AFS Fireman Robert John Deans

Killed in the Line of Duty……………

The following extremely detailed research into the life of AFS Fireman Robert John Deans has been carried out by researcher Fiona Smith.

Auxiliary Fireman Robert John Deans was born on 8 January 1913 in West Ham, London, the ninth of the eleven children of Thomas Bell Deans (1868-1927) and Emily Louisa Deans née Stevenson (1870-1952). At the time of his birth, the family home was at 62 Eversleigh Road, East Ham, London.

Robert’s mother, Emily Louisa Stevenson, was born 23 December 1870 in West Ham, London, the daughter of railway agent William Stevenson and his wife Margaret. 

The birth of Robert John Deans’ father, Thomas Bell Deans, was registered in West Derby, Liverpool in 2Q 1869. Thomas Bell Deans was baptised on 9 May 1869 in Walton on the Hills, Liverpool, Lancashire, the son of Scots-born parents James Deans and his wife Christina of Boundary St, Liverpool. Thomas’s family must have left Liverpool in between 1879-81 after the birth of his brother Donald in Birkenhead in June 1879, as by the time of the 1881 census the family were living in Poplar, London. The marriage of Robert’s parents, Thomas Bell Deans and Emily Louisa Stevenson took place in West Ham, Essex in 1894.

By the time that the 1901 census was taken, Thomas B Deans was a boiler maker aged 32, living at 62 Eversleigh Road, East Ham, Essex with his wife Emily L Deans aged 30, and their children Evelyn C Deans aged 4, James H Deans aged 3, and Ivy Deans aged 1. Emily had been born in Canning Town, and Evelyn in Plaistow, while James and Ivy were born in East Ham. All these areas are right in the heart of London’s ‘East End’.

Thomas B Deans 1901

(Thomas Deans 1901 Census)

We found a record for an Emily Louisa Deans, who was admitted to Essex Asylum on 22 May 1906, and discharged on 15 August 1907. (Source UK Lunacy Patients Admission Registers 1846-1912 via Ancestry). It’s worth noting that ‘ours’ is the only Emily Louisa Deans that we have been able to find in Essex between 1901 and 1911. The Essex County Lunatic Asylum, in Warley, Brentwood, was later renamed Brentwood Mental Hospital in about 1920. We did wonder if Emily’s stay in the asylum might have been precipitated by the death of a child, but found no evidence of this. Nor did we find any newspaper reports relating to Emily or her husband Thomas, which might have explained a stay in an asylum. 

Emily Louisa Deans Asylum

(Emily Louisa Deans Asylum Record)

By 1911 Thomas and Emily had produced five more children, all girls and all born in West Ham. Annie Deans in 1901, followed by Jessie Katherine Deans in 1903, Clara Louisa Deans in 1904, Nellie Elizabeth Deans in 1908, and Gladys B Deans in 1910. The almost four-year gap between the births of her daughters Clara in 1904, and Nellie in 1908, gives credence to it being ‘our’ Emily Louisa Deans in Essex Asylum in 1906/07,

In 1911 Thomas Bell Deans was aged 42 and a boiler maker doing repair work on ships, living at 62 Eversleigh Road, East Ham with his wife Emily Louisa Deans aged 40, and their 8 children, Evelyn Christina Deans aged 14, James Herbert Deans aged 13, Ivy Deans aged 11, Annie Deans aged 9, Jessie Catherine Deans aged 8, Clara Louise Deans aged 6, Nellie Elizabeth Deans aged 2 and Gladys Barbara Deans who was not yet a year old. All the children, except for Nellie and Gladys, attended school. The census records that Thomas and Emily had been married for 15 years and had 8 children, all of whom survived. The family’s home had 5 rooms, which given the size of the family still living at home, would have meant extremely cramped living conditions.

Thomas Deans 1911

(Thomas B Deans 1911 Census)

Between 1911 and 1921 the couple had three more children, again all born in West Ham, our Robert J Deans in 1913, followed by Donald L Deans in 1914, and Doreen G Stevenson in 1916. Doreen was the couple’s last child. Between 1915 and 1921 the family moved to 173 Coventry Road, Ilford and the 1921 census shows the family living at this address.

DEANS Coventry Road ilford

(Coventry Road, Ilford)

The 1921 census shows full-time schoolboy Robert John Deans aged 8 years 5 months, living at 173 Coventry Road, Ilford with his father Thomas Bell Deans aged 52 years 3 months, a boilermaker in the shipbuilding industry employed by Messrs Green Silley Weare & Co, marine engineers at Tilbury Docks, Essex, and his housewife mother Emily Louisa Deans aged 50 years 6 months. Living with them were Robert’s four unmarried siblings James Herbert Deans aged 23 years 8 months, a civil servant working at the Ministry of Transport, Ivy Deans aged 21 years 8 months, a shorthand typist employed by the Imperial Shop Fitting Company at 133 Upper St, Islington, Jessie Catherine Deans aged 18 years 3 months, a shorthand typist employed by Messrs Dickson Anderson & Co (East India merchants) at 20 Abchurch Lane, London EC4, and Clara Louisa Deans aged 16 years 7 months engaged in home duties, as well as Robert’s three full time schoolchildren siblings Nellie Elizabeth Deans aged 12 years 11 months, Gladys Barbara Deans aged 11 years, and Donald Leslie Deans aged 7 years 3 months, along with his sister Doreen Grace Deans aged 4 years 11 months who had not yet started school. In 1921 the above 11 Deans family members’ home had 8 rooms.

Robert John Deans 1921 census pg1

(1921 Census for Deans Family)

Robert John Deans 1921 census pg 2

(1921 Census Address for Deans Family)

Note: The name of the company Robert’s father was employed by is misspelled in the 1921 census.  R & H Green & Silley Weir were ship repairers.

