighton he was engaged in taking reinforcements across to France. He contracted influenza whilst in barracks with his regiment at Oswestry. He died at Millbank Military Hospital, aged 23, on 6th February 1919, and was buried in Lewes Cemetery.