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Major John Charles Rea

Major Rea from Aberystwyth, later to become Lieutenant Colonel Rea, was a Welsh territorial soldier who spent time in Bedford in 1915 with the Welsh Division.

In 1902 he was a Lieutenant in the Royal Garrison Artillery (Volunteers). But in 1908 volunteer units were reorganised after the creation of the Territorial Force and one new unit formed was the 2nd Welsh Brigade, Royal Field Artillery. One battery of the new field artillery brigade was provided by the 1st Cardigan Royal Garrison Artillery Brigade (Volunteers) becoming the Cardiganshire Battery with Captain, later Major, Rea by 1912 its commanding officer and training with the Battery in the years leading up to the Great War.

John Charles Rea was a man of many parts, as we will see: a highly rated soccer player, a grocer and wine merchant, a hotel and restaurant keeper, a Mason, a soldier, a son, a husband and a father.

Born on 21 December 1868 in Aberystwyth, then in the historic county of Cardiganshire, John Charles was the son of John Rea, from Worcester, and his wife Mary Anne Williams, from Newtown, Montgomeryshire. Father John, with a Mr Bosley of Hereford, had previously run the mail coach to Shrewsbury and Hereford for many years. When the railway to Borth was opened in 1863, John Rea realised that coaching days were over and in 1864 took over the White Horse Hotel in Terrace Road, Aberystwyth.

Father John died in 1879 but his widow continued to run the hotel and in 1892 purchased the leasehold and also that of an adjoining property in Upper Portland Street to extend the hotel and incorporate in it a grocery shop.

In the meantime John Charles had taken up football, playing first for Ardwyn School, and afterwards moving to London playing as a winger for the Upton Club and then the London Caledonians. In 1891 he was lodging in Tufnell Park Road, Islington, employed whilst playing his football as a commercial clerk. He returned home in 1893 to manage the grocery and provisions store and to play for Aberystwyth Town. He also played one game for West Bromwich Albion in the 1894/95 season, returning to Aberystwyth Town. During his time as a footballer he was capped a number of times for Wales

John Charles took over the licence and lease for the hotel from his mother in 1906, converted the hotel to a first class restaurant with a comfortable lounge, added a sweet and confectionery department and cold meat counter to the grocery store, naming the business ‘Rea’s Restaurant and Stores’.

In 1908 John Charles married Florence Isabel Elkes in Birkenhead and they had by 1911 three children. But in August 1914 war was declared, the order to mobilise was given, Territorial Force members were invited to volunteer for overseas service, and Major Rea took up his military duties as battery commander within the first line division of the Welsh Division.

The Division concentrated at Northampton, moving in December to Cambridge, and in May 1915 to Bedford. In July the infantry of the first line division, by now renamed the 53rd (Welsh) Division, embarked for Gallipoli, but the divisional artillery remained in Bedford until November when they were ordered to France to join the British Expeditionary Force. On the two evenings before they left Bedford, farewell dinners were held for the artillery officers at the Embankment Hotel. Major Rea’s Medal Card records France, where he arrived on 21 November 1915, as the Theatre of War first served in. It records too his award of the Victory, British and Star Medals, which he received in 1922 at Terrace Road, Aberystwhyth.

The 53rd Division suffered appalling casualties at Gallipoli and was withdrawn to Egypt. The divisional artillery, having served briefly in the Somme region, was ordered in January 1916 to rejoin the rest of the division in Egypt (Major Rea far left in the photograph below), and subsequently saw action in Palestine.

At some point John Charles had joined the Aberystwyth Lodge of Freemasons and is remembered in its archives as one of the brethren who served in the forces during the war. Happily Lt Colonel Rea survived the war.

His mother died in 1928 and six years later John Charles retired from the business and the licence for the hotel transferred to W Hancock and Co Ltd of Cardiff. His wife Florence died two years later in 1936 and he lived on in Aberystwyth, until his death, aged 75, in 1944.

In 1906 John Charles had also rebuilt the façade of the hotel, and much of the work he commissioned can still be seen today, the building being Grade II listed, with the name ‘Rea’s’ remembered on the glazed tile bay front with Art Nouveau lettering over and on the windows. After a name change to Varsity at the end of the century, the old White Horse name was restored in 2015. If you are ever in that neck of the woods, it’s something to seek out and to remember this man of many parts, Lt Colonel John Charles Rea.




