Killed in the Line of Duty…………..
Vernon Joseph Middleditch was born on 29th October 1909 at 29, Alnwick Road, Custom House, West Ham in East London, the second youngest of eight children born to George William Middleditch and Ada Emily White. George was born in the North East of England, in County Durham and Ada was born in Chelmsford in Essex and it was these connections to the North East of England, that were firmly rooted in the Middleditch family across several generations.
George and Ada were married on 1st September 1895 at the Shenfield Parish Church, in Shenfield, Essex. It’s always difficult to speculate how a young couple met, especially when they were both originally living 200 miles apart! At the time that George and Ada tied the knot, George’s occupation is recorded as a sailor, so you could make an educated guess that maybe they met whilst George was at sea. George worked for the most part on the coal ships, travelling between the Coalfields in the North East of England and the London Docks. The Docklands of East London was one of the busiest ports for cargo and trade in the world at the time and the growth and expansion of the London Docks coincided with the new and expanding railway network. With the new Docks capable of accommodating the largest iron and steam ships, the Victoria and Albert Docks became London’s main docks and the heartbeat of the capital. Hundreds of thousands of tons of coal, grain, tobacco, meat, fruit and vegetables were unloaded onto the quayside and stored in the giant granaries and warehouses.
(London Royal Docks)
Many of the Middleditch family, including Vernon’s father, lived in the East End of London (West Ham, Stepney, Canning Town, Silvertown and Poplar) and worked on the ships and in and around the Docks of East London. Occupations included, Coal Workers, Fireman, Stevedore, Riggers and Labourers many of them on the North Sea run up the East Coast too Middlesbrough. This area around the Docklands would have been at the heart of the traditional ‘East End’ of London, a community that ‘looked after their own’. They didn’t have a lot, but they never asked for anything either, what they had they worked hard for, but they also wouldn’t see a friend or neighbour go without.
Vernon Joseph Middleditch was baptised on 13th February 1910 at The Ascension Church, Victoria Docks in London. The Church of the Ascension, West Ham, is a Church of England Church located on Baxter Road in West Ham. Just over a year later we find the Middleditch family living at 27, Cyprus Place, New Beckton, East Ham in Essex, head of the household, George Middleditch, is recorded as a coal stevedore aged 42, his wife Ada, aged 41 is also listed , along with Vernon’s older siblings, Henry a dock labourer aged 17, John aged 14, a fire wood chopper, Edward aged 11, George aged 8, and Charles aged 7, all of whom were schoolboys. The census recorded that Vernon’s sister Ada was aged 4 and Vernon himself was still a baby aged 1. The census also recorded that Vernon’s parents had been married for 16 years and had had 8 children, all of whom survived and that the family home in Beckton contained six rooms.
(Prefabricated Housing in Cyprus Place)
Beckton was unpopulated marshland adjacent to the Thames until the development and spread of London and the Docklands in the 19th century. Housing was created in Beckton for workers of the gas and sewage works, as well as dock workers, who were both major employers in the area. As industry grew and the new employers moved to the East of London, so the need for additional housing was required and areas like Beckton grew. The Cyprus Estate in Beckton, also known as ‘New Beckton’ was a housing estate built specifically for Dock Workers and workers at the Beckton Gas Works and was so named, after the United Kingdom’s acquisition of Cyprus in 1878. It was built on one of the few pieces of land not owned by the Port of London Authority, and hence was open to such development.
1921 Census records Vernon at home with his mother Ada and siblings George, Ada and Lily and the family are living at 83, Royal Road, West Ham, one noticeable absentee from the census is Vernon’s father George. We already know that George worked on the coal ships so it’s likely that George was away at sea at the time.
Sadly Vernon’s Father George William Middleditch died on 15th February 1929 at Whipp’s Cross Hospital in London, from TB.
At some point during the late 1930’s Vernon was to meet the love of his life, Louisa Phyllis Flowers Cook who was born in Darlington County Durham, yet another connection to the North East. Louisa was blind due to contracting measles as a baby and Vernon made a conscious decision to change career and he became a painter and decorator, presumably to be at home and closer to his wife and family, rather than be continually away at sea. At the time many of his older brothers were still spending weeks away from home, at sea, so this would have no doubt weighed heavily on his mind and helped to make his mind up that he was needed at home.
