Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Archive for the tag “george simmonds”

866 Company in Dublin 1916-1919

A brief visit to Dublin
I recently spent a few days in Dublin. It was my first trip to Ireland; I was there for the wedding of a friend from Australia, Simon More, who has made his home there. He and his wife Michelle were married at the City Hall, an imposing edifice squeezed in between city streets, not far from the famous Trinity College Dublin (TCD). I had arrived the day before and spent the day wandering the streets alone, trying to get a feel for a city to which I felt no connection at all. A broad river, the Liffey, crossed by numerous bridges, runs through the centre of the city. The streets were crowded and chaotic. Every nationality seemed to be walking the streets. I heard languages that I recognised and others that I didn’t. It seemed like the whole world had come to Dublin.

The River Liffey in Dublin today

The River Liffey in Dublin today

It felt remarkably un-British and I suppose that is not surprising since it is many years since it stopped being part of United Kingdom. In 1922, following a period of revolution in Ireland, twenty-six of the thirty-two counties of Ireland seceded from Britain to form the Irish Free State, which later became the Republic of Ireland. The currency is the euro, not the pound, and the Irish language is seen everywhere, on signs and in publications. Having said that I heard few people speaking Irish, although in the mish-mash of languages that are spoken on the streets of Dublin it was no doubt hiding there somewhere.

As well as the rather distinctly European (as opposed to British) feel, I was struck, as I browsed through a few bookshops, by the number of books on offer that focussed on the Easter Rising of 1916, realising that this was doubtless a reflection of the approaching centenary year. I also realised I knew pretty much nothing about that momentous event which is so significant in the history of modern Ireland. The names of the leaders of that revolt against British rule were unfamiliar to me, and their fate before a firing squad was something of which I was unaware. The Irish Republic which they proclaimed on Easter Monday 1916 lasted 6 days before it was squashed by the military might of the British Army.

When the ringleaders were executed they became martyrs for the cause of Irish Republicanism, attracting many who were previously pro-British to their side. There was a clampdown of British force, with a confusing train of events over the ensuing years. This so called revolutionary period in which the Easter rising was the first major militant attempt of the period to gain independence for Ireland, included repeated waves of civil unrest leading to the War of Independence (1919-1921), the creation of the independent Irish Free State (1922, as a result of the Anglo-Irish Treaty), the Partition of Ireland (when Northern Ireland opted out of the Free State to remain within the United Kingdom) and the Civil War (June 1922-May 1923). The Irish Free State renamed itself Ireland in 1937 and declared itself a republic in 1949. Northern Ireland gained Home Rule for itself but remained part of the United Kingdom.

The General Post Office in Dublin, destroyed in the Easter Rising of 1916 and rebuilt some years later. Flying the Irish flag.

The General Post Office in Dublin, destroyed in the Easter Rising of 1916 and rebuilt some years later. Flying the Irish flag.

My first visit to Ireland therefore coincided with the centenary of a momentous period in Irish history, and as I wandered the streets of Dublin I realised that just as I knew almost nothing about that time, I knew very little about this country. A number of my ancestors migrated from Ireland in the 1870s and 1880s, notably from two families – the Byrnes and the Hicksons. However, both these families came from the other side of the country, from County Kerry. Why they left is still an unanswered question for me. One of them, John Christopher Hickson (who arrived in Australia in 1870), made return trips to the old country in 1893 and 1911, but after that it wasn’t till my parents visited Ireland on a number of occasions in the 1980s and 90s that there was any sort of reconnection. The connection became stronger however, when my father married Eunice Orr after my mother’s untimely death; Eunice’s mother was Irish, though she lived most of her life in Australia. She died just last year.

I found myself in Dublin, and wandering the streets I pondered my ancestral connections with this land, and this city. I knew of no ancestors from this side of Ireland, but as I pondered the events of 1916 presented in so many bookshop shelves, I remembered that my English great grandfather, George Simmonds, had served here with the British army during World War 1. He was in the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC) and though he served in Europe during the first half of 1916, in Salonika, Greece, he was posted to Dublin in November of that year, some 7 months after the uprising. He spent the rest of the war here, some two and a half years, so he must have got to know Dublin quite well.

