20th April 1917
To: Cherry, Milldown House, Blandford Dorset
Deeply regret to inform you Capt A D Cherry Dorset Regt attached Somerset Light Infantry was killed in action April 9th. The Army Council express their sympathy.
From: Secretary, War Office
Alfred Cherry senior owned and ran Alexander and Cherry’s Drapers and Outfitters in Salisbury Street, Blandford. Born in Northampton he had lived briefly in Lambeth in London before settling in Blandford sometime around 1885. He and his wife Florence eventually had eleven children, 9 boys and 2 girls, all of whom it can be assumed attended Blandford Secondary School.
Alexander and Cherry’s took up a large stretch of the southern side of Salisbury Street and even expanded to take up another shop across the road.
Alfred Douglas and Kenneth Charles Cherry were the 4th and 6th children respectively of the Cherry Family. Alfred junior was born on the 31st May 1889 and Kenneth in September 1893. The 1891 census has the family living at 49 Damory Street, exactly opposite the entrance to Blandford Secondary School, with 5 children and a servant. We can piece together an idea of the young men’s’ lives through the records left behind them. Unlike many other old boys of the school commemorated on the war memorial there are relatively rich and varied sources of information for the Cherrys.
In the short stretch of Salisbury Street running from Market Place up to the Kings Arms, 5 of the 20 men on the First World War memorial either lived or had associations with family businesses. Across the road from Alexander and Cherry’s at 17 Salisbury Street lived Robert Ingram Richards son of the Chemist; three doors to the left at number 9, Reginald Durdle, son of a Tailor; and four doors to the right at number 23 Bernard Arscott son of a Grocer.
Business must have been good for Alexander and Cherry’s store as the family had moved to the more substantial Milldown House at 27 Whitecliff Mill Street by the time of the 1901 census.
Florence and Alfred’s two eldest children had left home by 1901 but there were now two staff in the house, a maid and a domestic nurse (perhaps unsurprising given the number of children in the family). By the time of the 1911 census, the eldest son, Leonard, had returned to the family home, and was listed – just as his father, as ‘Draper and Outfitter’. Alfred’s eldest daughter Annie had also returned aged 25, to work in the family business.
In 1911 it is the middle four boys, Henry, Alfred, Leslie and Kenneth who have left home. Henry emigrated to New Zealand in his late teens/early 20’s and Leslie went to work on his Uncle’s farm in Northamptonshire. Only a year later their younger brother Richard (two years younger than Kenneth) also left Blandford Secondary School to work as a Farmer. Whilst there is currently no direct evidence for this, it is probably likely he went to his Uncle’s farm as well.
The 1910 School Inspection for Blandford Secondary School shows that in most cases Boys generally left the school between their 15th and 16th birthdays either to go on to Milton Abbas Grammar School, to take up apprenticeships or do other work (Girls mostly left a year earlier and there was a more or less 50:50 gender ratio at the school throughout the Edwardian period). Alfred, taking a very different path than any of his older siblings, left Blandford to join the Civil Service in London at the age of 15¾. He went to work as a Boy Clerk in the Post Office Savings Bank in West Kensington initially living with his aunt Gertrude in Tooting, South London. (He would later leave money to Gertrude in his will.)
Entrance, to even quite lowly positions, in the Civil Service was governed by competitive entrance examination. These examinations were very broad in scope. The subjects for Boy Clerks were:
- Handwriting and orthography, including copying manuscripts.
- English composition;
And 4 subjects from:
- Précis, including indexing and digest of returns;
- Book-keeping and shorthand writing;
- Geography and English history;
- Elementary mathematics;
- Inorganic chemistry with elements of physics.
We know that Kenneth, 4 years Alfred’s junior, joined his brother in London as the brothers turn up together in the 1911 census as boarders in a lodging house in the Kings Road, Fulham. Alfred now 21 is described as a 2nd Division Clerk in His Majesty’s Civil Service (HMCS) and Kenneth (17) is a Boy Clerk HMCS. Hugh Sorrell also 17, is a Clerk with the Port of London Authority listed at the same address. The other boarders are also Civil Servants and an Elementary School Headteacher.
The 1901 census lists Hugh Sorrell’s father as a ‘Drapers Manager’. The Sorrells appear to have all the junior staff of Alexander and Cherry’s living with them when Hugh was a child. Although the Sorrell family was six strong, there are another eight people living at 10 West Street, listed as either Drapery or Millinery Assistants or Apprentices.
Saturday Night Soldiers
Both Alfred and Kenneth, after becoming established in London, joined the ‘Civil Service Rifles’. Whilst some units of the Militia and Yeomanry (which in 1906 became the Territorial Army) in London can trace their origins back to the Trained Bands of the Civil War there was an enormous expansion in part-time soldiering after the last major French invasion scare of 1860. Individual battalions in London had very different characters and were often just as important as social clubs as they were military units.
