1. Finding Sapper Clay - Part 1
  2. Part 2
  3. Part 3
  4. Part 4
  5. Part 5 - The Clay Tree

Finding Sapper Clay

John Griffiths-Colby

On 30 July this year, the eve of the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele, I was digging in my garden in Reigate, Surrey when I noticed what I took to be an old crown coin sticking out of the pile of earth. Picking it up, it was obvious by the ribbon bar that it was a medal. A clean up under the tap and a GoogleTM later and it was identified as a First World War British War Medal. Or a ‘Squeak’ as they are known. The edge was engraved ‘159514 RNR C.C.Clay R.E.’ . Rather ironically, I was digging of all things, a drainage trench, in – clay! This would be just the start of a literal unearthing of numerous coincidences.

Although my house was built in 1966 this wasn’t the first time I’d dug up old stuff, mostly bottles and china but this was clearly important and belonged to another family. I needed to get it to them and still do. Hopefully, NNWFHS members can help with this search.

Starting the search with the Imperial War Museum’s ‘Live of the First World War’ archive I matched the service number to Cecil Clement Clay, a Sapper (Royal Engineer or RE) who had served with the Royal Naval Reserve (RNR) and previously the Essex Regiment.

Following census and military records it emerged that Clement was born to Frank and Elizabeth Clay on 19 May 1887. Frank was a solicitor’s clerk and in 1891 they all resided in Ivanhoe Villa, 33 Princes Street, Chilvers Coton, Nuneaton CV11 5NW. Clement had an older brother and sister, Sholto Evelyn and Mabel Constance Clay. By 1901, Elizabeth was widowed and Sholto was a ‘clerk at the brickworks’. By 1911 Elizabeth and Mabel were living together at 100 Edward Street, Nuneaton (CV11 5RE).  

Clement’s military medal card, medical record and discharge papers were also located via the archive and it was a relief to see he had survived the war. He was also awarded the Victory Medal (the “Wilfred”), so I am on the lookout for this in the garden or maybe a family member still has that? That would be a fantastic reunion.

© John Griffiths-Colby 2017

The RNR were a tough bunch and were deployed ashore to Gallipoli and The Somme and were awarded no less than 12 Victoria Crosses during the war. Clement’s documents disclose him as a ‘Petroleum Worker’ However, a shocking truth was revealed in his medical papers.

On 30 March 1916 Clement was admitted to 3rd Western General Hospital, Cardiff suffering from ‘Shell Gas’. The cause was ‘Premature explosion of one of our gas shells – Phosgene.’ 

Phosgene was the most widely used gas in the First World War and accounted for around 80,000 fatalities. Colourless and almost odourless, direct contact with Phosgene was usually fatal, affecting the eyes and lungs. Gas was not used at Gallipoli so it is likely this horrific accident occurred in preparation for The Somme offensive or at home when handling shells. After convalescing in Pontypridd Clement was discharged to duty in May 1918. His final Discharge papers dated 11 December 1919 cite ‘defective vision’ and ‘myalgia’ as being ‘aggravated by service in last year’. 

With little else to go on, my attention switched to his brother Sholto (born 6 June 1882) his name being perhaps less common. I found that Sholto had married a Lillian M Ellerbech in 1916 in Greenwich, London but that she passed away there in 1920. He next appeared in records as marrying an Ethel Clifton Apted in Reigate, Surrey in 1929. So at last, a connection to my locality albeit through Clement’s brother. Something else sounded familiar. Having just made a planning application, I checked my deeds again and confirmed that an Arthur Bacon Apted had bought the parcel of land in 1898; further checking revealed him to be Ethel’s father. So there was now a clear family connection but it still left the question as to why Clement’s medal might have been lost on the land?

Further investigation revealed that Sholto and Ethel had a daughter, Elizabeth M Clay, in 1930. Sholto died 11 November 1943 coincidentally, armistice day. Having narrowed the search for Clement to ‘Surrey SE’ in the archives, I finally found that an incorrectly registered death Cecil Clement Clay (sic) passed away 11 January 1973 in Reigate, aged 87 – he was a survivor! 

© John Griffiths-Colby 2017 

In the parallel world of my coincidences, my building works continued and in the course of the planning process I received an official email from Reigate & Banstead Borough Council from none other than – Jayne Apted! I wrote to her about the Apted family but unfortunately, to date have had no reply.

Working with Leatherhead Cemeteries Office, Sholto’s grave was located in Reigate Cemetery at St Mary’s Church, Chart Lane, Reigate RH2 7RN. The fairly grim but useful information I received was: “ Arthur Bacon Apted @ 10 feet; Elizabeth Apted @ 8 feet; Sholto Evelyn Clay @ 6 feet; Ethel Clifton Clay @ 4 feet and Wilfrid John Bremner @ 2 feet.”

So Sholto was in the Apted family plot which was easily located, being a flash of white marble in the otherwise Sandstone graveyard. The last name of Bremner was also important as it linked to a possible marriage of Elizabeth M Clay. Indeed she had married Wilfrid Bremner in 1981 when they were 51 and 84 respectively. Wilfrid was Reigate Congregational Church Minister 1955-1963 according to his headstone. Otherwise it appears Elizabeth had not married nor had children prior to this.

Importantly though, from 192.com, it appears that although Elizabeth had lived in the borough until recently and has moved to Deal in Kent. She would now be 87. I have written to her and am awaiting a response. She may be the only living Clay on this branch of the family – and of course would have known Clement himself.

And what of Clement’s sister Mabel Constance born December 1884? It appears this pair of names was enormously popular around that time, as was the surname Clay in the Nuneaton area. To date I have been unable to trace her beyond the 1911 census. I assume she married but whom?

© John Griffiths-Colby 2017

Then a little success. Having established Clement’s passing in Reigate, I accessed his probate records and found his will, written at 20 Doods Road, Reigate in 1967, about a half mile from me, still not answering the question of how his medal ended up in my garden. In the will he left a substantial estate but made no mention of family members (not even his Sister-in-law or niece who both lived locally at that time) and bequests appear to be to friends and Cancer Research. I have found no record of his marriage or any children.

I contacted the Surrey History Centre to try and locate Clement’s last resting place, hoping this might give me one final clue, but other than determining that he lived at 5 Beaufort Road, Reigate in the 1950s there is no other record.

As a wildcard, I once again Googled ‘Clay Family Chilvers Coton’ and that’s how I found your society; there was an old post from Kate Keens in 2005 asking for information about George Eliot’s 150th anniversary and about the characterisation of ‘Mrs Brick’ from a member of the Clay family in Chilvers Coton. Perhaps Clement is a member of this branch?

So this trail has gone a little cold and I am left to speculate on how Clement’s medal became lost in what was a once field owned by his in-laws, a half mile from his house, sometime in the last century and why a family from Chilvers Coton, having once moved to the Surrey Hills appear to have had little contact with each other. I’d rather assumed that if Clement was wounded and possibly shell-shocked he might have been looked after by his older brother and family, hence them both ending up in Reigate. But of course Clement outlived Sholto by thirty years.

So I hope this information rings a bell with a society or family member, please contact me via Celia Parton if you know more as I would very much like to put his medal into the hand of a relative – this brave soldier more than earned it – as did they all.

© John Griffiths-Colby 2017


Click here for Full Size PDF

© John Griffiths-Colby

We use cookies to improve our website and your experience when using it. Cookies used for the essential operation of this site have already been set. To find out more about the cookies we use and how to delete them, see our privacy policy.

  I accept cookies from this site.
EU Cookie Directive Module Information