George Simmonds in Dublin
I was not sure however whether I was pleased with this realisation. The British army were, after all, the enemy, or at least it seems that way looking back. Of course there were many in Dublin at the time who saw themselves as part of Great Britain – not everyone was a republican, even if home rule was important to many. The Easter uprising of 1916 polarised the city and the nation however. The years that followed were years of unrest and uncertainty, but the cause of secession from Britain grew ever stronger. The British Army came to be seen as representing the enemy for more and more of the population, almost like an occupying force. George Simmonds was a part of that British Army.

But armed conflict between the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the British Army did not really erupt until January 1919, when Sinn Féin established themselves as the First Dáil (Assembly) and declared an independent Irish Republic. By that time George was close to the end of his tour of service in Ireland, discharged from the army in May of the same year. By that time the lines had been drawn: the IRA had became the official army of the Irish state, while the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) supported by the British Army, were loyal to the British Government. A War of Independence followed lasting a little over two years before a truce was declared in July 1921. The infamous Black and Tans was a force of temporary constables recruited in Britain toward the end of 1919 to assist the RIC in their struggle against the IRA. Many of them were WWI veterans who had seen action on the Western Front, although some were Irish. They were notorious for their brutality and their reprisals on civilians and civilian property.

However, George Simmonds was demobbed in May of 1919 and had left Dublin before this guerrilla war really got going so he missed the bulk of the violence, thankfully back home with his family and his market gardens west of London, where he could only read about the horrors unfolding in Ireland. Even while he was in Dublin he was not a soldier in the conventional sense, being part of the RASC. He was a member of a horse transport company, namely 866 Company, involved in support and supply for the army. He had performed similar duties in Salonika, one of the less remembered theatres of the European War, where he had also been in a Horse Transport Company, 483 Company of the 27 Divisional Train. His war service, both in Greece and in Ireland, was more focussed on transportation than on military tactics, more on horses than on humans. Although motor vehicles were becoming more numerous in the 1910s and 20s, horses were still the backbone of transport systems in the First World War. George had been involved in the transport industry before the war, a so called “carman.” During the war he continued what he knew best. But as in Salonika he could not avoid the reality and the effects of bitter armed conflict around him, in Ireland he felt the tensions, saw the effects of the conflict, and no doubt experienced the hostility of the local people in a city that was asserting its independence from the British Empire of which he was a proud citizen. It is hard to know whether he felt resentment or sympathy for them.

What stories of the IRA did he tell his young family when he returned to England? By the time he came home his oldest son, my grandfather, was 14 years old and there were four younger children in the family. Their father had been away for a good part of four years and certainly the younger siblings, James and Mary, who in 1919 were just 5 and 3 respectively, hardly knew him. My Grandpa Simmonds, who I never knew, would leave England forever just four years later, in 1923, and never see his parents again. Some years after his arrival in Australia he would marry my grandmother Gertrude Byrne, a first generation Australian, whose father George Byrne had migrated to Australia from Ireland in 1882. Her mother, Susie Hickson, was also of Irish stock. Both George and Gertrude knew Ireland only second hand, from stories their fathers had told them.

Healing the scars of the Great War
My mother said of her grandfather that he was scarred by his experiences of the Great War, and I suppose no-one from that era escaped unscathed. Mum told me that his lungs had been damaged by gas used in the trenches, and that had led to his early death in 1928 at the age of 52. Of course Mum never met her grandfather, who died 9 years before she was born, and on the other side of the world. What Mum knew of her grandfather must have been passed down to her from her father. I have not been able to find any evidence of lung disease in George senior’s military records. His pension application suggests that he was suffering from joint pain – arthritis which he felt had been worsened by sleeping in wet clothes on active service in Salonika. It also indicates that he was treated in hospital in Malta, and later in the UK. Many soldiers from Salonika were evacuated to Malta, but few of them for battle wounds. More were affected by infectious diseases and it is possible that George contracted pneumonia from his wet clothes. Many contracted malaria too.

