AFS Messenger Bertie James Frederick Harris

Killed in the Line of Duty……….

The following extremely detailed research into the life of AFS Fireman Bertie James Frederick Harris has been carried out by researchers Fiona Smith and Stacy Hawks.

Of all the biographies on this website, Bertie’s is one of the most poignant, his was the youngest life taken at the Old Palace School, aged just 17 when his life was tragically cut short on that fateful night in April 1941. A young man who volunteered when his Country needed him most, who never had the chance to fulfil his dreams. Bertie’s loss brings home the realisation that life is so fragile and can be tragically taken away at any moment, it makes you appreciate what you have and how precious that is, it can easily be taken away in the blink of an eye.

Here is Bertie’s story……….

Bertie James Frederick Harris was born October 30, 1923 the ninth of ten children born to William Sidney Harris and Amelia Mary Ann Godwin.

The marriage of Bertie’s parents William Sidney Harris and Amelia Mary Ann Godwin took place on 27th November 1904 at St Gabriels Church, Chrisp Street, Poplar in London. The young couple were both single at the time and William was aged 19 and occupied as a Porter and Amanda was aged 18 and both were living at 124 Kerbey Street in Poplar. The groom’s father was general dealer William Harris, while the bride’s father was labourer Edward John Oliver Godwin. 

William harris Marriage

(Marriage entry for William Sidney Harris and Amelia Mary Ann Godwin)


(Kerbey Street, Poplar)

chrsip street market

(Chrisp Street market, Poplar)

The birth of Bertie’s father William Sidney Harris was registered in Poplar in 1885 and his baptism record shows that William ‘Sydney’ Harris had been born on 20 March 1885 at 14 Gill St, Limehouse, London to labourer William Harris and his wife May, he was baptised on 1 April 1885 at St Peter’s Mission School Church, Limehouse. Bertie’s mother Amelia Mary Ann Godwin was born in Poplar in 1887. Her baptism record shows that Amelia Mary Ann Godwin had been born on 20 July 1887 in Bow, London to labourer Edward John Oliver Godwin and his wife Amelia Ann, she was baptised on 14 August 1887 at St Leonard St Mary, Bromley.

The couple’s children were as follows:

Amelia Alice Georgina Harris was born on 23 February 1905.

Rose Winifred Mary Ann Harris was born on 23 November 1906.

William Edward Harris was born in Poplar in 1909, but sadly the death of a William Edward Harris aged 2, was registered in Poplar in 1911. 

Annie Ethel Harris was born on 30 May 1911.

Sydney George Herbert Harris was born on 11 June 1913.

Emily R Harris was born in Poplar in 1915, but again sadly the next entry for Emily is her death record, aged just 2 in Poplar in 1918.   

Edward T Harris was born in Poplar in 1918.  

Winifred G I Harris was born in Poplar in 1921. 

‘Our’ Bertie J F Harris was born in Poplar on 30 October 1923.

The birth of William and Amelia’s final child, Violet I Harris was once again in Poplar in 1927.

The 1911 English Census shows William Harris as a 26 year old goods checker employed by a carriers business, living at 58 Flint St, Bromley, Poplar with his wife Amelia aged 23, and their children Amelia aged 6, Rose aged 4, and William aged 1. Amelia’s widowed father Edward Godwin aged 44, a gas pipe jointer employed by a road contractor, was recorded with the family. The census records that William and Amelia had been married for 7 years and had had 3 children, all of whom survived. The family’s home had 4 rooms.

1911 Hrris

(1911 Census)

The 1915-1920 London Electoral Registers show William Sidney Harris at 14 Prestage St, Poplar. The later of these registers also show William’s wife Amelia at the address. (Source London England Electoral Registers 1832-1965) 

The 1921 English Census shows William Sidney Harris aged 36 years 3 months as a transport foreman at Baldwins Ltd, Blackwall, London living at 14 Prestage St, Poplar with his wife Amelia Mary Ann Harris aged 33 years 11 months, and their children Amelia Alice Georgina Harris aged 16 years 4 months, Rose Winifred Mary Ann Harris aged 14 years 7 months, Sidney George Herbert Harris aged 8 years 0 months, Edward Thomas Harris aged 2 years 9 months, and Winifred Grace Iris Harris aged 2 months. The family’s home had 4 rooms. 

Bertie James Frederick Harris 1921 census

(1921 Census)


(1921 Census Address)

The 1922-1939 London Electoral Registers show William Sidney Harris and his wife Amelia at 2 Park Place, Poplar.  William and Amelia’s daughter Amelia and her husband James Hailstone also appear on the electoral register at the address during some of these years.  (Source London England Electoral Registers 1832-1965)    

The 1939 Register shows William S Harris (born 20 March 1885) as a dock labourer heavy worker, port of London registered, at 31 Brabazon St, Poplar with his widowed daughter Amelia A G Hailstone (born 23 February 1905) a confectioner’s packer. These would have been very typical jobs for families living in the area at the time. The Docks would have been one of the largest employers in the East End area of London and there were also a number of large biscuit and confectionary manufacturers in the Poplar area. Again these would have been large employers of women up to and including the war.

