AFS Leading Fireman Walter John Woodland

Killed in the Line of Duty………

The tragic loss of a loved one can leave families distraught and torn apart and some families find it impossible to process such a devastating loss like this and in the case of Walter John Woodland, his Brother was so over come with grief that he was unable to talk about the death of his younger Brother for the remainder of his life.

Walter John Woodland actually proved to be the trickiest firefighter that I have researched as part of this project. There was a lot of confusion over his military service that took a lot of work to untangle! But with the help of some photographs and my friends on Twitter, I was able to confirm that I did have the right soldier, but more of that later…….

Walter John Woodland was born on 16th October 1899 in Tooting in Surrey, the youngest of two sons born to Bowden Woodland and Matilda Kate Woodland (nee Horn). Walter’s father Bowden worked throughout his life as a Butcher going through an apprenticeship first, before finally qualifying and becoming a Master Butcher. Bowden was originally born in Dorset before moving firstly to Berkshire, to serve his apprenticeship as a Butcher, before eventually settling down in London. It was whilst he was working in London that he met and married Matilda Kate Horn who was born in 1868 in Lambeth, Surrey. The couple were married on Christmas Day in 1893 in Camberwell in Surrey. They had two children, William Bowden Woodland born 27th February 1895 in Camberwell, Surrey and of course Walter John Woodland.

Bowden Woodland Marrige

(Bowden Woodland Marriage Record)

Bowden Woodland

(Bowden Woodland)

Matilda Kate Horn

(Matilda Kate Horn)

The Woodland family can be found in both the 1901 and 1911 Census living at 72, Denmark Road in Camberwell. The pictures below show Denmark Road and have been generously donated by fellow family history researcher Carolyn Skelton. Denmark Road in Camberwell was the Woodland home for a number of years.

Carolyn’s wonderful blog site can be found here, she has a wealth of extremely well researched work, especially if you have an interest in London.

A London Family

denamrk road 2

Denmark Road 1

denmark road 3

(Images of Denmark Road)

With the start of WW1 and the call to arms of millions of young men, Walter was conscripted into the 1/16th (County of London) Battalion (Queen’s Westminster Rifles) around his 18th Birthday. The 16th (Queen’s Westminster Rifles) Battalion, London Regiment were a unit of the Territorial Force with their HQ at Queen’s Hall, 58 Buckingham Gate, Westminster and when war broke out in August 1914, they were part of the 4th London Brigade, 2nd London Division. Walter like many thousands of other young men became a conscripted serviceman rather than a volunteer, after the British Government passed The Military Service Act in January 1916. This Act of Parliament specified that single men aged between 18 and 40 were liable to be called up for military service unless they were widowed with children.

What the service records can’t tell us is how did a young 18 year old Walter feel about the thought of going to War? Was he scared, apprehensive, nervous? Did he have any idea of what he was about to face? One assumes that he had never left the shores of England before the outbreak of war. One minute he was a young fresh faced teenager at home in South London and the next minute he was being whisked away to the front line, facing enemy gunfire and all the horrors’ associated with going to war. How must his parents have felt, with only the two sons, Walter and his elder brother William, sending them both away to fight for their country, knowing that they might never see either of them again? We can’t ever imagine what it must have been like waving your only two sons off to war. the Woodland family were fortunate, both their sons returned from war, but for hundreds of thousands of families, their lives would never be the same again.


(Brigade Headquarters)

Walter’s full Army Service Record has sadly not survived, but by carefully checking all the available service records for those that were conscripted at the same time as Walter, I was able to piece together his Army Service using the records of the other recruits.

I was kindly given three pictures of Walter taken during his time with the Army and thanks to the wonderful help of the people on the Great War Forum, I was able to identify the likely regiments from those pictures. 1/16th (County of London) Battalion (Queen’s Westminster Rifles) was quickly identified and there were a number of men in the right age range, who were in the army service number series “500**, and these men were posted to the British Expeditionary Force in April 1918 and subsequently transferred to the Royal Irish Fusiliers, included in this group of men was W.J. Woodland Pte. 50017, Royal Irish Fusiliers.  

