Friday 27 July 2018

Walter E. Spradbery, DCM (1889 – 1969) British Artist and poet; served in RAMC during WW1

With thanks to Historian Debbie Cameron for telling me about Walter and thanks to Walter’s cousin, Philip Spradbery, who has a lifelong passion for painting, who kindly supplied additional information.

Walter Ermest Spradbery was born on 29th March 1889 in East Dulwich, London, UK. His parents were Joseph Spradbery and his wife Emily Spradbery, nee Feltham.  Walter had a brother, Charles V., b. 1879.

Walter studied at Walthamstow Art School, then worked as an art teacher. He regularly exhibited his work at the Royal Academy. His main artistic media were water colour, linocuts and poster design. Walter designed posters for London transport companies and for British Rail.

During the First World War, Walter, who was a pacifist, joined the Royal Army Medical Corps and served as a medical orderly and stretcher-bearer on the Western Front. He served with 36 Field Ambulance during the Somme Offensive in 1916 and was mentioned several times for bravery rescuing wounded men under fire.   He was awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal.

On 11th November 1918, Walter wrote to his Mother:

"Hostilities ceased on all fronts at 11 o’clock today. Oh happy mothers, happy sweethearts, happy wives, whose loved ones will come safely back... and those lone souls who have lost their very own; today is too unkind to them - how can they face our joy? 'Peace on Earth, Goodwill towards men' - an unseen choir sings it in our breasts - prompting men to evolve a better world more worthy of our ideals and aspirations. Let us begin."

On 21st August 1929, Walter married opera singer Dorothy D’Orsay (maiden name Horsey) and the couple lived in Epping Forest.   They had two children.

Walter died in Epping, Essex in 1969. An exhibition of the work of WW1 artist Walter Spradbery is on display at The Epping Forest District Museum until 22nd December 2018. 
Epping Forest District Museum
39 – 41 Sun Street, Waltham Abbey, EN9 1EL \ 01992 716882 \

A biography of Walter Spradbery’s life and times, "My Dear Jim", has been compiled and published by his son, John Spradbery (Mail order from Elizabeth Spradbery:


A poem by Walter Spradbery written in 1915 kindly supplied by his cousin, Philip Spradbery.


“Eyes Have They, But See Not”

The flowers that grow on Barnham’s plain
Are beautiful to see;
The bugloss and the speedwell’s blue
Fair as a summer’s sea,
Blue as a summer’s sky are they
As a child’s eyes may be:

And the tender little pansy’s
Uplifted cherub face,
With golden eye, and purple wings
And unpretentious grace,
Peeps shyly from amid the grass
In every shady place.

But wearily we drag our feet
Over the jeweled sods,
And discipline, it weighs us down
With the curse of an iron rod;
And ‘iron rods’ we carry
To kill the sons of God.

The cranebill’s starry floweret
Is scattered o’er the plain;
Its pale magenta blossoms
We trample in our pain,
And dully long for peace, and love
And our dear homes again.

With iron heels we tread them down,
We tread them in the sand;
We crush their beauty ’neath our feet
Too tired to understand
The ugly ruthless thing we do.
Now war is on the land.

The golden gorse, across the heath
Is a mass of yellow flame;
Its unconsuming fires praise
The Sun God’s glorious name.
But war it burns things black and dead,
And fills men’s hearts with shame.

And scarlet is the pimpernel
And bright the poppy’s red
But brighter still is the blood we’ll spill
Ere we ourselves are dead:
No flower so rich, in the deep dug ditch,
As the blood our guns may shed.

The grass is worn with the ceaseless tread
Of our marching to and fro,
And where we drill on the mossy hill
Great bare patches show;
For ’neath the heel of the War God’s foot
No fair thing may grow. 

But time revenges the patient weak
Whom the Ruthless crush and kill,
And delicate things that droop and die,
Like the flowers on the grassy hill,
Will bloom again on another plain
Fairer and sweeter still.

The barren stretch of Flander’s plains
Is desolate and bare,
And the shriek of shell, and stench and smell
Float on the morning air
And splintered stumps are all that speak
Of what once blossomed there.

