General Gordon’s Key?

General Gordon's Key
General Gordon’s Key

In the possession of the writer is an iron key thought to have been used by Lt. Col. Charles G. Gordon (later General of Khartoum fame) during his stay at New Tavern Fort in Gravesend from 1865-71 when acting as Commanding Royal Engineer for the Thames District.

Extract from an 1880s plan of New Tavern Fort showing Fort House
Extract from an 1880s plan of New Tavern Fort showing Fort House

Gordon lived for part of his time as C.R.E. at Fort House at the back of the fort, for which this was a key. The words’ FORT. HSE ENT’ were marked into a special infill inserted subsequent to the manufacture of the key.

From handling the key and with a little imagination, it is possible to feel a connection with a great Briton who may once have used it to enter his home.

View of Fort House from the rear
View of Fort House from the rear

Fort House no longer exists, having been demolished following damage received from enemy action during the Second World War but his office in Commercial Place survives, having been converted into a private residence. There is a commemorative statue of Gordon in nearby Gordon Pleasure Gardens.

Victor Smith

View of Fort House from the front
View of Fort House from the front

Newspapers and Service Records as Tools for Researching the WWI Stockbury Valley Defence Line

Report for the KAS AGM by Alan R. Anstee

An on going research project

The R.E.s have left us a wealth of maps and photos of the fieldworks, so we know that they looked like and where they were. The war diaries gave some information as to which areas units were working in but little more. However there is no real information on the men who built them.

Thanks in no small part to the East Kent Gazette we now know, the names of many of the officers and men. This led to the finding of the service records of a few and through both the newspapers and service records the approximate location of their camps.

What follows is a record of how this was done and what has been discovered to date.

The East Kent Gazette in early 1915

Late in 2013 Dean Coles of the Newington History Group supplied a copy of a cutting from the East Kent Gazette (EKG) of the 9th of January 1915 which told when the R.E.s in Newington (3-1-1915). As this was a poor copy this led to a search for a better one, which led to the discovery of an article telling of a fatal fire in Milton Regis (29-1-1915) which gave the names some of the men, EKG 6-2-15. This also informed us that not all of this unit were in Newington.

Service Record and EKG details of Spr Tapp

One man mentioned in the account of the fire and inquest was Spr Alfred Ernest Tapp whose service record is extant and very informative. This states that he was a very good bricklayer, whilst the EKG (6-2-1915) states that he was an ex-member of the Tunbridge Wells fire Brigade.

Importantly his extant record shows that he was a man who liked his beer; his “crime sheet” is explicit; with 6 drink related offences recorded. It gave names of the C.O, other officers and many NCOs and men.

Also it gave the name of the unit, 2/6th Kent Fortress Company, later the 579th Works Company R.E (6th Kent FC split into two units 1-1-1915). Thus confirming the scant information in the war diary.

Location of the 579th Works Company from EKG & Tapp’s record.

The EKG reported many parties, dances, smoking concerts and the like, put on by or for the company, giving the location. (It did the same for many other units in the area, as well as reporting on inter unit sorting events.)

Every incident in Spr Tapp’s record gave his location, whilst from both his record and the EKG, the unit and/or its sections was reported at Newington, Milton Regis, Stockbury, Oad Street/Borden, Key Street/Keycol and possibly Hartlip.

Capt Griffith, service record and qualifications.

Captain Charles. L. T Griffith was the last CO of the 579th and fortunately his
service record survives. This shows that he had a long history of service in the
Volunteers from 1897 to 1910. This included service in the ranks of the
Queens Westminster Rifle Volunteers and a commission in the Madras Artillery
Volunteers.

Professionally he was an Associate Member of the Institute of Civil Engineers and would seem, both professionally and militarily to be an ideal man to command such a unit. Personally he seemed well connected with a retired Lt-Col of Royal Marine Artillery and a housemaster of Harrow School (his father was an assistant master there) supplying references to back his application for a commission.

The naming of the fieldworks.

The R.E. maps only give the names of some of the works, usually the larger ones, redoubts etc. However the R.E. photos often give the names of the works, including trenches.

These former were often named after their location (Thrognal Redoubt for example) or officers in the company and possibly other RE officers (Boys Trench).

