A Leading Light
Lieutenant Harry Austen MVO Royal Engineers
Member of the Royal Victorian Order. Queen's South Africa Medal 'Cape Colony' 'Orange Free State' 'Johanesburg'. King's South Africa Medal 'South Africa 1901' 'South Africa 1902'.
1914 Star '4 Aug-22 Nov 1914'. British War Medal. Victory Medal with MiD. Defence Medal. Territorial Force Efficiency Medal. Croix De Guerre Belgium.
The Man Harry Austen was born on 6th January 1880 son of Mr John Austen of 62 Cromwell Road, Tunbridge Wells. Little is known about his early life except that he attended St. Mary Magdalen Higher Grade Church of England School in St. Leonards on Sea and in 1896 aged 16 joined the Central Telegraph Office of the General Post Office in London as a Learner and three years later on 2nd February 1899 aged 19 enlisted into the Royal Engineers Telegraph Reserve. He was called up to fight in South Africa as 2552 Sapper Austen of the 1st Division Telegraph Battalion Royal Engineers during the Boer War and saw service in Cape Colony, the Orange Free State, and Johannesburg. He was awarded the Queen’s South Africa Medal with these three clasps and the King’s South Africa Medal with clasps South Africa 1901 and 1902. Following the war in 1902 Harry returned to work with the Post Office and was transferred to the 8th City of London Battalion the London Regiment (Post Office Rifles). He was awarded the Territorial Force Efficiency Medal as Corporal 4944 Austen in Army Order 163 of 1st July 1910. During this time he married Edith and they had one daughter, Marian Edith Austen, known as Jane and lived at 33 Huntley Road, South Norwood, London. With the First World War becoming inevitable Harry was embodied back into the Royal Engineers with his old service number of 2552 and rank of Sapper, he made out his will on 3rd August 1914, one day before the lamps of Europe ‘went out’ and served in the 2nd Army Headquarters Signal Company landing in France on 13th August 1914, coming under fire almost immediately, thus becoming entitled to the 1914 Star with Aug-Nov clasp. He was promoted at some time to Lance Corporal – Acting Sergeant and on 15th October 1915 was mentioned in Field Marshal Sir John French’s despatch for gallant and distinguished service in the field, this being shown in the London Gazette of 1st January 1916. On 19th October 1915 he applied for and was recommended for a Commission in the Royal Engineers (Signal Service) being medically examined and passed fit on 18th November. His appointment as a Temporary Second Lieutenant was on probation and dated 1st April 1916 appearing in the London Gazette of the same day. On 3rd August 1917 he was appointed as a Member of the Fifth Class of the Royal Victorian Order following a visit to the Army in the Field by His Majesty King George V and on 1st October 1917 promoted to Temporary Lieutenant , Gazetted 8th December 1917. During the war he was appointed as Signal Master to the Second Army and as such became involved with Talbot House, known in Army Signaller’s language as Toc H, in the Belgian town of Poperingue behind Allied lines. Here a rest centre for soldiers had been set up open to all ranks and encouraging those who visited to gain a deeper understanding of other people and their own Faith, this association remaining with him for the rest of his life. He was released from the Army on 4th June 1919 following the Armistice seven months earlier and retaining the rank of Lieutenant. On 4th September 1919, he was awarded the Croix De Guerre by His Majesty King of the Belgians and also awarded, the 1914-1918 British War and Victory Medal with MiD for his war time service. Following the War he returned to work at the Post Office moving later to Cable and Wireless during the company’s early days. He was also involved with the local Conservative Party and remained an active member of Toc H. During World War 2 aged 59 he served on the Headquarters Staff of the Air Raid Precaution, earning the Defence Medal. He lived at some time in Okehampton and in 1946 following retirement moved with his family to 23 Green Close, Exmouth in Devon immediately becoming Secretary of the Exmouth Toc H and being a prime mover in the foundation of the Toc H mobile film unit and distributor of films, also representing the organisation at a number of large national gatherings. In addition he joined Withycombe Conservatives and the local Methodist Church and it seems that these three organisations kept him fully occupied until his death seven years later on 20th May 1953 aged 73. He was cremated at Plymouth on Tuesday 22nd May and this was followed by a memorial service held at Withycombe Methodist Church a week later on 26th May 1953 at 2.30pm. There were no flowers but donations could be made to St. Dunstans or Toc H and was attended by many representatives from the organisations he had been involved with. During the service the sombre Toc H ceremony of light was performed. He was survived by his wife Edith, who only lived four months longer and died herself on 16th September 1953 and his daughter Marian who died aged 63 on 13th October 1970 leaving no children. Lieutenant Harry Austen MVO was indeed a Veteran of Three Wars! And one who served five Monarchs and was a subject of six!
