William was born in Richmond, Surrey, the eldest child of Oliver Cornish and his wife Emily Louisa née Beeney. His paternal grandfather had been born in Exeter but he seems to have spent most of his life as a Bookseller in Birmingham. He and his wife Ann had four sons (Oliver was the second) and four daughters. By 1881, when his father died, Oliver was living in London and was described in the census as “Agent”. Ten years later, he was back in Birmingham and he and his elder brother were living on their own means whilst their sisters were all confectioner’s assistants.
The marriage certificate in 1895 gives 34 year old Oliver’s profession as “Commission agent” and his 24-year-old wife declared her father was a farmer. This was dressing things up for effect. In 1861 Emily’s grandfather Henry, possibly of Romany descent, was a Licensed Hawker of Brooms and Brushes and his wife and three of their children followed the same occupation. The family was “living in a caravan” in Cuckfield, with the eldest son and his family in a neighbouring van. Emily’s father Alfred married the daughter of another Hawker in 1864 and by the following year, when his first son was born, he had become a Horse Dealer, an occupation he followed for the rest of his life. Emily began her life in one of the family caravans near Reigate. At the time of the 1891 census I think Emily was one of seven servants in the household of a Rear Admiral in Paddington.
It is difficult to know how Emily and Oliver met; possibly his interest in horses and gambling (at which he was later believed to be surprisingly successful, supporting his large family by this means) caused him to come across Alfred Beeney. They were married in 1895 and set up house in Richmond. Their second child, Isabel was born in 1899 and, according to the 1911 census, they had a third child who did not survive infancy. Perhaps it was this sad loss that led to Emily’s mental breakdown and possibly was part of the cause of William’s arrival in Steep in September 1909; he spent the next four years at Bedales, being joined by Isabel who came to Dunhurst in January 1910. In 1911 Oliver recorded his children as at home on census day but in fact they were still in Steep, William (15) in Bedales and Isabel (12) at Dunhurst. William’s nephew has been pleased to discover that possibly William and certainly Isabel knew well both Merfyn and Bronwen, the children of Edward Thomas, (a poet for whom he has a great respect).
The Bedales Chronicle gives some insights into William’s school career. By his second year he was a member of the Junior Scientific Society and in October gave a lecture on aspects of photography including advice on developing, fixing and washing. At this period photography was a growing interest in the School. By November 1911 William was a member of the prestigious Fire Brigade and this continued for the rest of his school career. At least twice in 1912 he was either the Proposer or Opposer of a motion in one of the regular debates and he had a small part in that year’s pre-Christmas play, The Tempest. As Mr Badley commented in a letter to Oliver in April 1913, William didn’t find academic work easy but “He is putting his back into it” and making progress and “in other ways he is turning out a very good fellow.”
I haven’t been able to establish what William did after he left Bedales in the Summer of 1913. Presumably he was living with his father and his new partner; by early 1914 he had two half-brothers. There is a photograph of this time of William on a splendid motor-cycle (above right) but in view of his action after the declaration of war he must also have been something of a horseman – perhaps an interest inherited from his father and maternal grandfather. His file at Kew reveals that he volunteered for the “Territorial Force UK & Foreign” on 16th October 1914. He was 5ft 9½" tall, of good physical development and vision and William was declared “fit for Territorial Service” and appointed a Trooper in the City of London Yeomanry, known as the “Rough Riders” in imitation of the US Cavalry force which fought in the Spanish American war of 1898. By November he was in training in East Anglia. This period was brought to an end in the Spring of 1915 when the regiment was ordered to prepare for overseas service. They moved to Avonmouth and embarked on the 11th April, arriving at Alexandria in Egypt on May 7th to be attached to the forces defending the Suez Canal.
The Bedales Chronicle must have had unusually good lines of communication: the edition of 4th July reported that “W. O. Cornish is ill with appendicitis in Suez but is recovering well.” WO339/85286 (TNA) records his operation as having taken place only on 16th July! On 31st July William was sent to the convalescent depot in Cyprus where he remained until 12th September. I don’t know whether he rejoined his regiment, by then in Gallipoli, but if so it was only for a short period. He embarked at Alexandria on 16th October bound for England. After ten days of home leave he was declared “fit for light duties” and returned to service on 14th November.
William had enjoyed a good deal of thinking time and must have decided to apply for the Royal Flying Corps (R.F.C.). Coming from a cavalry regiment might have aided his application: I have found a reference to the fact that some flying instructors in 1914 “considered that cavalrymen had a better feel for the ride of their machine.” William was commissioned on 25th February and sent to the Cadet Wing at Denham where he would receive at least two months of basic training. I have no evidence for his progress but if he followed the usual route William would have gone to the School of Military Aeronautics and then to a Training Depot Station and, at last, into the air.
Evidence is lacking for the next few months but by the summer of 1917 William was based at St. Omer, the French HQ of the R.F.C., in “the pool” of unattached airmen. On 16th August he wrote to his father about a move to the 32nd Squadron and action. “I have started the serious business now; I have been over the lines several times by now; it is frightfully interesting watching movements of troops, the Bombardments etc. We have a very good job to do & start in the morning at 4.45 and finish at night about 8.30 to 9 o’clock according to the light.” Requesting several items of clothing, especially a khaki cardigan and long khaki stockings (it was very cold up in the air) and magazines such as “Punch” he concluded with a postscript “We get 14 days leave every three months, it soon comes round.” Sadly that was not to be for William.
On 9th September William wrote what was to be the last letter his father would receive, thanking him for “the woollen goods” and the papers he had requested and for the slippers from his sister Isabel. Briefly he referred to his work: “Been through some exciting moments since I have been here but it is very interesting.”. The circumstances of William’s death are obscure; on the back of that last letter Oliver Cornish wrote, “Brought down days after on a reconnaissance flight. Found & buried by New Zealanders at Ypres (Belgium).” File WO339 merely states “Killed in action or died of wounds: body not recovered.” Possibly some years later Camille, William’s ‘step-mother’ wrote in a family date book that William Oliver Cornish “was engaged in the dangerous occupation of ground patrolling in the neighbourhood of Passchendale (sic) at the time of his death.” It is possible to reconcile the two family versions if Camille was unfamiliar with William’s duties and did not realise that he could have been patrolling in the air.
Certainly, the R.F.C. played a vital part in the successes of the British advance on 20th September. A recent history of the battle suggests that the information provided by air reconnaissance enabled the British artillery to direct their bombardment much more accurately; perhaps William lost his life engaged in this work. The official CWGC records have no burial place for William, possibly another example of bodies originally buried but lost by the time of the creation of the great cemeteries early in the 1920s. William’s name is on the Arras Flying Services Memorial and in Bay 3, (English poetry including the works of Edward Thomas) of the Bedales Memorial Library.