George Henry Armitage was born on 17 January 1898 in Stoke Newington, North London, the youngest child of Robert Melton Armitage (1846-1910) and Ellen Armitage nee Pinnuck (1855-1913). George had three brothers and three sisters that survived into adulthood. His siblings were Robert (1881-1916), Emma (1883-1970), William (1884-1940), Florence (1887-1945), Gertrude (1889-1978) and Alfred (1893-1957).
The 1901 census lists Robert Armitage (aged 53, a milk carrier), Ellen (45), Emma (17), Florence (13), Gertrude (11), Alfred (8), George (3) living at 70 Shakespeare Road, Stoke Newington, South Hornsey, London. George was educated at Wordsworth Road School, Hackney. He doesn’t seem to have had an easy childhood. According to my grandmother, Robert Melton Armitage (George’s father) spent time in jail for watering the milk and was violent when drunk. He committed suicide by drinking poison in 1910 when George was 12. In 1911 George, aged 13, was living at 4 Oldfield Rd, Stoke Newington with his mother Ellen Armitage (56) and siblings Florence (23), Gertrude (22) and Alfred (18). George’s mother died in 1913.
On 17 November 1914, George joined the Territorial Force as a volunteer, signing on for 4 years. George’s address was 9 Linkfield Rd, Isleworth, the house of his sister Emma and her husband George Ivall. He gave his age as 18 years and 6 months although it was actually 16 years and 10 months (it was common for army recruits to exaggerate their age). His height was 5 foot 8 inches. The principal role of the Territorial Force was home defence and its soldiers were not obliged to serve overseas until conscription was introduced in 1916. George served in the UK until 20 June 1916 when he was sent to France, where he served until 21 November 1916. George’s brother Robert was also in the army and had been killed in action in France on 24 May 1916. George embarked on a ship at Marseilles on 22 November 1916 to go to Salonika in Greece, where he disembarked on 1 December 1916.
Anglo-French forces began landing at the Greek port of Salonika on 5 October 1915. The troops were sent to provide military assistance to the Serbs who had recently been attacked by combined German, Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian armies. The intervention came too late to save Serbia and after a brief winter campaign in severe weather conditions on the Serbian frontier, the Anglo-French forces found themselves back at Salonika. At this point the British advised that the troops be withdrawn. However, the French, with Russian, Italian and Serbian backing still believed something of strategic importance could be gained in the Balkans. After preparing the port of Salonika for defence, the troops moved up country. During 1916, further Allied contingents of Serbian, Italian and Russian troops arrived and offensive operations began. These culminated in the fall of Monastir to Franco-Serb forces during November. A second offensive during the spring of 1917, the British part of which was the First Battle of Doiran (24-25 April and 8-9 May), made little impression on the Bulgarian defences. The frontline remained more or less static until September 1918, when a third offensive was launched. During this the British attacked at Doiran for a second time (18-19 September). With a breakthrough by Serbian forces west of the River Vardar, the Bulgarian army was forced into a general retreat. The campaign concluded with the surrender of Bulgaria on 30 September 1918.
The British Salonika Force was commanded by Lieutenant General George Milne from May 1916. At its height (late 1916-early 1917) it comprised of six Divisions, grouped into two Corps. These were:
XII Corps: 22nd, 26th, 60th Divisions (George was in the 60th Division)
XVI Corps: 10th, 27th, 28th Divisions
This made it a mixture of Regular, New Army and Territorial formations, with battalions of English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh origin. The Army’s mounted force consisted of yeomanry and cyclists. In support were Royal Engineers, British, Maltese and Macedonian labour battalions, Indian and Maltese muleteers, RAMC, Canadian and volunteer medical services. Air support was provided by Nos. 17 and 47 Squadrons RFC and No 17 Kite Balloon Section. Disease proved to be a serious drain on manpower during the campaign.
George was transferred to the Durham Light Infantry in June 1917 and to the Labour Corps on 13 Feb 1918. He was promoted to Corporal on 17 October 1918 and discharged from the army on 21 April 1919, the cause being that he was no longer physically fit for war service (apparently due to tuberculosis). He received the Silver War Badge, which was awarded to soldiers discharged as a result of sickness or wounds. He was also awarded the British War and Victory Medals, which were given to all British soldiers who served.
