Over the next few months, interns and volunteers on the Reflections project will write a few blog posts to discuss their experience working on the project and some of the research materials they have uncovered. This time volunteer Carol Chapelhow discusses her experience working on the project and the role Lit & Phil staff and members had in the war.
The 29th June 2015 saw me arrive at the Lit. & Phil. with a good idea of where my research for the project was going to take me, but, my ideas and topic changed over the course of the day. My original plan was to identify what Lit & Phil members were reading immediately before the outbreak of the First World War as well as identifying the category of texts that the library was buying. I could then contrast this with what the library was buying and what the members were reading during the Great War itself. Alongside this, I hoped that I would be able to identify which books, and in what quantity, the library sent to the Front.
Firstly, I looked at the Accession Registers for the time as they record all purchases and donations. However, it quickly became apparent that the information they contained was too complex for my purpose. Feeling somewhat disappointed I turned to the Library’s Committee Minute book of 1914-1916; a leather bound book with the outside of the spine in a very delicate state. All of the pages are handwritten, and are in good condition but the ink had faded on some of the pages. Despite this they were readable and it was well indexed, which was useful when reviewing the information that I’d found. It turned out to be a gem of potentially useful, interesting notes. Numerous topics interested me, but one I found disturbing. It was the election of Professor Hearnshaw as a delegate to the first International Eugenics Conference at the University of London. Although I knew that Eugenics was a burgeoning science in the 19th and early 20th century somehow, rather naively I’d felt that no one so close to home would have been involved in its development.
However, I wanted to know more about the first member of staff to enlist in the Army whom the minute book notes was Mr George Robson. For me, he represented all of the ordinary soldiers who had little recognition of their sacrifice apart from a grave in foreign soil and perhaps their name on a war memorial somewhere. Identified in the 1911 Census as living in the Westgate area of Newcastle with his parents and 3 older siblings; Mr Robson’s occupation is listed as Library Assistant.
There is also a record in the Lit & Phil of his employment, wages, and increments. The Embarkation Roll shows 16/219 Robson, G. as being in ‘A’ company (Cooke, 1923 page 104). His army number (16/219) told me that he served in the 16th Battalion, Northumberland Fusiliers and he enlisted as soon as the battalion was raised. I was surprised to see that for 3 months the battalion had no permanent camp or barracks so the soldiers had to go home every evening! I wondered how much this prevented them from becoming a cohesive unit.
Killed in action during the Battle for Albert, Somme, France on 6th March 1916, George Robson was aged 23 yrs. Reading this saddened me a lot, surprisingly, as after all, I knew very little about him, had never met him, and wasn’t related to him.
A record in the Lit & Phil minute book dated, 14th March 1916 upset me even more. It notes, “a letter had been received on 13th March from Mrs Robson, George’s mother stating that her son had been killed in action in France”. They agreed to send a letter of condolence to his parents. I found it distressing and very humbling that, immediately after receiving the news that George been killed, his mother could write to her son’s employer informing them of his death. Whilst I know that people react differently to bereavement, knowing what she did, not only shocked me but it engendered great admiration for her.
George Robson is buried in Aveluy Communal Cemetery Extension; Row 10, grave number 9. Posthumously awarded the British War Medal and the Victory medal on 20th February 1920 were George Robson and tens of thousands of ordinary soldiers.