Tuesday, 19 October 2021

John B. McDowell, MC, BEM (1877 – 1954) – British film maker, director and cameraman during WW1

John Benjamin McDowell was born in Plumstead, London, UK on 22nd December 1877.  His parents were George McDowell and his wife Susan, nee Franklin. He had a brother, George, who was born in 1882.

When he was fifteen, John began an apprenticeship as an engineer at Woolwich Arsenal, who manufactured armaments, munitions and explosives.  By 1898 he was working as a cameraman, projectionist and electrician for ‘The  British Mutoscope and Biograph Syndicate’, often showing  Biograph films of the Boer War at the Palace Theatre in London. 

John married Emily Ada White in 1900 and the couple lived in Deptford before moving to Willesden. On the 1901 Census, John described  himself a Biograph operator at the Palace Theatre, London.

In early 1908, John went into partnership with a former colleague and formed the ‘British and Colonial Kinematograph Company’ (B & C) producing news, documentaries and short comedies.

When the First World War broke out, John joined the voluntary home defence militia The Volunteer Training Corps. He negotiated for the rights to film the war – he was the signatory for ‘B & C’. In June 1916 after one of the two ‘Official War Office Kinematographers’ who had been authorised to film the allied armies in action in France was invalided home, John volunteered to replace him. While still a civilian, he travelled to the Western Front and worke with the other official cameraman, Geoffrey H. Malins, in the battlefields of the Somme. The officer in charge noted that, during the filming, “Mr McDowell ran considerable risks. I have seen him have very narrow escapes, notably from machine gun-bullets…when trying to cross no man’s land…and several times from shells….he has also been gassed”.

John then worked on several more film productions for the War Office including newsreels and the major films - ‘The Battle of the Ancre and the Advance of the Tanks’ and ‘The German Retreat and The Battle of Arras’.  In April 1918, although still a civilian, he was put in charge of the movements of all the cameramen on the Western Front. In June 1918, both he and Geoffrey Malins were awarded the ‘Medal of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire’ (known as the ‘BEM’ from 1922) for ‘courage and devotion to duty’. John was then commissioned as a Lieutenant in July 1918 when he was also awarded the ‘Military Cross’ for ‘courage under fire’. 

Filming King George V during his
visit to the Western Front, 1916

Note:  The Volunteer Training Corps was a voluntary home defence militia in the United Kingdom during the First World War, formed following a demand for a means of service for those men who were over military age or those with business or family commitments which made it difficult for them to volunteer for the armed services. At that stage of the war, Britain had on a voluntary system of enlistment and many men still held to the Victorian principle that it was the task of professional troops to fight a war, while voluntary militias provided for home defence.  Consequently, civilian local defence groups began to spring up spontaneously as soon as war was declared.

The volunteer movement gained publicity from letters and articles in newspapers advocating civilian participation in home defence, with notable proponents being Arthur Conan Doyle and H. G. Wells.  Harold Tennant, Under-Secretary of State for War, realising that the government could do little to prevent them, decided in September 1914 to allow the Central Committee of the London Volunteer Defence Force to continue. Lord Desborough became the President of the Association and General Sir O'Moore Creagh VC was appointed the Military Advisor. In November, the association was officially recognised as the administrative body of the VTC and formally subjected to conditions which prevented interference with recruitment into the regular army, barred members from holding military rank or wearing uniforms other than an armband and denied any state funding. The Volunteer Training Corps was suspended in December 1918, and officially disbanded in January 1920, with the exception of the Volunteer Motor Corps, which was retained until April 1921 in case of civil disorder.

Photographs: John McDowell on the Western Front and

John McDowell filimg King George V during his visit to British forces on the Western Front, 8-15 August 1916.

Sources:  Find my Past, Free BMD and


Wednesday, 13 October 2021

Frank Maurice Jephson, ARCO (1886 - 1917) – British composer and organist

With thanks to Ciaran Conlan for telling us about Frank who was the only composer/musician in the list Ciaran sent me who was not on my list.  If anyone has a photograph of Frank please get in touch 

Frank Maurice Jephson was born into a musical family in Derby, Derbyshire, UK, the birth being registered in the first quarter of 1886.  His parents were Thomas Jephson, a coal merchant, and his wife, Emma H. Jephson, nee Raynolds and the family lived in Handel House, Curzon Street, St. Werburgh, Derby, which was built by Frank’s grandfather, John Jephson. Frank’s great grandfather was a music teacher and his great great grandfather was the organist at Alfreton Parish Church in Derbyshire.

