A Military Romance: The Life of Elisha George Pithers; Part 3

This is Part Three of the life of Elisha George Pithers. I strongly recommend reading Part One and Part Two first.

Note: Special thanks to my distant cousin Robert Pithers for sharing his certificates and research.

By 1901 Elisha and Eliza’s older children had married and started families of their own. Many of them lived within the Notting Hill area, on a network of roads close to the main artery of Latimer Road. Elisha’s children regularly witnessed each others marriages and I’ve even found evidence of Elisha’s daughter-in-law living with her husband’s 2nd cousins! The Pithers family seem to have been a close-knit unit. Elisha’s brother-in-law, George Waterford Fathers also remained a ‘regular feature’. After living with Elisha and Eliza, he moved in with Elisha’s eldest son, Edward Robert Pithers (born 10 Jan 1872). They lived in nearby Lockton Street where, Edward Robert rented a room from George at 4s a week.

The peace of this close community of Pithers relations did not last long. The world events of the early 20th Century were soon to effect the family, with two of Elisha’s sons departing home to serve in the Second Boer War 1899 – 1902.

The Boer Wars took place in South Africa. Britain fought both the Dutch and local Afrikanners peoples, who sought to break from British colonist rule. Today the history of the war makes for uncomfortable reading. A succinct version can be found at the BBC here, www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/victorians/boer_wars.

Edward Robert had served in the military during the 1890s and he was recalled to join the war effort in Christmas 1899. His enlistment papers for his earlier service give the first physical description of a member of the Pithers family. At the age of 19, Edward Robert was 5ft 4 1/2 inches tall with a fair complexion, grey eyes and brown hair. He had a scar on his left cheek. He was 27 years old at the time of his recall.

Physical description of Edward Robert Pithers
Extract from Series WO97; Box: 5696; Box Record Number: 114. Source: The National Archives. Retrieved from: Find My Past

Initially attached to the 3rd Battalion Border Regiment, Edward Robert was then moved to join the 1st Battalion. His younger brother, Henry Elisha Pithers (born c. August 1878) also served, enlisting at the age of 23. His later WW1 enlistment papers state that, then aged 35, Henry was 5ft 6 and had a number of tattoos; on his right forearm was a rose with the name “Charlotte” written inside and on his left forearm he had tattoos of a tree and snake, and another of flags. Charlotte, incidentally, was not the name of Henry Elisha’s wife, so perhaps this lady is evidence of a previous failed romance!

Physcial description of Henry Elisha Pithers
Extract from WO363: First World War Service Records 'Burnt Documents'. Source: The National Archives. Retrieved from: Find My Past
Like his brother, Henry Elisha served in the 1st Battalion. Both men were awarded the Queen’s and King’s South Africa Medals with several clasps for their involvement in some of the key battles, such as the relief of Ladysmith. Edward Robert finished his service, due to “time expired”, whereas Henry Elisha was eventually returned home (after a stint in the 2nd Battalion in India), having suffering an injury.
Boer War: wounded soldiers awaiting for medical help in the cold and damp. Watercolour by L. Calkin, 1899.' by Lance Calkin. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

It’s hard to imagine the effect that this war would have had on the lives of these young men. Often overshadowed by the horrors of the First World War, the Boer War involved guerrilla warfare, large numbers of casualties and some terrible atrocities. During the war the British pursued a “scorched earth” policy, burning the homes of the natives, their crops and grazing grounds. They sought to starve out the Boers, who included a large number of local farmers. Concentration camps were created, confining refugee women and children.

Boer Concentration Camp
Boer women and children in a British concentration camp during the Boer War c.1901. Source: Wikipedia
Both Edward Robert and Henry Elisha returned home from the war, but I imagine the psychological impact of their years in South Africa must have stayed with them for the rest of their lives. Sadly for Edward Robert his life would not be as long as one might expect. It was cut short in 1909 when he died of an “aneurysm of abdominal vessel, rupture and haemorrhage”. He was only 37 years old, and left behind a wife and young children.

For Elisha and Eliza, the loss of their eldest son would not be the only tragedy that they would face in the 1900s. The couple’s eldest daughter, Emma Emily Pithers had married George Randle on Christmas Day 1892. After 8 years of marriage, in 1900, Emma Emily had a baby, Howard Randle. After so many years of married life, little Howard, must have felt like a miracle. But tragically the infant did not survive and he died in 1902. This would not be the only grandchild of Elisha George’s to die in infancy but it seems particularly poignant that this little baby was an only child – and born so many years after the marriage of his parents.

No more children were born to Emma and George, and in fact, George died in 1911 leaving Emma a widow. At some point after this, Emma moved in with her parents. From 1926 to her death in 1937, she lived with Elisha and Eliza. She never remarried.

