At first glance, one might wonder why Sidney J. Edwards Square at the intersection of Central Street and Massachusetts Avenue in West Acton is named after someone who was born in England and fought for Canada in World War I. It turns out that he and many others, especially those with British origins, joined up to serve in Canada while the United States was not yet involved in the “Great War”. Sidney Edwards was killed two years before the war became real for most Americans.
Sidney John Edwards’ birth, possibly in December 1878, was recorded in Barnstaple, Devon, England between January and March, 1879. By the 1880 U.S. census, he was in Acton. His father Alfred J. (a carpenter, age 25), mother Rhoda (age 22), and Sidney (age 1) were living with Eliza Owen (Alfred’s sister), her husband Thomas, and their three children. Sidney’s sister Millicent Mamie Edwards was born in South Acton on July 17, 1880. After that point in Sidney’s life, we have a bit of a mystery. In the Society’s collection, there is a white card on which someone typed a brief (and quite incomplete) synopsis of Sidney’s life. The card has tack holes as if it were once part of an exhibit. It states that Sidney was born in England, moved to Acton as an infant, and lived in the town until he was fourteen years old. We have tried to confirm that timeline and so far have not found evidence that Sidney was in town that long. (Unfortunately, the card has no notation of its date, author, or source.) The Owen family stayed in Acton, but Sidney’s family moved fairly quickly. Millicent’s death record in 1881 and brother William’s birth record in 1882 listed a residence of Boston. Father Alfred’s 1888 naturalization reported his address as Winchester, MA, and he seems to have stayed there through 1917. (In the city directories that we found, Alfred was a listed Winchester resident in 1889, 1895-1908, and 1915. We also found him in Winchester in a 1909 Masonic record, the 1900 and 1910 censuses, and 1915 newspaper reports.) It’s possible that Sidney stayed with Acton relatives during his childhood, but one would ordinarily assume that he lived in Boston and Winchester with his parents. (Neither of those locations is mentioned in the typed biography.) At the very least, Sidney probably spent time in Acton visiting his many Owen cousins.
Sidney’s obituary (from the Winchester Star), reported that he graduated from Winchester High School and the Burdett Business College in Boston. He worked as a clerk for Boston’s A. C. Lawrence Leather Company, living with his family in Winchester for several years. Around 1908, he moved to British Columbia. The gold industry was booming in the town of Hedley, and Sidney worked in the reduction plant of the Hedley Gold Mining Company. In 1913, the local Hedley Gazette reported that he had been initiated into the Loyal Orange Lodge. He also served in a local militia unit, the 102nd Regiment of the Rocky Mountain Rangers.
At the outbreak of the First World War, Sidney went to Victoria, British Columbia to enlist in the regular army. His enlistment papers show him to have been 5’ 6.5” tall with brown hair, fair complexion, blue eyes, and robust health. On November 1, 1914, he became a private in the 30th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. According to his military record at Library and Archives Canada, he sailed for Britain on Feb. 23, 1915. (A newspaper report mentioned that his father traveled to Halifax, Nova Scotia to see him off.) In the reshuffling of troops that occurred after the Canadians went overseas, the 30th Battalion supplied manpower for the needs of other units. Sidney was transferred to Canada’s 15th Battalion that saw action at Festubert, France in mid-May 1915. He was lost in the shelling during that battle.
Sidney was originally reported as missing. The Boston Daily Globe reported on June 4, 1915 that his father had just received a telegram saying that Sidney's whereabouts were unknown. The family hoped that he had been captured rather than killed. However, a letter received by his parents and published in the Winchester Star on June 11th and later in the Hedley Gazette stated that he had been killed on May 20th. Lieutenant H. Price of the platoon from which Sidney was transferred wrote that Sidney’s new assignment had been to help to form a machine gun section and that he was killed in that capacity by the bursting of a shell on the night of May 20th. Canadian army records say that he was last accounted for in the trenches at Festubert. Apparently, his body was never recovered; his service records state that he was declared missing 21 May 1915 and later declared dead with an assumed death date of May 21 for official purposes. For some reason, though Sidney’s parents had been informed of the circumstances of his death by Lieutenant Price by June, 1915, headquarters did not have the same information. There was probably a great deal of confusion; the official war diary for May 20 stated that the 15th battalion had 150 casualties that day.
After Sidney’s death, his family moved back to Acton, living there from 1917-1928 (according to Concord Enterprise articles, the 1920 census and a 1927 passenger list). Sidney’s parents were in town when Acton’s 1924 town meeting voted to rename West Acton’s Central Square in his honor and during the dedication at the 1924 Memorial Day exercises. After mother Rhoda’s death, father Alfred moved for a few years to Lake Forest, Illinois, returned to his School Street house in the summers, and finally relocated to Acton between 1935 and 1940 (according to the 1940 census).
Sidney J. Edwards was born in England, grew up in the United States, and fought with Canadian troops, a man from multiple places whose final resting place, very sadly, is not known for certain. He is, however, memorialized in a number of locations. He is one of the soldiers with no known grave who are memorialized by the beautiful monument to Canadian War Dead at Vimy Ridge in France. He is mentioned on his parents’ gravestone in Acton’s Woodlawn Cemetery and has a memorial marker in Sidney J. Edwards Square, West Acton. In addition, his name is included on the World War 1 monument in Hedley, British Columbia where he was living and working at the time of his enlistment. Ironically, despite the fact that the article that reported his death in the Winchester Star was entitled “Winchester Boy Killed at Front,” he was not listed at the base of Winchester’s War Memorial as one of Winchester’s war dead and is not on the Roll of Honor by the town hall. Sidney was gone and his family had moved on by the time the lists were created.
Soldiers’ and families’ circumstances and residences were sometimes complicated and often changed. The lesson for family researchers is that if a soldier is missing from a veterans’ roll in a town from which he/she came, it is worth double-checking corroborating records. As we have discovered in Acton and elsewhere, lists of veterans do not always tell the whole story, even if carved in stone or displayed in bronze.
The Society does not have a picture of Sidney J. Edwards. If anyone has more information about him or would be willing to donate a photo or a scan, we would be grateful to be able add it to our collection.
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