Richard Brown was born in early January 1898 and baptised soon after on the 19th July at Wimbledon’s Parish Church, St.Mary. He was the youngest, by ten years, of six children, and his older siblings had all been born in Essex where the Brown family had first lived after his parents, Walter Skilton Brown and Amy Drake, were married in Gloucester on October 15th, 1883. Walter Brown, a butcher and son of a farmer, had been raised in Essex as had his wife Amy.
They had come to fashionable Wimbledon around the time of Richard’s birth in 1898, living close to its busy commercial heart in St.George’s Street before shortly moving to the Broadway, their home for the next ten years which they shared with members of the Drake family at one time.
By 1910 the Brown family had settled at 12 Tabor Grove, still close to Wimbledon’s centre with its tram and train links to the capital and beyond. It was the year the construction of the new Wimbledon Theatre was completed, opening on 26th December 1910 with the pantomime Jack and Jill.
In 1910, twelve year old Richard was still at school, while his older siblings were all in established jobs. Sisters Ethel and Dorothy had worked as Post Office clerks for nearly ten years, brother Tom was a stockbroker’s clerk and brother Jack an insurance clerk. Their comfortable lives would be changed forever by the Great War.
Richard’s older brother, Thomas Skilton Brown, was the first son of the family to volunteer in August 1914. Working in the financial centre of the City of London, Tom Brown was one of the eager young men to join a new battalion formed from City employees – the 10th “Stockbrokers” Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers. Recruiting began on 21st August 1914 and Tom Brown must have been near the front of the queue of excited men as he emerged from the recruiting offices with the low service number of STK/34. Over two hundred men had volunteered on that first day, by the 27th August the number had swollen to 1,600. Dressed in every type of clothing, they paraded in front of Lord Roberts on the 29th and were soon in training at Colchester. It would be many months before they were ready to go to France.
In the spring of 1915, the worries of the Great War were overshadowed by family bereavement. Richard’s father Walter Skilton Brown passed away and was laid to rest at Gap Road Cemetery on 21st April 1915, he was 61. Having lost her husband, Amy Brown was soon to see her son Tom go to France. Just ten days before his departure, Tom married Beatrice Verinder Virgo at St.James Clapham on 21st July 1915. Beatrice Virgo had been a P.O. telephonist and possibly a friend of Tom’s sisters Ethel and Dorothy.
By October 1915 reports of the battle at Loos were in the newspapers, it was the long casualty lists that told the real story. His family must have been thankful that Tom Brown had played no part in this. The summer’s National Registration had heralded the end of voluntary enlistment, and Lord Derby’s Group Scheme was being introduced, with the possibility of conscription not far away. Richard Brown had decided to volunteer, it was late November 1915 and he was not yet eighteen years old.
There are no records to give his precise enlistment date, but in late November 1915 Richard Brown first joined the 31st Training Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers via a Central London recruiting office and was given the service number 1792. Among the few surviving records of fellow recruits are 1777 William Henry Marlow who joined on 23rd November 1915 and 1799 Archibald Swinscoe who joined on the 29th November 1915. Their papers are both stamped “Whitehall”, the medical took place at 32, St.Paul’s Churchyard and their service numbers are both prefixed with “STK”. The 31st Training Battalion had been formed out of the depot companies of 10th, 23rd, 24th and 26th Bns. Perhaps young Richard Brown was hoping to follow his brother Tom in some way.
Whatever his intentions, Richard Brown was transferred to the Royal Engineers before going overseas, becoming Pioneer 129097 and destined to join the newly expanded Special Brigade. He could have been in any of the drafts in the early months of 1916 who were undergoing intensive training in creating trench emplacements, helmet drill, cylinder drill, company drill, physical drill, arms practice, night work and the inevitable route marches. The Amy had belatedly recognised that “training in chemistry” was not a necessary requirement for service in the Special Brigade. While some of the work was technical, much was sheer arduous labour.
Everything was leading up to the use of gas during the opening phase of the Somme Offensive. Richard Brown is believed to have been in number 22 section of “D” Company, 1st Bn. of the Special Brigade by June 1916. They were to conduct operations on the 4th Division front just to the north of Beautmont Hamel.
Working in front line trenches, Richard Brown and others in his company were exposed to the same dangers as the infantry, with the added risk of being gassed by leaks or clouds blown back over our own positions in variable weather conditions. Gas releases were planned for the night of the 24th June 1916 from trenches that were held by the 1st Bn. Royal Warwickshire Regiment. It was “U” day, the first day of the great Somme bombardment.
Contemporary reports describes how Lt. Jones and men of the Special Brigade released “White Star” gas at 10.7pm in a light wind that carried the cloud over the enemy positions. The Germans responded with a heavy artillery barrage. Disaster struck around 10.30pm when a cylinder leaked after being hit by a shell fragment and the wind dropped and reversed, blowing back the gas over the 1st Warwicks trenches. The Special Brigade under Lt. Jones were all badly gassed and worked as long as they could to prevent the spread of the chlorine and phosgene mixture. The 1st Warwicks had suffered some 160 casualties that night, many had been gassed.
Richard Brown and three other Special Brigade men were evacuated as far as No.4 Casualty Clearing Station at Beauval, roughly 12 miles behind the front lines at Beaumont-Hamel. There was little that could be done, and all four died of gas poisoning within 48 hours. Army Chaplain, Reverend H.D.W. Dennison, CF, wrote to the sister of 130519 Pioneer William Morrey:
“It is with deep regret that I have to tell you of the death of your brother, Pioneer W. Morrey. He was admitted into this hospital yesterday afternoon suffering severely from gas poisoning, and though everything possible was done for him, he died early this morning. I am burying him this afternoon with four of his comrades who suffered the same fate in Beauval Cemetery. May he rest in peace, and may God comfort sad hearts that his loss will cause……”
The men buried with Richard Brown are:
Pioneer 128027, James Duckett from Manchester, formerly 2320, Manchester Regt.
Pioneer 128805, Walter Norman Welton from Wallington, Surrey, formerly 4347 the Queen’s Regt.
Pioneer 130519, William Morrey form Widnes, formerly 32486, Manchester Regt.
The Brown family suffered a shattering double blow in 1916, receiving news of the death of Richard’s older brother Tom Skilton Brown who died of wounds on 10th July 1916 on the Somme, just two weeks after Richard.
Both sons were remembered in the “Warrior Chapel” of St. Mary’s Church, Wimbledon.
Both the Brown brothers are listed in in the Official Roll of Sacrifice for Wimbledon, Merton and Morden 1914-1918, and the 1921 publication: A RECORD OF THE HONOURED MEN OF WIMBLEDON AND MERTON (Author) Mitchell Hughes and Clarke (Publisher)