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.

TYNESIDE WAR HEROES #5 Thomas Young VC (1895-1966).

THE DAY I WAS AWARDED THE VICTORIA CROSS

Thomas was recipient of the Victoria Cross, the highest and most prestigious award for courage in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces.

As a stretcher bearer Thomas saved countless lives of army colleagues on First World War battlefields.

He was presented with his VC on the 29th June 1918. This is his story.

My name is Thomas Young although I was born Thomas Morrell on 28th January 1895 in Boldon, North East England. When I was young my father was killed in a mining accident so my mother remarried a man form Whitburn called Surtees Young.

We lived at Cliff Terrace, Ryhope. I left school early to become a miner. When I was 18 I joined up with the Gateshead Territorials then in 1914 transferred into the 9th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry. I was a stretcher bearer.

At the start of the War, I was posted to the Western Front and reached Boulogne in April 1915. We were immediately thrown into the Second Battle of Ypres. I also served on the Somme, at Arras and at Passchendaele.

At the Somme I was wounded by a bullet in the left thigh and was evacuated to England. That put me out of action for a while but went back to France a few month later.

I was awarded my VC after a day on a battlefield in March 1918. It was all going off in broad daylight – rifles, machine-guns, shell fire, it was pretty heavy let me tell you. There was a number of casualties but I managed to bring back wounded comrades.

Some I couldn’t move because they were badly injured, so I dressed them right there. When the wounds were dressed as much as I could I carried my marras back. I saved nine lives that way.

I went back to Durham for a spell of leave and they laid on a surprise for me. Officials from the coal mine took me home along the Scotswood Road in a pony and trap. My home was dressed with flags and bunting.

I met The Earl of Durham who gave me a watch, some War Bonds and a silver cigarette case. A civic reception was laid on in Saltwell Park in Gateshead. There must have been thousands turned up that day.

After the war I went back to work in the mines but couldn’t keep my job because of my war wounds. I took on a new job at the mine as bath attendant and got £9 a week.

But due to my health problems and financial worries I sold my VC medal, luckily a DLI officer saw it in a pawnbroker’s shop so the Regiment bought it back.

Thomas Young died at a hostel in Whickham on 15th October 1966, and buried in St Patrick’s Churchyard, High Spen, Durham with full military honours.

A memorial to Thomas Young was unveiled in July 2007 and can be seen in the grounds of High Spen primary school.

In 2018 a commemorative memorial stone at Cotswold Lane in Boldon Colliery was unveiled to honour the memory of First World War hero Thomas.

His Victoria Cross is displayed at the Durham Light Infantry Museum & Durham Art Gallery.

Sources : Ancestry, Comprehensive Guide to the Victoria Cross.

Alikivi  August 2020.

TYNESIDE WAR HEROES #4 Henry Howey Robson (1894-1964)

THE DAY I WAS AWARDED THE VICTORIA CROSS

The Victoria Cross is the highest and most prestigious award for courage in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces.

In this series of Tyneside VC medal recipients, was this man the youngest ?

At the age of 20, Henry was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions on 14th December 1914. This is his story.

I was born in South Shields, North East England on 27th May 1894. We had a home in Hampden Street where my da’ Edward was a coal miner and my ma’ was called Mary Morris, they first came from Sunderland.

It was a big family. I had six brothers and a sister. I went to Mortimer Road School in the town and after I left I joined da’ in the mines.

When war started I joined the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Scots and went to France. I was awarded the VC after being on the battlefield in Belgium.

What happened was we attacked a German position and I saw one of our men wounded so went out and brought him back. Guns were going off all around. It was really heavy fire. I done the same for another soldier but got shot.

I didn’t give up and went out again but got hit again. I was in a bad way, so they took me back to camp and I was evacuated to England.

I went back home to South Shields where I had a good time. I met the Mayor at a civic reception in the Town Hall. I got the Freedom of the town and was presented with £73 raised through a Shilling Fund.

Then I visited my old school and was presented with a gold watch by the kids. I returned to war but was wounded in France and never returned to the front.

After the war I worked a couple of jobs. I was in the shipyards and as a steward on oil tankers running between Britain and South America.

I wanted to go to Canada, so I sold my medal to a doctor for £80. This paid my way, and I arrived in 1923, a new life started.

I started work as a streetcar conductor with Toronto Transportation. Then in 1924 got married to Alice Maude and we had a son and four daughters.

Then I became a civil servant working in the Parliament Buildings in Ontario, then done six years as a Sergeant at Arms of the Ontario Legislature.

Before retirement in 1954 I was an information clerk, showing visitors around Parliament.

Civic reception with the Mayor at South Shields Town Hall for Henry.

In the ‘50s Henry returned to England a couple of times for the VC celebrations. His VC had been bought by a solicitor from Dunfermline, who lent him the medal to wear at the 1956 VC Centenary in Hyde Park, London.

It’s reported that the medal was never returned to the solicitor.

On 4th March 1964 Henry died at Sunnybrook Hospital, Toronto. He was buried in the Veteran’s Section of York Memorial Cemetery, Toronto.

In addition to his VC, he was awarded the 1914 Star with Mons clasp, British War Medal 1914-20 and Victory Medal 1914-19.

His medals were presented to the Royal Scots Museum in Edinburgh Castle by his daughter, Mrs Patricia Gaskin of Toronto.

