Headington history: People

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Sergeant-Major Edward Brooks V.C. (1883–1944)

Edward Brooks, a labourer who settled with his wife in Highfield parish, Headington
(initially in New High Street, then Gardiner Street, and finally Windsor Street)
was the first man in the Oxford & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry to win the Victoria Cross
in the First World War, and became known as the “Headington [or Highfield] V.C.”

First VC
Brooks on the front page of the Oxford Journal Illustrated of 11 July 1917

Edward Brooks was born in Oakley, Buckinghamshire on 11 April 1883 and baptised there on 20 January 1884. He was registered simply as Edward Brooks, but later he gave George as his middle name.

He was the sixth of the thirteen children of Thomas Brooks (born in Oakley in 1855) and Selina Siviter (born in Halesowen, Worcestershire in 1857), who were married in the Dudley district in 1875.

At the time of the 1891 census Edward (8) was living at Oakley with his father Thomas Brooks (36), who was a farm labourer, his mother Selina (34), and three of his siblings: James (9), Charles (3), and Selina (1).

According to his daughter's record, Brooks did not want to be a farm labourer like his father, and in about 1896 left home at the age of only 13 to work at Huntley & Palmer's biscuit factory in Reading, where he was kept on unofficially when his age was discovered.

At the start of the Second Boer War in October 1899, Brooks, who was only 16, volunteered to serve, but was turned down because he was too young.

On 9 January 1902 at Reading, when he was aged 18 years and 9 months, he joined the 1st Battalion of the Grenadier Guards (Service No. 10080), transferring to the 3rd Battalion on 1 December 1902. According to his family he was on duty In London for three years standing outside Buckingham Palace. On 19 January 1905 he was transferred to the army reserve, and he then gave his intended place of residence as Ickleton, near Saffron Walden, Essex.

On 20 August 1905 at the register office at Linton, Cambridgeshire Edward George Brooks married his first wife, Elizabeth Barker. It appears that she had died by 1909.

Life in Headington

Edward Brooks married his second wife Elsie May Danbury near the beginning of 1910 in the Bicester district (probably in the register office). Elsie, the daughter of the stonemason Elijah Danbury and his wife Sarah, had been born in Headington and was baptised at St Andrew's Church on 22 February 1885. In 1891 she was living with her parents at the former school house at the Field School (now St Andrew's School) on the London Road. By 1901 her family were living at Windmill Cottages in Windmill Road, but Elsie (16) was living at 81 Iffley Road where she worked as the general servant of a college servant and his family.

Edward and Elsie Brooks settled in New Headington village and had five children there:

  • Doris Rhoda Brooks (born at New High Street and baptised at All Saints' Church on 16 October 1910)
  • Harold Gilbert Brooks (born at Sandhow Cottages (possibly Southill Cottages?), New High Street and baptised at All Saints' Church on 16 October 1912)
  • Stephen James Brooks (born at Gardiner Street on 21 May 1914 and baptised at All Saints' Church on 14 October 1915, after they had moved to Windsor Street)
  • Nora Ida Brooks (born at Windsor Street on 18 December 1918 and baptised at All Saints' Church on 13 March 1919)
  • Barbara Brooks (born at Windsor Street in 1924).

Edward and Elsie's first home together in Headington was in New High Street, and the position of their entry in the 1911 census suggests that their home may then have been the present No.15 at the north-east end. Edward (28), was described as a general labourer in the building trade and was living with Elsie (26) and their first child Doris (seven months). (Curiously, he gave his place of birth not as Oakley in Buckinghamshire but as Halesowen in Worcestershire: the latter was his mother's birthplace. His birth was however correctly registered in the Thame district, which included Oakley.)

When their second child Harold was baptised in October 1912, they were still living in New High Street. They remained there until 1914, when they moved to nearby Gardiner Street (then called South Street).

Brooks was discharged from the army reserve on 8 January 1914.

At some point between May 1914 and October 1915 the family moved just around the corner to Windsor Street. Directories do not list the numbers of the houses there, but they probably moved straight into No. 16, which is first recorded as their address in 1921.

16 Windsor Street16 Windsor Street is the white semi-detached house to the left of the former school house

At the outbreak of the First World War, Edward Brooks was working as a builder for Knowles & Son, but had not lost the skills he had acquired in the Grenadier Guards, and had been a committee member of the Headington Miniature Rifle Club, whose President was Colonel Hoole of Headington Manor House. He was one of the club's best shots, and won Dr Massie's Challenge Cup in 1911, Colonel Hoole's Challenge Cup in 1912, and the 1913 cup presented by Major R. S. Rowell.

Brooks spent the first two months of the war drilling the members of the Headington Miniature Rifle Club and then, despite having a wife and three children, he then volunteered to serve in the army. On 29 October 1914 he was enlisted in the 2/4th Battalion of the Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry (Service No. 201154): he was promoted to Sergeant in May 1915, and to Company Sergeant Major in July 1916.


