The Berrymans after WW1

18 Aug

It’s now time to leave them, but what happened to them all?

Gertrude continued to live at Delaford in Guildford and remained the centre of the family until the late 1930s, looking after her grand-children while their parents were in India and the South China seas. Gertrude died in in the late 1930s.

Richard took up his post as a doctor in Assam and got married there. He was 40 and his bride, Beryl Gladys French, was 19 or 20. The marriage lasted a year or so and his wife remarried in the late 1920s. There is a suggestion that she had a career as a Casting Director for the Paramount Film Company. She died in Chester in England in 1981.

Gertrude was so stubbornly traditional, that it’s hard to see her being happy about her darling’s unsuitable marriage and divorce. It is not known if she ever met Richard’s bride, but it seems unlikely.

Richard died in 1936 at Barts Hospital where he had trained as a doctor over thirty years before. He was 56 and probably died of cancer. Richard was the first of the adult Berryman children to die but of all of them, he probably had the most fun.

Jim and Sheina did not have any children. I am not sure if they divorced or if Sheina died. Jim remarried, and he and his second wife Jean ran a seaside shop on the Isle of Wight in the 1950s and 60s. Jean must have been quite a bit younger than Jim because I met her in the very early 1980s. She clearly adored him and referred to him as “my darling Jim” but they too were childless.

Ted and Nell went out to India where Ted was eventually colonel of the regiment. Their two children were sent home when they were 7 or 8 and raised partly by Gertrude and partly by Nell’s parents. Ted retired in the 1930s and was in England for his children’s teenage years. Their son Martin joined the regiment and was killed in Malaya in 1943. Their daughter married one of Martin’s fellow-officers and became custodian of these letters. Ted died in the early 1960s and Nell died in the 1970s.

Ben’s fiance, Ivan Bennett, was killed on the Somme and before the war ended she married James Tucker who was a family friend. She and James had no children, though we do not know if there was additional heartache for Ben in this. James prospered through his legal career eventually becoming the judge who tried Lord Haw Haw for treason after the Second World War. Ben died in the 1970s.

Dreda was the second of the adult children to die, passing away in the late 1930s, presumably dying of cancer. From the remaining letters it emerges that her last months were marred by a feud between her husband, who tried to keep things quiet and calm around her, and Gertrude who insisted on a mother’s visiting rights, and accused him of causing her daughter’s illness in the first place. They had no children.

Paul made the navy his career. He was divorced twice and married three times; like Richard he was charming but difficult to live with. Paul’s royal friend Prince Albert quietly lost touch with many of his naval friends after marrying Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon and the rest were replaced by courtiers when he became King George VI. Paul’s daughters, Joan and Paddy (Patricia) both married and his grandchildren and great grandchildren are in Northumberland, Ireland, South Africa, Australia and Canada. He died in the early 1970s.

Jane went with Murray Gordon to Canada. They had no children though this picture shows her holding one so I find myself wondering if the stoical Berrymans simply never spoke about lost babies.

Jane in Canada in the 1920s holding an unknown baby

Rosamund married shortly after the war and had three sons. The death of her eldest son, Tom, left two small daughters to be raised by cousins when he “disappeared in the Bermuda triangle”. Rosamund’s middle son, Peter, visited Topher in Kenya after the second world war, and it is a lasting regret that I never asked Peter about this time. Rosamund lived near Tunbridge Wells with her husband and wrote angry letters to newspapers in green ink. They too died in the 1970s.

Topher left the army after the war. He married in his late 50s and he and his wife had no children. He spent most of his life in Kenya where he is recorded as “a farmer”. He constantly struggled with minor ventures: Paul and he shared a patent for a non-slip lamp for use at sea, and at one point he was breeding “barkless dogs” for people to keep in flats but Basenji are high-energy hunting dogs and the venture was not successful. He remained in Africa until he died in the mid 1960s.

Ruth married Nell’s brother Jack after the War. Jack’s first love turned him down and his marriage to Ruth was difficult. She suffered from depression, whether inborn or as a result of circumstances no one now will know. They may have had the pain that goes with difficulty in having children. Their daughter is the custodian of much material from both sides of the family.

Paul, Rosamund, Ted
Jane, Jim, Ben
Ruth, Topher
Even in 1956, they don’t all look at the camera!

Working with these letters for almost eight years has shifted my views of my family, my parents and myself, and has changed my perspective on the past and our current complex times.

The Berrymans’ instant response in 1914 was both patriotic and personal. Ted, Paul, and Richard had no doubts they were doing the right thing: they couldn’t have done anything else. It’s harder to tell if Jim and Topher had the same internal drivers or if they responded to what was expected of them; we know Topher was wretched and may have had at least some degree of shell-shock and that it took some years for Jim to settle into army life. For myself, I share few of the Berrymans’ political views which forces me to wonder what my views would have been if I had been raised by Gertrude or someone like her in the 1880s and 1890s.

The Berrymans’ stories led me to think about individual rights and public duty and about how history plays out. Ted fought in Basra, Mosul and Baghdad in events which led directly to the Iraq wars of our own times. This warns us that the events of 2016-2019, including Brexit, will have consequences for centuries. This long perspective casts an unflattering light on the short-term opportunism of our decision-makers. I look at our current crop of politicians and see whining children putting self before faction, faction before party and party before country. They are disgraceful inheritors of the legacy of those young men and women who grew up so fast and lost so much in WW1 and WW2 and who could say, as John Maxwell Edmonds put it, ‘for your tomorrow, we gave our today’.

It’s axiomatic that Britain was permanently changed by the First World War, and the letters give us glimpses of pre-WW1 attitudes, the racist structures of Empire and the embedded class structure of the society disrupted by the wars and the end of Empire. By 1945, two generations of working class men had been armed and taught to fight which must be an unsettling prospect for an hereditary governing class. In 1945 the post-war Labour government had so much confidence it gave us the NHS, launched a nationwide social housing programme and brought the Windrush generation to Britain. By the 1990s it was easy to assume that our secular, democratic and meritocratic society was here to stay. But I have spent the last five years with an eye on the present and another on the world 100 years ago, and I fear that the relative peace and egalitarianism of the second half of the 20th Century was an anomaly: we can see the rich rising and poor being pushed down while a small establishment class dismantles the structures which support opportunity and equality.

I am no historian, but finding out more about Britain’s Imperial project has shown me how shockingly ignorant most Britons are of our history and the effect Britain has had on the world, exposing the naivété behind so much modern nationalism. It was painful to work on these letters while the Windrush scandal played out, based as it was on racism, the betrayal of Black Britons and the wilful destruction of their documents. It’s been unsettling to read about how much the Berrymans looked forward to peace because we know they were about to live through the rise of fascism and WW2. It’s frightening to see so much repeated in our own time.

The project as a whole has taught me that history is a flattened version of the truth, where nuance and complexity are washed away and countless voices are lost. If the past is a foreign country, we only know a much about it as you can glean from tourist brochures, post cards and the occasional badly folded map. I now assume that anything we know about the past is a fraction of the story and probably wrong at that.

So thank you for travelling through time with me and the Berryman family; my thanks to the Imperial War Museum for storing and transcribing the letters and countless thanks to Chris Miller for preparing them for publication.

Working on this for over 8 years has been a pleasure and a joy, but I too am ready to move on.

Ted holding me a an infant, while my sister looks on


Posted by on 18 August, '19 in About


13 responses to “The Berrymans after WW1

Write a reply.....

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.