First World War in Headington and Marston, Oxford

Percival James SURMAN (1881–1916)

Percival Surman

Percival James Surman was born in Wheatley in 1881, the son of Thomas James Surman (born in Horspath and baptised there on 3 July 1853) and Harriet Smith (born in Horspath and baptised there on 23 March 1856).

His parents were married (evidently in haste) at St Giles’ Church, Horspath on 7 March 1874 when Harriet was just 18, and they had the following children:

  • Bertha Ann Surman (born in Horspath in 1874 and baptised there on 16 August)
  • Jesse John Surman (born in Horspath in 1876 and baptised there on 26 November)
  • George William Surman (born in Horspath in 1878/9 and baptised there on 9 May 1879)
  • Percival James Surman (born in Wheatley in 1881 and baptised at Horspath on 25 September)
  • William Thomas Surman (born in Wheatley in 1883/4 and baptised at Horspath on 2 March 1884)
  • Alice Maud Surman (born in Wheatley in 1886/7 and baptised privately at Wheatley on 21 January 1887)
  • Cecil James Surman, also known as James Cecil (born in Horspath on 28 May 1889 and baptised there on 21 July).
  • Edith Mabel Surman, known as Mabel (born in Horspath in 1892/3 amd baptised there on 29 January 1893).

Percival’s father was an agricultural labourer, and at the time of the 1881 census he and his wife Harriet were living at “Blenheim” in Wheatley with their sons Jesse and George; their daughter Bertha (6) was staying with her maternal grandparents, Thomas & Lydia Smith, at their home in Horspath. Percival himself was not born until later that year, and soon after his birth the family moved to Horspath

At the time of the 1891 census Percival (10) was at school and living at “Forty” in Horspath with his parents and five siblings: Jesse (14), who was an agricultural labourer; George (12); and William (8), Alice (4) and (Cecil) James (1). His eldest sister Bertha (16) was the servant of a compositor who lived in New Road, Oxford.

Two of Percy’s brothers joined the army, and both died at the age of 24 while on service abroad in the early 1900s:

  • Jesse John Surman joined the 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards and fought in the Boer War: he died of enteric on 16 December 1900 at Bethulie, South Africa.
  • George William Surman joined the 4th Battalion Oxfordshire Light Infantry on 15 October 1894. He was a driver in the Royal Field Artillery in that war, and although he was wounded slightly on 31 January 1902 he survived; but he died in 1903 in Dinapore on the Indian subcontinent.

Percival himself started his working life as a labourer but then at the age of 17 followed his brothers into the army, enlisting on 15 December 1898 with the 4th Oxford Light Infantry (soldier no. 5344). He was described as being 5′ 6″ tall, weighing 123 lb, with a chest measurement of 32″ (expanded to 34″). He had a fresh complexion and grey eyes, and his age was recorded as 18 years and 4 months, but in fact he was exactly a year younger than that. On 25 September 1899 he joined the 12th (Prince of Wales’s) Royal Lancers (soldier no. 4745) and fought in the Boer War.

This flight by the three eldest sons to join the army at the earliest possible opportunity may have been precipitated by family circumstances. Percival’s mother Harriet appears to have left her husband for another man in the mid-1890s and moved to Headington, where she gave birth to a child described in the Horspath baptismal register as “baseborn”, the son of Harriet Surman, “married woman”:

  • Evan Surman (born in Headington in 1896 and baptised at Horspath on 19 April 1896).

The 1901 census gives a clue as to who this child’s father may have been: Percival’s mother Harriet (45) was living at Beaumont Road (then called Post Office Road) in Headington Quarry, and working as a laundress. Although described as married, she is also listed as the head of the household, and living with her was her husband’s unmarried nephew, William Surman (32): he was the son of Thomas James Surman’s brother Frederick, and was born in Horspath in 1868/9. Ten years earlier in 1891 he had been living in Horspath with his 80-year-old deaf grandfather, Henry Surman (80); but Henry died in 1894, and it is likely that William was then homeless and came to live with Thomas and Harriet.

Mrs Harriet Surman appears to have taken only two of her children to live with her and her nephew in Quarry in 1901: Mabel (8) and obviously Evan (5), the latter mistakenly recorded in the census as Eva. Three of her children were being looked after by other family members: Cecil James (11) was living with her estranged husband Thomas in a cottage in Horspath; William (13) was living in Fazeley, Staffordshire with his Horspath-born cousin Thomas Gardener and his wife; and Alice (15) was living in Hammersmith with her cousin James C. Wilkinson (a prison warder at Wormwood Scrubs) and working as a domestic nurse. Bertha was already married, and her three older sons were away in the army.