These young men were shipped over to the British Expeditionary Force in France and Flanders, following the German Spring Offensive. We already know that Walter was born in October 1899 and that he would have been called up for active service aged eighteen, around his birthdate and this fits with being posted to France and Flanders, as a result of the panic caused by the German Spring Offensive. The 500** series of numbers that were allocated to the Royal Irish Fusiliers were allocated after April 1918 and most likely were allocated when Walter moved from the 16th London to the Royal Irish Fusiliers. Sadly of over 100 men drafted at the same time as Walter, there only appears to be a handful of surviving record for any of these men.

Walter John Woodland Medal Card

(Medal Card for Walter John Woodland)

Walter John Woodland Silver badge

(Medal Roll for Walter John Woodland)

To support the theory further, there were a number of men called up at the same time as Walter who were all from the same area of London as Walter.

I am sure that those observant ones amongst you (that should be all of you!) will have spotted something that doesn’t ‘fit’ with the soldier mentioned above, when compared to the photographs shown below. You can’t fail to have noticed that in the second picture, it shows Walter proudly wearing the single stripe of a ‘Lance Corporal’, whereas the Medal Card shown clearly states ‘Private’. Of course there is a reasonable explanation for this. A slip of paper accompanied the set of medals stating`:

“To avoid unnecessary correspondence, kindly note that the Regtl. particulars inscribed on the British War & Victory Medals are those held on first disembarkation in a theatre of war. The rank is the highest attained, PROVIDED IT WAS HELD IN A THEATRE OF WAR OR OVERSEAS PRIOR TO 11.11.18. Appointments such as L/Sgts., L/Cpl/, etc. are not inscribed on Medals, SPECIAL NOTE TO THOSE WHO SERVED IN RIFLE REGTS. ‘Rifleman” is not inscribed on War Medals, “Pte.” being the correct designation of this rank.’

Walter Woodland 1

(Private Walter John Woodland)

Walter J Woodland part 2

(Private Walter John Woodland)

Walter J Woodland

(Private Walter John Woodland and his Army colleagues)

Armistice day in November 1918 saw the end of The Great War, but with million of men still overseas. it was several months before all the soldiers would return home. A phased scheme of demobilisation took place, with priority given to those men who had previously been employed during peacetime with an occupation that was needed most on the home front. The long wait to return home was extremely frustrating for many men, eager to return home to their loved ones. With the war over, there was very little to keep the soldiers occupied whilst awaiting for demobilisation. The expected ‘heroes return’ for the men wasn’t what they expected and the repatriation of the troops to a Country that was ‘ill prepared’ for their return left many soldiers deeply upset, it was both a logistical and financial nightmare for both the Government and Armed forces to manage.

Demobilization 24

(Troops ready for Demobilisation from France)


(Getting measured for your Demob suit)

The end of the war also coincided with the terrible Spanish Flu Pandemic that saw the millions of people lose their lives. This is still today one of the deadliest pandemics in human history, with estimated deaths at anywhere between 25 and 50 million people. When you consider that the total death for the Great War was around 20 million, you can clearly see devastating affect this pandemic would have been both at home as well as globally.

The 1920’s saw a lot of change across the Country, which included single women gaining the right to vote in a General Election. Married women had previously secured the right to vote much earlier in 1918, thanks to the suffragette movement. The returning men from war came home to a totally different Country to the one they left behind. Walter was one the lucky ones, he returned home from war to his family and a secure job, unlike many of his fellow soldiers. The years between the Wars were particularly difficult for men, employment opportunities were few and far between. The Country was going through a deep depression and money and opportunities were scarce for many families. Walter had fortunately secured himself a respectable and decent job as a Solicitors Clerk and by the time the 1921 Census was taken, he was working for Guillbourne and Sons at 9, Salisbury Square, Fleet Street in London. The family home is still 72, Denmark Road in Camberwell and living at home with Walter are his parents Bowden, still employed as a Butcher, working for Clarkes Butchers in Camberwell,  his mother keeping the family home and his niece Dorothy Bessie Francis, who was employed as a shorthand typist. Denmark Road would have been a relatively respectable area at the time, certainly more middle class than working class. Properties were of a good size and the area was not suffering the same ravages of poverty that other areas of London were suffering. Although taken a lot earlier, Booths maps indicate ‘Middle Class/Well-to-do’ and there is nothing to indicate that anything had changed during the intervening years. The 1921 census did show that there was a higher than usual proportion of women compared to men, which is hardly surprising in the first government based national survey taken after the war.

