Across the sky with outstretched wings
Of ev’ry colour blest,
A mystic bird of paradise
Is speeding to the west,
Upon its wings the night gods ride
To yonder burning glade,
That they might crowd and give to earth
That sweet magenta shade. (Alex Robson, November 1929)
To commemorate the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, Heaton History Group has been researching the many interesting people who have lived in those of our streets that were named in his honour (Hotspur, Bolingbroke, Malcolm, Mowbray, Warwick and the Stratfords, as well as Heaton Park Road, which it had originally been intended to call Shakespeare Road) and which, since the 1980s, have been overlooked by a magnificent brick artwork of the man himself.
Aware that, like other parts of Heaton, these streets are now home to many talented writers, artists and musicians, we wondered whether we might find anyone from the past who had followed in the bard’s footsteps. We were not to be disappointed. Our researcher, Michael Proctor takes up the story:
While searching for stories about the residents of Heaton’s ‘Shakespeare Streets’, I came across a poem by a Mr Alex Robson of 13 Stratford Grove Terrace, published in the ‘Berwickshire News and General Advertiser’ in 1929, then I came across more, and more, each of them attributed to ‘Alex Robson, formerly of Crag Mill Belford’.
Being 1929, there was no recent census information available, but I did manage to track Alex down in the 1930 Electoral Register, along with his wife, Gertrude Winifred and William and Mona Mushett (who subsequently turned out to be his second daughter and her husband), also living at the same address. Beyond there I could go no further, as I couldn’t locate an Alex Robson in Belford on any previous census, so decided simply to publish a selection of his poetry.
Until, that is, I decided to search for his name, rather than his address ,on the British Newspaper Archive. A search that turned up many, many more poems dated from the early 1920s through to the mid 1940s and a potted biography published on 27 November 1923, which gave me the key to the story of this remarkable self educated man: a war hero; a significant figure in civic society; a musician and poet; a patriot and royalist; and a great believer in physical and mental activity and wellbeing. And, from 1929 to around 1939, a resident of Stratford Grove Terrace.
Alexander Robson was born on 30 January 1884 in Gateshead. His father, Robert, aged 42, was an engine fitter, most likely working at the North Eastern Railway’s engine works at Greenesfield, situated between the High level Bridge and the current Redheugh Bridge. His mother was called Mary and he had three brothers.
Alexander left school at the age of 11, having passed the ‘labour exam.’ The 1923 article describes his parents’ lot as ‘not very brilliant’ meaning that further schooling was out of the question, so the young Alex found himself working for a J W Kent, a grocer, where he stayed until at the age of 16, when he was old enough to follow his father and elder brothers into the Greenesfield depot of the North Eastern Railway.
By 1901 Alex was working as a railway engine cleaner, the lowest rung on the railway ladder.
Right from his early days, the young Alex seems to have had a strong commitment to physical fitness as well as public service. In the newspaper article he speaks of the great evils he witnessed in Gateshead, brought about by the ‘drink traffic’. Although it’s not clear whether this was a personal experience or a general comment, he clearly took a different path, becoming a member of the St James’ Physical Culture Society, (what we’d now think of as the gym) which he attended most nights. He also joined the Tyne Division Submarine Miners Electrical Engineers as a volunteer. In this capacity he was present at King Edward VII’s birthday review in June 1906 and was part of the guard of honour when the King opened the RVI in Newcastle later that summer. Alex’s duties included searchlight operator, signaller, and member of the Special Services Division as well as being in a bugle band for 3 years. He particularly recalled being in charge of the searchlight at the Spanish Battery.
During this time, Alex briefly left the railways and started as a labourer for John Abbot and Company, Steam and Hydraulic Engineers, at the Park View Iron Works, Gateshead.
Here he was promoted to Traffic Manager, a position that was short-lived as the firm closed in 1907 and he found himself back at the Greenesfield depot.
This must have been a difficult time for him, as he had married Gertrude Winifred in 1905 and the couple had a rapidly growing family. However over four years, he got promoted to the position of freight guard at Tyne Dock, South Shields, where he was still working at the time of the 1911 census.
It was around this time that he began to pursue his musical and poetic interests. He’d long been interested in learning the violin and had purchased one for 7/6 while still living with his parents, but he ‘hadn’t been encouraged’ so sold it. Now though, he was able to spend 5 or 6 hours at a time ‘annoying the household and probably the neighbours’.
The circumstances in which he took up poetry were quite bizarre. Around this time, he was approached by a fireman at the goods yard who told a story of an old widower who’d fallen in love with a barmaid. He asked Alex to ‘make a bit of poetry about it’. He thought the request was very odd, but didn’t say that he hadn’t ever written a poem, nor did he refuse. Instead, he wrote a poem called ‘The Chocolate King’, which was to be the first of very many.
