We are indebted to John Mitchem for letting us reproduce this account of his family history.
Tom Mitchem: a Langport boy
This is the condensed story of my late grandfather, an ordinary boy who was born, brought up and educated in the town of Langport and, during his long lifetime, experienced the many ups and downs of a full life.
He was christened Henry Thomas but was known as Tom and born on the 2nd October 1890 at his parent’s home, the New Inn, Bow Street, the second child to Daniel and Rosina (nee Knowles) Mitchem. In the early 1900’s, the Inn was redeveloped and changed its name to The Railway Hotel. The hotel entrance was provided with a wrought iron fold-aside scissor bridge to provide access onto Bow Street and across the road to the long gone Westover Railway Station, which was at one time directly opposite.
Tom’s father Daniel was one of 9 children born to Thomas Mitchem, a farm worker and carter, whose descendants went back several generations living in the nearby villages of Curry Rivel, Isle Abbotts and Drayton. His mother was known as Rose and was the youngest child of 9 children born to Henry and Elizabeth (nee Hembrow) Knowles who had a fishmonger’s shop in Bow Street attached to a cottage located directly behind the New Inn. Henry also travelled to the local villages with a horse and cart to sell fish direct to out of town customers and sometimes with his grandson Tom to assist him. Henry and other Knowles brothers were connected to various businesses in Langport and also Cardiff, namely a coal merchant, a cider house proprietor, agricultural dealer and once was the Langport town crier.
Daniel was an active volunteer and reservist for many years with the West Somerset Yeomanry and was a keen shot, entering shooting competition’s within the county and at the army rifle ground located at the Paradise Field range near Wearne.
Daniel had a farm worker’s background and we believe that the New Inn was owned by, or leased from a Knowles brother in law. In November 1900 Daniel aged 39 died suddenly of what the family believed for many years to be Bright’s disease, but in recent times having obtained the death certificate, it was the pub landlord’s disease “Cirrhosis of the Liver” that was recorded.
After his death it appears that his widow Rosina gave up running the Inn and took over the running of her father’s fishmongers shop. In Tom’s early teens Rosina remarried, to a widower and a father of four named James Pomeroy and, together with older sister Minnie they relocated from Langport to live in Taunton. At the age of 14 Tom left school and went into employment as an apprentice baker and confectioner in Taunton.
In 1914, with the onset of the First World War, he was already a reservist with the West Somerset Yeomanry like his father before him. He enlisted to become a soldier with the Somerset Light Infantry and soon transferred to the Machine Gun Corps to be trained as a machine gun operator.
After the training was completed he was posted in 1915 to Gallipoli where he fought in the Dardanelles campaign. It was there that he sustained a bullet wound and, having been patched up, was transferred to the Bighi military hospital in Malta. During his recovery he recalled years later that with his comrades, they would a hire a rowing boat and cross Grand Harbour to visit the main city of Valetta where they would enjoy its historic sights and tea rooms (well maybe). We are not sure if he returned to Turkey, but the campaign failed and by January 1916 the British and Empire forces had to withdraw to Egypt with considerable casualties.
Later in 1916 he was posted to France to fight in the battle of the Somme. He once recalled to his sons that they would give “Jerry” a lead breakfast every morning to wake them up. He operated an Armstrong rib barrelled machine gun. His side loader assistant we understand was a local lad who had lived near North Petherton named William Keirle. Between the loading of the bullets he would constantly fetch buckets of water to cool down the gun barrel. William was later killed and his name is commemorated on the Bridgwater War Memorial.
In the Somme battle Tom was shot and wounded a second time and he was brought back to England to convalesce. During this period he was looked after by a young nurse from Glasgow named Catherine Murray. She appears to have formed a relationship with him and after the war they returned to normal life, but not back to live in Taunton.
The post-war years saw economic recession and Tom was unable to find any suitable employment on his return, but fortunately several members of the Mitchem and Knowles families were working in Cardiff and around the Caerphilly coalfields. South Wales had full employment and in those days there were several sailings a day between Burnham, Weston and Portishead to the Welsh coast ports. Tom and Catherine relocated to Cardiff and, presumably with some family assistance, took over a bakery business in the village of Pentyrch which is located a few miles north of the city. During the 1920’s they had 3 sons and 1 daughter. Sadly after a few years the bakery business failed and it was placed into administration.
