Rifleman 4th Battalion New Zealand (Rifle) Brigade

John Stewart Fothergill was another of the early Bedalians who made the long journey from the north east of England to Hampshire.  He was the eldest son of John Alexander Fothergill and his wife, Christian Stewart née Armour.  His great grandfather (another John) had been a doctor in Yorkshire and John’s grandfather William was born there.  At that time the family were Quakers and are recorded in the Meetings’ registers of births marriages and deaths.  He and his younger brother Alexander both became dentists, moving to Darlington, and William’s son, John Alexander, followed their profession. This John married Christian Stewart Armour at Morningside Parish Church in Edinburgh on 1st October 1889; their son was born thirteen months later.

By the time of the 1901 census, John had a younger sister Mabyn (born 5th June 1892) and a brother Alan born in 1898 and, as there was a Scots Governess with the family, he was possibly being taught at home.  However, in September 1901 aged almost eleven, he travelled south to Bedales.  A year later, Michael Stewart Pease arrived in Steep.  The two boys might have been drawn together by their common Quaker backgrounds but they also shared a keen love of gardens.  For four years The Bedales Record chronicled their efforts and lauded their success. The 1903-1904 edition reported, “They have been trying some experiments with sweet peas; some they have manured and some not, and the peas with the manure are about 4 ft. high and have flowers whereas the others have got no flowers and have not been very long up”.

Amongst other activities of John’s there is evidence of his skill in shooting (1904-1905) and book binding (a large book in red morocco 1905-1906). The 1906-1907 Record reports Fothergill as a corporal in the newly formed Bedales Corps (drawing much of its inspiration from Baden-Powell’s fledgling scout movement) and also a Squad Commander in the Fire Brigade: in his last year at school he became its Captain.  In 1907 -1908 John wrote the report on Boxing and Fencing for The Record and also a very detailed account of the poultry keeping as he had done in the previous year.  He had been elected a member of the Scientific Society in 1906, perhaps because of his sweet pea experiments and innovative handling of the chickens who produced increasingly large numbers of eggs.  In his final year John was appointed a House Prefect and also promised “to put in some time working at the villa” which members of the school were excavating near Stroud.

In January 1906 John had been joined by his sister Mabyn, perhaps sent to school because of her father’s illness; he died before the end of that term.  Presaging her future career as a drama teacher, she played quite a large role in a Merry Evening production early in 1907.  In July 1908 Christian Fothergill died in Sweden (perhaps on holiday as her address was still Darlington) and that may have been the reason why both children left Bedales at the end of term.  John went on to the Hammersmith Iron Works and seems to have been involved in engineering up to 1912.  It is suggested he went to New Zealand that year but I think he sailed from Liverpool the following year.  He purchased a small farm of 24 acres next to the farm of Stanley Unwin and his wife Grace near Timaru.  Stanley had been a housemaster and science teacher at Bedales and also involved in Farm and Garden work and poultry keeping from 1902 to 1909 so was obviously well known to John and might have been the reason for his move.  Mabyn was at Edinburgh University from 1912-1916 and well on the way to being independent.

Stanley Unwin wrote to Mr Badley in April 1916 to tell him that his own brother Cyril and John Fothergill had joined the New Zealand army.  He wrote “We miss old Fothergill very much.  He slogged hard on his farm but got naturally very tired of ‘batching’ and, being naturally untidy, lived in a medley of harness, pots, vegetables, newspapers and frying-pans. Pigs and cows were his speciality.”  Stanley sent “a snapshot taken shortly before he left”, probably the one published alongside this case study.  He also reported that John had become engaged to the daughter of a neighbouring farmer.  This man, Arthur DeRenzy, was one of those named as Executor in the will John wrote on 11th August 1915 in which he left everything he possessed to Doris Mary DeRenzy, presumably his fiancée.  I presume he made his will because he was about to volunteer for the army.

Unfortunately New Zealand Attestation papers aren’t published on the internet so I have little knowledge of John’s time in the 4th battalion of the New Zealand Infantry, the Rifle Brigade.  Stanley Unwin reported that he had tried “unsuccessfully so far – to obtain the post of despatch rider, for which he is eminently fitted.”  The 4th was a newly formed battalion and was in general training in the last months of 1915.  Two weeks’ leave was granted from 19th December and then returned to the final preparations for departure.  On 5th February 1916 John embarked, destined for Suez, Egypt.  The 4th joined existing forces in Egypt on 15th March and preparations were underway for the departure for France.  The brigades were re-organized and John became part of Number 3 Company, a Trench Mortar battery, which, after regular training and advice from the veterans of the Gallipoli campaign, was ready for departure by 30th March.  Equipped with new rifles on 1st April the 4th embarked at Alexandria on 6th April, sailing on 7th and arriving at Marseilles between 12th and 14th April.  Further training followed but by the beginning of May the Brigade was on its way to the battle zone near Armentières.

Most of May saw the Brigades in the trenches and facing stiff opposition from the German Army.  The New Zealanders were relieved on 30th June but had only a short period of rest behind the lines before returning to the battle area.  I haven’t been able to establish exactly what John’s company was doing.  The official history implies the battalions were again in training in mid July.  There is a reference on 15th July to the Rifle Brigade passing “through with two tanks – a startling novelty introduced to action that day”.  John was killed near Armentières: Mr Badley believed he was killed with nine others, blown up when a mine exploded.  He is commemorated on the New Zealand Memorial at Cite Bonjean along with 46 other officers and men who have no known grave.

John’s great friend, Michael Stewart Pease, spent the war interned in Ruhleben Civilian P.O.W. camp in Germany: he had been studying in Germany when war broke out.  He sent fascinating accounts of his life there back to the Bedales Chronicle.  After the war he returned to academic life in Cambridge and ended his career there as Director of the Poultry Research Unit.  Amongst his interests he listed Gardening – a reflection of his years of experiment alongside John Stewart Fothergill.

Information obtained from Bedales Archives and, for details from New Zealand, via ancestry.co.uk