Frank initially studied music with Mr S. Neville Cox.  On the 1901 Census - when he was fifteen - Frank is recorded as boarding in Kensington, London, along with John H. Williams, a professor of music from Lincolnshire, with whom Frank also studied music.  Frank’s music teacher, John Williams, was organist and choirmaster of Westbourne Park Baptist Church. In 1902, Frank became Assistant organist of the Westbourne Park Church and at the age of eighteen, Frank obtained his Associateship Diploma (ARCO) from the Royal College of Music – which demonstrates high achievement in organ playing and supporting theoretical work.

In 1904, Frank became the organist of Richmond-upon-Thames Presbyterian Church and in 1910 he married Margaret Kathleen Davis.  The couple lived in Acton, London, before moving to Richmond.   

In 1916, Frank joined the 1st/5th Battalion, London Regiment (London Rifle Brigade) as Rifleman No. 303040.  He was posted to France, where, according to a newspaper report, he was apparently commissioned, although I cannot find anything to back that up.  Frank was badly wounded fighting in France on 19th April 1917 and died of his wounds on 20th April 1917.  He was buried in Etaples Military Cemetary, France, Grave reference XIX. E. 5 and is also remembered on St Mary Magdalene Church - WW1 Roll Of Honour (WMR 12510) - in Richmond, now in Greater London, UK.

List of works by F. Maurice Jephson held by the British Library, which (except where noted) are for piano and were published by the London firm Joseph Williams:

Arabesque (1913)

Autumn "romance for piano" (1912)

Brownies: two short pieces for the piano (1924)

A Country Dance/A Woodland Dance (1927)

Danse Humoresque (1913)

"Dear golden Days" a song with words by P. J. O'Reilly (London: Novello & Co, 1918)

Five Pieces for Piano (1911)

Gaudeamus, for organ (London: The Organ Loft, 1911)

Hunting Song (1911)

Idyll (1912)

Impromptu (1911),

Marionettes "A Characteristic Sketch for the Piano" (1912)

Melody (1911)

"My Scotch Lassie" song with words by F. G. Bowles (J. Williams, 1914)

On the Hill-side (1917)

Postlude in C minor for Organ (reprinted by Bardic Music, 2002)

"Send back my long stray'd eyes to me" for male voice choir (TTBB) words by John Donne (Joseph Williams, c1930.)

Six Easy Pieces (On the Hillside, The Tin Soldier, Minuet, The Irish Piper, A Country Dance, Harlequin) (1914)

Two Little Waltzes (Joseph Williams, c1924)

Waltz in C (1911)

Sources:  Find my Past

Derby Daily Telegraph, 12th July 1935 and



Tuesday, 28 September 2021

Charles Dennis Fisher (1877 – 1916) - British Academic

Charles in WW1
Charles Dennis Fisher was born on 19th June 1877 in Blatchington Court, Blatchington, Sussex, UK. He was baptised in East Blatchington on 4th August 1877.  Charles was the ninth of eleven children born to Herbert William Fisher (1826–1903) and his wife Mary Louisa (née Jackson) (1841–1916). 

Some of his siblings were: H. A. L. Fisher, historian and Minister of Education; Admiral Sir William Wordsworth Fisher, Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet; Florence Henrietta, Lady Darwin, playwright and wife of Sir Francis Darwin (son of Charles Darwin); and Adeline Vaughan Williams, wife of English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. He was also the brother of Cordelia Curle (née Fisher), who was the wife of the author, critic and journalist Richard Curle and the mother of the academic Adam Curle. 

Educated at Westminster School, Charles went on to Christ Church, Oxford in 1896, where he gained his B.A. in 1900 and his M.A. in 1903.  He then Senior Censor at Christ Church from 1910 to 1914.

NOTE The Senior Censor is responsible for academic matters, including requests for course changes or suspension of studies, general concerns and complaints about academic work which cannot be resolved by your Tutor, and academic discipline.

When war broke out in 1914, Charles learnt to drive a vehicle before joining the Royal Army Medical Corps Motor Ambulance.  He served on the Western Front as an orderly and interpreter, distinguishing himself for bravery under fire.

Following a training period, Charles joined the Royal Navy in August 1915 becoming a Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. He was serving aboard HMS "Invincible", the flagship of the 3rd Battlecruiser Squadron during the Battle of Jutland, when she was sunk on 31st May 1916 with the loss of 1,026 lives.

HMS "Invincible" explosion
Naval History. United States Naval Institute. 

Charles is remembered on the Roll of Honour at Christ Church College, Oxford.

Robert Bridges, Britain's Poet Laureate during WW1, dedicated the following verse to Fisher following his death:

Over the warring waters, beneath the wandering skies

The heart of Britain roameth, the Chivalry of the sea,

Where Spring never bringeth a flower, nor bird singeth in a tree;

Far, afar, O beloved, beyond the sight of our eyes,

Over the warring waters, beneath the stormy skies.

