George Gunner – in the Shadow of the Great War

George Gunner was a Sevenoaks man who served with the Royal West Kent Regiment. and saw service abroad during the Boer War. Like many of those veterans of South Africa, he remained on the Reserve and later fought in the Great War until injury saw him sent home after only a few months at the Front. From that moment, George’s life changed. The once fit and experienced soldier in the prime of life was now plagued by poor mental and physical health until he could no longer bear it. The Great War cast a long shadow over the rest of his life. 

George was born on 24 June 1881 the eldest of three children ( he had two younger sisters) of Thomas Henry Gunner and Hannah Elizabeth (nee Higgs). The 1881 Census shows George’s parents living at 2 Hoopers Yard at the top of the High Street, with Hannah’s younger sister, Louisa, and a servant.

By the time of the 1891 Census, they had moved to Clarendon House in Granville Road and Thomas was noted as a gardener; he could have been employed at the nearby Royal Crown Hotel as he was a frequent winner at various flower and produce shows and at local carnivals. George was by then 9 years old and marked as a scholar.

By the time of the 1901 Census the family had moved to a new detached house, Woodbine Cottage, 2 Buckhurst Avenue. Father, Thomas, by that time had  ventured into plumbing, but George, now serving abroad, did not appear on that Census, although there were seven members of the extended family recorded there plus a postman lodger.

George had enlisted with the Royal West Kents in 1898. Although his service record from this time has not survived his obituary stated that he fought in the South Africa wars. The only surviving photo of him in uniform shows that he spent some time with the regiment in Malta.

A studio portrait of George taken in Malta

After his return to the UK and release from the Army, in 1906 George married Ada Mills at the newly built Methodist church in The Drive, Sevenoaks. The Marriage Certificate recorded George as an insurance agent. Ada had been recorded as a parlour maid with several other servants at the McNicol household  in St Botolph’s Road in the 1901 Census, but at the time of her marriage was living at 2 Knole Paddock. By the time of the 1911 Census, George had joined his father Thomas in the house painter business. By then George and Ada had three children, Eric, Gladys and Alice.

George’s papers in 1914 show his number as S/911 Army Reserve (Special Reservists) when he signed on at Maidstone on 19th September aged thirty-three. He re-joined as a private and was allocated to the 3rd Battalion but on the 30th he was transferred to the 6th Battalion for active service and promoted back to corporal. He arrived in France on 1st June 1915 and remained until he returned home on 23 November 1915. He was subsequently transferred back to the 3rd Battalion on home duties, then, on 13th October 1917 he was appointed as a lance sergeant unpaid and was eventually declared no longer fit for active service in February 1918, when he received the Silver War Badge on the grounds of sickness.

George had been wounded in November 1915. His obituary some twelve years later in the Sevenoaks Chronicle of 10 June 1927 recorded that

In that November he was injured by a heavy weight of falling earth near Loos. He remained in and out of hospital, having several operations, until his discharge in 1918

George’s obituary revealed that

He joined the RWK Regulars in 1898 and saw service in South Africa and the Great War. Went to France in June 1915 and in November 1915 was admitted to hospital with injuries to his head as a result of a fall of earth near Loos. He remained in hospital and underwent several operations until his discharge in 1918. Although very deaf he took an active part in several carnivals in Sevenoaks since the War.

Since his wartime injury George suffered from headaches and depression. His grandson Richard recalls being told that his grandfather had a metal plate in his head. Having returned to Buckhurst Avenue, he was employed as a cleaner at Sevenoaks Post Office. George struggled with his physical and mental health for the rest of his life until events came to a head in 1927, when he committed suicide in front of his friend Cllr Alec Nichol, who also happened to be chair of the Sevenoaks Branch of the British Legion. The Coroner described the case as ‘a tragedy of the war’ and the Inquest returned a verdict of ‘Suicide while of unsound mind‘.

The Inquest into George’s death was reported in detail

The Inquest into his suicide was reported fully in the Sevenoaks Chronicle, which noted that on the day of his death he was persuaded to go for a walk by his best friend Cllr Nichol, and despite being in an agitated state, Nichol told the Inquest that they had spoken for a long time and he had persuaded his friend to return home. However, while at Webb’s Alley (which led to Knole Park), George ran away, then initially pretended to overdose on carbolic acid before admitting this was false and insisting his friend fetch a policeman, Nichol left him, intending to fetch George’s wife from their nearby home. Tragically, George then hacked at his own throat and died on the scene very quickly.

Nichol told the Inquest, which was reported at length in the Chronicle that:

He was a man of the Old West Kents. To my idea it is a tragedy of the war. He was broken through a fall of earth when he was at the Front, and I have no doubt the history of his illness is attributable to war service“.

