The death of anyone in a war that most people did not understand, would be cause enough for grief, but Sarah Wells lost three sons, William, Herbert and Thaddeus and must have felt great anxiety over at least one other, who survived.
A widowed laundress, living at 2 Poynter’s Cottages, Sarah was the granddaughter of Thomas Tantony, a shoemaker, recorded in Ham in the early 19th century. Her husband, Daniel, an incomer from Stamford, died in 1904, by which time the couple had had 17 children baptised at St Andrew’s—and possibly even an eighteenth.
William Wells had many years of military service behind him, and when war broke out, he was still listed on the Royal Fleet Reserve. William’s response to the threat of war had been to re-enroll in the Royal Navy just two days before war was declared.
He was the first of the Wells boys to be killed, on his brother Herbert’s birthday, in 1916. Five months later, Herbert died of wounds in France, and within three weeks of his death, Thaddeus was killed near Ypres.
The wooden crosses which had marked the graves of Herbert and Thaddeus Wells, were returned to their families after the crosses were replaced with CWGC headstones, and can be seen in the gallery above the West Door of St Andrew’s Church. Their mother, having survived her sons by over 20 years, died at Poynter’s Cottages in 1939.
As with the three families which lost two sons—the Adams, Frickers and Uptons—I intend to post separately about each of the Wells brothers.
Arthur Wells—a survivor
We know something about the war service of their brother, Arthur (“Jack”) Wells, the youngest of Daniel and Sarah’s eight sons. His name was registered as Arthur at the time of his birth, and he was duly baptised as Arthur. Just Arthur. Plain Arthur.
In the course of my research, I found that he was sometimes referred to as ‘Jack’ by family and friends. Jack is often an abbreviation for John, which may explain why his name was registered as John A. Wells when he was admitted to the Ham National School (entry #439) on 12 July 1897. His father’s name was given as Daniel Wells, a painter, and his date of birth as 6 June 1894. Until I found that this information matched Arthur aka Jack, I even thought that I had found an 18th child. However, a careful check showed no potential twin in the Register of Births in the Quarter in which Arthur’s birth was registered.
Before he enlisted in the Rifle Brigade at Tipperary in April 1912, Arthur had worked as a Nurseryman, while also serving in the Special Reserve. He was sent to France in September 1914 and was therefore among those awarded the 1914 Star. Arthur was subsequently transferred to the Machine Gun Corps, in which he reached the rank of Lance Corporal and was an Acting Corporal at the time of his discharge in November 1921.
We know that Arthur was given ten days’ leave in January 1917, about six weeks after William’s death and also that in October 1917, several months after the deaths of his brothers Herbert (in May) and Thaddeus (in June) he was given leave “on compassionate grounds”.
Arthur’s service records notes that his discharge in 1921 was under Paragraph 32 of the King’s Regulations, and for the purpose of “residing permanently outside of the U.K.” Indeed, the address he provided on discharge, was in Ypres, where he was living in the household of Madame van Daele, in the Grand Place. The Patisserie Vandaele (founded in 1891) was, in fact, the very first building in the Grote Markt to be rebuilt after the war, thanks to the discovery of an object belonging to the family, a small statue of Mary, in the Market Place ruins after the war. (This indication of the location of the destroyed tea room, reinforced the Van Daele’s claim to the site.)
We know that some of the employees of the Commonwealth War Graves’ Commission, boarded with the Van Daeles, and that one of them, William Dunn, married one of their daughters. We have not had time to establish what Arthur was doing there after the war, but we do know that he eventually returned to Ham where, in 1934, he married Florence Mary Neaves in St Andrew’s Church. The marriage register shows that he was living with his mother at 2 Poynter’s Cottages, and that he was once again, working in horticulture, this time as a gardener this time.
Arthur and his wife lived on at 2 Poynter’s Cottages after the death of Sarah Wells in 1939.
We had hoped, in the early stages of our research, that those living in the houses and cottages which the men left to go to war, would be interested in their stories. In researching the Wells family, the project has benefitted from the involvement of the current owner of the cottage, who spoke movingly about the family’s loss last year, at a gathering in Ham Library to mark Remembrance Day.
Just as the story of the Wells family, belongs to the story of their family home, the story of your predecessors is part of the story of your home. We continue to hope that other residents will want to learn the stories of ‘their’ servicemen and women, so if you are someone who was too busy to respond to our invitation a year ago, do please get in touch this year. We have information that is almost bound to interest, and perhaps even to intrigue you.
Update on the Crosses (2018)
When composing the original version of this post in October 2015, I speculated as follows:
If I am allowed to speculate, then I would float the possibility that Arthur Wells, like William Dunn, may have been working for the CWGC. He had worked before the war as a nurseryman, so this is a skill he might well have applied in the Commission’s service, perhaps even in the laying out of the gardens in its cemeteries. Thaddeus, the brother nearest to Arthur in age, is buried at La Laiterie. Might this connection explain how it was possible for the wooden crosses for Herbert and Thaddeus to be brought back to Ham?
I now now learnt that Thaddeus’s son brought the crosses back to Ham in, it is thought, the 1950s. This was at the time that the crosses were being replaced with headstones. This information came from Thaddeus’s granddaughter, Anne.