All around the country, there are enthusiasts who are researching the names on their local war memorials - something which can only be applauded. From the point of view of Remembrance, these researchers are bringing the names and stories of those who died, back into the minds and memories of local people, which is where they (and the memorials) originated from. Some amateur researches are working just for their own satisfaction. Others have the aim of publishing their findings and bringing the names and stories to a wider audience. Indeed, some excellent books have been published and I am happy to be able to sell them. But Ray Westlake's two-volume series about the former County of Gwent has rapidly become recognised as THE example of how it should be done. Here are Ray's recollections of how these influential books came about............
It is indeed a fortunate man that turns his hobby into his living. Happy, happy me when in 1987 I was indeed able to do this. Clocking off from the night shift at Wembley Post Office for the last time and twelve days later walking back - this time to one in Newport, South Wales - with a parcel of books under my arm. I was now 'the customer' and a Bookseller. But, and there's always a but of course, with the hobby now turned into work; you now need a hobby.
It was with this in mind that, having discovered the Gwent countryside literally on my doorstep, I decided to spend my spare time looking around churches. The delight of walking down a quiet lane and across a field to discover a church looking little different than it did probably four hundred years earlier, was (and still is) an experience unequalled in my lifetime. After all, churches to this London lad anyway, were always to be found in busy streets. The vicar straining to be heard over the noise of traffic, protest marches and police sirens.
All went well at first. Every spare moment off I sped - free of notebook and the need to 'research' my findings - to investigate some St Mary's or other in some distant part of the county. Not a uniform, badge or battlefield in sight nor, indeed, desired.
I have, since my three books on war memorials were published, had great difficulty in convincing readers that each did not arrive as a result of a lifetime's study of the subject. But, I assure you, this is not the case. A thirty-five year interest in the First World War certainly, but never had I taken too much notice of this important side of things. To me the fascination and desire to learn more laying on the regimental (history and traditions) side, not that of the individual soldier.
Yes, I do remember looking at a listing of names on a church wall somewhere in deepest Kent (we were there hop-picking) and being told by my mother that these soldiers were just from the village, and not as I had thought, a complete list of casualties for the entire war. So endeth my first lesson on war memorials. Some years later, and also of fond memory, were the two occasions that with some fifty or so other Blue-belled and blancoed individuals - on some November Sunday nearest to the eleventh - I took quite a fancy to a Royal Fusilier proudly looking down High Holborn. Even today I rather like the idea of this splendid bronze sculpture high on its plinth adorning my garden.
Returning to an exact spot where history was made - and I hesitate to claim by the way that my efforts resulted in this - I guess that War Graves and Memorials in Gwent began at St Cybi's Church, Llangibby where, shortly after the Sunday morning service I stood in front of the fine memorial to Donald Arthur Addams-Williams - ' A Brave And Gallant Soldier Beloved Son Of The Revd. Herbert Addams-Williams, M.A. Rector Of This Parish Killed At The Dardanells August 11th 1915...' At just nineteen, this young man with all that life could offer in front of him was taken while leading his men into action. Nothing new about that. After all, I did have some thousand-odd books at home all with similar stories and over the past thirty or more years regularly stood in front of the graves of other nineteen-year-old young men.
So what was different about this case? Well for the first time I felt as though the name in front of me was a real person. Perhaps it was the church and all that it stood for, but it's much simpler than that. Here I was reading a boy's name written on a piece of marble on the wall of a church. His father's church where he would have spent many hours in prayer; came to for peace and quiet and even one day (perhaps) marriage. I found myself sitting in every pew, the very ones that he would have sat in, and afterwards walking the few yards from the rectory (his home) to the church. When, I wondered, was the last time he took similar steps. Could he and his family ever, while at church during those peaceful pre-war days, conceived that such a memorial would share the walls of this happy place? And how did they feel afterwards?
Wanting (as ever) to find out more, I unsuccessfully searched my library for information regarding local memorials. There were odds and ends, but nothing in the way of any detailed record of just what there was to be found in the county. Even more alarming, and it would be this that put the idea of a book in my mind, was the realisation that several of the memorials that were on record as having been erected in the 1920s, were no longer to be found. Plaques torn down from redundant churches and thrown on the skip; several removed and confined ('we thought it did not quite fit in with the new decor') to the cellar, and the loss of two magnificent stained-glass windows. One due to a fire, the other - 'Well it was dismantled in 1989 and went off in a lorry somewhere. Have no idea where it is now.' All disappointing at first, but later frightening. Just how long would it be, I wondered, before they had all gone and future generations denied any record of who from their own community had served and died for their country?
