William Ernest Keeling - biography

c12/1885 - 21/12/1938

By Sarah Buttimore and Graham Keeling

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The family were fortunate enough to come across a large amount of original letters and photographs which came to light after the death of his daughter (Julia Keeling, 1930 - 2015). These letters and photographs we believe had been taken back to Australia by Julia following a visit to the UK in 1999.

The letters in particular chronical the courtship between Ernest and his wife (Dorothy Roberts-Purchase, 1894 - 1985) in the lead up to and throughout WWI. Included with these letters were also numerous dated original images of Ernest on active service as a despatch rider during this time.

Ernest was born in Bournemouth, Hampshire United Kingdom c12/1885.

He was one of 7 children born to George John James Keeling and Emily Keeling (née Bolt). His father George was, at various times, a greencrocer's assistant, a 'yeast agent', and an electrical engineer.

Ernest is listed in the 1901 census as working at 15 years old as a telegraph messenger in Bournemouth, Hampshire, UK. A piece of family lore says that he received one of the famous telegrams in the Crippen murder case in 1910.

At the next census in 1911 he is working as a Postman at the Post Office. Ernest was a trumpet player in the Bournemouth Postmen's Marching Band.

From the letters, we know that Ernest enlisted as a motorcycle despatch rider early in the war. The earliest images we have of the war period were taken during his training in the summer months (May, June, July) of 1915.

His medals card, issued after the war, states that he first entered the theatre of war in France, 31st July 1915. We have photographs soon after that, dated from September 1915.
The locations include Yvetot, Ypres, Bailleul, Flanders and my favourite 'Somewhere in France!'

Amongst the photographs of his service in France are also several with his despatch rider comrades, some of which he has written names upon.

We believe some of these riders are in the Canadian photo series of the pigeon lofts/trench picture near Hédauville. In particular we noticed the man documented as Mason, who we believe is the man in the trench picture releasing the pigeons wearing the leather coat.

Later photos in our collection show that at some point he gained another stripe on his sleeve. He is also pictured with other officers, and Holmes from the previous image reappears!

On further research last year we discovered that his military service records show that he is documented as Keeling W. E. (M.C) 74961 Corporal, 'B' Corps Signal Company - and mentioned in Despatches in 1918.

And in the family home, we subsequently found a certificate from the War Office for Ernest's "gallant and distinguished services in the Field". It references the King, Field Marshal Haig, and Secretary of State for War, Winston Churchill. This certificate has been stored in darkness for over a hundred years, and is still in immaculate condition.

After the war was over Ernest and Dorothy were married on June 14th 1919 in the St. Augustin Parish Church in Bournemouth.

They soon moved to Hounslow, London, where Ernest became an Inspector of Postmen.

They went on to have three children together:
Joyce (1921), Julia (1930) and Richard (1933).

Sadly he passed away on the 21st of December 1938 following an injury to his thumb. It resulted in a septicemia infection, which proved fatal.

The funeral took place at Heston Church, Hounslow. We have a further newspaper clipping that documents the funeral. It states that the funeral was attended by approximately 120 of the rank and file of the indoor and outdoor staff.

It then goes onto say that this was a testament to the high esteem in which Ernest was held. The assembly met the cortege and postmen lined the pathway to the entrance of the church. Six postmen acted as bearers.

The numerous floral tokens placed at the grave included 18 from various departments of the Post Office.