He won a scholarship to Haberdashers Askes School in Hatcham, Lewisham. He fought in the 1st World War, and was gassed with various gasses, including mustard gas, but survived.
(Some of this account is in the first person, some is as summarised by another.)
John Percival Brown 1895-1990
John was born on 14 January 1895 at 17 Station Road, Plumstead, which was then in Kent. One of his earliest memories was being called in from playing in the street to say goodbye to his eldest sister Lilian who died on 31 March 1900, one day after her 14th birthday. He says the cause was rheumatic fever
Other early memories include seeing Queen Victoria inspecting the troops at Woolwich Barracks and also the troops wearing funeral badges on the day of her death in 1901. He went to Conway Road infants’ school in Plumstead and remembers being taught plain knitting and hemming, although not much good at either. In 1906 he sat the London County Council junior scholarship and was successful. This meant that he went to the Haberdasher’s Aske’s School, Hatcham SE 14, in September that year. This is the Pepys Road site in part of London now more commonly called New Cross Gate.
In 1911 John passed the London University Matriculation examination which allowed him to continue at the school for a further two years. But in November 1912 the American company H J Heinz approached the school and he went for an interview with them for the post of industrial chemist. He was at that point studying for an intermediate science degree but accepted the post. This meant working in Brayards Road, Peckham, at a site which previously belonged to a company called Batty & Co. This was apparently Heinz’s first site in the UK which opened in 1905. The work John was given to do was not very challenging. He was testing the acidity of vinegars and measuring the capacity of various containers. As this was not what he really wanted he was transferred to the head office, which was in Farringdon Road, in central London. He worked there for 18 months (1914?) and then decided to find a position nearer home. At this point he would have been living at 112 Chestnut Road, Plumstead (now Chestnut Rise). John worked in the shop clerical department of the Western Electric Company in North Woolwich until March 1915 when he decided to enlist in the army pay corps. He was transferred to Fulwood barracks near Preston.
While still at school, John had started courting Lily Ethel Henwood who was a member of the Sunday school at the Woolwich Baptist Tabernacle. There were no doubt other social activities, and in December 1914 they got engaged. They got married on 7 August 1915. A few months later, Lily joined John in Fulwood and she found employment at the army pay office. She became pregnant in February 1916 and his first child, Joyce, was born on 28 November in Preston. But just before Joyce’s birth, instructions were issued by the War Office that the pay corps should be transferred to infantry battalions. John was required to go even though he wore spectacles. But the warrant officer in charge managed to delay his transfer to Freeze Heath, in Shropshire, until after Joyce’s birth.
At this time, Lily, Joyce and John were living in 3 Fenton Road, Fulwood, a small red brick terraced house in a cul-de-sac.
As well as infantry training – marching, assault course and bayonet fighting – John was also engaged in a stretcher bearer’s course. Owing to heavy losses in France, John was sent there in March 1917 and joined the 6th battalion of the Border Regiment. After a toughening up at the Bull Ring in Etaples, he arrived at the battalion HQ. A position as medical orderly came up and he applied. He had to organise sick parades and dole out prescriptions made by Dr McDermot.
After several periods in the front line trenches, his company was stationed in dugouts on the Ypres canal. In July during the middle of the afternoon a shell landed in the dugout and the wounded were brought to the dressing station. While dressing one man, John inhaled some mustard gas with which the shells had been filled. He was violently sick and had pains in his eyes. He was evacuated to hospital in Boulogne and spent two weeks there. A big attack was being prepared at Passchendaele, in Belgium, they decided to clear the hospital and he was moved to Brighton. The treatment meant he was unable to use his eyes for a couple of weeks, but he eventually recovered his sight although his breathing was bad.
John was transferred to a large house in East Grinstead where he had a pleasant time. Then he was transferred to a convalescent depot at Heaton Park, Manchester. He was still being treated and had very light duties for several months.
Then John was transferred to Carlisle Castle which was the HQ of the Border Regiment. After some weeks he was moved again to the Reserve Battalion at Crosby, near Liverpool. The war on the French front was going very badly and the Germans made a heavy attack in spring 1918. John was shipped out again to join the 11th Battalion of the Border Regiment in France. On 8 August 1918 his battalion was rushed down from Amiens to the front as part of a flying column. They pressed on and the Germans were in retreat. They followed them at a safe distance and John says he never fired a shot in anger. John’s position in the early days of November 1918 was quite near Mons where the first big battle of the war took place in 1914. He was there to hear the mayor of the town announce that the armistice had been signed.