When war came he joined the 9th Yorks, 23rd Division, Kitchener’s Army on 1 September 1914 and was among the first to be sent to France, writing his first war poem, ‘For Honour and Glory’, which was recited in the recreation marquees at the camp. It was subsequently printed and sold at 1d per copy, with proceeds to the YMCA. His initial spell in the army was short-lived as he was discharged on 2 October due to a bout of bronchitis, having just been promoted to lance corporal.
A year later, he joined the military hospital service, stationed at Richmond, where he not only borrowed a violin and formed an orchestra to cheer the wounded, but continued his poetry, with a set of three patriotic poems: To Nurse Cavell; L Battery; and British Vengeance published in a pamphlet to raise funds for the Blinded Soldiers Funds. Copies were sent to Queen Mary and Queen Alexandra, from whom he received letters of thanks.
By 1917, he was posted to a range of hospital stations at the Somme, Ypres, Rouen, Passchendael, and Amiens. En route he received a dose of gas, yet continued after a short break, moving from the hospital service to maintaining the light railways, which served the front. In June 1918 he was appointed yardmaster on the light railways. It was here, on 12 June, where an ammunition train was fired and he was blown up with a wounded colleague whom he attempted to save. For this, he received the Meritorious Service Medal for ‘Conspicuous Services and Gallantry’.
After a month’s convalescence, spent in the band at the 72nd General Hospital, he was sent to Calais as Orderly Sergeant, conducting troops to different parts of the line, where he was to be injured again, when a train carrying troops crashed into a coal train. He was recovering at Etaples, when the armistice was signed. Orderly Sergeant Alex Robson was demobbed on 29 November and arrived home on 4 February 1919.
Of course surviving a chlorine gas attack, an explosion and a train crash had taken a toll on his health and he was no longer fit enough to take up his former position as freight train guard and shunter, which is heavy physical work. This is most likely how he ended up at Crag Mill.
Crag Mill was a small railway station about 2 miles north of Belford on what is now the East Coast Main Line. It opened in 1871 and appears to have closed again in about 1877, probably as it was too close to Belford to be viable. However a coal yard and signal box remained. It is likely that Alex moved here to take up lighter duties, probably as signalman or crossing keeper. It was here where his publishing career in the ‘Berwickshire news and General Advertiser‘ took off in earnest.
The newspaper biography notes that he’d not only written many poems while on active service, but that he’d had plenty of opportunity to recite them and had made a deep theoretical study of elocution, passing his first exam in Berwick on his return. It also notes that Belford people and school children had very much enjoyed his recitals and invited him back repeatedly.
Alex’s deep sense of civic duty was made clear in the article when it listed the organisations he’d had to resign from on moving to Crag Mill. These included:
-The South Shields War pensions Committee, where he represented the railwaymen of South Shields
-Governorship of the Ingham Infirmary
-The Town Mayors Committee on the United Services fund, where he represented the Comrades Club
-Chairmanship of Tyne Dock Railwaymen’s Holiday Association
-West End War Memorial Committee
-Tyne Dock National Union of Railwaymen’s No 1 Branch Committee and various sub-committees.
Although the Robsons only stayed at Belford for about six years, Alex clearly made a significant impression on the local community, as indeed he had in South Shields. By 1925, he was in Newcastle and we can track his movements by the addresses on his published poetry. 1925 sees him living in 20 Stanton Street; 1927 at 5 Finsbury Avenue and in 1929, the Robsons, along with their second eldest daughter, Mona and her husband, moved to 13 Stratford Grove Terrace, Heaton, where they seem to have stayed until 1939.
For a short time during World War 2, Alex was living in Haggerston Barns, Beal, most likely as a crossing keeper or signalman once again. But by 1943, he was back in Newcastle once more. In a perfect piece of serendipity, the newspaper article records that he was a great admirer of Burns, Pope, Tennyson, Kipling and, of course, William Shakespeare. Alex Robson died in 1969.
We also know that Alex wrote music but his greatest legacy was his poetry, which, never apparently having been published in a book, is lost in the back copies on newspapers, so it seems fitting to honour the man and his achievements by publishing a short selection.
Researched and written by Michael Proctor for Heaton History Group’s Historic England funded ‘Shakespeare Streets’ project in which we are working with Hotspur and Chillingham Road Primary Schools to explore both Heaton’s theatrical heritage and the people of the streets named in William Shakespeare’s honour. Additional information and photographs were supplied by Janet Robson, the wife of Alex’s grandson, Chris Robson. Many thanks, Janet!
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