Killed in the Line of Duty……….
The following extremely detailed research into the life of AFS Fireman Percy Charles Aitchison has been carried out by researcher Fiona Smith.
Percy Charles Aitchison was the youngest of three boys born to Robert Imrie Aitchison and his wife Eugenie. He was born on the 2nd February 1914 and the family were living at 55, Ewhurst Road, Crofton Park, Lewisham, London. His father was a builder who had studied engineering and was a pattern maker. 55, Ewhurst Road was to be the Aitchison family home for a number of years and the engineering theme was to be a constant for Robert Aitchsiosn and the three Aitchison boys throughout their lives.
He was baptised on 29th March 1914 at St Antholin, Nunhead, Southwark, Surrey, which was actually the date of his parents 12th wedding anniversary. 55 Ewhurst Road is still there today and comes under the London Borough of Lewisham.
( The White House in the centre is 55 Ewhurst Road as it looks today ©GoogleMaps)
(Baptism Record for Percy Charles Aitchison: London, England, Church of England Births and Baptisms, 1813-1920)
Percy’s parents were Robert Imrie Aitchison, a pattern maker aged 25 of Fern Cottage, Churchill Road, Walthamstow, and Eugenie Louise Sarah Demolice, a spinster aged 27 of 76, Nunhead Grove, Peckham, South London and the couple married on 29 March 1902 at St Antony, Nunhead, Southwark. The groom’s father was engineer James Patterson Aitchison, and the bride’s father was lamp maker John Francis Demolice (deceased). Eugenie’s father had died aged 62 in 1883 when Eugenie was aged just 8. Her mother did not remarry. Eugenie’s baptism record shows that although she had been born on 4 February 1875, Eugenie was baptised as an adult at St Antony, Nunhead on 17 July 1901, the year before her wedding. We can only speculate as to the reason for her late baptism, just the year before she was married. Percy’s father Robert Imrie Aitchison had been born in Walworth, London, although census records show that Robert’s parents had been born in Scotland. Given her surname, we wondered whether Percy’s mother, Eugenie Louise Sarah Demolice, may have been born overseas, however she wasn’t, she was born in Southwark, South London. A quick look on the 1881 census showed that while Eugenie’s mother was born in London, her father, John Francis Demolice, was born in France. The hunch was almost right!
The couple’s first child, Robert John James Aitchison, was born on 9 January 1904, and baptised on 3 January 1912 at St Antony, Nunhead, Southwark, the son of carpenter Robert Henry Aitchison and Eugenie Louise Sarah Aitchison of 55 Ewhurst Road, Crofton Park, Brockley. (Source London, England, Church of England Births and Baptisms 1813-1920)
Their second child, Arthur Stanley Aitchison, was born on 24 May 1905 and also baptised on 3 January 1912 (the same day as his brother Robert) at St Antony, Nunhead, Southwark, the son of carpenter Robert Henry Aitchison and Eugenie Louise Sarah Aitchison of 55 Ewhurst Road, Crofton Park, Brockley. (Source London, England, Church of England Births and Baptisms 1813-1920). See below.
Note: The baptism records of Robert J J Aitchison and Arthur Stanley Aitchison do show their father’s name as Robert Henry Aitchison rather than Robert Imrie Aitchison, and in fact Robert Imrie Aitchison’s own London baptism record shows him as Robert Henry Aitchison. However most other records show Robert’s middle name as Imrie. Perhaps the Scottish name ‘Imrie’ was unfamiliar to the ears of English recording clerks and sounded more like ‘Henry’. Something we cannot say for certain, but instinct tells us that is the most likely explanation.
The 1911 census shows Percy’s father Robert Imrie Aitchison, a carpenter and joiner, who was an employer in the building industry, aged 34 living at 55 Ewhurst Road, Crofton Park, Brockley, Lewisham with his wife Eugenie Aitchison aged 36, and their children Robert aged 7 and Arthur aged 5. The census records that the couple had been married for 9 years and had had 2 children, both of whom survived. The family’s home had 6 rooms.
