Henry Whitehead #6

Henry Whitehead, Old Goldsmiths Boxing Club about 1912.

My grandfather Henry Whitehead was born in North Aston, a small hamlet in Oxfordshire, on 30th July 1890, the sixth of eleven children. He was baptised in the village church, St Mary’s, on 31st August 1890. He enjoyed many country pursuits in his childhood, such as fishing, shooting, and gardening, and kept these interests throughout his life. He went to a tiny village school with only one teacher.

Henry remained at school until he was fourteen, when he left home to go to London to work. He became a gentleman’s valet, which gave him a love of smart clothes and a flair for fashion. He continued to take fastidious care with his appearance and attire throughout his life.

In 1911 Henry was boarding with the Crane family at 16 Lewisham Road, Blackheath Hill. Charles Crane was a fishmonger. Henry was working as a South Eastern Railway carriage cleaner, presumably on the Greenwich Line, possibly at the station at Blackheath Hill.

In about 1911 Henry joined the Old Goldsmiths Boxing Club as a featherweight, at nine stone four pounds. There was also a W Whitehead in the club (probably unrelated).

Henry won a large silver cup in 1911. This may have been the competition at Amersham Hall, New Cross, reported by Sporting Life on Thursday 30th November 1911. There were four contests at various weights, and several exhibition bouts. In the 10 stone competition, Whitehead beat Mackie in the semi-finals, with the bout stopped in the second round; then in the fiinal Wheathead beat Cowan on points.

The next match I have found him in was the Victoria Amateur Boxing Club Open at Bow Baths, reported by Sporting Life on Tuesday 23rd January 1912. Here an H Whitehead fought in the 9st 6lbs Novices competition. He beat W E Harrow of Northampton on points in the First Series, but was defeated in the Second Series by Wise, and did not reach the semi-finals.

On Friday 13th September 1912 Sporting Life reported that Old Goldsmiths’ annual general meeting had been held at the Constitutional Club, New Cross. At this meeting Henry was elected as Vice-Captain of the club. He was still Vice-Captain on 5th October 1912 when he was one of the team organising the sparring for an opening night for new members.

The Sportsman reported a Members’ Competiton on Tuesday 4th March 1913. Henry fought in the 9st 8lbs First Series, beating E Noel on points after three ‘spirited rounds’. In the final Whitehead beat Malyon, who drew ahead steadily, but Henry crept up sufficiently in the last two minutes to equalise. An extra round was ordered, which Henry won on points.

By 1914 Henry was working as a cellarman. He enlisted in the Hussars of the line on 9th Sep 1914 at Deptford, Kent, for a term of three years. His service record has not survived except for his Hussars service number, (26677), in his Small Soldier Book, and there is no documentary evidence of his battalion. However, my Aunt Grace once wrote that he was in the 7th (Queens Own) Hussars. This regiment was stationed in Bangalore at the start of the First World War and remained there until 1917. My mother always said that Henry enjoyed working with the horses as a Hussar. We also know that Henry represented his regiment in the boxing ring.

Henry kept up lots of his little Urdu sayings and ditties throughout his life, and often called tea ‘char’. One of his favourite little ditties was, “Tora chini, tora char, Bombay bidi, bolt achaa”, which meant, “A little sugar, a little tea, Bombay cigarettes are very good”. It would make him laugh as ‘bidi’ could also be translated as ‘lady’.

At some point between September 1914 and August 1915 Henry transferred to the 7th Gloucestershire Regiment (22457). Perhaps he was sent back from India due to contracting malaria. Henry’s medal card confirms that on 28th Aug 1915 he landed at Gallipoli, Canakkale, Turkey, with the 7th Gloucestershire Regiment. This was probably a contingent of reinforcements, as it was a couple of weeks after the battalion was decimated at Chunuk Bair. In Jan 1916 the battalion was evacuated from Gallipoli and moved to Egypt. On the 12th of Feb 1916 they moved with the rest of the 13th division to Mesopotamia. They landed at Basra, now southern Iraq, on 4th Mar 1916, and waited there to begin the long, difficult journey up to the Tigris, to Kut, where Major-General Townshend’s Division were besieged by the Turkish army.