Electoral registers for 1922 and 1924 show George Armitage living with his sister Emma and her husband George Ivall at 9 Linkfield Rd, Isleworth. In 1926 George Armitage married Elsie Joyce Atkins in Lambeth. He was 28 and she 29. They had a daughter, Joyce, in 1931 and lived at 88 The Drive, Beckenham. My mother (born in 1922) remembers visiting the family and helping to give baby Joyce a bath.
George Armitage worked as a railway audit clerk and was also a notable amateur footballer (in those days professional footballers were poorly paid) – a centre half. During his career he played for Hackney Schools, St Saviour’s FC (Chelsea), Wimbledon, Charlton Athletic (he made 165 league and 17 FA Cup appearances for them over the period 1924 to 1930) and Leyton FC. Charlton Athletic were in the Third Division (South) when he joined the club, making his first team debut on 15 March 1924 against Brighton (away). George was the captain of the team that won the third division during the 1928/29 season, thus getting promotion to the Second Division. He played five times for the England Amateur international side. One of his best performances was in the Amateurs v Professionals Trial on 5 October 1925 at White Hart Lane, Tottenham, which won him a full international cap for England (on 24 October 1925 against Northern Ireland). He was 5’ 11” tall and weighed 11st 9lb. His nickname was “Tishy”. His final match for Charlton was on 18 April 1930 against Swansea Town (at home).
The story ends on a tragic note. George went to a sanitorium in Kent to recover from a bout of tuberculosis. He was depressed because of his illness and as a result, committed suicide by throwing himself under a train. He died on 28 August 1936 aged 38. The Times of 31 Aug 1936 included the following story in its Brief News section.
“Mr George Henry Armitage, 38, of The Drive, Beckenham, a former English amateur international footballer, was found dead on the railway line at Aylesford, Kent, on Friday. He had been a patient at Preston Hall Sanatorium near Maidstone.”
This item was printed in the Kentish Times on Friday 4 September 1936.
RAN IN FRONT OF TRAIN
Depressed After Illness
Former Amateur International Footballer
The theory that a Beckenham man, a former English amateur international football player, depressed by his illness which was an aftermath of the war, ran in front of a train on the day of his discharge from the Preston Hall Settlement of the British Legion, was advanced at an inquest at Aylesford on Monday on George Henry Armitage, aged 38 of The Drive, Beckenham. Mr Armitage’s body was found on the railway line at Allington on Friday.
RELAPSE AFTER MAKING PROGRESS
Mrs Elsie Joyce Armitage, the widow, identified the body and said the deceased went to the Sanitorium because he was ill with tuberculosis, probably an aftermath of the war. He made good progress and then had a relapse. Her husband was depressed and upset.
The driver of the 1.8pm train from Maidstone East stated that he looked ahead to see if the signal was clear and saw no one on the line. The train was travelling at 30mph and he felt a jolt. The fireman of the train said that at the spot where the train ran over Armitage there was a hut.
Dr T.J.Lee of Preston Hall Sanatorium said that on Friday the deceased asked for his discharge, which would take effect from two o’clock. The tragedy occurred before that. “He seemed to think he was much worse than he was” said the doctor “He was more anxious than depressed.” The witness considered Armitage was a little unbalanced in mind.
NOT HIS NORMAL SELF
A nurse in charge of the pavilion where Armitage was, also gave evidence and said that that on Friday he did not seem to be his normal self. A police constable stated that he found a hat in the hut with the deceased’s initials on it. A portion of the shingle from the hut to the track was disturbed as if someone had dashed to the line.
Summing up, the Coroner said that the evidence showed that Armitage left the Sanitorium after mid-day and went to the line. He concealed himself in the hut and when the train came he dived in front of it. A verdict of Suicide while of Unsound Mind was returned. The foreman of the jury said it was clear the Preston Hall authorities had treated the deceased well, and he had left against their wishes.
A benefit match for George’s dependents was held on September 24th, 1936 at Leyton Football Club between Leyton and an Amateur International XI. The programme contained tributes from several members of the national press. Examples are :
“We all know George Armitage’s abilities as a footballer – “the greatest amateur of the post-war decade” – I heard him described by a famous old player. Apart from these qualities, he had an extraordinary gift – some of us might call it genius – of making friends.”
“Without any flourish of style he was the keystone in the defence of every team he played for and absolutely reliable.”
“George Armitage will always be remembered as one of our great sportsmen. His remarkable ability as a footballer was there for all to see, but off the field as on, he scrupulously maintained the highest standards and truest traditions of British sportsmanship.”