The History of the Chelmsford War Memorial Website

This website was launched on 3rd September 2009, but my research into those men featured on it had started almost a decade before that.  

It began around 1992, when I was writing a book about Chelmsford during the Second World War. At that time I had first become aware that inside Chelmsford’s Civic Centre, on the landing wall of the main staircase, there were four bronze panels inscribed with the surnames, initials, regiments or ships of 359 men who died in the First World War, or the ‘Great War’ as it was originally termed. Those relatively unknown panels are the counterpart to the cenotaph outside the Civic Centre where each November Chelmsford’s Remembrance Sunday ceremony is held.

It was a few years later that a chance comment by one of my daughters prompted me to start researching those 359 First World War names: We were stood in Duke Street along with hundreds of others at the Remembrance Sunday service when she asked me ‘Who are we remembering daddy?’

I paused and pondered. Yes, I knew we were remembering men from Chelmsford who had died in both world wars, and yes, I knew the names of those from the First World War were recorded inside the Civic Centre, but no, I knew nothing else about them, and to be honest I felt slightly uncomfortable about that ignorance.

So from that innocent question I decided I would find out more about them, for myself, and perhaps later for others.

Having established that no records had survived about the commemorated men from the time when the bronze panels were made, my first task was to transcribe the details from those panels.

I then obtained a print out from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s database showing records of those servicemen which contained the word ‘Chelmsford’ to see what else I could find on each. In many cases I was able to trace the corresponding CWGC record for a man on the bronze panels, and from that I could discover their date of death, the unit they were serving with, sometimes their full name and next of kin. However, there were many names of the memorial for whom a CWGC record could not be found.

Encouraged by this partial success my next step, in retrospect very ambitious, was to read every copy of the Essex County Chronicle and Essex Weekly News for the First World War period (and a couple of yeas afterwards) and copy any news reports containing biographical information about Chelmsfordians killed. This took many months to do, and frequently I asked myself whether I should stop, but by then I was hooked, driven on by the satisfaction of finding out more and more information about more and more of the 359.

By that stage the internet, particularly genealogical websites containing military and census records, was containing more and more information that could be used to help build up details of the men’s families, where they lived and what they did.

The internet also became a vehicle to find and correspond with relatives of the men, and each year as the internet increased in popularity more information came flowing in.

By early 2008 I had created biographies for the majority of the 359, though there were a few which I could not progress beyond the scant details on the bronze panels - they remain to this day. I also discovered errors in the details on those panels and instances where the same man had been recorded more than once, slightly differently. I also identified a number of men who appeared to me to have been ‘missed’ when details of the 359 were finalised.

Having toyed with the idea of writing a book about the 359 I decided instead to create a website as this would allow constant revision as new information came to light. I was conscious then that the publication of the 1911 census on its centenary was only a couple of years away and that would provide a wealth of new information to add to the biographies.

When the website was launched in September 2009 it contained biographies of almost all of the 359 names listed on memorial plus a history of the memorial and a page about the disproportionately large number of fallen from a street in Chelmsford - South Primrose Hill.

Since then the website has grown to encompass those commemorated at St. John’s Church in Moulsham, St. Mary’s Church in Widford, and All Saints’ Church in Springfield.

In the period since 3rd September 2009 all the First World War biographies have been updated as more and more information and photographs have come to light, often through relatives getting in touch.

On 6th September 2010 pages were added for eight men who I felt had been ‘missed’ from the 359 named on Chelmsford Civic Centre’s First World War memorial. Since then further pages have been added for others ‘missed’, a process that has revealed to me the complexity of determining whether a person should be added or not. Do they have to have lived in Chelmsford? If they did not, then should they be included if their spouse or parents lived there? and so on.

The following month photographs of the fallen were added to the home page for the first time. Since then additional photographs have been added whenever found or provided. October 2010 also saw the launch of the news page on the site, and by then a page had been added to show relatives commemorated by the websites.

On 11th March 2011 counterpart websites for those with Chelmsford connections who died as a result of the Second World War and other conflicts were launched.

On 16th October 2011 the ‘Home Sweet Home’ page was added, enabling readers to see which of the commemorated men belonged to which streets in Chelmsford. This was further developed by me taking photographs of all the surviving houses where the 359 lived, and I found the properties a form of connection and continuity from the present to the past. I hope that the centenary of the war will use this theme of connection.

In June 2012 a page for a man I had originally thought ‘missed’ was removed after his relatives confirmed to me he had never lived in Chelmsford.

