You never know what family history you might stumble upon when you’re doing historical research here at Woodland. For me, it was a distant connection, but interesting nonetheless…
The story begins with my research on the Becher family for our “They are Not Here” tour, about London soldiers from the First World War who are memorialized at Woodland. Back in the early 20th century, “Becher” was a well known name here in London. In 1914, the family was headed by Henry Becher and Katherine Becher, who lived at the Thornwood Estate at 329 St. George Street (which is still there today – it backs onto Gibbons Park and was built in 1852!)
Henry’s father, Henry C. R. Becher (Sr.), had emigrated here from England in 1835, maintaining several interesting literary and military connections both back home and in his new country. Through the years, Thornwood was host to some of the most important figures to visit London, including Sir John A. MacDonald, Robert Borden, and Winston Churchill.
For our WWI tour, it was the original Henry C. R. Becher’s grandsons that interested me – the 3 children of Henry and Katherine. The eldest was named Henry Campbell Becher, followed by the middle son Alexander Lorne Becher, and the youngest, Archibald Valency Becher. They were all born in the mid/late 1870s, which, unfortunately, made them the perfect age for enlistment by the time WWI was declared. Though Alexander had been by most accounts a sickly child and wasn’t able to enlist, Henry was one of the first men in London to do so.
(Caption: the Becher brothers)
Prior to his enlistment, Henry had been a well-liked figure in London society. Though he never married, he continued his father’s legacy by studying law and opening a stock brokerage business. Personal documents and memoirs tell us that he loved sports, horses, nature, acting (he starred in many amateur productions!) and his family. Henry enlisted almost immediately after the declaration of war, and was appointed a high position in Canada’s 1st Battalion. He may have been following the example set by his younger brother Archibald, who had served in the Boer War in South Africa prior.
(Caption: Henry Campbell Becher)
During his service, Henry was revered as an excellent leader, both among his troops and in the newspapers in London. He officially achieved a hero’s status when he was killed in action on June 15, 1915 – rather early in the war. He was leading his men into battle, and knew the danger he was getting into when he stepped over the parapet, saying “No man can live in that fire, but I’ll go” (London Free Press). As he went over the top, a bomb detonated, shattering his legs. He was rescued by a field ambulance, but was shot in the neck by a German sniper during transport. Despite these horrific injuries, his fellow soldiers reported that Henry was cheerful until the very end, surviving several hours into the night. He was buried in France the next morning. A memorial service was held in St. Paul’s Cathedral, filling it to standing room only, which was a testament to his character.
The Becher family was heartbroken at the news of Henry’s loss; especially, I believe, Archibald, who was a practicing physician in London at the time. When you take into account his family life and his high standing in London, it becomes clear that his grief over his elder brother’s death may have been a deciding factor in his own enlistment.
“Archie” had attended the University of Western Ontario, graduating with a medical degree. He interrupted his studies to enlist in the Boer War at the turn of the century, a point of pride for his family and other Londoners. When he returned to London, he served as an Alderman on London’s City Council and served as one of London’s coroners. He married Flora Wilson (nicknamed “Toppy”) in 1902, and had a son named John in 1913, which may explain why he did not enlist as early as his brother did. Or, perhaps he was disillusioned with the concept of war after his time in South Africa – we will never know.
(Caption: Archibald Becher)
It was only after Henry was KIA that Archibald decided to offer his services as a surgeon. He enlisted late in 1915, signing his own enlistment papers as a doctor to confirm that he was fit for active service. This may in fact have been his downfall. He proceeded to a Quebec military hospital for training, but contracted double pneumonia not a month later. Fortunately, his wife and his mother Katherine were able to travel down to Quebec to say their goodbyes. Archie died on Christmas Day, 1915, leaving behind a two-year-old son and (likely unbeknownst to him) another son (his namesake) on the way. Since he was still in Canada, he was able to be transported back to London for burial in Woodland Cemetery, with full military honours and hundreds in attendance.
(Caption: Archie with his young family)
Losing two sons in one year was a hugely tragic blow for the Becher family, especially, perhaps, their mother Katherine who continued to live at Thornwood. The family plot at Woodland Cemetery commemorates each of the Bechers with love, including beautiful stones and the inclusion of nicknames.
Knowing the story of this family made it all the more meaningful for me to discover that we are distantly related. My grandfather handed down all of his genealogical research to me, and it turns out that we and the Bechers have a notable cousin in common: the British author William Makepeace Thackeray, who wrote the novel Vanity Fair. Though I’m not sure if our families were ever closely connected back in England, knowing that my family tree has such as remarkable branch, local to London no less, makes my own historical footprint more interesting.
(If you want to know more, check out our “They Are Not Here” documentary: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W_I_MkdaPN8 )