Yet the flowers our feet have trodden down
Will be born again,
And rich and fine, on Flander’s fields,
Will dance in the gentle rain
Will dance on the dead that feed their roots
The countless, ghastly slain.

The little flowers we’ve trodden down
Will scent each ugly grave,
Will hide the ghastly torn limbs
O the coward and the brave
And gaily smile at the morning sun,
O’er the foolish and the knave.

Oh, the river runs o’er Barnham’s plains
This where our horses drink –
And a thousand fair and charming things
Blossom on its brink.
But we have trod them in the mud
Nor paused to praise or think.

The pinkish purple loose-strife
Bows on the river’s edge,
Forget-me-not and orchids,
The flowering rush and sedge
While briar rose and bryony
Entangle in the hedge.

And crowsfoot gleams on the river,
Like snowflakes in the sun
And sways in the moving waters
That over the pebbles run.
But we cannot pause for such a thing,
Who’re crossing the stream with a gun.

But the rivers which flow in Flanders
Are rivers of blood methinks
And will, one day, colour the roses
Whose roots from that soil drink,
And a thousand flowers will blossom
Where a corpse now rots and stinks.

And we who train at Thetford
Parade on Barnham Hill
And prod coarse sack with bayonets
To gain the skill to kill
To disembowel and mutilate
Men who are brothers still.

While all around is beauty
And overhead the sky,
Where fleecy clouds in freedom float
Over the men that die;
And nature laughs at our folly
As we pass her treasures by.

With a garland of peaceful beauty
She tempts us to lay down our arms;
With a myriad of fearless blossoms
She mocks at our childish alarms,
With a tangle of wonderful flowerets
She seeks to ensnare us with charms.

Oh, he who sees God in a daisy,
Can see more clearly in man,
The light of the Glorious Eternal
That through all Living Things ran,
When the wheels of time first started,
And the Song of Life began.

Walter E. Spradbery (1915)

Wednesday 18 July 2018

Elliott Seabrooke (1886 – 1950) – British Actor and Artist; Red Cross volunteer and official war artist Italy WW1

With grateful thanks to Sergio Sbalchiero for finding and posting this painting by Seabrooke and for telling me about Seabrooke’s WW1 service with the Red Cross in Italy.

Ransome Elliott Seabrooke was born on 31st May 1886 in Upton Park, London, UK and was baptised on 3rd July 1886.  His parents were Robert Elliott Seabrooke, a warehouse Superintendent, and his wife Harriet Elizabeth, nee Ransom. The Seabrookes also had a daughter, Winifred Elliott Seabrooke, who was born in 1889.   Elliott studied at the Slade School of Fine Art in London from 1906-1911. Among his teachers was Henry Tonks.  Elliott then rented a shack in England’s Lake District and adapted it for use as a studio.

During the First World War, Elliott, who was a pacifist, volunteered to join the British Red Cross and served on the Italian Front.  While in Italy, he became an official war artist.

Elliot was tall and handsome and had a fine singing voice.  He became an actor and performed in films and in plays on stage and on the wireless with other contemporary actors and actresses - John Gielgud, Lewis Casson, Sybil Thorndike, Wendy Hiller, Charles Laughton and Ralph Richardson. 

In 1930, Elliott married Adolphine C. Joosten in Hampstead, London.

Elliott travelled extensively and died in Nice, France on 6th March 1950.

Find my Past and Free BMD

Painting:  Elliott Seabrooke "The Bombardment of Gorizia 21 August 1917".  The view was from the building that housed the First British Red Cross Unit in Gorizia, Italy on the Italian Front in The First World War.

Photograph of Eilliott in the play "The Lion Tamer or English as she is Eaten", an English version by Charles N. Spencer of Alfred Savior's play "Le Dompteur" at the Gate Theatre Studio, London.

Photograph of Elliott and Adolphine seated on the sofa at a reception in London given by Lady Latham (seated on the left) in honour of Elliott's exhibition at Tooth's Galleries in London.  Madame Alanova is on the right of the photograph.   Photo from "The Tatler" magazine, 9th June 1932.

