“Everybody sang it, nobody knew him”
This was the headline of the Daily Mail in 1955 when Edward Cyril Hawken Rowland passed away aged 72. Although it might have been true in reference to a well-known World War I song, Edward was in fact very well known in Sutton for his support of local charities.
Edward Rowland was born at 8 Caroline Place, in the Stonehouse area of Plymouth, Devon, on 7 March 1883, to John and Amelia (“Minnie”) Rowland. The Rowlands had moved from the Stoke area of Guildford, Surrey, to Devon sometime between 1861 and 1871, when Edward’s grandparents (Edward and Drusilla) moved to Exeter. John Rowland had moved to Stonehouse within the next ten years, becoming the manager of a railway bookstall; he would later become an accountant. Our Edward Rowland was the middle of five children, all born in quick succession: Walter (1881), Frank (1882), John (1885) and Hilda (1887). He lived in and around the Plymouth area in the years before the war.
He joined the Army Service Corps in 1902 age nineteen, giving his occupation at the time as clerk, meaning that by the time the Great War started he had already done twelve years in the army, both active and in the reserve. Edward married Olive Kate on 15 April 1905, despite strong resistance from the Rowland family, who believed that she was a publican’s daughter. The family would later find out that in fact it was Olive Kate’s sister who was married to a publican, and whom she lived with. Edward and Olive Kate would go on to have six children together: Frank (21 January 1906), Lovell (19 September 1907), Molly (1909), Edna (1912), Ken (1914) and Pat (after the war). Interestingly, Edward and Kate must have moved to Hampshire briefly in the latter part of the first decade of the 1900s, as Lovell is listed as being born in Gosport and Molly on the Isle of Wight. Presumably, this was as a result of Edward’s military commitments. In the 1911 Census, both Edward and Kate are listed as living at 17 Fore Street, Torpoint (Cornwall) with their employer James Williams, a beer retailer; both are recorded as clerks for Mr Williams’ business.
On enlisting for the Army, with army service number 20264, Edward was required to fill out many forms and take competency tests. He is described as 5 feet and 7 and a half inches, weighing 130lbs, with a fresh complexion, and blue eyes and sandy hair. His maths and dictation exam papers are remarkable for their legibility and neatness, a sure result of his many years as a clerk. On 16 August 1914 he was sent to France as one of the “Old Contemptibles” where he remained for thirteen months. Rowland saw action at Mons, August 1914, at the very start of the war, winning the 1914 Star medal (commonly known as the Mons Star). This medal was awarded to British or Indian Expeditionary Force members who served in France or Belgium between the outbreak of war in August 1914 and 22/23 November 1914, mostly the men of the “Old Contemptibles”. Edward wrote about the retreat at Mons in his diary, now held by the Imperial War Museum. It is a remarkable document, providing huge insight and detail into the events at the battle.
Just before the war, Edward had moved to London, working as a music hall comedian, while his brother, Lovell, worked in pantomimes (such as Mother Goose); a flair for music and theatre ran through the brothers’ veins! It would be this theatrical experience that would lead him to organise a concert for the troops billeted in Bailleul, northern France. The men were tired of the usual sentimental songs like ‘Come Back to Erin’ and wanted something much livelier. Edward had been writing material for previous shows when inspiration struck. It was while he was sitting in the Café de la Paix in Armentières one day in March 1915 that Edward penned the lines to one of the most famous World War I songs – ‘Mademoiselle from Armentières’. He wanted something catchy for a troop show that evening and the inspiration came from Marie Lecocq who was serving in the café. She had just slapped the face of an officer who tried to take a liberty. Edward quickly dashed off three verses, with his friend Lieutenant Grize-Rice, a Canadian soldier, writing the music. Shortly before he died, Edward wrote of how he came to write the song and described Mademoiselle as “neat and clean and polite…The real Mademoiselle from Armentières was very strait-laced and stood no nonsense from the troops … not at all the sort of girls some of the lurid, parodied versions invented by the troops later made her out to be…”. The first verse is the only one that most people agree on. Over the years another 150 verses have been added (many quite lewd) with the song remaining popular with soldiers during World War II.
Appointed Sergeant in February 1916, Edward served then spent nine months back in England from September 1916 to June 1917, during which time he was selected by the War Office to undertake a course of instruction in a Cadet Artillery Brigade. This was with a view to a subsequent appointment to a temporary commission in the regular Army, Special Reserve of Officers, or Territorial Force. After this lengthy period of leave, and now a Captain, Edward departed from Southampton to Le Havre until September 1918 when he returned to England on extended leave on compassionate grounds. Edward’s service records show this was because of his wife’s ill-health. He was demobilisd in March 1919 as part of the Royal Army Service Corps.
After the war ended, Edward worked in London as an actor and stunt man. In August that year, his Majesty’s Theatre engaged him for ‘Chu Chin Chow’, a popular musical that ran for five years. During the 1920s he was already well known for his involvement in organising Christmas parties for children in south-east and south-west London and continued that work when he relocated to Sutton. By the early 1930s Edward was managing the County Cinema in Sutton High Street, becoming a well-known figure in the community as a result of his part in writing ‘Mademoiselle from Armentières’. The Surrey County Cinema was known for its resident orchestra and tea dances, and for showing the first sound film in the borough: the ‘Singing Fool’, starring Al Jolson. In 1947, the cinema was re-named Gaumont. Sadly, it closed on 4 April 1959. The auditorium was demolished and an office block was built on the site. The entrance and foyer were retained and was converted into shop use and now forms part of the Times 2 shopping centre.
But Rowland is best known for his involvement in many local charities and organisations, raising thousands of pounds: The Boys Brigade, the Sutton Boys’ Club, the Sutton Joyous Club for the Blind, the Royal Female Orphanage and other local hospitals all benefited from his involvement. During his time in Sutton he entertained more than 30,000 children at Christmas parties. Letters addressed to Father Christmas were passed to him by the Post Office. During the Second World War he persuaded his patrons to knit 25,000 woollies for seamen and raised £10,000 for charities and during the height of the air raids he provided shelter in the cellars of the cinema for hundreds of people. Edward’s daughter-in-law, Hilda (married to Frank Rowland) and his grandchild Tony spent many hours in the cellars during the Second World War, an experience Tony remembers vividly.
Edward Rowland died on 12 March 1955 in Belmont.
Thank you to Edward’s relatives, for lending the SGW team his documents:
The family of Edward’s son Frank: Tony and his wife, Pat, and their son Mark.
The family of Edward’s son Ken: Ashley and his wife Cilla, and their children Adam and Nicki
The family of Edward’s son Lovell: Christine Tipple (née Rowland)
Thank you to Sutton Archives for providing much of the information on Edward Rowland, and for use of their display boards.