The name of another hospital also appears on George’s pension application, though there is no indication of why he was admitted there, for what he received treatment. It was a hospital in England, a so called Voluntary Hospital, at Rainhill, in Lancashire. From what I have been able to find out, it would seem that Rainhill was a psychiatric hospital and the majority of patients there during WW1 were treated for shell shock, which we now know as post traumatic stress disorder. This has raised a whole lot of questions in my mind. Could it be that George Simmonds was a victim of shell shock? Was that the reason he was not sent back to Europe after his repatriation from Greece? What really happened in Salonika in the first half of 1916 that could have so traumatised him. The little I have read of that time in Salonika seems to indicate it was a relatively calm period, with most of the offensive occurring after George left.

There was also a hospital in Dublin in the years that George was there that specialised in the treatment of shell shock in returned Irish servicemen: the Richmond War Hospital. But if George had indeed suffered shell shock, his treatment was presumably over by the time he came to Dublin. Maybe Ireland was a place of rehabilitation for him, for though there was certainly violence in Dublin in the years 1916 to 1919, it hardly compared to the terror of the Western Front, or even the lesser known theatres of war like Salonika.

The Wicklow Mountains
The day after Simon’s wedding, another of my expatriate Australian friends, Jeremy Cavanagh, arrived from London. We drove south out of the city and spent two refreshing days tramping through the Wicklow Mountains. Though it is so near the city feels far away. The hills are barren and wild, and when we were there the heather was in flower. From a high road that crosses the mountains we followed a track down a green valley to Lough Dan. There was no-one about though we passed several farmhouses. We came to the lake between the mountains, its dark waters ruffled by a chill wind; a deserted farmhouse with padlocked doors stands forlorn between a thick growth of ferns on the valley floor, the stream running swift and silent through the trees nearby. We sat for a while on the little beach and stared out across the water before climbing the slopes beyond the stream and ascending through forest back to the barren heights. The next day, from Glendalough nearby, we climbed a steep path through another forest to emerge atop a precipitous escarpment far above that lake. We walked upwards into a broad shallow cirque, a glacial hollow between ancient hills. The treeless horizon made a stark silhouette against grey clouds scudding across the sky, patches of blue revealed from time to time through a parting in the clouds.

The green hills and heather clad heights of Ireland breathed life into my tired soul. I wondered if they had the same effect on George, raised so close to the great metropolis of London, scarred by the horrendous conflict he had witnessed across the sea. For George and his horses it may well have been that despite the tension and intermittent violent outbursts that he witnessed in Dublin, Ireland, with its green slopes and wild mountains, was a place of healing, restoring the peace of spirit he needed to return to his market gardens and his family and start over with the life he had left behind four years before.

The Wicklow Mountains near Lough Dan

The Wicklow Mountains near Lough Dan


My grandfathers and their names

My two grandfathers were Charles John Stacey Holford, born in Goulburn, Australia in 1899, and George Frederick David Simmonds, born in Redhill, England in 1905.


Charles John Stacey Holford 1899-1977

Charles had a different surname when he was born: he was Charles Holdorf, which was the same as his father’s. But on his return from the Great War in 1917 my great grandfather changed his name from a German to an English one – understandable for that time and place. Grandpa was 18 at the time, but his name changed along with all his younger siblings, of which there were four: George, Eric, Marie and Sylvia.

Grandpa’s second name, John, was after his German grandfather, Johann Holtorf, who had changed his first name to be more English when he had migrated from Germany in 1857. However, though John sounds distinctly English, Holdorf still had a ring of German, so it seems likely that John Holdorf was not ashamed of his German heritage, but rather wanted a first name that was easier for English speakers to pronounce. His son Charles, however, after experiencing the horrors of the Western Front, seems to have wanted to leave his German heritage behind. I certainly did not grow up with any knowledge of my German roots. Interestingly, Charles’ youngest brother, Lewis Holdorf, who was also a veteran of the First World War, kept his German name after he returned from France in 1918.

Grandpa’s other “middle” name was Stacey, which was his mother’s maiden name: she was Florence Stacey, of Goulburn, the daughter of George Stacey, who had migrated to Australia from Bedford, England, though I am unsure when. Florence, my great grandmother, died of typhoid shortly after the birth of her fifth child, Eric, in 1908. She was just 30 years old, and it must have been a terrible tragedy for the family. Grandpa’s father never remarried – he was nine years older than Florence – but was still not yet 40 when she died. Sometime after her death he moved to Sydney and lived in Manly with his mother, Caroline Holdorf, who was a widow. Caroline had raised 9 children. She was eminently qualified to raise 5 more, her grandchildren. When Charles sailed off for the battlefields of Europe in 1915 he left his 5 children in her care. Unlike many other Australian soldiers he returned so that his five children were spared the sadness of losing their father as well as their mother.

