Tragic end to local World War 1 romance (part 1)

Saturday, 19 July 2014


The centenary of the outbreak of World War 1 is with us, and we hope, over the coming months, to record how the war impacted on Forest Gate and some of its residents.

Behind each statistically-laden story of horror there lays the reality of ordinary lives transformed forever, or cut cruelly short. One such graphic account has recently been published by Forest Gate resident, Paul Holloway, There Are No Flowers Here, which we will be retelling over two episodes of this blog.

It is the story of his Forest Gate grandmother, May Larby, and her brief romance over the 1913 - 1915 period with Jack Richardson, the son of the headmaster of Shaftesbury Road Elementary school. It tragically concludes with Jack's death on the battlefields of France. Jack lived at 296 Katherine Road   and May at 28 Lansdown Road. The school and two houses within a quarter of a mile of each other, in Forest Gat.


Jack Richardson c 1914
May kept Jack's letters, many of which are personal, detail the day-to-day reality of life and trace the ever-deepening nature of the relationship. Others, however, record the build up to mobilisation, from the perspective of one bright, ambitious, patriotic young man, the enthusiasm to go into battle. Then later, the grim reality of life in the trenches in this 'war to end all wars', which scarred the memories of a generation.

May kept the letters, as her lasting memory of the man she loved, and her daughter, Elizabeth Holloway, carefully transcribed and prepared for publication almost 80 years later.  Now, unfortunately after Elizabeth's death, her son, Paul has negotiated his way around the pitfalls of self-publishing to produce this touching story.  Details of the book, and how to obtain it are found in the footnote.

This episode of the two-part serialisation traces the emergence of the romance and its impact on these two Forest Gate residents, until he point at which Jack is despatched to France, and his death.

In 1913 John (Jack) Richardson was the 20 year-old son of the headmaster of Shaftesbury Road Elementary school. May Larby was 18, and the daughter of a local police constable. (By the end of the war, Jack's parents had moved to Hampshire).They were both very bright, university students, with a wide range of interest in the arts.

A chance meeting on the Tube, on a train from Upton Park to central London,  developed into a regular rendezvous, and then correspondence, that ended with one fateful letter from a French trench, in 1915.

District Line train of the day - start of the romance
Many years after Jack's death, May wrote a memoir, which, unwittingly, provides an introduction to the collection of letters and provides a context for them.  In this she recalls the chance encounter with Jack in 1913, while she was on her way to a morning session at King's College, London, where they were both students; he studying English and she mathematics.

Such was the success of this meeting that they engineered to meet up regularly, each week, to continue with unfinished conversations on arts, poetry and matters of the moment.  These meetings lead to visits to art galleries, museums and cathedrals where May's appreciation of the arts, history and Christianity was broadened. The couple's relationship blossomed and developed into assignations at each other's Forest Gate houses.

May's house: 28 Lansdown
Road, today
As the spectre of war loomed, in 1914, the pair took the 'Be Prepared' slogan literally; May joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment, with a view to taking up nursing, at the front, in the event of hostilities, and Jack joined the University Officer Training Corps.  By the end of July he was camping, and training with his detachment, on Salisbury Plain.

When war broke out, Jack was commissioned in the City of London Regiment, based in Westminster. He trained and waited for despatch to the front. Meanwhile, May graduated (as a 19 year-old) and was awaiting the start of her teacher training course in January 1915.

Jack's first letter is dated July 1913, and is sent from his home at 296 Katherine Road. It, and the next 16, sent over the following year, sent from the same address, record the couple's shared, and growing mutual interest in a wide range of the arts.

From July 1914 the originating address, and the tone of the letters changes. They are from the army training camp, which is "perched on the slope of a hill on the very edge of Salisbury Plain".  At first they are all very mundane, with unexceptional descriptions of local conditions and circumstances: "The regularity of the life, inspections, parades, drills and field operations has the effect of breaking off the flow of ordinary life and it seems literally months since I came here. I have seen no books or papers since Saturday and I have only heard of war and rumours of war".

May Larby aged c 20 years old
Many of the letters, unfortunately are undated, but Jack seems to have been deployed into the 2nd City of London Fusiliers by the start of 1915 and is based in Epsom, he is positive and almost itching for action: "Everything here is splendid and there has been no trouble at all. We see very little of the Colonel and Major Hogan is practically O.C. (officer, commanding). The officers are splendid fellows and I expect a good time".

By February he has a substantive post, as second in command in a company. Some of the grim realities of civilian life, that the war flushed out are beginning to strike him. The poor educational and physical state of many working class men who volunteered was noticed and became a concern for the army's high command, perhaps for the first time - and was something many post-war reforms were designed to address.


Shaftesbury Road Elementary school -
Jack's dad was headmaster here at in 1914

Jack had his own experience of this. Hence in February 1915, he writes: "The other officers are jolly decent fellows and keen - the men are the worst I've seen - some are almost cripples and some, I think, mentally deficient, still I suppose there are enough decent ones to get on with."

In common with most of his comrades, Jack could not wait to get into combat, and so play his part in bringing the conflict to an end. In an undated letter, Jack had bad news, from this perspective, for May "The very worst happened last night. About half past nine, just as I had finished packing, the doctor hauled me up for a medical exam and failed me on account of my heart".


Flats now occupy land on which Jack's Katherine
Road house stood, just around the corner from
the school where his dad was headteacher

A little (unspecified) time later another letter had better news: the Captain assures me that "I shall go abroad right enough so I am considerably bucked ... What a thing it would be aboard a ship ... with a further chance of going to France!"

Then, a number of items of correspondence from Jack, expressing his  frustrations as bureaucracy seems to shuffle him around army units, with no front line action in sight.

By March 1915 (nine months from his original volunteering for duty), Jack is stationed in Epsom and is taking riding lessons, in preparation for an overseas posting. His disappointment at inaction seems to have abated "life here is splendid and I feel absolutely fit."

Jack, with comrades on Salisbury Plain, 1914

An undated letter or two later, comes the message "You will be as surprised as I was to hear that I am likely, as things stand now, to be off to France in a month or less." Then, the note of resignation, based on bitter experience: "Of course everything may and probably will be altered again but the chance is here and things begin to be exciting."

And so it is, by the next letter the message "Here I am safely on board the boat and ready to sail tomorrow  ... The boat is fine and we (as officers) travel 1st class as I myself have a cabin .. Comrade, goodbye and au revoir. My love, good luck and fitness be yours till I come back. Sweetheart, I kiss you farewell."

The story thus far then, is of two local bright young things pursuing an almost two year romance, lubricated by a shared and developing interest in poetry, fine art, literature and history. The backdrop is the distant sound of war approaching.  They both volunteer to do what they feel their duty to be, and Jack spends nine frustrating months, being moved around army camps and barracks awaiting deployment, so that he can see some action. The fate that awaits him will be relayed in the next blog ...

Footnote: There Are No Flowers Here - Collected Letters of Jack Richardson, published by My Fat Fox (www.myfatfox.co.uk), priced £9.29 (inc p&p), from: Amazon.co.uk, here

We are most grateful for Paul for permission to run these extracts and recommend his collection of letters to you - they put local flesh on the bones of some of the raw data that is published about World War 1.

 

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