SEARCH FOR THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER – South Shields connection to the Boer War

Ladysmith St, South Shields.

Stories are worked on for days or weeks, and some films took months. To knock it into shape there’s always a lot of pushing and pulling, but when they drag on you know it’s time to think about letting go and finding something new.

But sometimes a story just lands in your lap and quickly comes together without too much work, this is one of those rare moments.

Walking along Ocean Road I was stopped outside The Marine pub by a good friend of mine who told me an interesting story about a connection between a South Shields street and a British soldier from the town who fought in the Boer war 1899-1902.

“He is buried in Westoe Cemetery near Ladysmith Street and there’s an inscription on the headstone. Unfortunately I can’t remember his name, it was a while ago when I saw the grave, but I think it was near the main gates” said 60 year old Sand dancer (native of South Shields) and musician Rob Atkinson.

Rob had just come out of the pub and had a few sherbets so I wasn’t sure if he was pulling my chain but it was a story that peaked my interest as I didn’t know much about the Boer war.

After a quick search the name Ladysmith was revealed as a city in South Africa that was a bloody battleground between British and Boer forces, it was reported thousands of British soldiers were killed there. Also as Rob mentioned, Ladysmith Street runs parallel with Westoe Cemetery.

In further research I found Devonshire – a street in the Tyne Dock area of South Shields – is another name of an infantry regiment who not only served in the First and Second World War but also in the Boer War.

I contacted award winning journalist and local history author Janis Blower and asked if she heard about the South African connection to a soldier from the town?

“The siege of Ladysmith between late 1899 and early 1900 was one of the key events of the war. A number of South Shields men served, mainly in the Imperial Yeomanry and Durham Light Infantry, with some 107 eventually awarded Freedom of the Borough. It’s likely veterans are buried at Westoe and Harton. Do you know his name?”

Westoe Cemetery, South Shields.

To find the headstone of the unknown soldier I took a walk over to the old Westoe Cemetery with its weather beaten headstones, many buried under a mountain of ivy and some toppled over.

Among the resting, lie famous industrial and political people from the town including Dr Thomas Winterbottom, Robert Ingham MP and members of the Readhead shipbuilding family.

Initially Rob had indicated the area where the grave was and luckily after only a few minutes searching where the headstones were still standing, I found it, as I said earlier this story just fell into place. The grave was a family plot with substantial headstone including our man’s details –

George Shepherd died 6th March 1900 through wounds received Feb 27th at the relief of Ladysmith, South Africa aged 29 years.

The search for the unknown soldier ended there but when researching in the local history library I heard of someone who had been looking into his relations involvement in the Boer war, it sounded interesting so I left a contact.

A day later John Caffery got in touch and we arranged to meet. He has been researching his family tree for nearly 20 years,

“I started after our parents died, my wife Veronica also searches her side. My brother in law showed me a photo of a family member called John Robertson. I went to the library and searched through their archives and found a few pieces of information – he was born on 28 August 1883 and lived in the Laygate area of South Shields – then it just spiralled”.

“In a loft we found a box of certificates, medals and photographs from the First World War and the Boer War, all for John, with me being interested in military stuff this was great. I don’t think many people know about the Boer War which was a disaster for the British army. Through more research I found the Boers were backed by German artillery and officers”.

John Caffery with a framed photo of Private John Robertson who served in the 161st company of the 36th Battalion of the Imperial Yeomanry.

“Then we found something special, searching through old copies of The Shields Gazette we got to 1902 and found that he was awarded the Freedom of the Borough along with the rest of the Battalion. We’re proud of what he done”. 

Returning to South Shields from South Africa, John married in 1906, lived in South Palmerston Street and found work in the coal pits. But by 1914 the First World War began and he signed up to the Royal Irish Fusiliers.

In 1918 he was wounded and discharged, and after returning home resumed pit work until retirement. Sadly in 1959 John Robertson passed away at 75 year old.

John Robertson’s medals from the First World War.

As John Caffery told me this moving story he expressed only pride and respect for a brave young man who after fighting in one war, signed up to serve in another.

John has worked on a few Tyneside history stories which he will be sharing in the coming weeks plus he told me what he is working on next.

“I’ve been looking into the rest of the soldiers who received the Freedom of the Borough, there was over one hundred, and as always you go off on a tangent and taken down another path where I’ve come across some letters from soldiers and their families from the Northumberland Fusiliers who survived the First World War – some of them break your heart to read”.

“They’ve never been published or displayed and with me being involved with Hive Radio storytellers on Tyneside, we are looking to read them out on a podcast on Remembrance Sunday, November 11, 2022. I think they would like that”.

For more info contact:

Hive Radio :

Hive Radio Storytellers Share Love by Hive Radio Storytellers Podcast (anchor.fm)

Readheads shipbuilders contact:

Tyne Built Ships & Shipbuilders

Alikivi   September 2022.

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