Philip Tarrant: Church Organist and Labourer
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Philip William Tarrant

Early in 2001, Mrs Marjorie Tarrant’s funeral was conducted in St Mary’s Church by Robert Spicer, who became interested in the archives of this family who have lived in Datchet since the mid-1800s. He asked Janet Kennish, local historian and chair of Datchet Village Society, to write the following articles for The Link magazine. We are very grateful to Teresa and Paul Bruce for allowing Janet access to their fascinating family documents and, in particular, a set of diaries and a bundle of letters.

The census of 1861 records William and Sarah Tarrant as the tenant farmers at the site which is now Hall Court. This farmstead and all its land was sold in 1875, when the big house called The Hall was built in its place. At the same time Sarah, by then a widow, bought a plot of land next to the village school and built the dairy farmhouse which now stands between the school and the old Working Men’s Club. By 1881 Sarah was aged 76 and running the farm with nieces and nephews from Eton and Dorney in her employment. In the other half of the house lived Philip Samuel Tarrant who was recorded in 1891 as running the dairy farm and was the father of Philip William born in 1880.

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The gravel pit or pond

It is this Philip W Tarrant whose diaries have survived from 1911 to 1915, as well as his letters home during the war until he was killed at Arras in 1917.

By 1911 the family were no longer dairying, and Philip worked at the old gravel pit near the junction of Holmlea Road and Horton Road, also called the pond, where he dredged the sand, shingle and gravel by boat, screening or grading it ready for sale. The pit was constantly extended by ‘uncalloring’ (removing the topsoil) and opening up by hand-digging.

Philip also did general labouring work and gardened on the land behind the house which is now the school field, where he grew vegetables in such quantities that it may have been a market garden although there is no record of sales. The family’s income was eked out in other ways too; his wife Emily was in domestic service with the Paravicini family at Riverside, Philip kept hens and ducks, and they rented out half the farmhouse as a separate dwelling and also a piece of land for a petrol depot.

Philip was a talented musician, perhaps influenced by the school headmaster’s son, Fred Huntley who took a music degree at Cambridge in 1894. He had also been a member of the church choir which was musically very ambitious, having Minor Canons from St George’s Chapel visiting to take solo parts in Stainer’s Crucifixion at Easter. From 1904 Philip was the church organist, gave private piano lessons and played the violin at home entertainments. He was aware, perhaps acutely so, of the odd social situation he was in – familiar with the clergy and gentry, sharing their interests, yet an unskilled labourer engaged in the roughest and hardest work. Pasted into his diary for 1914 is a newspaper cutting about a church organist at Titchmarsh who was an agricultural labourer, and Philip drew a sketch above it:

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The diaries

Philip’s diaries tell of his work, his social life, the trials of choir practices, the weather and (in the greatest detail) his gardening. The following small selection of entries gives a flavour of how Philip recorded both the most ordinary and the most significant of days.
Sun 15 Jan 1911: Fine, bright, hard frost. Emily went on her bike to see Mrs Morton but they were out. No C.E.M.S. service. Mr T Sopwith came over to Datchet with his aeroplane. Walk in afternoon with J Barr. I helped wash up at Riverside.
Mon 19 Feb 1911: Showery. Sowed more peas (old seed Gradus etc) and also went on uncalloring, Mr Munday and Joe dredging. Duet practice at Hawthorn Cottage. Ma and Emily making marmalade until 12 midnight.
Tues 20 Feb 1911: Digging for peas, also forking round rhubarb. I biked over with Lane & Sons bill to Colnbrook. Messrs Aldridge & Colsell came to church at 8pm and we practised the Anthem for Easter. Pa blew [ie the organ bellows].
Mon 8 May 1911: Fine. Cut pea sticks, hoed potatoes. Went up to Slough to the Diocesan Service, we met at Church Institute and then marched in procession to Church where we had address by Bishop of Oxford. Home 9.45pm and then I went out and moulded up five rows potatoes by moonlight.
Sat Jul 1 1911: Great celebrations in Windsor [Coronation of George V]; kids went to the Park; King & Queen came from Slough; fireworks at night etc. Emily and I went to see the King & Queen. Went at 3, home at 6.30. We stood near the statue of Queen Victoria. Went down to the river and saw some of the fireworks in Park. I put out 130 leeks (1d packet of seed), also sowed sweet williams.
Thurs 6 July 1911: Very hot. clearing for plants. GREAT CORONATION CELEBRATIONS AT CHURCHMEAD. sports, tea, dancing etc. I helped wait. Ma & pa went. Mrs Joyce fainted. Ma has got a cold.
Fri 8 Sep 1911: Cooler, dull. more sand raising, we borrowed a barrow from Hunt’s yard but they fetched it away again. Aerial post begins today, aeroplane over at 5.10 and back 6.15 pm. Anthem practice at W Barr’s with W Colsell. Chess after, I won one game.
Tues 7 Nov 1911: The Great Event !!! [his wedding] Fine all day. Off to Harrow for the ‘fatal ceremony’, left here 9.5 am walked to Slough; 9.40 train to Uxbridge, met Wm Barr, train to harrow. The ceremony went off alright. Present W Wise, W H Barr, Alice Ward, Polly Sadler, Betty Horwood and others. Off to Folkestone via Baker St & Charing Cross, reached Uncle Robert at 6.30 pm.
Sun 3 Mar 1912: Showery. Rev HL Nixon preached for National Society AT NIGHT THERE WERE TWELVE MEN !!! [ie in the choir, with a thumbnail sketch added].
Sun 14 Apr 1912: Fine all day. We did the anthem at night but not in the morning and also Stanford, only had 7 men in the choir but the singing was better than last Sunday especially anthem. In the morning the singing was bad. Emily & I went for a walk in afternoon by Black Potts, home by Golf Links.
Sun 21 Apr 1912: Fine, warm. DEAD MARCH EACH SERVICE ON ACCOUNT OF THE ‘TITANIC’ DISASTER. I walked to Slough church in afternoon to see how the rebuilding was progressing. 3 balloons over about 3.30pm.
Mon 22 June 1912: Fine, hot. David, Richard and Knight very busy in pit. I went on uncalloring. Emily and I went for a bike ride to Old Windsor 6-7pm. W Ford came and brought back History of England and we lent him another vol.
Sat 10 Jul 1915: Fine day. Birth of a son in afternoon. Emily went to Maternity Home at 9am in Mr Leach’s car, I went with her and also went to enquire at Miss Whitmore came at 6pm to say they had telephoned from the home to say Emily had a son and was going on very well. Carrying hay in the evening.

The WWI letters

Philip attested under the Derby Scheme and joined the Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry on 16 June 1916. The following March he was sent to France and transferred to the 2nd South Wales Borderers, as Private 40779. He was killed some six weeks later.

Reading through the thick file of letters sent home by Philip Tarrant in the year leading up to his death is a most poignant experience. His innocence and faith, his enjoyment of the simplest pleasures and particularly of church music, shine through right up to the last one, written after he first ‘went up to the line’ in the trenches. On the second occasion he was killed.
Philip’s war year was a very odd one as he spent most of it at Portsmouth waiting to have his bad teeth pulled out and a dental plate made. The extracts here are much abbreviated, but have been selected to be representative of the letters generally. They belong to Philip’s descendants, the family of Teresa and Paul Bruce, who kindly let Janet Kennish borrow them. Almost every one begins ‘My dear Wife’ and ends ‘ From your loving Husband, P.W. Tarrant’, though sometimes ‘Will’.
From Cowley Barracks, Oxford, June 1916
We have been drilling this morning and some of the new ones made a mess of it but I came off alright. They feed us very well; we had kippers for breakfast and roast mutton and bread pudding for dinner. They have given me a first-rate great coat, thick and heavy, also a cardigan jacket as well as tunic and trousers. I have two pairs of boots, one black and one brown in my kit bag, size 11, very comfortable, they don’t hurt my feet a bit.