The 1921 Census shows full-time schoolboy Percy C Aitchison aged 7 years 4 months, born in Lewisham living at the family home of 55 Ewhurst Road, Crofton Park, London SE4, with his father Robert I Aitchison aged 44 years 10 months who was born in Walworth, a pattern maker employed by A Cooksley, sawmill engineers at 21-25 Tabernacle St, London EC2. His mother Eugenie L S Aitchison aged 46 years 4 months, also born Walworth was at home performing home duties. His older brothers were also both still at home and were clearly following in their Father’s footsteps, Robert J J Aitchison aged 17 years 5 months, born in Walthamstow, an electrical implement maker’s improver who was employed by A Graham & Co, electrical engineers at Crofton Park Road, London SE4, and Arthur S Aitchison aged 16 years, born in Walthamstow, an engineer’s apprentice employed by Waygood Otis Ltd, Electric Lift and Crane Manufacturers at Falmouth Road, London. it’s worth noting that Robert’s employers, A. Cooksley were woodworking machinery and sawmill engineers and some of the companies patented inventions were used extensively during WW1.
(1921 Census Address Page)
The 1926 Electoral Register shows Percy’s parents still living at 55 Ewhurst Road, but by time of the 1928-1930 Electoral Registers, the family had moved home and were living at 8, Courtrai Road in Lewisham (Source London England Electoral Registers 1832-1965).
We made a rather delightful discovery which came as a complete surprise, Percy, his father, and both his brothers were all involved in local amateur dramatics. There are over 20 mentions of their participation in West Wickham Dramatic Society productions, and West Wickham Operatic Society productions, in the local newspaper, the Bromley and West Kent Mercury, which we have hereafter referred to as the BWKM. About 18 of these mention Percy directly and we have included them all below. The newspaper reviews of the Society’s performances were overwhelmingly positive, Percy seems to have participated in almost all the Society’s productions during the period 1935-1939. He made only one documented appearance on stage, as Septimus Barrett in ‘The Barretts of Wimpole St’ in October 1936, the rest of the time performing a variety of backstage roles including property master, electrician, craftsman and stage hand. The boys and their father were certainly very clever with their hands. The Aitchison family’s participation in the Society continued after Percy’s death.
The 25 January 1935 edition of the BWKM includes a positive review of West Wickham Amateur Dramatic Society’s performance of ‘Turkey Time’. Behind the scenes helpers included electrician’s assistant A S Aitchison, and craftsmen and stage hands R I Aitchison, P C Aitchison and R J Aitchison.
The 5 April 1935 edition of the BWKM includes a review of West Wickham Dramatic Society’s production of ‘The Chinese Puzzle’ which ‘considerably enhanced their already high reputation’. Theatre staff included electrician’s assistant A S Aitchison, and craftsmen and stage hands R I Aitchison, P C Aitchison and R J Aitchison.
The 25 October 1935 edition of the BWKM includes a complimentary review of West Wickham Amateur Dramatic Society’s performances of ‘The Skin Game’. Those behind the scenes included electrician A S Aitchison, and craftsmen and stage hands R I Aitchison, R J Aitchison and P C Aitchison.
The 13 December 1935 edition of the BWKM includes an item praising the West Wickham Amateur Operatic Society’s production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘Iolanthe’. The society had been formed less than a year before. A S Aitchison and P C Aitchison were among the stage assistants and electricians, while R Aitchison was a steward.
The 17 January 1936 edition of the BWKM includes a very complimentary review of West Wickham Dramatic Society’s production of ‘Leave It to Psmith’. Among those who assisted in the production were electrician A S Aitchison, and craftsmen and stage hands R I Aitchison, R J Aitchison and P C Aitchison.
The 27 March 1936 edition of the BWKM includes a review of West Wickham Amateur Operatic Society’s production of ‘Patience’ which it described as ‘a success’. Backstage staff included electricians A S Aitchison and P C Aitchison, and steward R Aitchison.
The 3 April 1936 edition of the BWKM includes a review of West Wickham Dramatic Society’s production of ‘Alibi’ which was described as ‘remarkable’. The theatre staff ‘to whom considerable praise was due’ included electrician A S Aitchison, and craftsmen and stage hands R I Aitchison, R J Aitchison and P C Aitchison.
