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Walter Scott Montgomery ‘Promoted to Glory’

Everybody loves an ancestor with character so how about the wonderfully named Walter Scott Montgomery aka ‘Blind’ Montgomery. General interest in this man at one time went so far as to make him the subject of a BBC 1 programme entitled ‘Promoted to Glory’; which was produced as part of the ‘On Camera’ series broadcast in 1975.  Filming took place in Southwold and the surrounding area and included members of the Reydon Players, supported by the children of Southwold Primary School.  The plum role however of ‘Blind’ Montgomery’ went to one George Neller of Reydon.

Extract from a newspaper article entitled ‘On Camera Tonight Comes From Southwold Area’, 5 September 1975 (1785/2/1)

With all this interest in this man imagine the surprise to find that ‘Blind’ Montgomery wasn’t a Suffolk man at all!  Come to that he wasn’t really a ‘Southwold man’ either!  Walter first appears in Suffolk on the 1891 census living in the High Street, Yoxford in the household of Frederick Fisher, a confectioner, and he is listed as

Walter S Montgomery – Servant – Unmarried – 24 – Baker – Born London

but prior to that he is recorded on the census of 1881 at the Commercial School, Church Green Banham, Norfolk

Walter S Montgomery – Boarder – 14 – Scholar – Born Mile End, Middlesex

However, by 1901 he is resident at 21 South End, Southwold with his wife Kate and their son Reginald and is listed as a ‘baker’s journeyman’.

South End of South Green/Constitution Hill, Southwold, 1907

The TV programme of 1975 recalled that he worked at a bakery on South Green, Southwold and the 1900 Suffolk directory notes a number of bakers in Southwold but only one is recorded at South Green, John Chapman, so one would assume that this was his employer. The documentary also recalled that Walter had to give up his job because of blindness and this is confirmed on the 1911 census entry when he is listed at Mill Street, Westleton

Walter Montgomery – Head – Married – 44 – Organ grinder – Born London, Whitechapel – Totally blind

along with his wife Kate, five children (Reggie, Mary, Kathleen, Clifford, and Muriel) and an assistant, James Davey. This is the only census which refers to his blindness so he must have lost his sight sometime between 1901 and 1911 and this is confirmed by a presentation made in Southwold Market Place on Easter Monday April 1905 of a ‘Sciapa’ Street Piano Organ, costing £26 5s.  It was presented, on behalf of the residents of the town, as a tribute of their respect for Walter, the blind Southwold poet.  According to a report on the presentation Walter had lost all his capital in ‘an unfortunate investment’ some years earlier [he had invested his inheritance of a few hundred pounds  in the ‘Swiss Choir’ run in partnership with Frank Swift, but his diary of May 1889 records ‘Smash. The choir is broke’] and had later lost his eyesight, and the presentation narrows this to sometime between 1901 and 1905.  This didn’t seem to stop Walter one little bit however as he was well known in the area for his barrel organ, as well as for writing doggerel on local events and people, plus being a respected member of the Salvation Army.  His verse includes lines on

The Peasenhall Murder Mystery, 1902 [written in aid of Mrs Gardiner]
Winning the League Season 1903-1904
Building of the Harbour Quay Wall in 1906
The Capsizing of the yacht Wave on 11 August 1908
In memory of James Baker, Stanley Barnes, and Horace Sidney Whall who were drowned while crossing the River Blyth on 23 October 1909
The death of Bertie King on 5 June 1912, aged 37 years
In memory of Edgar Willmott Wright, MRCVS, veterinary surgeon at Yoxford, died 26 July 1912

and are a wonderful source of comment on local people and events.  Walter’s poem however are not just restricted to the Southwold area. At the time of the Caister Lifeboat disaster of 1901 he wrote a poem about the event and donated the proceeds, £8, to the Widow’s and Orphan’s Fund and a copy of one of his poems, entitled ‘The Coronation’ was even accepted by King Edward VII.

If you would like to explore more of his poems in detail a number have been published and are available in A Selection of Ghost Stories, Smuggling Stories and Poems Connected with Southwold compiled by A Barrett Jenkins in 1986. Other examples of his poetry are available in In a Country Churchyard by Ronald Fletcher [published in 1978] and both volumes are available to consult at the Lowestoft Record Office

This famous ‘Southwold man’ had clearly left the town by 1911 and when we next pick him up on the 1939 register he is living at 5 Halesworth Road, Halesworth where he is recorded as having been born on 29 October 1866 and is described as a ‘blind mat maker’. In his old age Walter had settled in Halesworth and it is here where he was buried in 1947 in Halesworth Cemetery.  His headstone states ‘Promoted to Glory’, a phrase which was coined by Herbert Booth (the son of the founder William Booth) to describe the death of a Salvationist and it is this phrase which the BBC used for the title of their TV programme of 1975.