Soldier-Cartoonist: Sapper Charles Albert Kennett, Royal Engineers

Sapper Charles Albert Barlow Kennett, Royal Engineers 7th Labour Company (later 706th Labour Company)

Service Number: 59312

Born: 7 March 1898, Crewe, Cheshire. Died: 16 May 1979, Waterloo, Liverpool (aged 81)

Figure 1. Charles "Chas" Albert Kennett, picture courtesy of Craig Williams, reproduced here with permission of the Kennett Family ©

I was browsing an auction site recently, looking for something else entirely, when, while flicking through all the thumbnails, a listing jumped out. It was for a postcard, and I instantly recognised it as a copy of Kennett's cartoon, below. Without hesitation, even though the listing was from the States and the postage stung, I hit buy immediately, as to me, this is the most exciting postcard I have come across to date — more on that below.

It is one of the cartoons that had stuck in my mind from researching Blighty as, being an armchair cartoonist, I take my hat off to anyone who can do parallel hatch shading — I can never pull it off, I just don't have the patience — and my efforts always end up a mess.

Figure 2. Blighty, 23 December 1916, p.20, Author's Collection

Charles 'Chas' Albert Kennett, was born in 1875 to William, a general labourer, and Esther Kennett in Dover, Kent. They lived in Bridge Street for most of their life (Charles later moving to a house on the same road) and from the newspaper reports of the period, this was a colourful working-class neighbourhood. Esther had six children, of which five were still alive by 1911.1

By the time he was 13, Kennett was already in work as a labourer at Packet Yard, which seems to have been some sort of loading/unloading area for the London, Chatham and Dover Railway, which also had an Iron and Brass foundry.2 Aged 33, he was a general labourer working on the widening of Admiralty Pier.3 The original pier was built between 1847 and 1875 as a Commercial Harbour, and in 1895, the Admiralty announced that they were going to use the Port of Dover as a base for the Royal Navy. To accommodate them, the pier was extended — this was completed in 1907 — and what had been part of the commercial infrastructure (the eastern side) was surrendered to the navy. This led to a new contract, signed in 1909, to widen the pier to allow for a new railway station. This involved having to reclaim 11.3 acres from the sea and the construction of a 2,260-foot-long seawall using 1 million cubic tonnes of chalk.4 While I will not pretend to understand the intricacies of civil engineering, what I can fathom is it must have been back-breaking work. There is a full account at The Dover Historian.

Kennett enlisted in the Royal Engineers at the age of 38, in August 1915, and was in France a month later.5 Nine months previously his younger brother, Thomas Edward Kennet (1881-1914), who enlisted in the Royal Navy and served on the Submarine HMS D2, was lost at sea after their boat was rammed by a German patrol craft off the coast of Borkum Island.6

There is an age discrepancy in Kennett's records, putting his age at two years older than he actually was. Now mistakes in records are not uncommon, and this may well be the case here, but the adverts for the Royal Engineers Labour Battalions, which were set up in July 1915, specifically state they were being formed for men aged 40-47. While accounts of young men increasing their age are fairly common, I wonder if this was the case here? A motivation for doing so could have been the pay of 3s a day on offer, considerably more than serving as a private.7

Labour Companies were not required to keep unit diaries, so it is very hard to build a picture of what his experience was, except to say being attached to 2nd Army would have put him in the regions of The Bluff, St. Eloi, Mount Sorrel, Messines, and Ypres.8 In January 1918, he was admitted to No 2. Casualty Clearing station and transferred to No 11 station, in the Bailleul region, on account of haemorrhoids. While trench foot is often bought up in relation to the war, inflammation and other diseases of the intestines were far more common and overwhelmingly more lethal, and in July of the same year, he was invalided out of the army.9

In 1919 he married Ellen Bertha Champion (nee marsh, 1896-1984), who had been widowed two years earlier in tragic circumstances. Her former husband, Arthur Champion (1888-1917), a private in the Queens Own (Royal West Kent) Regiment, took his own life at the Lord Derby Hospital in Warrington.10 Charles and Ellen had two children together, Charles F Kennet (1920-1977) and William Thomas George Kennett (1921-2007).

In July 1921, Kennett was prosecuted under the Unemployment Act. He was summoned for obtaining an Out-of-Work donation of 10s under false presentences. The Out-of-Work donation was a tax-funded scheme set up in 1918 by the government for soldiers and munition workers who were out of work after the armistice in an attempt to avoid industrial unrest or widespread non-compliance. While the word 'dole' has older origins, this was the start of the word being used in the manner as 'being on the dole' or receiving 'the dole'. 11

The scheme was not without its critics, and as a modern reader, it may not be too surprising to see who those critics were: for example, in 1919 The Spectator commented that it was 'a waste of public money, and that because of it, men and women were refusing to work so they could get the monies'.12 the Telegraph wanted it revoked as a 'system of doles has never yet proved a cure for any social ill'.13 The Lord Justice Darling (1849-1936), presiding over an unrelated case at the Old Bailey, commented when sentencing two youths on the charge of stealing guns and with the intention to wound a Richmond Park parkkeeper that he was not surprised that 'People found it much more agreeable to have all their time to themselves and get a sum of money contributed by those who did work, and then to walk about shooting in his Majesty's parks'.14

