Killed in the Line of Duty……………….
The following extremely detailed research into the life of AFS Fireman William Charles Plant has been carried out by researcher Fiona Smith.
William Charles Plant was a fresh faced young man, cut down in the prime of his life, like so many of his fellow Firefighters, on that awful night in April 1941. A man newly married, with a young son and a whole future ahead of him, a future that was so cruelly robbed by the tragic events that took place at the Old Palace School.
William Charles Plant was born on 29th August 1914 in Croydon, Surrey, the third of four children born to Robert and Lucy Plant (nee Jarvis). William’s three other siblings were Lucy Elizabeth Plant born in Bromley in 1908, Robert Plant born in Croydon in 1911 and Phyllis Plant born in 1916, also in Croydon. The marriage of William’s parents, Robert Plant and Lucy Jarvis, had been registered in Bromley in 1908.
The 1911 Census shows Robert Plant aged 24, living at 6, Hartfield Grove, Penge with his wife Lucy aged 22 and their children Lucy aged 2 and Robert aged 3 months. Robert’s occupation is recorded as a coachman for a tallyman and the family occupied just the one room. The census also records that the couple had been married for 2 years and had 2 children who both survived and that Robert Senior had been born in Poplar, his wife Lucy in Beckenham, Lucy Junior in Penge, and Robert Junior in Anerley.
The same 1911 census shows that the Hoadley family (a jobbing gardener father, mother, and three adult children) also lived at 6 Hartfield Grove. Their home had five rooms and this could indicate that Robert Plant and his family were renting from the Hoadley family at the time.
Pictured above is a young William Charles Plant, with his whole future ahead of him, little did he know that fate was deal the cruelest of blows just a few years later. An image that captures all the ‘what if’s and what might have beens’, a man who had everything to look forward, his whole life ahead of him.
The 1921 Census shows that the Plant family have moved home and are living at 96, Pawleyne Road in Penge. At the time William was a schoolboy aged 6 years 10 months. His father was a labourer at Sydenham Gas Works, aged 32 and his mother was at home carrying out household duties aged 30. Also at home were William’s siblings, Lucy aged 12, Robert aged 10 and Phyllis aged 5.
(1921 Census for William Charles Plant)
(1921 Census fAddress or William Charles Plant)
Just prior to the start of the second World War, William Charles Plant married his sweetheart, Matilda L Proud (Tilly) in Bromley in 1938. We don’t know how they met, but the pictures clearly show a young couple devoted to each other.
(William Charles Plant and Tilly’s Wedding)
(William Charles Plant and Tilly’s Wedding)
William and Tilly only had the one child together before that tragic night altered the course of their lives forever. William Charles Plant Junior was born on 20th February 1939 in Bromley in Kent.
(Baby William Charles Plant Junior aged 7 months)
(William, Tilly and William Junior)
(William in his Fire Brigade Uniform, Tilly and William Junior)
The 1939 Register shows that William had left the family home after his marriage to Matilda (Tilly). Still living at the family home were Robert Plant (born 10th June 1885) a married window cleaner, living at 62 MacKenzie Road, Beckenham with his wife Lucy Plant, born 24th September 1890, doing unpaid domestic duties, and their daughter, unmarried laundress Phyllis Plant, born 21st March 1916. Unmarried shoe repairers Sidney Tuck and George Clarke also lived at the same address. The register records that Phyllis Plant later became Phyllis Arrowsmith and also shows that, living separately at the same address, were Robert and Lucy Plant’s daughter Lucy E Shepherd, her husband Leonard S Shepherd, and an individual whose details were redacted, likely Lucy and Leonard’s daughter Margaret L E Plant who was aged four.
The 1939 Register shows William Plant, born 29 August 1914, as a married plumber’s mate living at 24, Sultan St, Bromley, Beckenham, Kent with his wife Matilda (recorded as Matilder) Plant, born 15th October 1916, doing unpaid domestic duties, and their son, William C Plant, born 20th February 1939.
At some point between the 1939 Register and the tragic night in April 1941, William answered his Countries “call” and enlisted as a civilian volunteer with the Auxiliary Fire Service. The likelihood of a Second World War was being planned for, as early as 1933, by the British Government and it became abundantly obvious, that the Countries Capital was ill prepared for War, so a major logistical exercise was initiated, to enlist both men and women, into the newly formed Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) and William Plant was one of 28, 000 volunteers who joined up.
William and his colleagues would have undergone a minimum of 60 hours basic training which was provided by regular Fireman from The London Fire Brigade. This would have included basic hose running, drills and commands and each group of new AFS recruits would be under the command of a full time firefighter at their designated stations. All the volunteers underwent the basic training and at the end they were graded depending on physical capabilities, their age, their gender and their previous skills. Some were assigned frontline duties, whilst others were assigned driving duties, despatch rider duties, watch room duties and general administrative duties, amongst others. William was destined to be a frontline firefighter and his life and the lives of his family would change forever just a couple of years later.
The tragic events of the Old Palace School bombing were to have lasting and deep consequences for all the families that lost their loved ones. William’s widow Tilly (Matilda) never remarried after her husband’s death, for some, losing a partner at such a young age can leave such a gaping hole in one’s life that can never be filled, also the thought of losing another partner can prevent a person from loving another for fearing the pain of loss again.
The pictures below are taken from the funeral cortege of the Beckenham Firefighters and were kindly sent to me by Joan Pakeman.
The 1964 London Electoral Register shows William’s widow Matilda L Plant (Tilly) and William’s son, William C Plant living at 157, Churchfields Road, Beckenham with Matilda’s mother, Laura E Proud. Between 1964 and 1965 William’s son, William Charles Plant Junior, moved out to marry, and the 1965 London Electoral Register shows only William Senior’s widow, Matilda L Plant, and Matilda’s mother, Laura E Proud residing at 157, Churchfields Road, Beckenham.
Sadly Tilly passed away aged 80, on 7th October 1996 and she is buried in Beckenham Cemetery in the same plot as her Mother, Father and Brother. Also buried in the same cemetery was Tilly’s husband William Charles Plant, alongside his colleagues from Beckenham who also lost their life that night.
William Charles Plant Junior, sadly passed away, aged 73, on 12th January 2013, his last residence being Croydon, Surrey.
Although we don’t have too much personal information about William’s life, we can clearly see from the photographs that he was a devoted and loving husband and father. Like so many of his brave colleagues, he gave the ultimate sacrifice for King and Country and so many lives were altered forever. We can never measure and put a value on the loss of a loved one, no matter the circumstances, the loss still cuts deep and lasts a lifetime and for some the grief is consuming and they never recover from the loss. We cannot know for sure how each family coped with their own individual loss, we can only imagine how a young mother and toddler would have coped in such tragic circumstances. Life can deal the cruelest of blows at any moment, blink and your life can change forever. Fate can deal you the cruellest of hands and we all deal with such grief differently, we hope that in the future, descendants of William Charles Plant will be able to find this website and learn about the ultimate sacrifice that he gave and the awful sad loss that his dear beloved wife, Tilly, also suffered.
With special thanks to Joan Pakeman, a descendant of William Charles Plant for allowing me to use the photographs shown here.
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