Woodland 1921 Census

(1921 Census)

Woodland 1921 Census Address

(1921 Census Address Schedule)

Electoral Register entries show that Walter remained with his parents at 72, Denmark Road until the mid-1920s, when he moved to 37, Playfield Crescent in Woolwich. Co-resident for a couple of years were Walter’s brother William along with William’s wife Ellen Henrietta. By 1932 Walter had moved to 72, Bavent Road in Brixton, where he lived with Doris Sylvia Bray, his bride to be, Edith Blanche Bray, Doris’ mother and Helena Bray who was Doris younger sister.

Walter John Woodland married his sweetheart, Doris Sylvia Bray towards the end of 1932 in Lambeth. No known children were found during this research.

After serving his Country bravely during WW1 the sense of ‘Duty’ and ‘doing your bit’ for King and Country was calling out to Walter again and he immediately signed up as a volunteer for the Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS). 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. As the nation’s capital, London was a natural prime target. 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. It was obvious that a large number of firefighters would be needed to prevent London becoming little more than a smoking ruin.

The answer was to expand the regular Fire Brigade by forming an Auxiliary Fire Service. By 1939 about 28, 000 men and women had joined the AFS and regular firefighters, who had been trained as instructors, put the new recruits through 60 hours intensive training. Originally recruits like Walter were unpaid volunteers, but eventually the men were paid £3 per week, women received £2 per week, with youths under 18 and messengers earning £1 per week. At first recruits endured poor accommodation, inadequate conditions and were dubbed “£3-a-week war dodgers” by the public who thought they were choosing an easy life. After many recruits left to join the war effort, the Government passed a statutory order preventing full time members resigning. Once the Blitz started, attitudes towards the volunteers quickly changed and they received the recognition they deserved.


With the threat of another World War imminent, the British Government acted swiftly by organising a head count of the whole civilian population, which culminated in the 1939 Register. The Register was the pre-requisite for the issuing of National Identity Cards and the information recorded the full names, addresses, dates of birth, occupations of the individuals and additional information such as somebody serving in the armed forces, or an ARP Warden, or somebody serving in the Auxiliary Fire Services (AFS).

At the time that the Second World War broke out, Walter John Woodland was working as a Solicitor’s Conveyancing Clerk in London and on the day that the 1939 Register was taken, he was at the Auxiliary Fire Station, which was located at the Standard Bank Sports Club in Stanhope Grove, Beckenham. he was counted here alongside his AFS colleagues who were also stationed at the Stanhope Station.

Walter Woodland 1939

(1939 Register for Walter John Woodland)

The 1939 Register also shows that Doris was living at 68, Links Way in Bromley with her mother, Edith Blanche Bray and Walter’s mother, Matilda Kate Woodland, both of whom were widowed. Doris Woodland’s was the first name in the entry, which suggests that this was her home with Walter. Doris was working as a Solicitor’s Stenographer, which strongly suggests that the couple met through their work. Edith was performing unpaid domestic duties, and Matilda’s entry states that she was living off private means.

Doris Bray 1939 Register

(1939 Register for Doris Woodland)

Walter John Woodland did not leave a will, even though he worked in a Solicitor’s office, the thought of making a will at the age of 41, I would imagine, was far from his mind. His widow, Doris, applied to administer his estate, which was granted on 12th June 1941.

On 4th June 1947, Doris sailed to America on the Queen Elizabeth. She left Southampton bound for New York for a trip, after which she returned to England. Who did she visit and why? We will never know the answer to this question, but it poses an intriguing question.

Doris never re-married, for some the grief of losing someone is too much to overcome and she passed away in Bromley in 1982.

Another family torn apart by the ravages of War, so many lives affected by this tragic event, wives who have lost their husbands, children who have lost their father’s and parents who have lost a son. But I can’t help but think of Walter’s Brother, a fellow serviceman, who could not talk about the loss of his Brother for the rest of his life. The loss of a loved one cuts deep and we can sometimes overlook the devastating affect that this can have on a sibling. The Woodland family, like so many others, would never be the same again……..

Thanks to Michaela Pavely for the additional pictures that you see here.

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