Whilst London Scottish and London Irish are nowadays better known as Rugby Football clubs their origins lie in the militia dating from 1860. The Civil Service Rifles were one battalion of the London Regiment alongside, for example, the Post Office Rifles, the London Cyclist Battalion, the Artists’ Rifles, the London Electrical Engineers and the Inns of Court battalion, all of which intended to draw recruits from a narrowly defined stratum of London society. Many of the ‘better’ units actually charged membership fees leading them to be known as ‘Class Corps’
The Civil Service Rifles regimental rule book for 1899 claimed that the CS Rifles offered ‘the advantages of what is practically a select and popular social club’ Furthermore, ‘the privilege of admission …is reserved to gentlemen in the clerical establishments of HM Government Offices and of the Bank of England, but in certain cases relations and friends of Civil Servants are allowed to join if approved of.’
‘Anything in the nature of brawling, swearing, coarse conversation or songs should never be permitted….association with the Corps should always be for good, never for evil’
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle described a Victorian Volunteer in ‘the Stockbroker’s Clerk’:
The man whom I found myself facing was a well built, fresh-complexioned young fellow, with a frank, honest face and a slight, crisp, yellow moustache. He wore a very shiny top hat and a neat suit of sober black, which made him look what he was-a smart young City man, of the class who have been labelled Cockneys, but who give us our crack volunteer regiments, and who turn out more fine athletes and sportsmen than any body of men in these islands.
Certainly membership of the Civil Service Rifles was positively encouraged by many senior staff within the Civil Service. What’s more, given the competitive nature of promotions within the Civil Service, many young men must have initially joined in order to make a good impression at work. As Alfred was eventually commissioned a lot of detail is available from his Officer Record file in the National Archives. He first joined the Cadet Battalion about a year or so after arriving in London.
From this we can see he joined in June 1906 and was described as ‘Efficient’ – that is to say he turned up to 40 drill nights in the year and attended annual camp, by 1907 he had gone off the idea, was graded ‘Not Efficient’ and had ceased to attend training. He was discharged from the Cadets at his own request in September that year. The records were kept by the Cadet Battalion as Alfred applied to join the main regiment in December 1913. We know from his medical documents that whilst he was 5’8” in 1906, by the time he joined the main battalion in 1913 he was just over 6’.
Alfred’s progression through the ranks of the Civil Service is recorded in The London Gazette. Formal notices in the Gazette showed the success of candidates in competitive Civil Service exams. Alfred is shown on the 1st October 1909 being promoted to ’Assistant Clerk (Abstractor) ‘after open competition’ and some 6 weeks later (November 13th) promoted to Second Division Clerk. This was no mean feat. In 1913 2,140 candidates sat the exam for just 100 Second Division Clerk positions.
At a time when four fifths of the working population were in manual jobs, a white collar position such as Alfred’s was much sought after. Whilst salaries were frankly meagre at the bottom of the scale what was so attractive was the security of employment these positions offered, with the added benefits of acknowledged social status, holidays, sick leave and pensions. The prospect of promotion by merit meant that many if not most junior civil servants spent a good proportion of their time studying for promotion exams. To this carrot was also added the stick that many positions for Boy Clerks were temporary so unless the promotion exam was passed a young man faced the prospect of being thrown out at 18.
Alfred’s record shows that after the Post Office Savings Bank he was employed in ‘Accounts’ which seems quite vague, but later documents pin him to working at the Board of Education. An interesting point about his record is that it also shows that he was still considered an employee whilst ‘On Army Service’. Indeed very soon after his death was formally announced in the Times, just 6 days after the telegram arrived at Milldown House, the chief Clerk at the Board of Education wrote to the War Office to ask for formal notification of his death so that they can issue a ‘Death Gratuity’ to Alfred’s family.
Interestingly the timing of Alfred’s published move to the Board of Education almost exactly matches his renewed interest in the Civil Service Rifles as he has a medical for enlisting less than a month later. Whether or not this assignment in 1913 was an internal move is unsure as on Alfred’s application to be considered for a wartime commission he describes himself as working for the Board of Education in Whitehall since January 1910.
One difference about being appointed to the Board of Education was In spite of the general rule of open competition for appointments within the Civil Service there were still a few departments where the system of ‘nomination’ obtained, accompanied by a ‘severe test of knowledge’, either active or implied. Such were the Foreign Office, British Museum, and Board of Education. So Alfred must have been at the top of his game to be appointed.
We know much less about Kenneth’s career mainly because he was younger and hadn’t the time to become as established in the Civil Service as his older brother. Also he wasn’t commissioned and ‘other ranks’ records were almost entirely lost to fire during the Second World War. We do know that he had caught up with Alfred by 1913 as he had also passed the competitive exam to become a 2nd Division Clerk. The London Gazette of 4th November 1913 under the heading of ‘Assignments of Second Division Clerks’ has Alfred sent to the Board of Education and Kenneth to the Inland Revenue.
In the final summer of peace, Alfred made his debut for Dorset CCC in a minor counties game against Buckinghamshire. He batted at number 5 and made a creditable 37, the second highest Dorset score. He shared most of the bowling with EA McIntyre. However on what was to be both his debut and last game for Dorset, Alfred was unable to claim any victory as Bucks won by an innings and 8 runs. That appearance was enough for Alfred to appear in Wisden’s appendix of cricketers who died in 1917.