Vernon and Louisa were married on New Year’s Eve 1938, at the Poplar Register Office and Vernon’s occupation at the time was recorded as a House Decorator. Witnesses to the marriage were Louisa’s Aunt, Frances Hebden (nee Ableson) and Uncle Joseph Hebden. The couple went on to have two children, Thomas Bernard Middleditch (always known as Bernard) and Margaret Rose Middleditch and the family lived at 6 Violet Road, Poplar. This house was part shared with Louisa’s parents Thomas and Margaret Cook.
(Thomas Bernard Middleditch)
(Margaret Rose Middleditch)
The 1939 Register shows Vernon J Middleditch, as a married painter and house decorator living at 6, Violet Road, Bow, Tower Hamlets, Poplar, London with Louise Middleditch, born 13th September 1920, a married woman doing unpaid domestic duties. The record of one other person living at the address was redacted (most likely the record was that of their baby son, Thomas B Cook).
Around this time, with the threat of a Second World War imminent Vernon signed up as a volunteer with the newly formed 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 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.
The following images have kindly been provided by The London Fire Brigade Museum and as such copyright remains with ‘The London Fire Brigade’. these images give a little glimpse into what the brave men and women would have faced during the darkest hours of WW2 in the Blitz.
During WW2 the family were temporarily evacuated with their children to Darlington, to the home of Louisa’s Maternal Grandfather, John Alfred Ableson who lived at 220 Hundens Lane, Darlington. Vernon stayed behind because of his volunteer role with the Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) and he travelled back and forth when he could, to the North East to see his wife and family. This explains why when Vernon died, the address given was 220 Hundens Lane, Darlington.
(Vernon’s Death Certificate)
Vernon was buried at the City of London and Tower Hamlets Cemetery on 29th April 1941, aged 31, his address at the time is recorded as 220, Hundens Lane, Darlington, County Durham. Vernon was buried alongside his fellow Firefighter, Hilda Helen Dupree, who was buried the day before Vernon. Poplar Council paid for the funerals for both firefighters but sadly there are no headstones as there was no extra money during the war. They lay to rest next to the Bethnal Green Tube Victims and can be found in the area by the tree with a ribbon wrapped around it (the ribbon is for the Bethnal Green Victims)
The Civilian War Dead record book records the entry for Vernon as ‘In memory of civilian Vernon Joseph Middleditch, civilian war dead, who died aged 31, on 20th April 1941. Fireman AFS of 220, Hunders Lane, Darlington, Co Durham. Husband of LPF Middleditch. Died at Old Palace LCC School. Remembered with honour. Poplar, Metropolitan Borough.’
(Civilian War Death Record)
After Vernon’s death, his widow Louisa did not remarry, but had a partnership with Vernon’s brother, Charles Samuel Middleditch, resulting in the birth of a five more children. Louisa died in islington in London on 9th April 1999 and she never really got over the death of Vernon and for years always said “when she dies she would meet her Vernon again.”
Vernon’s legacy lives on in his many descendants and today Vernon has seven Grandchildren, twelve Great Grandchildren and seventeen 2 x Great Grandchildren and One 3 x Great Grandchild, an amazing legacy.
Louisa’s younger brother, Thomas Cook, always talked of fond memories of Vernon as he was only a child when he died and use to visit the cemetery regularly and it was he who went as a representative of the family when the memorial plaque was unveiled at the School.
Over the years, the whole family and extended family have been told of Vernon, and his story has been passed down through the Generations. Many of Vernon’s family and extended family often visit the Fireman Memorial at St Pauls Cathedral and they are proud to see his name along with all the other firemen on the memorial. The Middleditch family are extremely proud of Vernon and the sacrifice and service he gave for his Country and this page will serve as a permanent reminder to Vernon’s bravery and courage.
My Family History website can be found here:
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