By the time of the 1911 census Percival (29) had left the army and was back in Quarry with his mother and his illegitimate half-brother Evan (15) and working as a general labourer. Harriet Surman described herself as having been married for 37 years, but also stated that she was the head of the household in Beaumont Road. She declared that she had given birth to nine children in the “current marriage”, two of whom had died (in the army). She was still working as a laundress (not on her own account). Her son Cecil James (21) was now living with his widowed aunt, the laundress Mrs Bessie Gardiner, at Railway Cottage, Horspath. Meanwhile her nephew William Surman (the probable father of her son Evan) was living at Longworth with his wife of one year, Betsey, and working as a gamekeeper.

Both Percival James Surman and his half-brother Evan volunteered to fight near the beginning of the First World War and are remembered on the Holy Trinity Church Roll of Honour, which names all the men who volunteered early, including those like Evan who survived. According to FindMyPast, although Percival enlisted at Oxford, his address was then given as Ashow in Kenilworth, Warwickshire.

♥ On 14 August 1915 at St Margaret's Church in north Oxford, Percival James Surman married Amy Edwards. He was already a Lance Corporal in the Royal Lancers, based in Kildare, and he stated that his father Thomas was a quarryman. His wife was described as being of of 109 Banbury Road, where she was probably in service, and is likely to be the Amy Annie Edwards (born Fenny Compton, Warwickshire in 1884/5) who was working as a cook at 15 Norham Gardens at the time of the 1911 census. They were married for just over a year and do not appear to have any children.

Poppy In the First World War Percival James Surman served as a Lance Corporal in the 12th (Prince of Wales’s Royal) Lancers (Service No. 4745). He died in France on 11 November 1916 at the age of 36.

He is buried in Blargies Communal Cemetery extension (III. E. 9).

He is remembered on the stone plaque in the porch of Holy Trinity Church in Headington Quarry.


Quarry memorial

Percival’s widow
  • Mrs Amy Surman was living at The Grange, Kingham after her husband’s death. She does not appear to have remarried.
Percival’s mother
  • Harriet Surman died at 7 Binswood Avenue in 1936 at the age of 80 and was buried in Holy Trinity churchyard on 3 March.
Percival’s siblings
  • Bertha Ann Surman (born 1874) gave birth to Gladys Maud Surman in Horspath on 10 January 1895 when she was single, and the child was described as “baseborn” at her baptism in Horspath on 7 April 1895. Bertha married Thomas Edward Parsons in the Headington registration district in the third quarter of 1895. The 1901 census shows them living in Beaumont Road in Quarry with Gladys, now 6, and three Parsons children, all born in Quarry: Harold (4), Annie (3), and Jessie (4 months). Mrs Bertha Ann Parsons died in 1964 in the Oxford district.
  • Alice Maud Surman (born 1886/7) married James George Collett in the Headington registration district in the third quarter of 1907. They had two daughters baptised at Holy Trinity Church: Doris Millicent May Collett (born on 4 December 1910 and baptised on 26 March 1911) and Marian Emily Rose Collett (born on 14 June 1908 and baptised on 31 January 1909). Mrs Alice Maud Collett died in 1949 in the Oxford district.
  • Cecil James Surman (born 1889) died at 53 Quarry High Street at the age of 38 in 1927 and was buried at Holy Trinity Church on 17 December.
  • Edith Mabel Surman (born 1892/3 married George Henry Trafford at Holy Trinity Church on 23 September 1916. Mrs Edith Mabel Trafford died in 1956 in the Oxford district.
  • Evan Surman (born in 1896), Percival’s half-brother, married Violet R. Mells in the Headington registration district in the second quarter of 1922. He died in 1969 in the Bullingdon district.

See also
  • CWGC: Surman, Percival James (confirmed by FindMyPast as having been born in Horspath)
  • Army records of Percy Surman: National Archives WO96/750/198
  • Oxford Journal Illustrated, 27 December 1916, “Heroes of the War”: photograph of P. Surman of Headington Quarry, who had died the previous month (shown above with kind permission of Oxfordshire County Council, Oxfordshire History Centre)
  • Wikipedia: 12th Royal Lancers

Back to Holy Trinity Church, Headington Quarry roll of honour

Back to War Memorials page on Headington Community Website