Letters from Ernie: Private Ernest Parker of Rotherhithe in the First World War

By Jennifer Jamieson, Archives Volunteer
With thanks to Lisa Moss, Archives Officer

“Just a line to let you know I am going on alright. Hope you and all at home are the same.”

In 2014 the letters of Ernest Parker of Rotherhithe were donated by his family in digital form to Southwark Local History Library and Archive. Ernest Parker was born in 1893 to Thomas and Sarah Parker. It is likely that he left school aged 11 in 1904 after the death of his father and worked as a clerk for a produce packer.

Private Ernest Parker joined the British forces during the First World War, and embarked for Salonika in November 1916. He sent numerous letters back to his family on Hawkestone Road in Rotherhithe during his time in Greece, offering descriptions of the conditions that he was encountering, his hopes for a safe return home, and always, caring enquiries as to his many other family members (he was one of 8 children!) His notes were always signed affectionately using his nickname “Ernie.” Unfortunately, just as the hostilities had ceased and his return home was within reach, he was admitted to the military hospital with pneumonia and did not recover from the ailment, dying there on the 4th of February 1919. Right until the end, he was finding ways to send his affectionate best wishes back to his family, even asking one of the hospital nurses to write his final letter home.

Southwark Local History Library and Archive has many of these letters and Ernest’s Territorial Force identification card, showing that he was appointed to the Durham Light Infantry during the war.Ernest Parker’s Territorial Force identification card

At Christmas, Ernie sent his greetings back to his family, including this card that was addressed to his sister Ada, and an embroidered card for his Mum, Sarah Louise Parker.

Christmas Card from Salonika

Embroidered Chrismas Card "To my der mother"

Reporting back to his sister Beatrice (whom he called “Beat”) in December 1917, Ernie described his own Christmas season in Salonika, telling her “Well how did you spend your Christmas. We had a decent time here, turkey, Christmas pudding and a pint for dinner. The weather has been rotten here lately, raining nearly every day, up to your eyes in mud…”Letter to Beatrice 27 December 1917

In a letter to his Mum dated August 8, 1918, Ernie described his outlook, that he was soon “going to get leave, well I am in hopes getting it within the next few months or years. I am not sure which.” Yet a month later, in a letter dated September 14, 1918, he reported back to his Mum that “Well I thought we should stand a chance of getting a leave this year but what I see of it now I don’t think it will come off.”

But then another turnaround a few months later, as he wrote to his Mum on November 8, 1918 (image below), “As you say, we have been having some grand news lately. I don’t think it will be long now before it is finished. I don’t think it will be long now before we get home.”Letter from Ernerst to his mother 8 November 1918

He wasn’t able to get home for Christmas that year, but in January 2019, reported back to his Mum that his return home was within reach, save for a few bureaucratic details: “they have started demobilising from here and it is only by a bit of rotten luck that I am not away already. I received a letter from the firm saying that my job was still open but it was not stamped by the Local Advisory Committee at home and that is where the delay is coming in. A couple of chaps received the letters stamped and they were away a few days after. Some of the men over forty one are going home tomorrow.”

Around the same time, on January 21, 1919, he sent a letter to his older brother Tom, who was himself fighting in the First World War, showing that he was happily anticipating his return home: “Well old sport I think this about all I have to tell you now so hoping to see you shortly and wishing you the best of luck. I remain your affectionate brother, Ernie.”Letter to Tom, 21 January 1919

Unfortunately, the documents in our collections then show that for all of Ernie’s hope, optimism and readiness to return, he encountered  even more rotten luck shortly after these letters to his Mum and brother were written. His Mum received a letter written on February 2, 1919, at the military hospital in Greece, reporting that Ernie had caught pneumonia and that “he is very ill, he is getting all the care and attention possible.”Letter 2 February 1919 from Milieary Hospital in Salonika

But worse news was yet to come. On February 6, 2019, the hospital Chaplain sent Ernie’s Mum the unfortunate news that her son had died a few days earlier. In this letter, the Chaplain described how Ernie had shared his fondness for his family up until the end: “He spoke very affectionately of you all, and said he would love to get home. I did not like to tell him I thought he would die, for I did not want to depress him for fear it might go against any chance of recovery. I am greatly grieved about his death. For I had formed a very good opinion of him.”