It seems as if the connections with the Stacey side of the family diminished after Florence’s death and the move to Sydney. Despite his country roots, Grandpa grew into a city boy. He lived the rest of his life in Sydney. Oddly enough his son, Ian, my dad, would marry a country girl from Goulburn, my mum, Gwen Simmonds. So the Goulburn connection was not over.


George Frederick David Simmonds (1905-1955)

George Frederick David Simmonds was the grandfather I never knew; he died 6 years before I was born. The name on his birth certificate is simply George Butler, so how did he end up as George Frederick David Simmonds? Mabel Butler was his mother’s name; she was unmarried when she had George, her first child, in Redhill, just south of London in Surrey. She moved soon after his birth, with George’s father, to Heston, Middlesex, west of London, close to modern day Heathrow Airport. The first census after Grandpa’s birth, the 1911 census, lists the family names as George Simmonds, Mabel Simmonds and George Simmonds (junior), though by then a younger brother Frederick had also arrived (born in 1908) and Mabel was pregnant with John who would be born later that year.

Grandpa George was always known as George Simmonds. I don’t know if even he knew that his parents were unmarried when he was born; Mum certainly knew nothing of that. What she, and presumably he, did know was that his father’s name had originally been Lilley. It would seem that George Lilley and Mabel Butler had a son, then relocated to a different village where they were thenceforth known as George, Mabel and George Simmonds. Where the Simmonds name came from I don’t really know. I have always assumed that George Lilley changed his name before he met Mabel, but perhaps it was a name they chose together. For some reason great grandfather George did not want to be a Lilley any more, and for some reason, Simmonds was the name he chose to take on. Great grandfather Holford wanted to leave his German roots behind, and it is not hard to understand why. But what about the past was great grandfather Simmonds leaving behind? What crisis of identity was he really going through? Who had he been, and who did he want to be?

Even if George senior wanted to leave the Lilley name behind he seemed happy to pass on his own middle names to his son, names given to him by his own father, George Lilley. Grandpa’s father’s baptism record from 1874 records his name as George Frederick David Lilley, son of George and Mary Lilley. But what do the Frederick and David signify? Where did these names come from? These are questions I can’t answer just now, but it was from these names that I got mine, David. That was Mum’s idea, I suppose. She named me for her father as a memory of him, and he got his names from his father, George Frederick David Simmonds (Lilley), market gardener of Heston Middlesex, WW1 veteran, whose four children migrated to Australia between 1923 and 1946.

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My mother and her ancestors

Last week, 23 January, was my mother’s birthday, or at least it would have been was she still alive. Mum died in 1999 on August 28. We were living in Sweden at the time, our twins, Hanna and Samuel were not yet two years old, and Isak, our youngest, was not even born. Our return to Australia was planned for October or November, when my brother Peter and his wife Sarah, then living in England, were also planning to move to Australia. When Dad phoned us to tell of Mum’s illness, an aggressive pneumonia which progressed rapidly to septicaemia, Peter and I immediately booked flights, arriving in Tamworth, Australia almost simultaneously a few days later. Mum died the night after we arrived, plunging our family into a dark time of shock and sadness.

That was over 14 years ago and as always, life goes on, despite the hole that is left by the passing on of a loved one. There is still a deep sadness that comes over me at times, at birthdays and anniversaries especially. I was thinking about Mum the other day and her life, and her background, which of course I would love to know more of. I get so annoyed that I cannot ask her about how things were, though of course I heard much of her life when she was here to tell us. And Mum was a great teller of stories.

