The Batten brothers from Yarcombe
2nd Bn Prince Alberts Somerset Light Infantry ….
What started out as part of First World War research, then involved the same family in the Boer War, sadly with one fatality from the same family in each war.
During the preparations for the commemoration of the Great War, the village of Yarcombe in East Devon, received out of the blue, a large bronze Death Plaque or Widows Penny, one of 1,355,000 issued. This had originally been sent to the family of Thomas Batten and had then found it’s way to the Carillon War Memorial Museum, who in 2019 kindly donated it to our village.
Out of the population of a small Devon parish, ninety three enlisted and eleven did not return. All the names are recorded on a collection of mounted brass plaques in the Baptist Chapel.
There are also six members of the Spiller family recorded, one of whom did not return.
Thomas Batten had enlisted at Dorchester into the 21st Battalion Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. He appears to have enlisted early in the war as his original service number of 4689 was replaced by 266836 in 1917. He was killed age 28 on April 1st 1918 and is remembered on the Pozieres Memorial as having no known grave. He is also commemorated on a headstone just outside the entrance to the Baptist Chapel. This headstone also commemorates father Eli, wife and mother Mary Jane and their sons John and Thomas Batten.
We had also been offered Thomas Batten’s medals, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal, both generously gifted by Martin Keys who had previously purchased them. Along with a photo of Thomas Batten, there is now a comprehensive collection to the memory of John and Thomas.
The village website has a detailed record of seventy four ancestral searches, but does not appear to feature any Boer War connections, unlike nearby Honiton, which has a memorial dedicated to nine former pupils from nearby All Hallows School, Rousdon.
On enquiring if there was anyone from the village who served in the Boer War, l learnt that there was one person, John Batten, who was an elder brother of Thomas. From the 1891 census it appeared that Thomas did not have an elder brother and the family were living at Beacon Farm, now occupied by a prominent local historian.
On further investigation of the 1891 census, Thomas did have an elder brother John, who was living at a different address in the village, earning his keep as a ten year old servant at Waterhayne Farm. It was not unusual in those days to send children out to other families if their parents could not afford to feed them or possibly helping to support their parents.
In the 1911 census, Thomas Batten was living at The Beacon in Yarcombe, recorded as a farm labourer, working elsewhere, while his sister Louisa was recorded as Housekeeper working at home.
On her death in 1963, she is noted as Louisa Batten Spiller, hence the link between the Batten and Spiller families and the previous mention of the Spiller names also recorded on the Baptist Chapel memorial.
John Batten’s life would appear to have been one of being born into a working agricultural family, with very little chance of improving his life. His maternal grandfather had been a shoemaker, a trade not taken up by his son Eli. The occupations given by the ‘heads of houses’ of the six dwellings in Beacon in the 1891 census, were five agricultural labourers and one woodsman.
Whether it was as a result of the agricultural depression of the 1870s, which tragically impacted on my own paternal family, or the prospect of regular pay, improved conditions, potential promotion or the chance to see some more of the world with the comradeship of fellow soldiers, we will never know his motive for leaving his family, village and agriculture behind.
The next major chapter in John Battens life is that he had joined the 2nd Battalion Prince Albert’s Somerset Light Infantry nr 5065.
His QSA medal is in the possession of a descendant of his sister Louisa and l have been able to locate a picture of John Batten’s medal, which also has clasps for Relief of Ladysmith, Tugela Heights, Cape Colony, Orange Free State and Transvaal.
During his relatively short life, John must have seen plenty of action, most probably all of it during his relatively short military service, for which his very rural upbringing had not been a particularly helpful preparation. It may however have given him some countryside skills he found useful in contributing to him surviving well known actions as demonstrated by his clasps, then only to die from disease.
John Batten died on 30 December 1900 and is buried at Springfontain Military Cemetery, although his headstone is misspelt as Batton.
I do not know if his medal has always been in the family or if it was subsequently purchased by them, either way it is where it deserves to be.
After their losses in the two wars, Eli and Mary Jane Batten still had two girls and three boys, several of whom are thought to have married into local families, with their descendants still living in the locality, although shortly after 2015 there were no Batten family names thought to be still living in the parish of Yarcombe.
Quite a story from a Manor owned by Sir Francis Drake and with family descendants there to this day. Perhaps this will bring another family to search their family history and discover a Boer War connection.
The pictures and confirmation of the marriage connection between the two families, was courtesy of Jonathan Spiller and his cousin, via Ancesty.
I look forward to hearing of any further information about John Batten, which will be forwarded to his family and our enthusiastic local family historians.