Ernie had also made an impression on the hospital’s Sister-in-Charge, who also shared her fond words in a letter to his Mum on February 6, 2019: “I asked him the day before he died if he had been writing home, and he said “Yes”, so I said as he was not able to write himself, I would do it for him, And he was pleased, and said to tell you that he was “getting on all right” and to give you and his sisters his love. He was a good patient, always smiling till the last and was conscious right up till an hour or so before he died, which was just before midnight.”Letter from the hospital’s Sister-in-Charge 2 February 1919Blog 9

Ernest “Ernie” Parker received British War and Victory Medals and he was buried at the British Military Cemetery at Mikra, Thessaloniki, Greece “with full military honours”.

Blog 10

Photo courtesy of Janis Birchall.

 

‘Silent Raid’: The story of the lost houses of Burgess Park

by Sally Hogarth, Artist

Sally Hogarth Artwork cropped ‘Silent Raid’ is a series of house sculptures commissioned to commemorate the people and places impacted by a WWI Zeppelin bomb that landed on Calmington Road, which once stood where Burgess Park is located today.

Reminiscent of the terrace houses that were destroyed in the raid and of varying shades found in traditional red bricks, each house represents one of the lives lost in the incident, with each house; large, medium or small representing each man, woman and child.

Like the bands of colour used in mapping bomb damage, the shade of each house darkens with increased proximity to the bomb site. Every house is etched with a quote from documents and reports on the incident, both past and present. The art deco font used is inspired by the lettering on the original commemorative plaque. A new plaque can be found in Chumleigh Gardens in the centre of the park.

Calmington Road 1977 p9968

The process involved meeting with The Friends of Burgess Park and investigating their thorough research archive, including recorded photographs, social commentaries and interviews with survivors and families involved in the incident. Meeting with local historians at the Southwark Local History Library and Archives, I learned about the extent of the bomb damage that the area suffered along with news reports and archives of the unfortunate event.

World War I Zeppelin Raid 1917 edit p17257

Damage to houses in Albany Road, 1917

After spending time in the park itself, I came to appreciate that the area where the park stands today had once been covered by buildings and houses which were destroyed by war. The absence of their existence and public awareness of this in the present day created a powerful feeling I wanted to convey in the work.

Another important issue I sought to address is the home face of war. The nature of this project is unusual in that it commemorates a war incident that happened on home soil rather than far away battlefields. In an age of a mounting refugee crisis, highlighting the living memory of the ground beneath our own feet facing bombs and destruction becomes a significant message.

A lot of the anecdotes and memories of the event had domestic contexts, from toys found amongst the debris, to fish and chips and piano playing. The contrast between these everyday, familiar and comforting images and the violence that disrupted them feels like a poignant crux of the incident.

This has been reflected in the project with the houses having an almost dolls-house feel. The scale of the houses, particularly the smallest, means that they have a certain vulnerability about them whilst the impressions on their surface that suggest windows and doors have a more sinister feel. The research included news reports that recall ‘windows hurled headlong’ and striking images of door frames standing empty without their doors.

Researching into Zeppelins and their bombs led me to find strangely colourful diagrams of the rings of their destruction. Also the records of WWI and WWII building damage in the Lambeth Archives used a gradient of colour to plot the severity of damage. This, paired with the difficulty of plotting the exact spot where the bomb landed, led me to the concept of creating a trail and colour code to the houses. The houses are scattered in a debris-like manner across the park darkening in colour with proximity to where Calmington Road once stood.

bomb map

Extract from the London County Council’s WWII bomb damage map series showing gradations in colour.

In all, I sought to ignite visitors’ interest to uncover the story of Calmington Road and the streets that once stood beneath their feet. I also aimed to create an experience for regular park visitors to discover a new house or inscription with each visit, creating a story that unfolds and is passed on between locals. The houses become a prop or a prompt for a story, to start a conversation that gets passed between park visitors and as such the story of this incident will be passed on to future generations.