The stories of men like George are sometimes tucked away in family memories or in their obituaries and it’s important to remember these men whose names may not be on any public memorial but who gave their all like their fallen comrades. 

A well liked man whose death and personal struggles were reported in detail, George was buried in Greatness Cemetery in Sevenoaks and I will find his grave and leave a wooden cross the next time I visit, as well as including him in future guided walks of the Great War graves there.

My thanks to George’s grandson, Richard, for his help in researching this post.

MM for Horse’s Friend, Bill

Whilst searching past copies of a local paper for something else, I came across a much more interesting story, that of Sergeant 4683 (William) Bill Dewing,

William Fairfax Dewing was born in 1886 in Deptford, south London, later moving to Bromley and subsequently to Sevenoaks sometime after their home in Hayes was bombed in 1942.

He first appears in the Sevenoaks Chronicle in 1949. Clearly already a popular local figure, Bill was happy to talk about his many experiences and was an easy interviewee for any reporter.

Bill Dewing pictured in 1949 with schoolgirls from Walthamstow Hall, Sevenoaks

Bill, now a purveyor of dried logs and manure, is first profiled with his trusty mare, Stella, who pulled his cart through the streets of Sevenoaks. Stella was popular with pupils of Walthamstow Hall Girls’ School, who first met her heading to nearby Knole Park one Wednesday afternoon and then insisted that their weekly walk should always take the same route so that they could meet Bill and his trusty companion, who enjoyed all the attention.

According to the article, Bill had loved horses all his life. His father had been a carman and he followed him into that trade at the age of 14, later working as a stableman with a firm of stores. Bill was quoted as saying:

Horses have always been my work ever since them times. I saw the change over from horse drawn trams to electric, and did a lot of the carriage work from Greenwich to the ‘Bridges’ which followed.

London was all horses in my young days, and a better place for it too. It was nothing to work in stable with a hundred horses, and manure in those days was bought by one firm for 2/4d per horse per day.

Bill served in the Great War as a sergeant with the 10th Battalion of the Royal West Kents, where he was put to work playing to his strengths in training transport drivers at home and then in France:

I went to France in 1915, and took over a Brigade of Transport. I was a full sergeant. Medals? Oh yes, I did get the Military Medal. That was for saving men and horses in an ‘ammo’ dump explosion during a shelling. Got mentioned in dispatches too.

It has not been possible to find the citation for Bill’s medal and his brief account of it is likely to be the most detail available. He was named in the battalion war diary in May 1918 along with other medal recipients when the honours were gazetted. 10th Battalion was in Italy from November 1917, during which time Bill was admitted to 139th Field Ambulance on 30th of that month with what was described as a ‘knee joint injury’. It seems likely that the action where Bill gained his MM was in France before the Battalion moved, with the knee injury perhaps related occurring a few weeks after.

Bill’s award was noted in the War Diary for May 1918

As well as his Military Medal, Bill showed the Chronicle reporter another medal that he had been awarded, the RSPCA Medal ‘for courage and humanity’ which he won in 1935.

This prestigious medal was won when Bill saved a horse trapped in an iron manger at the Southern Railway Sports Ground. The horse had bolted when frightened, and had impaled itself on an iron fence, cleared itself with a badly gashed belly, and had finally come to rest with a foreleg twisted into an iron manger.

A policeman went to find Bill, who crawled under the animal, hacksawed the leg free, and then, taking the whole weight of the forequarters, got the horse out. He managed to nurse the animal to good health afterwards. For this act of compassion and heroism Bill was awarded the RSPCA’s Bronze Medal by Sir Kingsley Wood then Minister for Health.

The Animal World, November 1935 (extract courtesy of the RSPCA Archive)

A couple of years later in 1951, Bill featured in the Chronicle’s pages once again, this time with a new horse, Bess.

Bess had been used for home deliveries in the Sevenoaks district for many years and was popular with customers, with one even paying for a new coat for her, made at a local saddlers.

When Bess came to be put up for sale, several local residents, concerned at her likely fate, clubbed together to buy her and secure her future. In searching for a suitable home, Bill seemed an obvious choice and the horse was presented to him free of charge.

Bill appeared again in the Sevenoaks Chronicle in 1951

The paper reported that Miss J Brown of Vine Court, together with her mother, and a Miss Limbrick of Knockholt, and a Mrs MacMenemy of Mount Harry Roadhad clubbed together to buy her, ensuring that Bess had a comfortable and well-deserved retirement.

Bill lived on until 1962, when he died aged 76. It would be fascinating to hear from anyone that remembers Bill and if there are any family. Someone, somewhere, must have the medals this remarkable men received for his acts of bravery and compassion both during and after the Great War.

My thanks to the social media team and archivists at the RSPCA in researching this post.