As we pause and remember the sacrifices made all those years ago, here’s a true story that I often tell as part of my Tower Hamlets Cemetery tour. This story of heroism from a legend on the Battlefield deserves a special mention.
Ten years since the last shots were fired in the Great War, the bustling traders of Burgess Street in Limehouse were readying themselves to adhere to the two minutes silence on Armistice Day that would honour their fallen friends, brothers, sons and husbands.
11am came around soon enough. Flat caps were removed and people, bowing their heads in silence, paused their busy lives. One of the street vendors was Arthur Lovell, a costermonger whose remarkable achievements in the War had already made him a hero.
Arthur was one of the Old Contemptibles – he was one of the first volunteer soldiers who went out with the first battalions in 1914. This fabled group he was part of were a remarkable bunch, in that they saw the entire war from start to finish and somehow managed to survive. Wounded twice, both times he returned to fight alongside his comrades. His final battle was at Mons.
As the silence ended, he looked up, paused and was about to resume selling his stock of fruit and veg when he saw little Rosie Wales playing in the street. Perhaps his soldier reflexes were heightened because he also saw that she was directly in the path of an oncoming steam lorry.
Quick as a flash, Arthur ran into the road, pushing the her to safety of the pavement. A selfless sacrifice that saved her life but at the cost of his own. The steam lorry instead collided with Lovell – poor Rosie Wales, alongside his eldest son, could do nothing but helplessly watch from the pavement. Lovell died in hospital later that day.
The story hit the national news and Lovell was rightly regarded as a hero.
A week later Arthur was given a full military funeral – and the crowds which jammed the streets of the East End dwarfed even those who had turned out for Armistice Day a week before.
The story didn’t end there. At the funeral, the Bishop of Stepney recounted a strange tale from the days after Arthur’s death.
‘Last night there came to his house’, said the Bishop, ‘a man who had been attracted by the name and asked if he could see the body. This request was obliged: “I thought so. This man saved my life out in France during the war. I have not seen him since then until tonight.”
Arthur had saved the man’s life by lending him his own gas mask during a gas attack.
Arthur was buried with full military honours and thousands lined the route, bringing the traffic to a halt once again. At the scene of his death, the gun carriage, bearing his coffin, came to a halt, and a wreath was brought forward.
Then the carriage went on, followed by a costermonger’s cart organised by Arthur’s mates and piled high with chrysanthemums, orchids and most poignantly, poppies.
A public service led by Countess Haig six months later unveiled a picture and memorial to Lovell which is still there – it’s n the foyer of the Bromley Town hall in Bow. His grave however, paid for by public subscription, is unremarkable, broken and lost amidst a sea of other granite and limestone graves under the watchful canopy of the only woodland in Zone 2.
One of the men who survived but died for the ideals of a conflict whose legacy we remember today.
References and Source Material
The British Newspaper Archive – The Sheffield Independent, Tuesday November 20th 1928