Returning to Kennett's case, the Prosecution, a Mr. C.A. Stredwick of the Ministry of Labour, put forward the charge he had received the dole for the days of 7-9 February, but in fact had been employed by Messrs Hawkesfield, a coal merchant, on each of those days. The defence put forward that, in the morning, when they had to sign-on, he might not have been in work, but work could have been got at 3pm on the same day and therefore could not inform the exchange. To this, the prosecution replied: 'this was covered in the regulations, and in such cases the man should have informed the exchange the next day'. To which the defence offered that he could not, as that would have put the clerk in the position of 'being a party to a fraud'. The court took into consideration the fact that Kennett had been suffering from consumption for the last two months and had been receiving treatment under the pension scheme, and his three years' service in the Royal Engineers. However, in the ruling, the chairman said they could not overlook the case, but would act leniently, and he was fined 40s. On receiving the verdict Kennett commented, 'Why should other men have been given the privilege of not having to pay the money back?' to which Stredwick replied 'As there were 20 or more cases, it would have been a quite impossible task, so a few cases were taken as examples'.15 I can only speculate, but I can't help but read between the lines — regardless of Kennett's guilt, he was going to made an example of.

The Postcard

Figure 3. Blighty Series Postcard, Sapper C.A. Kennett, Author's Collection

I was a bit sceptical when the postcard arrived, as it is feels cheap — both the thickness of the paper and (not visible on the scans), the magenta ink has bled through. I am also aware that the Imperial War Museum reprinted copies of the 1916 & 1918 Christmas specials of Blighty in 1997 and 2005, and did not want to rule out that this was a later reproduction. However, with the postcard now in my possession, I decided to specifically search auction sites for postcards with the keywords 'Blighty Series' (as found on the back on the postcard) and came across another in the series. While I didn't recognise the cartoon straightaway, I did recognise the name Corporal Harry Cotton, I had come across his cartoon and his papers before in the archives. On revisiting the archives, I came across the following in his memoirs, which proves the provenance of Kennett's postcard:

'A little while after the war I was in Liverpool Lime Street Station and as I had some time to spare I looked at the books and things on the bookstall. I was surprised to find my drawing of 'Hearts are Trumps' [His cartoon from Blighty] in the form of a picture postcard, and this time coloured, blue and pink as far as I remember.'16

I am planning a full write up about Harry Cotton next, as his story is a fascinating one on many levels.

In regard to why this is important, and why I found it exciting, from research into Blighty, I have uncovered a more questionable side to the publication, and I strongly believe it to be a case of 'patriotic profiteering'. One of the individuals involved with the publication was George William Macey, who also happened to be involved in Blighty's sister publication, Sea-Pie. Macey was fined after the war, on a related matter, for war profiteering — on the back of this, concerns were raised over the fact that soldiers' and sailors' drawings that had been contributed to his publications were now being used for commercial purposes. It is important to point out that no law was broken in this regard, as the soldiers and sailors had been paid for their contributions — hence the phrase 'patriotic profiteering'.17 While there was evidence of contributions from Sea-Pie being used in this manner, up until now, there was no evidence for Blighty suffering the same fate.

I do have a longer article/s on Blighty in the works for this site, where I hope to unravel more of the mystery behind it — as well as some surprising discoveries. I am also keen to find the other postcards in the Blighty Series, which are identifiable by their backs as seen below. If you can help in that regard, then please get in tough either via the comments below, or via the contact form on the about page.

Figure 4. Blighty Series Postcard Back, Author's Collection

  1. 1881 Census England and Wales; Dover Chronicle, 14 April 1906, p.3; Dover Chronicle, 4 November 1916, p.3. ↩︎

  2. Kentish Express, 5 February 1910, p.5. ↩︎

  3. 1911 Census England and Wales. ↩︎

  4. https://doverhistorian.com/2015/06/06/admiralty-pier-part-ii-from-1909/, retrieved 5 June 2024. ↩︎

  5. Silver War Badge Roll, 1914,1920. TNA/WO/329/2857, Labour Corps other Ranks: Medal Rolls. ↩︎

  6. UK, British Army and Navy Birth, Marriage and Death Records, 1730-1960 for Thomas Edward Kennett; https://rnsubs.co.uk/boats/subs/d-class/d2.html, retrieved 20 June 2024. ↩︎

  7. https://www.longlongtrail.co.uk/royal-engineers-labour-battalions/, retrieved 20 June 2024. ↩︎

  8. https://www.longlongtrail.co.uk/army/other-aspects-of-order-of-battle/the-british-armies-of-1914-1918/the-british-second-army-1914-1918/, retrieved 20 June 2024. ↩︎

  9. Major T.J, Mitchell, History of the Great War Based on Official Documents: Medical Services Casualties and Medical Statistics (Naval and Military Press: Sussex, 2010 [1933]), pp.101-104, 144, 184. ↩︎

  10. UK, Army Registers of Soldiers' Effects, 1901-1929 for Arthur Champion; WW1 Pension Ledgers and Index Cards, 1914-1923. ↩︎

  11. Noel Witesade, 'Who were the Unemployed? Conventions, Classifications and Social Security Law in Britain (1911-1934)', Historical Research Society, 40(1) 2015, p.160; Arnold T. Newman, 'Recent literature on British Unemployment Insurance', The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 39(4) 1924, p.3. ↩︎

  12. The Spectator, 22 February 1919, p.3. ↩︎

  13. Reported in the Western Morning News, 31 August 1921, p.5. ↩︎

  14. Western Morning News, 28 April 1921, p.5. ↩︎

  15. Dover Express, 8 July 1921, p.3. ↩︎

  16. Liddle Collection, LIDDLE/WW1/GS/0371, H. Cotton personal papers. ↩︎

  17. The Saturday Review, 26 February 1921, p.173. ↩︎

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