John’s battalion pressed on gradually towards Germany and crossed the Rhine in Cologne. From there he was sent to Bonn, and then to a bathing establishment like Baden Baden. After spending a pleasant few weeks there, orders came through that John and another colleague who came from the pay corps be returned to Wimereux near Boulogne to help with demobilisation. He objected on the grounds that he thought he would be retained in the army for a long time. But after a few weeks he was moved back to Crystal Palace (before it burnt down in 1936). He was however told by his Sergeant Major that anyone who had a job to go to could be demobilised at once. He took advantage of this, but was not sure he had a job to go to. When he went to Western Electric he was told he had left without permission and they were under no obligation to take him back.
On demobilisation troops were given a small sum of money and, if they needed it, a suit. As John did not need one, he was given 30 shillings (£1.50) in lieu. He went to the Woolwich employment exchange. While waiting to register, he heard that the Woolwich Arsenal Cooperative Society was recruiting for people to help with its annual stock-take in the summer of 1919. He went down and was taken onto the temporary staff for some time, and then in February 1920 he was taken onto the permanent staff.
In September 1920 there was a vacancy for a clerk in charge of the office in the grocery warehouse. He applied and was successful in obtaining it on the salary of £5 per week. He was living with his wife and baby in Chestnut Road, Plumstead. But in April 1920 he was successful in renting a five-roomed house, at the cost of 11 shillings (55p) a week. This was fortunate as Lily was expecting a second baby who was born on 2 May: Roy. Four years later Lily had another boy, Donald, on 14 September 1924. Donald contacted pneumonia when he was about four years old. That year we bought a house on the Bostall estate which was owned by the Royal Arsenal Coop Society. The house we bought on Howarth Road, Abbey Wood, for £300 with a fifty five year lease.
The family lived in Howarth Road until 1927, when they had another daughter, Audrey, born on 20 November 1927. They moved to another house in Vaughan Road, Welling, bought for £550. This was more difficult for John to get to work, until he bought his first car in 1929 which was a 1923 12-horsepower Citroen. After a year he exchanged it for a Morris Oxford, which had more room for the family. However in 1930 he had to give up motoring due to financial circumstances.
Their fifth child, Geoffrey, was born on the 26 December 1930. In 1931 there was a reorganisation in the Royal Arsenal Cooperative Association (RACS) and the tobacco department was separated off. John was placed in charge, at a salary of £8 per week. During this year Roy got his scholarship to Dartford Grammar School. He did well there and in 1937 he entered the Erith Library Service.
In 1938 Britain was having trouble with Hitler, and war was declared in September 1939 when Hitler invaded Poland. In the years of the war both Joyce and Roy got married. Joyce’s son Stuart was born in 1943 and Elizabeth, Roy and May’s first daughter, in 1944. The war years were difficult for business, and after the Dunkirk withdrawal the Local Defence Volunteers was set up. I joined, but when it became the Home Guard, with a military connection, I withdrew and took up a voluntary driver position for an ambulance. In the year before the war, Audrey passed her examination to go to Dartford Girls School, but when the war started John withdrew her from there and sent her to the Bexleyheath Technical School which was nearer home. Audrey always regretted the consequences when it came to furthering her career as a nurse.
John Brown’s life story recording peters out at this point but he does answer some questions put to him by Simon Siddle, the son of Audrey’s next door neighbours in Darlington. Simon was interested in John’s experience of the war, and he found that John was far from a traditional hero. In fact he was a pacifist.
The interview ran as follows:
“I had two periods on the western front. On the first one I was a medical orderly, that in charge of the doctor’s shop and issued out the medicines asprescribed by the MO. On account of this I received mustard gas when attending to a comrade who had been hit by a mustard gas shell.”
Soon after the war, John and Lily must have moved to 15 Sandhurst Road in Bexleyheath, near Danson Park. They were living in this house up until the 1960s, and after retirement they moved to 33 Parkstone Road in Hastings. They had a bungalow with a garden and a greenhouse which had an open outlook across school playing fields. Later, perhaps due to financial reasons, they moved into a flat above a shop and then in about 1984 Lily died. To be near family, John moved to an old people’s home in Darlington, Co Durham, close to his daughter Audrey. John died on 1 April 1990 and was cremated at Carmel Road Crematorium on a fine spring day.
Philip Lightowlers, April 2015
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