At the Service for Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day, 11th September 2012, the scouts once again provided a biography of one of the people whose name is on our cenotaph.
This year it was Phoebe Mercer WVS, the first name on the cenotaph and also in Westminster Abbey and at St Mary and St Anne’s School in Abbots Bromley.
Phoebe's story is told and illustrated here, a continuous version of the power point slide show shown during the service.
Special thanks once again to our Group Scout Leader sandy Woods for his immaculate research bringing to life the human story behind another of the names we honour.
Thanks also to Chris Ecclestone from Abbots Bromley School for his considerable contribution to our presentation.We are proud that we honour a woman on our cenotaph and that her name is the first on our list of the war dead we remember every year at Immanuel
Phoebe was born on the 24 July 1903 and lived on Mavis Road , just off Buncer Lane . Her Mother and Father were Marion and Thomas and she had an elder sister Margaret who was three years older. Thomas became the managing director of the Cherry Tree Machine Company and they were reasonably well off as according to the 1911 census they had a live in maid, Sarah Jane.
When she was sixteen Phoebe went off to St. Mary and St. Anne’s School in Abbots Bromley in Staffordshire where she was a boarder.
In 1920 aged 17, she was a bride’s maid at her sister Margaret’s wedding where she wore daffodil coloured georgette over satin dress and carried a daffodil bouquet.
Phoebe made steady progress at St. Anne’s and she passed her School Certificate in 1921 when she left the school.
In 1927 her parents moved home from Mavis Road to Pleasington and made the mistake of calling their new home Mere Croft the same as the one on Mavis Road . Because of this Phoebe was able to track them down and she lived with her parents in Pleasington for the rest of her life.
It was thought that she wanted to get involved with children’s nursing but what we do know is that she was good at golf and with Pleasington Golf Club on her doorstep she became Ladies Captain in 1932 and won the Lancashire Handicap Shield in the same year.
n 1938 with the threat of a second world war looming Phoebe joined the newly formed Women’s Voluntary Service. The WVS was established by Lady Riding as part of the civil defence set up in the country but it quickly grew into a major organisation that played a vital part in the nation’s welfare during World War Two.
Her expertise and skills soon became noticed and she became organizer for Blackburn rural district. After this she became the Divisional Representative for Lancashire and then a full time Travelling Officer.
She was asked to go down to London to help there, where there was much work to be done after the blitz and this was at the time of the flying bombs. This threat didn’t deter Phoebe but I’m sure her parents worried about her.
She obviously made a good impression in London as in February 1945 she was asked to serve abroad and she agreed to do. After some further training and with £25 of a clothing grant and extra clothing coupons she was embarked for Assam in India close to the Burmese border.
The arrival of some ladies from the WVS was such an unusual event it was reported in the Melbourne Argus newspaper in Australia
By April she was at Ghuhatti and prepared with her WVS colleges to take over the canteen at Pandu, which was a staging post on the railway for all the allied troops entering Burma to fight the Japanese and those returning who included many prisoners of war from the Japanese prison camps.
The river could be up to a mile wide in the monsoon season and at either side the engines and carriages where shunted onto barges and pulled across the river by steam tugs.
The ferries shipped up to 750 wagons per day in each direction, representing over 50 per cent of the total supply requirement for the fronts in Burma at that time. The continual puffing of the locomotives loading and unloading wagons on both sides never ceased.
It was a dominant sound heard 24 hours a day as the railway kept supplies rolling on this extraordinary line of communication. The whole operation was a tribute both to the skill of the railwaymen who rarely lost a wagon, and the engineers who had to continually rebuild the landing stages as the river rose and fell.
So amongst this never stopping hive of activity Phoebe and her group of ladies, Misses Cotton, Palmer and Barton, with four British soldiers and thirty-one Indian staff set about making improvements to the canteen, which had been a match factory before the war. They adding a ceiling to cut down the heat from the tin roof, providing billiard and ping pong tables, painted, put up curtains, provided a writing room, a wash room and had tombola on a Sunday night. Miss Palmer’s skill on the violin was greatly appreciated by the troops when she gave evening recitals.
It is not hard to image the strings that they would have to pull to get a billiard table delivered to the canteen in the middle of a war.
While making these improvements they still slept in grass huts or bashas as they were known.
The canteen supplied hot and cold drinks, cakes, sandwiches, bacon, eggs, chips, and so on.
In May they were asked if they would supply bread rolls and cakes to send on the troop trains going further into Burma which, after building an oven to bake them in, they did.
They were then asked to open another canteen on the other side of the river were troops waited to be ferried over. So on the 5 June they opened this canteen but had great difficulty sourcing supplies which had to be brought in from the main canteen by trucks and boats. They even managed to provide ice cream every other day but had problems supplying enough cold drinks as the fridges ran on paraffin which was in short supply.
They were open from 9.30am until 9.30pm and fed some seven hundred men a day and more when special trains came in.
As ‘C.O.’ of the unit Phoebe had other problems to contend with such as obtaining new underclothes for the India staff and being head of a court of inquiry when a follower overstayed his leave.
She reported that they had good cooperation and appreciation from the Army and the Indian Civil Service and she paid tribute to all her staff especially the Indian Quartermaster for whom she was able to get promotion.
In her report to WVS headquarter she says ‘’ I will not dwell on the difficulties and minor discomforts such as language, snakes in the bashas, scorpions, leech bites and the heat and climate which necessitated three sets of clothes a day’’.
After VJ Day in September 1945 they set about closing up the canteens and Phoebe was moved down to Bangkok where she was helping repatriate British service personnel and former prisoners of war.
However on the 21 November Phoebe was drowned in an accident. Reports are vague some saying two military vehicles were involved and others saying little. We have been unable to find her death certificate or her grave and it is possible that her body was never found. However someone returning from Bangkok was supposed to have shown a photograph of her headstone to a WVS member in Blackburn.
While we don’t know her resting place, her name is on the WVS Roll of Honour in Westminster Abbey, on the Roll of Honour at St Anne’s School and of course on our own War Memorial, so between these three places we will remember her.
On 16th December 2012, the Vicar, David was delighted to receive the following email from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA;
Dear Revd. Roscoe
While I was moving from India back to America I decided to stop in Thailand to break up my very long journey. One of the places I visited was Kanchanaburi, probably most famous for its bridge over the River Kwai as well as The Death Railway Museum.
The Death Railway Museum was especially poignant and emotional for me so I decided to go to The Kanchanaburi Was Cemetery which is directly across the street from the museum. For almost an hour I walked among the 7,000 graves of the young men who died while constructing the Thailand to Burma Railway during World War II and tried to honor them in my own small way.
Just as I was walking toward the main entrance to leave one grave marker caught my eye: Phoebe Mercer's. I couldn't believe that there was a woman buried among all of these men! Who could she be? What journey brought her here to this place?
Without thinking I snapped a photo (see attachment) and vowed to find out anything I could about this extraordinary woman when I returned home to Philadelphia.
I couldn't keep this information to myself when I knew that the people who cared about her did not know where her grave is located. Well, on 13 December I went on the Internet and found your website. Can you imagine my excitement when I saw Phoebe's name, her photograph and her biographical information? When I read that her final resting place was unknown I literally jumped up out of my seat and yelled, " I know, I know where she is!" I can't help but believe that Phoebe and the Divine were reaching out to me.
I do hope you will pass this information on to everyone concerned. Also, The Kanchanaburi Was Cemetery is very beautiful and obviously lovingly maintained. I hope this is some consolation