Sunday, 11 November 2018

The Real Harriet Agnes McDougall


SPOILER ALERT!
This blog has been published on 11 November 2018 in order to coincide with the 100-year commemorations of the Armistice and the publication of my latest historical novel, Ghost Swifts, Blue Poppies and the Red Star. The following contains information from the book, which would reveal plot and certainly spoil your enjoyment!


The image on the front cover of my historical fiction novella, Ghost Swifts, Blue Poppies and the Red Staris how I pictured Harriet Agnes McDougall to have been in the immediate months following the Armistice on 11thNovember 1918. The life which I imagined for her is retold in this book. It is a work of fiction, although it has some basis in fact, which is outlined in this blog.

Harriet Agnes McDougall was a real person, being very distantly related to me (my first cousin, four times removed, to be precise). She was born Harriet Agnes Dengate in 1853 to James and Harriet Dengate (née Catt) and was baptised on the 8thMay 1853 in the parish church of Sedlescombe, East Sussex. 

St John's Church, Sedlescombe 

The 1861 census shows Harriet as an eight-year-old scholar, living with her parents and five siblings in Sedlescombe. Her father, James, having left the milling trade for which he (alongside all of his brothers) had been trained, was working as a ‘painter journeyman’.

Sedlescombe village


Harriet Agnes Dengate

This wonderful photograph (the only in existence, as far as I am aware) of Harriet was taken around 1867. On the reverse of the photo is written ‘Harriet Dengate, Uncle James’s eldest daughter.’ The photo was sent out to Pennsylvania, USA to Harriet’s cousins, Christopher and James Dengate, who had emigrated with their mother in 1856 following the death of their father, John Dengate. This, alongside several other pieces of documentation seems to show that Harriet was a well-regarded member of the Dengate family, appearing on several official documents over the years with a variety of different family members.

In 1881, twenty-seven-year-old Harriet is recorded living with her aunt, Sarah Jarvis (née Dengate), Sarah’s husband, Edward and another aunt, Elizabeth Dengate in Station Road, Etchingham, Sussex. Two years later, Harriet was witness to her brother, George William Dengate’s marriage to Sarah Isabella Hunt in Lewisham parish church and in 1901, when her second cousin, Harriet Elgar died, she was bequeathed her entire estate, totalling £799.

On the 6th September 1887, Harriet married John McDougall, a civil engineer. They married in St Mary’s Church, West Malling, Kent and witnesses to the occasion were Harriet’s sister, Naomi Dengate and her uncle by marriage, Edward Jarvis. Four years later, the couple were recorded as living in Woodland Cottage, Belle Grove in Welling, Kent with their two elder children, John Fraser (known as Fraser) and Malcolm. Also living with the family was a female servant, Louisa Perfect.

By 1901 the family had grown to include a third son, Edward Cecil and they were now living in a larger house at 98 Lee Road in Lewisham, on the outskirts of London. Harriet’s sister, Susannah Dengate was also with the family at the time of the census. The three McDougall boys attended Blackheath Proprietary School in London. A history of the school notes that Fraser was ‘one of the most prominent members’ of the 1901-1902 football team.

Ten years later the McDougalls are living in a larger still detached house named ‘Arlington’ (number 19) in Bromley Common, Kent. Fifty-seven-year-old John McDougall was employed as a Civil Engineer for London County Council and the three boys were all at university. Fraser was twenty-two-years-old and studying Civil Engineering at Goldsmith’s Institute, as was his youngest brother, eighteen-year-old Edward Cecil. Malcolm, twenty-one was attending Bromley School of Art studying chemistry, something which would have a significant and devastating bearing on his service in the First World War.

This snapshot of Harriet’s family in 1911, living in a decent house with her husband earning a good wage and her three boys all at university with bright futures in front of them, must have been everything, which she had ever desired. The far-away political alliances quietly forming around the world, which would ultimately lead to the First World War must have seemed inconsequential to Harriet in her comfortable life in Kent.

But then war did come. And the three brothers answered their country’s call, each joining a different regiment in the British Army. Malcolm signed up with the Royal West Kents; Edward enlisted with the London Regiment of the Queen’s Westminster Rifles and Fraser joined the Middlesex Regiment. Unfortunately, only Fraser’s military records exist among the ‘burnt’ files. These records state that he was living at 19 Bromley Common when he enlisted on the 4thDecember 1915, that he was aged 27 years and 8 months, and that he was five foot five inches with a chest measuring 35 inches.