When Robert John Deans was 14 years old, his father Thomas sadly died, the death of Thomas Bell Deans aged 58 was registered in Romford in 3Q 1927.

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). Robert John Deans actually appears twice on the 1939 Register! The first entry shows Robert J Deans (born 8 January 1913) as an unmarried solicitor’s clerk, and member of AFS Beckenham, at the District Fire Station, Glebe Way, Beckenham with his AFS colleagues. The second entry shows Robert John Deans (born 8 January 1913) as an unmarried solicitor’s clerk, and member of AFS Beckenham, living at 144 The Grove, West Wickham, Beckenham, with his brother Donald Leslie Deans (born 5 March 1914), an unmarried aircraft electrician. The brothers shared 144 The Grove with the Fossey family. They were Harold Fossey (born 24 September 1897) a married costing clerk (vehicles)/investigating clerk civil service, Ivy Fossey (born 26 September 1899) who was married and doing unpaid domestic duties, and unmarried schoolgirl Jean Ivy Fossey (born 24 November 1926). Note: Jean was Harold and Ivy’s daughter, and their only child. The birth of Jean I Fossey (mother’s maiden name Deans) was registered in Romford in 4Q 1926.

Robert John Deans HOME 1939

(Robert John Deans 19939 Register at home)

Robert John Deans FIRE 1939

(Robert John Deans 1939 Register AFS)

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’ Robert 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.

Sadly for Robert and his family, Robert’s contribution to the war effort was cut dramatically short when he was tragically killed at the Old Palace School in East London on 20th April 1941, along with 33 of his fellow colleagues.

Robert John Deans was unmarried at the time of his death, and we found no probate for Robert John Deans and his death is recorded in the civilian war deaths records as follows:

Robert John Deans aged 28 Fireman Beckenham AFS. Son of Mrs E L Deans of 144 The Grove, West Wickham, Kent.  20 April 1941 Old Palace LCC School.  (Source UK World War II Civilian Deaths 1939-45).

Robert John Deans CWD

(Robert John Deans CWD Record)

West Wickham DEANS

(West Wickham)

Below is a picture of a Parachute Mine which was the type of bomb that was used by the Germans at the Old Palace School and responsible for the death of the 34 Firemen and Women. IParachute Mine - Finchley

(Image of a typical Parachute Mine – picture courtesy of Steve Hunnisett |

In April 1952 Robert John Deans elderly mother Emily, was knocked down and killed by a motor cyclist in Lewisham, London. Emily Louisa Deans of 30 Crofters Road, Northwood, Middlesex widow died 13 April 1952 at The Lewisham Hospital, Lewisham, London. 

The 22 April 1952 edition of the Lewisham Borough News includes an item headed ‘Fatal Accident at Sydenham’ as follows – 

‘A fatal accident occurred on Good Friday at the junction of Kirkdale and Dartmouth Road, Sydenham, when 81 years old Mrs. Emily Deans of Northwood was knocked down by a motor cycle while crossing the road. An inquest on Mrs. Deans was opened on Tuesday at Ladywell Coroner’s Court but adjourned to April 22. Dr. Arthur Davies, Harley St pathologist, said Mrs. Deans had died from shock and multiple injuries. The motorcyclist was 26 years old Mr. Arnold Barrett of 52 Randlesdown Road, Bellingham.’  Note: Good Friday 1952 fell on 11 April 1952.

Deans Newspaper 1

The 29 April 1952 edition of the Lewisham Borough News includes a report of the inquest which refers to the victim as Emily Louisa Deans. Mrs. Deans had been staying with a friend in Sydenham for a few days and was returning from posting a letter when the accident occurred. The item confirms that the accident happened on 11 April and that Mrs. Deans died on 13 April.

Deans Newspaper 2

Deans Newspaper 3

Deans Newspaper 4

In a cruel twist of fate that so often happens when telling the stories of our ancestors, Robert John Deans cousin, Catherine Louise Scott was also killed on the same night of 19 April 1941, in a totally separate incident, by enemy action.

The 1939 Register shows the Scott family living at 20 Sherwood Gardens, Barking. David Scott (born 3 June 1888), a representative to engineers (maintenance engineer and assistant has been added above) also had MDCP 4071, ex engineer, lieut comm’r RNR in the additional comments column, Catherine L Scott (born 14 October 1890) doing unpaid domestic work, David F W Scott (born 16 September 1916), a local govt board officer (MoH Dept), and James E Scott (born 1 November 1919), a ledger clerk in soap works.     

DEANS Catherine Scott 1939

(Catherine Louise Scott 19939 Register)

Catherine Louise Scott was killed on 19 April 1941 at her home address, she was amongst many of her friends and neighbour’s who were all killed by the same explosion. We have looked through the list of civilian deaths in the municipal borough of Barking and it seems 13 other people were killed in Sherwood Gardens on 19 April 1941 – 3 at number 13, 6 at number 17, 1 at number 22, 2 at number 16, and 1 at number 12. Despite numerous checks we have been unable to find any records or references to this incident online or in the newspaper archives.

Catherine Louise Scott Civilian War Death record is shown below.


(Catherine Louise Scott CWD Record)

Catherine is buried at Rippleside Cemetery in Barking in Essex and a picture of her grave is shown below.

Catherine Scott Burial

Fate can sometimes deal the cruelest of blows and for one family to lose two members at two separate incidents on the same night is unprecedented and truly awful for any family to have to cope with. The Deans family were another family ripped apart by the ravages of war but we should never ever forget the sacrifices that these brave men and women gave in one of this Country’s darkest hours. We will always be eternally grateful for their courage, bravery and the ultimate sacrifice they gave to ensure that we enjoy the freedom that we have today.

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