In 2001 I began to work on what I expected would be a slim volume which would help to remember those listed on my local war memorial in Southborough, near Tunbridge Wells. Located at the top of the town, it looks out over the cricket field and Common with its ancient oaks, the Hand & Sceptre pub, and Decimus Burton’s Victorian church. The memorial names two hundred and fifty-four men and one woman from the linked communities of Southborough and High Brooms – 205 of them are casualties of the Great War, 49 of the Second World War and one of the Korean War. At the time of their deaths, these people were of course mourned and known by many, but now direct knowledge of them is fading. I hoped to bring back into modern memory the consciousness of who they were as individuals.
I began by carefully transcribing the names from the Memorial by hand, noting under which regiments or services each were listed. I then went on to access the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s website and casualty search page. Some were easy to identify, particularly those with unusual names of course, but others took a degree of patience, and in some cases, I needed to look at over a hundred records to try and identify which was the right person. There were those whom I could not find, who had died in circumstances meaning they were not accorded a CWGC record.
Once I had found a death date, I booked in the first of a series of long sessions on the microfilm machine at the local reference library, scrolling backwards and forwards through copies of local papers of the time. For even the averagely curious person and amateur local historian, the temptation to read all the fascinating material in these old papers is great, but it was necessary to maintain a discipline of focusing only on those for which I was searching, though from time to time I also made a record of pertinent background information. In most cases, I was delighted to find not only a photograph, but also an account, albeit sometimes brief, of the man who had died.
The process of transferring this material was often laborious. The library copier was fairly old, and it was often quite difficult to get a good image of a photograph that had already seen several reproductions. I took these printed-out images home, scanned them in and then used appropriate software to make the best version of them I could for inclusion in the book. I felt that it was worth including any image, however poor, that brought the individual man into focus.
I was aided in my quest by a number of other local amateur historians, who were very generous in their support, including Frank Stevens, who himself had researched and produced a book on the Southborough Sappers of the Kent (Fortress) Royal Engineers. He had been given a box of newspaper clippings from the First World War years which someone had rescued from a skip, and he shared the relevant ones with me. Another, Lieutenant-Colonel Maxwell Macfarlane, had spent some time himself in the reference library on past occasions making a note of all mentions of Southborough men, and he lent me his notebooks. A keen local medal-collector was kind enough to give me everything he had found about the original recipients of those whose medals and death-plaques were in his possession.
I also put out a call for relatives or friends of the fallen to contact me through various articles which explained what I intended to do in publications like the local Town Council and civic society newsletters, and local papers (more than a decade on, of course, social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter would now help with this process), Sadly, some of those relatives were already very old when I interviewed them and they have since passed away. I felt I had a duty to those relatives and friends who had entrusted me with their stories, precious photographs and time to keep working until I had completed the book. The research for the book became more than just a hobby. I suppose you could say it was a labour of love. Over time the envisaged slim volume became a book with two hundred and sixty pages and over two hundred photographs.
Although the book is specifically about Southborough's War Memorial, I hope that the effect achieved by reading through its idiosyncratic mix of personal stories, local news reports of the time, accounts of WW1 prisoner of war camp experiences, of ships being torpedoed, etc creates a historical and social human history in microcosm which could easily reflect the experience of every small town and village in Britain.
For any schoolchildren who are planning to visit the battlefields with school groups in 2014, the centenary of the First World War, the Commonwealth War Graves website is a great place to start if they are researching ancestors who died. For those people with unusual family names, like rising Rugby star Billy Twelvetrees, the search result will be much smaller - there are only six men of this name commemorated over both the World Wars.