Three local men lost their lives in France and Italy on 4th May 1917 – Acting Sergeant Thomas Alfred Johnson MM, 76th Field Ambulance, Royal Army Medical Corps; Private George Thomas Perkins, 2nd Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment; and Private John Henry Vernon, 1st/4th Battalion, Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry.
Thomas Alfred Johnson was born in Solihull in 1891 and was the youngest of the six children born to parents, William Caesar Johnson (a chimney sweep) and Charlotte Jane (née Williams) who had married at St Alphege Church, Solihull in 1879, when the groom was 20 years old and the bride 22. Tragically, William died in Solihull, aged just 35, in May 1893:
Leamington Spa Courier 27 May 1893MELANCHOLY DEATH: Mr C. W. [sic] Johnson, master chimney sweep, of Solihull, met with his death, on Sunday morning under distressing circumstances. For some time past, he had been suffering from influenza, pneumonia supervening. A fortnight ago, his son, a boy, met with a fatal accident, and this, no doubt, preyed on his mind to such an extent that he was not responsible for his actions. On Saturday, he fell out of his bedroom window, and sustained serious injuries, to which he succumbed on Sunday morning.
The son referred to was Henry George Johnson (1889-1893) who died, aged four and a half, in May 1893. He was buried at St Alphege Church, Solihull on 17th May 1893, just ten days before his father died. William was himself also then buried at St Alphege Church. After her husband’s death, his widow, Charlotte, continued to run their chimney sweep business, which had previously been set up by William’s father, Jonah, a shoemaker’s son from Oxfordshire. Jonah and his wife, Hannah, had moved to Dog Lane (now Drury Lane), Solihull by 1851 and, in 1861, they were living at Warwick Road, Solihull. By 1871, they had moved to Bordesley, Birmingham.
Jonah Johnson (1829-1912), was prosecuted in 1866 by the Society for the Protection of Climbing Boys and fined £5 for allowing a 16-year-old to climb and sweep two chimneys at the George Inn, Solihull. He had previously been fined £10 in 1859 for decoying a boy away from his parents in order to climb and sweep chimneys. He is also likely to have been the Jonah Johnson, aged 28, who was imprisoned for six months with hard labour in 1858 for stealing an ass worth £1 5s from John Gardner of Barston.
On the outbreak of war, 22-year-old Thomas Alfred Johnson was one of the first to volunteer for the Army. He enlisted on 2nd September 1914, giving his occupation as a mechanic. He passed the initial physical examination at Handsworth Town Hall, but was discharged from the Army 29 days later as unfit, owing to “loose semilunar cartilage”. He obviously managed to re-enlist, joining the Royal Army Medical Corps and serving with the 76th Field Ambulance.
Solihull Parish Magazine, June 1917, reports that his mother had received a consoling letter from the Army Chaplain, which referred to her son’s “coolness, courage and devotion to duty, regardless of his own safety”. For this, his Colonel had recommended him for recognition and, on the day of his death, word was received that he had been awarded the Military Medal. The award was confirmed in the London Gazette on 9th July 1917.
He is buried at Longuenesse (St Omer) Souvenir Cemetery, France and is also commemorated locally on the Solihull War Memorial.
George Thomas Perkins, known by his middle name of Thomas, was born in Weston-sub-Edge, near Evesham, Worcestershire in 1896, and was the brother of William Hands Perkins who was killed on 7th December 1915. He was the seventh of the eight children (six sons, two daughters) of parents George Frederick and Rose (née Court) who had married at Weston-sub-Edge in 1877.
George and Rose seem to have remained in Weston-sub-Edge and their two sons are commemorated on the local war memorial, as well as on their parents’ gravestone. However, their daughter Selina Jane (also recorded as Jeanie) May (1883-1942) moved to Stratford-upon-Avon, being recorded as a servant in 1901. She subsequently moved to Dorridge, and married carpenter Frederick Edward Smith at St Alphege Church, Solihull in 1905. By 1911, two of her brothers – Philip James (1880-1947) and Arthur Edward (born 1885) – were living with her in Hockley Heath.
The fact that the two brothers who died in the war are also commemorated on the Hockley Heath village memorial, and the roll of honour in St Thomas’s Church, Hockley Heath suggests that they also moved to the village between 1911 and their deaths. However, this may not be the case, as Soldiers Died in the Great War indicates that George Thomas Perkins was living in Broadway, Worcestershire, when he enlisted.
George Thomas Perkins has no known grave and is commemorated on the Arras Memorial.
John Henry Vernon was born in Acocks Green in 1898, and was the only child of parents John Frederick (a bricklayer’s labourer) and his wife, laundress, Sarah Jane Elizabeth (née Tuby), who had married in 1897. The family moved from Acocks Green to Kineton Green Road, Olton, sometime between 1901-1911.
John Henry Vernon served initially with the 92nd Territorial Reserve Battalion, before becoming a Private with 1/4th Battalion Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry. He embarked from Marseilles on 3rd May 1917 aboard the SS Transylvania, a liner with the Anchor Line, taken over by the Admiralty as a transport ship. The ship was taking troops to Alexandria, but was hit by a torpedo, which struck the port engine room at 10am on 4th May. She was two miles off the coast of Cape Vado, Gulf of Genoa.
One of her escort destroyers, the Japanese ship Matsu, came alongside and was helping to take off troops when a second torpedo was seen coming for the destroyer. Matsu saved herself by going astern at full speed, so the torpedo struck the Transylvania, which then sank very quickly. John Henry Vernon was one of the 373 other ranks who drowned.
His body was not recovered and he is commemorated on the Savona Memorial, Italy. He is also commemorated locally on the war memorial in St Margaret’s Church, Olton.
If you have any further information about any of these men, please let us know.
Heritage & Local Studies Librarian
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