Armistice 100: Seven Kings woman's memorial search for soldier whose body washed up in the Thames
PUBLISHED: 11:00 09 November 2018
It was a summer's day when the discharged soldier's body was fished out of the river.
He’d come back from the war in June and following stints in hospital had recently started taking the ferry across to a new job at the Royal Arsenal arms manufacturing site in Woolwich.
The body of Seven Kings pensioner Patricia Barber’s grandfather, John Thomas Blackett, was found in the River Thames on August 31, 1918, roughly three months after his discharge from the army.
He was 31-years-old.
“My grandmother, having got him home safe and sound, then lost him. She was so traumatised,” Patricia, 73, said.
She had already lost her brother to the war, on the Somme. She was left to look after the couple’s five children, all aged under 10 with the youngest just five-months-old.
The Kentish Mercury headlined John’s death: “Discharged soldier’s sad end” in a report following the inquest held three days after John’s body was found. The coroner recorded an open verdict.
His wife, speaking at the hearing, said John was a bit peculiar at times, but never threatened to kill himself.
It was a very sad end for a man who served his country as a marksman and signaller in some of the biggest battles of the war.
But in spite of his bravery, John’s name doesn’t appear on any of the war memorials that appear across the East End. These tributes, raised by local committees, commemorate the thousands of fallen service personnel.
“I think my grandmother was too traumatised to let them know,” Patricia explained.
There isn’t even a gravestone to visit after the burial site where he was laid to rest in Manor Park was cleared. Now nothing remains except faded memories, a few official papers and John’s war medals.
To qualify for official commemoration, his death would have to be proven to be the direct result of his service.
But in spite of “ss”, standing for shellshock, being listed on his discharge papers, Patricia can’t say for certain whether mental illness resulting from war led to his untimely death.
“Even though he died after discharge [his death] was possibly due to his wounds and suffering from shellshock. We don’t know if he jumped off the Woolwich ferry or whether he was pushed or accidentally fell, but he was a casualty of the war.
“He might have survived and lived a fairly normal life had this happened now,” Patricia said.
“It was a hundred years ago. Medical practice has improved significantly since then.”
John began his army career a decade before the First World War’s outbreak in 1914. He was a regular soldier until 1907 before being put on a reserves list.
When the war started he joined the 5th Battalion Dorset Regiment. At Gallipoli – where soldiers landed in a bid to prevent the sea route to Russia falling into enemy hands – he suffered a gun shot wound to the head.
He was invalided to Alexandria, in Egypt, before he was sent to the Somme following his recovery.
From the Somme he went on to fight in the third battle of Ypres, often known as Passchendaele, where he won a military medal awarded for bravery in the field.
His medical record showed him surviving three explosions, according to his granddaughter Patricia, a member of the East of London Family History Society.
His discharge came in June 1918. Once home he stayed in the Lord Derby Hospital in Warrington where he met his youngest child following a visit by his wife.
Doctors deemed him unfit for war service. He was awarded a pension and silver war badge, given to military personnel discharged because of wounds or sickness, before he returned home to Hoxton.
In a bid to honour her grandfather’s memory, Patricia plans to contact In From the Cold, an organisation trying to get soldiers, sailors and airmen originally missed added to official casualty lists.
“Hopefully, we will get something done about it,” she said.