The Sherwood Foresters billeted in Harpenden, 1914-1915

A Gallery of photos of WWI military activities in Harpenden from postcards and other sources

“Harpenden is further revolutionised by having been made into a military depot during the past six weeks. 5000 territorials have been billeted on the inhabitants to the great excitement and considerable inconvenience of housewives.” (TJ p.135 – 26 September 1914)

This is one of several references in Theodora’s Journals (TJ)- extracts from the diaries of Theodora Wilson who lived in Rivers Lodge, overlooking Harpenden Common. “There is continual marching and drilling on the common. The club-rooms are occupied and tents arranged for recreation and the whole parish is in a ferment.” (TJ, p.135).  She reports that “A field hospital has been rigged up in the Park – for which Violet Kelynack and another nurse are responsible,” (TJ, p.135) and she writes a year later of her sister Rhoda having “just had a fortnight’s training at the St Albans Red Cross Hospital for the troops billeted in the neighbourhood and she hopes during the winter to help in our Harpenden St John’s Ambulance Brigade in the hospital in the old Institute which all last winter was worked … by Violet Kelynack” (TJ, Sept 1915, p.141) – see pictures 23-25 below.

Later in the war she reports that “At Harpenden we now have a searchlight on the common and one anti-aircraft gun. … I must confess the concentration of searchlights when there is a raid is a very magnificent spectacle and all through the winter [1917-18] we were constantly calling each other to watch the beams of light sweep the heavens.” (TJ, p.155) – see pictures 39-41 below.

The collection of photographs in the Gallery below has been drawn together from postcards and other prints in the Society’s archives, and from images collected by Michael Briggs, who has spent many years researching the Sherwood Foresters. He has helped identify some of the units to which the men belonged, as they passed through Harpenden during the early years of the war. He has published his ongoing work on the various battalions known as the Sherwood Foresters at This traces the fate of the many young men – some of whom posed for photos outside their billets and took part in training exercises on the Common – who had little understanding of what lay in store for them.

The Gallery follows a sequence:

  • 1-8     Arrival and marching through Harpenden
  • 9-11   Regimental services, funerals
  • 12-20 Exercises in and around Harpenden
  • 21-22 Provisioning – particularly bread
  • 23-25 Nursing and medical services
  • 26-27 YMCA
  • 28-38 Individual portraits, men outside their billets
  • 39-41 Searchlight on Harpenden Common (1917-18)
  • 42-51 Groups, some in Cassiobury Park, Watford.

Much research work remains to be done: on how the billeting was organised; provisions for such a large increase in population; how the officers and men were accommodated; the support of volunteers, as mentioned by Theodora Wilson – “All through the winter we were asked to knit socks and mufflers for our men at the front, and there were constant demands for help in all sorts of new ways.” (TJ, Sept 1915, p.141)

Other pages describe the medical and nursing services and the use of Henry Tylston Hodgson‘s house, Rosemary, as a hospital, after having earlier been offered for billeting (see 28.)  Many local organisations were involved in the war effort, including the Rifle Club.

We hope this gallery and our exhibitions will encourage people to make links with family and other stories.

To view the Gallery, click on the first (or selected) picture and then move to next image, or return to the ‘menu’. You can add comments or further information about any of the images – or about the whole page at the end of the Gallery.

Comments about this page

  • Writing her memories during the 1970s, Doris Annie Pigott (1905-1994), daughter of Edwin Richard Billingham, who ran a music shop at 12 Station Road, described the “troops, from the Sherwood Foresters, Middlesex Regiment and others, all billeted in houses in the village and fed in local halls, to which they went with their billy cans. They had khaki uniforms with brass buttons which were polished each morning before Parade, and puttees. The platoons marched through the streets and held Church Parades on Sundays.” (LHS ref. BF 20.19) 

    By Rosemary Ross (02/03/2018)
  • I believe that photo 45 is the officers of the 1/8th Battalion Sherwood Foresters.  Seated 4th from the right is Captain John Pickard Becher, died 1st January 1916 following being wounded at Hohenzollern Redoubt.  He was then a Major.

    By Mike Kirton (25/11/2014)[Edit]

    Mike is obviously right about J P Becher.

    Picture 51 (at the end of this series of photos) is very interesting. It was taken by ‘Kay Photo’ who was/were based near Luton; thereby placing the location somewhere in Bedfordshire/Hertfordshire. But I don’t know anything more about the photographer.

