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Somerset & Dorset
Family History Society

Remembering a Generation

Nichols coverIn November 2015 the Society  published Remembering a Generation. The World War One servicemen of West and Middle Chinnock by Phil Nichols, who describes the origins of his research and new contacts he has made as a result of the publication.

While writing this book, I came to see how little I had appreciated the significance of the war memorials, both inside and outside of our two village churches, and the names inscribed on those memorials. It was very clear, however, that the collective village memory of those names was growing fainter and becoming more easily forgotten as families died out or moved on, despite those names being read out in Remembrance services each year. As an example, I had been collecting photos of the village for about 30 years, and had been giving illustrated talks in the village, but had never realised that one of the photos included the man whose World War One Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstone was the only such headstone in West Chinnock, the larger of the two villages.

Eastfield farmworkers

Charles Churchill, who died from war injuries on Christmas Day 1919 at home in West Chinnock, is standing at the rear. Photo courtesy of Mrs J Gowers.

368 Walter Clarke. 1918 - Copy

Walter Clarke in 1918 at Manor Farm, Middle Chinnock [his riding crop is inadvertently turned into a magic wand by a trick of the light]. Photo courtesy of the Clarke family.

I was also prompted to write about these servicemen as I had met several of them over the years, starting from the day in April 1960 when I moved into Middle Chinnock with my parents, brother and sister. My recollection is that was the day that I first met a neighbouring farmer, Walter Clarke, but I hadn’t realised until I was writing the book that Walter was a Gallipoli veteran.

When starting the project, I had intended to write about the twelve men who were killed in the War and named on our memorials, so that as a community we were better informed about those who made this sacrifice. However, it soon became clear that, despite the loss of so many WW1 service records in the Blitz of September 1940, records existed about many more of the servicemen who survived the war. These additional names came from the Absent Voters Lists (1918 & 1919) and from the subscription websites Ancestry and Find My Past – birthplace being one of the indexed fields from the attestation forms. The result was based around the life stories of 86 servicemen within the context of the community in which they lived.

Letters photo

Correspondence from Alice Stembridge to her husband Ralph, August 1918 . Photo courtesy of Mrs P Seward.

The full list of sources used is included in the introductory chapter of the book, but one case in particular stands out for me. This relates to the village butcher, Charles Ralph Stembridge, who fought on the Western Front with the Somerset Light Infantry and was killed in August 1918. The letters and photos in his possession must have been returned to his widow in West Chinnock and preserved by the family in a ‘keepsake’ tin. Ralph’s son moved to Bournemouth and soon after he died (in 1988), the tin found its way to a second-hand shop in the town. Here it was purchased by a visitor from Italy, who five years later offered the letters and photos via a British Armed Forces website to any member of the family who wished to claim them. A distant relative in Queensland, Australia did just that, but she later tracked down a great-nephew. I was fortunate enough to be present when the letters and photos were handed over in 2015 to Ralph’s niece in Devon.

Having met some of the servicemen, the process of researching and writing the book seemed to be a very personal one. That became increasingly so as I tracked down and got to know some of the relatives of these men. Including the Stembridge family mentioned above, I have now been fortunate (as well as sufficiently persistent) to have contacted relatives of 57 of the 86 men. While more than half of those families still live nearby (within a seven mile radius), some have been traced much further afield (Australia, Canada, New Zealand). The relatives have been very interested in the project and several from the south of England attended the book launch in mid-November 2015, travelling some distance – from Surrey, Southampton, Bath and Weymouth. I was able to introduce the son of one Gallipoli veteran to the grand-daughter of another, both veterans being farmers and having served in the West Somerset Yeomanry.

In November 2015 the SDFHS published my book and the first print run of 100 copies sold out within about three weeks. Sales of the reprint have been very encouraging. One SDFHS member has contacted me and supplied a photo which she had been told was of one relative who survived the war only to discover, through reading the book, that it was almost certainly of another relative killed in 1918 – Frederick Charles Fry. The corrected identification was made through the record in the book of the regiment in which Frederick served being checked against the cap badge in the photo. This contact was made about two weeks after I received a reply from a member of the Leeds & Grenville Branch of the Ontario Genealogical Society. The grandfather (John Chant) of that lady had employed a young man from Middle Chinnock as a farm labourer, that man being Arthur Henry Fry, brother of Frederick Charles Fry. Not only that, but the Chant family had kept a treasured photo of Arthur of which I was kindly given a copy. Arthur’s name had been recorded not only on the memorial at Middle Chinnock, but also on one in Harlem United Church, Ontario. Following the closure of that church a new memorial was set up in Elgin, Ontario and commemorated on Remembrance Day 2015.

Program-Page 1

Front page of the programme to mark the unveiling of the WW1 plaque in Elgin, Ontario. Photo courtesy Ms V Kitson.

Carrying out this research has helped me make contacts all over the UK and further afield and the book has already contributed to a Remembrance service when the minister taking the service in West Chinnock in November 2015 asked me to choose and then write a piece about one of the men who had demonstrated courage and determination, from which he quoted extensively in his address.

I’m very grateful to the SDFHS for their confidence in this book, and especially to John Brooking, chair of the Publications Committee, and to Dr Patricia Spencer for setting the book to page. Copies (only £10 – plus postage) are available from the Society’s online shop or can be purchased in person or ordered by post from the SDFHS Bookshop. The book is also available from the author (contact 01935 881263 / email ).

Phil Nichols

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