(Above: Some of the restored military graves at St Mary's Church, Caterham)
Steven, with help from other veterans, spent six months cleaning the gravestones of 73 former guardsmen, who were stationed at Caterham Barracks, and who were all buried at St Mary’s between 1880 and 1896. The soldiers, many of whom were teenagers, died from pneumonia during a pandemic.
Steven, who was also stationed at the barracks from 1977 to 1978, restored his first grave at a church in Sandhurst, Kent:
“I uncovered a Commonwealth war grave belonging to an 18-year-old from the Rifle Brigade, who died a month before the Armistice. It was in a terrible state and I wanted to do something about it, so I returned the next day to make it clean and readable once more. Afterwards, I began cleaning the areas around Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) graves in a ten-mile radius of my home, followed by military cross graves.”
Steven, who lives in Hawkhurst, Kent, has now cleaned and renovated 32 Victoria Cross graves in south-east England, as well as raising money to add a headstone to the grave of a George Cross recipient, which had been unmarked since 1949.
Steven then began to notice plenty of other graves belonging to men who had served in the military but had died outside of the two world wars and therefore didn’t qualify for a CWGC grave. He has now revived nearly 400 non-CWGC military gravestones, including the 73 at St Mary’s, which he was directed to by an ex-Welsh Guard from Caterham.
Steven works with a team of researchers, who look for information about each soldier, and attempt to find living family members. A notable tomb they discovered while at St Mary’s was that of Private Samuel Gibson, who was 101 when he died in 1891, and is thought to be the last survivor of the Battle of Waterloo.
Steven is currently fundraising to allow him to carry on with his work, including a return trip to St Mary’s:
“The amount I’d like to reach (£20k) is ambitious, but there is so much more I want to do, in other areas of the country, too. It costs me around £100 to clean up each grave, which so far I’ve paid for myself, but if anyone can help me I will be able to restore more, as well as maintaining the graves I have already been to. I revisit them every 18 months or so, to ensure they stay legible.”
You can donate via justgiving.com/crowdfunding/MilitaryGraveRestorer.