Sevenoaks Own War Horse?
Whilst searching past copies of the local paper for something else, I came across a much more interesting story, that of (William) Bill Dewing and his extraordinary life.
Bill wasn’t a native of Sevenoaks. Born in 1886 in Deptford, he moved to the town sometime in the 1940s.
He first appears in the Sevenoaks Chronicle in 1949. Clearly already a popular figure, Bill was a dream for any interviewer, in that he was happy to talk about his many experiences.
Bill, now a purveyor of dried logs and manure, is first profiled with his trusty mare, Stella, who pulled his cart through the streets of Sevenoaks. Stella was popular with pupils of Walthamstow Hall Girls’ School, who first met her heading to Knole Park one Wednesday afternoon and then insisted that their weekly walk should always take the same route so that they could meet Bill and his trusty steed, who enjoyed all the attention.
According to the article, Bill had loved horses all his life. His father had been a carman and he followed him into that trade at the age of 14, later working as a stableman with a firm of stores:
Horses have always been my work ever since them times. I saw the change over from horse drawn trams to electric, and did a lot of the carriage work from Greenwich to the ‘Bridges’ which followed.
London was all horses in my young days, and a better place for it too. It was nothing to work in stable with a hundred horses, and manure in those days was bought by one firm for 2/4d per horse per day.
Bill served in the Great War with the 10th Battalion of the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment, where he was put to work playing to his strengths in training transport drivers at home and then in France:
I went to France in 1915, and took over a Brigade of Transport. I was a full sergeant. Medals? Oh yes, I did get the Military Medal. That was for saving men and horses in an ‘ammo’ dump explosion during a shelling. Got mentioned in dispatches too.
As well as his Military Medal, Bill showed the Chronicle reporter another medal he’d been awarded, the RSPCA Medal ‘for courage and humanity’ which he won in 1935.
This prestigious medal was won when Bill saved a horse trapped in an iron manger. The horse had bolted when frightened, and had impaled itself on an iron fence, cleared itself with a badly gashed belly, and had finally come to rest with a foreleg twisted into an iron manger.
A policeman went to find Bill, who crawled under the animal, hacksawed the leg free, and then, taking the whole weight of the forequarters, got the horse out. He managed to nurse the animal to good health afterwards.
A couple of years later in 1951, Bill featured in the Chronicle’s pages once again, this time with his horse, Bess.
Bess had been used for home deliveries in the Sevenoaks district for many years and was popular with customers, with one even paying for a new coat for her, made at a local saddlers.
When Bess came to be put up for sale, several local residents, concerned at her likely fate, clubbed together to buy her and secure her future. In searching for a suitable home, Bill seemed an obvious choice and the horse was presented to him free of charge.
The paper reported that Miss J Brown of Vine Court, together with her mother, and a Miss Limbrick of Knockholt, and a Mrs MacMenemy of Mount Harry Roadhad clubbed together to buy her, ensuring that Bess had a comfortable and well-deserved retirement.
Bill lived on until 1962, when he died aged 76. It would be fascinating to hear from anyone that remembers Bill and if there are any family. Someone, somewhere, must have the medals this remarkable men received for his acts of bravery and compassion for horses.
Matt Ball is a historian and genealogist. He runs the Sevenoaks WW1 website and the Facebook page ‘Sevenoaks History Hub’. You can contact him via firstname.lastname@example.org