Willaim Harris 1939

(William Harris 1939 Register)

Note: According to the London Electoral Registers, from at least 1919, 31 Brabazon St (above) was the home of William S Harris’s father in law Edward J O Godwin. When the 1939 Register was taken, Edward Godwin was away at Dove Farm (see below), presumably hop picking. Perhaps William and Amelia were only house-sitting at Brabazon Street at the time of the 1939 Register? One of those family history questions that we will never be able to answer.

Brabazon street

(Brabazon Street, Poplar, reproduced thanks to Ian Dunn)

The 1939 Register shows William’s wife Amelia M A Harris (born 20 July 1887) of ‘no occupation’ at Dove Farm, Cranbrook, Kent with her daughter Winifred G I Harris (born 2 April 1921), a ‘core worker’. Three other people are listed after Amelia and Winifred in the Register. Details of the first of these have been redacted but it is likely to be Amelia M A Harris’s daughter Violet I Harris (her married name was later Turner and the name Turner appears above the redacted entry) who would have been about 12 years old.  The next person listed is Ivy Joyce Hailstone (whose later married name of Horton appears above her entry) aged 9 (born 3 October 1930) whose mother Amelia Alice Georgina Hailstone was Amelia M A Harris’s daughter.  The last person listed at the address is widowed old age pensioner E J O Godwin (born 9 May 1866) who is the father of Amelia M A Harris. Many other people are listed at Dove Farm in the 1939 Register, with hop picking a common occupation among them. We think it’s likely that the Harris family had, in common with many other East End families, moved to Kent for hop picking season.

hop picking

(Hop  Picking in Kent)

Amelia Harris 1939

(Amelia Harris 1939 Register)

The 1939 Register shows Bertie J F Harris (born 30 October 1923) as a member of the Auxiliary Fire Service, at Marner St School LCC Sub Fire Station. 22 other Auxiliary Fire Service members were listed at the same address, 4 of whom were members of the Women’s Auxiliary Fire Service. The details of one additional individual were redacted but it is not clear whether this person was a member of the AFS or was even at the same address. 

1939 Register Harris

(Bertie Harris 1939 Register)

The 1939 Register was taken on 29 September 1939 and the Register records Bertie’s birthdate as 30 October 1923. This would mean that at the time the Register was taken, Bertie was still aged 15, one month shy of his 16th birthday and he was listed as a member of the Auxiliary Fire Service. Was this unusual for one so young to be a member of the AFS, or was he able to falsify his age in some way?

Bertie and his colleagues would have undergone a minimum of 60 hours basic training which was provided by regular Fireman from The London Fire Brigade. This would have included basic hose running, drills and commands and each group of new AFS recruits would be under the command of a full time firefighter at their designated stations. All the volunteers underwent the basic training and at the end they were graded depending on physical capabilities, their age, their gender and their previous skills. Some were assigned frontline duties, whilst others were assigned driving duties, dispatch rider duties, watch room duties and general administrative duties, amongst others. Bertie, presumably because of his exceptionally young age, was destined to become an AFS Messenger and just two years later, his life and the lives of his family would change forever. There was a demand for young fit men to act as messengers or runners for the Fire Brigade whenever there was an incident. These young teenage cyclist messenger boys, like Bertie, were too young for military service but eager to get their first experience of wartime service and do ‘their bit for the cause’. The primary roll being to attend the Company Officer at an incident, and to act as his Messenger, relaying messages from the incident itself, back to the control rooms. There were no Walkie-Talkies or Mobile Phones in those days, and the public telephones were unreliable, because of Air-Raids, that’s why there was a demand for messengers like Bertie.


(AFS Messengers)

Bertie is buried in East London Cemetery and Crematorium, Newham, London and he shares a gravestone with his father William Sidney Harris. According to the gravestone, William Sidney Harris died aged 55 on 17 January 1941, just a few months before Bertie himself was tragically killed. As you can see from the photograph below, there is wording on Bertie and William’s gravestone a poem perhaps? – under both Bertie’s name, and his father’s name, but we have been unable to see it clearly enough to decipher it.

Bertie James Frederick Harris



Bertie is remembered on the Civilian War Death records as follows:

Bertie James Frederick Harris age 17, Messenger AFS.  Son of Amelia Harris of 31 Brabazon St, and of the late William Harris.  20 April 1941 at Old Palace LCC School. (Source UK World War II Civilian Deaths, 1939-1945)

Harris War Death

(Bertie Harris Civilian War Death Record)

Bertie’s story is doubly tragic because it was over almost before it had begun. He volunteered as a keen and enthusiastic young man, excited about the new adventures that lay ahead of him. His life, like those of his 33 colleagues, cut tragically short at the hands of the German Luftwaffe. We hope that this website goes someway to help to keep his memory alive and we can remember his bravery and courage and the ultimate sacrifice he made in defence of his Country, when it was needed most.

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