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John Henry Digweed

Private T/441633 John Henry Digweed, Motor Transport, Army Service Corps

John was born in Newbury in 1892, the youngest child of John Henry Digweed (known as Henry) and his wife Charlotte née White. It was, by the standards of the day, a small family and his siblings Sidney George (born 1881) and Ellen Maria (1882) were considerably older. Two further children (Charlotte and Elsie) died soon after their births in 1880 and 1885.

Digweed shop

Henry Digweed outside the shop in Cheap Street

Henry was a butcher, originally from Wallingford, who settled in Wantage, where he met Charlotte and they had Sidney and Ellen. In 1889 the family moved to Newbury where Henry had a shop at 66 Cheap Street. Thus John was the only child to be born in Newbury.  In the period 1897-1899 there was no Digweed shop listed in Cheap Street, evidently Henry was working elsewhere, but in 1900 they returned to a shop at 62 Cheap Street. Unlike No 66 this shop is still standing.

John would have received a basic education at one of the local schools (probably St John’s) and have left aged 12; he may well then have started work as a butcher’s boy running errands for his father and learning the butcher’s trade. Soon after this his mother, Charlotte, died in January 1906.

In 1910 Henry remarried, to Grace Stagg, herself a widow with children. When Henry filled in the family’s census return in 1911 young John, aged 18, was still living at home above the shop along with his father and stepmother plus Grace’s children, Charles Aldington (13) and Archibald Cranleigh (11) Stagg. His siblings had married by this time and were living with their own young families.

By the time he was conscripted in 1918 he was working as a porter and living at 6 Condor Road, Woolston near Southampton. The largest employer in the area was the Royal Victoria Hospital at Netley, the enormous military hospital on Southampton Water, it is possible that John was already doing a form of war service before he was called up.  Indeed, work at Netley could even have delayed his conscription, which did not take place until August 1918, late for one of his age.

Advertisement for shop

Advertisement from a local

trde directory.

The Military Service Act passed into law on 27 January 1916, it introduced conscription to the UK; single men between the age of 19 and 41 were deemed to have been enlisted on 2 March 1916. However, in John’s case, his records show that this ‘enlistment’ took place on 4 March, presumably the date his name was registered (individual’s basic details had to be entered on the enrolment form B.2513). As he was only 23 at the time one would expect him to have been called up almost immediately, but he wasn’t, this suggests that he was employed in a certified occupation (work vital to the war effort).  A porter at the largest military hospital in the country might qualify, but so, perhaps, could a porter at Southampton docks across the River Itchen from Woolston.  Another consideration is that the military had an inflated impression of John’s age; when he did don a uniform in 1918 he declared his age as 28 years 9 months (he was over 2 years younger than this), however this would have made little difference to his call up.

Whatever the reason John was not called up until 7 August 1918, a time when the military were in desperate need of more men following the shock of the German Spring Offensives, a time when past considerations might well have been revisited and revised.

Digweed shop (2)

Another view of Henry Digweed outside the shop

in Cheap Street. It is likely that the two to the

right are his sons, Sidney and John.

On 8 August he was posted to the Gloucestershire Regiment for training, and given a medical, which showed him to be 5ft 5¾in tall, 128lbs and to have brown hair, a fresh complexion, and a poor physique. He was categorised ‘B1’  - Free from serious organic diseases, able to stand service on lines of communication in France, or in garrisons in the tropics. Able to march 5 miles, see to shoot with glasses, and hear well. In this category he was not of great use to an infantry regiment like the Gloucestershires, so he was transferred on 20 October 1918 into the Army Service Corps which performed the thousands of vital tasks behind the lines that were necessary to keep the fighting troops fed, clothed and supplied with everything they needed to perform their duties.

John never went to France, he was sent to an ASC(MT) depot at Sydenham to learn to be a driver (MT stood for motor transport). It appears he was not suited in the rôle and on 25 February 1919 he was transferred (on the grounds of ‘inefficiency’) to Isleworth, another ASC(MT) Depot, where he was allocated to ‘P & L Branch’, believed to be the ‘packing and loading’ section (though ‘petrol and lubricants’ has also been suggested).

Digweed shop in 2016

62 Cheap Street - vacant in 2016.

His work seems to have taken him to the Winchester area for he was admitted to the Magdalen Camp Hospital there on 14 October 1919 where he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. On 28 October he was transferred to the Alexandria Military Hospital at Cosham where he died at 2.30am on 4 November 1919.  This was a very rapid progress from diagnosis to death, but John may well have been infected for a long time (perhaps years) before his symptoms became so apparent – it could even be a reason behind his poor fitness level on enlistment.  

The news of his death reached Newbury very quickly:

Newbury Weekly News, 6 November 1919 – Deaths
DIGWEED – Nov 4th, 1919, Pte John Henry Digweed, MT, ASC, at the Royal Alexandra Hospital, Cosham, age 27, formerly of Newbury.

Name on Newbury War Memorial

Harry's name on Newbury War Memorial

(upper middle)

John was buried in his mother’s grave in Newtown Road Cemetery on 8 November 1919. His age, as given on his death certificate and in the cemetery’s burial register was 32 – once again he was being thought older than his actual age of 27.

He is also remembered on Tablet 8 of the Newbury Town War Memorial.



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