Cowman, soldier, gambler – glimpses of an ordinary life

First World War troops. Frank Drain served in the war with the 10th Essex.

First World War troops. Frank Drain served in the war with the 10th Essex. - Credit: Archant

From serving in the First World War to winning a court trial, Prof Ged Martin tells the story of Hornchurch man Frank Drain

Frank Drain was an ordinary person.

He probably endured jokes about his surname. Experts think it’s a Viking name, or maybe Irish, from the Gaelic word for a wren.

Frank Christopher Drain was born near Chelmsford in 1890. His father Silas was a farm labourer. Frank was the sixth child, and two brothers, aged 13 and 10, were already working in the fields.

But Silas moved up in the world. By 1901, he was in charge of the horses at Maylands Farm, now a golf club near the A12-M25 junction.

In 1911, aged 21, and working as a cowman, Frank married 20-year-old Jane Perry. They would stay together for 70 years.

Frank and Jane shared a cottage at Ardleigh Green with his brother William.

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Building began in Nelmes Way in 1914, and this may explain why Frank and Jane moved to Harold Wood. In 1924, his address was Queens Park Road, a street of small houses near the station.

War broke out in 1914 but, now with three small children, Frank did not rush to volunteer.

He joined the Army in April 1916, probably as a conscript: compulsory military service was introduced in March.

In November, Frank’s unit was ordered to France.

Probably based at Warley Barracks, his desire to see his family for maybe one last time was too strong. He was arrested for being absent without leave.

1917 must have been the worst year of Frank’s life. His unit (the 10th Essex) was in the thick of the fighting. In September, they attacked at Poelcapelle in Belgium, driving the Germans back almost a mile.

But in thick mud, they could not consolidate their gains, and lost ground. Sometime in this melée, Frank Drain was wounded.

He was brought home in December, but seems to have returned to active service later: he was not demobbed until September 1919.

One day in June 1922, Frank was having a beer in the Coach and Bells, a High Street, Romford pub, demolished in 1966.

In those days, you could have a flutter at a race meeting, but off-course gambling was illegal – there were no betting shops.

Undercover police had seen bookies taking bets in the pub. They staged a raid – and Frank happened to be there. He found himself in court again – but on what charge?

Defending the landlord – who faced the loss of his livelihood – was top barrister Sir Henry Curtis-Bennett. He lived near Chelmsford and was planning to stand for Parliament, so it was both convenient and good publicity for him to take the case.

As a defence counsel, Curtis-Bennett specialised in counter-attack. He challenged the prosecution to prove that the landlord knew about the illegal betting.

His favourite trick – lawyers called it “doing a Curtis” – was to scoff at the charges against his clients, and demand they be dismissed.

He did a Curtis for Frank Drain.

There was no law against visiting a pub, even during a police raid. Frank might as well have been arrested “for being there when there was an earthquake or a thunderstorm”.

The laughter in court told Frank he was safe.

Frank and Jane died in 1982. Havering residents to the end, they linked the modern borough with its farming past.