What I don’t think I ever realised properly was that Mum was only first generation Australian. Her father was English, growing up in the west of London, migrating to Australia in the twenties when he was 18 years old. His parents, the grandparents Mum never met, were both English, though his mother was born in South Africa for reasons I have not yet been able to ascertain. Mum’s mother was Australian born, but both of her parents, Mum’s maternal grandparents, were Irish, having migrated to Australia when they were young. The circumstances of these migrations I have yet to discover, though doubtless Mum could tell me if she was here. So Mum’s grandparents were English and Irish.

Mum’s English grandfather, George Simmonds (previously George Lilley), was in the British army in WW1, as I have written about previously. Her Irish grandfather, George Byrne, who lived in Australia, was born in 1861, and was therefore 53 years of age at the outbreak of war 100 years ago, too old to serve. However, Mum had one uncle on her mother’s side, Uncle William Byrne, who was born in 1895, and was therefore 19 at the outbreak of WW1. He served in the war too, but the details of his war service I have also yet to discover. I would also love to know more of how Mum’s mother, my grandmother Gertrude, and her four sisters, experienced the First World War, since it must have had a profound effect on their early lives. Three of those sisters, Kathleen, Frances and Isobel, never married. I have wondered if part of the reason could have been the lack of young men at that time, so many having embarked for Europe never to return?

Mum’s grandparents, George Byrne and Susan Hickson, were both born in County Kerry, Ireland, in the 1860s. How they came to Australia and when I have yet to discover, but they met and married there, and raised a family of five girls and a son. That son was the WW1 veteran, William. Three of their daughters, as mentioned, died as spinsters. I remember visiting them in the Blue Mountains when I was a child. They all lived together at that time, and I remember thinking how polite and fragile and odd they all were. We had tea in their living room, in a little cottage in Springwood, if I remember correctly. It never occurred to me at that time that they had once been young and vibrant and full of life and dreams. For children, old people have always and only been old.

I don’t remember ever meeting Uncle William, so perhaps he died before I was born. I believe he married but never had any children. And thus that branch of the Byrne name was lost. Gertrude Byrne, my grandmother, became a Simmonds when she married, but her three surviving children were girls. Mum became a Holford, Auntie Dorothy a Murdoch, and Auntie Joyce never married. So the Simmonds name in my family has also passed into history, only two generations after my great grandfather chose it. My grandfather had three brothers, all SImmonds, but as far as I am aware none of them had any sons to carry on the family name.

Mum’s English grandparents were George Simmonds (originally Lilley) from Surrey, and Mabel Butler from Bristol, and her Irish grandparents were George Byrne and Susan Hickson, both from County Kerry. I have pieced together Mabel’s life more than any other. I am getting to know George Simmonds, bit by bit. George Byrne and Susan Hickson, the Irish, are complete strangers to me. Perhaps I can become acquainted with them too in the years ahead.

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Horse transport in WW1

As I mentioned in my last blog, George Simmonds, my great grandfather, agricultural labourer and carman of Heston, Middlesex, joined the Army Service Corps during the Great War and served variously in England, Ireland and Greece. Before the war he was involved in the transport of vegetables from the market gardens around Hounslow to the markets of London. It seems he had a donkey and cart, and possibly a little shop in Heston Road. Horses were the main means of transport at the outbreak of WW1, and George was allocated for a large part of the war to horse transport companies. Max Hastings, in his recent history of the events of 1914, relates the following events, referring to the mobilisation of “wagoners” in Yorkshire:

It is hard to overstate the social and economic impact of the mass mobilisation of horses, which created difficulties not merely for agriculture, but for every form of transport. Though the world would soon become motorised, in 1914 horses and oxen were the customary means of moving goods and people anywhere that a train could not go… In England… horses were ruthlessly commandeered… agricultural workers (were) enlisted as voluntary drivers. These men received no military training, but were subject to call up… By 8pm on 5 August (1914) more than 800 such men had assembled at the Army Service Corps’ Bradford depot, where they drew uniforms and received a little hasty training. Within weeks, most were driving in France.
(Catastrophe. Europe goes to war in 1914, Max Hastings, p.122)

George, of course, was not from Yorkshire, nor was he sent off to France with a few weeks training. Indeed, the whole of 1915 he was apparently in England, though what he was doing during that year I am not certain. When he finally did depart England’s shores it was for Salonika in Greece, early in 1916. There he drove horse transports. Here is a picture I found on another blog of an Army Service Corps Horse Transport limber in France in 1918.

