CYRIL FLETCHER – why do Cyril Fletcher’s war medals belong to Cyril Brown?

70851 – CYRIL FLETCHER       

A British War Medal and Victory Medal arrived at MRNZ in late December 2014 amidst the shambles that was my partially stripped house being readied for a makeover before making relocating to Nelson. 

The two medals had been sent from Patricia H. of Hastings whose initial email inquiry had said that she had found the medals named to 70851 PTE C. FLETCHER N.Z.E.F. with her deceased father’s war medals but could not establish any link in the family to that name. 

My initial investigation into Cyril’s ancestry and movements via the Christchurch Electoral Rolls were reasonably easy to follow with the exception that there was no apparent record of his birth, or his movements after 1919.  Each gap I tried to fill and drew a blank.  Where had Cyril come from and where did he go after WW1 ?  There was something fundamentally amiss in this case. 

As a result of the move and work ahead of me, I put any further work on the back burner until I had some clear air and besides, there were some more pressing (and slightly easier I have to admit) cases to research that ‘jumped’ the cue – I was trying to get some ‘runs on the board’ (medal returns) to establish MRNZ’s credibility.

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I took up the case again in December last year with my start point being Cyril’s AWM Cenotaph file which in fact revealed little.  His parents were recorded as gardener Henry Thomas and Mary Jane FLETCHER  of 52 Perth Street, Richmond, Christchurch.  By following the successive Electoral Rolls I learned Henry T. was from a large family that had resided in Upper Riccarton.  Henry T. was the eldest son of Henry FLETCHER (labourer) and Rhoda Ellen BARNETT, both of whom had immigrated from Somerset, England in the 1860s along with children Ralph, Eliza, Margaret, Sarah Jane & Henry Thomas  who were all born in Western Super Mare in Essex.  The Fletchers settled in Riccarton in the 1880s where Henry T. worked variously as a labourer and coachman.  In 1900 Henry T. Fletcher (now a gardener) married Mary Jane BROWN, daughter of Thomas and Margaret Brown, nee ROBINSON.  Mary’s family was originally from Darlington, Durham in England – she, late of Wellington, had been working as a domestic in the Christchurch suburb of Dallington.  Henry and Mary Fletcher would have six children during their marriage – Violet May, Henry Maitland “Snow”, Leonard, Olive Myrtle, Cyril (confusingly?), and Vera Fletcher.  However, Henry and Mary’s marriage would be conditional upon Henry’s acceptance of Mary’s fatherless four year old son Cyril, born in August 1897 (father not disclosed).

In 1903 Henry and Mary had moved into the house at 52 Perth Street, Richmond, Christchurch where they remained until their deaths – Mary in 1966, and Henry in 1972.  Interestingly their fifth child born in 1908 was also named Cyril Fletcher at which time Cyril Fletcher (the elder) would have been about 11 years of age.  Cyril (the elder) had minimal education and as soon as he was able worked on local farm properties as a farm hand and later a shepherd.  The Wylie Brothers of Richmond were builders and contractors and had, conveniently for Cyril, established a premises at 58 Perth Street.  Cyril returned to Christchurch and secured a job labouring with the Wylie Bros during the  first years of WW1 and was still working for them when he was drafted for war service in August 1918. 

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Cyril had first been called up for military service in July 1916 however was found to be unfit and so was rejected.  By August 1917 reinforement troops were in very short supply and many of those initially medically rejected for service, were reassessed as  being”fit”.  20 year old Private Cyril Fletcher was one such soldier and was subsequently attested into the 2nd Battalion of the Reserve Canterbury Infantry Regiment.  Pte. Fletcher sailed with the 36th Reinforcements for England on 23 April 1918.  In October the same year after completing preparations for service in France at the Sling Camp in England, Pte. Fletcher embarked for Etaples to join the 2nd Company, Canterbury Infantry Regiment.  He was employed in general duties with the NZ Infantry & General Base Depot (NZI & GBD) and also for a period with the NZ Section of No 4 Veterinary Hospital.  

After the Armistice was declared in November 1918 the priority for returning soldiers to New Zealand was for the sick, wounded, soldiers who had been in combat, and the longest serving.  It was not until May 1919 that Pte. Fletcher returned to the Sling Camp in preparation for his return to NZ.

On 10 July 1919 Pte. Cyril Fletcher returned to NZ after one year and 102 days overseas, and for his service was awarded the British War Medal and Victory Medal.

