Challenges in matching a name on a War Memorial with the correct military record

The image below shows that Face of the Ham Parish War Memorial which lists the parish’s casualties as a result of that war.  It is a stark list of initials and surnames, arranged in no particular order, and includes mistakes and spelling errors.  You might even notice that the son of Lord Sudeley, who had been Chairman of the Parish War Memorial Committee, is listed twice.  It’s not hard to guess the reason why that had to be corrected, but difficult to understand why they left the error on the face.  As you will see, they had form for erasing.

The WW1 Face of the Ham War Memorial

The explanation for the errors on this particular face is that this list dates from after the Second World War. That’s not because it took the good folk of the parish over two decades to get round to erecting it.  This face replaced what had previously appeared on the War Memorial.

Like the War Memorial for the neighbouring parish of Petersham, the original Ham War Memorial included the rank, full name and military unit of each casualty, and planning for this memorial started halfway through the First World War.

Between the two World Wars, the population of the parish of Ham had increased dramatically, with the building of housing estates on open land, to meet the urgent housing needs of the boroughs of Kingston and Richmond.  (The parish of Ham was formerly entirely within the borough of Kingston.)  This population increase meant that as many lives were to be lost in the Second World War, as had been lost in the first. In addition there were several civilian dead.

Rather than erect another memorial, the Parish Council decided that the names of the First World War casualties would be erased,  and their ‘entries’ condensed to initials and surnames. This provided the opportunity for transcription errors along the way, and this, as well as the minimal amount of information, caused considerable difficulties for me as the lead researcher.

E. PARSONS was one example.  A search of the CWGC  Casualties’ Database will generate 55 casualties for E. PARSONS, during the First World War, and with no rank, regiment or first name to go by, that’s quite a crop to eliminate.  Readers of the War Memorial blog, Ham Remembers, may remember similar challenges, particularly with those, before I could identify Ernest Parsons, who had passed through the parish yet left no record there.

One of the names on the 1914–1918 face was W.S. BENSON—it’s the tenth name in the first column.  As is the case with many local historians, familiarity with parish registers meant that I cheerfully recognised this surname as that of a large local family and surmised that he was probably the descendant of Thomas Benson.

Thomas Benson had arrived in Ham as a Market Gardener in the late and built up a business as a Potato Dealer, living in a comfortable house on Ham Common until his death. The domestic arrangements were a little complicated since Thomas’s first wife abandoned him, contracting a bigamous marriage, leaving behind six young children under the age of twelve, the youngest being an infant.  Two children had died in infancy.  Thomas soon embarked on a second relationship with his housekeeper, Sarah Fisher, having by her nine more children, most of them registered as Fisher but with Benson as a middle name.  The Fisher children simply dropped the Fisher after their parents’ marriage, some 25 years after the start of the relationship and a decade after the death of Thomas’s first wife.

While eight of Thomas’s sons survived to adulthood, I also had to factor in the possibility that W.S. Benson might be the illegitimate son of one of Thomas’s daughters, whose surname would also have been Benson.  Since the youngest of Thomas’s children was born in 1878, only he and the two a little older than him, would have been old enough to be conscripted, even when the ceiling was raised in 1916.  While I took stock of these sons, I focused more closely on the grandchildren.

In researching war memorials, one turns first to the CWGC database. This search did generate a W.S. Benson.  Following up the search results up, I found a casualty named Walter Stanley Benson, and then another, plain Stanley Benson, both serving in the Royal Army Medical Corps.  There was also Rifleman Jack W. S. Benson, a casualty from The King’s (Liverpool) Regiment.  Another Walter Stanley Benson, born in Hackney, served in the Royal Navy but survived.  It was helpful that the deaths of these men occurred close together, in April, May and July 1917, but a careful search of the local newspapers for that period did not report the news of the death of a Benson from either Ham or Petersham.

It was some time before a list of the original inscriptions, capturing them before their removal was found in a box in the Local Studies Library and Archive by one of our team  from the Friends of Ham Library.   Fortunately, a local historian, Sylvia Greenwood, had had the foresight to draw up a list of the names on the war memorial before the masons erased their details.  The belated discovery of this ‘Annex 4’ showed that the War Memorial had originally listed W.S.Benson, associated with the Scottish Rifles (The Cameronians).  We also found a list, drawn up by the Parish Council, and published in 1915, listing the inhabitants of the parish who were then ‘serving with the colours’, and this included Stanley Benson of Old Malt Cottage, serving with the 2nd Scottish Rifles.