He earned his Victoria Cross for his action at Fayet, near Saint-Quentin, France on 28 April 1917 when he single-handedly killed two German gunners and captured their machine gun.

On Tuesday 26 June 1917 the London Gazette announced on its front page that the King would be approving Brooks's Victoria Cross the next day. The first his wife knew about this forthcoming honour was when a photographer from The Sketch arrived at her house in Windsor Street asking to take a picture of her and the children.

Wife and children
Mrs Brooks with Harold, Stephen, and Doris

Notice that Brooks would be awarded the Victoria Cross was published in The Times of 28 June:

No. 201154 C. S./M. Edward Brooks, Oxf. and Bucks. L.I.
For most conspicuous bravery.

Victoria Cross

This Warrant Officer, while taking part in a raid on the enemy's trenches, saw that the front wave was checked by an enemy machine-gun at close quarters. On his own initiative, and regardless of personal danger, he rushed forward from the second wave with the object of capturing the gun, killing one of the gunners with his revolver and bayoneting another. The remainder of the gun's crew then made off, leaving the gun in his possession.

C. S./M. Brooks then turned the machine-gun on to the retreating enemy, after which he carried it back into our lines.

By his courage and initiative he undoubtedly prevented many casualties, and greatly added to the success of the operations.

Brooks and his wife took the train from Oxford to London on Friday 17 July 1917, and on Saturday 18 July he was one of 32 men (or their representatives) who received a Victoria Cross from the King in the forecourt of Buckingham Palace.

Brooks and his wife caught the 4.55 p.m. train back from Paddington the same day, arriving at the the G.W.R. station in Oxford at 6.05pm: he was wearing his ribbon and Cross on his breast. They were met off the train by Canon Coulson, the first Vicar of All Saints' Church, who escorted them while the Headington Silver Band played “See the Conquering Hero” to the awaiting Mayor and Corporation and other dignitaries, including the Town Clerk and Chief Constable, as well as various members of his family and his Colonel. They were then escorted by the Mayor, Sir Robert Buckell, and his mace-bearer to the main entrance of the platform, where a carriage lent by Mrs Morrell of Headington Hill Hall awaited to take them up to Headington, preceded by the band.

He was greeted by the Mayor (Sir Robert Buckell) and Corporation and was driven to Headington. He was accompanied by the Mayor, Brooks's Colonel, and Canon Colson (the first Vicar of All Saints' Church), and the carriage was preceded by the Headington Silver Band. People lined the entire route, throwing flowers at them, and flags were flying from houses in St Clement's. The Mayor declared that “he had witnessed welcomes to Royalty and to great men in Oxford, but had never seen such loyalty and enthusiasm as was shown by the thousands of Oxford people who turned out to welcome Sergt.-Major Brooks.”

On reaching Headington, the procession first turned into the present Osler Road and stopped in the grounds of the Manor House, then occupied by Colonel Hoole, for a reception. Dr Massie of The Rookery (now Ruskin College) addressed everyone and presented Brooks with a framed address and money collected from 371 friends and neighbours totalling £108, part of which was in ready cash and the rest invested for him and his family in the War Loan. His wife was told that there was awaiting her in Windsor Street “a roomful of handsome and useful furniture” given by the people of Highfield parish in appreciation of her gallant husband. Other people at the reception included Miss Davenport-Hill (who lived in the house that used to stand on the site of Dorset House); Edward and Zoe Bellamy of 131 Lime Walk, who had lost their son Second Lieutenant John Bellamy on 4 October 1916; and Mrs Lucy Fry of Davenport Cottage on the London Road (now on the corner of Headley Way) whose husband Second Lieutenant Arthur Fry (who had died at Ablaincourt on 28 February 1917) had been in the same company as Brooks. Captain William Stobie of the Royal Army Medical Corps was also present at the ceremony: he had witnessed Brooks's bravery, and described how when a machine gun was swinging its bullets round in a semicircle, Brooks “rushed the gun, laid out the team, then turned the gun on the Huns themselves”.

Brooks was granted a further extension of leave which enabled him to visit his native village of Oakley on Monday 20 July 1917, where he was presented with a gold watch. He left Oxford on Wednesday 22 July to return to the front.

Durham Building

Brooks was admitted to hospital in France on 15 December 1917 because of rheumatism, deemed to have been contracted in France on 28 February 1917.

He was sent back to England on 20 December 1917, and from 21 December 1917 to 22 January 1918 was a patient at the 3rd Southern General Hospital in Oxford.

It appears that he was in the section of the hospital based in University College's Durham Buildings (left), as he was photographed there by the Oxford Journal Illustrated on 9 January 1918.

Brooks's youngest daughter Nora was born at Windsor Street in December 1918.

