Yesterday I went on a tour around Brockley & Ladywell Cemeteries accompanied by Jonathan Boniface.
A fascinating stroll through time, looking at people ranging from women who were trafficked in the 1870′s to founders of running clubs and frankly it was nice to be ON a tour rather than being the one delivering it, for a change!
Just as the tour concluded, I was chatting to the Friends of the cemeteries and Queerly Departed was mentioned, the wonderful LGBT tour that myself and Sacha Coward developed early last year. It was heartening to see the Friends had started looking at their own queer history and one of them wondered if I knew about the highly distinguished soldier buried in the Ladywell half of the cemeteries who’d lost all his medals and honours as a consequence of his sexuality.
We made a beeline for the grave and there wasn’t much to look at. Your fairly typical low marble affairs which dominated the 1930’s and 40’s, and in this case (save a small stone vase a la Luisa Casati’s in Brompton) there wasn’t much to denote that someone was buried there. However there was a laminated image of the man who lay beneath it, detailing his name, regiment and a very heartfelt ‘you are no longer forgotten Great Uncle and Great Great Uncle‘.
Lieutenant Colonel Sydney Douglas Rumbold C.M.G, D.S.O & Bar, M.C was born in Salisbury in 1888, the son of John, an ironmonger, and Bessie. Sydney was still in Salisbury a decade later where he and his older brother are joined by several younger siblings and a servant by the name of Edith May Reynolds (servants never get a look in on census records when people do family history – here you go, Edith.)
By the 1911 census, he is lodging with a number of other people who work in the furnishings trade at 185 Fore Street, Exeter. According to Andy Lock, at the outbreak of the First World War he served with the 8th Battalion, The York & Lancaster Regiment for the duration and was a very, VERY good soldier who rose through the ranks very quickly – take a look at his achievements here. An army golden boy.
But it all went wrong. The volunteer then went on to tell me that he’d been found in a very compromising position in a drill hall (and this is backed up by an article from the Gloucestershire Echo of Monday 8th March 1920, page 5) which states that he was alleged to have partaken in ‘disgraceful conduct in connection with a sergeant and six men who were under his command’. The court martial which resulted ended up with in King George V stripping him of all his honours. As if that wasn’t bad enough, this also made the front page news of the London Gazette.
As a gay man myself, I can only shudder when I think what poor Sydney had to endure in a time when being queer and outed would have caused him serious trouble. After the removal, I can see him on an electoral register for a flat in Maida Vale in 1924 and he eventually died at a hospital in Worthing ten years later: probate lists his mother as his executor*, with his effects totalling no more than £25.
Sometimes you come across a story and it really gets to you. I can do nothing to remove the hardship he went through but I would love to play a part in rehabilitating his memory and through a modern lens, restore some dignity to a man whose bravery in a time of war was never in question. What he got up to in private was of no-one’s concern but his own and it’s dreadful that at the time, humiliating him and stripping him of his medals was deemed necessary.
The Friends would like to erect a more substantial memorial to him so perhaps you, dear readers, would like to share this post to see if we can track down his living relatives, as any kind of memorial change would need their permission. Perhaps it can also serve as a balm to a terrible circumstance that robbed a queer man of his dignity a century ago.
*with thanks to Bill Ellison