Killed in the Line of Duty………
Fate can sometimes deal the cruelest of blows and for some families they seem to suffer more than their fair share of heartache and pain, there is no way to explain things like this, but for some families, they just suffer tragedy and loss more than others and the Parfett family certainly suffered more heartbreak and pain than many others, during World War 2.
Martin Charles Parfett was born on 7th August 1909 at The Gardens, Glen Chess, Loudwater, Rickmansworth, the oldest of three boys born to Ernest Richard Parfett and Emily Grace Parfett (Nee Churchill). Martin was baptised less than one month later, on 1st September in Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire. At the time of Martin’s baptism, his father’s occupation was recorded as a Gardner and although there was no address given for the family other than Rickmansworth, the fact that the baptism took place only one month after the birth and the family were still at the same address in 1911, just two years later, makes me think that this was the family home when baby Martin was baptised.
(Baptism entry for Martin Parfett)
Martin had two younger brothers, Albert Ernest Parfett (always known as Jim) born in Paddington in 1912 and Ronald Edward Shorter Parfett born in Croydon in 1921. Ronald had the rather unusual middle name of ‘Shorter’ which was actually the name of his father’s employers, Lord and Lady Shorter and there is a story in the family that the two watercolours they own, were reputed to once have belonged to Lady Shorter. Ernest had previously talked about working for Lord and Lady Shorter as a Gardner and the thatched bungalow where Ernest lived in Croydon, provided the connection. The bungalow’s address was “The Bungalow”, Culmington Road, South Croydon, which was adjacent to Haling Grove, which was once part of the larger Haling Park country estate. The house at Haling Grove was early Victorian and was occupied by a succession of owners, the last being Mr Sydney Shorter, a London Merchant. Mr. Shorter died in 1929 and his wife who was not interested in horses and she bequeathed Haling Grove to the Playing Fields Association in 1933 and they transferred it to the Corporation to care for, which was part of the Estate that Ernest’s bungalow was built on.
At the time of the 1911 census the Parfett family home was recorded as still being at The Gardens, Glen Chess, Rickmansworth and the family at the time were occupying three rooms.
(1911 Census entry for the Parfett family)
The 1921 Census shows the Parfett family living at the Thatched Cottage, Croydon, living at home are Ernest a Gardner aged 36, Emily aged 40, Martin aged 11 and Albert aged 9.
(1921 Census for Parfett family)
(1921 Census Address for Parfett family)
Before the war, Martin was working for a firm of Property Auctioneers in Croydon called Thorburns, which was latterly taken over by a much larger organisation, Shefford, Sedgewick, and Dacombe Estate Agents. The firm was originally established in 1887 by Thomas Wright, who opened his office at Kent House Station, Beckenham at a time when the Victorians were building large houses on the nearby Cator Estate, and smaller terraced houses were being erected for weekly tenants. When he died his executors sold the business to a Mr. Thorburn, a Chartered Surveyor who, during the building boom of the 20’s and 30’s, expanded the operation by opening offices in Bromley, West Wickham, which was the branch where Martin worked, Hayes and Sevenoaks. By the late 30’s Mr. Thorburn had appointed managers and three of them were named Shefford, Sedgwick and Dacombe and these gentlemen eventually bought the business from Mr. Thorburn.
It was whilst he was working here, that Martin met a lady in the office called Margaret Amelia May Carn, known as May to her friends and family. May invited Martin to join a local ramblers group that explored the hills and woodlands of Kent, Surrey and Sussex and they went on various Fellowship Holidays together.
(The Ramblers Club, Martin and Nellie are far left of the picture)
It was whilst he was a member of the ramblers group that Martin met his sweetheart and fell in love with May’s younger sister Nellie (Nellie Ethel Carn) and the couple were married at the Croydon Parish Church in September 1935. The picture below shows a beautiful young married couple with a whole future ahead of them that was so cruelly taken away from them just a few years later.
(Martin and Nellie on their Wedding Day in 1935)
After the young couple were married they moved into a newly built house which Martin had redesigned and decorated entirely himself. Not only that, Martin was an extremely skilled carpenter and made the majority of the furniture that the family had in the house, including a modern dining table with four chairs, a bench with a woven seat (see pictures below), a tea trolley and matching coffee table, all in smoked golden oak. The bench has now become a family heirloom and is still in use today, at the home of Martin’s great-granddaughter in Yorkshire and pictures below have kindly been sent to me by Martin’s great-granddaughter.
