A more detailed account of my search for Alec Willows is on my Ham War Memorial blog at https://hamremembers.wordpress.com/2019/06/27/alec-willows-c-1882-1915/ .
The mystery man
Readers who have come across my Ham Remembers blog post on Alec Willows will know that, in many respects, he was, and still is, a man of mystery. Part of the mystery is that he is not commemorated on the Ham War Memorial and is thought not ever to have resided in the parish. Yet his name was on an interim, handwritten Roll of Honour in the Parish Church, added to in the course of the Great War, as news of fatalities reached the parish. Identifying his connection turned out to be a more difficult search than finding why Ernest Parsons was commemorated on this memorial. Who the heck was Alec?
For the three censuses in which Alec is recorded—1891, 1901 and 1911—there is conflicting evidence for his birthplace and for his age. I located him first of all in the 1911 Census, as a Bombardier serving in the Royal Field Artillery at Headley in Hampshire. That census recorded his age as 28 and his birthplace as Eastbourne. One might suppose, as I did, that the Army would have based this age on some documentation or information provided to them when he enlisted. If this age was calculated with any accuracy, and if one can rule out a transcription error, at the time his details were transferred to the census summary sheet, this would mean he was born in 1882 or 1883.
I went on to Alec in the 1901 Census, when he was enumerated at 26 Southlands Road, Bromley, aged 16, and with his birthplace recorded simply as ‘London’. He was described, moreover, as the ‘adopted son’ of Ellen Tracey, the head of the household, and a widow, aged 55. If this age was accurate, Alec was born in 1884 or 1885. I was curious about the connection, and have to admit to having wondered whether Alec was the natural child of either George Tracey or his wife, Ellen Tracey, née Reason. It took a while to be able to rule that possibility out.
Despite being armed with conflicting information from the 1901 and 1911 censuses, I was able to find Alec’s whereabouts in 1891. Ancestry had conspired, as it often does, to mistranscribe his entry but I eventually matched him to the David Alexn (sic) Williams (sic) in the household of George and Ellen Trang (sic) aged 6, and described as a ‘boarder’. All the members of the Trang family in this household match, apart from their surname, the names and ages of the members of George and Ellen Tracey and their children, in earlier as well as subsequent censuses. The age of Alec in this census is consistent and his birthplace is given as London—N. K. (Not Known). It appears that the Tracey family believed their boarder turned adopted son had been born somewhere in London.
As for his parentage and his birth, it may be some time before those details can be clarified. I have, of course, searched for the registration of his birth, but not found it in England, Wales or Scotland, nor in any of the regions or districts that could be included in a broad interpretation of either London or Eastbourne. In my searches I have entered as first names David and/or Alexander, and for surnames I’ve used Willows, and even Williams and Tracey, searching for similar sounding and phonetic variations. I’ve considered illegitimacy, maternal post-natal mortality, illness or imbecility. I’ve used a wide range of possible birth years, but I cannot yet identify his mother.
Over one hundred years after his death, the families of Ellen Reason and of Emily Spencer have different perceptions of his relationship with their relative. Both families had been led to understand, that their relative was Alec’s fiancée. Did this fearless Serjeant hesitate to commit himself because he could not bear to disappoint one of them?
Emily Spencer of Bromley (1883–1965)
About ten years ago, Ellen Reason’s great-nephew, Christopher, and Emily Spencer’s great-niece, Claire, made contact with each other online, via Ancestry. They shared documents and photos, in the course of which an alternative story unfolded about their respective great aunts. Emily and Ellen each believed, until the end of her life, that she was Alec’s ‘intended’.
It seems that the two women knew of each other—certainly the letter that Alec’s Commanding Officer, Major Ballingall, sent to Ellen Reason, following Alec’s death, was in Emily Spencer’s possession at the time of her death. The letter itself increases the mystery about Emily since the salutation, “Dear Miss Reason” seems to have been altered to read “Dear Miss Spencer“.
Emily is likely to have met Alec when Ellen Tracey, his adoptive mother, moved her family to Bromley, following the death of her husband. The Spencer family had also moved to Bromley—from their home in Gravesend—and were living at 22 Bourne Road, a road parallel to, and only one block away from, Southlands Road, where the Tracey family, including Alec, were living at number 26. Alec and Emily were almost certainly good friends by the time he enlisted: a photo of Alec, taken about the time he joined the army, was among Emily’s possessions. She may have been given it as his ‘sweetheart’.
Alec had been employed locally as a rent collector, until his enlistment in the Royal Field Artillery, towards the end of the Anglo-Boer War, the first war in which news of battles in distant parts of the Empire could rapidly reach those ‘at Home’. By the end of the 19th century almost everyone under the age of 30 had benefitted from at least five years of compulsory education and could read newspaper reports of war and be inspired, alas, by the prospect the army offered of adventure and ‘thrills’. Was this what attracted Alec to the army? There was also the opportunity, during military service, to acquire a trade or skills that would provide stability and a decent income on when the 12 years was up, and the soldier returned to civilian life.