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Cyril Fletcher’s home address listed on his military documents was 52 Perth St Christchurch.  Once I started trying to trace Cyril’s movements in order to locate his descendants, I could find no records.  No record of his birth, no addresses in Christchurch or the Canterbury region after his return  in 1919 (or anywhere else in NZ for that matter), and no death record ? 

I made several inquiries of Ancestry family tree authors that contained Cyril’s ‘father’ Henry Thomas Fletcher but had not received any meaningful response.  his mother Mary Jane was also an enigma – no obvious records that I could attribute to her or her family in New Zealand (some of whom I did locate in England).  I  had then been trawling around the internet looking for possible connections to Cyril through his step-siblings when … bingo !  One of my inquiries had latched on to the WikiTree website (which I almost never use) and the family of one John Bramwell COHEN formerly of Black’s Point, Reefton.  In 1926 John had married Violet May FLETCHER of Richmond, Christchurch – Cyril’s eldest ‘sister’ and the first born child of Henry Thomas and Mary Jane Fletcher.  From this entry I was then able to trace the family of their only son Desmond Cohen and his wife  Elizabeth Lorraine, nee HIRST, to one of their sons –  Tony Cohen, the author of the WikiTree entry.  

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Tony provided valuable details that helped to unravel the reasons for the absence of any obvious records of, a) Cyril’s birth, and b) the absence of references to him after 1919.  Tony’s mother Elizabeth Cohen (daughter-in-law of Tony’s grandmother Violet May Fletcher) provided the answers in part – the family had discovered that Cyril (the elder) was not heterosexual.  Once this fact was known widely within the family, Cyril became ‘persona non grata’ and was shunned by his adoptive sibling’s and extended family.  One can only imagine how traumatic Cyril’s and his mother’s life must have been in those post Victorian years of last century.  Both having to cope with this knowledge whilst doing everything possible to protect family reputations and/or avoid a public scandal must have been extremely stressful – there was zero tolerance by a very rigid New Zealand society at that time for such ‘proclivities’. 

As a result of this information I pursued a hunch – given Cyril ‘s father had not been recorded, Mary may have either been living in rural Canterbury when she became pregnant, or had left Christchurch to have the baby.  I combed the Canterbury’s rural districts records and eventually found a birth record in the Amuri (North Canterbury) District in 1986 – the baby’s name was Cyril BROWN !   My hunch had proved correct.  Mary Jane had either been working in the Amuri District which included small towns anywhere between Waipara, Waikari, Hurunui, Rotherham, Culverden and Waiau.  If Mary Jane had been a Christchurch resident she may have gone away for a period of six months or so “to nurse a sick relative” as was a common reason for swelling, unwed mothers to depart hide their indiscretion until they had given birth.  The mother would then discreetly return at some time hence.  

Cyril as a young boy would be unaware of all this.  If he was treated indifferently or felt on the ‘outer’ from the time Henry married his mother, we will never know nor do we know if Henry was fully accepting of Cyril when he married Cyril’s mother?  Cyril’s upbringing and personality was formed in this climate and so any subsequent treatment he may have been subjected to either at home, school, work or in the Army, would likely have been a reflection of this start in life.  I also concluded that these factors together with Cyril’s orientation (once known) may very well have been the catalyst for Cyril Fletcher to ‘disappear’ by reverting to his birth name of Cyril Brown – a means of keeping his public profile low, and of disassociating himself with the Fletcher name and his step-siblings perhaps? 

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A review of the Christchurch Electoral Rolls confirmed the existence of two ‘Cyril Brown’s.  From 1920 two “Cyril Browns” appeared regularly in the Rolls continuously until the 1970s.   Fortunately I was able to rule the first out once I located his age (too young for WW1; went to WW2) and his date of birth from cemetery records.  The second Cyril Brown’s details were far more likely but still gave me some nagging doubts as he had  married !   Ruby Stella FROST, a domestic servant, (parents & family unknown) had married Cyril Brown in 1925.  Seeking more confirmation I followed the Browns through their various addresses in Waltham and Sydenham for nearly 20 years and coincidentally, none of which were more than a kilometer from 52 Perth St.  No children were recorded by the Browns.  By 1943  Cyril and Ruby Brown were living at separate addresses, just a few streets apart – there was no evidence of reconciliation to a common address thereafter, and no evidence of Ruby Brown (or Frost?) in Christchurch thereafter until the record of her death.  It is not known if she left Christchurch and there was no evidence of her taking another name or re-marrying.

