Killed in the Line of Duty……………
When I started this project, I knew it would be an emotional journey for both myself and the families that were so tragically affected by this story. Each and every one of the families of the 34 firefighters, would have felt the same pain, the same sadness and the same loss that my own family felt, with the loss of my Great Aunt.
When a tragedy like this strikes, within a small close-knit community, it brings those involved closer together by the bond of their combined loss. An immeasurable loss that touches every one of the families involved and every member of the local community.
I also knew when I started on this journey, that for some of the firefighters, I would struggle to find any living descendants, but I also knew that along the way, I would meet some family members who were very much a part of this story themselves and in researching fire-fighter Herbert Charles Wotton, I made contact with Herbert’s son, Bryan Wotton. At the time of the Old Palace School Bombing Bryan would have been just 5 years old and having lost my own father when I was just 3 years old, I immediately formed a bond and connection to Bryan and his story.
Let me tell you Bryan and his Dad’s story……….
Auxiliary Fireman Herbert Charles Wotton (Bert) was born on 15th May 1910 in Rotherhithe, Surrey, the second son of the thirteen children of Alfred Samuel Wotton and Harriet Wotton née Keene. His father Alfred was an Engineer’s Labourer at a Spice Grinders and young Herbert was baptised on 29th May 1910 at Christ Church, Rotherhithe. At the time the family were living at 57, Park Buildings, Paradise Street, Rotherhithe.
The 1911 Census shows the family still at this address in Paradise Street, Rotherhithe.
In 1934 Herbert married Irene Dorothy Moore in Deptford and the 1935 electoral register shows them living at Flat 8, 3rd Floor, Essex House, Meeting House Lane, Camberwell. Their only son Bryan H. Wotton was born in 1936.
The 1939 England and Wales Register shows the family living at 78 Upper Elmers End Road, Beckenham, Kent and lists Herbert’s occupation as a Retail Butchers Manager. In the adjoining column it mentions Bert’s service with the Auxiliary Fire Service in Beckenham. Bert had joined the AFS prior to the start of the war and was attached to the Stanhope Grove Fire Station, Beckenham.
Prior to the start of the War, Bryan’s father Herbert, worked for Gunners Butchers shop and it was whilst working here, that he gained experience in running a Butchers business and he decided to move to Beckenham in Kent, to gain even more experience, in particular buying, because ultimately he wanted to open his own shop. Robert Gunner had started his business in 1903, initially as a provisions shop, selling cheese & ham and he opened up a number of shops in the Islington area. During the first world war there were a number of German pork butchers who were getting their windows smashed because of anti German feelings, so Bob Gunner bought them out and from then on he opened butchers and provisions in equal numbers. By the 1960’s Gunners were running over 100 shops. .
The Wotton family moved to Elmers End and Herbert worked as a Manager for Bill Hazelton. He was already a skilled Butcher, but needed to learn the business acumen in order to go it alone. Herbert was also a skilled carpenter and added certain ‘luxury’ touches to their air raid shelter at 78, Upper Elmers End Road at the corner of Adams Rd. In quiet times, a large number of firemen, including Bert, spent their time making toys for children. Many of them were expert carpenters and had talents for making models. Bryan received several cleverly crafted reproductions of naval vessels when he was a young boy.
(The Wotton family home is marked with an X in the image)
His mother would tell him how she remembered his father waving to them as he went through the ‘snicket’ on his way to the sub station. She also remembered distinctly that last fateful day, 19 April 1941, the last time they saw Bert. As we all wave goodbye to our loved ones, we never stop and think about whether we will ever see them again, we naturally of course, always expect them to return. My own father died in a tragic accident and the final moments, when my father left home, that last morning, haunted my Mum for the rest of her life.
Bryan recalls watching from the upstairs window as the funeral procession passed by the Butchers shop, where his Dad had worked. It’s always difficult to understand how much you can really comprehend about what was actually going when you are so young. One distinct memory that Bryan has is that it took ages for the whole procession to pass by, on the way to Beckenham Cemetery and he recalls the street was lined with people paying their last respects to the 19 Beckenham Fireman. In such a small close knit community, there couldn’t have been a single family that wouldn’t have been touched by this tragedy.
The funeral took place on 25th April 1941 and all the Beckenham Fireman were buried together in one grave, the grave had been dug by the colleagues of those that had sadly died. The 19 coffins were placed in St. George’s Church on the Wednesday before the service took place and the coffins were guarded and looked after by their colleagues.
The Fire Brigade Community as a whole has always been a close knit community with families working, living and socialising together, it was how things were done. Bryan remembers the fireman used to arrange great parties for all the children at the main Beckenham Fire Station in Bromley Road. Bryan recollects that Albert Kite’s son and daughter went to the parties as well. So many of the Beckenham families were connected, Cecil Farley’s son Raymond went to Hawes Down School and his mother was a dinner lady there. Daisy Endean, daughter of Frank Endean and Ann Minter, daughter of Alfred Minter, were also friends of Bryan’s mother.
Bryan himself attended Marian Vian Primary School in Beckenham and at the age of five felt quite old enough to go to school on his own. There was an offer from the fire service to go to a boarding school, but he was glad his mother rejected it. His mother was a qualified butcher and she still had the family business to run. An ungrateful Government awarded widows a miserly pension, far below that of an army widow. She received a paltry £1 17s 3d pension of which 9s 8d went on rent. Bryan recalls that he would be left in the care of Doris Hazelton from the hardware shop at Elmers End. She would make tasty pies on the ‘parlor’s pine table’ for sale at their Butcher’s shop. This arrangement once landed Bryan in Beckenham Hospital, recovering from burns, caused by a spirit stove exploding when Alan Hazelton was soldering a Dinky toy, back in the days when broken items were repaired and not thrown away.
In the 1960’s Bryan and his family lived in the Bexley area of South East London before Bryan retired to Littlehampton in West Sussex.
As is often the case, there is a remarkable coincidence in the fact that Bryan Wotton’s stepdaughter–in–law Xandra Barry, is a descendant of the family that inaugurated the fire brigade in Beckenham in 1869.
Although we have never met, myself and Bryan have built up a unique bond that only comes when you have a shared experience together, sadly for us it was the loss of a loved one. Hopefully soon I will get the chance to meet and catch up with Bryan, a truly remarkable man who has been so generous with his time to share with me these very personal stories regarding his father.
My Family History website can be found here:
Copyright © 2021 Paul Chiddicks | All rights reserved