1126 Corporal Harold Anson Gunner,
Royal Field Artillery (A Battery, 282nd Brigade).
Killed in Action in France, 7 October 1916,
Buried at the Guards’ Cemetery, Lesboeufs.
Chorister at St Andrew’s Church.
Following on from James Douglas Cockburn, we have the story behind another man who was also killed in the vicinity of Ginchy, barely a month after the death of James in that very area.
Matching the name H.A.GUNNER to the correct war casualty was not straightforward. Four H. Gunners were killed in the Great War. None of them had the easily recognisable connection with the parish of Ham that a local historian expects to find—residence, birth or even employment in the parish at some point during his or her lifetime.
One of these men was 2/Lieut. Harold Gunner, also known as Percy, and serving in the Australian Infantry Force, though described as a “native of England“. This man had been employed as a Page Boy in his youth and was the son of Ellison Gunner and Caroline Noble. Had he been a page boy at Ham House or one of the other grand houses? Was his mother connected with the Noble family of Selby House? The answer to both those questions was, No. This Harold had emigrated to Australia with his mother and his sister, Matilda, and had an enviable service record, intact and detailed, in contrast with the majority of British servicemen’s records which were lost or damaged in 1940.
There was also a Corporal Harold Anson Gunner, in the Royal Field Artillery, and described as a “native of Huntingdon”. He was a Civil Servant in the 1911 Census, and had by then been living for some time in Wandsworth at 291 Earlsfield Road, in the household of David and Elizabeth Taylor. (Harold was still listed at that address on the Electoral when he left for France in 1915.) He was the son of John Matthias Gunner, a Schoolmaster and his wife, Elizabeth Ann (“Bessie”) Northway. Could his father have been appointed to a school in Ham or Petersham? Further research indicated that no, he wasn’t.
I fairly soon ruled out the other two, Gunner Harry Gunner of the Royal Garrison Artillery, and Lance Corporal Herbert Gunner of the Sherwood Forresters. There was also an Eliza Gunner, working as a Cook at Petersham House, whom I was also able to eliminate as a relative of any of the four H. Gunners on the CWGC database.
All the above may seem a little irrelevant to Harold himself, but I have come across elsewhere mistakes over the identities of some of the Gunners, and I hope this will be useful and of interest to more distant relatives of ‘our’ Harold who currently who may be researching this family.
St Andrew’s Choristers
Eventually a list, Men in the Parish Serving with the Colours, was located in a box labelled St Andrew’s Church, and held by Richmond Libraries’ Local Studies Collection. This list revealed that Harold Gunner had been a member of the Church Choir. Five other members of the St Andrew’s Choir were also on that list: John Elder (later a churchwarden at St Andrew’s, whose wife, Anna Paula Schmidt, whom he had married in 1914, was German); H.G. Hall; John Motton; Ernest Owen and R. Price.
Harold Anson Gunner was born at The School House at Great Stukeley, in Huntingdonshire, in the third quarter of 1891. His parents John Matthias and Bessie had married in 1883 in St Mark’s Chapel of Ease in Battersea and, by the time of John’s birth, had a daughter, Elizabeth.
Anson was the middle name of several sons in this and earlier generations of the Gunner family and may indeed, if interpreted as the first half of a “double-barrel” have bumped Harold’s name to the head of the list, by alphabetical order, of names on the South Petherwin War Memorial.
Harold’s maternal grandmother, Elizabeth Honey Gaud, was the daughter of John Gaud, Innkeeper of The Queen’s Head, an ancient pub in West Street, Tavistock, while his maternal grandfather was Samuel Northway, a watchmaker.
His maternal grandfather, David Gunner, had been a Tailor working near Golden Square in Westminster, who became a Scripture Reader when he reached his fifties. Scripture Readers worked among the illiterate, the poor and the destitute, reading Bible passages and religious tracts to them. Their work in this field in Poplar may have inspired their children to become teachers at a time when the passing of the 1870 Elementary Education Act recognised the need for a few years of basic education to be compulsory for all children.
The 1881 Census has Sarah, widowed and at 167 East India Road, Poplar, as a Scripture Reader, perhaps having only taken this up after her husband’s death the previous year. David had died the year before, but three of their children were still living in the family home—one was a governess, and two were teachers. There was a fourth teacher visiting the household, while under the same roof were a lodger and her niece, both teachers.
