Mitcham’s Forgotten forty – the Identity Challenge

Currently, 541 of the 587 names on the Mitcham War Memorial have been identified, but in 46 cases identification remains a challenge.


In Edwardian Mitcham, and at the time of the Great War, it would be hard not to know your neighbours. Streets teemed with children, adults worked, played sports, drank together and used the same local stores. Many had grown up together, had been to the same schools and families were interrelated by marriage, all within the confines of Mitcham. When the names were inscribed on the Mitcham War Memorial there was hardly a need to publish and distributes lists of men who were mostly well known within their respective parts of Mitcham. Things are not so straightforward a hundred years on.

For the uninitiated, identifying names on a memorial is just a process of laboriously checking the CWGC register with the occasional cross-reference to SDGW records. If only it were that simple.

This notion fails to recognise many factors. All branches of the armed services can be represented among those named and is not restricted to British Forces. A high percentage of CWGC registry entries contain no family details and men who died after discharge may have no entry at all. Distinguishing men with common surnames is always a problem, and family names are not always spelt, or used, consistently. While the chances of finding someone’s Army Service Papers is on average around 30%, for many units it is far lower. The papers of Army Officers are mostly only viewable at the National Archive, Kew, along with some RNVR and RNAS records. Service records for the RND and RMLI are held the Fleet Air Arm Museum. Exhaustive searches can be a very protracted business.

An added problem of identification is second guessing how the names were put forward and agreed. Those overseeing all aspects of the Mitcham War Memorial may have used criteria which roughly followed those of the then Imperial War Graves Commission, but it diverges in two obvious ways. Their treatment of deaths after discharge appear less strict and had its own self imposed cut off time. Their interpretation of any residency rules seems rather liberal in some case. While next of kin may have had roots in Mitcham, some men appear to have spent little or no time there.

To move from possible to probable to certain identification some standard of proof must be applied, where corroborative evidence from a variety of sources coincides. The Research Note pages of this blog explore the problems and common pitfalls in identifying individuals in more detail. Specific cases illustrate how a standard of proof may be formulated with a systematic search strategy.

For forty six individuals, that vital evidence has yet to be found.


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