From Cosham, Portsmouth, August 1916
The organist at Portsdown Church is a very nice chap but he can’t play much. We have a choir of about 15 men every Sunday evening and quite a lot of our fellows go to the service. We have been drilling on the golf links just beyond the fort for the last few days as it is so dusty on the barrack square. The corn on the slopes of our big hill is turning colour and it is a lovely sight to see the patches of different colour and the sea in the distance. We have been doing bayonet fighting and rapid loading with dummy cartridges. We had another kit inspection last Saturday; it is rather a terrible business as we have to lay a blanket down and put everything on it in a certain order, but the sergeants help us and it all went off well. We had night operations last Tuesday and had to go out as sentries and pickets with fixed bayonets like they do at the Castle, only this was a field and it was dark. We were out till 12 and we had cocoa and biscuits when we got back.
It is great sport at night in our tent, we get larking about, but when ‘lights out’ is sounded we have to be quiet or we get into trouble. I played on the organ in Portsdown church after the service on Sunday night; it is a single manual and very old. I hope some day to bring you here for a holiday when the war is over, it is a glorious place for a holiday.
I have just returned from the Garrison church with some chaps in our hut. They have a nice choir and a small but fine toned organ and it is much better played than the one at Portsdown. We have a large YMCA hut here and a good reading room.
From Fort Gomen, Gosport, September 1916
Last Tuesday we had a bathing parade when all our Company marched to the sea and had a most lovely swim for half an hour. The rifle range is right on the shore and we see heaps of ships, also submarines. We are doing fairly well with our firing. Every day we go to the range and fire in turns.
Tell my dear Father and Mother not to worry about anything, for all things will come out right I am certain. I am feeling so fit and well and we are such a friendly lot of chaps in our hut. All pull together and help each other.
There is not any doubt but that we have had some good training and will feel the benefit of it when we get back to ordinary life. I hope you will find me a little more thoughtful and considerate when I return. This change hs made me think more than I had done about the blessings of a good home. They are going to have a new organ in Portsdown as soon as they can raise the money for it.
On Friday we each threw two live bombs, they explode 5 seconds after you throw them. I will explain all about them when I come home. [Any information would be censored for security reasons.]