The births of Harold and his three siblings, all within 8 years of each other, were registered in Blything, Hendon, Aylesbury and Huntingdon—each one in a different county—depending on where their father happened to be teaching at the time. The second of them, Ralph Anson Gunner, died before his first birthday.
Eventually their father’s promotion took the family to South Petherwin, in Cornwall where John Matthias ended his career as a Head Teacher and where he and his wife remained for the rest of their lives. Perhaps the move to Cornwall had been in the pipeline for some time since Bessie had been born at Gunnislake in Cornwall, giving the couple all the more reason to settle down there with their three surviving children. In later life, their son Percy’s affection for South Petherwin was reflected in the name of his house, Petherwyn, in Shere Avenue, Epsom.
Almost certainly this Schoolmaster’s children received a sound basic education under the watchful eye of their father, and this must have been of some benefit to Harold when he sought employment. His first job, as a Boy Clerk in the Civil Service, required him to move to London where, as we have found, he lodged with the Taylors. Thanks to those at the Board of Trade currently researching their memorial, we now know that Harold went on to reach the grade of Abstractor, working in the Seamen’s Registry.
Harold enlisted in the Territorial Force in February 1913, expressing a preference for the Royal Field Artillery. He served first as a Gunner—there must have been the odd double-take when a call went out for Gunner Gunner—and then as a Bombardier before his promotion to the rank of Corporal which he held at the time of his death.
At some point, Harold’s elder brother, Percy Cyril—also a clerk in the Civil Service, but with the Charity Commission—joined him at 291 Earlsfield Road. It may well be that this was simply to establish residence in the parish as it is the address Percy gave when he married Marie Emily Glover, by licence, in St Andrew’s Earlsfield, just nine days after the outbreak of war. Harold was a witness, as was Marie’s sister, Maud.
Perhaps the haste suggested by a marriage by licence was propelled by the onset of war and the prospect of separation. Percy Cyril had enlisted in the Territorial Force in 1911—so even earlier than Harold—also having chosen to serve the Royal Field Artillery. Indeed, the brothers arrived in France on the same day, 5 October 1915, though in different units and the coincidence of this in their records led to my looking more closely at Percy’s military records. His rise in the Territorial Force was rapid—following his enlistment, Percy was promoted at every annual T.F. camp and had reached the rank of Sergeant by March 1914. Percy soon became his brigade’s Quartermaster Sergeant—perhaps his training as a civil servant helped to make him the very model of a modern quartermaster.
A gunner’s life in the RFA is the topic of a Google Site which focuses on the 175th Brigade. Anyone with a gunner in the family will find this informative and interesting. We know that the initial training of a recruit took three months for an infantryman—but it was said that it took twelve months to train a gunner to the necessary standard. Unfortunately, they did not always have the luxury of that length of training. Being a gunner was skilled work, demanding and dangerous because the guns were a key target for the enemy. Because the guns were heavy, it was difficult to move a gun out of range at short notice.
Harold’s service in a theatre of war during 1915 entitled him to receive the full suite of three medals. He was killed in action on 7 October 1916 a year and two days after his arrival in the Western Theatre of War. It is said he was killed when an enemy shell landed near his gun position. Unfortunately the War Diary for 282 Brigade for the entire month of October has been lost, as I discovered when I viewed the unit’s War Diary at The National Archives.
Harold’s grave is in the Guards’ Cemetery at Lesboeufs, in France. He is also commemorated on the Ham Parish War Memorial, on the Board of Trade’s War Memorial in London, and on the South Petherwin War Memorial in Cornwall.
The Board of Trade War Memorial is now at 55 Whitehall/3 Whitehall Place London SW1A 2AW. Those commemorated on that memorial have not been forgotten by those who are now at the Department of Trade.
Google Sites, 175 Brigade Royal Field Artillery, ‘A gunner’s life’, https://sites.google.com/site/175brigaderfa/a-gunner-s-life, accessed 29.7/2018. This is not the brigade to which Harold Anson Gunner was attached, but the general description of the life of a gunner applies to other Brigades and Batteries in the Royal Field Artillery.
Photograph of the South Petherwin War Memorial is used under the terms of the Creative Commons Licence.
The National Archives, WO 95/2941/1, War Diary of 282 Brigade Royal Field Artillery, 1/10/1915–31/12/1916. Note: the diary for the entire month of October 1916 is missing.
Genealogical Research conducted by Margaret Frood.