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Charlie Payne and the ‘Clacton Town Guard’

Charlie Payne c. 1914

In this historical Blog, I have already introduced my grandfather, Charlie Payne, to you in a number of guises:   as an employee of the American Express Company based in Genoa in 1907; later in 1913 as a married man and clerk working at a music publishing company in Great Portland Street, London, and lastly as a member of the 'PBI' ("Poor Bloody Infantry") in the latter stages of The Great War.

In November 1915, with the Great War already 15 months old and nowhere near resolution, Charlie attested to serve in the British Army if called upon to do so, in a registration process referred to historically as the 'Derby Scheme'.

Charlie Payne's attestation card under the Derby Scheme

By then he, and his wife Ida already had three sons aged between 1 and 5, and another baby due in February 1916. When conscription was finally introduced in Britain in spring 1917, single men were the first to be called up.  However, with the almost insatiable requirement by the armed forces for yet more men, by October 1916, at the age of  33, Charlie was alerted that he would soon be called up. He was medically examined, given a 'B1' classification and then was told to report to the East Surrey Regiment's depot at Kingston-upon-Thames  in mid-November 1916. He found himself amongst a group of 70 men who were then sent for training with the Yorkshire Regiment at a training base in Clacton, Essex.

An Edwardian postcard of Clacton on Sea

Charlie recounted his training experiences in letters home to his wife Ida; many of these letters have survived and provide a first-hand account of life as a conscript and trainee soldier.  In his letter of 5th December 1916 he recounts some of his earliest training experiences, including his frustration at not having received his uniform yet:

The first page of Charlie's letter of 5 December 1916

"No. 21179 Pte. C.F. Payne, D Company, 5th Yorkshire Regiment [sic] 24th Provisional Battn., Clacton-on-Sea, Essex

Tuesday evening 5/12/1916

My dear wife

Your letter to hand this morning and welcome parcel this evening, for which many many thanks.  I shall have a nice supper before turning in tonight, you may be sure.  You will be surprised to hear that we have not yet received clothes or kit and I consider it a perfect scandal, but I suppose that we shall get it “some day”. My trousers have gone at the seat, but that is a mere detail, many are in a much worse plight.  Yes, dear, I have quite recovered from the inoculation and am feeling very fit.  We have received our rifles and bayonets and I can tell you that they are putting us through it as much as we can stand, and many cannot stand it.  The cold here yesterday was intense, and my hands were numbed but I managed to get through my first rifle drill without dropping the damned thing once. Sunday was also very cold and we were kept standing about for ¾ hr. before lunch and I have never seen men faint before owing to extreme cold, but I did, and one fell just in front of me as stiff as a stick and the poor chap did come a cropper.  Drafts are coming in from all parts now and our Battalion (24th) will soon be complete.  Grub on the whole still continues to be good and we have boiled rice for dinner 2 or 3 times a week – not so bad.

Regarding Xmas leave, dear, we must not expect too much, so try and not be disappointed if I am away from you and the boys this year.  There is a rumour about that all Xmas leave is stopped except for drafts going to and returning from France, but anyhow I shall get leave soon afterwards. Pleased to hear that the dear boys are all well.  By the way I did not find their letters in the parcel so take it they were not enclosed so I may expect them in a future letter.  Shall be pleased to hear how you get on as Xmas postwoman and trust you feel quite equal to the work, but please take great care, dear, as so much depends on your good health.  Who will look after the boys for you? Nanny I expect.  Wrote to mother the other day but have not received a reply yet.  I addressed it 89 Brockley Rise.  Let me know if that is the correct number.  I always forget.  It was kind of you to send me that oz. [ounce] of Bondman [tobacco] and handkerchiefs.  I have washed the one I had several times so it was getting thin.

Coverton Road, Tooting c. 1914. Charlie's wife Ida and their children lived at number 28 with her parents and two younger sisters.

I take it you have now quite succeeded in weaning little Rupert [their youngest son born February 1916].  They and you are always in my thoughts and I am longing to give them a kiss – but all in good time.  Have not forgotten their post-cards.  Any further news of Bill and Mike [two of Ida's brothers, also in the Army] ? How’s Alice and Jack? [Ida's sister and brother-in-law, Jack Palmer] Remember me kindly to all at 28 [Coverton Road, Tooting]. Will close now dear with heaps of love and kisses to you and the boys.

Your loving husband


P.S.  We are known as the Clacton Town Guard !!!"

Perhaps the tramp-like conditions of his  own clothes at this stage of his training led Charlie later to refer to his unit  as "Charlie Chaplin's Army", a viewpoint that was not appreciated by the Drill Sergeant who overheard that comment!

Based on Charlie's letters and experiences, I am currently preparing a book for publication under the working title 'Charlie Payne's Hatbox'.  For further information on my research and publications please visit my website.