A sad death

On Thursday, 13 January 1916 an inquest in Bedford heard that, following an accident with a motor bus at Turvey the previous Sunday night, Private Isaac Nelms, aged 19, a soldier from Stockport serving with the 2/6th Cheshires (part of the 68th Division) had died.

The bus driver, Frank Edwards, told the inquest that he was passing over Turvey bridge at around 9.45 pm when he saw a soldier on a cycle coming towards him from the opposite direction. The cyclist was going fairly straight until he was within a yard or so of the bus when he seemed to lose control of his cycle and swerved. The cyclist missed the front of the bus, but then Mr Edwards heard a noise at the side and at the same time hit the bridge in trying to avoid the cyclist.

He and the conductor went back and found Private Nelms lying on the road about a yard from the wall on his proper side of the road. Mr Edwards could not see any marks to suggest he had run over the soldier. They got the soldier onto the bus and he was taken to hospital. Mr Edwards said there was plenty of room for Private Nelms to pass and the bus was lit by two paraffin lamps at the front.

PC Bradshaw of Turvey was informed of the accident and saw the soldier in the bus. He spoke to the soldier who said he was going to Bedford. His clothing was dirty as though he had rolled over but there was no mark to show if the bus had run over him. The wheel marks of the bus were well onto the left side of the road and the cycle was not damaged.

Dr Spence, a house surgeon at the County Hospital, carried out a post mortem and found serious internal injuries which could only have been caused by great pressure. The Coroner said that although there was no evidence to account for these injuries, it seemed almost certain that the hind wheel of the bus must have run over Private Nelms. It appeared a pure accident for which nobody was to blame. The jury returned a verdict of accidental death.

Unhappy Herefords

Soldiers then stationed at bases in Britain were not always treated kindly when home on leave, as this letter published in the Hereford Times in January 1916 from two unhappy privates in the 2/1st Herefords, part of the 205th (2nd Welsh Border) Brigade in the 68th (2nd Welsh) Division stationed in Bedford, describes:


The previous month, Lieutenant-Colonel Percy B Ford, Commanding 2/3rd Monmouthshire Regiment, also part of the 205th (2nd Welsh Border) Brigade, had written on 22 December from the Battalion Headquarters in Bedford to the Editor of the Abergavenny Chronicle (published on 24 December 1915) as follows: ‘Sir – In consequence of all kinds of extraordinary rumours floating about Abergavenny, will you kindly give me the courtesy of your columns to state, for the benefit of all concerned, that every officer, NCO and man on the strength of this battalion has accepted, and signed, the Imperial service agreement, and is liable to be sent overseas at any moment. I wish to make this statement in consequence of information received by a member of this battalion who has recently been to Abergavenny on leave.’

Hearty church services

The North Wales Chronicle and Advertiser for the Principality of 12 November 1915 included an article from the Rev Ben Jones who had been invited by the Senior Chaplain, the Rev T H Richards MA, vicar of Clynnog, to address the soldiers of the Welsh Army stationed at Bedford. The morning service was held in St Paul’s church, capable of holding 1,100 people. Crowded chiefly with the Cheshires and Herefords, it was a sight never to be forgotten to witness the sea of brave faces in every corner of the church, and all so devoutly joining in the service. In the afternoon a short service was held in the hospital.

In the evening Rev Jones attended the Welsh service in St Cuthbert’s Hall, where a good muster of Welshmen had come together to worship in their native tongue. The service was conducted by Chaplain Hughes (late of Carnarvon). The lessons were read by General Mainwaring in English and Colonel Jones Roberts (of Penygroes) in Welsh. A solo was rendered by Private Llewelyn Jones (Llew Colwyn) ‘The Sailor’s Grave’, and the accompanist was Bandsman Owen Evans of Dinorwic. Colonel Jones Roberts was very popular with the men of the Division, who were mostly Welshmen and he and Mrs Jones Roberts saw that they got every comfort possible.

Several services were conducted in English and Welsh during the day in different churches, besides the services held by the Non-conformist chaplains. On Sunday evenings and one week-night, Chaplain J T Phillips trains a large male voice choir at St Cuthbert’s Hall.