When war was declared Alfred was ‘embodied’ that is to say taken up as a full-time soldier the day after.
At the outbreak of war no Territorial soldier had any liability to serve overseas, but less than a month after embodiment, Alfred has signed the declaration that he is willing to serve abroad. With no large standing Army unlike the other belligerents Britain stumbled into the reality of large scale industrial warfare unprepared.
Whilst Alfred was training with the rest of the 2nd London Division at St Albans, he like many others within the Civil Service Rifles, put forward for commissions in Lord Kitchener’s newly expanding Army. On the 8th of January 1915 he had a medical and on the 21st his Commanding Officer signs his support of Alfred’s application for a Commission. At the end of the month he leaves the Civil Service Rifles and is gazetted as a temporary Lieutenant in 1st Battalion Dorset Regiment. 1 Dorset is a regular Army battalion that had been in action since Mons in August 1914, so it is a mark of some respect or faith in Alfred’s ability that he was sent to them and not a battalion of Kitchener volunteers. The Civil Service Rifles as a whole provided 967 officers from their ranks throughout the war.
Alfred went to Belgium to join the fighting around Ypres but is sent home on the 5th May 1915 with PUO. (Pyrexia of Unknown Origin or ‘Trench Fever’) his father receives a telegram to tell him Alfred has been admitted to hospital with ‘slight’ PUO three days later. His movements are unclear between then and Kenneth being killed in December.
Alfred wrote his final will in January 1916 some 14 days after Kenneth died. Although it might seem inconceivable to us that he wouldn’t have known about Kenneth’s death, it should be remembered that it took 11 days for the family to be informed of Alfred’s death in 1917, and this was at a time when communications were considerably more organised than at the end of 1915.
Alfred’s Will was witnessed by Ethel Hayne and Kate Hodges both of 12 Salisbury Street Blandford (i.e. living above Alexander and Cherry’s premises.) on the 3rd January 1916. The 1911 census has Ethel aged 27, single and listed as a ‘Draper’s Clerk’ one of 15 single women and girls living above the shop (13 workers and 2 domestic servants) Kate Hodges is more difficult to pin down but in 1911 there is a Kate Hodges living close to Blandford whose family make gloves so she could well be the other witness.
The strength of Alfred and Kenneth’s relationship and the almost paternal interest Alfred held in Kenneth is shown by the allocation of his estate in his will. Whilst he left £50 to his mother and £25 to both his older brother Leonard and his Aunt Gertrude, Alfred left £100 to the brother who followed him to London and nothing else specifically to any other named family member save the remainder of his estate to his father. Alfred appointed as executor his uncle John Cherry (5 years older than his father) who is the farmer in Northamptonshire who took in his brothers Leslie and Richard who left school to become farmers themselves.
Kenneth’s full service records have not survived, but we do know that he landed in France on the 10th November 1915 and was killed in action at Loos 41 days later. He has no known grave and is commemorated on the Loos Memorial to the Missing
In April 1916 Alfred contracted Trench Fever for a second time and was admitted to hospital in France, after two weeks he was evacuated back to Southampton aboard the SS Asturias. A medical board gave him 6 weeks convalescent leave after which time he was posted to the 3rd Battalion of the Dorsets at Wyke Regis near Weymouth. The 3rd Battalion were a reserve/garrison unit that stayed in England throughout the war providing defence to the Naval Base at Portland harbour. Thus he was in Wyke Regis camp when Percy Austin Mayo suffered his fatal accident in training.
A further medical board pronounced Alfred fit for duty in mid-August and in early December 1916 he was promoted to Captain and became a Company Commander (a Company at full strength was 227 men) now attached to the 6th Bn Somerset Light Infantry. This promotion, just like his peacetime ones in the Civil Service is published in the London Gazette.
Early in March 1917 Leonard, Alfred’s eldest brother, married Dorothy, the older sister of the other pair of brothers on the school memorial Stanley and Reg (Justus) Watts who died in Egypt (1918) and Gallipoli 1915 respectively.
A week or so after Leonard married; Alfred relinquished the rank of Captain ‘upon ceasing to command a Company’. Unfortunately there is no reference to why this was in the Unit War Diary for 6 SLI. Finally on the 9th of April on the first day of the battle of Arras Alfred was killed in action. This is the same day as the beginning of the successful Canadian attack on Vimy Ridge.
The circumstances of his death are unclear. The War Diary notes that the ‘Trench Strength’ of 6 SLI (i.e. after 7 officers and 103 other ranks had been sent to the rear to form a ‘nucleus’ should disaster befall the battalion in the forthcoming attack) was 20 officers and 560 other ranks. The attack was not successful and even the War Diary, written at the time remarked ‘the chances of attacking successfully was very small’, casualties were heavy enough for the battalion to be ordered to form a ‘composite’ battalion with the DCLI the next day.
When in 1924, Blandford Secondary School decided to turn the existing water fountain into a formal gateway as a war memorial brass plaques were placed on the pillars of the gateway. Alfred and Kenneth’s names were thus inscribed on the arch directly opposite the house where they spent their very earliest years.
The Board of Education memorial in Whitehall..