Just over a century ago, communities across the country – and indeed the world – were mourning their dead after the horror of the 1914-1918 Great War and considering how they could best be commemorated.
Many towns and villages in Britain chose to remember the fallen with crosses and similar memorials, and cenotaphs, which honour those buried in foreign fields.
It is not known exactly how many of these memorials there are across the country, although Historic England has listed more than 2,500.
In Capel, however, it was decided that their memorial should have a more practical purpose: housing for those in need. And so it was that the two Capel Memorial Cottages were officially opened 100 years ago, on Sunday, 14th August, 1921.
Newspaper cuttings from the time, kept at the Hadlow Estate archive, give an insight into the reasons for the unusual memorial.
“The idea, which found unanimous acceptance among the parishioners, was the building of cottages in the very centre of this district to remind the inhabitants of the noble part played by the sons of Capel in the Great War,” reported The Courier.
“The cottages will bear a tablet recording the names of 32 men from the parish who gave their lives in the war, while it is of interest to record that 160 men of Capel were on service in HM Forces.
“The tenants will be restricted to residents in the parish for over 10 years, and will be selected first from aged and necessitous parishioners, who have lost a supporter in the war, and failing these war widows or disabled soldiers or sailors, the selection being entrusted to the Parish Council. Of the cost – £1,100 – a large portion has been contributed by the farming community of the district.”
That cost, which in today’s money was around £55,000, did not include the site of the cottages, which was donated by Sir Osmond d’Avigdor Goldsmid, predecessor of the present owners of the Hadlow Estate, who was also chairman of the War Memorial Committee.
The Tonbridge Free Press noted at the time that of the 32 Capel men killed in the war, none left a widow: “Therefore, the tenants for the cottages will have to be selected from the parents or next of kin of those whom they commemorate.”
The cottages, the Free Press noted, were built to last: “The foundations are of extra thick concrete, the doors are of solid oak, and the window sills and frames of reinforced concrete, so there will be no warping or rotting.
“The accommodation consists of a living room, bedroom, and scullery, all well lighted and substantially fitted.”
At the official opening ceremony, the deeds to the cottages were handed to Sir d’Avigdor Goldsmid in his role as Chairman of the Parish Council. The Free Press said: “He was convinced that the present council and its successors would faithfully carry out the trust imposed upon them. He was satisfied the cottages would supply a real want, and would in the time to come be much appreciated by their tenants.”
News of the memorial was spread far and wide with reports in both The Daily Telegraph and The Daily Mirror.
Among the first tenants was Mary Keel. Mary was known as Nurse Keel, and she was the Parish Nurse for Capel and Tudeley.
Her family had sacrificed not one but two sons to the war – and they died just a few days apart.
Private Jesse Keel can’t have been in uniform for very long before he was shipped overseas with his comrades on 20 August 1915.
Records show that Jesse, the son of John Jesse and Mary Keel, of Church View, Five Oak Green, was just 17 when he headed off to war. Normally, the minimum age for men to join the regular British Army was 18, and only those aged 19 or over could be sent overseas.
But Jesse was a member of the Territorial Force, made up of part-time volunteers, which had its own rules. (In 1921 it was to be renamed the Territorial Army and is now known as the Army Reserve).
He was part of the 2/4th Battalion of the Queen’s Own (Royal West Kent) Regiment which embarked from Southampton, bound for Alexandria in Egypt, on 20th July, 1915. But his ultimate destination was Suvla Bay, where the force landed on 10th August.
Today, Suvla Bay is known for its winemaking. But in 1915 it became infamous as a point of disembarkation for tens of thousands of British and Allied troops heading for battle against the Ottoman Empire as part of the Gallipoli campaign, which was to claim tens of thousands of lives.
Among the British casualties was young Jesse, who died on 25 August.
The Great War was doubly cruel to Mr and Mrs Keel. Jesse’s older brother, Frederick John, was a Lance Corporal with the 5th (Service) Battalion of the Wiltshire Regiment. Both he and his brother had been born in Wiltshire, Jesse in Salisbury and Frederick in nearby Alderbury.
Service battalions were raised specifically for war service. On 1st July 1915, Frederick’s battalion left Avonmouth and landed at Cape Helles a little over two weeks later. On 10 August they suffered heavy casualties in a major Turkish counterattack, and Frederick was among the many men to be killed that day. He was just 20 years old.
Both brothers are remembered with honour by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in Turkey, Jesse at Green Hill, along with 501 of his comrades, and Frederick at the Helles Memorial, which lists the names of 20,958 of the fallen.
They are also remembered on plaques on the walls of the Capel Memorial Cottages, and at the St Thomas a Becket Church, Capel.
The pair’s older brother, Private B (possibly Bertie) Keel, served with the 1st Dorsets during the war. This was, at the time, largely made up of regular soldiers and was sent to France at the start of the conflict. Private Keel was among almost 400 men of the regiment captured by the invading Germans before the year was out, and was declared a Prisoner of War.
Their father, despite being in his 40s when war broke out, also saw action, serving in France with the 1st Wiltshire Regiment. More fortunate than two of his sons, he survived the war, and died in 1945.
The boys’ mother, Mary, died four years later in 1949.
Tragically, of course, the names of the Keel brothers and the 30 other men who died in the Great War were not to be the only ones honoured on plaques at the cottages.
After the Second World War of 1939-45, a further 10 names of those who paid the ultimate sacrifice were added.
Sir d’Avigdor Goldsmid would be pleased to know that the cottages are still in the care of Capel Parish Council, and that the original vision of providing a ‘unique, practical and worthy’ memorial by providing homes for members of the community is still being upheld a century later.
- If you’d like to research local war memorials, a good place to start is the Imperial War Museum website: https://www.iwm.org.uk/memorials
- To learn more about those who fell in the two world wars, try the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website: https://www.cwgc.org/find-records/find-war-dead/
- To see tributes to the more than one million service men and women who died in the Great War, visit the Every One Remembered website run by the Royal British Legion: https://www.everyoneremembered.org/