Boer War Casualty Biographies

Private George A. Roberts

George Arthur Roberts was the son of the gun barrel maker George John Roberts (1852, Soho – 1934, Hampstead), who was himself the son of a gun maker. In 1861 George John was living with his father George (1824, St Giles’s, Middlesex), his mother Caroline (1832, Camden Town), his three younger siblings and two lodgers at 6 Crown Court, St Anne, Strand. At St James’s the Less, Thorndike Street on 14th June 1873, George John married Albert’s mother Mary Ann Trimbey (1852, Marylebone – 1934, Hampstead). She was the daughter of a night cabman and in 1871 had been living on Little Chapel Street, Soho with her parents and siblings. All George and Mary’s recorded children were born in St Pancras district – Eliza Elizabeth (1875), John George (1876), William (1878), George (1880), Arthur Alfred (1882), Charlotte May (1884), Lily Catherine (1886) and Albert Charles (1892-1916). John and Eliza were both christened as adults at St Michael’s on 16 February 1888, with their father’s occupation given as gunsmith and their parents’ address as 145 Arlington Road. By 1911 George and Mary had had eight children born alive, of which three had died by 1911 – one of those was George Arthur.

In an address at Roberts’ memorial service, Fr Penfold stated:

One … [has] been taken from our midst to die a soldier’s death. He had been brought up here from a Child, he had been in the choir, he had been confirmed here, become a communicant and had been a member of the Guild. We had watched him growing in steadiness of character…

Roberts was probably already in the 17th North Middlesex Rifle Volunteers before the outbreak of the Second Boer War. Formed in 1860, this was one of many part-time units which had sprung up in 1860 as the forerunners of the Territorial Army. The 17th Volunteers was the local unit for St Michael’s. It had its base in Camden Town and in 1908 became the 19th (County of London) Battalion (St Pancras) of the London Regiment – many from St Michael’s would fight and die in that battalion during World War One.

War broke out in South Africa in October 1899 and two months later the City Imperial Volunteers was raised from existing volunteer units in London, embarking in January 1900. Roberts probably transferred from his existing unit to the new unit’s infantry battalion. On 20th February Roberts’ company and most of the rest of the infantry battalion were sent to the Orange River and De Aar (now in the Northern Cape province), one of the most important railway junctions in South Africa. There they were expected to prevent the threatened Boer invasion of the Cape Colony. On 30th March Roberts and his unit left for Bloemfontein via Naauwpoort – his last letter to reach home was sent from Britstown and dated only eight days earlier.

Penfold’s address later stated “during the short three months he had been away, his thoughtful care for those at home had shown itself in the constant letters he had written.” On 22nd March Roberts wrote a letter home from Britstown, the last of his letters to reach home. Eight days later he and his unit set off for Naauwpoort, a staging post on the way to Bloemfontein. However, enemy action was not the only threat:

They had to move rapidly, which involved considerable hardship, as well as to do a good deal of fighting. The difficulty of supply and the bad weather had brought on a good deal of Enteric Fever, to which Private Roberts had succumbed. [June 1901 parish magazine, quoting MacKinnon]

Roberts was left behind in the hospital camp at Nauuwport, where on 16th April he wrote a letter to let his parents know he was “going on very well”. This never reached them – pneumonia set in after the attack of enteric fever and two days later he died. The June 1900 parish magazine reported:

The Chaplain, Rev W A Hewett, to whom we all feel most deeply indebted, has however written most kindly two letters. … [In the second letter he wrote] “He died quietly about 3 pm on Wednesday, April 18th and was buried with military honours on the following morning in the little Cemetery here. I made a small cross of white Chrysanthemums and placed them over his resting place. After I wrote to you [in my first letter] he never recovered full consciousness. From what I saw of him the previous week, I am sure he died a faithful Christian lad, at peace with God and trusting in his Saviour. He said also he had received the greatest attention, and could not have been nursed more carefully in a London Hospital.

A tablet [above] was erected to Roberts out of the funds of the City Imperial Volunteers, one of his units. It was unveiled at a special service at 9pm on Friday 17th May 1901. The June 1901 parish magazine reported:

About 200 of the 17th Middlesex [Volunteers] were present in uniform, with their Commanding Officer, Colonel Roche, and Captain Christie, the Adjutant. The Church was filled with a large congregation. A special form of Service had been printed. It included Psalm xlvi, the Creed, and suitable Collects. After the singing of the Old Hundredth the Vicar have a short Address. He began with expressing his regret that the Rev W A Hewett, who had been Chaplain in the Hospital at Naauwpoort, was unable to be present… [Later in his address he said] We are going to dedicate the Tablet, it is just over the place where he often sat. It will keep him in mind, but it cannot help the man himself, and so we want something more: we want life beyond death. For we must each face death. In those quiet days in the Hospital he did this, he faced death, till the Chaplain was able to write of him: “From what I saw of him the previous week, I am sure he died a faithful Christian lad, at peace with God and trusting to his Saviour.”…. The Clergy and Choir then proceeded to the end of the Church, and the Tablet was unveiled by General [William] MacKinnon, CB, [commander of the City Imperial Volunteers] who by special permission of the Bishop said a few words. … The Choir then returned to the stalls, and the Hymn, “Fight the good fight” was sung, during which a Collection was made for the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Families Association. General MacKinnon has since written very kindly, saying he thought the Service most impressive, and that he was touched by the evident feeling displayed by the large congregation. …. A beautiful wreath with branches of palm was placed underneath the Tablet by members of the Guild [of which Roberts had himself been a member].

George Arthur’s younger brother Albert Charles joined the Royal Navy in 1913, was married at St Michael’s in 1915 and killed when his submarine was sunk by a mine off Orfordness, Suffolk, with no survivors in 1916. The May 1934 parish magazine carried a report of George and Albert’s parents dying within a few hours of each other; the following July issue reported on their Golden wedding and stated that “before they removed from Camden Town [they] were keen supporters of St Michael’s and retained their interest in it to the end”. A double funeral was held for them at St Michael’s on 21st July 1934.