AFS Fireman John Coleman Barrell

Killed in the Line of Duty………..

The following extremely detailed research into the life of AFS Fireman John Coleman Barrell has been carried out by researchers Fiona Smith and Kathy Wilshaw.

John Coleman Barrell was one of the most difficult stories to both trace and determine, John and his family left behind a difficult trail to follow and the breadcrumbs were not always the easiest to find. For some reason he interchanged the spelling of his surname between Barrell and Burrell and wherever the record stated Burrell I have highlighted this in bold, but it’s definitely the same man!

John Coleman Barrell was another East End boy born to parents who were both born and brought up in Hackney. In many ways, the community of Hackney would have been a very similar community to that of Beckenham in Kent. Both communities were hard working and the type where you ‘looked after your own’, people would always look out for each other and although they never had a lot, what they did have, they would willingly share with friends and families. Two areas separated across the River Thames, but united in the grief and loss of their loved ones at the Old palace School.

John Coleman Barrell’s father, John Coleman Barrell Senior was baptised on 7 March 1875 at St John, Hackney, the son of cabinet maker John Coleman Barrell and Priscilla Barrell of Anderson Road, Homerton. His sister Ada Caroline Barrell was baptised at the same time. 

John Coleman Barrell Senior Baptism

(Source London England Church of England Births and Baptisms 1813-1920)

John Coleman Barrell’s mother Clara Ellen Yeo was born on 30 August 1880 and baptised ‘privately’ on 19 September 1881 at St James the Great, Hackney, the daughter of labourer Henry Yeo and Ann Maria Yeo of Prout Road. A private baptism would normally indicate that the baptism had taken place at home, most likely because the child was ill.

Clara Ellen Yeo

(Source London England Church of England Births and Baptisms 1813-1920)

John Coleman Barrell, a bachelor labourer aged 30 of 3 Woodbine Cottages, and Clara Ellen Yeo, a spinster aged 24 of the same address were married on 4 June 1905 at St Luke’s Church, Hackney. The groom’s father was cabinet maker John Coleman Barrell and the bride’s father was carman Henry Yeo.

John Coleman Barrell Banns 2

(Source London England Church of England Marriages and Banns 1754-1936)  

The birth of the couple’s only child, John Coleman Barrell, was registered in Hackney in 4Q 1905. No baptism record was found for John Coleman Barrell, but the 1939 Register records his birth date as 11 October 1905, and census records show his birthplace as Hackney.

The death of John Coleman Barrell’s mother Clara Ellen Barrell aged 25 was registered in Hackney in 4Q 1905 and she was buried on 28 October 1905 at Manor Park Cemetery in East Ham. Sadly it would appear as though John’s mother Clara, tragically died, just a fortnight after the birth of her son.

Clara Ellen Barrell Burial

(Manor Park Cemetery Burial Record)

Fortunately for John and his father, it appears that the parents of his deceased mother were able to take both him and his father into the family home as they are recorded. as living together in 1911. The 1911 Census shows John C Barrell (Junior) aged 5, living at 68 Dunlace Road, Clapton, the home of his married maternal grandmother Annie Yeo aged 52. Also living there were Annie’s unmarried children Charles J Yeo, a warehouseman aged 24, Maud E Yeo, a draper’s ironer in a wholesale drapery business aged 22, William S Yeo, a butcher’s assistant aged 20, and Arthur A Yeo, a butcher’s assistant aged 18. The final two members of the household were John C Barrell’s widowed father John C Barrell (Senior), an unemployed general labourer aged 35, and widowed boarder James Murrell, an unemployed general labourer aged 42. The census records that Annie Yeo had been married for 31 years and had had 9 children of whom 6 survived. The census also records that John C Barrell’s father John C Barrell (Senior) and his now deceased wife had had one child and that that child had survived. The family’s home had 6 rooms. Typical of the housing of the time there were more people than there were rooms in the house!