The Story This group of medals, Member of the Royal Victorian Order, Queen’s South Africa Medal with Cape Colony, Orange Free State and Johannesburg clasps, King’s South Africa Medal with South Africa 1901 and 1902 clasps, 1914 Star with Aug-Nov clasp, 1914-1918 British War Medal, Victory Medal with Mention in Despatches (MiD), Defence Medal, Territorial Force Efficiency Medal and the Belgian Croix de Guerre, were first seen during April 1995 advertised in a dealer’s catalogue. Sadly when enquiries were made they had already been sold but thankfully re-appeared a few months later in a different dealers list and were acquired during September 1995, after a viewing at the Order and Medals Research Society annual convention in London. They were of particular interest as the recipient had served through three major wars and had received an uncommon long service medal for his time in the Territorial Force during the reign of Edward VII. It was a colourful and researchable group and with the medals came three items of ephemera to help start the quest for extra information. These were two newspaper cuttings from the Daily Telegraph dated 4th August 1917 and 6th September 1919 stating that Second Lieutenant Harry Austen had been appointed as a Member of the Fifth Class of the Royal Victorian Order following His Majesty’s recent visit to his Army in the field and that he had been awarded the Croix De Guerre Belge by the King of the Belgians.
The third item was a letter dated 22nd January 1919 from J Newland, Controller of the Central Telegraph Office, General Post Office, addressed to Mrs E Austen asking her pass on his congratulations to Lieutenant Austen on being awarded the CDG. The Queen's South Africa Medal was engraved in sloped capitals 2552 Sapr H Austen RE, the King's South Africa was engraved with identical details but in small capitals as was the 1914 Star. The British War and Victory Medals were engraved Lieut H Austen and the Territorial Force Efficiency Medal to 5944 Cpl H Austen 8/London Regt. It seemed strange that Austen would have served in South Africa in the Royal Engineers as a Sapper with service number 2552, then transfer to the 8/London Regiment reserves with a different number only to be called up again at the outbreak of World War One with his original rank and number! However research revealed that the full title of the 8/London Regiment was 8th City of London Battalion the London Regiment (Post Office Rifles) – so coupling this information with the letter from the Telegraph Office it seemed probable that Harry had worked for the General Post Office at some time. A researcher was initially employed to gather information on the Boer War medals and the three clasps confirmed, a visit to National Archives in Kew, London also confirmed the award of the World War 1 medals and MiD and copies of the medal index cards were acquired. Further detailed research included letters to the National Army and Royal Engineers Museum, obtaining a copy of his will form Somerset House and a visit to the Post Office Archives and Research Centre at Mount Pleasant, both in London. The latter confirming that Harry did indeed work for the Post Office. A letter to the Devon County Council archives also proved beneficial as they were able to provide photocopies of obituaries printed in the local paper at the time of Harry’s death, The Exmouth Journal from 1953. As is often the case the obituaries contained much further detailed information on Harry’s life including the fact he had been a member of the Toc H organisation, was a devout Methodist and had a daughter Marian Edith Austen. This enabled a detailed biography of his life to be pieced together. As a result of this latest information it was possible to make contact with the Exmouth Methodist Church in Tower Street, where he had worshipped. The Property Secretary, Mr Fred Williams was most helpful and assisted with the research where he was able by sending copies of any information or detail he could uncover. Toc H headquarters were also helpful and sent even more information from their archives. Despite the information that was uncovered, no photograph of Harry could be found. The closest to a picture was a mental one provided by Mr Williams who whilst helping with the research managed to find an elderly lady in the congregation (back in 1995) who clearly remembered Harry, his wife and daughter sitting at the front of the church every Sunday and “He being a very tall man”. Marian Austen’s will was also extracted but she never married and died without having children. Sadly the research stopped at this point., but research is always ‘work in progress and the main goal remains the ultimate acquisition of a photograph of Harry.