(Pictures of the Family Heirloom, a bench made by Martin)
Martin and Nellie had two beautiful daughters, Ann born in 1936 and Valerie born in 1940, who were both born in Croydon. Growing up Ann and Valerie knew very little about their father, Ann was just aged four when he tragically died and for Valerie, sadly the memories are even slimmer, she was just eighteen months old when her father was killed. Ann still has fond memories of her father, she remembers that he was extremely creative and clever with his hands. As well as making the majority of the Parfett families furniture, Ann can clearly picture the wonderful tricycle that he made for her, fashioned out of pram wheels and water pipes, complete with a saddle and a large bell. With toys and parts scarce during the war years, Ann’s father was able to create a wonderful trike that was the envy of the other children and something that Ann enjoyed hours of fun playing with, much to the amusement of all the neighbours. Ann clearly remembers riding the bike energetically, ringing the bell furiously, all the time wearing her sunglasses with one missing lens!
Ann has two more lasting and beautiful memories of her father, the first was being sent to a large workshop shed in the garden, to call him in for dinner. She remembers distinctly swinging her feet and kicking the fresh, newly made, wood shavings, which carpeted the floor and collecting handfuls of the shavings and letting them drift down all around her. Can you just smell those shavings now! What an evocative image that conjures up.
Ann’s other lasting memory is being swung up in the air and plonked down onto the cold petrol tank of his shiny motor bike as mum and dad made their farewells, when he set off for the fire station. Her tiny hands gripping the handlebars of dad’s precious bike as they both sat together, without a care in the world, enjoying a special moment together. Little did they know that life was to change so cruelly and dramatically for them both, in such a short space of time.
With the threat of war imminent the British Government took the decision to make all men over the age of eighteen undertake basic military training. Due to Martin’s Company only having a small number of staff, he couldn’t be released for this basic military training so he signed up with the newly formed Auxiliary Fire Service instead (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 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 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 of the 1939 Register, Martin is recorded along with his AFS Volunteers, at the Fire Station in Glebe Way in Beckenham. Sadly several of Martin’s colleagues who are listed with him on the 1939 Register, also died alongside him, just two years later at the Old Palace School. A stark reminder of the harsh realities of war.
(West Wickham’s Fire Station in Glebe Way)
(Martin Parfett 1939 Register)
Nellie Parfett is also recorded on the 1939 Register and she is living at 296, Pickhurst Rise, West Wickham, Beckenham and her occupation is listed as ‘unpaid domestic duties’, which is a title that does not do justice to the role that the homemakers had. Chores would include the obvious ones of cooking, cleaning and washing and of course caring for her toddler, Ann, who would have been around two and half years old and starting to take notice of the ever changing world around her. Nellie would have also been preparing the daily fires to keep the family warm in the winter months, she would have also had additional chores, for example darning and repairing clothing. We live in a ‘disposable’ world today, but when money was tight, clothing was either handed down to younger members or repaired and worn until it was literally threadbare. Food would have also been in short supply, food rationing started in 1940, so basic essentials would have been all that most families would have each week. The pressure on those at at home running the house would have been immense, add to that, being a single mum with small children to clothe and feed, it must have been an incredible strain on young Nellie.
(Nellie Parfett 1939 Register)
(296 Pickhurst Rise, West Wickham)
Just one year before the tragic loss of Martin, the family were to suffer another devastating loss at the hands of a German Bomb, when Martin’s own mother died, ironically after being evacuated to the supposed safety of Wadhurst in East Sussex. One cannot imagine how this devastating loss would have affected the Parfett family, their mother evacuated to the ‘apparent’ safety of the East Sussex Countryside only to be cruelly killed by a German Bomb.
Friday 27th September 1940 The Tragic Bombing of Sussex Farm
Little more than a pile of bricks and rubble with scarcely a trace of furniture left, the lonely Sussex farmstead known as Buttons Farm today represents one of the most tragic sights of the war in rural England. Nestling among its farm buildings down a quiet lane, far removed, one would have supposed, from any so-called military target, Buttons was a picturesque little farmhouse until a German bomber singled out this quiet corner of England for an attack and bombs were heard raining down with a volley of sickening thuds. One of them caught the farmhouse with a direct hit and a matter of moments later this little home was little more than a ruin. Mrs. Topp, wife of the farmer and a friend, Mrs Parfett, who had recently moved there from Croydon to escape the raids, were both killed instantly, the bomb making its crater in the middle of the kitchen where they were both located. Up in the bedrooms, the three small children of Mr and Mrs. Topp had the most miraculous escape. The upstairs rooms were totally ripped apart, ceilings blown away, floors and walls caved in, it is impossible to imagine that anyone could have come out of this place alive. Miraculously, Valerie aged 5, Sylvia aged 2½ and a baby of 14 months, were rescued by neighbours and A.R.P. workers unhurt. Sylvia was actually flung right out through the wall onto the top of the great pile of wreckage in the garden. A jagged piece of the wooden roof structure was protecting her when the rescuers heard her screams in the darkness and discovered her safe though bruised and slightly scratched.