Further bad luck followed. In late July 1913, Elisha had an accident that was noted in an article in the West London Observer on 1st August 1913. Whilst working for William James Marston (described in the 1911 census as a plumber and decorator), Elisha fell off a ladder and fractured his ankle. Elisha was 64 years old, and obviously still working a very physical job. The injury must have caused the family financial strain but Elisha managed to cobble together the money for his rent. Perhaps relying his wife Eliza, who was working as a laundress.

Of course, not long after Elisha’s accident in 1913, the family would see the outbreak of World War One.

The couple’s eldest surviving son, Henry Elisha enlisted but after 1 day was found to make an “inefficient soldier”. He was discharged on medical grounds.

Elisha’s son, my 2x Great-Grandfather, George William Pithers (born 24 March 1879) enlisted the day after war was declared. He served with the Middlesex Regiment. George’s youngest brother, Richard Samuel Pithers (born 19 June 1894) also served.

Sadly my knowledge of the brothers’ service is limited. I have found no records for Richard Samuel, and only know he served due to his absence in the Electoral Registers. He also declares himself a solider upon his marriage in 1919.

George William obtained the Silver Medal award, and was discharged in 1915 after being wounded. However, he didn’t return to work at the London General Omnibus Company until 10 April 1919.

Extract of George William Pithers in TfL Staff Register
Extract from Staff Registers, TfL Corporate Archives, London, England. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com. London, England, London Transport Staff Registers, 1863-1931 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2017.

Whilst the war raged on, Elisha rented 2 rooms (for 6s a week) at 30 Mersey Street, Kensington, which he shared with his landlord. As well as worrying about their sons serving abroad, Elisha and Eliza would have had concerns about the safety of their family at home. The Germans launched an aerial attack, with London being targeted from 1915 onward.

Map of bombs on London during WW1
Where bombs fell in London 1914-1918. Retrieved from: https://greatwarlondon.wordpress.com/category/air-raid/

Great damage, injury and loss of life was caused by this bombing, which tends to be overshadowed by the mass destruction of the WW2 blitz.

By the end of the war though, Elisha and Eliza could count themselves amongst a lucky minority. After 4 years of war, the death toll of which was almost unfathomably high, both George William and Richard Samuel returned home. It must have been strange for them to return to their neighbourhood – and no doubt, to discover many of their old friends were amongst the dead or missing. With the end of the war, I expect the family probably thought their darkest days were behind them.

Elisha and Eliza were now entering their 70s. Life in Notting Hill resumed normality, but inevitably, as happens to all those who are lucky enough to reach old age, the trials and tribulations of entering their elderly years was creeping up on the couple. On 6th August 1935, Elisha was widowed. His wife of 66 years died at the grand age of 82. Her cause of death was recorded as syncope, heart disease and senility.

Elisha’s family seems to have rallied round at the time of their mothers death. Henry Elisha took on the burden of registering his mothers demise. Emma Emily continued to live with her father. It seems likely that Emma took on caring responsibilities for her parents as they entered their twilight years. Tragically though, the death of his wife would not be Elisha’s last cause of grief. Two years later, in the summer of 1937, Elisha’s daughter, Elizabeth Rebecca Greening (nee Pithers) died. Only a few months later, in the last quarter of the year, Emma Emily also passed away. Now aged 88, Elisha had outlived his wife and four children, with three of his offspring dying in adulthood.

Extract of 1939 Register showing Elisha Pithers
Extract from 1939 National Register of England & Wales (Ref: RG101/0324B/003/12 Letter Code: AMOX). Retrieved from: Find My Past

Elisha moved in with his youngest son, Richard Samuel and his family. They lived at 17 Walmer Road, Kensington. Here, Elisha lived out his last few years. He lived just long enough to see the beginning of World War 2 and was recorded on the National Register, completed in September 1939.

There is no mention of senility or dementia on Elisha’s death certificate, so I assume he had all his mental faculties. I imagine he was horrified to see the start of yet another war. His children had been lucky in surviving both the Boer War, and the First World War. Elisha must have worried about his grandchildren, some of which were now old enough to enlist. He must have looked at his great-grandchildren and preyed that their parents would return home to them. But, whatever his hopes and fears, Elisha did not live to see the outcome of this last world war. He died from heart failure on 12 June 1940 at St Charles Hospital. His daughter-in-law, Richard’s wife, registered the death. He left no will, probably having no finances of his own to pass on.

I have always been amazed that Elisha died at such an old age. He was 91, an age we still think of as an incredible achievement. For someone born in the slums in 1849, reaching such a great age must have seemed incomprehensible. I like to think that this longevity was reached because Elisha had reason to live – all those years ago he had made the right choice in marrying Eliza Geraldine and all their hardships were worth facing so long as they were together. Perhaps I am just overly sentimental? Or perhaps, just maybe, I inherit this sense of romance from my 3x Great-Grandparents who risked punishment for desertion to be together.

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