    The men are definitely Notts & Derby Territorials – you can tell that from the cap badge and 3-tier shoulder badge T-?-Notts&Derby. They are also wearing Imperial Service Badges (see attached image). This means that they can only be the 7th (Robin Hoods) or 8th Battalions (The 5th and 6th Battalions had 5-tier shoulder badges). The cap badge rules out the Robin Hoods (they had a distinct Rifle Corp Badge) – so the picture must be of the 1/8th or 2/8th Battalions.

    Mike is right that the 1/8th went to France with the 139th Bde/46th Division in February 1915 – so if it is the 1/8th Battalion the picture must have been taken in August-September-October? 1914 (its definitely summer time). The 2/8th Battalion moved to Luton-Dunstable in January 1915 and moved into canvas camp (Cassiobury Park) in June. They went back into billets in October 1915 and then to Ireland in April 1916.

    So my guess is that this is a picture of the 2/8th Battalion between June and October 1915. There is some detail of it here :-

    (There is of course the very slim chance that it was a Pre-War Summer Camp – but I have never seen a Kay Photo from those camps of that period 1908-1913)

    By Mike Briggs (29/12/2014)[Edit]

    The history of the 1/8th Sherwood Foresters is fascinating, as following their deployment to France in February/March 1915 they remained in the front line for the duration. Some did not return until 1919 as they had been left in France to help clear up the battlefields. Interestingly, the coal miners were demobbed soon after the armistice.

    I have done a lot of work on the ‘Southwell’ men of the 1/8th as 115 of them (‘H’ Company) left for training within a couple of days of the outbreak of war. They suffered higher than average casualties throughout the war, very much on a par with the French casualty rate. Earlier this year, along with two others, I edited and published a book Southwell at War 1914-1919 on behalf of Southwell and District Local History Society -

     Whilst we listed all (we think)  the men who were from Southwell, around 650, we did concentrate on the 1/8th who we regarded as the ‘Southwell Pals’.

    You may be interested to know that there is one VC amongst the line-up in 1914, that was Acting Lt Col. H. Vann, a C of E Priest, who was a combatant. He died on 29th September 1918 at Bellenglise whilst leading an attack. At that time he was commanding the 1/6th Notts and Derbys, having not long transferred from the 1/8th.

    An extract from “The London Gazette,” No. 31067, dated 14th Dec., 1918, records the following:-“For most conspicuous bravery, devotion to duty and fine leadership during the attack at Bellenglise and Lehaucourt, on September 29th, 1918. He led his battalion with great skill across the Canal du Nord through a very thick fog and under heavy fire from field and machine guns. On reaching the high ground above Bellenglise the whole attack was held up by fire of all descriptions from the front and right flank. Realising that everything depended on the advance going forward with the barrage, Col. Vann rushed up to the firing line and with the greatest gallantry led the line forward. By his prompt action and absolute contempt for danger the whole situation was changed, the men were encouraged and the line swept forward. Later, he rushed a field-gun single-handed and knocked out three of the detachment. The success of the day was in no small degree due to the splendid gallantry and fine leadership displayed by this officer. Lt. Col. Vann, who had on all occasions set the highest example of valour, was killed near Ramicourt on 3rd October, 1918, when leading his battalion in attack.”

    Ed: It is fascinating to speculate whether any of these men may have been among the 5000 billeted in Harpenden from August 1914 onwards. Unfortunately no billeting records have survived, as far as we know.

    By Mike Kirton (29/12/2014)[Edit]

    By Rosemary Ross (02/06/2015)
  • I can confirm that the photograph is of the 8th Battalion i.e. 1/8th.

    I am just finishing a biography of 2nd Lt the Rev Bernard Vann, at the time of the photo a subaltern in the 8th but who later became the C.O. of the 6th.  He won the M.C and bar and the Victoria Cross – the only Anglican clergyman to win this highest award as a combatant in the Great War.

    I am in touch with the son of one of the other soldiers in the picture, 2nd Lt. Egbert Melville Hacking, whose brother is standing next to him. Both survived the war.

    By Charles Beresford (02/06/2015)
  • It would be interesting to know a little more about this photograph.  The bulk of the 1/8th had gone to France in February/March 1915.  These could, of course, been later recruits.

    By Mike Kirton (21/11/2014)

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