Charlton Wiltshire

In reality, the church at Charlton in Wiltshire is on the edge of Charlton Park. The home to the Earl of Suffolk since the 17th century. Situated adjacent to estate cottages and the gateway to the parkland itself, the church is a fascinating look in to the relationship between estate and village; where one life shouts louder than others.

Charles Henry George Howard, 20th Earl of Suffolk and 13th Earl of Berkshire

The stained-glass window here at Charlton is something very special. The biography of a special type of man told through the medium of glass and the words of John Masefield, Poet Laureate.

They called him ‘Wild Jack Howard’ – a nickname perhaps given through his lack of convention, and through his desire to make a difference. His grave here at Charlton is grand, a large lump of a stone etched with the words chosen by those who loved him to describe him. An unattainable task.

But it is I think more singular to say that when he died on the 12th May 1941, he died as a civilian. Not a serviceman. He is listed by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission as a civilian war dead, on the Roll of Honour at St George’s Chapel in Westminster Abbey in London. He also received the George Cross. But he died as a person, not a uniformed body. Which makes him a little bit approachable.

But his death, as with his life, was full of contradictions. Maybe he just lived the life that he wanted to live. Maybe he lived the life he was able, coming from an ennobled family. But maybe, just maybe, his life told much of the man. He died as he lived, interested, keen, unnaturally brave, desperate to make a difference. Perhaps trying to live up to the character of a man borne of his imagination – his own father who died in the Great War when he was just 11 years of age. Or perhaps just trying to live up to his own demands.

Jack Howard, as I shall call him, has a story built half on myth but that in some way shades the truth of his life. His early life saw him flit from life path to life path, seemingly unhappy or searching for something he couldn’t quite identify. These days, we might call them free-spirits, bohemians or merely unconventional. I suspect Jack was merely labelled difficult, or disrespecting the wonder of the class system. It saw him bounce from a career on the sea to the wild of the Australian outback on the cattle stations.

In his early life he had an interesting relationship with his wealthy American-born mother. In 1920 at the age of 14 years, whilst carrying a loaded firearm at Charlton Park accidentally discharged it, injuring his younger brother Cecil Howard in the foot.

At the age of 17, he signed on a sailing ship, the clipper Mount Stewart heading for Sydney, Australia. But on arrival in Sydney, his feelings were clear that the sailing life was not for him. But that he had planned to make the trip as a result of inheriting the estate and title of the Earl of Suffolk, due to his father being killed in the war, and realised that in order to do it, he had to know what the world was about, and what people were about.

He had inherited the title in 1917 when his father the 19th Earl of Suffolk and 12th Earl of Berkshire died in Mesopotamia during the First World War when he was just 11.

But he had gone to sea with the agreement of his mother. His life aboard the Mount Stewart appears to have been full of the lifestyle he craved; maybe the freedom and excitement he wanted. In 1924 aged 18, he had crossed from Chile to France and was spending time from the ship with his crewmates.

In 1926, under the name Jack Howard he was found at Kendall near Port Macquarie in New South Wales, Australia. Where in the clothes of a farm labourer, he was spending time learning about farming. Captain McColm ran a farming and saw mill; Jack took part in all the work expected of him. Up at light, rounding up cattle and horses, working with the other farm hands. It must have been hard to imagine him as the 20th Earl of Suffolk.

He returned to Britain in 1933.

In 1934, he became engaged to the actress Mimi Crawford. She had been in many theatre performances, danced and sung. But the wedding took place in London with no fanfare, no guests and no apparent celebration. The bride did not walk up the aisle, she carried no flowers but just popped out with Lord Charles who was giving her away.

In 1938, the Earl of Suffolk and Berkshire gained a first class BSc degree from the University of Edinburgh in Science from the Department of Pure Science with Honours in Pharmacology. He was given a Fellowship of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1937; illustrating how talented he must have been in this field.

He practiced scientific farming on his estate at Charlton Park and worked at the Nuffield Laboratory in Oxford with explosives and poisons.

