WWI: What happened to the Pither family?

The devastating effect of war should not be underestimated. Tracing our family history during WWI is crucial to understand the ways in which war effected our ancestors. I was particularly struck by the losses of one Pither family. I don’t know how or if they are connected to my Pither(s) but I found their story so compelling that I just had to share it.

Table of Contents

The Pither Family Before WWI

Frances Leon Emilius Pither was born 20th May 1853 and married Maria Louisa Barrett on 26th April 1883 at the Parish Church in Hornsey.

The couple moved to Islington and settled down to raise a family. Francis was a good provider, working as an architect and a teacher of drawing. The couple enjoyed the benefits of domestic servants, such as a “wife’s assistant” and a nurse. Life looked full of promise for the Pither family, but apperances can be deceiving.

Perhaps those domestic servants were fulfilling roles closer to carers. Maria was regularly admitted (and discharged) from the Workhouse, not as a pauper, but as a “lunatic”. Her final admission was on 6th January 1899, when she was admitted to Hagar Ward for Lunatics at Islington Workhouse.

Described as having scars upon her forehead, Maria was seen by a magistrate and sent to Colney Hatch Asylum. Sadly, within a few months (on 17th June 1899), Maria died. She left effects of over £5,000 to her husband Francis. The equivalent of almost £400,000 according to the National Archives Currency Convertor tool.

Radiant House
Radiant House, designed by Frances L E Pither and commissioned by his brother Ernest Eugene Pither, in memory of their mother Sophia Elizabeth Nicola Bezier. Image By Philafrenzy [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons

By 1901, widowed Francis and his 5 children were living at 91 Tollington Park, North Islington. An Aunt stayed with the family, no doubt helping with the children. Luckily, the Pither’s finances allowed for both a house-keeper and a house-maid. I’m sure Maria must have been greatly missed by her children but inevitably life and time continued to roll on for the Pither household. The 1911 census shows that the family were still at 91 Tollington Park and were living a very comfortable. Their home consisted of 12 rooms and they had the pleasure of two servants in the form of a Cook and a Housemaid.

Pither signature on 1911 census
F L Pither signature on 1911 Census

Francis and Maria had had 3 boys and 2 girls, with the youngest being born in 1897 in the Islington district. In 1911 the family’s eldest daughter, Edith Louisa Sophia was working as an actress. Eldest son, Harold Francis was an architect student and youngest daughter Dorothy Elizabeth Julie was a musical student. The pair’s two youngest children, Sidney Edward and Cecil Edward were at school. Of course, little did they know it, but WWI was just around the corner and their lives were soon to be changed forever. The next few years would be a litany of loss for the Pither. Sitting comfortably in the spacious Tollington Park, they would have had no idea that within 10 years of the 1911 census, Edith and Dorothy would be all that was left of the Pither family. All the men would be dead.

Dorothy Pither Red Cross volunteer record
Front of Dorothy's Volunteer Record at https://vad.redcross.org.uk/Card?sname=Pither&id=239839 [CC-BY-SA-2.0]

Head of the Household, Francis Pither died on 17th December 1913. His 5 children were young adults by this time, but orphans nonetheless. By the time of their father’s death, Edith and her younger sister Dorothy, were working in ‘showbiz’. Edith was mentioned in the West London Observer on 7 January 1910 (page 2, column 5). She played as one of the “mortals” in the pantomime, ‘Robinson Crusoe’ at St Andrew’s Hall, West Kenington. There continue to be mentions of her in the papers in various acting roles. By 1915 she was playing Phoebe Schaltz in a ‘new’ play by H.A. Vachell. She was described as investing the part with ‘charm’ in The Stage on 24 June 1915 (page 21, column 2). Dorothy was working too, as a singer. Despite the hectic nature of life on the boards, the records of the Red Cross First World War Volunteers reveal that by 1916, Edith and younger sister Dorothy were doing voluntary work in the kitchens at Holly Park Hospital, Islington. They would volunteer for 8 hours a week until July 1918.

Meanwhile, all 3 of Edith and Dorothy’s brothers were serving in the war.

Harold Francis Pither

Eldest Pither, Harold Francis was aged 29 in 1916. He completed training at the Inns of Court Officer Training Corps before entering the Royal Dublin Fusiliers as a 2nd Lieutenant. His medal card notes that his entry into the ‘theatre of war’ was in France, on the 8th April 1916.

Within 3 months, Harold was reported ‘missing’. A notice was placed in the Daily Mirror on 19 August 1916 (page 8) requesting that any news of Harold be sent to 91 Tollington Park. It is heart-breaking to read, as in all likelihood Harold was already dead by the time of the notice. According to the Grave Registration Reports at the CWGC, Harold died of wounds whilst a POW on or after 6th July 1916.

