As part of Remembrance Day, Cemetery Club looks into a forgotten hero whose grave in Stoke Newington has been forgotten…until now. Watch the clip below…
Overseen by Field Marshal George Milne, 1st Baron Milne, the founder of a plucky band of soldiers was commemorated by his comrades.
The Old Contemptibles is a name I’ve found on headstone after headstone. I must admit I was ignorant of its meaning until I did some research on Remembrance hero Arthur Lovell, as part of the tours we run around Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park. Google the term nowadays and the first result that comes up is a Pub in Birmingham.
According to Battlefield guide and historian Andy Lock:
“The Old Contemptibles: pre-war regular army soldiers who came over in the first wave of the British Expeditionary Force in August 1914”
The Old Contemptibles Association was a massive veterans network which had 178 branches up and down the country, as well as 14 that were overseas. To be an old Contemptible was to have a shared association; they were more than just a plain old soldier. A combatant who had been ‘out since Mons’ was held in the same regard as someone who had fought in the battle of Waterloo a hundred years before.
Who was Captain Danny?
John Patrick Danny was a sergeant with XXXIII Brigade, founded the organisation on Thursday 25th June 1925 at the Hackney United Services Club, with the ambition to create a network of social clubs to support veterans of the British Expeditionary Force. Nowadays this would have been established as an initiative by the Army itself, or at least in part.
Danny led by example. As the founder of the group, one of the many events he led was a pilgrimage to Mons on Armistice Day. Some of those attending couldn’t afford the trip, so he paid for their tickets himself, leaving him £400 out of pocket. He ended up remortgaging his house to pay the shortcoming, but this was of little consequence to what the trip meant to him and others.
His story is now forgotten. He died in 1928; that clip was from 1931 and almost all of the people shown in that video clip at the top of this blog are dead. If you were to ask anyone what an ‘Old Contemptible’ was, you’re probably going to be confronted with a blank look. The last official meeting of Old Contemptibles was in 1974; various regional branches held meetings right up until the early 1990s and the last man to have been linked to the group died in 2005. Captain Danny and his legacy have passed out of living memory.
Seeing images from then and now always excites me – people such as History of Stokey do delicious little mashups of old images superimposed on their nowaday settings.
So what’s his grave like now?
Abney Park is a cemetery which, like so many others, is not as it used to be. The neatly manicured arboretum is now an indiscriminate forest. I tried to work out what part of the cemetery he was buried in from the footage, but without any particularly distinguishable headstones, he could have been buried anywhere within its 31 acres. So, I resorting to a handy Grave-finding site, I attempted to navigate my way to Danny’s grave. I wasn’t sure what would be waiting for me when I found it.
I had the general area. I would have loved to have said I searched in vain for hour after hour, pouring over faded epitaphs and lost memories, but as Sam is keenly aware – I am a grave-finding bloodhound. Using a lot of supposition and guess work, I found myself in the exact same spot as the men who had gathered here over 70 years before.
Standing alone, slightly wonky, was the final resting place of Captain Danny. I wonder when the last chum stopped by here and paid their last respects? As I played the British Pathé clip aloud at his graveside from my phone, hearing the plummy words of Field Marshal Milne – I was recreating a moment that Danny himself probably never thought would happen again. A big-earred idiot standing at his grave playing media from decades before his birth, trying to soak up the atmosphere of an event long forgotten. The bugle sounded, the rifles shot and my thoughts turned to the centenary of the end of the Great War in 1918.
What with the anniversary next year, what say you to Danny getting a rededication service and another film commemorating his and his Old Contemptibles valiant achievements? He doesn’t seem to be largely represented in the history books. Perhaps we can change that.