Remembering Oarsmen Who Shall Grow Not Old

The marvellous poster advertising an exhibition, which is held in Henley during the Regatta, one likely to appeal to HTBS Types.

4 July 2018

Tim Koch meets a man with a mission.

It is always a pleasure to meet someone with a worthy passion, and Mike Willoughby is such a person. For the past 12 years, Henley-born Mike (actively supported by his wife, Lesley) has spent many hundreds of hours on a quest sparked by a chance remark by a relative. The website Henley – Lest We Forget takes up the story:

Mike Willoughby’s research began in 2006, inspired by a comment from an elderly aunt mentioning her uncle (Jack) who was killed in action on the Somme in WW1… A long search to find evidence of his military service and death was finally successful, leading (Mike) to the war memorial in Jack’s home village in Hampshire, Abbots Ann… However, he discovered that no-one in Abbots Ann could identify Arthur John King, known as ‘Jack’…, as a local boy.

Baptised as Arthur John, he had signed up as John Arthur and when the memorial was erected at the end of the war, he was entered there as ‘J.King’… This made Mike realise that there are many other soldiers on local memorials whose identities are unknown.

(By 2012, Mike found that) there are more than 70 men… who are not recorded on any of the nine Henley Memorials, and in excess of 100 names do not feature on the Town Hall Memorial. It seemed a very fitting time to right this wrong…

To this end, Mike established Henley’s Lest we Forget Project, which includes in its aims:

To identify and perpetuate the memory of the soldiers, sailors, airmen and others who made the ultimate sacrifice, from Henley and the surrounding villages, who died in, or as a direct result of, World War 1.

To research each one as an individual – “some mother’s son” – the part they played in the Community and the gaps they left.

To create a lasting record of their identity and sacrifice.

Some examples of the biographies in “Bringing Them Home — Men of Henley 1914-1921”.
Lists of Henley men who served in – but survived – the 1914–1918 War is also included in “Bringing Them Home”.

This ‘lasting record’ came with the publication of a 320-page book titled Bringing Them Home — Men of Henley 1914-1921, a remarkable collection of pictures and biographies of the men of Henley and district who were killed in ‘The War To End All Wars.’ Previously, many had not been formally remembered on any memorial, while, those that had been were simply recorded with an initial and a surname. Mike’s book gave a human face to those that either had been forgotten or were just names carved in stone with no indication that each one was ‘some mother’s son’. A grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund and donations from individuals, groups and businesses paid for three memorial plaques naming all the Henley men recorded to date who were killed in the war, and these were placed in the Town Hall and in two Henley churches, St Mary’s and Holy Trinity.

Leander’s War Memorial.

While Henley – Lest We Forget is ongoing, in the last few years Mike has been working on a second similar project, titled Rowers of Henley and the Thames. It does for oarsmen what Bringing Them Home did for the men of Henley and district. Although not a rower, Mike was inspired in this by a visit to Leander to see their War Memorial, obviously conscious of the part that rowing has played in the history of Henley. Thus far, he has identified 475 rowers and has written a biography of each, including pictures where possible. During Henley Week, memorial boards recording these names, files containing their biographies, numerous photographs, plus Mike’s personal collection of First World War artefacts, will all be on display at the Old Fire Station Gallery, behind Henley Town Hall. Mike will be on hand to answer any questions and to receive any additions to the project. Entry is free and it is open each day from 10 am to 7 pm until 9 July. On 29 June, I attended the opening of the exhibition, performed by two-times Olympic Silver Medalist and former Captain of Leander, Debbie Flood. My pictures of this are below, but they do not do justice to the event, so a visit is highly recommended.

Mike Willoughby, holding a copy of “Bringing Them Home”, standing outside the “Lest We Forget Exhibition” at the Old Fire Station Gallery in Henley last Friday.
A close-up of some of the names of the 475 “Rowers of Henley and the Thames” identified by Mike.
A view of all 475 names.
Both London Rowing Club and Kensington Rowing Club (now part of Auriol Kensington RC) have photograph albums counting pictures of members killed in World War I. These are some of London’s war dead.
Auriol Kensington President Jimmy Pigden views some of the pictures of Kensington RC men killed between 1914 and 1918. Jimmy’s grandfather was killed in the Great War.
The 16 files containing information on the individuals who are commemorated in “Rowers of Henley and the Thames”.
Philippa Upton (right, accompanied by her daughter) views the board relating to her uncle, (John) Edwin Pugh of the Royal Air Force and Shrewsbury School Boat Club who died of wounds on the day after the Armistice, 12 November 1918.
Mike’s collection of World War I artefacts includes an iconic Lee-Enfield rifle, versions of which saw service in the British Army from 1895 until 1957.
In the background, Mike shows a visitor the 1914 Ladies Plate board, and, in the foreground, is a picture of the portrait of Cyril Burnand, a Cambridge Blue of 1911, held by the Roman Catholic boarding school, Downside Abbey. The Downside website claims that Burnand ‘was the first professed Catholic oarsman to row the Boat Race’.
Typical of Mike’s attention to detail, he has found that the War claimed 28 of those who competed in the 1914 Ladies Challenge Plate (not ‘Cup’, the old postcard is wrong).
Eighteen of the 28 competitors in the Ladies Plate of 1914 who were dead within four years.
Sydney Lock – one of the many rowers pictured who Mike wants to be remembered as “some mother’s son”.

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