Brixton – the flower garden of London

PC to Miss Crawshaw etc franked 16 De 14
Card dated 16-12-14

Dear Till

Just a few lines hoping this finds you all at home in the best of health as I am the same. Well Till we will soon be having Xmas here now, where are you going to this year Dollies? I hope you all have a good time at home only Tom and I won’t be there like last year, no drop of Lizzie. We are still on the go and there is plenty of mud out here I can assure you.

How are you getting on at Stewarts still blacking your nose? Have just heard from Jess she is getting on alright. How does Mattie get on for cold tea now it has gone up? I expect you all had a good time when Tom was home. Till I thought I was at Brixton when I was marching the other day for what should pass us was one of the Bon Marché motor lorries I gave the Bhoys a shout and said that Brixton was the Flower Garden of England and you should have heard the Bars (?) I got. Now I think this is all the news this time hoping to hear from you soon

Bid xxx

16th October 1914

It’s just as well Mabel got a letter from Frank as not much happened today and the Dorsets remained in billets for the day.

It can’t have been fun for Frank to contemplate spending Christmas in muddy Belgium. This flurry of letters home might reflect that fact that his attention is not wholly with fighting the Germans. It appears that Tom spent Christmas with Frank and the Family in Brixton the previous year. The more I read about Tom the more I am convinced that he is a cousin of Frank’s. The only problem is that the age of Caroline and Matthew Webster is a little bit young to have a 19-20 year old son. Caroline is 36 in 1914. Did Walter or Caroline have a child with an earlier partner? I cannot find anything that suggest this. Or is Tom another cousin from the Crawshaw side? This remains a mystery and it’s driving me nuts!

Frank uses the same phrase “blacking your nose” to describe Mabel’s duties at Stewarts. I imagine she is a waitress there. Anyone who has worked in a small catering business has to be a multi-tasker. My mother remembers Mabel being an excellent cook. Perhaps she learned from her father, “Stammering Sam”. She always had a stockpot ticking away on the stove. I still haven’t found any sources for this phrase.

Image of the Bon Marché department store in Brixton
Bon Marché department store in Brixton – circa 1912

Frank cheers as a Bon Marché lorry goes by. I’m not sure if the answer “bars” was an answer at all. The Bon Marché was a big department store in Brixton. In fact, it was the first purpose-built department store in the UK. It was started from the winning on a horse race and ended up as part of the John Lewis empire.

Quite what one of their lorries was doing out at the front is anyone’s guess. It could have been one of the London buses (with adverts still on the sides) that had recently been commandeered for the front.  It could have even been a local delivery truck for another Bon Marché business. A Paris-based department store had a fleet of lorries for deliveries.

The Flower Garden of London may be a surprising monicker for the Brixton of today but road names like Lavender Hill in Clapham tells the story of South London’s past. Much of the area was farmland in the Eighteenth Century, giving way to the tide of housing that followed the railways as thy snaked their way to the suburbs. Apparently strawberries were Brixton’s speciality but I cannot find any primary sources confirming this. A lot of sloppy copying and pasting in tourist guides is propagating this rumour. You won’t find that kind of behaviour here. I change some of the the words around before posting.

British to the Backbone

PC to Miss Crawshaw, 29 Strathleven franked APO 24 No 15 still censor 137 – ‘No stamps available’ written on top of address side. Card dates 23-11-14

Dear Till

Many thanks for your welcome letter, and how glad I was to receive the parcel, which was very good of you and Aunt to send me out. Will Till I am getting on alright and still in the pink, it is getting terrible cold out here and I have had a heavy fall of snow.

Tell Mattie I would sooner be getting 18 pence and in the warm not much tell him. I have not heard from Tom yet. Jess dropped me a few lines and said she had heard from you. Well Till we are still in the thick of it but we are holding our own and even more.

Well Till Xmas will soon be here and I expect we shall have a cold time of it. Now I will conclude and will write a letter later on Love to all Bid.

23rd November 1914

The Dorsets moved HQ and A Company during the day due to shellfire. But there’s no indication in any records I can find today of where they were or where they moved to.

It seems to me that the fighting has died down a little bit and this is back up by reports in today’s edition of The Daily Telegraph, however unreliable as it has been in the past. Whether the quiet period is due to the freezing weather is hard to gauge. It’s certainly implied in the Telegraph. The ferocity of the recent fighting is undoubted, however. The casualty list runs over two pages today.

