Ordinary Lives

Charles Henry Layzell was born in Kennington, London in January 1871, one of the nine children of James Layzell, a cab driver, and his wife Harriet.

James & Harriet Layzell       (Warren Layzell)

Nearly sixteen years later, on 16 September 1885, Charles presented himself to the recruiting sergeant of the Oxford Light Infantry and told him that he was eighteen years old and a blacksmith. The sergeant may or may not have believed him, but he saw a likely lad, sturdy and five feet six inches tall (a good height in those days). He signed him up for seven years.

It was a good decision, both for Charles and for the British army. Charles was promoted corporal in 1888 and in 1891 was appointed as a third-class instructor at the School of Musketry in Hythe. Only the very best marksmen in the British Army were selected, so he must have been an excellent shot.

The School of Musketry in Hythe

Two years later he extended his service by another five years. The School of Musketry and Hythe provided  congenial places to raise a family, and Charles was now a married man. He had wed Jennie Greenhouse in December 1890 in Portsmouth and a daughter and three sons followed: Jennie Ruth, Kenneth Charles Stewart, Hector James More and Wilfred Frank.

Charles & Jennie on their wedding day    (Warren Layzell)

Meanwhile, Charles’s next youngest brother, Arthur James, had followed in his footsteps in more ways than one. He, too, joined the Oxfordshire Light Infantry, in1889; he, too, added three years to his age in order to do so. His military career was shorter than his brother’s. He was sent to India in 1891, where he suffered from a variety of mostly minor complaints before being discharged as unfit for further service in 1900. He then got married, to Rhoda Worthy and returned to London where he managed a coffee shop in Kensington.

Perhaps this was not a success. At any rate, by 1904 he had joined Charles in Hythe and was working as a civil subordinate labourer at the School of Musketry. It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that Charles had arranged the job for him. Arthur and Rhoda lived in St Nicholas Road in Hythe with their daughters, Jessie and Ruth.

Arthur’s home in St Nicholas Road

Charles was himself going from strength to strength. He had been promoted to first-class instructor, extended his term of service by another twelve years and then, in 1905, become Regimental Sergeant Major. He applied for a further extension of service and exceptionally this was granted, a recognition of the esteem in which he was held.

Charles as RSM                            (Warren Layzell)

Both brothers had declared themselves to be Anglican when they enlisted, but their service records show that they then both became Wesleyans. Once in Hythe, their religious paths diverged. Charles started attending the services held in meeting rooms in Park Road, Hythe. The congregation, known as ‘the Brethren’ was run by Eliza Southee, the survivor of a group of three women who had established a religious community there. Charles sometimes preached and he conducted Miss Southee’s funeral service. Arthur became a member of the Salvation Army, which had opened an outpost in Hythe in 1895. He and Charles were also both active members of the temperance movement.

The Salvation Army Hall in Hythe

Then there was another parting of the ways.

In 1909 Charles was transferred to the School of Musketry (Imperial Forces) South Africa in Bloemfontein. Why South Africa? In the early twentieth century hundreds of thousands of British people, many of them young men, but families, too, emigrated to the USA and the British Empire. They were motivated by the opportunities promised for jobs and land. Charles’s adjutant at the School of Musketry was Major Frank Bourne, who had also made his way up through the ranks and who had served in South Africa during the Zulu wars. Did he recommend the country? And did Charles intend at that time to emigrate permanently? Or did he regard this as a temporary posting?

In 1910 the Union of South Africa was created and the next year Britain withdrew most of its forces. Charles, however, stayed on, though it appears from his records that he was still a British soldier He even got yet another extension in 1911 and remarkably, qualified as an interpreter in ‘Cape Dutch’.  The South African authorities established their own school of musketry, at first in the old president’s house in Bloemfontein, but a few months later moving it to Tempe, where the first courses were held.

The old presidents house in Bloemfontein, first home of the SA School of Musketry

The first course held at the SA School of Musketry. Charles is far right, second row from back (1)

Charles took his pension in December 1912. Less than two years later he was back in harness, joining his erstwhile colleagues at Potchefstroom, where they trained volunteers for overseas duty during World War 1. During this time, Charles was commissioned and held the rank of Captain when he finally took permanent retirement.

Charles in an officer’s uniform with his family  (Warren Layzell)

Meanwhile, back in Hythe, Arthur was having a rather less exciting time. In the same year that Charles took his pension, Arthur had the misfortune to have his foot shattered when a motor car ran over it. He was off work for some time, but the accident seems to have preyed on his mind and he took to writing long letters to the local newspaper about the amount of traffic on the roads. This extended to encompass the general state of the roads and, eventually, to anything else that annoyed him. Top of the list in the 1920s were Trade Unionism and the Labour Party, both of which he loathed and he was the only civilian subordinate at the School of Musketry to refuse to join a union. The leader of Hythe Labour Party rather spitefully pointed out that this did not stop him accepting the five shilling pay rise negotiated by the union.

Sadly, his daughter Ruth died in 1925, aged twenty-one. She had worked at the Co-operative stores in Hythe High Street and was ill for only three weeks before her untimely death.

The brothers saw each other once more, when Charles and his wife travelled back to the UK in 1927 for a visit and stayed at St Nicholas Road. Then he went back to South Africa where he carried on his gospel work and was employed at the South African Mutual Buildings in Johannesburg. He died on 6 October 1933. His children stayed in South Africa and their descendants live there still.

Arthur survived him by eleven years. Widowed, he moved to Tunbridge Wells and passed away there in 1944.

Ordinary lives, perhaps, but they encapsulate the opportunities becoming available to ordinary men in the late nineteenth century. Both Charles and Arthur would have left school at thirteen at the latest. The army provided Charles with the wherewithal to use his talents and achieve a materially better life  and the flourishing non-conformist churches gave him an outlet for his spiritual side. Arthur’s letters to the press, despite his brief education, are coherent and grammatical and although only a general labourer, he was confident in taking to task local politicians and decision-makers – and in spurning the notion that as a working man, he should embrace socialism.

And a postscript: as an old man, Wilfred Layzell, Charles and Jennie’s youngest son, remembered playing around an old yew tree that stood outside his parents accommodation. The building is long gone, replaced by sheltered housing, but the tree lasted into the twenty-first century, until a branch fell on a resident and it was removed.

The tree that Wilfred remembered…

  1. Neville Gomme, The South African Army College Military History Journal , Vol 2 No 3 – June 1972