Remembrance of the end of the First World War was marked by many people and families as they remembered their own family stories alongside the national commemorations.
This is my story.
I remember my maiden aunt, May. She wore a beautiful, engagement ring but had no husband. As a child, I did not understand and asked my mother. She told me that May’s fiancé had been killed in the First World War and had been awarded the Victoria Cross. Ernest and May would have been married on his next leave which never came.
May never married, however she was left with the legacy of his bravery. She continued to visit his portrait that was on display at Brighton Museum for many years in memory of him.
Ernest Beal died on 22 March 1918, the day after he rescued a wounded soldier abandoned under heavy enemy fire. He is one of three First World War servicemen born in Brighton to be awarded the Victoria Cross.
Ernest had worked with his father at the family business, Beal & Sons, Stationers, at 55 East Street, Brighton, and was praised for his youth work with the Boy’s Brigade. He joined the Sussex Yeomanry soon after the outbreak of war and was proud to be promoted to Second Lieutenant in the Yorkshire Regiment. He was widely mourned in Brighton and Hove with his actions celebrated by the local press.
With this story in mind, the 2018 centenary seemed a fitting time to display Ernest’s portrait at the museum where May had visited it so often and tell Ernest and May’s story. We were lucky enough to borrow the illuminated manuscript in honour of Ernest from East Sussex Record Office. This had been commissioned by Brighton Borough Council and is testament to the local appreciation of Ernest Beal.
However, I had been unsuccessful in finding a blood relative to offer a direct link to Ernest despite intense searches and media appeals. Just when it seemed that this would be missing I was contacted by the son of Ernest’s nephew.
Ernest’s great nephew had family pictures of the young Ernest, both at home and on campaign and poignant letters home in his own hand. The letters are written in pencil on flimsy paper from the frontline. The most moving of these was written exactly a month before his death, planning trips with his nephew when he was next home on leave.
On 16 March 2018, a Blue Plaque at Ernest Beal’s home in Lewes Road, Brighton, and a remembrance stone at the War Memorial, Old Steine, were unveiled. Organisations taking part included Brighton & Hove City Council, the Boy’s Brigade and the British Legion. The ceremony was one of spectacle and community spirit which united people across the City. It gave us pause to reflect how we can remember and move forward to honour Ernest’s sacrifice.
Valerie Bundy, Visitor Services Officer