Albert Hatswell: ‘The boy hero’
by Bob Davenport
‘Londoners could hardly hope that the weather of Easter Sunday would last over two days; but though yesterday afternoon was cloudy and almost sunless the morning was warm and bright, and the complete absence of rain throughout the day attracted a great number of people out of doors.’ So wrote The Times the day after Easter Bank Holiday Monday – 13 April – 1914.
One of those Londoners out and about on the Monday was 12-year-old Albert Hatswell. He lived with his mother, his 13-year-old brother, Walter, and his two sisters, Alice and Mabel, aged 5 and 10, in Hatton House, a gloomy tenement building in Hornsey Road, Holloway. Another brother had died three years earlier, aged 11 months. His father, George, a labourer, had died not long before that. The family were poor – they had been in and out of the Islington workhouse on several occasions when Albert was just 3 – and they now survived on the 12 shillings a week that his mother, Clarissa, earned as a cleaner at the Great Northern Hospital and her allowance of 6 shillings a week from the parish – in total equivalent to about £93 a week today.
Bertie – as Albert was known – had left home at about 7.30 a.m., heading eventually for Hampstead Golf Club, where he earned a little money as a caddie when on holiday from St Mark’s School in Grove Road, Tollington Park. His mother had sent him on his way with twopence to buy a coconut, promising to make coconut toffee when he returned.
At about 8.15 he was in the Holloway Road, near the Nag’s Head pub at the junction with the Seven Sisters Road / Parkhurst Road, when a whistle sounded and a runaway horse appeared from the direction of Highbury. Harnessed to a heavy four-wheel van laden with manure, the horse had been startled by a passing tramcar while being led out from near the Jones Bros department store, about 300 yards away, and had bolted, with the driver unable to keep hold of the reins. A tramway inspector near the junction stepped into the road to try to stop the horse, but Bertie, who was nearer, dashed off the pavement and got to it first, seizing hold of the nearside check rein. Witnesses’ assessments of the horse’s then speed ranged from 5–6 miles per hour to ‘a sharp trot’ (about 8–9 m.p.h.) to ‘a gallop’ (about 25–30 miles per hour).
Bertie, succeeded in pulling the horse to the near side of the road, but he was not strong enough to control it and it swerved on to the pavement, dragging him with it and crushing his head between the shaft of the van and one of the tramway section boxes, killing him instantly as a tramcar stop sign fouled the van’s nearside front wheel and brought the horse to a halt.
As people gathered round, Walter Hatswell, passing by, went to see what had happened, heard someone say ‘He is dead,’ and looked and saw that it was his brother.
At the inquest two days later, Bertie’s mother told the coroner that her son had been a tall, healthy boy who could pass for 14 and seemed not to know fear. He had previously stopped a horse running away with a builder’s cart, and had been given twopence by the driver as a reward. He gave the money to his mother, who asked, ‘What is that for?’ He said, ‘Twopence – just stopped a horse.’ She told him he should not do that sort of thing or he would get injured, and he replied, ‘Well, I can’t see little kids killed, can I?’
The funeral took place on the following Saturday under ‘a brilliant sun, the refulgent rays of which seemed to smile upon the little dead hero during his last journey between Holloway and Finchley’, as the Islington Daily Gazette put it – adding that ‘The spontaneous act of this little fellow, courageous, unselfish, truly British, seemed to have stirred the public mind to an almost inappreciable degree.’ The Daily Mail reported that ‘Five thousand people at least were thronged in the immediate neighbourhood of his home, and for almost two miles onward, right to Highgate Archway, the pavement on either side was filled with a waiting crowd. They were ten deep in places; it would be difficult to estimate their number, but they were the population of a small town.’ Street hawkers offered memorial cards, and hundreds bought them. The news-vendors and flower-sellers of the Holloway Road had fastened black and white bows to their stalls and baskets, and a black and white rosette with streamers marked the spot where Bertie had died. Trams were stopped, and mounted policemen cleared a way for the hearse – drawn by four horses – a carriage laden with wreaths, and three coaches, escorted for part of the way by a guard of honour from the Tottenham Boys’ Association.
At Islington Cemetery a contingent of Boy Scouts met the procession and followed it to the graveside, where a crowd of several hundred had gathered (about ten thousand according to the Manchester Guardian). Eight of Bertie’s fellow caddies from the Hampstead Golf Club carried his coffin from the hearse to the grave. The many wreaths and flowers came not only from Bertie’s friends and neighbours but from as far away as Cork, from the MPs for East Islington and Islington North and the board of guardians of the Islington workhouse, from staff at the Great Northern Hospital, and from anonymous well-wishers. Much remarked upon in the press was a bunch of primroses from three young girls from Fleet in Hampshire with a message to Bertie’s sisters: ‘We read of the sad death of your little brother, and we live amidst the primroses. So mother said if we picked them she would send them for us to you to put on your dear brother’s grave. Our names are Hilda, Ethel, and Dolly Windiate.’
