As a youngster in the church choir, I would annually sit in the Remembrance Day Service at All Saints, Turvey and be struck by the list of names read out during the service. Without doubt, I was always a little puzzled, as one of the men honoured bore my family name and was inscribed on the village war memorial. I knew very little about Frederick Smith Hilson, other than he had died in World War 1 and apart from this, my interest in my relationship to him had never been more than a passing curiosity. Also, for a family of good story tellers, it now seems remarkable that any stories about him have not been passed on by word of mouth.
In 1988, I started to research the Hilson family history, whereby I was fortunate to trace Hilsons in Turvey back to 1771 through the parish records. In Easter 2003, we decided to take a family holiday to Northern France and in preparation for this, we started to plan where we could visit in the surrounding area and it is at this point, that I became curious about Frederick Smith Hilson, who I learned was buried in Etaples military cemetery.
So, who was he? It appears that he was a regular village lad from a very large family. He was the son of Samuel Hilson and Mary Ann, who had fourteen children in all, twelve of whom survived. My great grandfather, George was the second eldest son and Frederick was the second youngest son. Samuel and Mary Ann are recorded on a number of census records. They seem to have moved around the village from census to census but in essence, Samuel always worked on the local farms, either as a herdsman or a farm labourer and Mary Ann is recorded in 1871 as a lace maker.
In the 1891 census, the family are living in Carlton Road where Samuel is a farm labourer and Frederick is only 6 years old, living in the family home with seven other siblings and his parents. In 1901, we learn that he is a bakers’ boy, aged 16 and living in Cottage Lodge. At this time, he is living with his older brother Samuel and his younger brother Ernest, as well as his parents. In 1911, the family unit is the same; Samuel (aged 64) and Mary (aged 65) are now living at Picts Hill Farm with Samuel aged 32, Frederick aged 26 and Ernest aged 22. Frederick and Ernest are both recorded as “working on farm at home”.
Frederick’s medal card shows very little detail, but we know that he was in the 4th Battalion of the Bedfordshire Regiment, he joined up on the 17th September 1915, he was probably a rifleman and that he died of his wounds sustained in Flanders, at Etaples Military Hospital on July 18th 1917, aged 32. I sometimes wonder who received that telegram at the gate of Picts Hill Farm and opened it to read those first feared words of “Deeply regret to inform you…”
Today Etaples Military cemetery is vast; the memorial itself is simple but stunning, surrounded by row upon row of Portland stone graves that stand in neat lines, interweaved by pristine lawns. The whole experience of visiting his grave was extremely humbling, especially as I began to realise that I was probably the only member of the Hilson family ever to have visited the grave. Many stones had no inscriptions other than name, rank, regiment and date, but surprisingly Frederick’s did. At the bottom of the stone, there were inscribed just three words, “Peace, perfect peace”. It appears that families could ask for an inscription if they wished but initially were asked to pay a small fee, with a maximum of 66 characters. Due to public pressure about the payment, the fee was later withdrawn (around 1920), with a suggestion of a voluntary contribution instead. We do not know whether Samuel and Mary paid for this inscription, which on a farm labourer’s pay would have been costly, but it obviously gave them comfort to use the words taken from the hymn of the same name, written by Edward Bickersteth and inspired by Isaiah 26.3.
We can only guess the aftermath that Frederick’s death had on this large village family and the enormous impact that the deaths of all the men commemorated on the war memorial had on the village as a community; ordinary men who made the ultimate sacrifice.
Fredericks’ father, Samuel Hilson, my great, great grandfather, died on February 21st 1923, just six years after his son. He is buried in Turvey Cemetery. It is both tragic and poignant that the inscription on his stone completes the inscription on his son’s stone, many miles away in a cemetery in Northern France;
“Peace, perfect peace, with loved ones far away”.
NB. Frederick’s name was read out at the Tower of London Roll of Honour in November 2014. It was a very poignant moment for us as a family to witness this, surrounded by the beautiful art installation of the ceramic poppies.
i) Sister Elsie Tranter, an Australian nurse, has well documented diaries which paint a picture of Etaples military hospital at the time just before Frederick’s death. She records entries in her diary from March to July 1917.
ii) Bickersteth, Edward The hymn, ‘Peace, Perfect Peace’, was written in 1875, and it was subsequently published in 324 hymnals.