In 2008 a commemorative plaque was unveiled at South Shields Town Hall and in 2014 a commemorative stone to mark Private Henry Robson’s bravery, was unveiled in Robson Way, South Shields.

Sources: Ancestry, Durham at War, Comprehensive Guide to the Victoria Cross.

Gary Alikivi  August 2020.

TYNESIDE WAR HEROES #2 Joseph Henry Collin (1893-1918)

THE DAY I WAS AWARDED THE VICTORIA CROSS

The Victoria Cross is the highest and most prestigious award for courage in the face of the enemy, that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces.

In a series about Tyneside recipients of the VC, this story features Joseph Collin who was born in Jarrow, North East England on 11th April 1893.

My father Joseph was a rail worker, and my mother was called Mary. I lived at 12 Drury Street and was baptised at St Bede’s Church in Jarrow before I went to St Patrick’s School in Harraby, Carlisle.

I  won prizes for running, I also loved playing football. Then I got a job in Leeds at the clothiers Hepworth & Son.

It was 1915 when I enlisted with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders as a Private. I must have done good because during training they promoted me to Sergeant. Then in 1916, we went to France and fought in the Battle of the Somme.

I took more training and returned to France in 1917 and served as a Second Lieutenant with the King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment.

We went to the front line at Givenchy. The Germans were pressing us hard with bombs and machine-gun fire. They were really close.

We had to withdraw because we only had five men remaining, but still fought for every inch of ground. Then I went out and attacked their machine gun, firing my revolver first then threw a grenade putting the gun out of action. I killed four of their team and wounded two others.

I saw another machine gun firing, so I took a gun and found a high vantage point, and kept them at bay until they wounded me.

Joseph died soon after from his injuries and was buried in Vielle-Chapelle Military Cemetery, Lacouture, France. His parents were presented with the Victoria Cross for Joseph’s bravery, devotion to duty and self-sacrifice.

In 1956 the medal was presented to the King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regimental Museum where it is displayed. In the chapel is a plaque which commemorates Joseph, and each year schools in Carlisle compete for the ‘Collin Shield’, a trophy for a one-mile race presented in his memory by his family.

In 2008 a commemorative plaque was unveiled at South Shields Town Hall and in 2014 Carlisle City Council displayed a blue plaque commemorating Josephs heroic gallantry at the Battle of Givenchy.

A memorial stone to honour the memory of World War One hero Joseph was laid in 2018 at Joseph Collin House in Jarrow.

Sources: Ancestry, Comprehensive Guide to the Victoria Cross.

Alikivi  August 2020.

POSTCARDS FROM SPAIN (7) – Sunderland men involved in the Spanish Civil War

Another story to be added to Postcards from Spain comes from local and family history researcher Linda Gowans from Sunderland.

Linda was involved in a project researching the World War Two memorial board at St Gabriels Church in Sunderland, when she came across two men who were involved in the Spanish Civil War….

Both men also received O.B.E awards in the New Year Honours list of January 1946. The first was Captain Frederick Robinson of 14 Hawarden Cresent, Sunderland who was Master of SS Garesfield.

He was at sea a total of 30 years, served in both World Wars and brought food supplies to the people of Spain fighting General Franco.

I searched for some background on Frederick and found on the 1939 register taken just before the Second World War he was employed as Master Mariner on SS.Knitsley.

He lived with his wife Elizabeth and had one son Frederick who was 5 year old.

Linda added….The second is Captain William Gould, Master of S.S. Monkleigh, he had been at sea for a total of 42 years. During World War One and Two he was torpedoed four times, twice in each war. He also ran the blockade to bring supplies to Spain during the Spanish Civil War.

Also searched for some background on William and found that on the 1891 census he was 4 year old and lived at 9 Princes Street, Sunderland with his father Thomas, who was a mariner, his mother Jane and brother George. Ten year later William was an apprentice steam engineer.

In 1910 he married Maggie Graham, they had two daughters Irene and Kathleen, and a son, William junior. Not long afterwards his wife Maggie died, aged 32. William remarried to Ada Moore in 1922, and three more children were born, Thomas, James and Poppy.

Linda also mentioned William and Ada’s sonThomas who joined the British Armed Forces but only for a short time as it ended in tragic circumstances….. Thomas decided not to follow his father to sea and in 1942 joined the RAF, gaining his wings in South Africa in 1943.

On April 29th 1945 he was part of three-man Advanced Flying Unit out on a training flight. Joining Pilot Officer Thomas Gould on board were Flying Officer Gordon Aubrey from the Royal Canadian Air Force, and Sergeant Howard Montgomery of the Royal Australian Air Force.

They took off from RAF South Cerney, Gloucestershire but ran into poor weather and visibility was very low due to a snowstorm. While flying at low altitude the aircraft hit treetops and crashed in a wooded area at New Barn Farm, Temple Guiting. All three men on board were killed. Thomas was only 21.

His body was brought home for burial at Bishopwearmouth, Sunderland and his grave bears the inscription, ‘His life, a noble sacrifice’.

A tragic end to a young man’s life, and sad that he went before his father William who died 7th April 1950.

 If you have any information about the North East men and women who were in any way involved in the Spanish Civil War please get in touch at garyalikivi@yahoo.com

Alikivi  April 2020.