Monday, 4 July 2016

I have been to ... Plumstead Cemetery

Another day, another cemetery!

This time Sue and I paid a visit to Plumstead Cemetery, which is located close to the boundary between the Royal Borough of Greenwich and the London Borough of Bexley. The cemetery was opened in June 1890 and houses a number of notable graves and memorials.

The War Memorial
Like most of our local cemeteries, Plumstead Cemetery has a War Memorial, which is placed on one of the highest points.

As a result it has a commanding view across the local landscape, and can be seen from quite some distance.

The Royal Arsenal Explosions Memorial
On 16th February and 18th June 1903 there were two explosions at the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich. The first or Gun Cotton Explosion killed three men and the second or Lyddite Explosion killed sixteen men.

This memorial to those killed was raised by public subscription, and the space for it in this graveyard was given by Woolwich Borough Council.

Civilian Deaths from Enemy Action
Being such an important target thanks to the Royal Arsenal and the Army Barracks, Woolwich was frequently bombed by the Luftwaffe during the Second World War. In some cases it was impossible to identify the bodies of all those who were killed, and it was decided that mass graves would be used to bury the unidentified remains. One such mass grave exists in Plumstead Cemetery.

The individual stones have the names of families who were killed and buried in the grave, and a single large stone records the fact that the grave contains the remains of individual civilians who were killed by enemy action.

Nearby is a smaller grave that was used to bury the dead from a separate attack.

The grave of Thomas Flawn VC
Unlike most early winners of the Victoria Cross, Thomas Flawn's grave was marked by a headstone.

Thomas Flawn was a private in the 94th Regiment (The Connaught Rangers) and won his VC during the Basuto War. On 28th November 1879, during the attack on Sekukuni's Town, South Africa, Privates Flawn and Fitzpatrick were with Lieutenant Dewar of the 1st Dragoon Guards and six men of the Native Contingent when the Lieutenant was badly wounded. At first the natives carried the wounded officer, but when a group of about thirty Basutos began to pursue them, the natives deserted and it was left to the two Privates to rescue the Lieutenant. Whilst one of them provided covering fire with his Martini-Henry rifle, the other carried to Lieutenant back to safety. For this action both Private Flawn and Private Fitzpatrick were awarded the Victoria Cross, and the award was announced in the LONDON GAZETTE on 23rd February, 1880.

The grave of Alfred Smith VC
Until recently Alfred Smith's grave was unmarked, but in 1986 a gravestone was donated by the local Co-Operative Movement.

Alfred Smith was a Gunner in 1 Battery, Southern Division, Royal Artillery. On 17th January 1885, during the the Battle of Abu Klea in the Sudan, Gunner Smith was serving a gun which was left exposed when the square of which it was part fell back. Lieutenant Guthrie, who was in command of the gun, had no weapon in his hand at the time, and when a Sudanese native rushed at the Lieutenant with a spear, Gunner Smith fended him off with his hand-spike. This gave Lieutenant Guthrie time to draw his sword and strike the native tribesman, who fell to the ground. Unfortunately the tribesman was not killed by the blow, and stabbed the Lieutenant in the thigh with a long, curved knife despite Smith's attempts to fend off the knife thrust. Smith eventually killed the Sundanese tribesman with his hand-spike and helped to carry the wounded officer to safety. Unfortunately the Lieutenant's wound was very serious, and a few days later Lieutenant Guthrie died The award was announced in the LONDON GAZETTE on 12th May, 1885.

After leaving the Army, Smith worked in the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich, but in 1895 his forearm was crushed by a piece of machinery. 1 Battery, Southern Division, Royal Artillery was later renumbered as 176 Battery, and in 1955 it was awarded the honour name of 'Abu Klea Battery' in recognition of role it played in the Sudanese Campaign and Gunner Smith's Victoria Cross.

In 2001 I visited the Royal Artillery Museum in Woolwich where I met three members of 176 (Abu Klea) Battery ...

... who were standing next to the gun that Gunner Smith crewed during the battle.

I spent a very interesting time talking to them about the battle, and they were very proud of their Battery's part in fighting and the VC that Gunner Smith was awarded.

Gunner Smith's hand-spike was even on display next to the gun!

Being the boring (but knowledgeable) person that I am, I was able to make them aware that Sir Henry John Newbolt's poem VITAI LAMPADA was written about the Battle of Abu Klea.
There's a breathless hush in the Close to-night -
Ten to make and the match to win -
A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
An hour to play and the last man in.
And it's not for the sake of a ribboned coat,
Or the selfish hope of a season's fame,
But his Captain's hand on his shoulder smote
"Play up! play up! and play the game!"

The sand of the desert is sodden red, -
Red with the wreck of a square that broke; -
The Gatling's jammed and the colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England's far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of schoolboy rallies the ranks,
"Play up! play up! and play the game!"

This is the word that year by year
While in her place the School is set
Every one of her sons must hear,
And none that hears it dare forget.
This they all with a joyful mind
Bear through life like a torch in flame,
And falling fling to the host behind -
"Play up! play up! and play the game!"


  1. Replies
    1. Ray Rousell,

      I am glad that you enjoyed it.

      All the best,


  2. I seem to recall that this is the second time you’ve posted Vitai Lampada.

    This poem has always appealed to me but at the same time I’ve always felt that it is a failure. My problem is with the last line of each verse. This works fairly well for verse one but just jars for verse two. Maybe it worked better when first published and changing times have overtaken it?

    I have my doubt about a “schoolboy” in the ranks as I envisage a young subaltern, but by 1885 I thought that education requirements would mean that these would mostly be 17 or 18 when they enlisted. My real problem though is my difficulty in envisioning even a schoolboy using that rallying call. I can’t help remembering ensign Thomas who died at Albuera and is described thus: “He rallied my company after I was wounded and taken prisoner, crying out, ‘Rally on me, men, I will be your pivot.’“. Not exactly inspirational words but a good deal more practical!

    The poem’s appeal comes from the great strength of the images in the first four lines of verse one and the first six lines of verse two. The latter, in particular, is an extraordinary piece of writing and reads like the start of a great war poem (but of course Newbolt had different aims).

    1. I intended to say the ensign Thomas was 15 and so really counts as as schoolboy (at least in today's terms).

    2. Mike Hall,

      I understand your point of view (it is a good - but not a great - poem) but thanks to the school that I attended and the type of education I received (a grant-aided grammar school that had formerly been a public school), I can relate to the sentiments expressed in the poem. I always maintain that the ethos the school engendered was late Victorian (i.e. lots of muscular Christianity, with frequent team games, cold showers, and taking responsibility for one's actions and decisions) and that we were being educated to be those 18 year-old 'schoolboy' officers ... and I can imagine us saying stupid things like that to rally our men!

      All the best,


    3. Mike Hall,

      When one compares the lives that even middle-class 15 year-olds had 200 years ago with those of today, the changes are mind-boggling.

      All the best,