The four Le Feaux Redoubts appear to have been named after Capt Le Feaux, who seemed to have commanded a section of the company. Perhaps that often stationed at Stockbury, not too far away.

Griffith Redoubt, named for Capt Griffith the last CO.

Other mentions of the company’s location.

It would appear that different sources give different names for the same location, a note from 1917 in the service record of Spr Tapp from Capt Griffith re his
demotion from L/Cpl, gives the units location as Key Street Camp. Whilst Form
W.3068/2 on Tapp’s posting to the BEF in March 1918 gives the units station as
Newington nr Sittingbourne, at most a mile from Key Street.

The EKG 10-5-1919 states that German PoWs were taking over the old RE Camp site at Keycol Hill, only a few hundred yards from Key Street. Again on 1-11-1919 the EKG that the German PoWs had left the camps on Keycol Hill and Stockbury and that they were to be broken up.

So where exactly were these camps? Military telephone lines may give a clue as these camps would have needed to communicate. One runs into the grounds of the old rectory, Stockbury, another to the grounds of the isolation hospital on Key Col Hill and another to a building marked as a Brigade HQ in Newington. These May indicate where the camps were but more work is required.

Lessons learnt

Newspapers can point a researcher in the right direction, however they rarely give the full names of either officers or men mentioned. They can though back up other sources.

Service records give a wealth of information if extant and you have the man’s full name but 65% to 75% (estimates vary) were destroyed in WWII.

But newspapers especially MUST be treated with caution as they rarely give their
sources and were subject to censorship.

Finally

Although I have, perhaps, taken the lead in this work it would not have happened
without the involvement of many others. As previously mentioned Dean Coles
and the NHG, together with Teresa & Richard Emmitt, Simon Mason of KCC and
Victor Smith and many others have helped with information and advice, including
the gentleman who passed on copies of his grandfathers service record with the
579th.

The Sad End of the Sergeant Major’s Career

The sad end of the Sergeant Major’s Career
by Alan R. Anstee

Whilst researching for the Swale 20th Century Defence Project a number of interesting and at times odd events concerning the military were seen in the local newspapers from the early years of WWI when large numbers of troops were based in and around Sittingbourne. Perhaps the oddest of these was first seen in the 23rd January 1915 edition of the Kent Messenger. This reported on the trial of John Murphy, alias Hugh Charles Caston a Royal Engineer Company Sergeant Major.

This account of the trial and another in the East Kent Gazette told how this man had entered the house of Mrs Mary Tidy in Church Lane Newington on 12th January 1915, whilst she was out. She came into the house about 20 minutes to four and found the C.S.M. entering the front room of the house from the next room carrying a box she knew was kept upstairs. She challenged him and he said he was there to pay the money she was owed for the soldiers billeted on her and to inspect the billets. He paid her the money and left, she went to look upstairs finding it ransacked with several items missing and at once sent a neighbour to fetch the police.

The evidence of PC Post stated that he arrived at the house about 4 p.m. spoke to Mrs Tidy and went to look for the C.S.M, finding him in the Bull Inn. He then took him to Mrs Tidy’s house finding the missing items on him when searched. He then took the man to the police station, presumably for formal charging and on the way was offered a bribe of a sovereign to let him go.

The Kent Messenger stated that a medical certificate was produced at the trial stating, to use a modern term, that he was mentally ill. The statement given by Caston, to use the name in his army record, which is extant, stated that he had travelled around Kent that day and had been in several pubs, perhaps implying that he was drunk.

Caston’s service record shows that he was a regular soldier who enlisted as a musician on 1 August 1896 aged fifteen, had served in Malta and had been awarded the Good Conduct and Long Service Medal. He seems then to have been an exemplary soldier for most of his career, being promoted to Acting Company Sergeant Major on the 1st October 1914. He had completing a number of courses and was well qualified for his job of training Territorial Soldiers. However for whatever reason in January 1915 something had gone wrong. After the above incedent he was taken to Chatham Military Hospital (Fort Pitt) and on the 15th of January 1915 was transferred to D Block of the Netley Hospital. The medical report written then stated that he was excited, obstinate and inclined to be aggressive. The medical report also stated that he had delusions that he was about to be promoted to the rank of Major, believed that he was a wealthy man, often ordering his car to be sent round to take him for a drive, he also said he wanted to provide Egyptian Cigarettes to all the other patents. The report dated 20 January 1915 finally recommended the he be given a medical discharge as no longer fit for military service. His discharge was dated 2 February 1915, a sad end to a career lasting over eighteen years.

