war memorial at dusk, photographed by Michelle Cooper



Walter Tull Walter Tull - a surprise

Walter Tull - Grace Hill Chapel

Walter Tull -  documents Walter Tull - family trees
"Who Did He Think He Was?" - Walter Tull's local family history (pdf) - created for Tull exhibitions, 2009-10

Walter Tull and the Palmers

"A WAR MEMORIAL SURPRISE" by Marilyn Stephenson-Knight

The War Memorial Project holds many surprises. Initially the biggest was discovering the Dover heritage of Walter Tull. He's celebrated for being the first black outfield professional football player. As if that wasn't enough, in May 1917 the orphanage lad overturned all the regulations and momentously became the first black combat officer in the British army.  Belgian experts in Ypres are now investigating this breakthrough.  

Bigger astonishment awaited! Following my article in the "Dover Express" of 17th August, a Mr Coombe contacted me. His grandfather, Ernest Boucher Coombe, is commemorated on our Town War Memorial.  

Born in Devon in 1877, Ernest enlisted in Poplar, London. He eventually settled in Dover with his wife Emma, where three of their four sons were born. The marriage seemingly foundered, for the lads were sent to the workhouse after their mother disappeared. 

She was last heard of in Erith in the 1950s.  But that was some forty years after her husband's death. Ernest fell three years to the day before the Great War ended. That winter Ernest's battalion of the Devonshires had been toiling to keep the trenches clear at Givenchy, France. Under unremitting rain the sodden walls were collapsing behind the hastily thrown up sandbags. For three days the men struggled and shovelled, in knee-deep mud. 

Eventually the Yorkshire Regiment took over and the Devonshires marched to their billets. It took two days to clean and dry their clothing and equipment. But this was war, and they had to be ready for action. Three days' rest were interspersed with drills in marching, bombing, and attack. Practice became reality when they were ordered back to the trenches. Even before completing handover, one man was killed and three wounded by shell fire.  

Thiepval memorial, by Simon ChambersThe next day, 11th November, 1915, was worse, with continuous shelling, a mine attack, and more torrential rain. The battalion was again relieved - but it was too late for Ernest.  His sons were luckier. The three oldest fought in the war and all survived. One was awarded the Military Cross. 

Mr Coombe has soldiers' bravery in his blood. He's related to others on the War Memorial too. G T Palmer, a private in the Buffs, was Mr Coombe's Uncle George. Aged 24, he died from wounds in August 1916, having fought since the beginning of the war. But his body was never found. There is no corner of a foreign field for him; just his name inscribed on the Thiepval memorial in France. 

George's grieving mother Harriett announced the death of her "dearly beloved son". Worse was to come. Less than a year later, in July 1917, Harriett's mourning was deeper. George's younger brother Stephen, a 22-year-old Lance Sergeant in the Queen's Royal West Surrey Regiment, fell at Passchendaele. Like George he had served since war broke out. His broken-hearted mother tried to console herself by picturing him in a British hero's grave.   

She couldn't know that Stephen too has no final resting place. Menin Gate, by Simon ChambersHe is one of the 54,000 men whose shattered bodies were lost forever in the cloying mud of Flanders Fields.  But though they have no grave, they have a lasting memorial. Their names are on the Menin Gate, Ypres, and every evening buglers there sound the Last Post in respect.   

The loss of his sons overwhelmed their father. Aged 66, he killed himself. Stephen Palmer remembered at Menin, by Simon ChambersHarriett and her remaining children were left to mourn another Great War victim. For over thirty years, until she died at the age of 91, Harriett kept her sons close to her heart. She made a small brooch from a uniform button. In the hollow centre she placed their photographs. Later her daughter Clara further honoured their memory by naming one of her sons after them both. Mr Coombe's first two names are Stephen George.   

Mr Coombe had more to reveal. His mother was born at Elms Farm, Hougham, just like Walter Tull's mother half a century before. Both mothers shared the maiden surname of Palmer. Could there be a connection between his family and Walter Tull's? 

Stephen and Clara are names in Walter Tull's family too. A connection looked excitingly possible. Unfortunately, it was late evening when I first spoke to Mr Coombe. All the archives were closed, birthplace of Clara Matilda Palmer, by Simon Chambersand I had no internet access. There was no way of following the trail. I spent a sleepless night wishing the hours away.  

But it was worth it. The next morning, even before the staff arrived, I was outside the archives, nose eagerly pressed against the glass doors. After long morning's investigation, the clues yielded an amazing answer.

Mr Coombe is Walter Tull's cousin. Walter's mother and Mr Coombe's grandfather were brother and sister. Mr Coombe lives just two miles from where they were born. Walter Tull's relatives are still in their ancestral area.    

Stunned by the discovery, I met Mr and Mrs Coombe the next day. They have the dog tag belonging to George Palmer, a keepsake of a lost son. Movingly, they have too the beautiful little uniform button, a mother's grief hidden within. 

I have now shaken hands with Walter Tull's cousin. Thanks to him we've learnt the stories of three further Dover casualties - and discovered that two were Walter Tull's first cousins. The War Memorial Project is full of surprises, and those people named on our War Memorial are special, every single one of them. 

This article first appeared in the Dover Express for 12th October 2006

Note. John Alexander Palmer was the father of casualties Stephen and George. John's first wife, Annie, died in childbirth in 1887. The child, also Annie, was fostered by William and Sarah Palmer, the parents of Clara, Daniel Tull's second wife. 

Thiepval Memorial, France
Menin Gate Memorial, Ypres, Belgium
Stephen Palmer's name on the Menin Gate
Clara's birthplace



2 Young's Cottages, West Hougham - 1881/91 home of Stephen and Sarah Palmer (grandparents)

Elms Farm, Hougham (mother's birthplace)


(left) 1 Redvers Cottages, Dover, where Walter's sister Elsie and half-sister Miriam lived with their stepfather William Beer, and Miriam's mother, Walter's stepmother, Clara. They had previously lived at Little Singledge, by Coldred (below), next to Clara's brother Henry Palmer


On 5 August 1949, Mr and Mrs Beer, still at Redvers, celebrated their Golden Wedding anniversary. They had been married at Whitfield church, by Rev William Holt

35 Buckland Avenue, Dover, where Elsie and her husband lived in 1930/2

2 The Paddock, Dover, where Elsie and her husband lived in 1938

36 Oswald Road, Dover, where William lodged in 1901

Miriam also lived in Dover with her husband, Leslie. In 1949 they were living at 3 Queen's Avenue, and were perhaps at 22 Winchelsea Street before.

all pictures Simon John Chambers

Copyright 2006-16 © Marilyn Stephenson-Knight. All Rights Reserved