The postcard from Frank really doesn’t tell us anything, other than confirm the cold weather reported elsewhere. He has received a parcel from home but it doesn’t even say what was in it. I wonder if it was that cake promised by his Aunt Caroline. Whether it contained Bovril or not is debatable but I can’t resist quoting their fabulous advert copy from page 5 of the Daily Telegraph.

The duty of everyone, whether in the firing line or at home. is to keep fit. This is no time for cheap substitutes. Remember

It must be Bovril.

Bovril is British to the Backbone.



Men at work

24th October 1914

Postcard to Miss M Crawshaw, 29 Strathleven Road – dated 26-10-14 but stamped 24 Oc 14

Dear Till

Just a PC to thank you for handkerchiefs which I was glad to get. We are still having a busy time of it and also plenty of work. As Aunt got my letter which I wrote her. Glad to hear that you are getting on alright and still doing the stammering Sam. I have answered Muff’s letter , which she wrote me. Now I think this is all this time trusting this finds you all in the best of health and hope to hear from you soon.

I remain

Your loving Brother

BID xx

This is one of those postcards you might give a cursory glance at and move on from. It doesn’t contain any news, nor does Frank try to converse with Mabel. However, I think this postcard carries much more weight, once you know what Frank has just experienced over the last ten days, and the two months before that.

I think that it is the postcard equivalent of a big hug. He doesn’t describe anything about what’s been happening. I think he just wants to connect with someone he loves deeply – and writing is the only way he can do this at this time. He tries a little repeated joke at the expense of his father, “stammering Sam”, but other than that, the tone is loving and the sign off is very formal which just adds to the postcard’s poignancy.

The Dorsets spent another day in billets with the Cheshires. The Germans sent over a lot of high explosive shells that afternoon directed at Festubert. At 6:30pm they were sent into Festubert to repair the damaged roads. An hour later they were sent back to their billets and told to remain on high alert.


Can’t get any cold tea

French picture postcard of [place name deleted] Ancienne Abbaye de la Cour-à[aother name deleted]

Addressed to Mrs Webster, 29 Strethleven Rd, Acre Lane, Brixton, London, England. Date stamped APO 1 Sp 14 – passed by Censor No 137, and also stamped London Paid 14 Sp 14

Dear Aunt

Just a few hurried lines to thank you for your welcome letter which I was pleased to receive. I am getting on alright and still in the pink can’t get any cold tea now but when I come back I shall have plenty. The weather here is very hot have not had much rain. Now I must conclude hoping to hear from you soon. I hope you are all in the pink.


1st September 1914

I think this is the only censored piece of post in this collection. As I don’t have the actual postcard I can’t be sure but I imagine this to be a picture of the Abbaye Notre Dame de Morienval, through which the Dorsets had marched the previous day. I also think that this postcard was probably written the previous day too as today is a very busy one for Frank. Interestingly the Abbey currently the site of a rose exhibition dedicated to David Austin. This is a rare surviving postcard to his Aunt Carrie.

The language is full of cocksure optimism, typical of a lad in his early twenties. Frank complains that he can’t get any cold tea. He means beer, but I can’t find any contemporary accounts of the phrase in a quick search. I’ll come back to this as he uses it an awful lot. I imagine many of the troops were experiencing Ice Cold in Alex levels of thirst by this time.


The retreat was going to continue but the orders were cancelled and the 15th Brigade was rushed to Duvy, a mile or so to the west of Crépy-en-Valois. The 4th Division was being attacked to the north-west. The Dorsets and the Norfolks were then moved again up towards Rocquement. This order was cancelled before they reached their destination and they returned to Duvy.

German cavalry was pushing patrols into the vicinity. British artillery on the hills around Crépy-en-Valois started to duel with the German artillery ranged against them. The Dorset war diary reports shellfire at Duvy but it is friendly fire. The Brigade then dropped back to Ormoy Villers, where they halted until 2pm.

Gleichen eats a mixture of sardines, tomatoes and apples, washed down with chocolate, biscuits and warm water. He does love describing his food. It adds a lot of life to these rather dry military descriptions. The Brigade then fell back again, south to Nanteuil-le-<Haudouin, where the rest of the 5th Division had gathered. A, B and C Companies were put into outposts along the north-western approaches to the town. D and Battalion HQ remained 1/2 mile north of the town. It was a day of two forces testing each other out rather than actual engagement. But they’d heard the guns to their north west throughout the day, and they knew that someone was catching it. The Germans had caught them up.

The Dorsets had marched about 12 miles, including the operations.