First world war: The mother who watched her six sons go off to war
14:50 21 July 2014
Just under a year ago, Lynne Langdon began examining a mass of old letters, documents and photographs – discovering things about her family she never knew. She tells Steven Russell about her ongoing quest to uncover the past
Mary Ann Scrivener was a strong woman. She must have been. She lived in a poor part of Ipswich and most likely couldn’t read or write, but she raised six sons who all marched off to war when their country needed them. She was even thanked by the king for their patriotic spirit.
Mary was widowed during the last year of fighting, and a few years into peacetime watched two of those sons leave Ipswich for new lives in Australia. She never saw them again.
Yet she carried on. She looks happy in a photograph taken in Felixstowe in the 1930s, not long before she died, on a family trip. Mary was always dressed in black – perhaps the legacy of a Victorian life that began in the mid 1850s – and seems always to have worn an unmissable and eccentric hat!
Her lads, raised on some of the poorest streets in Ipswich, were made of stern stuff. Nelson Scrivener, for instance, earned the Military Cross for bravery.
It seems certain he was the lieutenant honoured for his actions near Le Barque, France, in February, 1917. Details published in The Brisbane Courier newspaper in December, 1919, said the battalion bombing officer had “displayed great courage and initiative. He rendered valuable assistance to his bombing teams, reorganising those where necessary. Also carried out two extremely valuable patrols, one into Le Barque, and eventually established a strong point about 150 yards in front of our front line on the outskirts”.
About two years before that, the 21-year-old had found himself fighting Turkish forces at Gallipoli.
Details about Nelson and his brothers were uncovered by Lynne Langdon among masses of family documents. She inherited numerous papers and photographs when her father died about two-and-a-half years ago. The mound grew when she also became custodian of papers that belonged to her late aunt.
Lynne – Mary’s great-granddaughter – has spent hours piecing together the jigsaw and painstakingly adding more detail. She works in the pre-school sector and took advantage of last year’s summer holidays to pursue her research. But, as you can imagine, it’s a crusade far from over.
Mary was born in 1855. She married John Scrivener, who at the time of the 1891 census worked as a shoe finisher’s labourer.
The couple lived in at least two houses in Woodhouse Street at different times – a long-gone road that was a part of Ipswich known as The Potteries. It was a cramped and poor neighbourhood, in the area between St Helens Street, Grimwade Street and Back Hamlet.
Their first son, John junior (known as Jack), was born in 1875 and worked as a builder’s labourer. An article in the Suffolk Chronicle and Mercury in the summer of 1915, talking about the six brothers in uniform, says the quartermaster-sergeant with the 2nd Border Regiment had 21 years’ service behind him, soldiering in India, Burma, Afghanistan and South Africa.
Brother William was born in 1878. That article had him as a corporal attached to the Royal Army Medical Corps. In 1911 he was living in Little Wratting, near Haverhill, had got married about eight years earlier, and was working as a caretaker.
Robert, like John, was with the 2nd Border Regiment. He was born in 1881, worked as an engine fireman, got married a decade before the war, and became a sergeant.
Frederick entered the world next, in 1884. He and Nelson (born in 1893) were both part of the Australian contingent that fought at the Dardanelles (Gallipoli).
Lynne understands they’d gone out to Australia to explore new opportunities (Frederick originally sailed to Sydney in 1912), joined up when war broke out, fought in Turkey and then come to France.
The First Australian Imperial Force – Nelson belonged to the 9th Battalion – was the main expeditionary force of the Australian Army and was put together from August, 1914.
The youngest brother, Oliver, was Lynne’s grandfather. Born in 1896, he’d lived in Woodhouse Street. He served with the 8th Battalion, The Suffolk Regiment. He’d joined up in October, 1913, apparently.
Oliver married Ethel Gentry on Christmas Day, 1920. The couple lived initially with Mary but in 1928 moved to a home in Badshah Avenue, off Felixstowe Road.
Lynne remembers visiting, but didn’t know her grandmother because she died in 1949.
What was her grandfather like? “Strict,” she laughs. “He was very much like my dad (John) in looks – not in temperament, though. He was strict and cantankerous. Very old school. My auntie used to say she’d go up the road to get out of his way.
“His dinner had to be on the table when he came in and he was the head of the house, and his children had to do what they were told. I think it was hard for them.”
Some of his tetchiness can perhaps be put down to losing his wife. Another factor could be the legacy of injury sustained during fighting. Oliver was discharged from the military in October, 1918 – just over a month before the armistice. He’d certainly done his bit.
So did stories of the First World War percolate down? “No. And my dad was in the Second World War and he didn’t talk about it. No-one did, really.” She doesn’t know where Oliver fought. “I presume it was France. But he never spoke about the war, and when you’re eight years old you’re not worried about your family tree...”
So what happened to these six brave boys from Suffolk? “I think that’s the astonishing thing – they all came back alive.”