On the outbreak of war, he tried to enlist but was rejected on account of rheumatism. But was offered a role with the Ministry of Supply as a Liaison Officer with the French Ministry of Armaments. It was here he perhaps pulled off his greatest achievement. As the Germans approached Paris in larger numbers, under threat for his life in the company of his driver and his secretary, he left for Bordeaux. With death threats and violence, and as the social orders fell apart with refugees filling the road – they managed to get to Bordeaux.

SS Broompark was a vessel laden with coal, its sister vessel had been sunk en route so it was agreed that it would sail for Bordeaux and pick up as many refugees as it could. Paris had fallen so urgency was imperative. One of the men who boarded was the Earl of Suffolk along with his colleague Major Ardale Golding and their secretaries Eileen Morden and Marguerite Nicolle. But accompanying them were 33 significant scientists, including Lew Kowarski and Hans Halban. They brought with them 26 containers of heavy water – a vastly important ingredient in nuclear weapon development. The Managing Director of the Antwerp Diamond Bank also came along, with somewhere between £1 million to £3 million. A significant amount of machine tools (over 600 tonnes) were also loaded to be taken to Britain, and removed from the impending German advance.

Within days, it weighed anchor, sailed down the Gironde river heading for the Atlantic Coast and the port of Falmouth in Cornwall. It arrived on the 23st June 1940.

The Earl of Suffolk immediately got on a train for London on arrival and the heavy water disappeared to Windsor Castle where it would eventually be used. But a vital commodity. He was heavily commended by the establishment for his role in Paris.

Upon his return, he was recommended to take a position with the Experimental Section of the Ministry of Supply. Which he did, working on the defusing of bombs – there were plenty of them, Britain was being bombed heavily. He took his faithful companions with him. His erstwhile secretary Eileen Morden and his driver Fred Hards – Miss Morden took notes whilst the Earl dictated in the field and Fred was there passing the right tools. They were affectionately referred to as the ‘Holy Trinity’. National security meant that their roles were never truly appreciated at the time. They were doing an invaluable job in the defusing and education of others in bombs.

On the 12th of May 1941, the Earl of Suffolk ‘Mad Jack’ was defusing an old bomb that had been placed on the marshes around Erith on the Kent coastline. All three were in attendance along with other sappers and transport. They needed the fuse, considered valuable in the education of bomb defusing. Just as they were working on it, the 500lb bomb exploded killing the Earl, Miss Morden and Fred Hards as well as four other people, and causing extensive burns on others.

Charles Henry George Howard, 20th Earl of Suffolk and 13th Earl of Berkshire was just 35 years of age; he had three children. As a civilian officer, he had no military war grave but was instead marked with a stone here at Charlton. His son became the newest Earl of Suffolk, the 21st Earl – he was just 6 years of age. Younger than he had been when his lost his own father in the First World War.

Eileen was only 29 when she was killed. Fred was 36 years of age.

Two months later, the Earl was posthumously awarded the George Cross for bravery; and Eileen Morden and Fred Hards were given a commendation for their work. Their names appear on the Roll of Honour at St George’s Chapel, Westminster.

In the church on the estate at Charlton, a stained-glass window was installed. It glints in the sun on fair days and is full of the man who gave himself and others such a colourful, vivid life.

It reads:

To the glory of God
In memory of Charles Henry George Howard
20th Earl of Suffolk & 13th Earl of Berkshire G.C. BSc.
Who with unselfish devotion faced and met his death
In the course of his duties as a Scientific Research Officer
Bomb Disposal Unit
May 12th 1941
Also holding in remembrance those who went with him
This window is placed here by his wife

The words below were sent to his wife Mimi on hearing of the Earl’s death by the then Poet Laureate John Masefield. They are appear on the window:

He loved the bright ship with the lifting wing
He felt the anguish in the hunted thing
He dared the dangers which beset the guides
Who lead men to the knowledge nature hides
Probing and playing with the lightning thus
He and his faithful friends met death for us
The beauty of a splendid man abides

In the churchyard, his gravestone reads:

Charles Henry George Howard, 20th Earl of Suffolk and 13th Earl of Berkshire
George Cross Bachelor of Science
Died in the service of our country
12th May 1931
Aged 35 years
He and his faithful friends met death for us
The beauty of a splendid man abides
To his very dear memory
This stone has been placed here by his wife

In the second volume ‘The Finest Hour’ of his book on the Second World War, Winston Churchill wrote:

One bomb disposal squad I remember which may be taken as symbolic of many others. It consisted of three people, the Earl of Suffolk, his lady private secretary and his chauffeur. They called themselves 'The Holy Trinity'. Their prowess and continued existence got around among all who knew and 34 unexploded bombs did they tackle with urbane and smiling efficiency, but the 35th claimed its forfeit. Up went the Earl of Suffolk in his Holy Trinity.