He died in Dartford on the 18th of June 1917 and is buried in Woodlands Cemetery Gillingham.

A Fatal Fire at Milton Regis 1915

A Fire Fatal at Milton Regis by Alan R. Anstee

In February 1915 with large numbers of troops billeted in and around Sittingbourne the potential benefits of having troops in the area was demonstrated by the effects of a fire in King Street. The following account is based on reports in the Kent Messenger (KM) of the 6th February 1915 and the East Kent Gazette (EKG) of the same date. The later as well as reporting on the fire gave a full account of the subsequent inquest, article in the EKG by implying that military regulations on showing light by ensuring that the shutters were close may have contributed to the severity of Mrs Gibb’s injuries by preventing the fire being see early enough to save Mrs Gibbs.

The information that came out at the inquest held on the following Monday February 1st tells the story in full. The fire occurred at 12 King Street on Friday 30th January 1915 where Mrs Elizabeth Jane Gibbs, a widow, lived with the three youngest of her eight children. A neighbour who saw flames “roaring up the chimney” raised the alarm, the Milton Fire Brigade was called and in the meantime Mr R. Hampton started the ball rolling by throwing the first bucket of water into the house. Sapper Alfred Ernest Tapp R.E. (T) who was billet on Mr Hampton joined in, as did Sgts Kettle and Couldrey, both R.E.s and A.B. Cook Everest of Torpedo Boat No 12. Between them they stopped the fire spreading until the Fire Brigade arrived.

As the flames died a little Mrs Gibb’s body was seen near the door and Spr Tapp, a former member of the Tunbridge Wells Fire Brigade, rescued, what was found to be, her lifeless body. At this time it was thought that Mrs Gibbs young son was in the house but fortunately he was not. The prompt action of those who helped before the arrival of the brigade may well have prevented a major catastrophe by removing from the next door property, occupied by a Mr G. Jordan, quantities of flammable material including gunpowder and paraffin.

At the inquest a variety of witnesses told their story, Spr Tapp said that he thought it took about seven minutes before he got the body out and that the most likely cause was upsetting the oil lamp. Another witness Capt Norval Harry Prentis stated that the Fire Brigade arrived at ten past seven, just as Spr Tapp was bringing the body from the house. He said the front room was ablaze but the did not believe that it was caused by coals from the fire but it was more likely that the table had knocked overturning and smashing the lamp.

Harold William Archie Gibbs, the son of Mrs Gibbs stated that he left the house about 6.30 leaving his mother well. The lamp was lit and on the table, which was a good one and although the fire was lit there was not much fire in the grate and it was protected by a guard. He went on to say that although his mother had had a fit a few days before she was well and about to read a book when he left.

The Coroner Mr C.B. Harris told the jury that he believed that Mrs Gibbs had had a fit, and in falling upset the oil lamp; and had died in the ensuing fire. The foreman of the jury Rev E.D. Bowser the Vicar of Milton stated that the jury agreed with the conclusion of the Coroner and added that perhaps they should recommend to the Local Authority that all people known to have epilepsy should be provided with lamps that could not be overturned. The Coroner replied that he thought this rather Utopian. Final Sgt Kettle of the R.E. proposed a vote of thanks to the Fire Brigade for their prompt action the whole row of houses would have been lost.

The reason the author paid so much attention to the reports both of the fire and the inquest is that he was researching the unit which built the field works in Swale. It had been know for some time that it was one of three R.E. Fortress Companies who built them but which one. In the report of the inquest it stated that Spr Tapp’s full name Alfred Ernest and the (T) after R.E. that he was a member of the Territorial Force, which the three companies were. Fortunately his army record still exists and gives his unit as 2/4th Kent (Fortress) Company R.E., one of the three known to have worked on the Kent field works, thus solving the mystery and it is hoped providing an interesting local story as a by product.