I then searched the CWGC database, with a filter to extract a list of Benson casualties serving with The Cameronians.  There were five, all privates, listed in search results in the following order:
William Benson
Henry Benson
Peter Benson
Frederick Benson
M. Benson.

Tearing my hair out by then over Walter Stanley Benson, I tried a search of the Database Soldiers died in the Great War, for Benson.   Top of the list was someone in Brixton, Surrey (Go figure, as they say) but I scrolled down and further south on the list skimming over Bensons born in Islington and Whitehaven, Cumberland. Just about to leave that page, with the mouse heading to exit, I spotted Frederick Benson, born Ham Surrey, and serving in The Cameronians (Scottish Rifles). Looking for the Medal Index Card of this Frederick Benson, he was at the top of the list of Fredericks and serving with the 2nd Battalion of the Cameronians, his service number being 10129.  Replicating this search more recently, searching for just  Frederick Benson, he headed the list of 14 Search Results.

There was a Frederick in the Benson brood, the youngest child of their grandfather’s first marriage and the uncle or half-uncle of Thomas’s grandchildren.  He was born in 1856 and would have been too old to serve in the First World War.  His life was not easy but that is another story.

Soon after, as I worked through Thomas’s grandsons, I was to discover a Walter Stanley Benson.  It seemed I’d found a match.  He was the eldest child  of Walter Benson Fisher and his wife, Ellen Stevens and had been born at Mayleigh Cottages, and was duly baptised in Petersham.

By this point, I was ready to concede that this Frederick was in all likelihood ‘our’ W.S. Benson, and that it was possible that the Army had made a mistake or that he had adopted an alias.  On his card in the Medal Rolls Index, he is down as BENSON, F., and another hand has filled in ‘rederick’ to complete the Frederick.  Indeed it occurred to me as I looked at it, that the F could well be a transcription error, if he had become known in the Army as Stanley, and if someone, somewhere along the line, had misheard thn S as an F.

People sometimes reinvent themselves and change their names in a new town or even in a new job.  We know from the surviving parish lists that he was known as Stanley, and that indeed, in his family unit there was a second Walter in the family, Walter Henry, nine years younger than Walter Stanley.  At that time it was not unusual for children to be named after a parent, thereby carrying on family tradition, but to be always known by their middle names.   The younger Walter, Walter Henry, was born in the year before their father’s death and if their father was known to be in declining health, that might explain why he was also given his father’s name. The two boys appear in the 1901 Census, shortly before the death of their father, Walter, as Walter S and Walter H.

Walter S appears in the 1911 Census as Walter, perhaps because the Military Enumeration Officer, like Walter Senior had been in 1901, was a stickler for the facts.  And it was the 1911 Census that brought us full circle.  Walter Benson is listed at the Meeanee Barracks in Colchester, as a Private in the Second Battalion of the Scottish Rifles. He’s 20—the right age.  (Walter Stanley was born on 11 January 1891, and would have been 20 on 2 April 1911.)  Unlike his Benson cousins, who were born in Ham or further afield, he was born at Mayleigh Cottages in Petersham, so his birthplace is also correct here.

Finally, a search in the Register of Soldiers’ Effects, has ‘Stanley’ entered as Frederick.  There he is, with his gratuity divided equally between his mother, his brothers and sisters, his half-sisters, who included “Emily Morphew” (sic). I think ‘Emily’ is Violet Emmeline Buckner, the wife of Robert Morffew. I have written elsewhere about the Benson connection with the Morffews of Ham.

This makes me inclined to think that he did indeed voluntarily change his name. Prior to making the entries in the Register, the Army would have corresponded with the family to confirm their relationship with the deceased soldier.  He does indeed at last appear to be a safe match for the man recorded as Frederick on the CWGC Database.

Finally, a check of the panel list, confirms that our man is commemorated on the Ploegsteert Memorial as F. BENSON.

Further Reading.

Frood, M.W., ‘Decision as to tribute to the gallant dead’, https://hamremembers.wordpress.com/2015/10/25/decision-as-to-tribute-to-the-gallant-dead/, accessed 20/1/2018.

Frood, M.W., ‘Ham’s War Memorial as it was between the Wars’,  https://hamremembers.wordpress.com/2015/05/08/hams-war-memorial-as-it-was-between-the-wars/, accessed 20/1/2018.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *