Saturday, March 24, 2007

"A weak and wasted man"

William Butters, born in Lewisham, south London in 1885, joined the Territorial Force in June 1913. At the time, he was living in Brigade Street, Blackheath and for him, The 20th (County of London) Battalion (Blackheath and Woolwich) must have been the obvious choice. Married for over six years, he and his wife Clara already had five children including twin sons born the previous September, and in time they would have two more children; a second daughter born in November 1913 and a fifth son born in 1916.

I am unsure why William, a labourer by trade, joined the army. Ultimately however, his decision to enlist would benefit his family in a way he probably could not have imagined.

When war was declared he volunteered for service overseas but whilst the battalion travelled across to the Western Front in March 1915, William remained behind, posted to the second line 2/20th Battalion. A Medical Board, convened three months later, diagnosed tuberculosis and noted:

"Originated Nov 1914 at Hatfield. He states that he was quite well Nov 1914, when he developed a cough. The cough became worse and he brought up much purulent sputum. Sleep sweats from March 1915 to April 1915. Lost some weight. Present condition a weak and wasted man. Signs of active tuberculosis in both lungs, particularly the right lung which is affected in its entirety. Sputum contains enormous numbers of tubercle Bacilli.”

At some point, William spent time as a convalescent patient at Hickwells, possibly after he was discharged from the army in June 1915. Perhaps the authorities felt that the fresh Sussex air and a spell in the countryside would benefit him more than the environment in which he was living in Blackheath. In all honesty though, they must have realised that his was a hopeless case.

When he was discharged he was awarded a pension of four shillings and eight pence a week and received an additional two shillings and sixpence a week for each of his six children. The Board noted that his condition was, "not caused by, but rendered active, by ordinary military service. Permanent. Total incapacity."

William's file at The National Archives contains details of six further Medical Boards convened between September 1915 and October 1918. In August 1915 he had requested an increase in his pension and by October 1918 he was receiving 27 shillings and sixpence a week plus an allowance of 28 shillings and fourpence for six children (which presumably indicates that one of them at least, possibly his last son, had died in infancy).

I first came across William's file at the National Archives three or four years ago and always wondered what became of him after 1918. Now, thanks to some of the files in the WO 364 series being made available on Ancestry, I have uncovered more paperwork.

William died on 25th January 1920 and was buried at Ladywell cemetery, Lewisham. Although the Medical Board of April 1917 had noted (and underlined), "TB not found", I am assuming that it was TB, or at the very least, severely damaged lungs, which killed him. An award form from the Ministry of Pensions, held in William's file at the National Archives and dated 19th May 1920, reveals that from 28th January 1920, Clara received a weekly award of twenty six shillings and eightpence whilst the weekly allowance for the children amounted to forty seven shillings and sixpence; a fairly considerable sum.

For me, discovering William's fate has at least closed the chapter on this particular man. I would have preferred to discover that he had fully recovered and gone on to see his family grow up. Sadly, that was not to be.

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