Greater love hath no man…

Dockside     Drawing by Jack.

A few weeks ago I purchased an old drawing book which belonged to Jack Valentine Gardner*. It has taken me a while to find him in the records but I have managed to find a little bit about him and his family. His book is full pencil sketches of boats and ships, the sea and lighthouses. It also has this drawing of the rather grand churchlike building.  I haven’t been able to identify any of the places Jack drew nor can I give them an exact date. He certainly loved his drawing though, as you can tell by the detail he has put in to these two pictures.

*I have found the family name varies between Gardner/Gardener/Gardiner depending on source checked.

I first found the family in 1901. They were living beside the River Thames at Limehouse, a poor area at that time, next door to the Richard Cobden pub.  They had one floor of 32 Repton Street, the other being occupied by a couple and their three sons, the youngest  just 1 week old.

Many of the houses in this (and lots  of other) areas were divided in to two or more dwellings, rooms within these dwellings were sometimes sublet to other families. It would have been a noisy, crowded life.

Mary, who is a 35 year old widow, gave her occupation as a worker in a draper shop, where she spent her time selling lengths of material. She was born  in Limehouse though her children, Jack and Dorothy, were both born in West Ham about 4 miles away.

Jack and his little sister Dorothy wandered along to Dagleish Street School every day, it was just a five minute walk from home. Perhaps Mary was at home waiting for them when they arrived after school, although more likely Jack took Dorothy home and found her some bread and jam to eat while they waited for mum to finish her days work. Perhaps they played in the street with the neighbourhood children, or wandered around the docks looking for treasures to take home.

The school admissions book notes Jack’s birthday as 14th February 1893 (hence Valentine) and Dorothy’s as 12th November 1895. Dorothy began school on the 13th February 1899 aged just 3 years and 3 months, young but fairly standard then. Mary is listed as their parent, but with no fathers name given we can assume he was no longer with his family after January 1899 when Jack began at this school. The family may have lived elsewhere prior to this as Jack probably attended another school. Perhaps Mary moved back to Limehouse to be closer to friends or family after the death of her husband.

I have nothing to tell you of the Gardners over the next ten years, except that Jack left the school in July 1900 and Dorothy in July 1901. They were both far short of the leaving age of 12. They must have continued their education….but where?

By 1911 the family had moved onwards and literally upwardish, 70 miles northeast to Suffolk. They were now living in Bridewell Lane, Bury St Edmunds. Just how and why they have moved must remain a mystery unless some kind soul can put us out of our misery and tell us.

Mary (who has carelessly lost 3 years from her age..) was now working from home as a self-employed Needlewoman, Dorothy was a live-out domestic servant and Jack was serving out an apprenticeship with the local Blacksmith as a Striker – using a sledgehammer to strike larger pieces of metal working alongside his master.

There is a new member of the household, 13 year old Londoner Nelly May Wood, who was living with the family as a ‘nurse child’.  This usually meant a child who was being cared for by someone in their home for payment from the birth mother, father or- where a child had resided in the workhouse – the Parish from which the child was born in paid a weekly sum to the foster carer.

Some forward thinking people believed that city workhouses were no place for  young children and it was better for them to be bought up in the good clean country air until they became of an age ready to be trained up for useful work. Sometimes the child would have been adopted by the ‘someone’ or perhaps returned home if or when the situation which had caused the child to be removed was remedied. ‘Parish’ children would be returned to the workhouse until a place could be found for them to learn a trade.

And so life went on quietly, except perhaps for Jacks incessant hammering, until war was declared on Germany in 1914. Jack signed up and joined the 7th Suffolk Regiment. He and a new pal Arthur Hicks did their training together and went off to fight in Belgium and then to France in June 1917 to fight in the trenches, side by side. They swapped photos and really were good mates looking out for each other.

Early in October 1915 Mary received a long letter from Arthur, which was reproduced in the local paper the Bury Free Press. He had written to tell her that Jack had been killed on the front line, and he wanted her to know what had happened before she received the official telegram from the war office. Arthur wrote to Mary explaining how it had happened, to let her and her daughters know how brave her son was and how proud he was to have been his friend. He knew how distressed she would be but she must bear up as best she could, knowing her only son died a true British soldier trying to save his comrades. He told her how the pair had just moved forward into a new trench after walking for some days onto newly won ground. That night a terrific shelling began and some of the men in the trench were buried under rubble. Arthur, Jack and some other soldiers had rushed over with shovels to dig them out and save them from further injury when they suffered a direct hit and Jack, along with two other men, died instantly.

Arthur continues to tell Mary how he and Jack thought of each other as brothers, and he had written so she knew he didn’t suffer. He wrote ‘Greater love hath no man but this, that he lay down his life for his friends’.  It must have been a difficult letter to write, sitting in a muddy cold trench in France. He signs himself Private A S Hicks 14197 7th Suffolk Regiment.

The article finishes by mentioning that Jack had previously worked for Messers T.H Nice and Co Engineers in the Buttermarket, Bury St Edmunds. The Buttermarket was badly damaged in during a raid from a Zeppelin in April 1915.

Jack Valentine Gardner was killed in action on the 1st of October 1915. He is commemorated at Loos in France.

Arthur Sydney Hicks was killed in action on the 14th of August 1917. He is commemorated at Ypres in Belgium.

As for what became of Mary, Dorothy and Nelly, I am sorry to say I don’t know. The trail goes cold in 1915.