Doubtlessly Cyril had wanted to maintain an outward appearance of being a normal married man and maintain some degree of anonymity by working at gardening and labouring jobs where any personal interest in him would be minimal.  

The lingering doubt I had about Cyril being married and that might have had me on the wrong track were allayed when Elizabeth Cohen confirmed that Cyril (Fletcher) Brown did get married, and that no children had resulted from the union.  This together with the my conclusions to date seemed to fit Cyril and Ruby Brown’s married profile in Christchurch, and which all pointed toward the fact –  Cpl. Cyril Fletcher of 52 Perth St, Richmond and Cyril Brown of 44 Fortune St, St. Albans, were one in the same person.

Cyril (Fletcher) Brown, retired Council employee, died in Christchurch in 1970 aged 73.  Cyril was buried in Christchurch’s Bromley Cemetery and, oddly enough, with Ruby Stella Brown, widow, who died in 1976 at 82.   

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Medals connection to Henry George HAY ?

Henry George Hay had been born in Leeston to Annie McCONKEY and Harry Morris HAY in Dec 1896.  Henry had worked on his father’s farm at Leeston before his Army enlistment in 1917: 50336, Trooper Henry George HAY, Canterbury Mounted Rifles, 30th Reinforcements, NZ Rifle Brigade.   Henry embarked in Nov 1917 and served overseas for almost 2 years until Oct 1919.  After the war Henry lived in and around Hastings working variously as a private hotel keeper, caretaker, driver and a storeman until his death in Hastings in 1980.

After Henry’s death his daughter-in-law, Patricia H., had found Pte. Cyril Fletcher’s WW1 war medals in Henry’s estate belongings.  As a result I have attempted to determine if there was any specific connection between Cyril and Henry which might explain why Cyril’s medals had wound up in Henry’s possession ?   

How did Henry get Cyril’s medals ?

The possession and subsequent finding of war medals, particularly WW1 medals, in a deceased person’s possession is a reasonably common occurrence that MRNZ encounters, and the reasons for this can be many an varied.

In this particular case the most compelling reasons that Henry and Cyril had become well acquainted (or mates) was as the result of some personal and service similarities and coincidences.  Henry was born just eight months prior to Cyril so in age they were similar; Henry was a Farm Hand and Cyril a Shepherd at enlistment; both were Cantabrians; both had enlisted at similar times as private soldiers and probably at the same place in Christchurch (King Edward Barracks); both had embarked within a few months of each other for England, Henry with the  30th Reinforcements and Cyril with the 36th Reinforcements.  Both went to the Sling Camp on arrival in England for pre-deployment administration, both served in France, and Henry’s period of service overseas overlapped Cyril’s service.   Given these circumstances it is highly likely that they would have run into each other.  Last – Henry was a mounted trooper, and as Cyril had been seconded to the NZ Veterinary Corps for general duties managing and maintaining the mounted troopers horses, another coincidence of service that could have bought them together.  

I have not pursued any confirmation of Henry and Cyril’s service friendship, however here are some possible theories as to how Henry got the medals:

  • Given Cyril Brown died in 1970 and Henry Hay in 1980, had they been mates it is always possible that Cyril gave/sent his medals to his Henry before his (Cyril’s) death.  
  • Cyril and Henry may have formed a ‘relationship’.
  • Cyril could have abandoned his medals since they were inscribed to “Cyril Fletcher” – maybe he considered them ‘irrelevant’ or unwanted in the context of his relationship within the Fletcher family, and his adopting his birth name, Cyril Brown. 
  • As a result of the above, Henry could easily have picked the medals up in later life maybe from an antique shop, a 2nd hand dealer, market etc after recognizing Cyril’s name as someone he had  known and served with.
  • Henry may have been a beneficiary of Cyril estate upon his death, or had been gifted them by a person unknown. 

The converse of course could also be true – that there was no connection between Cyril and Henry at all.  Regrettably, their relationship and these theories remain speculation at best. 

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The medals of 70851 Pte. Cyril Fletcher/Cyril Brown are now in the hands of Cyril’s grand-nephew, Tony.

To Patrica, my thanks for sending the medals to us and for your patience whilst the case was resolved.

The reunited medal tally is now 103.

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