The story of Bertie’s death was widely reported – sometimes perhaps with added colour. A long account that appeared in the New Zealand press told how ‘a frenzied horse came pelting down the road with a heavy manure cart clumsily swaying behind it from side to side. Women screamed and gathered their children to them. A policeman made a futile snatch as the horse thundered by. All eyes concentrated on a group of children at play, unconscious of their danger, near the Nag’s Head Public-house’ – little of which appeared in the Islington Daily’s Gazette’s lengthy account of the testimony given to the inquest. In Victoria in British Columbia, the Daily Colonist, on its ‘News and Stories for the Children’ page, told how ‘The grave has just closed over a twelve-year-old boy, Albert Hatswell, who yielded up his life with a chivalrous gallantry which thrills us with pity and pride.’ Australian press reports commented, ‘The story of his death – a moving blend of pathos and gallantry – makes one think of our most heroic V.C. holders, and of the captured British bugler who, when requested by Napoleon to sound a retreat, replied that he had never been taught it.’ The Dundee Evening Telegraph reproduced some musings from C. B. Fry’s Magazine:
Was it that little boy’s strength – the strength of twelve and a half years – or was it his heart – the heart that was given him by some ancestor who was probably typical of the Englishman at Waterloo or Trafalgar – that arrested a disaster? Are we stretching the point – who shall say?
We only know this … that little Albert Hatswell typified all that was best in the character of the English nation – and that we hope is still best … A chance was offered him, and he took it, He took it without flinching because he thought it was his duty.
At least we like to think so.
In France, six years later, a scout song, ‘Les Excuses de l’aspirant’, by Jacques Sevin and Théodore Botrel, in which a scout apologises for being unable to attend camp because he is dying from injuries sustained in preventing someone being killed by a car, was dedicated to Bertie’s memory.
Learning that the family’s circumstances meant that Bertie would otherwise be buried in a common grave, the editor of the Islington Daily Gazette had asked the undertaker instead to arrange for a private one, and launched an appeal to raise £20 (equivalent to about £2,100 today) for the plot and a suitable memorial. The undertaker, H. M. Repuke of Upper Street, gave his firm’s services without charge.
Donations came both from individuals and from groups of workmates, such as the Holloway tramway staff, employees of the billiard department of W. Jelks & Sons, and ‘the Girls of the British Syphon Works, Barnsbury’. Arsenal Football Club gave the use of its ground for a benefit match in which Islington Borough Council beat Shoreditch Borough Council 4–2, watched by a crowd of about a thousand, with some £10 being raised. John Watt, the headmaster of St Mark’s School, sent 16s. 6d. collected from Bertie’s schoolfriends and commented, ‘The brothers have been scholars here for about seven years, and I may say they were exceedingly good boys, always anxious to help their widowed mother.’ ‘Old Schoolmaster’, writing from the Holloway Youths’ Institute, said, ‘I knew [Albert] and his brother during the past twelvemonth. They were both regular attenders here at our evening trade classes, well behaved and diligent. The younger boy was a particular favourite of his teacher.’ The Islington board of guardians unanimously agreed to appeal to the Carnegie Hero Fund for a grant to help the family.
As a result of the Gazette’s appeal, a monument was erected over the grave in June 1914. But then in October the paper reported that ‘the bronze horse surmounting the broken column which forms part of the memorial to the “Holloway Boy Hero,” Albert Hatswell, has been stolen.’ The horse, which had been given to Mrs Hatswell by a friend, was one of a pair based on marble statues of a groom restraining a horse by Guillaume Coustou the Elder. Now the column on which the horse had been fixed is missing too.
What remains of the memorial is in an area which for the last quarter-century or so has been managed to maintain its wildlife value, with access to graves being kept clear only if requested by the graves’ owners, who are the people legally responsible for the upkeep of memorials. But the cemetery staff hope to be able to relevel Bertie’s memorial in the spring. It seems it would take another appeal to be able to do more.
• Daily Colonist (Victoria, BC), 21 June 1914 (‘A Great Little Hero’)
• Daily Mail, 15 April 1914 (‘The Widow’s Son’), 20 April 1914 (‘Crowds at Child’s Funeral’)
• Dundee Evening Telegraph, 12 May 1914 (‘A Sportsman’)
• Evening Star (Dunedin), 8 June 1914 (‘A Little Hero Who Gave Up His Life to Save Others’)
• ‘Horses Restrained by Grooms, known as The Marly Horses’, the Louvre website
• Islington Daily Gazette and North London Tribune, 14 April 1914 (‘Killed at Holloway’), 16 April 1914 (‘Holloway Boy’s Pluck’), 17 April 1914 (‘The Little Holloway Hero’), 20 April 1914 (‘The Little Holloway Hero’s Burial’), 21 and 22 April 1914 (‘Holloway Hero Memorial Fund’), 24 April 1914 (‘The Memorial to the Holloway Boy Hero’), 27 April 1914 (‘Holloway Hero Memorial Fund’), 28 April 1914 (‘Holloway Boy Hero’), 6 October 1914 (‘Desecration at Islington Cemetery’)
• Manchester Guardian, 16 April 1914 (‘Inquest on a Heroic Boy’), 20 April 1914 (‘The Public and the Boy Hero’)
• The Register (Adelaide), 26 May 1914 (‘Public Homage to a Brave Lad’)
• The Times, 14 April 1914 (‘The Bank Holiday’, ’A London Boy Hero’), 16 April 1914 (‘Brave Boy’s Record’), 20 April 1914 (‘A Brave Boy’s Funeral’)
• Western Gazette, 24 April 1914 (‘Holloway’s Hero: Funeral of Little Albert Hatswell’)
• Western Herald (Bourke, NSW), 27 June 1914 (‘Boy Without Fear’)