Sergeant-Major George Simmers

My sister died fifteen years ago, and last week her husband sent me scans of some of the older family photos she had put long ago into a box.

The prize piece was a family group, in the centre of which was this smart man, in civvies but with something of a military air.

He is my grandfather, George Simmers. The photo was probably taken in 1912 or 1913, when he had left the Army after twenty-one years in the Royal Engineers, mostly in Hong Kong. When he left he was a Sergeant-Major. His Army record gives an account of his qualifications, mostly in lithography. He was in Hong Kong at the time when its complex waters were being mapped, so I suspect that his lithographic work may have been in connection with this project.

On leaving the Army he married my grandmother and started his own stationer’s business in Manor Park, East London, but in 1915 he would re-enlist in the Army. Very soon he was chosen for a commission. I found the paperwork relating to this at the National Archives. Technically he had to leave the Army as an Other Ranks, before re-joining as an officer. The paperwork inspired by this apparently simple operation makes a huge file, as the transfer had to be ritually approved by department after department.

I have not been able to find out much about his wartime career, except that it probably involved quartermaster duties. In 1918, as I’ve blogged before, he was transferred to No 3 Western Aircraft Repair Depot in Gloucestershire.

(c) IWM (Imperial War Museums); Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

(This painting is of a Southern Aircraft Repair depot, not the Gloucestershire one.)

Here’s the whole family group that I snipped his photo from:

The little boy is my father. Four or five years old, wouldn’t you say? Which is why I date this photo to 1912-13, since he was born in 1908. The older woman holding his picture book is probably his grandmother, with whom he spent much of his childhood, in Gillingham. His mother, Florence (I think she is the woman in spectacles, back left) was a nurse, but not, from what I can gather, a very motherly type and glad to depute child-rearing duties. The woman back right is I think my Aunt Win, Florence’s sister. The elderly gent in the smoking hat is, I think (but I am not certain) William Chapman, Florence’s father, and my great-grandfather. The 1891 census connects him to the naval training establishment at H.M.S. Pembroke in Chatham. I shall try to research further

This picture, plus a few scraps of records in the archives, is almost all I know of my grandfather, who died nine years before I was born. Except that I have the copy of a Kipling anthology that belonged to my father. This has the inscription:

To Graham,
With fond love & wishes for a happy and prosperous future.
Always do right and you will be happy.

Is this his father’s writing? Maybe inscribing a gift which either marks his leaving school at sixteen or the time when he joined the Merchant Navy? In the family photo he looks a bewildered little chap, so I’ll redress the balance with a picture from his later naval career. In the Second World War he captained minesweepers, and earned the D.S.C with bar.

Family photos are strange. I have a blood connection with these people, but their lives were very different from mine. George Simmers was the son of an Aberdeen policeman, became an office boy for a while, joined the Army and did well. Then in wartime he became an officer and ‘temporary gentleman’. It’s an impressive life. My father, too, distinguished himself in war. As for me, well, I’ve read lots of books.

6 Comments

  1. Posted January 17, 2021 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

    What a fantastic find!

  2. Posted January 17, 2021 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    Always fascinating these photographs aren’t they? My own maternal grandfather living in a Birmingham Back to Back entered WW1 as a private in February 1915 – and was discharged in May 1915 with, the discharge papers say, scoliosis (curvature of the spine). I have just one photograph of him – the standard studio photo in his uniform – and that’s it. He died in 1926, twenty years before I was born. What else did he do during the war I wonder? His wife, my grandmother, worked in Kynoch’s arms factory. She died in 1919, probably of the “Spanish” flu. These days it seems strange not to know your grandparents but the aftermath of WW1 has meant a lot of my generation never got to meet them.

  3. Tom Deveson
    Posted January 17, 2021 at 10:03 pm | Permalink

    As always, a very interesting and involving piece to read. Thank you!

  4. janevsw
    Posted January 17, 2021 at 10:39 pm | Permalink

    If you have William Chapman’s name and place of birth his naval record should be relatively easy to track down – happy to do it if you’d like.

    • Posted January 18, 2021 at 9:09 am | Permalink

      Thanks for the offer, Jane. Marion and I will be chasing his record in the next couple of days. If we don’t find anything, I’ll call on your assistance.

  5. Sally Parry
    Posted January 18, 2021 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    Wonderful pictures and essay. My mother’s father Robert Hardy was in the quartermasters corp for the US Army during WWI. I don’t know much about his service, except that he had severe appendicitis right before he was to ship out. He was hospitalized and operated on, so I think he thought (hoped?) he wouldn’t have to go overseas, but he did. I know he ended the war in Paris.


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