Tag Archives: poet

The Bard of Stratford (Grove Terrace)

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Twilight

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.

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Brick Shakespeare on  South View West gable end

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.

Lowest rung

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.

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By 1901 Alex was working as a railway engine cleaner, the lowest rung on the railway ladder.

Volunteer

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.

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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.

Poet

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.

War hero

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.

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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.

Civic duty

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.

To Heaton

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.

 

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Alex Robson with grandson, Max, 1932

 

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.

 

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Alex Robson (2nd left) with members of his family in the late 1960s

 

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.

Acknowledgements

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! 

Can you help?

If you know more about Alex Robson or his family or have any photographs you’d like to share, we’d love to hear from you. You can contact us either through this website by clicking on the link immediately below the article title or by emailing chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org

 

 

The Poetry of Alex Robson

Alex Robson’s   (The Bard of Stratford Grove West) poems seem to divide into three broad types: celebrations of nature and the world around him; commemorations of people or events; patriotic verse.

Thanks to Alex’s grandson, Chris, and his wife, Janet, we have a number of very special copies written in his own hand and dedicated to members of his family.

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Here are more of Alex Robson’s poems that broadly represent his work.

 

CELEBRATIONS OF NATURE

 Britain Calling (March 1933)

Placid lochs and stately mountains,

Winding paths and sylvan glens –

Dreamy woods and whisp’ring valleys,

Fragrant moors and flow’ry fens,

Breathe the name of beauteous Nature

Thro’ a heart that knows no rest,

Calling, seeking to caress you,

To the bosom God has blest.

 

Nature, sweet enchanting Nature,

Bless’d with joyful heart and true,

Comes expressing living beauty

In an ever changing hue:

Virgin frills becoming springtime,

Summer robes of beaten gold,

But express the wondrous glory

Fairy arms so oft enfold.

 

 

Nature lends her heart to Britain,

Where she wanders day by day,

Thro’ each meadow, wood and valley,

By each mountain, loch and brae,

And thro’ her proud Britain’s calling

Those who seek a foreign host,

“Some embrace the British beauties!”

Which indeed have charmed me most.

 

Twilight (November 1929)

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.

 

If I Were King (November 1934)

If I were King of Winter-land,

I’d rule with frost and snow,

With something like a High Command –

A Sovereign Right; and so

Instead of dull, damp foggy days

I’d squander lots of wealth,

To give you snow and ice – you know –

The sort that’s rich in health.

 

I’d kill foul air, at any cost!

I’d bid my heralds sound

A “Royal Salute” for bold Jack Frost –

Indeed I’d spread around

A rich white carpet, soft and thick,

That he might come to you,

And lay his treasures at your feet –

That would be something new.

COMMEMORATIONS

In Memoriam (commemorating the death of Queen Alexandra – 1 December 1925)

 Alas, dear England, how my heart is moved,

Since heaven’s breath absorbs the flowing tears,

Shed by the great, the humble and the poor

For one whose soul a worldly heart endears.

 

Oh, England, ‘neath thy mournful veil ‘tis I –

A subject who would humbly kneel me down,

The while the dawn awakes a heav’nly home.

And God bestows a greater, brighter crown.

 

Far, far across each wide and boundless sea,

‘Twas lighting flashed, the solemn news to spread,

Till Empire stood in hushed solemnity

And visualised the spirit of the dead.

 

Oh, England, I am nearer, nearer thee,

With patriotism clothing we anew;

And something rising from my innermost soul,

Confesses much I felt I never knew.

 

‘Tis  such as this which draws from stagnant pools

The bubble of a pure and crystal stream;

And loyalty, one’s pride would feign disown

Makes clean the heart compelling pride redeem.

 

The bubble, multiplied by many more,

Soon bids a sea its living waters roll,

And ev’ry wave is but the heart and voice

Expressing sorrow o’er a Priceless Soul.

 

Our Wedding Day (to his wife celebrating their 33rd wedding anniversary, May 1938)

Another year of perfect bliss

Has urged my heart to pen you this;

A tribute to your own dear heart

In which I’m proud to share a part.

 

And may the God who made you mine

Continue long this love divine –

And spread in no uncertain way,

The sun that always bless’d this day.

 

The Wolves of Hades (published at the outset of World War 2 – December 1939)

One day the tongues of hungry wolves

Shall lick their own bones dry;

And trembling curse the fatal hour

When wolf by wolf shall die.

That day has come! And now unleashed

Are “Bull-dogs bred of old-

Nor leashed again until we know

The last mad brute is cold.

 

Far worse than Hell’s vile treachery,

This last infernal burst,

E’en shocked the powers of Hades,

And made the bull-dog thirst;

Thirst with the courage – and the will!

To play them at their game;

To fight with unstained jaws – and teeth –

Long gripped by acts of shame.

 

Oh, Poland, in your hour of need,

Comes Britain to your side,

And with her faithful neighbour

Shall stem the bloody tide.

And may the God who gives them breath

Give faith unto their cause,

Nor cease till men shall live in peace,

Till earth be rid of wars.

 

Till Hell shall flog its own fierce beasts,

And scatter in the dearth,

The remnants of the super haunts

That housed the scum of earth.

Till God shall smile on all mankind,

And souls rejoice on high,

As phantom legions tell of beasts

Who licked their own bones dry.

 

The Man of Destiny (dedicated to Winston Churchill May 1943)

When ill-prepared and menaced

And deadly war-clouds spread,

And nations fell despondent

Or trampled o’er their dead,

He li the lamp of trials,

And cast aside the mask

And bared our faces to our fate,

Nor trembled at the task.

 

He saw our cities burning,

Our meagre forces trapped,

But set the wheels aturning,

Till every field was tapped:

Till men and women – old and young –

Were wrought to finished steel;

Till hearts, unscathed, did forge the link

That bound the common weal.

 

Till in the faith of he who bore –

Who carries still – the load,

Who promised nought yet led them thro’

Each dark dramatic road,

They’ll march unwavering by his side

Long brighter roads ahead.

Till he has netted eve’ry fiend,

And ev’ry fiend is dead.

 

Then let us pray that he might live

To see the world made free,

And feel the joy of all who knew

The Man of Destiny.

Read more about Alex Robson here