John C Barrell 1911

(1911 Census)

68 Dunlace Road in Clapton is a beautiful looking property as we can see below from the google street image, even with the scaffolding up around the house next door!

Screenshot 2022-06-29 at 14.57.05

In 1913, John Coleman Barrell’s widowed father remarried to Lilian Alberta Stoakes. At the time our young John Coleman Barrell would have been aged just 7. For whatever reason, it appears that John Junior remained with his grandmother after his father’s new marriage and was brought up by them in their family home. John Coleman Barrell, a widowed rubber curer aged 33 of 68 Dunlace Road, Clapton married Lilian Alberta Stoakes, a spinster waitress aged 23 of 68 Dunlace Road, Clapton on 14 September 1913 at All Saints Parish Church, Clapton.  The groom’s father was cabinetmaker John Coleman Barrell (deceased) and the bride’s father was glassblower Benjamin Douglas Stoakes (deceased). Witnesses to the marriage were John Henry Louis Webb and Jessie Jane Edith Webb. A copy of the marriage register entry is shown below. It appears that the couple had one daughter, Joyce L Barrell, who was born in 1922 in Hackney in 3Q 1922, which would have been John’s half-sister. Whether John and Joyce knew each other we are unable to say, but it would be nice to think that they did spend time with each other.

John Coleman Barrell Banns

(Marriage of John Coleman Barrell and Lilian Alberta Stoakes)

The 1921 Census shows John Barrell aged 15 years 8 months, as a porter employed by Achills Seers Cleaners and Dyers of White Post Lane, Hackney Wick, living at 68 Dunlace Road with his married maternal grandmother Mrs A Yeo, aged 62 years 9 months, a charwoman employed by Mrs Jeffery of 46 Kyverdale Road, Stoke Newington. Annie and John’s home had 2 rooms.

Barrell 1921

Barrell 1921 page 2

(1921 Census)

Note; Achills Seers is actually a company named Achille Serre. Achille Serre, was a Parisian ribbon dyer who came to England with his wife Eugenie in 1870 and started his business here. In 1876 he moved into garment dyeing and the new technology of cleaning clothes with solvents and introduced the term “dry cleaning” to England. In 1882, Achille Serre’s son Eugene took over the business and was later joined by his wife’s two brothers. Like his father, Eugene was an innovator, and entrepreneur and took the company through many changes, including flotation on the Stock Exchange and the move to Hackney, where John was employed. Sometimes in our research we encounter some coincidences that we cannot explain and ironically the Company Achille Serre actually employed there own Firemen and Firewomen and maybe it was here that John found his inspiration to enlist with the Auxiliary Fire Service.

achil serr

(The picture shows a female member of the Achille Serre fire brigade in London in 1925)

The 1930 Electoral Register shows John C Barrell still living at 68 Dunlace Road, Hackney with his grandmother Annie Yeo, also recorded at the address were Alfred Thomas William Land, Sarah Jane Land, Ethel Maud Ward and Robert Edward Ward. Note; Ethel Maud Ward’s maiden name was Yeo. She was Annie Yeo’s daughter and had married Robert Edward Ward in Hackney in 4Q 1916.


(Source London England Electoral Registers 1832-1965)

On 30 March, 6 April and 13 April the marriage banns were read at All Saints, Clapton Park, Hackney for the marriage of John Coleman Burrell and Lilian Elizabeth Walton ‘both of this parish’. The banns record can be seen below.


(Source London England Church of England Marriages and Banns 1754-1936)

The marriage of John Coleman Burrell a bachelor motor driver aged 25 of 68 Dunlace Road, and Lilian Elizabeth Walton, a spinster aged 29 of 68 Dunlace Road, took place at the parish church of All Saints Clapton, London on 20 April 1930.  The groom’s father was John Coleman Burrell, a public works employee, and the bride’s father was Frederick Walton, a builder’s labourer. Witnesses to the marriage were William H Kirk and Winnifred May Walton.