Image of official visit to the western front 1914

The Official Visits To the Western Front, 1914-1918 Cardinal Francis Bourne, the Head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, and Major-General William Hickie, the Commander of the 16th Irish Division, inspecting troops of the 8/9th Battalion, Royal Dublin Fusiliers (48th Brigade, 16th Division) at Ervillers, 27 October 1917. John Warwick Brooke [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Although I’ve been unable to find PoW records, the Grave Registration Reports do note a re-burial from a German Cemetery to Bienvillers Military Cemetery, Pas de Calais, France. Harold’s sister, Edith chose Romans VI.23 for his headstone:

“The Gift of God is Eternal Life”

His final record in the Pither family history is his probate dated 13 December 1917, which states he left effects of £5,222 3s to executors sister Edith, his uncle Ernest Eugene Pither and Vazie Simons solicitor.

Sidney Edward Pither

Sidney Edward Pither

Sidney Edward Pither, 20 Feb 1916. Photo Source Citation: Album Pages; Album 07; Certificate nos 2302-2601; Index Card – P – 2498. Original data: Royal Aero Club. Royal Aero Club index cards and photographs are in the care of the Royal Air Force Museum, Hendon, London, England. Retrieved From: Ancestry.com. Great Britain, Royal Aero Club Aviators’ Certificates, 1910-1950 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA

In the meantime, both Sidney Edward and brother Cecil Edward were serving too. Sidney started his service in the 1st Battalion Kings Own Scottish Borders, entering the theatre of war in France on 16 August 1915. However, by the beginning of 1916, he’d been attached to the Royal Flying Corps. He gained his flying certificate in a Maurice Farman Biplane at Military School, Shoreham and his image was immortalised in a photo added to the albums of the Royal Aero Club.

Maurice Farman Biplane
Aviation in Britain Before the First World War: A Maurice Farman biplane on the ground with handlers. By Royal Engineers official photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

By 1917 he was a temporary Captain and in December of that year he was mentioned in the dispatches (London Gazette) for his “distinguished and gallant services and devotion to duty”. By 1918 Sidney was in Egypt, and it was here that he took his last flight. Yet again the Pither family history would take a tragic turn. On 3rd June, along with cadet W H Samuels, he “stalled on turn and nosedived trying to make aero on failing engine”. Sidney was taken to the Government Hospital in Suez but died on 11th June 1918 of a ruptured spleen. He was 23 years old.

Sidney was buried in Suez War Memorial Cemetery, Egypt. His eldest sister, Edith chose the words for his grave;

“The Lord is my helper I will not fear what man shall do unto me”

It would be over a year before Sidney Edward’s probate was settled. Effects of £6636 3s 6d were left to solicitors Vazie Simons as executor. The same name appears on Sidney’s Soliders Effects record.

Cecil Edward Pither

Royal Aircraft Factory R.E.8 Duxford Airshow 2012
Royal Aircraft Factory R.E.8 - the same make as the plane that Cecil was in when he died. By John Warwick Brooke [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Cecil was the baby of the Pither family. Born on 7th May 1896, he was only 17 when the war started. Yet Cecil appears to have entered the war earlier than his older brothers. 

By 23rd October 1914 he was serving with the Army Service Corps, specifically in its Mechanical Transport (M1) section. The helpful website, The Long Long Trail states that M1 “enlisted on Special Reserve terms but for service with a unit of the New Armies. The precise definition of M1 and M2 is not clear but appears to be that the man had enlisted into the New Armies (it does not imply that he joined before conscription) “.

By 1916 Cecil had been commissioned to the Royal Flying Corps. Unfortunately, Cecil’s Officers Service records have been jumbled up with that of his cousin, Charles Edwin. An additional challenge for those tracing the WWI Pither family history! This, and the fact that both men are often only referred to by their initials (C E) makes It’s hard to distinguish their individual careers within the RFC. However, whereas Cecil’s cousin, Charles was based at home flying in G.H.Q Blandford, Cecil’s Officer Service Record states that he had been flying “instructional machines” in the H.E. Reserves in France. By August 1918, Cecil was in 12th Squadron in France. On 22nd August 1918 he was accompanying 2nd Lieutenant LJ Lavington in a RE8 (see photo below) when disaster struck. The plane was “believed brought down in flames between Courcelles and Logeast Wood on patrol”. Both men were killed.