The 25 September 1936 edition of the BWKM includes an item announcing West Wickham Dramatic Society’s production of ‘The Barretts of Wimpole St’ at the West Wickham Lecture Hall on 21 and 22 October 1936. Among the cast members, Percy Aitchison is listed as playing the part of ‘Alfred’. NOTE: The production was reviewed in the BWKM the following month (see below) and it appears that by the time of the performance Percy was instead playing the part of ‘Septimus’.
The 23 October 1936 edition of the BWKM includes a review of the performances of ‘The Barretts of Wimpole St’. Percy Aitchison is mentioned as having played the part of ‘Septimus’. The theatre staff included stage manager R J Aitchison, electrician A S Aitchison, and craftsmen R I Aitchison, R J Aitchison and P C Aitchison. Note: This is the only newspaper report of Percy (or any of his family) appearing on stage, rather than behind the scenes.
The 22 January 1937 edition of the BWKM includes and review of West Wickham Dramatic Society’s production of ‘Distinguished Gathering’. The theatre staff were stage manager R J Aitchison, electrician A S Aitchison, and craftsmen R I Aitchison, R J Aitchison and P C Aitchison.
The 9 April 1937 edition of the BWKM includes a glowing review of West Wickham Dramatic Society’s production of George Kelly’s ‘The Torchbearers’. The item records R J Aitchison as stage manager, A S Aitchison as electrician, and R I Aitchison, R J Aitchison and P C Aitchison as craftsmen and stage hands.
The 22 October 1937 edition of the BWKM includes a glowing review of ‘Behind Your Back’ which mentions the audience’s ‘enthusiastic appreciation’ of the production. The theatre staff included stage manager R J Aitchison, electrician A S Aitchison, property master P Aitchison, and craftsmen R I Aitchison and R J Aitchison.
The 21 January 1938 edition of the BWKM includes a review of ‘Happy Days’ describing the production as ‘delectable’. The theatre staff included stage manager R J Aitchison, electrician A S Aitchison, property master P Aitchison, and craftsmen R I Aitchison and R J Aitchison.
The 25 March 1938 edition of the BWKM included a very positive review of West Wickham Dramatic Society’s production of ‘Berkeley Square’. After the performance, the society’s professional producer paid tribute to those who had worked so hard behind the scenes. He specially mentioned the Aitchison family, and in particular Arthur Aitchison, ‘who was in charge of the lighting, which played an important part in the production’. The theatre staff included stage manager R J Aitchison, electrician A S Aitchison, property master P Aitchison, and craftsmen R I Aitchison and R J Aitchison.
The 21 October 1938 edition of the BWKM describes West Wickham Dramatic Society as ‘scoring another success’ with their production of ‘The Strange Case of Blondie White’. Among the members of theatre staff were stage manager R J Aitchison, electrician A S Aitchison, property master P Aitchison, and craftsmen R I Aitchison and R J Aitchison.
The 3 February 1939 edition of the BWKM described West Wickham Dramatic Society’s performances of ‘A Cup of Kindness’ as ‘such a hit’. The ‘first rate’ theatre staff included stage manager R J Aitchison, electrician A S Aitchison, property master P Aitchison, and craftsmen R I Aitchison and R J Aitchison.
The 24 March 1939 edition of the BWKM reviewed West Wickham Dramatic Society’s performance of ‘She Passed Through Lorraine’. The theatre staff included stage manager R J Aitchison, electrician A S Aitchison, property master P Aitchison, and craftsmen R I Aitchison and R J Aitchison.
The 5 May 1939 edition of the BWKM reviewed four one-act plays presented by West Wickham Dramatic Society. P Aitchison was recorded as property master, R J Aitchison as stage manager, and R I and R J Aitchison as craftsmen.
There are also many mentions in the Bromley and West Kent Mercury of amateur footballer P Aitchison who played for West Wickham’s 3rd team during the period 1932-1939, regularly scoring goals (and at least one hat-trick) for the team, and was described as playing ‘extremely well’. We are 99% certain that this is our Percy. It would appear that the Aitchison family and in particular Percy, had many talents.
