Flanders 1917: The end of a journey – 24912, Pte. J. HOPKINS, 4th August 1917

The suffering of the 9th Bn. East Surrey as they held part of the Brigade Front at Jehovah Trench, and further forward, had only just begun on 2nd August 1917.  They were to hold this position for five days.  Companies were rotated between front, support and reserve position during the nights of 3rd/4th and 4th/5th as the enemy’s heavy shelling continued at dawn and dusk.  There was no let up in the summer rain and conditions were appalling.  Not until the final two days did the sun make any appearance.  The War Diary’s record of the men’s reaction seems hardly credible:

“Great credit is due to almost every individual man in the battalion for the energetic way in which he worked. No matter whether they carried rations, water, wounded or anything else they stuck to their jobs in the terrible conditions, and always won through with a smile.”

The list of casualties speaks itself, with yet another Mitcham Man among the dead – 24912, PTE HOPKINS, J.

Little is known of John Hopkins’ early life other than he was born in Lambeth around 1884.  His marriage to Elizabeth Harriet Wales in 1914 is the first tangible evidence that links him to Mitcham.

Before their marriage, the 1911 census return shows Elizabeth Harriet Wales living at 5a Seaton Road Mitcham with her two sons: Thomas aged 8, born in Marden, Kent and Job aged 5, born in Mitcham.  Thirty four year old Elizabeth Wales was a single mother who somehow managed to support her two young children working as a flower seller. The three of them shared one room in a small 5 room terraced property. William Jelly, a farm labourer born in Battersea, his wife Sarah and their two young daughters had two rooms. The remaining two rooms were home to Ben Coates, a greengrocer who described his place of birth as “Kent in Van”, his partner Janthe (?) Collison and their two young daughters.

Elizabeth Wales had spent her early childhood in Battersea.  Born on 26 Nov 1876, she had lived in Currie Street, one of a small triangle of streets hemmed in by the railway and the Thames shore line and overshadowed by the Gas Works where her father worked as a stoker. Charles Booth’s poverty maps described the area as among the poorest in London. After her mother Phoebe died in 1889, nothing more is known of Elizabeth until 1911.


Currie Street, St.George, Battersea.

More than twenty years after her childhood in Battersea, Elizabeth found herself living once more in the shadow of a Gas Works, with all its noise and stinks. Seaton Road was home to some of the poorer families in Mitcham.

The seven members of the Surkitt family lived in 3 rooms at 4a Seaton Road, parents John and Alice describe themselves as Street Hawkers.  Widowed Henry Harrington, a labourer in the Gas Works, lived with his four children in two rooms at 4a Seaton Road.  Fred and Sinny Matthews lived with their nine children in four rooms at 6a Seaton Road.  Both parents and two of the children were flower sellers.  Henry and Lemataney Matthews lived in the remaining room with their baby daughter at 6a Seaton Road.  Nelson Smith, a flower seller, and his partner Lucasus Constant lived in one room with their baby child at 3a Seaton Road. Leonard and Britania Dixey(Dixie) with two children lived in two rooms at 3a Seaton Road.  Leonard was another flower hawker.

Among Seaton Road’s other flower sellers and hawkers were Josiah and Lemataney Smith at number 16, Henry and Phoebe Scott together with Alice Powell and sons at 10 Seaton Road, the Dedmans and James at 8 Seaton Rd and Jessie and Emily Smith at 5 Seaton Rd.  The eight members of the James family lived in four rooms at 11 Seaton Road. Irish born head of the family Robert James described his occupation as a “peg maker”, adding “Im me on marster”, the birth places of his six children were various “corners” that the enumerator was obliged to clarify.

It is clear from the surnames and occupations that Elizabeth Wales was living in the midst of families whose roots were tied to Surrey’s travelling community.  If John Hopkins had been from a travelling family himself that might explain the lack of any official documents associated with his name.  Whether or not John Hopkins was the natural father of Elizabeth’s children, they adopted his name after John and Elizabeth were married at the end of 1914.

If the pages of the Surrey Recruitment Registers (SRR) are any guide, then 1915 was the year that saw many of Seaton Road’s men volunteering, with a cluster around the time of the Derby Group Scheme which ran from 15th October 1915 until 1st March 1916.

Although John Hopkins is recorded as enlisting at Kingston, his details are not in  the SRR.  His service number is consistent with men joining the East Surrey Regiment around February and March 1916, but there is nothing to say when he first went to France and Flanders.

24912 Pte. John Hopkins officially became one of the missing on the third anniversary of the Great War, on 4 August 1917.  His wife Elizabeth could never have known of the unspeakable conditions he had fought in near Ypres and was left in limbo for another six months, as her hopes that John had survived faded.  There is no record of anyone contacting the Red Cross to enquire if John had been taken prisoner, perhaps Elizabeth had always known the outcome.


Soldiers’ Effects Entry

When the Mitcham War Memorial was officially unveiled on 21 November 1920, Elizabeth Hopkins had ensured her husband’s name appeared alongside others she knew well: brothers Christopher and Frederick Matthews were her neighbours from Seaton Road.

Three weeks after the unveiling of the memorial her eldest son, eighteen year old Thomas Hopkins, travelled to Kingston to enlist in the Regular Army.  Like his father, Thomas Hopkins joined the East Surrey Regiment.  Elizabeth stayed in Seaton Road, until at the age of fifty four she was re-housed, moving to the modern open environment of Mitcham Garden Village in 1931.  Finally, she had a place worth calling home.  War widow Elizabeth Hopkins remained in Mitcham until the end of her life, passing away in 1946 at the age of 69.

Mitcham Garden Village, Lower Mitcham. circa 1930s

Mitcham Garden Village – Today Copyright 2015 Mitcham Garden Village


Return Tomorrow to read the story of  a last day in hell for Joseph Garratt from Denison Road, Colliers Wood.


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