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Beatrix Potter schoolchildren meet families of Newfoundland's WWI dead whose graves they tend

A reunion a century in the making

For the past 15 years, schoolchildren in London have tended the graves of 17 Royal Newfoundland Regiment soldiers and one nurse who died during World War One.

It started in 2003 when the children were conker hunting in the military cemetery near Beatrix Potter School in Wandsworth, a borough of London.

It was November, so the graves all had poppies on them.

Except they came across a section that had none.

The five-year-olds thought perhaps nobody knew who they were. They asked their teacher if they could put poppies on the graves and learn more about them.

That started a journey in which students at that school, under the direction of head teacher Steph Neale, have come to view the soldiers and nurse as their family.

They call them “Our Newfoundlanders”, and their school has photos and information about them displayed on their walls.

Students say the soldiers are like their older brothers.

Last week, six students from the school, along with their teachers and families, were greeted to a hero’s welcome in St. John’s.

The purpose of their visit was to meet the families of the soldiers and the nurse in order to learn more about them.

Meeting the families

On Saturday, the students hosted a meet and greet at the Pleasantville base to meet the families.

People travelled from as far as Grand Falls-Windsor, cousins came together to bring photos and information about their uncles to give to the children, and many people said it was like a great big family reunion.

It seems it was a reunion of a new family — the Beatrix Potter-Newfoundland family.

Paul Hennessey drove to St. John’s from Grand Falls-Windsor to thank the children for what they’ve done.

His uncle, John Charles Edwards, is buried at Wandsworth Cemetery.

Edwards was wounded at Beaumont-Hamel and transferred to the Wandsworth Hospital where he died on July 21, 1916.

“My mother didn’t really know where he was buried. She knew he was buried in England, but where?

“She had an awful life when her brother died,” he said. “I was born in 1939, and I remember growing up and wondering why she was crying on Memorial Sunday. I had no idea until I got older and she told me the story of her brother being killed at Beaumont-Hamel. So, she always was very emotional right to the time she died in 1978.”

Hennessey said meeting the Beatrix Potter children is something he’ll never forget.

“I can tell you that my mother is up there somewhere and she’s looking down, and I think she’s very happy… because of you people who have taken on quite a job over there in Wandsworth Cemetery looking after, tending to my uncle’s grave and the other 17 people.”

“From the bottom of my heart, I want to thank all of you.”

A reunion

Joan Bartlett Ingram’s aunt was Bertha Bartlett — the nurse buried at Wandsworth.

She said she didn’t know a lot about her aunt, but she did read her diaries and found out that she never planned to come back to Newfoundland after the war.

“She was going to Australia to be married,” said Ingram, but the Spanish Flu killed her before she could go.

As Ingram spoke, a woman emerged from the crowd.

“I’m your second cousin,” said Henrietta Bartlett Roberts Ellis.

It turns out the women’s fathers were first cousins.

As the two delighted in meeting one another, another woman jumped up with a story to tell about the nurse whose grave the children tend.

Cathy Saint John held a photo of her father seated in front of Bartlett — she was his nurse while he convalesced after a serious head wound.

His name was John Saint John and he would go on to survive the war, return to Newfoundland and get married. When his first wife died, he remarried in 1949 and had a second family. He was 65 when Cathy was born.

“(Bertha) was there taking care of a man who would become my dad, so thank you,” she said to the two cousins.

The Beatrix Potter children took it all in with awe.

“It’s really emotional,” said student Sophia Anderson. “I feel quite happy that everyone got together.”

Next to her, student Alice Goldberger marveled at how many relatives showed up to meet them.

“I’m realizing now how many people we look after the graves for. It’s nice doing something for not just the people in the graves, but for so many other people.”

The children return to England soon, but they won’t go back empty-handed.

They’ll travel back with a lot more information to add to what they know.

They’ll also bring some Newfoundland soil to place on top of the graves of the people they proudly call ‘Our Newfoundlanders’.

Twitter: @juanitamercer_

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