One day, Rev Jones visited Kempston where the artillery men were stationed and came across Captain Savage, of Bangor, Sergeant- Fitter Moses David Jones, of St Ann’s, and Gunner Pritchard, of Glanogwen.

Are you prepared to die?

In September 1915 and subsequent months local papers in Wales carried a number of stories about the fighting in Gallipoli and letters from soldiers in the 4th Welsh.

The Cambrian Daily leader of 18 September 1915 printed an article headed ‘How 4th Welsh sailed – story of the voyage and baptism of fire – shells for breakfast’ including a long letter noted as having been ‘Passed by Censor’ from Gunner R Frederick Thomas, of the Machine Gun Section, 1/4th Welsh, attached to the Cheshire Regiment, from Llandovery, describing the journey from Bedford – which they left on 6 July, via Malta, Alexandria, Port Said and Lemnos eventually to reach the Dardanelles, landing on 9 August – and the hard reality of battle and life under fire.

On leaving Bedford, the soldiers were handed a leaflet bearing ‘what most of us at the time regarded as an insignificant headline. It ran: ‘Are you prepared to die?’ … I can safely say that few of the men of the gallant 4th then even dimly realised what the future held in store for them.’

Under the heading ‘Shots whizz past us’ the Haverfordwest Journal and Milford Haven Telegraph of 29 September 1915 carried extracts from letters from the Dardanelles sent by Private J Oliver to his friends at home. He was then in trenches not far from the Turks and ‘shots whizz past us very often but they mostly go over our heads.  ….  but some chaps got hit yesterday. One had his leg broken by a bullet about 20 yards from us.’ He also comments on the risky business of acting as orderly to a listening post about 200 yards in front of the lines. He received copies of the Telegraph every week and had been interested to read an account of ‘our send off from Bedford.’

Lieutenant George Adams  (below) from Haverfordwest also gave his impressions of the campaign in the Haverfordwest and Milford Haven Advertiser of 24 November 1915. He described an occasion when the Turks had disguised themselves as Gurkhas. An officer spotted them and shouted ‘they are Turks, there are no Gurkhas near here’. Instantly the enemy heard this, they shot and killed Lieutenant Adams’ friend and turned and fled back towards their trenches. But not one reached them, all being shot dead before they had gone many yards.

Lieutenant George Adams, 4th Welsh Regiment

The Herefordshires

The 1/1st Battalion of the Herefordshires, in the 53rd (Welsh) Division, had spent only a brief time in Bedford in May 1915, moving quickly on to Rushden and then  in July embarking for Gallipoli.

In December 1915 the Battalion moved to Egypt and were continuing to serve in eastern Egypt on the banks of the Suez Canal in October 1916. That was a relatively quiet month and many men took the opportunity to visit some of the local towns and have their photographs taken.

img_2217                      img_2218


The Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Drage, presented a silver cup to be awarded to the winning company in the Battalion football competition. The cup is now held in the Regimental Museum.


Lieutenant-Colonel Gilbert Drage, Commanding Officer, 1/1st Battalion, the Herefordshire Regiment
Lieutenant-Colonel Gilbert Drage, Commanding Officer, 1/1st Battalion, the Herefordshire Regiment









The 2/1st Battalion, in the 68th (2nd Welsh) Division, had arrived in Bedford in July 1915 and continued during October 1916 to send reinforcements to France to make good losses suffered on the Somme. The men would have been aware of activities on the Somme and the prospect of a posting to a unit in France. There was still a need however for troops to remain in the defence of the country and the 2/1st Herefords continued in this role, departing Bedford for Lowestoft in November 1916.




Bigamy in Bedford

On Wednesday, 16 August 1916 at the Bedford Borough Sessions Annie Tully, aged 20 years, of Union Street, Bedford, was charged with bigamy. Annie confessed to marrying Private Herbert Parry whilst her husband, Charles Tully, was alive.

Annie had married Tully on 14 March 1914 in Llanelly, Monmouthshire, yet two years later on 2 August 1916 she married Parry of the 2/1st Brecknocks at Trinity Church, Bedford. Parry was billeted at 72 Chaucer Road, two streets away from where Annie lived in Union Street.