On 11 December 1919 Brooks was discharged from the 4 Reserve Battalion of the Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry at the age of 35 because of his rheumatism. He continued to live at 16 Windsor Street, and at first he resumed work as a bricklayer in Headington. He then took up a job at the car factory in Cowley.

Edward Brooks and his family were still living at 16 Windsor Street in 1930, but by 1932 they had moved to 42 Morrell Avenue in east Oxford. He can be seen there in the 1939 register, described as a car chassis assembler at the Morris Motor works at Cowley. He can be seen in this photograph of 1935 meeting the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) when the latter toured the works.

Edward Brooks died at his home in Morrell Avenue at the age of 61 on 26 June 1944 and is buried in Rose Hill Cemetery (Plot G2, Grave 119). His widow Elsie died at the age of 73 in 1958:

His grandson Keith Brooks added a black memorial stone to his grave:

Brooks's medals are on display at the Royal Greenjackets Museum, Winchester.

In 2009 the Ministry of Defence named the Territorial Army's Edward Brooks Barracks in Abingdon in his honour.

Paving stone

On 28 April 2017 (the hundredth anniversary of the day Brooks won his Victoria Cross), a commemorative paving stone to him (right) was unveiled at Oakley, the place of his birth, under the government scheme:

Below: Before the unveiling ceremony: Oakley War Memorial, with the paving stone to Brooks
covered by the flag of the Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry

These two photographs were kindly supplied by Oxford and Buckinghamshire Branch of the Western Front Association.

Paving stone before unveiling

Brooks blue plaque

On 29 July 2017, a hundred years after receiving his Victoria Cross, a blue plaque to Brooks (right) was unveiled on his home at 16 Windsor Street, Headington

Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Board:
Edward Brooks VC

See also:

On 15 August 2019 a plinth remembering Cowley Barracks was unveiled at the student accommodation in James Wolfe Road, and the name of Edward Brooks features prominently on the vertical face:

Barracks plinth

Contemporary newspaper reports about Brooks
  • Oxford Journal Illustrated, 23 May 1917, p 9
    Military Ceremonial in St Giles's
    Seven photographs of Lieutenant-General Sir H. C. Sclater, K.C.B., Commander-in-Chief, Southern Command, visiting Oxford. The third of the seven photographs shows Edward Brooks's mother holding her son's medal
  • Oxford Journal Illustrated, 11 July 1917, p. 1
    The First Oxford and Bucks V.C.
    Photograph of Co. Sergeant-Major Edward Brooks of Windsor Street, Highfield, who took an enemy gun emplacement single-handed
  • Oxford Times, 7 July 1917, p. 8: “Oxford Territorial wins the VC: A well-known rifle shot”
  • Oxford Journal Illustrated, 11 July 1917, p. 4
    Highfield V.C.'s Wife and Family
    Photograph of Sergt-Major E. Brooks's wife and three children in a garden, reporting that they had been given “a roomful of handsome and useful furniture” by the people of Highfield in appreciation of her gallant husband
  • Oxford Journal Illustrated, 25 July 1917, p. 1
    Civic Reception of Oxford's Territorial V.C.
    Photograph of Co. Sergeant-Major Brooks, V.C. being greeted at Oxford Station by the Mayor and the Corporation
  • Oxford Journal Illustrated, 25 July 1917, p. 7
    V.C.'s Reception and Presentations at Headington
    Seven photographs after the reception at the G.W.R. Co.Sergt-Major Brooks, V.C. was driven to Headington accompanied by the Mayor, Colonel Ames and Canon Colson. In Colonel Hoole's park he was presented with a framed illuminated address and a collection raised locally that amounted to £108.
    (1) leaving the GWR station in a carriage lent by Mrs Morrell
    (2) passing down the High
    (3) the crowd in St Clement's
    (4) Brooks getting out of the carriage at Headington
    (5) Dr Massie addresses the visitors and shows the framed address
    (6) presenting the address and the cheque to Brooks
    (7) part of the large crowd.
  • Oxford Times,, 28 July 1917, p. 6
    Long report headed “Co. Sergt.-Major Brooks, V.C. welcomed at Oxford and Headington
  • Oxford Journal Illustrated, 28 November 1917, p. 4
    O.B.L.I. Men in France
    Photograph of a group of officers and senior NCOs, with Sergeant-Major Brooks, the Headington VC, on the right
  • Oxford Journal Illustrated, 9 January 1918, p. 9
    Nurses and Patients at Durham Buildings
    Photograph of about 54 wounded soldiers and five nurses outside the Durham Buildings Hospital in the High, with the Headington VC, Sergeant-Major Brooks, in the centre
  • Oxford Mail, 17 September 1942
    Co. Sergeant-Major BROOKS, V.C. or A Hero Of To-Day

© Stephanie Jenkins

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