On this day in 1920, the Mitcham War Memorial was officially unveiled. Notice of the ceremony appeared in the local press on Friday 12th November 1920.
In events that echo the transformation of the temporary Cenotaph in Central London into the familiar permanent structure, Mitcham’s Civic Memorial had evolved from a temporary memorial placed on the Lower Green for Peace Day, 19th July 1919.
This temporary memorial was an alternative to the nameless memorial that had already been erected in the Parish Church churchyard and had been heavily criticised for its “out of the way” location. The temporary memorial on the Lower Green had quickly become the focus of Mitcham’s collective commemoration as was noted by H.F. Bidder in his letter to the Finance and General Purposes Committee WAR MEMORIAL, dated 22 July, 1919:
“I suggest that the fact that so many people have now brought offerings of flowers to this particular spot in memory of those they have lost has already given it a specially sacred character which we would wish to preserve.”
Major Harold Francis Bidder DSO had served with distinction in the Great War, having commanded the 2nd Battalion of the Bedfordshire Regiment in 1915 and later a battalion of the Machine Gun Corps. He published a memoir in 1919, “Three Cheverons By OREX”, dedicated to the young men who had fallen in the war. The Bidder family were well known in Mitcham, they had been the owners of Ravensbury Park which had become the Catherine Gladstone Convalescent Home, used as a military hospital during the war, and were closely associated with the conservation of Mitcham Common. His own cousin Lt. George Weston Devenish was one of the fallen.
Major Bidder had proposed:
1. To place a permanent memorial to the fallen on the spot now occupied by the temporary memorial.
2. That this memorial should consist of a simple slab of stone occupying the position of the present structure, with a suitable, inscription.
3. That the flagpole be left up, and a Union Jack kept constantly flying on it to typify the flag of Empire which the dead gave their lives to uphold.
4. That oak posts and chains replace the present posts and ropes, and that the turf inside the square be made good and slightly raised.”
“I should be glad to make myself responsible for collecting the necessary funds, which would not be large.
H. F. Bidder.”
The committee, while approving the suggestion: “Resolved That Major Bidder be referred to the Mitcham Common Conservators, from whom consent to his proposals must be obtained.”. It should be noted that a committee to raise funds had been already been established in February 1919.
Efforts to canvass for the names of Mitcham’s fallen had already started by May 1919:
23rd May 1919 Call for Names
“The War Memorial Committee are desirous of obtaining the names of all Mitchamites who lost their lives in the war, in order that they may be inscribed on the memorial. For this purpose, notices are being distributed among the residents, asking for all the particulars to be filled in on the attached form. It is necessary to state the full name of the deceased, with address, rank, name of unit, date of death, and place. The signature and address of the person supplying the information is also to be added, and the completed form is to be sent to the Hon. Secretary, Mr. Stephen Chart, at the Vestry Hall.”
The decision to build the permanent memorial was finalised in November 1919:
7th November 1919 War Memorial Committee Decision
“A special meeting of the General Committee of the War Memorial was held at the Vestry Hall on Friday last, 31st ult., at which the following recommendations were submitted by the Design Committee and adopted:-
(1) That the dedicatory inscription to be put on the Memorial should be as follows:- “To the men of Mitcham who, falling, conquered in the Great War, 1914-1918. Their name liveth for evermore.”
(2) That the site for the permanent Memorial shall be that site on the Lower Green at present occupied by the temporary memorial; and
(3) That on completion, the Urban Council should be asked to accept the Memorial from the Committee, and to maintain the same.”
Around the same time, another effort was made to obtain the names of the fallen:
14th November 1919 War Memorial Committee Letter
“To the Editor of “the Mercury.”
In response to the canvas made by the above committee, and to the appeal made through the columns of your papers, the committee have received the names of 552 Mitcham men who have laid down their lives for the country in the Great War. The number is larger than was anticipated, but the committee think that it is still probable that some names have not yet been received. It will be a matter of great regret to all if a single name is omitted, and I am therefore asking you to give publicity to this letter. The committee have received the utmost assistance from the clergy of all denominations in this respect, and from the Press, and it is hoped that those of the public who have any information which will help us will respond as soon as possible, as the complete list will be forwarded to the architect during this month.