Staunch and valiant-hearted, to whom our toil were play,

Ye man with armour’d patience the bulwarks night and day,

Or on your iron coursers plough shuddering through the Bay,

Or neath the deluge drive the skirmishing sharks of war:

Venturous boys who leapt on the pinnace and row’d from shore,

A mother’s tear in the eye, a swift farewell to say.

And a great glory at heart that none can take away.

Seldom is your home-coming; for aye your pennon flies

In unrecorded exploits on the tumultuous wave;

Till, in the storm of battle, fast-thundering upon the foe,

Ye add your kindred names to the heroes of long-ago,

And mid the blasting wrack, in the glad sudden death of the brave,

Ye are gone to return no more.-Idly our tears arise;

Too proud for praise as ye lie in your unvisited grave,

The wide-warring water, under the starry skies.

By Robert Bridges.

Sources:  Article from "The Westminster Gazette" 3rd November 1916 - sent to me by Historian Debbie Cameron.



Monday, 19 July 2021

Reverend Basil Pemberton Plumptre, MC (1883 - 1917) – British Army Chaplain

During the course of my research, I have collected a list of poets, writers, artists and chaplains who were awarded medals for exceptional bravery during the First World War (See Forgotten Poets weblog).   This one I found thanks to a post by The Reverend Nicholas Pye ( @RevdPye), setting me off on a research mission to find out more about Basil Plumptre MC

Basil was born in Claypole, Lincolnshire, UK in 1883.  His parents were the Rev. Charles Pemberton Plumptre, an Anglican Church Minister, and his wife Clara, nee Macdonald.  

According to the 1891 Census, the family lived in the Vicarage in Woodham Ferris, Eastwood, Nottinghamshire, where The Rev. Charles Plumptre was Rector.   The census records an interesting link to a female WW1 poet -  visitors at that time were Clara’s sister – Mary E. Cornford - with her son Francis M. Cornford (who was born in Eastbourne, Sussex in 1874).  In 1909, Basil’s cousin Francis Cornford (1874 – 1943) married the poet Frances Darwin, who was a daughter of Sir Francis Darwin and Ellen Wordsworth Darwin, née Crofts, and a granddaughter of Charles Darwin.  She is featured on the Female Poets weblog : (https://femalewarpoets.blogspot.com/2020/06/frances-crofts-cornford-1886-1960.html).

Educated at South Eastern Collage Hollicondane, St Lawrence Intra, Thanet, Kent, Basil went on to study Theology at Ridley Hall College, Cambridge.  He was a curate at Bermondsey Old Parish Church when war broke out and he joined the Army Chaplain’s Department.  Seconded to the London Regiment (First Surrey Rifles), he was attached to the 1st/21st Batallion.

Basil was awarded a Military Cross in 1916 for gallantry and devotion in the field. He was killed by a shell on 16th July 1917, and was buried in La Clytte Military Cemetery, Heuvelland, Arrondissement Ieper, West Flanders (West-Vlaanderen), Belgium, Grave Reference: PLOT II. F. 36.

The Reverend Basil Pemberton Plumptre MC is also commemorated on Sevenoaks War Memorial, Kent, where his parents were living at No. 11 South Park, at the time of his death. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/12686560/basil-pemberton-plumptre

Sources:   Find my Past, Free BMD, 


Friday, 11 June 2021

A Teddy Bear in WW1

 From Paul Simadas via Facebook 10.6.21 and shared with his kind permission.

“A Teddy Bear in War.”

“Tell Aileen I still have the Teddy Bear and will try to hang on to it for her. It is dirty and his hind legs are kind of loose but he is still with me.” Wrote Lawrence Rogers, 5th Canadian Mountrd Rifles (the Quebec Regiment) in a letter to his wife September 1916.
Aileen Rogers, of East Farnham Quebec in Canada, was a ten year-old Canadian girl who had contracted polio at a young age which affected her ability to walk for much of her adult life. When her father, Lawrence Browning Rogers, enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force in 1915 to fight in the Great War, she sent her beloved teddy bear overseas to help protect him.

