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.