Killed in the Line of Duty………
When you undertake a project like this, you have to accept that to make this work, you will have to not only invest a lot of time, but you also have to make an ’emotional investment’ with those you write about. You have to make a ‘connection’ with a person in order that you can write about them and share their story. I feel in an extremely privileged position knowing that the families of the firefighters who sadly lost their lives have entrusted me to tell their loved ones stories and with “Sonny”, I knew that I had made an instant connection and it’s been an extremely humbling experience to share his story with you.
William Thomas Rashbrook (“Sonny”) was born 8th April 1905 in Hackney in East London, William was the eldest of seven children born to parents Charles John Rashbrook and Alice Maud Nash. Charles and Alice had married the year before in Hackney in 1904.
William was always known by everyone within the family as “Sonny” or “Son”, presumably because he was the oldest son and it was an affectionate name that the family all used.
The 1911 English census records Charles Rashbrook as a draper’s assistant aged 33 living at 8 Marlow Road, Homerton, Hackney with his wife Alice Rashbrook aged 30, and the couple’s children William aged 6, Charles aged 5 and Ivy aged 3. Susan Winsper, a widow aged 83, was also present, listed as a boarder with the family. The census recorded that Charles and Alice had been married for 7 years and had had 3 children, all of whom survived and that the family’s home had four rooms.
Charles and Alice went on to have four more children, all born in Hackney, Frank Reginald Rashbrook in 1912, May Louise Rashbrook in 1914 who sadly died before her first birthday, Sidney Campbell Rashbrook in 1915, and Stanley Edward Rashbrook in 1920. You might have noticed that there’s a bit of a gap between Stanley’s birth in 1920 and his nearest brother, Sidney in 1915. Stanley was born shortly after his Dad’s return from service with the British Army in Archangel in Russia and the family would joke that he was’ born with snow on his boots!’.
According to electoral registers, from at least 1920, Charles and Alice Rashbrook were living at 8 Marlow Road, Hackney. The registers also show that this was the family home until at least the late 1930’s. By the time that the 1939 Register was taken, the family had moved to 133 Chatsworth Road, Hackney. The family moved here because William’s brother Frank had arranged a loan to open up his own Barber’s shop at number 133 simply called “Franks”. 133, Chatsworth Road remained the family home until Sonny’s parents sadly died in the 1960’s.
The 1930’s were a tough time for many families, the euphoria of ‘winning’ the First World War was long forgotten and families were in crisis due to the “Great Depression”.
The Great Depression was the worst economic downturn in the history of the industrialised world and lasted throughout the entire decade. Families struggled for money and work, this was long before a recognised welfare state. The East End of London was a tough environment to grow up in, finding work was almost impossible and William, like many of this generation, struggled at times to find regular work. One of his jobs during this time was making sacks, so he was extremely happy to volunteer and “do his bit” and do something more meaningful instead. Just before the outbreak of the Second World War, William signed up with the Auxiliary Fire Service. Prior to the start of WW2 the Government recognised the fact that the threat of War was imminent and that they were poorly prepared for a second World War. The Government acted swiftly with the Fire Brigade Act of July 1938 which demanded the recruitment of an auxiliary fire service as part of the country’s Civil Defence Force.
William was 15 years older than his brother Stanley and Stanley would always speak of him as being bigger and stronger than the other brothers, who were all quite short and slightly built. William had exactly the characteristics you would want in a fireman!
Like many families at the time, “Sonny” was following his father footsteps, by volunteering and that sense of “duty” and “doing ones bit” was very much the Rashbrook way. His father, Charles Rashbrook served in the First World War in the Army Medical Corp and he also volunteered during WW2 as a volunteer fire watcher. Part of his duties included keeping a look out from the roof of the East End department store ‘Wickhams’, where he worked. William’s younger brother Stanley remembers ‘Sonny’ coming home one day after fighting fires in the docks, with his uniform covered covered in melted sugar, the result of fighting a fire in one of the Sugar Refineries along the Thames. These men and women were very much ‘on the front line’, defending the home front, day and night from the continual raids from the Luftwaffe. London being specifically targeted by the Germans because of its strategic importance to our nation and because it was the nation’s capital. Dockland warehouses packed with highly combustible oils, grain and timber were clearly a risk and the narrow maze of streets would provide an easy path for the fire. Hence the need for the volunteer for service (AFS).
The next paragraph is probably the most poignant and most difficult part that I have written so far, whilst researching this project and for me, is exactly the reason that I did start the project, to remember the ultimate sacrifice that these men, women and their families gave.
William’s brother Stanley said that before William went to the Poplar Station, on the day he died, William gave his mother a hug saying “it’s a long time since I’ve given you a cuddle.” He also said that his dad came home in tears after identifying Williams body and that was the only time he saw his father cry. When I stop to think about those words and what that must have been like for the family during that time, it moves me to tears. Those words resonated with me for a long time, as I am sure they will with you.
William never married and remained living at home with his parents throughout his life.
(William Thomas Rashbrook – Photographs kindly provided by Iris Welling)
(William Rashbrook is standing in the back row 2nd from the right
Photographs kindly provided by Iris Welling)
The UK WW2 Civilian War Deaths 1939-1945 records show: ‘William Thomas Rashbrook age 36 Fireman AFS. Son of Charles John Rashbrook of 133 Chatsworth Road, Clapton. 20 April 1941 at Old Palace LCC School.’
William’s death might have indirectly led to his younger brother Stanley surviving the war. In 1939, Jack, the second eldest son, had sadly died of TB and when Sonny died in the blitz, the boys heartbroken mum, wrote to the Royal Artillery, where Stanley was now serving, pointing out that she had already lost two sons and questioning whether Stanley was physically fit to serve. Shortly before D Day Stanley was re examined and went from Grade A1 to C3 and was told ‘your army days are over’.
William Thomas Rashbrook was buried on 29th April 1941 at The City of London Cemetery in Newham, London, see entry details below.
Another man struck down in the prime of his life and another set of parents having the awful task of burying their child. So many families affected by this one awful tragedy and as each generation passes, it’s important that the next generation remembers the sacrifice that their family member gave, in order that we all enjoy our freedom today. Without those willing volunteers putting themselves in the line, day and night, London would have fallen under the continual bombardment from the Luftwaffe. We can all be thankful to those AFS volunteers who defended the “Home Front’.
Special thanks to Stephen Rashbrook and Iris Welling (nee Rashbrook) for allowing me to share the photographs and William’s story.
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