George Simmonds World War 1 service

Heston War Memorial

In 1905 (I believe) George and Mabel Simmonds moved with their son, my grandfather, to Heston Middlesex, which is in the Hounslow district. I have written about George and Mabel’s life prior to this in other blogs. Over the next 9 years three more sons were born: Fred in 1908, John in 1911 and James in 1913. So when war broke out in 1914 they were a family of 6, with four boys under 10. By then they lived in the neighbouring village of Lampton, at an address which no longer exists, but which was called The Circle, and was opposite the Black Horse pub in present day Lampton Road. The family must have heard stories of the first five months of the war through press reports and the propaganda machine of the British government, with repeated calls for volunteers. There were probably already casualties from the little community in west London which they had made their home.

Early in 1915 George Simmonds too volunteered. He was probably around 40 years of age. Up until then he had been working for a market gardening business as a carman, transporting fresh vegetables to the markets of London. According to a letter to my mum, from a friend of Grandpa Simmonds’ family, George had a donkey and a cart, and also a little grocery in the high street of Heston village:

George’s father your Grandad had a greengrocers business and I can see him now with his donkey and trolley in a barn opposite where now is the entrance to Heston Park. I wasn’t very old then, but all of us children loved his donkey.

Presumably because of his occupation, but possibly also because of his age, George was not sent to the Western Front, but was allocated to the Army Service Corps (ASC). I have a copy of his Service and Casualty Form, which was filled in after the war in 1919. It lists his army service during the four years from 1915 to 1919. The only other document I have found is a Disability Claim, also from 1919, which provides some more details. More than that I have not found. But from these forms I have gleaned the following:

George’s “service towards limited engagement” was reckoned from 9 January 1915. From that date to 28 January 1916 he was on “home” service, but since there is no specific company or regiment recorded for that time I assume he was training, though a year seems a long training period for a job for which he must have already been reasonably qualified. From 29 January 1916 to 31 August 1916 he was posted with 483 Company, which was a horse transport company, to the 27 Divisional Train in Salonika in the Mediterranean. He appears to have spent some of that time in a military hospital on Malta. From September to November 1916 he was back in England but from 20 November 1916 until early 1919 he was in Ireland, presumably Dublin, initially with 615 Company (mechanical transport) but from the beginning of 1917 with 866 Company (horse transport).

The only disability for which he made a claim was rheumatism, and according to the Disability Claim he was treated for this condition both in Malta and in a “Voluntary Hospital” in Lancashire. I have not been able to find any references on the internet to such a hospital, though there was a Mental Hospital in Rainhill, near Liverpool, which might fit the description. It certainly appears to have received WW1 casualties, but whether only psychiatric patients or also general medical cases were admitted I have not been able to ascertain for sure. There is no mention of a psychological disability on the form.

There was unrest in Ireland for much of the war, notably the Easter Uprising of 1916, but that was before George arrived. However, it would appear that the British army maintained a garrison in Dublin throughout the war to “keep the King’s Peace.” It would appear George was involved in that activity, though he was, as mentioned, with the ASC. It is likely that he was involved in the procurement and care of horses, of which hundreds of thousands served in the war, but I have not been able to find anything much on the internet about the ASC in Ireland in WW1. A few histories of the RASC (Royal Army Service Corp, as it was renamed at the end of WW1) have been written, but I have not yet been able to see these as yet.

George Simmonds served his time in WW1, therefore, in England, Ireland and Greece. Only the latter, his 6 months in Salonika in 1916, was overseas service, and there were no major offensives in that particular theatre during the time he was there. So he was not involved in active combat, though he appears to have suffered some ill health during his service years. I suspect, however, that he suffered more than the rheumatism that was listed on his claim form. He died in 1928, at the age of around 53 or 54, only 10 years after the end of the war. As a child I was told he had died from lung damage resulting from gas warfare in the trenches. This seems unlikely, as I am not sure that gas was used in Salonika, and as I mentioned there were no offensives fought during the time that George was there. He would surely have listed such damage on his claim form if it was true.

But something significant must have happened for him to land in hospital in Malta and in Lancashire. I will record my thoughts on that in another blog.

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