Sunday, 20 July 2014

St Michael's: Cuthbert Gordon Willis

Cuthbert Gordon Willis, just before the Battle of Messines Ridge, where he was killed (with kind permission of Alistair Willis, great-nephew of Cuthbert Gordon Willis)

Cuthbert Gordon Willis
Died 1 November 1914

Date of Birth: 29 March 1892
Place of Birth: Mitcham, Surrey

Cuthbert Gordon Willis was born in Mitcham, Surrey on 29 March 1892 to Cuthbert Gordon Willis, an ironmonger, and Annie. His siblings were Margaret Helena, Albert Thomas, Enid Annie, Dorothy Susannah, Norah Grace, and Gwyneth Mary. In 1901 Cuthbert was living with his parents and siblings at his father's ironmonger's shop at 51 High Street, Highgate. In 1911, he was working as an Engineer Turner and was living with his family at 19 Maclise Road, West Kensington. In his Grave Registration, he is referred to as "Native of Highgate, London". It would appear this is why Cuthbert is commemorated on the St Michael's Roll of Honour.

Service Details: Private 1682 of London Regiment (London Scottish) 1st/14th Battalion

Place of Death:1 November 1914
Place of Burial: No Known Grave
Commemorated: Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial, Panel 54

Since this blog began, we are fortunate to have been contacted by a number of readers in Australia who have some connection to men named on the St Michael's Roll of Honour. Last month, we were contacted by Alistair Willis in Queensland, whose great uncle was Cuthbert Gordon Willis. Although Cuthbert was born in Surrey, he was baptized alongside his siblings at St Michael's on 11 February 1897.

Willis was killed very early in the war, on 1 November 1914. Alistair's father was born two weeks later and named after him. Alistair's father, Cuthbert Gordon Wills (the third), attended St Michael's School and is believed to have sung in the church choir circa 1920.

Alistair wrote:
"The person in question’s father was also named Cuthbert Gordon Willis who was a partner in an ironmonger business in Streatham. One fine day in 1894 he mounted his penny farthing bicycle and rode over to Hampstead Heath and eventually Highgate Village and so overcome by the beauty of the countryside that was so different from Streatham he decided to establish an ironmonger business at 51 High Street.
So, in 1896, Cuthbert and his wife Annie and six children, including Cuthbert Gordon Willis (Junior) are living in Highgate and operating an ironmongery business

C.G.Willis & Co. Ironmongers and Cycle Agents, circa 1900 (with kind permission of Alistair Willis)
Cuthbert’s wife Annie died in 1904 aged 45 and was buried in Carnarvon. It was at this time that Cuthbert left Highgate setting up a new business right under the entrance of Olympia in West Kensington and continued until 1948 to sell all the exhibitions enormous quantities of ironmongery.

Cuthbert had been in a rush to get to Olympia but retained the Highgate business for his eldest son Albert Thomas to run but Albert was not yet old enough to run the Highgate business. In the interim Cuthbert leased the business, an arrangement that was terminated in 1905 with C. G. Willis & Co. being replaced with a partnership between Cuthbert and son Albert Thomas, C. G. Willis & Son.

Also living in Highgate at this time, in Langdon Road (renamed Bredgar Road in 1937), were John and Eliza Ketley. John was originally from Chelmsford and a builder’s labourer. In 1901 a nephew born in Chelmsford called Ephraim William Havers, aged 13, was living with them. John must have struck up a friendship with Cuthbert and his eldest son Albert Thomas through the ironmonger business supplying building materials to John. In turn Ephraim, known as Billy Havers, became very good friends with Albert and subsequently Godfather to Albert’s son, Gordon.
Albert’s brother, Cuthbert Gordon Willis (Junior) was born in . . . 1892, the fifth of the six children. After school he became an apprentice engineer, turner and fitter.  Cuthbert, with war against Germany looming, enlisted as a Private in the 1st/14th Battalion of the London Regiment (London Scottish).

The London Scottish became the first territorial army unit to see action in World War One. Packed into 34 London buses, they arrived at Ypres at 3 am on October 29, 1914. Together with their commanding officer Sir Douglas Haig they had a brief rest and breakfast, before marching on to Geluvelt to build trenches. After a hard day's work, the battalion marched back to Ypres for rest. This was not to be, however. When they arrived at the Cloth Hall, more buses were waiting to take them on to another destination -Armentières - where they were to support the 2nd Division Cavalry at St Elooi. Again they began the day by digging trenches but at 8am received new orders. The London Scottish set off for Messines Ridge where an opening had been forced in the Allied frontline.

Their task was to reinforce the Allied line and close the opening near what were known as Hun's Farm and Middle Farm. Twice the London Scottish not only halted German attacks but forced the Germans back from the ridge, despite the fact that the Scots themselves were in an open position, faced overwhelming odds in numbers and were forced to make do with malfunctioning weapons and ammunition. A third attack saw the German troops break through the London Scottish defences, leaving the Battalion with heavy casualties and cut off from headquarters. To avoid total destruction of the Battalion, orders were given for a retreat.

Further attacks on German positions on the ridge were continued by the British infantry and the French Brigade. Although the ridge was captured by the German Army, the efforts of the London Scottish had won time and ultimately prevented a far superior force breaking through to Ypres. The Scots had lost 394 of their 700 officers and men in their short time on the ridge. Cuthbert Gordon was one of those losses, killed in action on 1 November 1914 only 2 days after arriving at the front.
Back of the photograph of Cuthbert Gordon Willis reproduced at the top of this post (with kind permission of Alistair Willis)
Cuthbert’s older brother Albert and his wife Elizabeth’s first child was born in Highgate at 51 High Street, on 13 November 1914, less than two weeks after Cuthbert’s death in Belgium. In honour of Cuthbert, the child was named Cuthbert Gordon Willis however would be known as Gordon. 
Amazingly, Gordon’s Godfather, Billy Havers, was with the Royal Flying Corps in 1915 in France and came across a photo of Cuthbert which had been taken in a photographic studio near the front line [see image above]. He gave it to Cuthbert’s brother Albert who then passed it onto his sister Gwen in September 1916. Billy Havers went on to have an illustrious career in the military retiring in 1948 as Air Vice-Marshal Sir Ephraim William Havers, KBE.

C.G.Willis & Son, Highgate, 1926 (with kind permission of Alistair Willis)
Albert Willis moved the business from 51 to 62 High Street and continued to operate there until the 1960s when he retired and sold out." 
Albert Thomas Willis at his Highgate shop (with kind permission of Alistair Willis)

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