Several attempts had already been made to break the siege, including the Battle of Sheikh Sa’ad, the Battle of Wadi, and the Battle of Hanna. As part of the 13th Division arrived, General Aylmer tried to break the siege again, attacking the Dujaila redoubt on 8th Mar. This attack failed, at a cost of 4,000 men. General Aylmer was dismissed and replaced with General George Gorringe on 12 Mar. The relief attempt by Gorringe which began on 5th Apr is usually referred to as the First Battle of Kut. The British forces numbered about 30,000 soldiers, roughly equal to the Ottomans. The British succeeded in capturing Fallahiyeh, but with heavy losses. Beit Asia was taken on 17th Apr. In the meantime, the fourth and final Battalion of the 13th Division, the 7th Gloucestershires, had been quarantined in Basra. They arrived on the night of Apr 18th-19th about 500 strong, were plunged that same night into the fighting, and were pressed into action for the final effort, an attack on Sannaiyat on 22nd Apr. With the 13th Division’s ranks depleted, it was reduced to providing machine-gun and artillery fire in support of the 3rd (Meerut) Division. The Allies were unable to take Sannaiyat and suffered some 1,200 casualties in the attack. All the relief efforts had failed, at a total cost of around 30,000 Allied killed or wounded. Ottoman casualties are believed to have been around 10,000. The 7th Glosters lost 70 of their 500 men in this action.

The siege of Kut-al-Amara lasted 147 days. By 27th Apr 1916, no food was left in Kut. Townshend began negotiations with Khalil Bey, the Turkish commander, and on the morning of 29th Apr the Turks were allowed to march into the town. The 11,800 British and Indian troops inside the garrison were taken prisoner. Captured British and Indian soldiers were brutally treated on their march to Turkish prisoner-of-war camps in Anatolia. Of the 11,800 men who left Kut-al-Amara with their captors on 6 May 1916, 4,250 died either on their way to captivity or in the camps that awaited them at the journey’s end. After this devastating and humiliating loss, General Gorringe was removed from command. The 13th Division spent the summer recovering from the fighting, and preparing for further operations to capture Baghdad, but there was no relief for them. It was unbearably hot, and their health declined rapidly. Many died, from dysentery, scurvy, cholera, sunburn, heatstroke, smallpox, typhus, and malaria, spread by hordes of flies. It was a period of military inaction, but extreme suffering. It was probably here that Henry first suffered from malaria, which flared up several times in his later life.

The 7th Gloucestershires again saw action in Kut in December 1916. It was probably here that Henry was wounded. He appeared in the daily wounded lists on 24th Jan 1917, listed as Lance Corporal 22457 Gloucestershire Regiment. This is also the first indication we have of his promotion. The battalion saw action again in the capture of Kut in February 1917. The battalion fought its last battle on 29th March 1917 during the Samarrah offensive. It spent the next 15 months mostly on defensive and garrison duties and was disbanded in September 1919.

On 3rd Dec 1918 Henry was transferred to the Reserve, Class Z. He was then discharged on 6th May 1919. He was awarded the Victory Medal, the British War Medal and the 1915 Star. My brother has one of his medals, inscribed: 22457 PTE H WHITEHEAD GLOUCS R. I have another. He is also remembered on the North Aston Roll of Honour. Throughout my mother’s childhood, a glass dome stood on the gas meter cupboard in the front room, displaying the cup Henry had won winning the boxing contest, surrounded by his war medals, with a vase of everlasting flowers from the garden beside them.

The MOD has been unable to find any records under Henry’s Gloucestshires soldier number (we are about to check using his Hussars number).

Roll of Honour 1914-1918 North Aston.
Henry Whitehead photographed in Madras.

Henry married Annie Sear on 26th March 1921 at St Luke’s Church, West Holloway. In what looks like a wedding photo, below, Henry was wearing uniform, however, he gave his occupation as a warehouseman. Technically, a man could not wear his uniform more than 28 days after discharge, but the Quartermaster may not have asked for the return of the uniform. It is unclear whether he went to India before or after his wedding, or indeed both.

Henry Whitehead and Annie Sear’s wedding in 1921.