JCB Marriage 1930

(John Coleman Burrell Marriage Certificate)

The only birth, in the London area, of a child whose surname was Burrell, and whose mother’s maiden name was Walton, was a June R Burrell whose birth was registered in Pancras in 2Q 1932. We found no record of the birth of a child whose surname was Barrell and whose mother’s maiden name was Walton. We also found no other Burrell/Walton or Barrell/Walton marriages in the London area around this time. We therefore think it very likely that June R Burrell was the only daughter of John C Burrell and Lilian E Walton.

John’s grandmother, Annie Yeo, died just before Christmas on 23 December 1933 and she was buried in Newham on 28 December 1933. (Source One cannot under estimate the devastating effect this would have had on John. He had lived with his grandmother since the age of 7 and she would have been the main female influence in his life prior to being married.

There are a number of Electoral Registers between the years 1934-1939 which show John C Burrell still living at 68 Dunlace Road with Lilian Eliza Burrell, Ethel Maud Ward and Robert Edward Ward. (Source London England Electoral Registers 1832-1965)

The 1939 Register shows John C Barrell (born 11 October 1905) as a married motor driver, and a member of AFS London, at Holdcroft Road School LFB Sub Station in Hackney. Twenty-four other fire personnel were living at the LFB Sub Station, all but two of whom were AFS and five of whom were women. The two additional Firemen would have been full-time Firemen responsible for overseeing the AFS volunteers.


(AFS Servicemen on their work-break)

Holdcroft Road School was an LCC Board School, much like many of a similar design that remain today and during the Second World War, after the evacuation of London’s children, the school was commandeered and used as a sub-fire station. In addition to providing dormitories and living space for the AFS, it was used to accommodate garages, stores, offices and the headquarters of local rescue squads. Being at the centre of much of the industry and dockland in the East End of London, the men and women who were based there would have been out every night, dealing with massive incendiary fires caused by enemy raids.

John Coleman Barrell 1939

(1939 Register John Coleman Barrell)

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).

The 1939 Register shows Ethel Maud Ward, Robert Edward Ward and L Ward at 68 Dunlace Road, but not Lilian Eliza Burrell. For some reason we were unable to find Lilian Eliza Barrell/Burrell, she could have been evacuated as part of the war effort but still should be on the register in some capacity. Note: she is not recorded at the address shown for Lilian and John in 1941.

The British Government also took the decision to make all men over the age of eighteen undertake basic military training. Certain roles were deemed essential and were therefore not part of the army reserve call up, so conscious of ‘doing his bit’ John 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 Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) was formed in January 1938 and fire stations were set up in schools, garages and factories. Some of those who were unable to join the armed forces instead served with the AFS, John joined the AFS based at Holdcroft Road School. At the time, the formation of the Auxiliary Fire Service was one of most critical decisions that the Government made pre-war. 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 John 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. Once the Blitz started, attitudes towards the volunteers quickly changed and they received the recognition they deserved. The Fire-fighters were transformed into heroes and Winston Churchill described them as ‘heroes with grimy faces’. As the war and in particular the Blitz continued, in May 1941 the Home Secretary announced that the regional fire brigades and the AFS would be merged and their name changed to The National Fire Service. This standardised the equipment and approach to dealing with fires across the whole country.


(Source UK World War II Civilian Deaths 1939-1945)

The Civilian War Deaths record shows that John Coleman Burrell age 35, Fireman AFS, husband of Lily Burrell, 39 North St, Leigh on Sea, Essex died 20 April 1941 at Old Palace LCC School. 

John and Lilian’s story, like so many of those firefighters who died at the Old Palace School, is one of devastation and loss. A young couple starting out on their journey together, full of hope and excited for the future, a future that was so cruelly taken away on that tragic night in April 1941. We can never know what his loved ones would have felt at such a devastating loss, we can only imagine what this would have been like from our own experiences. Life can deal the cruellest of blows and change lives forever and that loss never goes away. The Barrell family, like so many others were a family torn apart from the ravages of war.

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