In April and May 2013 pages new pages were added to record those men who died in Chelmsford during the First World War (often visitors to the town) and those who were buried there, who had not already been recorded on the website.

Readers of the website will probably be surprised at the number of those commemorated who died from illness, accident, or suicide, rather than at the enemy’s hand.

On 12th May 2013 new pages were added for the Springfield, Moulsham and Widford war memorials, including the addition of biographies of men not already covered by the Civic Centre War Memorial. I toyed with the idea of spreading to Broomfield and Great Baddow, but refrained from doing so as I wanted to restrict the website’s coverage to the Chelmsford Borough Council area that remained until 1974; an area that excluded Broomfield and Great Baddow.

On 26th August 2013 I began a programme to review and update the biographies of the 359. It also included a review of 22 others who had been ‘missed’ by the memorial. The mammoth task of checking and updating all those entries, including moving them all to a two column format, adding in dozens more photographs and maps, was completed on 14th February 2014.

During that review period, on 15th September 2013,  I added calendar page to the website, while a page showing the burial or commemoration places of the fallen was also added during the year.

On 10th October 2013 the website became a a partner in the First World War Centenary Partnership, whose logo you can see on this page.

The availability of the website to anyone with internet access has led to correspondence with people all over the world and has caused some unexpected and interesting outcomes. Three spring to mind.

The first was in late November 2013 when the Sutton Guardian newspaper reported that an unidentified war memorial had been found dumped at the Belmont Conservative Club. The memorial included the name Bernard Beggin (and that of his brother). Researchers who read the newspaper report found the Bernard Beggin’s page on this website and from it deduced that the memorial had come from the Provincial Police Orphanage.

The second was in January 2014 when the West Australian newspaper carried a story about a message in a bottle. Back in 1916 three soldiers, leaving the country on a troopship bound for the war, wrote a message in a bottle and threw it overboard. The message read: “Dear friend, would you the finder of this message be so kind as to write and let our people know that you found (it) . . . and say that we are having a grand time and in the best of health and on our way to Egypt. By doing so friend we should be very grateful and only too pleased to hear from you saying you have found it also we may have the pleasure of thanking you again." The bottle was washed ashore in Australia and the message and bottle had remained in the family of the finder for almost a century when they contacted the Australian War Memorial, the newspaper, and Australian National Archives to try and find out more about the men who had written the message. One of those men was Henry Egryn Williams, who was badly wounded in France and evacuated to England for hospital treatment. He did not survive his wounds and died in Chelmsford and was buried in Chelmsford. His website entry provides a counterpart to the newspaper report from the other side of the world.

The third was in February 2014 when, as a result of this website, relatives of Walter Charles Little were put in touch with villagers in south-western Wales who were planning on including his name on a memorial to be unveiled in August 1914 in Eglwyswrw.

On 15th February 2014 the previous contents of this history page were archived and replaced with this simpler narrative, while a page on the unidentified was added. By then the home page included photographs of the faces 46 of the 359 men who have pages on the First World War section of the website. It would be great to increase that number significantly if at all possible. Meanwhile the Second World War section of the website has 74 photographs on its home page.

On 22nd February 2014 I identified 41 men who were ‘missed’ by the Moulsham War Memorial and have added them to the Moulsham section of this website. I also added a series of pages giving the names and addressed of over 1600 men from Chelmsford who are known to have served with the army, navy and air force.

On 3rd March 2014 my research was used by the Essex Chronicle to sketch out the lives of some of the men recorded on the Mid Essex Technical College & School of Art Memorial. Their article reported that Anglia Ruskin University, successor to the college was looking to re-dedicate the memorial and put in on display at the campus in Rivermead. I was able to put a relative of one of those commemorated by the memorial in touch with university.

On 16th March 2014 I completed the review of all of the existing webpages for the fallen of the First World War. Work continues on approximately 40 others who may have been ‘missed’ by Chelmsford’s memorials.

In August 2014 material from the website was used by an exhibition at Chelmsford Library commemorating the ceneterary of the war planned for Chelmsford Library. The following month I exhibited and spoke at a centenary event at Hylands House. In November 2014 material from the webiste was used at an exhibition at teh High Chelmer Shopping Centre in Chelmsford and the same month I exhibited at Galleywood's centerary event at the village's heritage centre.

On 31st March 2015 the entire website was re-launched with a new design and improved ease of movement across it through the use of drop down lists across the top of each page.

In the summer of 2015 Chelmsford City Council announced that road names on the new Beaulieu estate would be named after some of those men included on this website.

On 16th August 2015 a page was added for the Hoffmann Manufacturing Company's war memorial.