The Vestry Hall, Mitcham November 14.”
Some 5,000 people had gathered for the unveiling ceremony at Lower Green, Mitcham on a cold, but fine, November day.
The details of the ceremony on Sunday 21st November were covered in a lengthy article published in the “Mitcham and Tooting Mercury” on 26th November, 1919.
UNVEILING OF MITCHAM’S WAR MEMORIAL.
The war shrine, situated on the Lower Green, Mitcham, was unveiled last Sunday by Major-General Sir H. E. Watts, K.C.B., C.M.G. (formerly commanding the 7th Division and 19th Corps, B.E.F.). The weather, although very cold, was fine, and about 5,000 people were present at the unveiling.
Alderman R. M. Chart (Chairman of the War Memorial Committee) said that this shrine was to commemorate the self-sacrifice of those who made the supreme sacrifice, and show our undying sorrow felt by those who have lost dear ones in the late war. Two years ago the war terminated, and in February, 1919, a committee was formed for the purpose of raising funds for the war shrine. There was some difficulty as to the most prominent place for the shrine, and on Peace Day, when the temporary memorial was put behind the Vestry Hall, it was proposed that that should be the site for the permanent one. It is also proposed now that a fencing should be placed round the shrine, but with facilities for the public to place flowers on it, which he (Mr. R. M. Chart) was sure they would do from time to time. He also said that every effort had been made to obtain the names of men who had been killed in action or died of wounds, and, at present, there were 557 names inscribed on the shrine, and since then more had come to hand, and would be inscribed in due course. The speaker then said it was his duty and pleasure to introduce Major-General Sir H. E. Watts, K.C.B., C.M.G., who had served his country well in the late war. He was commanding in the first and third Battle of Ypres.
Major-General Sir H. E. Watts, K.C.B., C.M.G., said, after what Mr. Chart had said, there was not much more to say, but there was one incident that he would like to remind them of, and that was the late Earl Kitchener’s appeal of “Your King and Country need you,” at the beginning of the war, in which all men flocked to enlist. “Why !” because they knew that they were going to fight for freedom and endure the hardships of war, which was a fine example of self-sacrifice and unselfishness. All honour was due to them who came forward at the country’s call. The men, women and children were also a great help, for, while we soldiers were fighting, those at home endured many hardships, but without murmuring. He then unveiled the memorial, and the “Last Post” was played by buglers of the East Surrey Regiment.
The hymn, “Nearer my God to Thee,” was sung, and then the invocation and prayers were said by Rev. C. A. Finch, the Vicar of Mitcham, after which Rev. J. F. Cowley, of the Zion Congregational Church, said a few words.
Rev. J. F. Cowley said that, in doing honour to those who laid down their lives for us, there should be no mistake, for if they had not done so, no English home would be intact and safe to-day, but the unspeakable happenings in Belgium would have happened in England, and, perhaps, have been even worse, because it was against England that the Germans were so bitter and revengeful. He said we should thank God and our fallen heroes for such a merciful deliverance, and also think God for such sons, fathers, brothers and sweethearts who so cheerfully laid down their lives to save us from shame and dishonour. They must not forget to honour and thank the mothers who gave the best, they had got; and in the future, when one was in despair, they should just go to the shrine and remember what Englishmen could and did do for their country, because they thought that, if it was worth living for, it was worth dying for. Those present then proceeded to place their floral tributes on the shrine, during which Mr. Rudyard Kipling’s “Recessional” was sung.
The Jubilee Lodge, R.A.O.B., sent a wreath in memory of fallen “Buffs.” Other lodges also sent wreaths.
The special constables were present under the command of Inspectors Webb and Freeman. Colonel Bidder, D.S.O., was present, and a detachment of ex-Service men lined up round the inside of the ropes. The music for the hymns was played by the Mitcham and Wimbledon Military Band, conducted by Mr. H. Salter.
Footnote: The history of the Civic Mitcham War Memorial has been traced by the diligent research of the local press and entries in Mitcham UD Council minute books by W. Brice, a volunteer on Mertons’s Carved in Stone Project, who maintains a blog at mitchamhistorynotes.wordpress.com Transcripts are reproduced here with his kind permission.