Thanks to wonderful feedback from Mark Whitewood, son of Ellen (nee Frost), the story of the Frost family in Coventry during World War II is about to be expanded. Stay tuned!
This post was created to commemorate ANZAC day and as part of the Trans Tasman ANZAC Day Blog Challenge. Although the story is not about Australia or New Zealand directly, it has its beginnings in the same war that our ANZACs fought in. It is about the experiences of those at “home” in England whom the ANZACs sought to protect and defend. It is also about the effects of war on families and how they can resonate across generations and across countries. And it explains why a single English military medal is taken to ANZAC day services in semi rural Victoria.
Ellen Leather was born in Prescot, Lancashire, in 1859, the daughter of a watch pinion maker. During the 1860s industry in Lancashire began failing and the family of eleven children moved to Coventry where watch making was still surviving as a major manufacturing industry. As the watch industry itself slowed, Ellen’s father moved into bicycle manufacture. In Coventry, Ellen met her future husband Frederick Henry Morris, a steam engine fitter. Fred soon moved into the bicycle manufacturing industry with his father-in-law, working as a machinist or turner.
Fred Morris and Ellen Leather married in St Michael’s, Coventry on the 31st May 1879. They had five children together – three girls and two boys. The middle child Elizabeth died in 1891 when she was just six years old. In July 1902 Ellen’s husband Fred Morris died in the Coventry work house from tuberculosis, and less than 18 months later their eldest daughter died. Ellen struggled on, working as a laundress to support herself and her ten year old daughter Ethel who remained at home. When the Great War broke out, Ellen’s two sons enlisted in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. Leonard was married and had a young daughter but Fred jnr had remained single. Both young men were soon on the front line in France. Fred was the first to lose his life in battle. He died in an accident in February 1915. His body was recovered and now lies in the now almost idyllic setting of Bois-Grenier Communal Cemetery, Nord, France.
Leonard was killed in action the following year but his body was never recovered. His life is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial, on the Somme. Ellen had now lost her husband and four of her five children. Leonard’s life and sacrifice lived on through his daughter Winifred, but Fred lived on only through his medals which were presented to his mother. One can only imagine how this mother must have wept as she held these symbols of her son’s sacrifice.
After the war, Ellen Morris maintained a close relationship with her only surviving child Ethel, who had married Sydney Percival Frost in 1913. Ethel and Syd had five children and Ethel’s mother Ellen Morris lived with the family for some time. Ethel named her youngest son Leonard Frost in honour of her deceased brother. Ethel’s eldest son – John Christopher Frost, born in 1919 – was particularly close to his Granny Morris. He went to her council home for lunch every day and listened to her family stories. He enjoyed reading with her and rejoiced in the pleasure the elderly woman gained from a gramophone player the family bought her. When John was almost nineteen, he entered his grandmother’s house to find his mother weeping over the body of his grandmother. Ellen’s prized possessions, including Fred’s medals were taken home by Ethel and treasured just as her mother had. No doubt she also held Fred’s medal and wept over her lost siblings.
When the Second World War began the Frost family were living at 62 Cross Road behind one of Coventry’s ammunition factories. In a few short years, Coventry had been transformed into the heart of Britain’s war production.
Ethel’s husband Syd Frost and eldest son John (known as Jack) worked in the munitions factory. During the war Syd also took on Warden’s duties and Jack was a member of the Home Guard.
The two eldest Frost children, Ellen and Sue, had married and moved out of the family home, so on many of the fearful nights that Coventry endured during 1940, Ethel was left at home with twelve year old Leonard. On the night of the 14th November 1940, five days after Jacks’ 21st birthday, German bombers launched a massive attack on the city of Coventry intending to cripple the English war effort.
As usual, Jack and Syd Frost were out on Warden’s duties that night. Young Len was ill, so Ethel decided not to go into an air raid shelter, sheltering instead with Len under the stairs of their home. Whatever Ethel’s decision had been on that night, the outcome may not have been any different. The city was almost obliterated and thousands of civilians were killed in the raid that became known as Moonlight Sonata.
Sometime during that terrible night the Frost home took a direct hit. Jack and Syd returned home in the early hours of the 15th November to find their home razed and the crushed bodies of their loved ones in the rubble. The death certificates of Ellen and Leonard read “Dead body found 15th November, 62 Cross Road.” The cause of death was listed as “due to war operations”. Ethel and Len were buried in a mass grave with many other victims.
Despite the destruction, some parts of 62 Cross Road miraculously still stood. Out of the rubble, a vase, still standing resolutely on a sideboard was retrieved undamaged. Other small things that had not been burnt or blown to pieces were retrieved by the grieving family, including Uncle Fred Morris’ World War I medal. The house block was eventually cleared and a park created on the site, and that of Number 64, which was also destroyed. The small vacant block still remains, an incongruent open space in a long row of terrace houses.
Life remained difficult for the surviving family members. Sue moved to Canada. Jack lived with his sister Ellen before travelling overseas looking for a fresh start. Syd tried to drown his grief with alcohol. Six years after the loss of half of his family and his home, Syd gassed himself. On his travels around the world before settling in Australia, Jack took whatever mementos of his family he had salvaged from 62 Cross Road, including his Uncle Fred’s World War One medal.
The medal recovered from the ashes of 62 Cross Road in 1940 is not in itself extraordinary or unusual when seen in isolation. In context however, the medal is a powerful symbol of the immense suffering endured by Ellen Morris, her children and grandchildren, in a country deeply affected by war over three generations. It remains a mute testimony to human war time suffering across all ages.
When John Frost died in late 2005, amongst his possessions, this lone, dirty, unribboned medal was found. And another family member wept.