Lance Corporal John Stiles – Drowned 8th January 1917

Salisbury Road

Title: Salisbury Road
Description: Salisbury Road, c1910. Courtesy of the Banstead History Research Group. John's house (No.33) is in the background on the left. by-nc

John Weldon Stiles was born on 31st July 1880. He was the only son of Richard and Harriet Stiles. Richard ran a grocers shop at 69 Church Street, Stoke Newington, Hackney, and the family lived upstairs.

John grew up to become a bank clerk and he joined the London & Midland Bank (later known simply as the Midland Bank, now part of HSBC) when he was 16 years old. He worked at their Tooley Street branch (near London Bridge station) between 1897 and 1902, when he was moved to the Bank’s head office in Cornhill.

He continued to live at home for some time before taking lodgings at 4 Avenue Road, Belmont, in 1910, following the death of his mother. In 1913, John moved to Banstead, lodging with the Daniels family at St Olave’s (now number 33), Salisbury Road, renting a furnished first floor bedroom for 10 shillings a week.

The first week of September 1914 saw the peak of voluntary enlistment and John attested on 2nd September, aged 34, and joined the 18th County of London Regiment (London Irish Rifles). The London Irish Rifles were (and still are) a Territorial Army unit and were popular with London clerks, office and shop workers with Irish roots. The Midland Bank, as most banks did, topped up John’s shilling-a-day Army pay to make it up to his annual salary of £220 and they kept his job open for him.

John would have initially trained with the newly-created 2nd Battalion, the 2/18th, at the Oriental-style white marble-clad exhibition buildings at White City before joinined the 1st Battalion, the 1/18th, at St Albans, Hertfordshire. There they trained for open warfare even as the war of movement in France came to an end.

The London Irish went to France in March 1915 and were stationed in French Flanders. They were unused reserves at the Battle of Aubers Ridge on 9th May 1915 and took part in the Battle of Festubert (15th-31st May 1915), manning trenches at Givenchy and supporting the attack of the neighbouring 142nd Brigade.

At some point before the London Irish won fame by kicking a football across No Man’s Land at the Battle of Loos in September, John was found to be too short-sighted for front line service and he was sent back to England. He was probably assigned a desk job at the London Irish H.Q. or with one of their depots.

John had a sweetheart, Edith Betsy Ryan, a nurse at the London County Council Asylum on Banstead Downs, who he had probably met during his time in Belmont or Banstead as he came into contact with many asylum workers at both addresses. When John returned to England, he moved to Denehurst, Carshalton Road, Sutton, presumably to be near to Edith. They were married at St Mary’s Catholic Church, in St Barnabas Road, Sutton, on 18th September 1915.

John returned to France on attachment to the Military Landing Officer’s staff at Le Havre. The M.L.O. was responsible for disembarking the hundreds or thousands of troops, horses, guns and vehicles and the quantities of victuals, other supplies and mail that arrived each night at the port. 5 or 6 ships steamed in at quiet times and major battles could see 15 or more in the harbour. Each ship and its cargo would have presented its own unique challenge for unloading and there would have been a mountain of paperwork to get through, for which clerks like John would be needed. John’s many years of experience at the Bank, or perhaps his age, brought promotion to acting lance corporal in Summer 1916 and he would probably have supervised more junior members of staff. The rank, although only one step above private, gave him authority over the vast majority of the soldiers in the Army and meant that he would be able to issue orders to the disembarking troops if necessary.

On the night of 8th January 1917, John went out to post a letter. He never returned. It was presumed that he must have fallen over the quayside. Edith had to endure a long wait for news as John’s body was not recovered immediately and it was probably several months before he was found as it wasn’t until August 1917 that he was officially reported dead; he had drowned. He was 36 years old.

John is buried in Sainte Marie Cemetery, Le Havre. His headstone inscription, chosen by Edith, is “In the midst of life, we are death. Sweet Jesus, have mercy.

Sadly, Edith died in 1920 and so John’s name was not added to the Banstead War Memorial. Neither is he commemorated on the Belmont, Sutton or Stoke Newington war memorials.

However, John is remembered on the wooden panels in the Lady Chapel at All Saints, on the London Irish Rifles memorial at their headquarters, Connaught House, and on the London Joint City & Midland Bank memorial (now in HSBC’s office in Canada Square, Canary Wharf), where his name is next to his cousin, Henry, who was killed at the Battle of Arras a few months after John’s death.

A memorial service was held for John Stiles on 8th January 2017, the 100th anniversary of his death, at All Saints, Banstead. The Gray family, who live at John’s old house, 33 Salisbury Road, tolled a bell 100 times in his honour.

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