Victorian church painting that leads to a Great War tragedy

Glimpse into the past: Litolff’s 1875 painting offers a view of how the Parish Church and churchyard appeared nearly 150 years ago

MARVELS OF THE MINSTER: The church archives have yielded more insights into local family histories. By DAVID MORGAN

Croydon Minster maintains extensive archives, which include many paintings of the church. One such work, which has recently been discovered, is dated 1875. It forms the first part of a trail through Croydon history that leads to one of the many tragedies of the First World War.

The artist, painting from a position in what would now be the middle of the dual carriageway on the Roman Way, has captured the grey colour of the stone façade as well as giving us a view of what the graveyard looked like back then. In front of the church, in contrast to the busy road there is today, appears to be a rural country lane.

Outside the main west door stands a tree, a very old one, judging by the girth of the trunk.

Clue: the hand-written label on the back of the painting gives some vital information

If we turn the painting over, on the back there are more clues about its origin and leads into the history of the artist.

There’s some writing with the artist’s name, “Mr Litolff”, and a sentence showing that it was presented to the church by the artist’s great-nephew in 1960.

My search to discover more about the artist ended with the discovery of the death of a Lance Corporal of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps in 1916.

Local directories for Croydon provide details about the Litolff family.

In 1851, A A Litolff is listed as a pianoforte maker at 111 Church Street. In 1866, A A Litolff is described as a “Professor of Music”. In this entry his son, A A J Litolff, was also listed as living at the same address. He was described as an engineer.

A little more searching, and we can put names to the more formal, Victorian initials.

The father was Augustus Alexander Litolff, his son Augustus Alexander James.

Subsequently, AAJ had a son, David James, who in the early years of the 20th Century was listed as living at 4 Drummond Road. Later he, his wife Eliza and their son, Alexander David, moved to Pembury, Chelsham Road.

Alexander David Litolff, who was born January 10, 1897, in Drummond Road. After attending Archbishop Tenison’s School, he went on to become a student teacher at Dering Place School in South Croydon, which today is Howard Primary. In September 1915 he enrolled at Goldsmith’s College to further his teacher training, but soon after joined up to serve in the Great War, joining the Kings Royal Rifle Corps, 21st Battalion.

After his initial army training, Litolff and his new comrades sailed for France at the beginning of May 1916, embarking at Le Havre at 8.30am on the morning of May 6. It was a Saturday. Lance Corporal Litolff survived for just a few weeks on the front line. He was badly gassed and died on August 9 1916. He was five months short of his 20th birthday.

Memorial: the brass plaque at Howard Primary School,  which includes the name of student teacher Alex Litolff

The official war diary for his battalion states that on that date, they relieved the 15th Battalion Hampshire Regiment on a part of Flanders known as Ploegsteert Wood, part of the Ypres Salient. Litolff’s unit, the KRRC, was in position by 6.30am.

By late 1916, gas was often used as a weapon in this sector, with alarms being sounded regularly. When the attack happened that day, the stretcher-bearers could get Litolff no further than a field ambulance, where he died. He was buried in the Ferme Olivier Cemetery in Belgium.

The young aspiring teacher was mourned in Croydon and beyond. His name was etched on several memorials. He is remembered on the plaque at Goldsmiths College in New Cross. His name was on the brass plaque at his local church, Bartlett Street Methodist Church, but this memorial was moved to South Croydon United Church, Aberdeen Road, in 1977.

This brass plaque is especially poignant as it was erected by the teachers and children from the church’s Sunday School. “Alex” was a “scholar, valued helper and church member”.

The vicar of Croydon, Rev Pat McCormick, himself a Great War Chaplain, unveiled a plaque at Dering Place School containing the names of young men who lost their lives and who had been scholars there, together with two of their teachers. Alexander Litolff is on that list as a student teacher.

That ceremony took place on June 21, 1921. The memorial can still be viewed today in the school hall, as it was restored and blessed as part of the school’s centenary celebrations in 1998.

As to the exact identity of the artist who signed the church painting, it remains uncertain.

It seems very likely that it was Alexander’s grandfather, but I have no absolute proof. Given the artistic skills necessary to produce the Croydon Church painting of 1875, “Mr Litolff” surely painted other scenes and landscapes. Perhaps they still adorn someone’s wall or have been neglected and ended up in an attic?

Nonetheless, the discovery of a Victorian painting has uncovered another tale. I suspect there might yet be more.

Read more: The church fire that consumed a thousand years of history
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