Saturday 17 December 2022

Three Husbands & Four Brothers - A First World War Story

My family got away relatively lightly during the First World War.  A number of them served, including my maternal grandfather, Frank Saunders, who trained as an RAF Observer and qualified just as the Armistice was signed. Imbued with stories from the Canadians and Australians whom her served with, Frank emigrated to Canada where he spent a halcyon few years enjoying the delights that North America had to offer. Frank had nine brothers and sisters, and one of his siblings - Dorothy - wasn't so lucky. She lost one husband in action, another - a veteran - through ill health and her third (and last) husband was the only one of five brothers to have survived.

Dorothy Francis Saunders
Dorothy 'married well' on 2nd July 1910 at the age of twenty. Her  husband was a young naval officer - Stephen Brown, a man with the prospect of a good maritime career ahead of him. Stephen was a gifted amateur artist and a number of his paintings are still in the possession of my family including one of Dorothy which he painted whilst on home leave in 1915.

Sadly, Lieutenant Engineer Stephen Brown was killed in action on 17th October 1917. HMS Strongbow, on which Brown was serving, was on convoy duty en-route to the Shetland Islands. Two German cruisers were mistaken for friendly ships. Strongbow was engaged at 3,000 yards by the SMS Brummer and suffered catastrophic damage. After two further attacks she sank with the loss forty seven lives - all of whom are commemorated on the Chatham Naval Memorial.

Stephen Brown and his painting of Dorothy

Family legend has it that Dorothy was 'consoled' in her loss by a senior naval commander who later took her hand in marriage. Whatever the truth of this story, Dorothy 'married well' again. Her second husband was Engineer Rear Admiral William Jordan Deans - affectionally known as 'Jumbo' Deans. Jumbo enjoyed a very successful naval career and a measure of his status can be found in the fact that a head and shoulders photograph of him  hangs in the National Portrait Gallery (click here to view). Dorothy was obviously proud of her second husband's career progression. There is a photograph of her wearing Jumbo's service jacket and cap. She is holding what looks like a stick of chalk and is clearly of a happy disposition.

Dorothy Francis Deans
In the 1930s Jumbo had served on Nelson's flagship HMS Victory, which was then a working relic of the Battle of Trafalgar in Portsmouth Harbour (family legend has it that one of HMS Victory's bell once served domestically in the porch of the family home). Rear Admiral Deans  was placed on the Reserve List in 1936 'to facilitate the promotion of junior officers' and was retired in 1941. he died five years later in 1947.

Dorothy's 'social ascendency' continued after Jumbo's death, when she married Noel Sutton of Suttons Seeds - a large-scale commercial enterprise located in Reading, Berkshire. Suttons and the Huntley-Palmer biscuit manufacturers dominated commercial life in the town during the early 20th Century. Noel, was one of five brothers but, incredibly the other four were all killed in the First World War leaving him as the only survivor - and Leonard Sutton's only male heir to the family firm. 

Lieutenant Alex Sutton, 7th Battalion, Royal Sussex Regiment was killed in action on 2nd Jan 1918 at the age of 19. Lieutenant Eric Sutton of the Royal Berkshire Yeomanry, who had won the Military Cross in 1915, was killed in action on the 8th April 1917 - at the age of 21. The third brother, Lieutenant Victor Sutton of the Royal Engineers was killed in action on the 13th November 1917 and is buried in the Ramleh War Cemetery in Israel. Lieutenant Eustace Sutton of the Rifle Brigade was killed in action on the 24th March 1918. Their stories can be viewed here and in Andrew Tatham's fascinating book 'I Shall Not Be Away Long: The First World War Letters of Lt Col Charles Bartlett'. Also Richard Van Emden dedicated his excellent book 'The Quick and the Dead' to the Sutton brothers. 

The only surviving brother, Leonard Noel Sutton (known as Noel), came very close to death also. Noel served with the 1/1st Berkshire Yeomanry - operating in the the Western Desert of Egypt in 1916 and then moving to the Suez sector in December of that year. From 1917 onwards he was involved in the advance into Palestine. Captain Noel Sutton, along with his fellow Berkshire Yeomen, was on board the SS Leasowe Castle en-route to Liverpool on the night of the 26th / 27th May 1918 when the ship was sunk by the German submarine UB51 off the coast of Tunisia, south of Gibralter.

Noel Sutton - 1915 & 1936

Noel, whose father was the Deputy Mayor of Reading, recounted his ordeal in a letter home which was subsequently published by the Reading Standard (now in the Reading Borough Libraries Collection). After describing the impact of the torpedo and the way in which the men aboard were evacuated, Noel recounted the ship "going down in a rush" and the efficient recovery of 1,100 survivors. He regretted leaving 400-500 photographs in his cabin but was thankful that he could swim.

"We've now had a taste of nearly every form of war, bar gas and liquid fire, but we shall not make a fuss. We've never done that. The auxiliary ship which picked us up had two torpedoes loosed off at her while she was getting us on board, but both were misses, thank God. We have a lot to thank God for really. I was thankful I had no relations on board".

It's a family tradition that Leonard asked for his son, Noel, to be returned to the UK after Eustace (the last of his four brothers to have been lost) had been killed. (I would really like this 'Saving Private Ryan' type story to be true, but suspect that it isn't).

Note: The Suttons Seeds War Memorial (now in the Museum of Rural Life Museum Archive, Reading) lists three of the Sutton brothers. Eustace is not shown which could mean the memorial pre-dates his death on the 24th March 1918. 

After discharge Noel Sutton rejoined the Berkshire Yeomanry in 1921. In 1922 the Berks Yeomanry was paired with the Buckinghamshire Hussars to form the 99th (Bucks and Berks) Yeomanry Brigade R.F.A. (TA). Later Noel transferred to the 395 (Berkshire Yeomanry) Field Battery in Reading (see photo above). He finally resigned from service on 1st March 1937. Thanks to Andrew French of the Berkshire Yeomanry Museum for this information. Andrew has no record of Noel serving in the Second World War but says that he might have served in the Home Guard.

Upon his retirement Noel presented the Officers Mess with a piece of silver which is still on display in the Guildhall at Windsor.

Silverware gifted by Major Noel Sutton

Dorothy and Noel married at the Parish Church of St George in Hanover Square, London on the 26th April 1949. The couple enjoyed 16 years of marriage prior to Noel passing away in 1965. Dorothy lived to be over 100 years of age and spent much of her later life at the family home 'Sutherlands' in Reading. I have many happy memories of visiting the house where Dorothy's housekeeper, Emma, would be obliged to keep my sister and I entertained whilst the adults 'took' afternoon tea with Dorothy in her very posh drawing room. 

I recently took a trip to Reading and rediscovered the Sutton family plot tucked away in a corner of the Reading Old Cemetery. The last time I was there, was for Dorothy's interment in 1992. The names of Noel's four brothers are inscribed on the headstone - Eric, Eustace, Victor and Alexander Killed in Action 1916-18.

My thanks to Jeremy Banning, Andrew Tatham, Richard Van Emden, Reading Museum and the Museum of Rural Life archive in Reading. Also to Hilary Sutton for access to the Sutton family papers.