A shopping centre worker was busy working when a familiar face caught his eye in a touching pictorial memorial to the sacrifice Ipswich made in two world wars – only to discover that the man was in fact his great, great uncle.
Lee Markwell, a member of the cleaning team at Sailmakers Shopping Centre, was reduced to tears when he found that his heroic relative was one of 500 photographs of fallen soldiers from the town which have gone on display at the busy mall.
The 46-year-old, who has worked at Sailmakers for 18 years, says seeing the picture of his great, great uncle Kenneth Wolton has inspired him to learn more about his story.
Lee was aware of his relative’s existence and the fact he died during World War II at the age of 19 after being shot by a German sniper near Hanover, but he knew very little else and had no idea that he would be appearing in the exhibition at Sailmakers.
The impressive photographic display is a tribute to the 1500 who died in the two great 20th century conflicts and is timed to coincide with the centenary of the end of the First World War in November 1918.
Dad-of-four Lee, who lives in Pinewood, said: “I was at work when I saw all these military photos from World War One and Two.
“I came across this picture and stared at it. I thought where have I seen this before?
“By sheer luck my dad’s brother, uncle Richard, was in town that day so I went to him and asked him to come and have a look at this photo.
“I explained who I thought it was and his eyes lit up when he saw the photo. He said ‘Lee that is 100% your great, great uncle Kenny’.
“I had tears in my eyes. Ever since that I wanted to follow up his story. Every time I walk past I stop and look at him.”
He added: “I’ve done a hell of a lot of research on him since. He went into the army as a rifleman in the Rifle Brigade, 8th battalion regiment.
“He’d been called up for national service when he was working at Ransomes and Rapier in Ipswich, which used to make and repair cranes.
“Unfortunately he got shot in the back by a German sniper just as the war was coming to an end.
“He and two friends were walking down the road and he got a bullet in the back. He died instantly.
“I’ve got his death certificate and service number. We’ve also got the last letter he ever wrote which was to his sister Daisy.
“It’s a sad story because he would have known that the war was coming to an end.
“He would have been looking forward to coming home but unfortunately he didn’t make it.”
Mike Sorhaindo, Manager of Sailmakers Shopping Centre, said: “The exhibition has caused enormous interest and for Lee to discover that his great, great uncle is one of those featured brings it home to us how recent this sacrifice was.
“It is very touching to see the faces of these young people who gave their lives for their country and whose memory is being celebrated here.”
Lee had seen photographs of his great, great uncle, including the one in the exhibition, when he was growing up but only ever got snippets of information about his relative, who was one of seven siblings.
He explained: “Kenneth was on my dad’s side of the family. He was my late nana’s older brother but we never spoke to her about him. She was very emotional.
“His photographs were always up. We used to talk to grandad and he would tell us bits and pieces but we’d never ask nana.
“The only thing she did tell me, and I’ll never forget this, was that she was standing in the kitchen with her mum when a young boy on a bicycle came to the house and gave them a telegram to inform them of his death.
“Nana would say I’ll never forget the day he came up the garden path.”
Much of the exhibition is down to Andrew Beale, 49, of Trimley, near Ipswich, who works for Ipswich Borough Council and has been engaged in this labour of love since 2014 – the centenary of the start of the conflict that involved over 10,000 of the town’s men.
They were killed in all the theatres of the first global conflict and even in September 1918 the toll was still being taken of Ipswich lives – and can be seen on the Ipswich War Memorial & Cenotaph Facebook page.
Lee said: “I couldn’t have any more appreciation for the work Andrew has done. It’s such a brilliant thing to do.
“These men are heroes and it’s amazing seeing people coming up to pay their respects.
“I’m so proud to see Kenneth in the exhibition and that it’s made me learn more about him.
“He’s buried in a cemetery in Hanover. I’ve got his grave number and one day I would like to go over there to visit it. That is definitely on my wish list.”
Andrew worked on the project with Helen Ely whose great uncle, William Trusler, lost his life aged just 16, along with the assistance of other specialists in fields of local and military history and they have compiled a fascinating collection.
The pictures and lists have been stored digitally and it has been a real detective operation because many only appear in lists in their local parish church or even further afield, in London where their widows may have moved.
Andrew said: “We’re really grateful to Sailmakers for staging the exhibition which will run to November – it’s in the perfect spot because so many people pass it on their way to and from the bus station.
“Most of the pictures there are from the First World War and they range from all sectors of society and including one poor man who saw active service but was shot at dawn.
“We have found many of the stories of these people, mainly from families and also from census records.
“It’s a real insight into their lives because they were often only soldiers for a year – one man didn’t make it out of training camp after falling on a bayonet.”
After the Sailmakers exhibition there will be a tribute to the Ipswich war dead on November 10th and 11th at the at the Reg Driver Centre, in Christchurch Park, Ipswich, with the chance to learn more about the men and women who lost their lives during conflict.