Tributes paid to Harry Austen at his Memorial Service on 26th May 1953
Reverend H Victor Surman
“It is not every man who in outward expression declared to his fellow men what he was, but although he never said so it was clear that the life work of Mr. Austen was communications. He was an artist in communications; other people might get a wrong number, but he never did. In his communications he was always after one person, and he did everything with that poise of soul, that depth of spirit and that serenity of character which was the mark of having spent much time in the company of his Lord. As an artist in communications he was not merely receptive; he had a message to convey and he knew how to distribute it to others. It was never scrambled. A man did not join Toc H for fun, nor did he accept that obligation of responsibility just for somewhere to go at night. He did it because he must communicate to his fellows the finest news he had heard. It was his spirituality which had bought him of necessity into that ready, regular fellowship with those who needed him”
Mr F Southwell – Founder Member Exmouth Toc H
“He was a great personality, entirely unselfish and a very loving man. He was also the perfect secretary”.
History of Toc H
Toc H was born during the strife of World War 1. It started in a house in a Belgian town named Poperinge, a few miles behind the front-line trenches. The house was called Talbot House (whose initials, in army telephone jargon, give TOC H its distinctive name). In this house a young Army chaplain, the Reverend P B 'Tubby' Clayton, set up a rest centre for soldiers. He named it in memory of Gilbert Talbot, the Bishop of Winchester’s son who had been killed in action a few months previously. From the start, it was open to all ranks, which was very unusual.
Many who visited gained a deeper understanding of other people, and of their own Faith. The symbol of Toc H was a lamp, the kind used in ancient room, which was over the door. After the war the men who survived returned to civilian life. They decided to try to recreate the Talbot House experience in peacetime. They started creating opportunities for other people to have that same experience, whether the divisions were of rank, class or any other. To begin with they setup residential houses like Talbot House. Later, they started forming local branches, which met weekly. Very soon women were fully involved too. On 11 December 1915 the house at number 43 Gasthuisstraat (at that time the street was called by its French name Rue de l'Hopital) opened its doors for the first time, welcoming British soldiers to a new club. The large house was owned by a wealthy brewer, Monsieur Coevoet Camerlynck. In the early summer of 1915 some German shrapnel shells had landed in the garden and damaged the rear of the house. Having removed his family and all his belongings M. Camerlynck was pleased to offer the empty house for rent to the British Army for 150 Francs a month. Two conditions of the lease were that the house was to be made weatherproof and a large safe was to be removed from the front room.
- Member of the Royal Victorian Order: 1354
- Queen South Africa Medal: 2552 SAPR. H.AUSTEN. R.E.
- Kings South Africa Medal: SAPR. H.AUSTEN. R.E.
- 1914 Star: 2552 SAPR: H.AUSTEN R.E.
- 1914-18 British War Medal: LIEUT.H.AUSTEN
- Victory Medal: LIEUT.H.AUSTEN
- Defence Medal: Unnamed as issued.
- Territorial Force Efficiency Medal: 5944 CPL H.AUSTEN. 8/LONDON REGT
- Croix De Guerre: Unnamed as issued.
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This page last updated 23 Apr 14