Monday 2 July 2018

Book Review: “The Half-shilling Curate: A Personal Account of War and Faith 1914 –1918” (Helion & Co. Ltd., Solihull, W. Midlands, UK, 2018)

“…the chap who has got religion is a damned lucky chap” ( p. xvii).

The title of the book refers to the way in which Wesleyan Church Minister The Reverend Captain Herbert B. Cowl, MC signed his letters home to his parents, i.e.:  “From your loving son, ‘The Half-Shilling Curate’, Herbert” (p. 20).

I found this book enthralling.  Although it is a personal account, mainly of Herbert’s experiences in the trenches during the conflict, there is a wealth of background information about the First World War - which I found very interesting.  I don’t want to give too much away because I really want you to read this inspiring book but here are just a few of the things that I found of special interest:

When it came to military service, men in Holy Orders or regular Ministers of any denomination were exempt, which makes Herbert’s story and how he, as a non-combatant, came to be awarded a Military Cross, all the more impressive.

Herbert was educated at Hertford Grammar School at the same time as W.E. Johns (“Biggles” creator). Herbert’s sister, Muriel Trehane, was a WW1 VAD;  Herbert had a great love of poetry and was a friend of the poet Walter de la Mare. When Herbert first met his future wife, he had to ask for permission to write to her, which would seem to indicate that   “…the decay of parental authority in the home” (p. 28) was surely only just beginning.

Dr Philip Gosse, son of the WW1 poet Edmund Gosse, was the reason I included the heading ‘Fascinating Facts of the First World War’ in my commemorative exhibition project, so I was really pleased to find Gosse mentioned on several occasions.  Dr. Gosse was present when Herbert was seriously wounded by a piece of shell, as Herbert and Gosse shared accommodation in a cellar of the Advanced Dressing Station where Philip Gosse was based.   I can see why they became friends because they were both keen naturalists.

I was also interested to read that “Despite the decrease in the active numbers of worshippers, Christianity still under-pinned society” at the time of WW1 (p. 42).

Herbert mentions the power of prayer, in which I am a firm believer, asking his family to pray for him – “That kind of moral bias, and spiritual influence, which comes from other’s prayers, means so much to a man …” ( p. 27) 

During the early days of WW1, General Sir Douglas Haig said:  We must have large minded, sympathetic men as parsons, who realise the Great Cause for which we are fighting, and can imbue their hearers with enthusiasm” (p. 44).

I don’t think I have seen a photograph of the uniform of a chaplain before – they had black buttons, badges and belt - there is a lovely photograph of the Rev. Captain H.B. Cowl taken in Bristol in December 1914 on page 56. 

The description of Soldiers’ Homes at army camps that provided leisure activities on p. 46 I also found interesting.

I did not realise there were ‘rivalries between the churches’ or that soldiers’ dog tags mentioned their religious affiliations, (p. 11).

This book is really beautiful – a delight to read, hard back with glossy paper and illustrated throughout with a great many of the author’s photographs from the family album.  I also very much enjoyed the two sections at the back of the book:  “Herbert’s Roll of Honour”, which has biographies of some of the people mentioned in the book, and “Fond Memories” – testimonials about Herbert from some of the people who knew him and whose lives he touched.  Also included are a bibliography and index.

Herbert’s unshakable belief in God shines forth throughout the book and I was moved to tears several times by his faith, as well as by his bravery.  It is wonderful to think that his message of faith taken to the trenches of the Western Front 100 years ago is being passed on to future generations.  Sarah Reay has done a magnificent job writing this book which is a fitting tribute to her wonderful Grandfather, The Reverend Herbert Cowl, MC.  Credit must also go to Sarah’s late Father, Michael, who had the foresight to keep hold of his Father’s letters, papers, diaries and photographs.  Alas, when my beloved Grandpa died when I was very small, my Uncle threw away all the documents, papers photographs and medals that had belonged to my ‘Old Contemptible’ Grandfather.

Lucy London, June 2018