It is hard to draw conclusions on men like Jack Howard. One can guess that the man beyond society may have been as charming as the one in the society papers, but was perhaps more of the man he wanted to be. A man stripped of title perhaps, surrounded by friends who trusted him and knew him for the men, rather than the title. We all ask in life that we make a difference, I think we can say that Jack did. I hope his sons saw him the way he hoped he would be seen.

There is so much more that I could have written about this man. Indeed so much to be read. So read on, his character lives on in history as bright as it was in his life.

Frederick Barsted Banks

Frederick Barsted Banks is listed as a civilian casualty of the Second World War. His name lies with the several thousand civilians on the Roll of Honour near St George’s Chapel in Westminster Abbey in London.

His parents came from Chippenham and his wife lived at Stanton St Quintin, a village not far from Chippenham in Wiltshire. He died at Kemble on the 23rd July 1943 age 33. He had been a motor mechanic.

In loving memory of my husband
Frederick Barsted Banks
Killed in a flying accident
23rd July 1943
Aged 33 years

It appears that Fred was a civilian member of the RAF volunteer reserve testing planes at Kemble base during the war. The Hudson FK756 airplane crashed at Tarlton Farm 2 miles north of Kemble whilst on approach to Kemble. Two were killed.

The other person killed is now buried at Sapperton near Cirencester. His name was 70502 Flight Lieutenant (Pilot) ‘Jim’ Theodor Mervyn Niemeyer in the Royal Air Force who would have been flying that day. Based at No 10 Maintenance Unit of the RAF operated from RAF Hullavington during the war, located not far from Chippenham. Fred would have been one of the service personnel. No 10 Maintenance Unit of the RAF was a training unit.

There are also other worthy remembrances to be considered from Charlton. Sergeant Pilot Luke Charles Wright was flying on the 17th May 1943 when the plane he was flying lost its engines, dropping rapidly in height; he ordered his crew to bail out whilst he attempted to miss the town of Stoke-on-Trent in Staffordshire. He tried to guide the plane to land in a field outside the town but crashed and was killed. All bar one of the crew survived. He is buried here at Charlton.

Charlton Park was used during World War Two as both a military hospital and as a base for US service personnel. During this time, Serjeant Ernest William Fuller of the Suffolk Regiment died here in 1941.

On the 26th November 1944, 49 Squadron took off from RAF Fulbeck heading for a raid on Munich in Germany. PB432, an Avro Lancaster crashed within minutes of take-off near Dry Doddington, heavily laden with fuel and bombs. Somehow only two men died – one of them Sergeant Norman Isaac Langley, Wireless Operator/Air Gunner. He is buried here at Charlton. The other a 19 year old Air Gunner Sergeant Edward George Blake who is buried at Hendon Cemetery, Middlesex. But in Dry Doddington church in Nottinghamshire, there is a memorial to those who crashed that day near their village. Not forgotten.

These are the men who never returned from the Second World War whose memorials lie at Charlton in Wiltshire:

Civilian Charles Henry George Howard

20th Earl of Suffolk and 13th Earl of Berkshire GC FSR FSRE

DoD 2nd March 1906 Malmesbury, Wiltshire DoD 12th May 1941 Erith Marshes age 35

Buried: St John the Baptist churchyard, Charlton, Wiltshire

Commemorated: Civilian Dead Roll of Honour, St George’s Chapel, Westminster Abbey, London

Civilian Frederick Barsted Banks

DoB 1910 Chippenham, Wiltshire DoD 23rd July 1943 Kemble, Wiltshire age 33

Buried: St John the Baptist churchyard, Charlton, Wiltshire

Commemorated: Civilian Dead Roll of Honour, St George’s Chapel, Westminster Abbey, London