At some point around the early months of the First World War, Harriet and John returned to Sedlescombe. Perhaps, at the age of sixty, John had retired from his job in London. The couple moved into Linton House, a spacious home overlooking the village green. Also living in the village were Harriet’s brother, John and his family and their siblings, Naomi and Herbert, both of whom had married a brother and sister also called Dengate (only very distantly related!). Given what was about to happen to Harriet, having three of her siblings living close by must have been a great comfort to her.

Linton House, Sedlescombe

Little is known about Harriet during the early years of the war, but from 1917 life became very difficult for her. Edward, her youngest son, had, since April 1916 been stationed in Macroom, County Cork, Ireland following the Easter Rising in and around Dublin, but was sent briefly to France and then on to Salonika, Greece in December 1916. Nine days after arriving in Salonika, on the 3rdJanuary 1917, Edward died. His cause of death is currently unknown, although around this time in Salonika, a large number of soldiers were succumbing to malaria. 

Having received the telegram that their youngest son had died, six months later Harriet and John received more devastating news: Malcolm had also been killed.

Although he had initially signed up as a private in the Royal West Kents, Malcolm was transferred to the Royal Engineer Brigade, specifically to P Company of the 4th Battalion, a gas cylinder company responsible for releasing poisonous gasses from the trenches against the German lines. They were appallingly nicknamed ‘The Suicide Company’. These Special Brigades had been created in March 1916, attracting both new recruits and, as in Malcolm’s case, transfers from other regiments where there was previous experience or knowledge of chemistry.

The newly formed Brigades were sent to Helfaut, France for their training. According to Donald Richter’s book, Chemical Soldiers, ‘Each day began with a half hour of quick-time marching, followed by a full day of drills, lectures, and practice, varied throughout the week…The pioneers endured the obligatory exposure to gas-filled chambers, long practice sessions with gas masks, physical drill, helmet drill, revolver drill, meteorological practice, frequent kit and arms inspections, trench digging, emplacement construction…’ Following their rudimentary training, the Special Brigades were sent to the front in mid-June 1916.

Richter provides an insightful account of the weeks leading up to the end of Malcolm’s life in P Company: ‘Under severe time constraints, [Major] Pollitt sent for P and G Companies from their Third Army fronts where the retreating enemy had just deprived them of targets. P Company, following its gas discharge at Arras, had just been withdrawn from the line for much needed rest but, on 4thApril, began a three-day route march southward to the area of Croisilles and Ecoust. Both companies spent most of three days slogging through snow and heavy rain. On the night of 6th April, wet and exhausted, they rushed up the line to support the short-notice Bullecourt operation of V Corps and I Anzac Corps… Having thus overcome the first-stage transport problems, Pollitt learned during the evening of 8th April that the promised infantry carrying parties were a hundred men short. Under these circumstances both G and P Companies, after a night of unloading and storing the drums and charges, negotiated three successive round-trips up the line, wrestling 320 of the 450 projectors into firing position. The next morning, the two companies, working under cover of the houses, carried the bombs from the crater to the centre of the village, and later that night, the rest of the way to the front. The projector shoot of 9/10th April was mechanically flawless and the wind a perfect west-southwest at five to ten mph. When the infantry went over the top, however, they encountered severe gunfire and were repulsed with heavy casualties. From the 7th to the 14th, both P and G Companies worked at the front, resetting and firing projectors and marching twelve miles to and from billets every night.’

Despite all of this arduous and highly dangerous work, Malcolm continued with P Company, also surviving a deadly attack on the 5th/6th May 1917, when G and P Companies were tasked with carrying projectors 250 yards from a drop-off point where wagons full of explosives were being emptied, to the firing point close to the frontline at Bullecourt. It was during this unloading that a chance shell landed close to the drop-off point, hitting the wagon containing propellant charges, which all exploded, causing many casualties. As soon as the initial explosion had occurred, the enemy began to launch a tirade of artillery at the area, sending the survivors running for cover in holes in the ground nearby. The Special Companies suffered heavy losses in this attack: 14 soldiers were killed from Z Company, 21 soldiers were killed from P Company and 9 men from G Company were killed. Many more were seriously injured and some of the dead were buried alive under tons of exploded earth. Malcolm survived this attack, but two months later he was not so fortunate.

