Lives Lived and Lives Lost - Portsmouth and the Great War

The presence of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth tends to obscure the existence of the separate but vital civilian waterborne business, carried out in the harbour and out to Spithead. For centuries much of this traffic was in the hands of a few local families who guarded their trade jealously.
One of these families was named Tait and they were rumoured to have been present in Portsmouth since the mid 18C. The only real evidence however comes with the 1841 Census which showed Thomas and Sarah Tait, both aged 45 years living with their four children on East Street, Point. They were the only persons named Tait then living in the town of Portsmouth. Seventy years later, at the 1911 census, the family occupied 10 houses across Portsmouth and Portsea.
Five members of the extended family enlisted to serve in the Great War, though not, as one might expect of people whose livelihood was based on the sea, in the Navy, but as rank and file members of the army. Four of them returned home at the end of the war, apparently unscathed. The one who did not return was John James Tait.
John James had been born to Edward and Mary Ann (nee Harbin) Tait around 1885 but not baptised until February 22nd 1889. He was the fourth son and sixth child in a family that eventually contained 11 children, most of whom survived infancy. Edward was an archetypal waterman who raised his family at several addresses around Portsmouth and Point - Highbury Street, Broad Street, Camber Quay.
In the 1901 Census John James, aged 17, is listed as a general labourer but it seems likely that he subsequently followed his father to become a mariner. Records then become a little hazy. We know that he married Rose Mary and had three children between 1906 and 1916 and that two of them died before their first birthday. We also know that at some point he joined the army and was later placed on reserve. When the Great War broke out he was recalled from the reserve but not to be sent on active service. Instead he was retained on special duties with the 13th Bedfordshire Regiment & Labour Corps working at various places around England.
The special duties seem to have involved the loading and unloading of ships with cargoes of timber. It may be that he gained some expertise in this process whilst working in the Camber, whilst his age (30 years in 1914) could have postponed his assignment to an active unit. He continued this work until 15th October 1917 when he was badly injured by a falling load of timber and died at Croydon.
The body of John James Tait was returned to Portsmouth where he was buried in an Imperial (later Commonwealth) War Grave at Highland Road Cemetery (Grave Reference H.6.10). His last address was given as 80 Highbury Street. He is commemorated in the National Roll (Section 10, p.225) and on the WW1 memorial outside St. Thomas's Church but strangely, his name does not appear on the Cenotaph.
Tim Backhouse
November 2013

To Cynthia Sherwood for her extensive research