Foundling Walter Beverley and the 1917 Chatham air raid

Foundling Walter Beverley and the 1917 Chatham air raid

We look at the life of foundling Walter Beverley, killed in the 1917 Chatham Air Raid and now commemorated by the Foundling Museum.

On the night of 3 September 1917, the naval barracks at Chatham were hit by an air raid, killing 131 of the nearly 700 sailors who were stationed there. The centenary of this event was commemorated this year by the Drill Hall Library, located on the site where the raid took place. The parade in front of the former Drill Hall was joined by many descendants of those killed, laying wreaths or small wooden crosses. However, not all of those being remembered could be joined by relatives, and one man in particular, Walter Beverley, R.N., Stoker, First Class, is of particular interest in this regard.

On 30 October 1894, the newly re-named Walter Beverley was taken in by the Foundling Hospital. The Foundling Hospital apprenticeship records show that in 1909 he was apprenticed to a ‘Mr Frank Spencer, Tailor’ of 1 Holbury Street, Chelsea, on 10 June, with help from the Hospital. However, on 5 November 1913, 18 months before reaching 21 (the legal age of majority), he is recorded as enrolling in the Royal Navy.

After undergoing basic training at Chatham, he was deployed to HMS Vanguard on 1 April 1914, one of Admiral Fisher’s famous Dreadnought Battleships. He served there until 11 August 1917, after HMS Vanguard sank with almost total loss of life following an explosion in her magazine rack on 9 July 1917. Walter Beverley is thought to be one of the only survivors from the wreckage, picked up by HMAS Sydney.

Upon returning back to Chatham Naval Barracks on 12 August 1917, he was assigned to sleep in the Drill Hall due to chronic overcrowding at the barracks. This Drill Hall had been adapted as sleeping quarters with hammocks and other necessary items. However, it was ultimately unsuitable due to its glass ceiling. When the air raid hit on 3 September 1917, the ceiling shattered, and the broken glass and debris killed hundreds, including Walter Beverley.

Usually, the legal next of kin for unmarried soldiers was their mother, but as he was a foundling and had no mother recorded, upon Walter’s death his next of kin was listed as ‘Friend, Elizabeth Payne, Pottscrouch Farm near St Albans, Herts’. This mysterious ‘Elizabeth’ has never been certifiably identified, with the most likely candidate being a girl who was 13 at the time of Walter’s death, which seems unusual.

Walter was entitled to a full set of war medals on his death; the 1914/15 Star, the Victory, and the British War Medal. These medals are still thought to be in the possession of the Ministry of Defence, along with his Memorial Plaque and Scroll. His ultimate place of rest is Woodlands Road Cemetery, where he was interred in row 14, plot 1471.

With no obituary or death notice ever found for him, the Foundling Museum now commemorates him. As he had no knowledge of his birth mother or father, the Foundling Hospital would have acted in loco parentis, providing Walter with an education and a future trade. To remember Walter, we have a temporary display in our Introductory Gallery consisting of a named knitted poppy, one of 131 made by members of the Royal Naval Association, St Mary’s Active Retirement Association and University staff to commemorate all those who died. This knitted poppy has been kindly donated to us from the Royal Naval Association.

Many thanks go to Marcus Bedingfield for helping us procure this poppy, his tireless research into Walter and invaluable information about him, used in this article.

You can see Walter Beverley’s poppy in our Introductory Gallery until 11 November.