Cecil was 22 years old. Edith and Dorothy had lost all 3 brothers in the war. Sidney and Cecil died within 3 months of each other, with Cecil being killed 3 months before the end of the war. All the losses were tragic but Cecil’s perhaps particularly so, a very sad moment in the Pither family history.

I have wondered about how the news reached Edith. Such is the confusion between Cecil and his cousin Charles that one transcription on Find My Past actually attributes Cecil’s death to Charles. This problem dates back to just after the war. Officer’s service records have incorrectly stated that Edith was Charles’ next of kin and that Cecil’s next of kin was Ernest Eugene – Cecil’s Uncle, Charles’ father. It does make me wonder who was actually informed of Cecil’s death. On Cecil’s Soldier’s Effects record, “Eugene Pither Esq, Edith Sophia Louisa Pither and Vazie Simons Esq” are all noted as administrators.

Cecil, like his eldest brother Harold Francis, was buried at Bienvillers Military Cemetery, Pas de Calais, France. Once again it was Edith who chose the words for the inscription on Cecil’s grave:

“Be thou faithful unto death and I will give thee a crown of life”

It would take until 31 May 1920 for Cecil’s probate to be administrated. He leaves effects of a phenomenal £10,025 11s 8d to administrators Uncle Ernest Eugene, sister Edith and solicitor Vazie Simons.

After The War

The effect of WWI on the Pither sisters must have been devastating. I’ve since been contacted by a family member that informs me that along with their brothers, these two women lost their fiances. 

At the time of Cecil’s death, Edith and Dorothy had moved to the leafy suburbs at 25 The Vale, Golders Green, London.

Remember Pither, poppy fields

On 23rd May 1925, both Edith and Dorothy board the White Star ship, the SS Baltic, in Liverpool docks to travel, 2nd class, to Boston, Massachusetts. Uncle Ernest Eugene was given as their next of kin and the USA was their intended place of permanent residence. Edith’s occupation was listed as ‘domestic’ and Dorothy’s as ‘singer’. Any mention of Edith’s acting career seems to vanish after 1918. Perhaps the role’s dried up as Edith entered her 40s. Or perhaps she no longer had the heart of singing and entertaining others.

Whatever Edith and Dorothy had planned to do at Boston, I wonder if something went wrong. For the two ladies returned to Southampton, landing back in England on 29th June 1925. They travelled back 1st Class, from New York onboard the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company’s ship, Orca. They only seem to have made the one trip, being on the Electoral Register at the The Vale from 1921 to 1931.

In 1939, at the outbreak of World War 2, Edith was still living at 25 The Vale. In the personal income section, it states “Private Income Retired”. Dorothy was also living by “Private Means” but in less happy circumstances. In 1939 she was residing as a patient at The Bethlam Royal Hospital, Monks Orchard, Eden Park, Beckenham, Kent. One has to wonder how much of a toll WWI, and the loss of 3 brothers, had upon poor Dorothy.

Dorothy survived WWII but died not long after, passing away on 8th March 1946. She may have missed seeing her sister, Edith marry in the June Quarter of the same year. Aged 61, Edith married John A Haxworth in the Hendon district. Dorothy’s probate was administered a few months later on 26 September. She left effects of £27,730 2s 1d to Edith Louisa Sophia Haxworth married woman, Montagu Simons Solicitor and Paul Irwin Langmead, Farmer.

For me Dorothy’s death, unmarried and probably unable to attend her sister’s wedding, is a particularly tragic point in the WWI Pither family history. A woman of that generation would most likely have expected to have got married. Most would have seen it as essential to their happiness and financial security. Neither Edith or Dorothy had money concerns. But, after writing the 1st version of this article I was contacted by a Pither relative who told me that both Edith and Dorothy lost their fiances during WWI.

Edith didn’t outlive her sister long. Four short years later, she too passed away, dying on 11 June 1949 at Five Trees, Sunningdale, Windsor. There is a ‘Five Trees Cottage’ in Windsor, the details of which can be viewed here: https://media.onthemarket.com/properties/3722522/doc_0_0.pdf. I wonder if this was a small private nursing home? Her probate record states that she was ‘of Home Wood Lightwater’ suggesting Five Trees wasn’t her home. Edith’s left effects of £18,842 5s 11d. An incredibly large sum for the time!

As far as I can tell neither Edith or Dorothy had any children. With their deaths the last of Francis and Maria’s direct descendants were lost. There was no one left, within their immediate family, to remember Harold, Sidney or Cecil. It is for this reason that I chose to write about their sacrifice. I hope that perhaps this post might reach one of their cousins – perhaps a descendent of one of the children of Ernest Eugene Pither (the inventor of the Pither stove).

If you are reading this and are connected to this family, then please do get in touch.

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