Lawrence served initially as a medic in the 5th CMR and was awarded the Military Medal for bringing in wounded near Sanctuary Wood in Belgium. He was later commissioned as a Lieutenant and undertook regimental service in the 5th CMR as officer-in-charge Stretcher Bearer parties.
Lawrence Robers in WW1

Despite the good-luck provided by his daughter’s bear, Lawrence was killed in action at Passchendale in late 1917. When Lt. Roger’s body was recovered by his comrades, the bear was found in one of his pockets. The bear was returned to his family in Quebec and was treasured by Aileen for many years.
Aileen went on to graduate as a registered nurse from the Montreal General Hospital School of Nursing. Her distinguished nursing career culminated in her appointment as head of health services at McGill University. Aileen lived in Montreal until her death on June 20th 1998.
Several years later, Aileen’s daughter, Roberta Rogers Innes, the granddaughter of Lawrence, found an old briefcase. Inside was the beloved teddy bear, along with collected letters and other war memorabilia. Roberta subsequently donated the teddy bear to the Canadian War Museum, where it is now one of the Museum's most beloved artifacts.
A book telling this poignant story has since been published: “A Bear in War” by Stephanie Innes and Harry Endrulat, illustrated by Brian Deines.
Pictures of the teddy bear, of Lawrence as a medic in WW1 and of Aileen as a RN in her post-war nursing career.
Lest we forget

Aileen Rogers

Tuesday, 1 June 2021

repatriation of American service personnel who were killed or died serving on the Western Front during the First World War.

An article by Michael E. Ruane in “The New York Times” of 30th May 2021, informs us about a book telling the story of the repatriation of  the bodies of American service personnel who were killed or died serving on the Western Front during the First World War.  I did not realise there were so many - in the region of 100,000 - nor that this was such a huge post-war operation. 

It must have been harrowing and arduous work to try to find, disinter and identify the bodies of those whose families chose to have their bodies taken home.  The task was undertaken by 6,000 African American soldiers in labour battalions.  Conditions for those involved must have been appaling, for we know from the words and paintings of Canadian artist Mary Riter Hamilton of the terrible state of the Western Front once the fighting had ended.  Mary lived for three years in that desolate landscape, in a tin hut.  Nearby were membes of the Chinese Labour Corps who undertook the task of clearing the area following hostilities. 

A painting by Mary Riter Hamilton

“Bodies of War: World War I and the Politics of Commemoration in America, 1919-1933” by Lisa M. Budreau Published by: NYU Press, New York, 2009

For further information on Mary Riter Hamilton:


Monday, 10 May 2021

A photograph of patients in Coulter Hospital London in 1915 from Philippe Clerbout, prompted a discussion about toy bears in WW1.

During WW1 J.K. Farnell (known as the 'English Steiff' by collectors) produced tiny 3.5in high bears which they called 'Mascot Bears'. They were given as gifts and taken to the Front by soldiers, as mementos of home and loved ones. Farnell began producing the bears in 1906. 

The origin of 'teddy' bears - When US president Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt was asked to arbitrate a border dispute between Mississippi and Louisiana in 1902, the governor of Mississippi Andrew H. Longino, hoping to curry favour, also invited him to take part in a bear hunt. Logino knew that Roosevelt was a fan of big-game hunting and had evenwritten a book on his hunting adventures in the wild west.

But when Roosevelt turned up for the hunt he was unable to bag any quarry, so Longino ordered the president’s men to capture a bear. They found a cub, ran it to exhaustion with their hunting dogs, clubbed it, then tied it up so the president would be unable to miss. But Roosevelt refused to take a shot, asking that the bear be put down humanely.

In 1902, Washington Post cartoonist Clifford Berryman depicted the incident showing a little bear with a rope around its neck and Roosevelt in the foreground refusing to kill it. The caption read “Drawing the line in Mississippi”.  

The 1902 cartoon showed US President Theodore ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt refusing to shoot a small bear.

The cartoon inspired Brooklyn sweetship owner, Russian Jewish immigrant Morris Michtom, to create a toy bear to decorate his shop window. He called it “Teddy’s bear”. Michtom and his wife Rose made stuffed animal toys as a sideline to their sweets business and were soon inundated with requests from customers to buy the bear.


Photo credit: Army Museum of Western Australia.

The Coulter Hospital opened in September 1915 in a house in Grosvenor Square lent by Sir Walpole Greenwell (1847-1919). Accepted by the War Office as a primary hospital affiliated to Queen Alexandra's Military Hospital at Millbank, it had 100 beds for officers.  The rooms were large and lofty.  One of these was an 'Australian Room' and some of the beds were funded by Australian donors.  The medical staff were mostly consultants from Guy's Hospital and the Middlesex Hospital, but also included an Australian resident surgeon.  The nursing staff comprised 11 nurses, 6 of whom were Australian, and 10 members of a local Voluntary Aid Detachment, whose Commandant was Lady Juliet Duff (1881-1965).

The Hospital was founded by Mrs Charlotte Herbine, an American psychic from Indianapolis, who raised money to fund the hospital while visiting the Exposition in San Francisco.  The Hospital was named after Dr Coulter, the spirit of a family physician with whom Mrs Herbine had communicated with since she was a child.  Dr Coulter had directed her to go to England as he wanted to contact certain Englishmen.

Photo credit: Army Museum of Western Australia.