Frederick and Nelson left Suffolk for good in 1919 – both having married in 1916 – returning to Australia to resume building their new lives. Nelson and his wife went to Queensland. He lived until 1977. Lynne doesn’t know much about how life developed for Frederick, and suspects the brothers didn’t really keep in touch in their adopted country, but she’s established links with a relative in Australia on Nelson’s side. That was down to some detective work, finding in her aunt’s papers the name of someone said to have a son who was a doctor in Australia. Lynne found his name on the internet and sent a speculative letter to his surgery. This doctor had been married to a Scrivener before they parted, but he passed on the note and Lynne eventually got in touch with a second cousin.
It appears Australia hadn’t been the land of milk and honey that these Suffolk immigrants might have dreamed of. Sylvia, the youngest of Nelson’s four daughters, is still alive. In 1986 she wrote down some childhood memories, explaining how her mother had suffered great homesickness and would loved to have seen England again.
“My dad brought his bride to Australia: a land fit for heroes, as the soldiers were told...” But that wasn’t the reality, at a time of economic depression. Apparently, many had to beg for work.
“Mother’s longing for the gentle ways of England, its gentle landscape, gentle folk, gentle manners, caused her to exhort her daughters never to become Australian, which meant never to drawl or be informal. When boarding the bus, don’t say ‘g’day’!”
So what became of some of the other Ipswich brothers?
William lived to a ripe age, dying in Coventry in 1963. Oliver worked as an iron machinist for milling engineers and later as a drayman for Tolly Cobbold. He moved to a block of flats on Bishops Hill, Ipswich, and died in 1970.
And their mum? Well, Mary lived into her late 70s, dying in 1932.
For Lynne, the contrast between life 100 years or more ago and today is palpable.
“We don’t understand what it was like. We’ve got too many things. We don’t know hardship,” she says.
“That’s probably why my grandfather was like he was – he had to suffer hardship. It’s a different world completely to today.”
A tantalising note from the king
Lynne has a copy of the note ostensibly written by hand by King George V and quite probably sent to one of the six Suffolk brothers – but which one? This is what it says:
“The queen joins me in welcoming you on your release from the miseries and hardships which you have endured with so much patience and courage.
“During these many months of trial the early rescue of our gallant officers and men from the cruelties of their captivity has been uppermost in our thoughts.
“We are thankful that this longed-for day has arrived and that back in the old country you will be able once more to enjoy the happiness of the home and to see good days among those who anxiously look for your return.”
‘Men who plan wars never fight them’
In the spring of 1970, The Courier-Mail newspaper in Queensland published the reminiscences of “An old Digger”. It was Nelson Scrivener (right), then in his mid 70s and remembering Gallipoli.
“I was a member of the original 9th Battalion B Company,” he wrote. “We were all volunteers and what a happy crowd. There were Scotch, English, Irish and Australians. After a little training we sailed from Brisbane, knowing that some of us would never return.”
He continues: “I got hit through the thigh in the landing from a Turkish battery at Gala Tepe. Went to hospital in Alexandria. A young doctor yanked it out and I was back on Gallipoli in six weeks.”
Many men went down with dysentery, but he avoided sickness.
“I think one reason was, I was never satisfied with slimy bully beef out of a tin, and plum and apple jam more like dirty water, so I decided to do something about it, so I found an old nail (and) punched a few holes in a biscuit tin lid. I made a grater, grated my dog biscuits and with a little water made a paste, put a tin of bully into my Dixie, put the paste on top of the bully, made a little fire and soon it was steaming and ready to eat. That was my shepherd’s pie.”
He wrote about an incident on June 28, 1915, when troops were ordered to lie in front of the Turks’ trenches – in daylight – and if possible try to enter. The idea was, apparently, to divert Turkish reinforcements. “I was lying down next to a digger named Crowley on my left... Then the Turks started to sniper us ... Crowley got one right between the eyes.
“I just turned my head to talk to Major Walsh when a bullet hit just where my head had been. I pulled Crowley off the ridge. Then Major Walsh said ‘We are retiring’, so another digger and I got Crowley into our trenches.
“I heard later he lived, but lost one eye. We went out with about 80 men and came back with about six. For days after we used to look across to the Turks’ trenches and see our old mates’ bodies lying there…”
He added: “Men who plan wars never fight them. I was 21 years then; now I am 76 and can remember every little detail.”
A grateful monarch thanks a mother
On July 12, 1915, King George V’s Keeper of the Privy Purse wrote to Mary Scrivener in Ipswich:
“I am commanded by the King to convey to you an expression of His Majesty’s appreciation of the patriotic spirit which has promoted your six sons to give their service at the present time to the Army.
“The King was much gratified to hear of the manner in which they have so readily responded to the call of their sovereign and their country, and I am to express to you and them His Majesty’s congratulations on having contributed in full a measure to the great cause for which all the people of the British Empire are so bravely fighting.”