However, on 7 August 1916 Annie turned herself in at the Police Station saying ‘I have come down to admit that I have committed bigamy. I want to get it over.’ She was charged and cautioned and then made and signed a statement in which she said that Tully had ‘knocked her about’ three days after they were married and also about seven months later during her pregnancy, and her baby had been born dead that night . Annie left him the next morning, taking the bed sheets to pay for lodgings.

Some weeks later Tully had begged her to return and she did. But the night she returned he swore to throw her in the canal. She left him again and had not seen him since January 1915.

Parry testified that he had known Annie for about two years, so it would seem they had met not long after Annie married Tully. It is possible that Annie met Parry when his regiment was formed in Brecon, Monmouthshire, in September 1914 and that she followed him and the regiment to Bedford in 1915. It would be quite a coincidence if they happened to be from the same part of Wales and ended up a few streets from each other in Bedford.

Annie was committed for trial at the next Bedfordshire Assizes.

Chaucer Road, Bedford c1910 (Bedfordshire Archives and Records Service ref Z1306/10/12/1)
Chaucer Road, Bedford c1910
(Bedfordshire Archives and Records Service ref Z1306/10/12/1)



Room for the troops in Biddenham

One hundred years ago a farm barn in Biddenham, near Bedford, was converted into a new canteen and recreation room for the troops of the Great War, and its formal opening on Friday, 17 December 1915 was reported in the Bedfordshire Times and Independent of 24 December. When the war was over, the transformation of the former barn continued becoming eventually the Biddenham village hall villagers know and cherish today.

As the paper informed its readers, on Friday, 17 December a concert was held in the New Canteen and Recreation Room in Biddenham which was formally opened by Colonel C J Markham, Commanding the 205th Infantry Brigade (the 2nd Welsh Border Brigade and part of the 68th (2nd Welsh) Division). ‘In introducing Colonel Markham, Major Carpenter, Organising Secretary, referred to the generosity of the Trustees of the Biddenham estate, and Mrs Wingfield in the provision and alteration of the building, and the liberality of the tenant, Mr J Evans, who had given up possession of the building without compensation. The Organising Committee consisted of Captain Addie, Mrs Addie, Mrs Carpenter, Mrs Whitworth, Mrs Randall, Mr Herring (Secretary), and Mr Ingram (cashier), and several ladies offered their services as helpers. Gifts in kind had been received from Mr Whitworth (a piano), Mrs Carpenter, Miss Collie, Mrs Markham, Miss Howard, Mrs Spencer, Miss Street, Mrs Randall, etc, while the Bedford Borough Recreation Committee, through Mr Machin, placed at the disposal of the Local Committee many essentials in the way of furniture.

Colonel Markham said the canteen would be highly appreciated by the troops billeted at Biddenham.

An interesting programme was arranged by Miss Norman, those taking part including Miss Turner (Bedford), Lieutenant Markham (5th Northumberland Fusiliers), Misses Spencer, Miss Helen Norman, Mrs Piercy, Miss Joan de Roboek, and Private Knight. The canteen is open to all soldiers between 12 noon and 1.0 pm, and 4.0 pm to 9.0 pm on weekdays, and from 3.0 pm to 9.0 pm on Sundays. Concerts will be given, and sing-songs organised by Messrs Chibnall and King.’

Biddenham village hall, some 100 years after it was converted from a straw barn to be opened as a canteen and recreation room for soldiers billeted in the village
Biddenham village hall, some 100 years after it was converted from a straw barn to be opened as a canteen and recreation room for soldiers billeted in the village


Saved by a cigarette case

John James Thomas, from Penygroes, enlisted at Brecon as a Private – service number 813 –  in the 4th Battalion of the Welsh Regiment in January 1915, having lied about his age: he was 15 years old.

He had started an apprenticeship with a draper but was more concerned with the war. After training with the Battalion, attached to the 53rd (Welsh) Division, including latterly time in Bedford, he sailed from Devonport with the Division landing on 9 August 1915 at Suvla Bay, Gallipoli.

There were many casualties in those first chaotic few days, but not Private Thomas although he would have perished had it not been for his cigarette case. Tucked away safely in his breast pocket it was struck, but not penetrated, by a bullet heading for his heart. Private Thomas survived that near miss and the war.

You can read more about him and Porthcawl and the Great War.

Private John James Thomas, middle row
Private John James Thomas, middle row