Tom eventually managed to secure employment with a bakery business in Gloucestershire and the family moved to Cheltenham in the early 1930s. During the next few years he changed jobs and became a long distance lorry driver, and Tom and Catherine produced two further daughters, Adeline and Catherine.
Sadly, his wife Catherine died in 1936 of what we believe was consumption and she was interred at Leckhampton Churchyard, Cheltenham. As the day of her funeral came nearer he was in a quandary because he had a job working long hours away from home and had no relatives nearby to look after the children. Those were the days before there were social services or national assistance to help distressed families.
After Catherine’s funeral, young Adeline was taken away by members of the extended Knowle family to live in Cardiff and baby Catherine was sent to Glasgow to live with one of her mother’s younger sisters. Although at the time Tom considered it a temporary solution it proved not to be, and they were eventually adopted by their new families. As to the four older children Sylvia went to live with her grandmother Rosina and her Aunty Minnie near Bathampton. John my father was placed into the Shaftsbury Homes Orphanage and there onto the masted sail training ship Arethusa that was moored near Rochester, Kent. Malcolm the eldest went straight into the RAF with only Humphry the youngest son remaining in Cheltenham to live with his father.
In 2010 we were able to locate a marriage certificate of a Cheltenham register office wedding of a Henry Thomas Mitchem marrying Catherine Murray and dated May 1933 some 13 years after their first child was born. His status on the certificate was recorded as that of a “Widower”.
From this shock discovery we trawled back through the marriage records to find that aged 23 years in August 1914 Henry Thomas Mitchem had indeed married a local girl named Ruby Florence Hart aged 22, who at the time was a seamstress working at the local Van Huesen shirt factory in Taunton.
Within a couple of years of Catherine’s death, Tom formed a new relationship with his neighbour’s daughter May Biddy Saunders, who was much younger than him. They married and went on to have a long happy marriage producing 5 sons and 1 daughter between the years 1938 and 1950.
During the Second World War Tom transported aeroplanes from the Gloucester aircraft factory to virtually every RAF airfield in the United Kingdom.
In the 1950s onwards Tom’s first family with Catherine eventually reunited through exchanging letters and each in turn over the years meeting up and visiting Cheltenham to reunite with their father and to meet their half brothers and sister. In much later years the two adopted sisters reconnected with their genetic siblings and both were able to join in the family’s occasional summer reunions.
BANG! One day and out of the blue in the late 1960s a middle aged lady tapped on Tom’s front door in Cheltenham and she asked if he was Thomas Mitchem. His reply was yes and hers was to announce that she was his daughter from a relationship he had with her mother in Malta during the First World War. His third wife Biddy went berserk with him and refused to let her into the house. I’m afraid that this is only limited information we have about that episode of his life.
In the 1980s prior to him beginning to lose his memory, Tom had confided to his oldest daughter Sylvia on the understanding it was not to be revealed to anyone else, that he had been married in his early life before the Great War, but he could not remember if he had been divorced or widowed or indeed that was he a bigamist. He said that Ruby the first wife at the time of their marriage was pregnant and had his son, but we have no further information or death certificate evidence as to what happened to both of them, but he did mention a relationship to a Canadian soldier. This possibly explained why he did not return to Taunton after being demobilised from the army, as he already had a wife living there. At this stage Sylvia was unaware that she herself and her three older brothers had all been born out of wedlock. Tom’s secret was never revealed to any of her older brothers but she confided the conversation to one of her daughters many years later.
In later years Tom, by knocking 10 years off his actual age, continued to work full time and to drive lorries well into his mid seventies. He also had a part time job working at a local bakery shop business. He was bright and alert well into his early nineties but various things started to deteriorate with the loss of his eyesight, deafness and nausea and eventually as they say, he had enough.
In 1986 he went into hospital for care and comfort. Always the soldier, one night he got himself out of bed and in frustration at his predicament, helped himself to the medicine cabinet. The alarm was raised and he was placed back into his bed. During the next day or two he was comforted and allowed to go to sleep.
Tom died on 14th March 1986 aged 95 and was cremated at Cheltenham Crematorium. As was his wish, his ashes were brought back to Langport by his sons and were scattered over the parapet wall of the Bow Bridge into the waters of the ever flowing River Parrett.
I remember him as a kind, friendly man who was sadly missed by his extended family and all who knew him.
Reprinted from Level Talk 2019