Sunday, 3 November 2013

Finding the person behind the name

After a month’s break from my blog, I’m back again. I shall be posting more photos of Ireland later this week, in honour of my next release ‘Irish Inheritance’ (next February). I’ll also be challenging myself to click ‘Random Article’ in Wikipedia and trying to write something about whatever topic appears there.

For today’s blog, I’m going to share something about which I’ve already written briefly on Facebook. Many years ago, my father picked up an old book in a second-hand bookshop (not sure where but probably in Preston, Lancashire).


It is an old leather bound book, about 6 inches by 4, and over an inch thick. The spine and covers are worn, but all the pages are intact.
It is a History of France, evidently the third volume, dealing with the monarchy in the years 1270 to 1380 and it was published in MDCCXXIV – which, according to my calculations, is 1724.
Interesting enough in itself, of course, even though it is all in French! However, what makes it doubly interesting, is the inscription on the first page.

This says it was picked up at Martinsarte on the Somme Front from a ruined house in 1916, and goes on to say it was just before the advance of the tanks and before the fall of Thiepvalle and Beaumont Hamel.

Thiepval Memorial
This meant nothing to me when my father first gave me the book, but since then I have visited both Thiepval and Beaumont Hamel. The former is the major war memorial to those who died in the Somme area and whose bodies were never found or identified. There are 72,000 names on the memorial; over 90% of these died in the battle that lasted from July to November 1916. There are also 600 British and French graves close to the memorial.
Trenches at Beaumont Hamel
Beaumont Hamel is now the site of the Newfoundland Memorial Park, because the Newfoundland Regiment attacked the Germans here on July 1st, 1916, and suffered appalling losses. In the park some of the front line trenches have been preserved.

But back to the book and its inscription: a few years ago I made a few attempts to trace the Captain Herbert J. Robson who originally found the book, but couldn’t find anything about him, nor could I make out the letters under his name. To me, they looked like R.G.L.C, but I couldn’t get any further than that.

Until yesterday evening! My daughter and I were chatting about the book, and she did an internet search and found a Captain Herbert J. Robson in the London Gazette, May 12, 1908.

Northern Command: Leeds Companies;
Captain Herbert J. Robson resigns his commission.
Dated 31st March, 1908.

This was the breakthrough we needed – because a closer look at the letters in the book inscription showed that they actually said R.A.M.C (not RGLC). So our man was in the Medical Corps. The letters T.F. stand for Territorial Force (later the Territorial Army, which was the volunteer reserve force in peacetime). One assumes he resigned his commission with the Leeds Companies and rejoined the new Territorial Force which was established on April 1st, 1908.

I then found the Forces War Records for the RAMC – and there was Captain Herbert Robson. The record gave his home address as Vernon House, Hillary Place, Leeds. Also, as well as the British War Medal and Victory Medal (which were presented to all those who served in the 1st World War), he received the Silver War Badge in 1916, issued to personnel who had been honourably discharged due to wounds or sickness.

Having found the man and his address in Leeds, I turned to the census and other records, and as a result, I now know that Herbert John Robson was born in 1862 in Filey, Yorkshire, where his father was a chemist on Queen Street. In 1881 Herbert was a medical student in London, and in 1891 he was a surgeon and general practitioner in Leeds. He married Jane Sanders in 1893, and by 1901 they had three children, Arthur aged 7, Olive aged 4, and Robert aged 3.

The only other thing I’ve been able to find out (so far!) is that both Herbert and his wife died in 1931 – Jane first, and then Herbert, less than 6 months later.

Most of this information has been gleaned in the past 24 hours which is a great testament to the value of the internet for research. Perhaps more important, the name at the front of an old book has now become a real person to me. 


  1. I have loved looking into this with you Mum, it's a fantastic piece of a jigsaw but without the front cover of the box to look at!!... We'll not stop here...onward to find more about our Herb!

  2. Hi Helen
    Researching any kind of family history is like solving jigsaw puzzles -and so satisfying when some pieces come together. You found the vital piece with the London Gazette entry!

  3. Really interesting post, Paula. any thoughts of a novel based on it?

  4. Funny you should say that, L. I just said to me daughter I should write a novel about him - but it could become rather gory, as medics in the 1st WW spent a lot of time amputating limbs!

  5. So pleased you posted more in depth about your find Paula. It is absolutely fascinating and I'd love to see you go the novel route. I'm sure there's a romance in there somewhere.... :)

  6. Solving this kind of historical puzzle is fascinating. Old handwriting is so fancy and floral, and so much time has elapsed. I hope you can glean more about this man and his family.

  7. Very interesting, Paula. I do have a WIP that's sitting in a folder at the moment, about the US soldiers coming home after WWI--which wasn't called WWI because at the time no one knew there would be a second WW.
    But my story is in 1918, and a young man comes home to N. Texas and finds his family's home and farm burned to the ground. Why? Because of the Spanish flu, the worldwide pandemic that killed more people than the war did. In my story, while he was away, all his family died from the flu, and neighbors burned everything on the property, ran off the cows and horses, and his dog. I wish I could finish it, but I have a roadblock that I can't get over. One day I will, though, because I think it's a good story.
    Thanks for all the information about the book and the man you were searching for.
    Good post.

  8. Amazing that with technology you were able to learn about someone who lived and died long ago! I've read about the Battle of Somme in my own research. Horrific losses!

  9. That is so fascinating, Paula! What a great result you both managed to find.

  10. Amy - it was so satisfying finding out more about this man, especially as I had given up hope of finding out who he was. My daughter found the link which enabled us to discover more about him.

  11. Ana - I became used to reading 'old' writing when I was doing my family history research, but in this case those 4 letters defeated me!

  12. Celia - you're right, it was called the Great War until the next one broke out in 1939. Your story about the returning soldier sounds good - you really must dig it out and finish it!

  13. Viola - the 'Somme' is synonymous with slaughter - men going 'over the top' simply to be mown down by the German guns. I've been to a lot of places which saw that slaughter (especially on the first day, July 1st 1916). Such a criminal waste of young lives.

  14. Claudia - I got hooked on searching the various records for more about him, and now wonder if any of his descendants are still alive somewhere.

  15. Rosemary - it's all due to the many and varied records now available on the internet. It's amazing what you can find when you start searching!

  16. What an interesting story. Hope if you continue along this path, you find his children or grandchildren.

  17. WWI is in a most intriguing time. It begins with horses and sabers and ends with airplanes and tanks. I did write a story based on a real regiment in WWI. The Americans rode their horses onto the battlefield, but were stopped at the edge where the trenches began and were ordered to change places with a soldier in the trench. It was an exciting discovery for me. So my hero, Banjo, rode his beloved horse into the fray and changed places with a soldier in the trench.
    History is fascinating. It's like solving a mystery sometimes. You are so lucky to come across that amazing book and I do hope you develop a story around it, Paula.