Charles Sidney Woplin: Family, War and Imperial War Museums

The staff of the Imperial War Museum taken at the Crystal Palace, 1920s. Charles Woplin is likely to be featured on this photograph, but cannot be identified. IWM Q 55178

In this guest blog post, Imperial War Museum (IWM) Intern Charlie Knight shares stories from his family history, with a special connection to the museum itself. Charlie’s ancestors the Woplin family were affected by both world wars and his great-great uncle Charles dedicated his life to educating people on the dangers of conflict, through his role at IWM.

 

  • First World War connections

Having been in the process of researching my own family tree over the past five years, I was aware that my Nan’s ‘Uncle Charlie’ was employed by IWM for the majority of his working life. It is now only since I have begun working here myself that it seems prudent to begin digging into Uncle Charlie’s story, the tragedy of his family in wartime, and his life at the museum.

Charles Sidney Woplin was born on 15 February 1891 in Thornton Heath, Surrey, to Edward Arthur Woplin, a farm labourer, and Mary Ann Vincent, a laundress. Charles was the second oldest of nine children, four of whom died as a result of war in the twentieth century. Charles’ father, Edward, died in July 1913.

Badge of the Rifle Brigade (Prince Consort’s Own). © IWM INS 7235

At the outbreak of war in 1914, Charles and his family were living at 69 Spa Road, Thornton Heath. Both Charles and his older brother Edward Jnr working as gardeners. Charles joined 3 Battalion (Prince Consort’s Own) Rifle Brigade and served in France for the entirety of the war, sustaining a bullet wound in the shoulder. Charles’ battalion fought in many key actions, including the Battle of Loos in 1915 and the Battle of Arras in 1917.  Whilst he went on to live a long life, his brothers that also served in the First World War were not as lucky.

William James Woplin served in the Royal Medical Corps in France from 1914 to 1915 and then in Egypt, where he was injured in 1917 and was sent to hospital in Manchester. He died on 27 February 1920 from his wounds. Edward Arthur Woplin Jnr served in the Royal Machine Gun Corps; in 1917 his left leg was amputated as a result of war wounds. He later died from pulmonary tuberculosis contracted in the trenches, on 29 October 1922.

 

  • Interwar period

Charles began his career at IWM after the war ended. He was appointed as a warden at the original site at Crystal Palace on 8 February 1920 – less than three weeks before William died – and later that year married my great-great aunt Maude Elizabeth Kirby in Croydon. Together Charles and Maude had a daughter, Evelyn (Eva), who was born in September 1922 – a month before Charles’ older brother died from his wounds.

The Army Gallery at the Imperial War Museum, Crystal Palace. © IWM Q 17030

At the museum, Charles worked in the Telephone Exchange before gradually working his way up to a supervisory role. His personnel file in the museum archive notes his dutiful and honest nature but that ‘… he has nothing of the butler or old-fashioned servant about him’. Charles may not have been a people-pleaser but gradually grew accustomed to life in public service.

 

  • Life in the Second World War

A barrage balloon is inflated in front of the Imperial War Museum at Lambeth Road, London. © IWM Q 64060

The Second World War would again affect Charles and his family significantly. Imperial War Museum, now based at its current home on Lambeth Road, was forced to close its doors to the public in 1939 due to the threat of air raids. During the war the museum was hit by bombs a total of 41 times and the building was not fully repaired until the 1950s. Charles did not serve in the armed forces but did undertake fireguard duties at the museum as part of his regular working week. He and Maude were bombed out during the Blitz over London a number of times, seeking refuge with family and friends.

Several members of Charles’ family lost their lives in the conflict. Two of his brothers, Albert and George served in the Royal Navy; Albert on HMS Acheron and George on HMS Barlight. Albert was on HMS Acheron when it hit a mine in the English Channel on 17 December 1940 – his body, along with many others, was never recovered. George was captured by the Japanese in Hong Kong and died from beriberi and malaria in 1942. His son, also called George, was a Volunteer Wireless Operator in the Royal Air Force, before serving as an Air Gunner with 102 Squadron. He died when the Halifax Bomber in which he was serving was shot down over Smaarlands Ocean on 24 April 1944. His body was found over two weeks later, and was buried in Svino Churchyard in Denmark.

 

  • Charles’ legacy

Charles with his stepson ‘Nobby’ Kirby, photograph believed to be taken in the 1940s.

Although he reached retirement age in 1956, Charles chose to continue working at the museum until the age of 70 – even accepting a pay cut and downgrade in responsibility. The museum Director Dr Frank Noble paid tribute to Charles:

‘His cheerfulness, understanding and advice, has been a great inspiration to all … he is an “Old Contemptible” and his many escapades have brought many a good laugh.”

His cheerfulness, understanding and advice, has been a great inspiration to all

On 22 June 1961, Charles was awarded the Imperial Service Medal for his long years of service to IWM. He died in March 1971, at the age of 80.

It is poignant to think that a man whose family life was engulfed by loss in war spent the entirety of his working life in an institution to educate people about conflict. He was faithful to his beloved museum, perhaps in tribute to the four brothers, nephew and brother-in-law who made the ultimate sacrifice.

 

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