Henry and Annie set up home at 37 Commerell Street in East Greenwich, and had three children, Arthur, who was born on 8th February 1922, then Margaret, on 26th March 1923, and finally Grace, on 8th December 1924.

After he left the Army, Henry worked on the 108 bus route which started at Poplar Bus Garage and went to Crystal Palace. He wore the conductors’ regulation navy serge suit, which had chrome buttons with ‘General’ written on each one. He also had a badge on the front of his stiff peaked cap that said ‘General’. He wore a white shirt and a white removable cover on his cap which his wife Annie had to wash. He also wore a black tie when on duty. His shoes were black and meticulously polished. Hanging from his top pocket was an oval metal disc, bearing his personal number. Across his shoulder he wore a heavy leather money bag, with a section for silver, and another for coppers. A strap across the opposite shoulder carried the ticket punch, so that when the ticket was inserted and the lever pulled downwards, the ticket was punched with a ringing sound, which went ‘ping’. The ticket rack was heavy too, as the different coloured tickets were held in place with a metal spring, which reminded my mother of a mouse trap. There was a long ticket rack for busy journeys, and a small ticket rack for quieter or shorter journeys. The spare tickets were kept locked in a metal box. For cold weather his wife knitted him some woollen wristlets, as he could not wear gloves when handling tickets and money.

Henry was always busy. He enjoyed wood working, made orange crate furniture for the house, and even built an orange crate dolls’ house for each of his daughters. He kept pigeons and chickens and grew flowers in the back yard. He bought a wire haired terrier, which he named Peter, from the local butcher. He liked to take his children for weekend walks, and took them on trips using his bus pass. Henry smoked, and would send my mother to the shops to buy his ‘ounce of shag’ and ‘fag papers’. He also enjoyed hair cutting and mending shoes on a cobbler’s last, which he called ‘snobbing’.

At least once a year Henry visited his family in North Aston, where he enjoyed his old pastimes, fishing, shooting, and gardening. At first he would take his whole family with him, but his wife Annie didn’t take to the simple country life, so before long Henry started taking his son Arthur to North Aston with him, while Annie and the girls went on separate holidays.

Quite suddenly in 1932 Henry had a particularly bad recurrence of his malaria, and the children were sent to live with relatives for a while, but he soon recovered.

In the 1939 Register Henry and Annie were listed still living at 37 Commerell Street, Greenwich, with Henry working as a London Passenger Transport Board Omnibus Conductor. He often did night work on the basses during the war, and the children had to be careful not to wake him as he slept during the day. Henry acquired an allotment at the gas works site so he could help ‘Dig for Victory’. The family were bombed out twice, and were forced to find a new home. The first move was to a large Victorian semi-detached house, 15 Langdale Road, in West Greenwich, and the second was to 29 Halstow Road.

By 1947 Henry was working at a gas works, I believe as a night watchman. Annie died of breast cancer on 21st June 1950. After her death Henry remained at 29 Halstow Road until at least 1952. Henry remarried in 1953, to Nellie Florence Willis. Henry was the third of Nell’s four husbands. He changed his will to leave £100 each to his two grandchildren (with no provision for any later grandchildren), and the remainder to his new wife.

Henry and Nell on their wedding day.

By 1955 Henry was working as a night watchman. He had always kept his passion for the outdoors, and dearly loved his garden.

Henry and Nell lived at 29 Pound Park Road, Greenwich, from at least 1959 to 1961. Henry died on 21st Oct 1961 at St Nicholas Hospital, Plumstead, just five months after I was born. He was buried in a consecrated grave, plot 42624, square 54, at Nunhead Cemetery, London, on 28th October 1961. He left £100 each to Leslie and Lesley and the balance, £284, to Nell. Probate was granted to his daughter Grace and her husband Hector Tyler.

Nell and Henry.

Nell remarried to William Watson in 1965, and emigrated to Australia in 1968. She died in Australia in 1972. My mother had always found it hard to adjust to having a stepmother, and was much aggrieved that many of her father’s possessions and photographs were taken by Nell to Australia, never to be seen again. I was therefore immensely excited to hear from a gentleman who had discovered some of my grandfather’s papers, including his Small Soldier Book, in a house clearance in Worcestershire, and had tracked me down with the help of his local library. These few precious items were returned to me in 2018.

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