From Huguenot refugees to Letchworth hero
The story of Charles John Agombar
By John Birch
In the second half of the 17th century, Jacob Hagombart and his wife Marie were weavers, living in France. They were, however, also Huguenots (French protestants) who faced persecution. And so one night they fled, arriving in England and – as with many others down the centuries – settled more or less where their ship dropped them, in Bethnal Green, East London.
English inability to cope with such a “complicated” name resulted in the adoption of a slightly simplified spelling of the name, and so it was as the Agombar Family that Jacob and Marie started their family in the relative safety of seventeenth century England.
Initially the family stayed in a largely French ghetto, however Jacob lived long enough to see some of his grandchildren marry local girls and two generations later – a hundred years after Jacob and Marie’s arrival – his descendants had so integrated that they even ceased to use French first names. Jacques had become James, Guillame had become William.
A hundred years later, however – by the mid-nineteenth century – the family was still living in Bethnal Green. Weaving had come to an end, with one of the last skilled silk weavers – Charles Agombar – forced to change trade and become a boot riveter, with his son – also Charles – following in the career.
However Charles junior proved to be very adept at working in leather. As soon as he turned 21 he married Ellen Tomkins, switched from shoes to book binding and soon after his third child was born did something that no Agombar had done for nearly two centuries – moved out of the East End, to Tottenham. When the publisher JM Dent moved to Letchworth in 1907, Charles and his family moved with them, moving into 13 Temple Gardens, off Green Lane (a small close of houses built for workers at JM Dent’s Temple Press).
Almost all of Charles’ relatives remained in Bethnal Green in an area described by Charles Booth as some of the poorest housing in the East End, but Charles and his family could not have lived in surroundings more different. His eldest son and daughter were also working for Dents – life must have appeared perfect. They were living the ideal on which Letchworth was founded – the combination of the “joys of the countryside and the comforts of the town.”
But it was not to last. When war came seven years later his eldest son, 23 year-old Charles John, was to join the ranks in the Leicestershire Regiment as a Private. Shortly before his battalion moved to France, in 1915, Charles John married Ada Hinds, who he possibly knew from school as she lived near their former home in Tottenham.
Charles was almost certainly the first Agombar to set foot on the soil of his ancestors, and spent all of the war on the Western Front, arriving in France during the Battle of the Somme. He survived that, and also Passchendaele, and several other major offensives. As the German Army collapsed Charles was part of the advance until they reached the Selle River at the end of October 1918. In a surprise joint night attack in the early morning of 20 October the British Army secured the high ground east of the Selle, and after a two day pause (to bring up heavy artillery) Charles was part of the renewed attack on 23 October. This major combined assault by Fourth, Third and First Armies continued into the next day, resulting in further advances, but not for Charles. It was the last major assault in which his battalion was involved.
Barely more than a fortnight later the war ended. Whether Charles John’s father and Ada heard of his death before then we can never know – it is possible that the bells were ringing when the telegram arrived.
Ada went on to marry a John Holliday in Reading a year later, and died in 1929. His father, Charles, remained in Letchworth and died in 1945, a year after his sister Dorothy (who never married). His mother – Ellen (or Helen) – died in 1949.
His eldest sister, also Ellen (or Helen), married Charles Stark in 1916, and died in 1978 at the age of 85. They do not appear to have had any children.
Charles’ youngest sister, Beatrice, died in Stevenage in 1980, aged 80. She also does not seem to have married.
(All of this information was compiled using Find My Past - a geneological database which includes the complete census records for England from 1841 to 1911 and is available free in all Hertfordshire libraries – and related free web resources).