Cosham, October 1916
I am still on dental treatment and have to go to the hospital to have some more teeth pulled out, but as soon as I am passed fit I shall be put on a draft as there is no doubt we shall all be going out before very long. They had all the home service men and cripples, that are up here in soft jobs, up before the medical board last night and nearly all of them have been passed for general service and there has been a good deal of grumbling about it. But why shouldn’t they go as well as the rest of us.
I went to Wymering church last Sunday night, we had a full congregation, such a lot of our fellows went, and we had a good sermon; they have a nice organ too. The churchyard is one big flower garden, I never saw anything so pretty.
I mean to go to Portsdown church tonight; I like the service there as the Vicar preaches a good sermon and the choir sing well but I must say the Organist plays most rottenly. I can hardly sit still and listen to his going-in voluntary. Wymering has a very nice organ with two keyboards and is really well played and the service is nice, but we get such bad intoning and the lessons are read so badly that I shall go to Portsdown in future.
Cosham, November 1916
On Saturday morning we had a field day and made an attack on some trenches near Fort Purbrook and we went over barbed wire and brambles and through mud and water over the top of our boots.
I have been to the hospital twice and have so far had 6 teeth out. All came out fairly well but the top right canine won’t shift. Two dentists pulled at it yesterday for all they were worth; they laughed and said ‘We’ll have him next time’. They are very nice fellows and speak so nicely to you. They use cocaine so it does not hurt at the time but afterwards it is sore. [Two days later the tooth was finally pulled out.] Our night operations were quite exciting. The enemy were guarding the fort and we had to try and get in without being seen by their sentries. We did it alright but we saw one of their sentries so we crept by in the dark and he did not see us.
Cosham, December 1916
Now I am working in the Cookhouse and I don’t mind how long it lasts. I get there at 6.30 and I have all my meals there and I assure you that whoever goes short the cooks don’t! It is much better than the Orderly Room and that was a lazy job. If I stop here long I shall be as fat as a pig. The hardest job I have is to keep awake after dinner.
Cosham, January 1917
I have found a fellow who can play chess and we have had some interesting games, he has to have all his teeth out.
All dental men who have become fit are now put in a draft platoon and given three weeks training and six days leave. I hope I shall be put in one when I get my new teeth. After all, I shall feel very small if they don’t send me out when so many better ones have gone.
I went to the Vicarage in the evening and the Vicar’s wife had a book of duets for the piano and we played some of them; they have got a lovely piano, a German one but it has such a nice tone.
I have seen many things since I have been in the army that I would never have dreamed of before but it has not done me much harm at present. However, no one I have met would want to stay in the army a minute more than obliged. I really do not think the war will last much longer; the Germans show they are in desperate need of peace.
Cosham February 1917
I have been passed as fit and expect to come out of the Cookhouse at short notice. I feel I have done much more for you by coming away than if I had stayed loafing about at home.
I received the telegram this morning [his second son Arthur had been born] and am writing to say how thankful I am it is all over. I hope you will make a good recovery and that the new arrival will get on and be as good as little Philip was. I have not asked for leave as I shall most likely be home for 5 or 6 days very soon. [He had this leave early in March.] Cosham, March 1917
Yesterday we put on gas helmets and went through the gas chamber, we do not feel anything of it. I am glad I am not going on a draft to Mesopotamia as I shall be quite close to you in France. Now cheer up, I shall be back again soon and I feel happy to be able to fight for you all.
France, March 1917
The weather is lovely and we are in a very pretty part of the country. On our way here we passed many orchards and old farmhouses, also some pretty villages and old churches. Well, I have lots to tell you about the different things I have seen but you must wait till the war is over as of course I must not say anything about our affairs.
I think we may be going up to the line next week, but you are not to get worried about it as it will all turn out right whatever happens, and after all there are many thousands of better fellows than myself have been up there for months. You are looked down on if you have not been up to the line as many have been up more than once and got back safe.
France, 3 April 1917
I have been playing the tiny harmonium in the chapel attached to the Church Army hut; I played ‘The Story of the Cross‘ last night and have promised to again tonight. I am anxious to go up to the line and do my part to the best of my ability and you know that I am as safe there as at home if it is God’s will, and you would not think much of me if I stayed out of it.
France, 20 April 1917; [the last letter, in small and shaky handwriting, abridged here] Thank you so much for the nice parcel which arrived safely. I have not been able to write to you before for we have been up to the trenches for seven days and are now having a few days rest. I am thankful to say I am quite safe and well and it was not so bad as you think. We were holding trenches captured from the Germans a short time ago. I have lots of things to tell you when I get home again. I have been put into the Lewis Gun section, we have to carry ammunition and help with the gun, it is an improvement on the Maxim. I was so pleased to hear about Philip and Arthur and their new carriage (pram) and I am most interested to hear about the garden. I was glad to hear about the choir and congratulate tham on singing the service ‘Burnett in F’. Now goodbye, and keep up cheerfully as it is certain to be alright whatever happens as God will bring me back safely if it is His will. With love to all, Your loving husband, Will.

Datchet Parish Magazine, June 1917
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Windsor & Eton Express May 1918

The magazine reported: The Wounded – Philip Tarrant. The news that our organist and well-known parishioner is wounded and ‘missing’ has caused much consternation among his many friends in Datchet. A letter from a comrade to the family contains such clear details that even, in the absence of official confirmation, the greatest concern is felt. [Nothing is known of this letter.]

There was also another announcement: In Memoriam – Philip Samuel Tarrant [Philip William’s father], buried 12 May, aged 70. As choir boy, choir man and sidesman at different periods of a long life, he gave us all an example in devotion to duty and to the Church he loved so well. Only a few days before his death had come the news that his son was wounded and ‘missing’ and the shock no doubt hastened his end. Our sympathy goes out to his wife and daughter in law in their double trial of bereavement and anxiety.

It was not until April 1918 that official confirmation was sent to his family that Philip’s death was presumed to have taken place on 23 April 1917, at the age of 37. He has no grave, as his body was never found, but his name is recorded on the Arras Memorial in northern France, and of course is also inscribed on Datchet’s war memorial.

Memorial service

On 4 May 1918, the Windsor & Eton Express reported that a memorial service had been held for Philip William Tarrant, see article, right, which was attended by all the local gentry. He was clearly held in respect by a great many in the village. The article also reveals more about battle where Philip was killed in action.

The Link Collection
The Link Collection

These articles were first published in The Link Parish Magazine. The Datchet Link Collection of historical articles written by historian Janet Kennish, can be bought from The Bridge cafe in Datchet. See also the Datchet History website, which is compiled by Janet Kennish.