The birth of Emily Hester Spencer was registered in the fourth quarter of 1883. She was baptised at Holy Trinity, Tulse Hill on 10 February 1884, the second of the four children of William Spencer, a house painter, and his wife, Amelia Elizabeth Payne. At the turn of the century, Emily was a dressmaker, as was her elder sister, Ada Lucy, both still at home with their parents and two younger brothers John William and William Arthur. By 1911, only Emily was still living at home. Perhaps by then, she was in love with Alec, a young man, about to embark on a military career that would end only with his death. He appears to have been popular with his fellow soldiers, and by his sorrowing commanding officer, Major Harry Miller Ballingall, who was to describe him as ‘my best Serjeant and a very good comrade”.
Emily’s other life as a military nurse
Emily had taken steps, as soon as war broke out, to contribute to the War Effort, by preparing to train as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse. First she was required to complete introductory courses in First Aid (completed in December 1914) and in Home Nursing (completed in April 1915). Further training followed with an examination and certificate in First Aid to the Injured in November 1915. In July 1918, at the time of the first and milder wave of the 1918 pandemic, Emily was again sent on a course in Home Nursing. By October 1918, she would certainly have been exposed to the risks of nursing patients in the more deadly wave of the 1918 pandemic which was at its height from then until the Spring of 1919.
In the aftermath of the war, and the resulting ‘Great Silence’ Emily became a founder member of the Paddington Nursing Division, later renamed the St Marylebone Nursing Division. We know that she participated in its divisional meetings throughout the period between the wars.
In 1930, the Paddington Nursing Division was registered as a Voluntary Aid Detachment. By the end of the decade, Emily was in her mid-50s, the age at which women of that age were taking their pensions.
By maintaining her involvement with the Nursing Division, Emily was one of those called up when war was declared. She was immediately deployed to Millbank Barracks, under whose ‘direction’ she was to work for 9 years. During that time she was deployed to a number of hospitals and military hospitals in London and the Home Counties.
After the war, Emily worked for a period at the Hertford Bishop Hospital in Paris. Her release testimonial in July 1948 describes her Military Conduct as Exemplary and goes on to say:
She has an excellent record and has had first class reports from all officers under whom she has served. A most efficient nurse, a conscientious nurse, and shows a keen interest in the comfort and welfare of her charges.
Her service in the military hospitals and further afield was acknowledged in the medals she was awarded at the end of the Second World War.
Emily deserves to be remembered, not merely for the mystery surrounding the man she loved, but also for the dedication and care she displayed in her nursing of wounded servicemen between, and during, two world wars. Often, as she tended them, she must have been reminded of ‘her’ Alec, who had not been killed instantly, but who had died after suffering grave injuries. Her service in military institutions and hospitals, nursing the injured and caring for those who had suffered life-changing injuries, was reflected and honoured in the nursing medals that her devotion had earned.
Emily was also a much-loved daughter, sister, aunt and great-aunt. She did not marry and died in Bromley, in 1965.
Ellen Reason of Ham (1880–1961)
The Register of Soldiers’ Effects records “Miss Ellen Reason” as Alec’s sole legatee. After locating this document, my next question was what the relationship might have been between Ellen Reason and Alec Willows? By taking the line of Ellen Tracey, Alec’s ‘adopted mother’ back to her parents, and of Ellen’s father, William Reason of Ham, back to his parents, it became clear to me that Ellen Tracey was the elder sister of William Reason. Alec’s ‘adopted mother’ was the aunt of her namesake, the younger Ellen Reason.
In the photograph above, Ellen is in the centre of the back row. William and Eliza’s eldest three children, Ellen, Ada and Arthur were born in Ireland, where their father was stationed in the early years of the 1880s. William’s mother had died when he was a toddler, and he and his step-mother did not, unfortunately, get on. As soon as possible, William left the family home in Suffolk and joined the army. After 12 years’ service in India and Ireland, it was the recommendation of an officer that led to his finding work as a Coachman and Groom in Richmond, a move that ultimately brought the family to Ham. Numerous Army Officers had connections with Ham, and it would be interesting to know whether one of them was responsible for the family’s ending up at 3 Victoria Terrace, home to the Reason family for well over 60 years.
Ellen was so deeply affected by Alec’s death that she, like Emily, never married. She was to cherish a locket containing a lock of Alec’s hair, until the end of her life, more than half a century later. As Alec’s sole legatee, Ellen was the recipient of the letter from Alec’s Commanding Officer, which described Alec as “my very best Serjeant”. It was probably Alec’s closeness to his ‘adoptive’ cousins in Ham, and to his relationship with Ellen in particular, that resulted in his name being written on the Interim Roll of Honour in Ham’s Parish Church. When decisions were made as to who ‘belonged’ to the parish, Alec’s name was not, however, included with those inscribed on the permanent War Memorial.
Just skimming one more pebble…am I going to discover other women in Alec’s life, when their descendants type “Alec Willows” into a search engine?
Edge, C.L., My sweetheart is somewhere in France, published privately. This is the story of Emily’s life. Her great-niece, Claire, has been researching her family for many years, her curiosity having been aroused at the age of eight, when she was told that her great-aunt’s fiancée had been killed in the Great War.
Frood, M.W., ‘Alec Willows’, https://hamremembers.wordpress.com/2019/06/27/alec-willows-c-1882-1915/, accessed 03/05/2020.
Museum and Library of the Order of St John, Correspondence with C.L.Edge, dated 18 June 1996, containing information on the wartime career (1940–1950) of Emily Spencer.
To Christopher Reason and Claire Edge for sharing with me information about their respective great aunts, Ellen and Emily, and for their generosity in allowing me to include their family photographs in the relevant blog posts.