The heroine of the raid was 14 year old Rose Ede, the daughter of a farm worker. While bombs were still falling she rushed across to the house. She heard one of the trapped children crying, and regardless to the danger to herself, began crawling into the wreckage in the direction from which the sound came. Suddenly she called out “I can see a foot”. P.C. Clements and Special Constable Charles Bloomfield, who were also busily engaged in efforts to remove the wreckage, immediately went to her assistance. While Rose was groping around on her stomach and using comforting words to the little one, the two officers worked feverishly. Eventually they were able to raise the stout oak beam which then enabled Rose to pull the child free from the debris. “Her pluck would be hard to beat” said one of the rescuers, “She was one of the pluckiest girls I have seen. She did not appear to have a thought for herself, although bombs were still dropping, I heard her say ‘I can feel a foot’, and while two officers lifted some of the wreckage, Rose, covered in dust and plaster, crawled further under the rubble and pulled the child clear. It was pluck that ought to be recognised”. For this act of bravery Rose was awarded the George Medal.
(Newspapers reports recounting the story surrounding the death of Grace Parfett)
Below is a picture of the joint headstone for Florence Topp and Grace Parfett who were buried together in the churchyard at Wadhurst.
(Gravestone for Emily Grace Parfett who is buried with her friend Mrs Topp)
Sadly just seven months after his Mother died, Martin was also tragically killed at the Old Palace School Bombing, alongside 33 of his colleagues, on that fateful night in April 1941. So many lives changed forever, in just a short space of time. The full account of that tragic night in April 1941 can be found here:
(Civilian War Deaths Record for Martin Parfett)
(The King’s Scroll awarded after Martins death)
(Beckenham Fire Appliance)
Martin Charles Parfett was buried with his fellow Beckenham Firefighters at Beckenham Cemetery on the 25th April 1941. Nineteen of the Twenty-One Beckenham Firemen were buried in a mass grave at the Beckenham Cemetery, after a memorial service at the parish church of St. George by Canon Boyd and a solemn procession through the town. The grave was dug entirely by their comrades and was softened by masses of daffodils. The 19 coffins were placed in St. George’s church on the Wednesday before the service and guarded by Firemen. The 19 coffins were borne from the church to the hearses by 114 bearers from the Beckenham AFS. As they left they passed between the lines of The Guard of Honour lining the path to the lychgate. The silence and peace was deeply affecting, all the traffic through the town had been stopped. The bearing of the coffins to the hearses seemed endless. As the Chopin Funeral March was played, the procession of hearses, firemen, service personnel, 19 cars with the families of the deceased and two fire appliances loaded with a mass of flowers, left on its journey to the Beckenham Cemetery. It took half an hour for the procession to pass any point on the route to the Cemetery. After the coffins had been placed in the grave, posies and bunches of flowers were dropped in and there were 350 wreaths. A plaque at the graveside read;
“We remember proudly the deeds of these bravemen, martyrs in the cause of liberty”.
Martin’s widow Nellie, is second on the left in the picture by the graveside shown below.
Families seldom spoke of the loss and grief of losing a loved one, it just wasn’t the ‘done thing’ back then. The family had already suffered the loss of one family member at the hands of a German Bomb, to lose another so quickly after must have been a devastating loss. Sometimes asking questions can just be too painful for the loved ones left behind and in Ann and Valerie’s case it was accepted that they didn’t ask too many questions about their father as it would upset their mother too much. Young Nellie would have been just thirty one years old at the time, with two young children under five to support, whilst we were still in the midst of war. Nellie had to rely on the support of her own mother to help look after and care for her family whilst she had to work to support her young family.
(Nellie with Valerie on the left as we look and Ann on the right)
Nellie remarried in 1953 in Bromley to Peter Letbe and he became a wonderful stepfather to both the girls and it was Peter that encouraged the girls to talk about their loss and to talk about their father. He was a remarkable man in many ways.
(Ann as a sixteen year old and the resemblance to her father is uncanny)
The loss of a parent to a child is immeasurable, having lost my own father when I was just three years old, I can fully understand the massive loss and gap that both Ann and her sister Valerie would have felt growing up. It feels like a part of you is ‘missing’. Ann and her sister were fortunate in the fact that their stepfather provided the love, care, support, encouragement and acted as role model, protector and friend. You never get over the loss of a parent so young, you just learn to lead a different life to the one you had before tragedy struck. The picture below of their dad in his Fireman’s uniform, sat by the side of the girls beds watching over them as they grew up, they felt safe in the knowledge that although he couldn’t be with them himself, he was looking after them every step of the way………………..
With special thanks to Martin’s daughter Ann, for allowing me the privilege to share with you her father’s 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 loves ones stories.
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