Tragedy continued to stalk Polhill family even after the war

WE WILL REMEMBER THEM: The Polhill family is listed twice on the Croydon Minster Roll of Honour of those who died in the 1914-1918 war. But as DAVID MORGAN’s researches have uncovered, even one of the sons who survived that First World War was soon to meet a tragic end

In 1918, Arthur and Ellen Polhill, who lived at 14 St John’s Grove, opposite Croydon Parish Church, were already in mourning for sons William and Herbert, who had lost their lives in the Great War. But the family’s capacity for grief was about to be tested all over again.

Even once the armistice was in place on November 11, 1918, the Polhill family would not avoid further tragedy.

Leonard, their eldest son, who was born in 1886, went out to Australia with two of his brothers in 1912. He worked on a farm in the north of New South Wales with Herbert.

Leonard signed up for army service in February 1916 and was placed in the 1st Field Butchery Unit. This was not a bloodthirsty group which terrorised the Germans, but a branch of the service and catering unit, vital to keep an army’s troops well fed.

Arthur Polhill ran a butcher’s shop in Croydon when Leonard was growing up. Back in 1878, an advert in the Croydon Guardian informed its readers of WH Polhill, Pork Butchers, of 134 Church Street. Sausages were fresh each day and German sausages were made on the premises. They also sold “superior homemade pork pies”.

In 1886, when WH Polhill, died, their father Arthur took over the business.

William Polhill and Herbert Polhill’s names appear on the Croydon Roll of Honour in the Minster, as sons of the town who were killed during the war. Leonard’s name is not there because he survived the war. Being involved in the butchery unit did not bring him into direct conflict with the enemy.

His service record shows that he ended the war on Salisbury Plain in a camp for the Australian Army. He wasn’t there all the time, however, as additional papers testify.

Signed up: Leonard Polhill’s papers, sourced from the Australian military archive, show how he was deployed to make best use of his butchery skills

He was granted leave, with pay, from June 13 to August 13, 1919, to attend Mr RW Henson’s farm for harvest time. The address of the farm was given as Coldharbour Farm, Waddon, Croydon, Surrey. There must have been connections with the Polhills there.

The biggest surprise in Leonard’s army papers, though, was one form dated April 5, 1919. It was a record of his marriage, in Croydon.

At the Providence Chapel, West Street, Croydon, Leonard Polhill, aged 32, bachelor, married Florence Bertha Heasman, aged 25. She lived at 11, Eldridge Road, Croydon.

Wedding day: Leonard and Florence Polhill were married in Providence Chapel, which is still on West Street today

Under the auspices of the Baptist church they were married by Walter Brooks, the minister there. After Leonard had completed his harvest job at Coldharbour Farm, the newly-weds sailed for Australia.

There was even a note in the local paper to welcome them back after “Len” had been away “battling the wily Hun”.

Nambucca and Bellinger News, Friday October 10, 1919: “Pte Len Polhill, of Congarinni, who has been away battling the wily Hun for 3¼ years, returned to Macksville on Friday last. He was accompanied by his wife who he married in England.”

The couple’s hopes and dreams lasted but a few months.

At the beginning of February, their first baby was born, but by the end of the same month, Florence was a widow. On Tuesday February 24, at 2.30 in the afternoon, Leonard was felling a tree. A large portion of that tree fell on him and he died within minutes.

The local paper’s account says: “The remains were accorded a military funeral on Wednesday afternoon, the burial taking place on the Methodist portion of the Macksville cemetery.

“Much sympathy is felt for his widow in her sorrowful bereavement.”

Further correspondence in Leonard’s military record reveals that Florence returned to England. She had written a letter to the Officer in Charge of Base Records in Sydney to ask that her late husband’s medals, to which she was entitled, could be sent to England as they had not been issued at the time of Leonard’s fatal accident.

This application had a date stamp of December 1923 on it. Nothing in the file indicates if this medal request was successful.

Farm service: Leonard Polhill’s military service record shows how he was given leave of absence in the summer of 1919 to work on a farm in Waddon

Ellen and Arthur Polhill had now lost three of their sons. A fourth, Owen Charles, born in 1896, had also enlisted.

Evidence for Owen’s service record comes from a note written by his mother Ellen and contained in the records for William Henry Polhill. The Australian Army had written to William’s mother as the next of kin to confirm the details of her son’s death as it was recorded on the National Roll of Honour.

Question 7 on the form asked, “Any other biographic details likely to be of interest to the historians of the AIF of his regiment?” Ellen replied, “Another brother, Lt Owen Charles Polhill, served in France, signing up when he was 19 in 1915. He was wounded at that age and in 1918 was awarded the Military Cross for bravery and fine leadership. He served three years.”

The Military Cross is the second-highest award for valour among British Armyofficers, after the Victoria Cross.

Owen is listed in the book Croydon and the Great War as serving in the Royal Fusiliers.

He lived on into his eighties, and died in 1979.

The Polhill family of St John’s Grove also had four daughters, Margaret, Elsie, Dorothy and Norah.

Arthur, the father died in 1920, and his wife, Ellen, in 1945.

The family sacrifice in the cause of the Great War was heartbreaking.

Read more: Brothers in arms: Polhill family’s second sad wartime sacrifice
Read more: Wartime tragedy that devastated one Croydon family
Read more: How Corporal Luff’s cross became a symbol for all Croydon

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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email
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