On the 3rd July 1917, Malcolm had been working with his colleagues from P Company in the trenches in the area close to Hill Top Farm, when he retired to Hill Top Farm Trench, a short way behind the frontline. The precise location of the frontline can be seen in the photograph below.

Nathan Dylan Goodwin standing on the frontline

The trench suffered a direct shell hit, seriously wounding Malcolm and two others. Malcolm was taken by stretcher to the Essex Farm Advanced Dressing Station, where he died from his wounds the following day. He was buried in Essex Farm Cemetery, alongside his two comrades, James Bruce Kelso and J.W. Bennett. 

Malcolm McDougall's grave, Essex Farm Cemetery, 2018

The Essex Farm Advanced Dressing Station still stands in its original location and is where the Canadian war poet, John McCrae later wrote the famous poem, ‘In Flanders Fields.’

Essex Farm Dressing Station, 2018

The following month, Harriet’s sister, Naomi also received a telegram from the War Office to say that her son, James ‘Jim’ Dengate had been killed in Karachi, Pakistan.

Jim Dengate

The end of the war on the 11thNovember 1918 must have come as a great relief to Harriet and John McDougall, with their eldest son still serving in the army. Although the war was over, Fraser was still serving, being transferred in April 1919 to the Border Regiment. He had not returned home by the time that his father, John died on the 26thJuly 1919 at Linton House, having suffered heart failure. His death was reported three days later by Harriet’s brother, John Dengate and he was buried in St John’s Church, Sedlescombe on the 30thJuly. In the administration of John McDougall’s death, Harriet was bequeathed £650.

Fraser, having seen service in Cape Town, Hong Kong, Calcutta and Constantinople, managed to return home to Linton House the following month, as a surviving letter in his military records states: ‘I arrived in the UK on leave for 21 days on the 31stAug 19. Will you please let me know where to report on the expiry of my leave and’ [the rest of the letter is burnt].

The reply, enclosing a travel warrant for his journey was sent, instructing Fraser to go to the Commanding Officer of the Border Regiment in Carlisle. He was examined on the 22ndSeptember in The Castle, Carlisle and deemed to be ‘A1’. He also signed to say that he did not claim ‘to be suffering from a disability’ due to his military service. Two days later, at a dispersal unit in Crystal Palace, Fraser was finally demobilised and allowed to return home for good to Linton House.

At some later stage, Harriet’s brother-in-law, James Dengate and his surviving son, Frank built the war memorial inside St John’s Church, Sedlescombe where his son, Jim and Harriet’s two sons are commemorated alongside the rest of the men from the village killed in the war.

Sedlescombe War Memorial

Harriet and Fraser only continued to reside at Linton House for a short while after his return. It would appear that neither Harriet nor Fraser ever worked, being recorded on official documents without employment or as having ‘private means’. There is no evidence to suggest that Fraser ever returned to Civil Engineering. It seems that these ‘private means’ were dwindling and the large, decent homes, which they had been used to for many years could no longer be afforded. By 1921 they had left Sedlescombe and taken occupation of a much smaller second-floor flat in 66 Cambridge Road, Hastings, where they remained until 1926. By 1931 mother and son had moved again, this time half-a-mile away, to 111 Bohemia Road, another small and humble abode. Also living with them at this was Harriet’s spinster sister, Susannah Dengate.

111, Bohemia Road, Hastings, 2008

It was at this address that Harriet died at the age of 78 years, on the 2ndMarch 1933. She died of myocardial degeneration and mitral incompetence. Fraser reported her death the following day and she was buried in St John’s Church, Sedlescombe on the 6thMarch. There is unfortunately no memorial in the churchyard to her or to John.

Fraser McDougall continued to reside at 111 Bohemia Road with his aunt, Susannah until 1937 when he moved to 14 Wellington Road, Hastings. On the 1939 Register he is shown living there with three other single people of around his age (one of them a widow, another a widower). His occupation was listed as ‘private means’.

Fraser died on the 3rdMarch 1959 at St Helen’s Hospital, Hastings of ‘Ishemic heart disease’ (coronary heart disease), aged 70 years. His employment was again stated to be ‘no occupation’. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Hastings Cemetery, bringing a sad end to this line of the family.


Take a look at my YouTube channel, which has a video on some aspects of the real and fictional lives of Harriet Agnes McDougall.

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