Jan Pill

(c.1875- 1957) – Deserter who re-enlisted

Jan volunteered for the Royal Horse Artillery but disliked cruelty to horses. He failed to return from home leave so military police came to Lestow to find him. Jan went to Plymouth to turn himself in, but then staged a dramatic escape and re-enlisted as a stretcher bearer under another name.

Credit: St Neot Local History Archive, near Liskeard

Read full story

It now seems likely that John, or Jan as he was known, was born with the surname Penberth.  The 1891 census lists a 16 year old tin miner, John Penberth, living with his grandmother Mary Pill, who was ‘partly maintained by the parish’ at St Neot.

Jan was a well-known character who lived much of his life in and around St Neot. Although Jan was apparently married we know little of his family life. Jan was very fond of, as one local said ‘investing his money in the London Inn’. He had a variety of jobs, mostly related to farming and agriculture, and in his later life worked at Lestow and Polmenna. Jan was always very interested in animals and their welfare.

During the early days of the First World War Jan, like hundreds of thousands of others, joined up wanting to do his bit and fight for freedom and his country. Jan joined the Royal Horse Artillery and served in France experiencing the very real traumas of war. As all artillery was horse drawn, many thousands of horses were killed and maimed and sometimes maltreated. Jan did not like this at all.

During one of his periods of home leave, Jan decided not to return. The Military Police came to look for him and, after a while, he decided to return to Plymouth and face the consequences. When he got off the train at Plymouth there were many Military Police and Jan was confronted almost immediately. He told the officers to wait as he had left his kit in the carriage but instead he darted back into the compartment, through to the other side and ran over the rails to escape.  A train coming the opposite way prevented the police from catching him.

After a while on the run Jan wanted to continue to support his country and contribute to the war effort. So, despite the obvious danger, he re-enlisted under a different name, becoming Jan Pill, stretcher bearer; Pill being his mother’s maiden name. Many deserters were executed by firing squad in the First World War so re-enlisting took a certain amount of courage.

By the time he died at Lestow aged 82 in 1957, Jan was using yet another surname - Tremberth. No photos of him in his regimental uniforms can be found and the whereabouts of his war medals also remains a mystery.

Credit: St Neot Local History Archive