Brent and the First World War

Using primary sources found in the rich collections held at Brent Museum and Archives, this online exhibition reveals a snapshot of how the First World War (1914-1918) affected the lives of five individuals who were born or lived in what is now the London Borough of Brent. Real lives were altered forever in different ways by the conflict. Explore their stories.

Charles Edward Bowen

Charles Edward Bowen was 28 when he enlisted into the army as a Rifleman in the 5th (City of London) Battalion (London Rifle Brigade) in 1915. He lived in Leighton Gardens in Willesden and worked as Senior Assistant Librarian at the library in Willesden Green.
On 3 June 1915 his enlistment is noted in the Willesden Public Library Committee’s meeting minutes and on 24 June 1915 it is agreed that the library may consider hiring a female assistant, given that they were short-staffed in Bowen’s absence. Usually, a woman would not have been employed in this role, but this time an exception was made as the lady in question was the daughter of an existing member of staff.

Bowen died of wounds gained in action in May 1917, in the Second Battle of Arras, France. He was 30 years old. The library minutes from 7 June 1917 note the loss of his life in action and conclude that the Library Committee should write to his parents offering their sympathies. It was decided that a plaque would be made in his honour and placed in the library where he had worked for 16 years.

Mabel Comben

Mabel Comben joined the Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs), at the age of 23, three months after war was declared. A month later her mother Mary signed up and two years later her younger sister Ethel joined. The VAD scheme was set up in 1909 to provide medical support in times of war and by 1914 46,000 people were serving. By the end of the war they numbered 90,000. Mabel would have carried out a number of tasks including general nursing, first aid, clerical work and kitchen duties. VADs main roles were to support trained nursing staff and help to keep hospitals and ambulances running, both at home and abroad. Mabel would have almost certainly volunteered her time at one of the local hospitals in Brent.

She died aged 36 after a few days of illness and a year later her family church, Park Lane Wesleyan Church in Wembley, opened the Mabel Comben Memorial Hall.

Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Pinkham

Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Pinkham moved to Willesden in the 1870s and after a successful career in construction, he served for many years on the Willesden Urban District Council and Middlesex County Council; he gained the title of Middlesex Alderman in 1907.
The outbreak of the First World War saw Pinkham’s growing involvement with the Willesden tribunal board for conscientious objectors, which sat locally in Willesden and at Middlesex County Hall. Military appeals tribunals were set up under the Military Service Act of 1916. Their records provide unique and poignant insights into the motives of the conscientious objectors. These are now freely available to consult at The National Archives. Pinkham undertook this role with a heavy heart, as many of the men that he had to send to war were men that he had known and worked with over the years. Pinkham felt that it was the worst job he had ever had in his life. However, he found resolve in the duty he had to perform because his two sons, Charlie and Archie, had been enlisted and were already active in the war. During the war Pinkham gave his time unreservedly and without salary to be at the disposal of the government; among other services, he swore in new recruits twice a day.

Edith Knight

Edith Knight lived at 69 Ivy Road, Cricklewood for her entire life, and grew up during the First World War. Amongst her belongings, now held in Brent Archives, a wallet was discovered in which Edith had kept a series of letters written to her by her father when he was serving overseas during the First World War. From December 1914 to July 1918 he sent thirteen letters to Edith, who he affectionately addresses by her nickname “Fluff”.
Fluff’s father George Knight was a cab driver in Cricklewood and enlisted into the army as an ambulance driver shortly after the outbreak of war.
For the most part, the letters overlook stories of war. It is only in the penultimate letter that he refers to the war directly with the fact that all the soldiers had respirators like the ones she had told him they made at school. Fluff is likely to have been aware of the number of children at school whose fathers did not return from the war. However, for her the story ended happily: George Knight returned to the family home in Cricklewood and went back to life as a cab driver.

Charles Ernest Garforth

Charles Ernest Garforth was born in Willesden Green in 1891. He was one of the first soldiers in the First World War to be awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces. During the rest of his long life his family say that he never lost his love for his regiment or his pride in being recognised for his bravery.
On 23 August 1914, his troop found themselves almost surrounded and held up by a wire fence. Under heavy machine gun fire Garforth ran forward, cutting the wire and enabling his troop to escape to safety. He then went on to display bravery twice more a few weeks later saving a number of his fellow soldiers from certain death.
On 23 August 2014, one hundred years after his first act of gallantry, a commemorative paving stone was laid at Letchmere Road in Willesden Green honouring his courage.