John Percival Forster was born on 12 April 1888, the son of Londoner, John Forster, who had moved to Newcastle as a young boy and later married Elizabeth Best, a Geordie girl. John Percival (known as Percy) their first child, was born in the west end but soon the family moved to Heaton. In 1901, they were living at 62 Heaton Road and, by 1911, at 37 Heaton Grove, opposite the railway line.
Forster family home on Heaton Grove
By this time both Percy and his younger brother, Stanley, were working as assistant mercers (ie they were dealers in silk, velvet and other fine fabrics) in their father’s firm on Grainger Street.
John Percival Forster
The family were churchgoers and worshipped at St Gabriel’s on Heaton Road. Percy had attended Rutherford College and had learned to play the organ. He became the organist at St Paul’s Church in Whitley Bay and assistant organist at St Andrew’s Church in Newgate Street.
The Forster family were politically active and belonged to the Primrose League (apparently named after the favourite flower of Benjamin Disraeli). Founded in 1883, its aim was to promote Conservative principles. By 1910 there were over 2 million members, organised into 2645 local groups or ‘habitations’. Percy and his brother, Stanley, were secretaries of their local habitation. They attended political and social events, such as whist drives and dances, held in places such as the Assembly Rooms in Heaton. Their sister, May, also took part in these events, as well as being a member of a theatre group associated with the local habitation. The Primrose League closed only in December 2004, after 121 years, with the £70,000 in its coffers transferring to the Conservative party.
World War 1
At the outbreak of war, Percy joined the Northumberland Fusiliers (Tyneside Scottish) on a temporary commission. He was given a reference by Mr Gaunt, his headmaster at Rutherford College, who vouched for Percy, saying he had ‘attained a good standard of education’. The Reverend Robert Trotter, vicar of St Gabriel’s, in another reference, said that Percy had been of ‘good moral character’ in the 12 years that he had known him.
It was reported in the ‘Nottingham Evening Post’ on Saturday 7 August 1915, that Miss Sybil Margaret Round had married Captain John Percival Forster at All Saints Church, Nottingham that afternoon in the presence of a large congregation. The officiating clergymen were the bride’s father, Rev W Round, vicar of St Peter’s in Radford, assisted by Rev C R Round and Rev H Lowell Clarke, vicar of All Saints. On leaving the church the bride and groom walked through an archway of swords, formed by officers of the 3rd Line Unit of the Robin Hood’s, of which the Rev W Round was acting chaplain.
There were two bridesmaids, one of whom was May Forster, Percy’s sister. The best man was Heaton’s Captain Henry Sibbit, soon to be promoted to Major Henry Sibbit. Percy’s new brother in law was William Haldane Round, soon to become a captain in the 7th (Robin Hood’s) Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters.
Battle of the Somme
Less than a year later on 1 July 1916, the first day of at the Battle of the Somme, Percy Forster was killed in battle, aged only 28. His death was confirmed by two comrades:
Private R Roxburgh, 22nd Northumberland Fusiliers, said ‘On 1 July near La Boiselle close to the German second line of trenches I saw Captain Forster killed. I was wounded a yard from him and lay for five hours beside him. I was his signaller.’
Corporal W Willis stated that he was killed just beyond the German second line between La Boiselle and Fricourt. ‘I saw him dead but I do not know how he was killed.’ Second Lieutenant Purdey also saw him dead.
Percy’s father was only informed unofficially, so he wrote to the War Office to say that he had not been officially told of his son’s death and so did not want to believe he had been killed. A gold ring, a writing case, a leather case containing photos and two badges and a leather case containing photographs were returned to Sybil, Percy’s wife. However, his father had difficulty obtaining the death certificate needed to obtain probate and wind up Percy’s financial affairs. There were also several letters to the War Office requesting that his war pension be approved so that Sybil, could manage financially.
On the very same day that Percy lost his life, 1 July 1916, his new brother in law, Captain William Haldane Round also died on the Somme. as did Percy’s best man, Major Henry Sibbit of 21 Rothbury Terrace, formerly of Chillingham Road School and a fellow parishioner of St Gabriel’s, who had been Percy’s close friend in Heaton.
Percy’s brother, however, Stanley McKenzie Forster served in the navy and survived the war.
Percy is commemorated on six separate war memorials
St Gabriel’s Church, alongside his best man Henry Sibbit and Henry’s brother, Bert.
St Andrew’s, Newcastle
St Paul’s Church, Whitley Bay
Also St Paul’s, Whitley Bay
Whitley Bay war memorial
Whitley Bay (detail)
Percy Forster and Henry Sibbit of Heaton remembered together at Thiepval
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Written and researched by Arthur Andrews, Heaton History Group. Thank you also to Ian Clough, Heaton History Group, who has researched WW1 Heaton’s church war memorials.