Certainly a small number of local historians had already done splendid work in recording their own memorial. Often years of research leading to fine written accounts of the lives and war services of local men and women. But a comprehensive record for the whole county was badly needed. A statement that only someone willing to undertake the task should make, and not go down in print without the addition of 'Before it was too late.'
And so the book began. Not an entirely new experience for me - I had some eighteen or so already on the shelves after all - but within a few weeks I realised that there was something different about this one. Difficult at first to put my finger on, but soon it became clear. The people I was encountering for one were an entirely different breed to those that had inhabited my life for the past thirty-five years. Not a retired colonel, stuffy historian, university professor or Don to be seen. Absent also was the over possessive museum curator, the 'I must know exactly what you require to look at' unhelpful librarian; and worst of all, the so called 'fellow enthusiast' whose one dread in life was the realisation that you might just end up knowing more about the subject than him.
As with my other books, initially some kind of work schedule had to be set up. Straight forward usually; my British Battalions on the Somme for example requiring first of all a complete list of the units concerned. The rest, all three years work of it, now simple. Just find out what they were doing. But how do you establish what and where memorials are in an entire county? Well, churches for a start. Not too much of a problem finding out where these are, or as it so often turned out, were. Then the towns and villages themselves. Again no problem. Certainly with some decent maps and, again as it turned out, some fifteen thousand miles of petrol. Then we must tackle other obvious places: public buildings, hospitals, schools, places of work, institutes and other areas of social gathering. A piece of cake! Five years work probably, but surely a doddle.
At first, this would certainly prove to be the case; until some three months into the work a phone call from an interested friend would bring about a change of tactics. No, I had not seen the memorial in the new doctor's surgery at Abercarn. Likewise, the one at the entrance to a modern block of flats (Bailey Court) on the Hereford Road, Abergavenny. And why not? Well, how could I have? Not the obvious places to find war memorials I would have thought. But plain enough when you know the full story. What a kind and thoughtful doctor he must have been who having had his new surgery built gave a home to the memorial once held at Abercarn's recently demolished tin-plate works. So too whoever it was that found room for that belonging to the old Hereford Road Boys' School. Demolished in 1987 to make way for Bailey Court. So why should these two (there would be many others later on) cases change my method of working. Well to me it was now plainly obvious that even if I worked on my project for the next twenty years, I could never see myself going into a doctor's surgery less than two years old and asking if they had a war memorial. It was now clear. No longer could I aim by book, as I had done with others, at any form of complete record. I could not hope to ever put on file every memorial. All I can now do is my best and in doing so put down in print as many as could possible be found. My hope to this day. Although still being fully aware that my two volumes do not contain everything, I take proud consolation in the fact that since completing Volume Two in 2002, I have only learnt of one additional memorial. And that a London one now located here in Newport.
In my talk - given locally about war memorials and how the books came about - I make much of the many occasions during my research that some humorous incident occurred. 'A book in its own right', one observer noted. Indeed the whole catalogue of hilarious happenings would certainly make good reading, not to mention enough material for a long running TV soap.
For example: Many have experienced not being able to obtain entry to a church due to the fact that it was locked. But who among you have been locked in? And how many of you have spent an hour convincing a concerned church warden that you had not been sent by the Bishop with a view to closing the place down? And you would be well advised to remember that appearing in church with a camera around your neck could have the effect of enrolling you into the police force. This too often seen and necessary item of equipment being recognisable to the vicar of one unfortunately often burgle church - 'Are you from SOCO?'
But, First Prize must go to the dear old lady who having learnt from me that I was looking for a war grave in the churchyard belonging to a John Davis, went on to entertain me with no less than half hour's worth of Davis family history. All three hundred years of it. Afterwards, having rethought the situation and decided that she had got it all wrong. It was in fact the Jones family she had in mind not Davis - 'Anyway, you must be in the wrong place young man [thank you]. War grave, war grave? There were no battles here, they were all in France I believe.'
The pleasure and satisfaction that my work on the war graves and memorials of Gwent brought proved to be far beyond anything that I could have anticipated. Indeed, the most enjoyable books I have ever been associated with. And the subsequent acclaim by reviewers? Well, this has been overwhelming. What more could an author ask for when one of our county's leading historians and authorities in his review for the Gwent Local History Council referred to my work as 'This is the memorial to memorials.'
Copyright © Ray Westlake January, 2005
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