Sadly Percy’s mother, Eugenie Louise Sarah Aitchison, of 20 Copse Avenue, West Wickham, Kent, wife of Robert Imrie Aitchison, died 15 May 1939 at Croydon General Hospital, Croydon, Surrey.
The 1939 Register shows Percy C Aitchison, born 2 February 1914, an unmarried clerk and shorthand typist, and a member of the AFS Beckenham, at District Fire Station, Glebe Way, Bromley. Among the other AFS personnel recorded in the Register at the same address, were three other Old Palace School firemen, Robert J Deans, Norman R C Mountjoy and Cecil Farley. Little did Percy or his three colleagues know of the horror that was laying in wait for them just eighteen months later. Catherine Aitchison, born 2 July 1902, a married woman, performing unpaid domestic duties, was also recorded as a member of the Auxiliary Fire Service. Catherine was Percy’s sister-in-law, having married his brother Arthur Sydney Aitchison in Lambeth in 1933.
(1939 Register entry for Percy Aitchison)
The Aitchison family, like many other families during the war, felt a ‘sense of duty’ and doing ‘their bit’ for their Country and that sense of duty involved Percy, his two brothers and their father, all volunteering to sign up to join the AFS (Auxiliary Fire Service). Having learnt of the families involvement with the Amateur Dramatic Society, it would appear they were an extremely tight knit family and they volunteered and did everything together.
The 1939 Register also shows Percy’s widowed father Robert I Aitchison, a master builder of dwelling houses, and volunteer ARP Warden, Percy’s unmarried brother Robert J Aitchison, a stones progress clerk and inspector, wood case makers, plus Percy’s married brother Arthur S Aitchison, a draughtsman mechanical engineer, jig and tool mechanic, and the family’s widowed housekeeper, all living together at 20 Copse Avenue, Beckenham. Both Percy’s brothers were recorded on the Register as members of AFS Beckenham. A family that were certainly doing everything they could for their Country when it was needed most.
(1939 Register entry for the Aitchison family)
Percy was aged just 27 on that fateful night of the bombing and like many of his colleagues was in the prime of his life. Dealing with his estate was left to his father who was granted probate on 6th October 1941 at Llandudno.
Percy Charles Aitchison of 20 Copse Avenue, West Wickham, Kent died 21 April 1941 at Old Palace School, Poplar, London. Administration Llandudno 6 October to Robert Imrie Aitchison, builder. (Source England and Wales, National Probate Calendar, Index of Wills and Administrations, 1858-1995)
Percy’s death is recorded in the civilian war deaths record as follows:
Percy Charles Aitchison age 27, fireman, Beckenham AFS. Son of Robert Imrie Aitchison and Eugenie Louisa Sarah Aitchison of 20 Copse Avenue, West Wickham, Kent, 20 April 1941 at Old Palace LCC School. (Source UK World War II Civilian Deaths 1939-1945 Metropolitan Borough of Poplar) The observant ones amongst you, which I hope is all of you will note that the date of death is different to that recorded in the National Probate Calendar.
(UK World War II Civilian Deaths 1939-1945 Metropolitan Borough of Poplar)
The 25 April 1941 edition of the Bromley and West Kent Mercury carried an item headed ‘Firemen Killed in Raid – West Wickham’s Great Loss’. Among others it includes Percy’s name, referring to him as ‘son of Mr R Aitchison, the well-known builder’.
Percy Charles Aitchison 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”.
(St. George’s Church
Along with his colleagues, Percy is commemorated on the Firefighters Memorial and in their Book of Remembrance. His name is also recorded in the Civilian War Dead Roll of Honour that is held near the entrance to St George’s Chapel, at the west end of Westminster Abbey.
(National Firefighters Memorial)
The Aitchison family were clearly a family that had a real sense of duty, volunteering and serving their Country in its darkest hours, but they were also an extremely close family that liked to do things together, which was clearly born out by their amateur dramatics. Percy’s loss would have been felt deeply by his family and how you overcome such a devastating loss is hard to comprehend. So many young lives and families whose lives were changed irreversibly on that awful night in April 1941.
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