Beckenham at War.
“Beckenham has never been found wanting in time of war” wrote Nancy Tonkin in 1993.
Chapter One – 1740 to 1914
In 1793 Beckenham residents formed an Armed Association available to help defend the country against an invasion by Napoleon’s forces. Fortunately Britain’s superior Navy saw to it that this did not occur. But earlier in the 18th Century there were two examples of our naval superiority involving Beckenham men.
The first was Commodore Anson’s voyage of 1740-44 which involved sailing round the world, plundering Spanish Latin America, facing the wrath of the Chinese and returning with the richest ever prize of bullion that required 34 fully loaded waggons to carry the treasure across London.
Anson’s second in command was Lieutenant Piercy Brett. Promoted to a captain, Brett was back in action in 1745 in the English Channel. After a day long battle, Brett forced Bonnie Prince Charlie’s supplies and money ship, the Elizabeth, to return to France, forcv dashing the dream of The Young Pretender of raising a Scottish army.
Subsequently, Brett lived in the Clock House (now the site of The Studio and Spa) in Beckenham while he worked as Admiral of the Blue in the Admiralty in London. He died in 1781 and there is a large memorial to him inside St George’s Church.
In the second half of the 19th Century, military cadets were commonplace in Beckenham.. The East India Company’s Military Training College was situated in nearby Addiscombe and its trainees were encouraged to visit the town by Frederick Chalmers, the Rector of Beckenham from 1851 to 1873 who had many successful years with the Indian Army. His sister-in-law was the evangelist and author Catherine Marsh
In 1860, Catherine Marsh’s published her book “English Hearts and English Hands” she wrote:
“Early in the year 1853, a large number of Railway excavators, amounting at length to nearly three thousand, were gathered from different parts of the kingdom, to work in the grounds of the Crystal Palace ……. Nearly two hundred lodged in the village of Beckenham”
Also in Beckenham was Joseph Paxton who designed and oversaw the building of the Crystal Palace and grounds – his ‘Palace for the People’. He lived ‘on the job’ in a spacious mansion called Rockhills in the northern tip of Beckenham adjacent to the site of the Crystal Palace building overlooking the hills of Kent and Surrey. Paxton lived in Rockhills from 1853 until his death in 1865.
After Palace was opened by Queen Victoria in June 1954, Paxton rewarded the navvies by recruiting them into the Army Works Corps to build roads for troops in the Crimea. Catherine had to be dissuaded by Florence Nightingale from going with them.
A year later, Hedley Vicars, who like Rev. Chalmers, had also served in India, was killed in the Crimea in March 1855, a memorial table was placed in St George’s Church.
During the war in Natal, South Africa in the first half of 1989 the British army’s success had ended the independent Zulu nation. Among the contingent of 122 men of the Warwickshire Regiment at Rorke’s Drift who fought off attacks by a force over 3,000 warriors seeking to protect their homeland from the British invaders, was Beckenham’s 24 year old Col/Sgt Frank Bourne who received the DSM, the highest award after the VC.
Subsequently Bourne was posted to India and missed the next conflict in Africa, the first Boer War (1880-1881) when’s the defeat of the British enabled the South African Republic to keep its sovereignty.
The Second War (1899–1902) was a much longer struggle between Britain and the Boer Republics of Transvaal and the Orange Free State. John Norwood, born in Pembury Lodge, Copers Cope Road, Beckenham in 1876 was a 2nd Lt. in the 5th Dragoon Guards (Princess Charlotte of Wales) when he was awarded the VC during the siege of Ladysmith in 1899. Norwood was educated at the Abbey School, Beckenham. Founded by a curate of the parish church in 1866 in rooms over Leven’s bakers shop in the High Street, it moved to purpose built premises erected on a gravel pit site of 16 acres in Brackley Road, Beckenham in 1872. (see appendix #1 for graduates from the Abbey School).
Put in command of the British forces in December 1899 was Frederick Roberts who, like Hedley Vicars, had also began his military career at the East India Company’s military college in Addiscombe in 1850s.
Initially the Boers had been victorious and within 4 months from the start of the conflict Britain found it necessary to deploy almost the whole of the regular British army in Africa, bringing in troops from her colonies. By the end of the war in May 1902 all British military reserves had been depleted. Victory was won only by using a scorched earth policy and the creation of concentration camps. At the end of the war, Lord Roberts advised the British government that it would be near impossible for Britain to defend its homeland and the colonies without a regular force of conscripted troops. His advice was ignored.
John Norwood, born in Pembury Lodge, Copers Cope Road, Beckenham in 1876 was a 2nd Lt. in the 5th Dragoon Guards (Princess Charlotte of Wales) when he was awarded the VC during the siege of Ladysmith in 1899. Norwood was educated at the Abbey School, Beckenham. Founded by a curate of the parish church in 1866 in rooms over Leven’s bakers shop in the High Street, it moved to purpose built premises erected on a gravel pit site of 16 acres in Brackley Road, Beckenham in 1872. (see appendix #1 for graduates from the Abbey School).
To fill the void in Britain during the Boer War, voluntary (i.e. supplementary auxilary) forces were established. For example in Beckenham in 1900 a volunteer rifle corps detachment of the Royal West Regiment was established in Elm Cottage in Beckenham High Street. (see appendix #2).
The lessons of the Boer War were not acted upon until 1908 when Haldane, appointed Secretary State for War in 1906, saw the implementation of his Territorial and Reserve Forces Act of 1907. This created the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) a regular army to be sent anywhere in the Colonies and most significantly (but secretly) in Europe. The BEF was supported by the Special Reserve which also comprised regular soldiers and replaced the Militia which had existed since 1857.
Haldane’s Act also created the Territorial Force (TF) which became the volunteer reserve component of the British Army until 1920 concerned mainly with home defence. The men had full time jobs but gave up their free time for thorough training as soldiers, attending summer camps. The administration of the Territorial Force was on a County basis.
A year later in 1909, the War Office issued a ‘Scheme for the Organisation of Voluntary Aid in England and Wales’ which recognized the need for adequate medical backup to support the Territorial Force if war was declared. The organisation was on the same county basis
The organisation of what were called Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs) was on the same County basis as for the TF volunteer soldiers. By the summer of 1914 there were over 2,500 Voluntary Aid Detachments in Britain. Of the 74,000 VAD personnel in 1914, two-thirds were women and girls. The training and management of the VADs was entrusted to the British Red Cross. (See chapter on VADs).