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Wilf Willett

 

Wilfred Leslie Willett was born on 5th Oct 1890 in Croydon, Surrey, and lived initially at 84 Grome Road. By the 1901 census, his family was living at 51 Addison Road, Kensington, London.

 

Wilf’s uncle, William Willett, succeeded his father as head of the family's nationally–known building business. William put most of his time and energy, from 1907, towards promoting Daylight Saving, bombarding MPs with his pamphlet, `The Waste of Daylight’. He discussed his ideas with his nephew Wilfred, while riding in Chislehurst woods. William died a year before Daylight Saving was adopted in 1916 and Summer Time was made permanent in 1925 and has thus far survived various attempts to harmonise Britain with the rest of Europe's preference for GMT - plus one hour in winter and two hours from March to September.

 

Willet was educated as a naturalist at Trinity College, Cambridge. In Aug 1914, he was formally living at 21 Holland Villas Road, Kensington, but he was also by now a medical student, hoping to become a surgeon, Wilf had met a young woman called Eileen Stenhouse at a May Ball in 1913. They soon fell deeply in love but, fearing the objections of their respective parents, secretly married in December 1913. The lived apart, occasionally meeting up in small hotels, until Wilf joined the London Rifle Brigade in 1914.

 

He was a Second Lieutenant in the forces during World War One, and was mentioned in despatches regarding an instance on 13th December 1914 – just five weeks after he has been delivered to Flanders - when despite himself being severely wounded in the head since metal helmets had not been issued to soldiers at this early point in the war - he climbed out of the trenches to attempt to assist an injured man, a Sergeant Moore who was trapped in No Man's Land after having been hit by a sniper. Wilfred Willetts must be one of very few Communists to have ever received a citation from Winston Churchill, then Secretary of State for War, for "gallant and distinguished conduct in the field"; but he treasured more a letter from the soldier for whom he risked his life!

The result of this injury was that the whole of the right side of his body was paralysed and he was close to death in field hospital. His 22-year old wife, Eileen, now snapped into action herself. Concerned about the sudden lack of letters, his wife visited the regiment's London Headquarters and demanded to know what had happened to her husband. They eventually told her that he was gravely wounded and in Base Hospital at Boulogne.

 

Having discovered that he had been injured, in a formidable display of disregard for military proprieties, she took the remarkable decision to travel to France to the front and search the hospitals in an effort to find him and transport him back to London.  She then went to the Foreign Office and demanded a passport and, after several refusals, she was given travel documents for a trip to France. Still aged only 22, she travelled out there alone, eventually located her husband and, against medical advice and when she had determined that the hospital felt unable to do anything for him, after much resistance from the authorities, she arranged for him to transported back to England with the help of his old East London hospital tutor. Having got him into the Duchess of Norfolk's Convalescent Home in Belgrave Square, London, there were still no suggestions for aiding Wilf’s recovery. Eileen had him removed to the London Hospital, where he had been earlier receiving medical retraining.

 

There, it was resolved that a difficult operation to remove the shrapnel fragments from his brain might be considered. Because he was still in the care of the army, Eileen had to have him to be smuggled out at night. However, they were spotted doing so and the Duchess was summoned. Eileen demanded that she be permitted to take her husband elsewhere and so it was that an operation was eventually performed that almost certainly saved his life. It had been a heroic display of gumption on Eileen’s part. It was also Eileen who nursed him slowly back to partial recover over the next five years. His paralysis lessened slightly, however he never regained the use of his right arm and this forced him to give up his goal of becoming a surgeon. Instead Wilfred decided to turn his hand to his second passion ornithology, becoming a well known naturalist, writing numerous books on birds flora and fauna.

We can only guess as to the debates that led to his becoming a foundation member of the Communist Party in 1920 and an organiser for the Party in 1925. Like many who had seen the trenches, the war seems to have changed his life outlook. He was a Communist Party member until the end of his life some four decades later. Although partly physically disabled, he was active and took a great interest in agricultural affairs and was a long-time NUAW agricultural workers union branch secretary in Kent. He had been was involved in the organisation into the NUAW of agricultural workers in the Weald area of south east England and lived at The Rosery, Matfield, near Tonbridge in Kent. He became a regular contributor to the Communist Party rural journal, the Country Standard, as well as the Daily Worker, for which he was the Nature Correspondent. He later became the chief fund raiser for the Country Standard.

 

Wilf also wrote widely on nature. His more overtly political “British farming: A plan for victory and prosperity”, was published by the Communist front publisher Key Books in 1937. But he became fairly well-known during the remainder of his life for his various nature books; in 1938, he published “Woodland Flowers: British Wild Flowers”, with Ward, Lock & Co.

 

With Roland Green he produced “British Birds” in 1949, his own “Pocket-book of common British birds” (1952) and “Lesser known British Birds” (also 1952); the latter two were both later updated and modified with Charles Hall in 1960 and 1962 respectively.

 

But it was his massively popular “Birds of Britain" that made him a household name for the many young boys growing up in the 1950s who adopted bird-watching as a hobby. One of Black's Young Naturalist's Series, his best selling work was first published in 1950, but reprinted in 1951, 1956, and 1960.

 

Wilf also published two other flower books – “Cornfield Flowers” “Primroses, Cowslips, Pansies And Peas” and “Roses, Pinks And Bellflowers”. 

 

He was secretary of Tonbridge Trades Council for some time and, after he died in 1961, his fellow trades unionists had a memorial seat placed in the local Castle Grounds.

 

The remarkable story of Eileen’s rescue of Wilf from the war front was published in slightly fictionalised form by Jonathan Smith as "Wilfred & Eileen". In the 1980s this book formed the basis for both a radio play in 1979, and then a four-part TV series, “Wilfred and Eileen”, from 1980 to 1983.

 

Marjorie Seldon, Wilf and Eileen’s daughter later published a fuller family biography called "Poppies and Roses – a story of courage".

 

Wilfred Willett had three children; a grandson is Anthony Seldon, who wrote a biography of Tony Blair.

Sources:

http://www.faulder.eu/ancestry/index.html#datatop

http://ftvdb.bfi.org.uk/sift/title/269306?view;