Recalling the 1914-18 war often involves descriptions of military strategy and the bewildering numbers who were killed or maimed on both sides. What is often lacking in the tomes of history is the impact of the war from the perspective of the home shores. The research into Wokingham’s memorial has shown us the numbers of losses each street suffered during the war. If you look at the bottom on this page there is a map which shows these losses; often eight or nine deaths in a single street. However, there is another perspective and that is the impact on the families within the community. Today’s Wokingham only shows glimpses of its village history and it is difficult to grasp how close a community it was and it is even harder to envisage what a ‘close community’ actually means. What is also surprising is the community which existed for hundreds of years (as we shall see) has changed beyond recognition only in recent decades. At the time of First World War, Wokingham was a small area of fewer than 7,000 people (1911 Census) as compared to the 35,000+ of today. The tight knit nature of small towns such as Wokingham felt their losses not just on an individual basis, but as a community. Names such as Brant, Rance, Pursey and Collyer have been in the town for hundreds of years and a network of marriages during this period meant the losses laid heavily on the townspeople because the community was in effect, a large extended family. One example of this family network in Wokingham is the connection between the Purseys and Alexanders and when we start to look into this family, we very quickly find the relationships go much wider and deeper. To help us understand these connections, we spoke to Mrs Christine Parnwell (nee Pursey) who is interested in her family history. Christine gives us a little background to the early connections:
“I and other family members have traced the Pursey family to the seventeenth century, where John Pursey married Ann Walden on 14th January 1748. The Pursey family were associated with the village of Barkham for many years. Many of whom (if not all of them) worked as agricultural workers living in tied cottages which went with their work”.
We can see by the photo on this page, a report of a proud Mr and Mrs T Alexander watching their sons go to war. Mrs Mary Alexander was in fact Mrs Mary Pursey before losing her husband Charles and later marrying Thomas Alexander in 1909. Mary and Thomas were later to witness the death of four of their sons, Henry and Thomas Pursey and William and George Alexander. Charles Pursey senior was Christine’s Great Grand Uncle. Christine also has connections with the Rance family, whose name is mentioned on the Wokingham Memorial; Oliver and William Rance having lost their lives. Christine tells us:
“My maternal grandparents had the surname of Rance and lived in the Plough Pub,
London Road, Wokingham. The first listing I can find of Thomas and his first wife Ann is dated 1854. Thomas and Ann ran the pub for over a decade, then Thomas was widowed, he married his second wife Martha and ran the pub for at least another two decades. It is said Rances Lane may have been named after the family. I have found a Thomas Rance age 13 listed as a border at the Wargrave Union Workhouse, if this was my great great grandfather he did very well indeed as by the age 25 he was married to Ann and running the beer house (as it was called then) which is certainly an achievement coming from a very poor start in life. The pub then had 5 acres of land which Thomas and family worked on as agricultural workers, as well as running the pub and coping with a very large family. One of his daughters Florence was my grandmother, my Mum’s Mum. William Thomas Rance (on the Wokingham Town Hall Memorial) is I’m sure a relation, although as of yet I haven’t found the connection to the Plough Pub family”.
“I remember in the sixties having relations of Rance in Easthampstead road, no doubt descendants of ours. I have a football photograph of my Mum’s half brother Harold Rance (right of the trophy). At the age of 14 Harold joined the Army (WW2) and rose to be a Major spending a lot of time in Nicosia. We have the date of 1933/4 on the football, but as yet not found any other information”.
Just to add to connections within this old Wokingham family, Christine’s mother’s maiden name was Sumner and we know of an Arthur Sumner, who was born in Wokingham, a Grenadier Guard and was killed in the First War on November 1st 1914. The Sumner family came from Bramshill.
“There is a tombstone just inside the gate at Eversley churchyard of Ernest Sumner age 19 who had died in 1915, a gunner with the Royal Field Artillery. I found later Ernest was my grandfathers’ (Alfred Sumner) youngest brother. A few years earlier on the 1901 census Ernest was a shepherd’s boy age 14, just so sad to think of him and all the other young men dying so young”.
Christine provides more information of the intertwined nature of the Wokingham families:
“Our family is complicated as my Dad’s widowed Mum (Rosina Pursey) married my Mum’s widowed Dad (Alfred Sumner) bringing both families together merging 15 children, Mum being the youngest at 14, Dad was 19. It was the first time my parents had met and in later years (1947) they married, although step brother and sister they were not blood related. This meant I only had one set of grandparents who I don’t really remember, as Mum’s Dad (Alf) died in 1952 when I was 3 and Dad’s Mum (Rosina) died in 1956 when I was only 7. So sadly my brother and I grew up without any grandparents. I don’t have many photos of the grandparents as they were all very poor and probably a camera was a luxury. I have never seen any photos at all of Dad’s Dad (Edwin Pursey), he died in 1933 age 59.
Henry and William (named in the Wokingham Town Hall memorial) were Charles Pursey’s sons and Edwin my grandfather was one of Richard’s sons. Charles and Richard were brothers so that made William and Henry Edwin’s cousins. My grandmother, Rosina married into the Pursey family, her maiden name was Jewell who came from Hurst. I’m surprised there are no mentioned of any Jewells on the memorial as they were another large family who must have had young men in the WW1”.
In this short biography, we start to feel the sense of loss which were felt along the wires which bonded many families together in Wokingham. What is also fascinating is how if there was a premature loss in the family of a husband or a wife, that they would, by necessity (as no benefit system then) as much as love, remarry and combine two already large families into an even larger unit. The rural communities required all members of the family to work in order to provide sustenance and ultimately, survival.
Christine then finishes with a passage which will describe many of our experiences of childhood:
“I was born in 1949 at Barkham which is three miles out of Wokingham. As a child on many occasions I went with my Mum shopping in Wokingham I remember some of the old shops Ken Goatley mentions in his history of Wokingham. Although we weren’t well off my brother and I had a lovely childhood, we played outside in all weathers and were free to roam, we had healthy food often grown in the garden and fresh eggs from our own chickens. Those were the days, what I call a lovely natural healthy childhood”.