Gresham's School in Wartime

We would like to invite people who have an interest in our WWI story to get in touch with us through the blog. Our sixth form researchers will be contributing their own experiences of the project to the blog and we hope to update the website as new material becomes available. If you have any relevant comments or contributions of stories or archive material we would be delighted to hear from you.

If you would like to submit a blog entry, please email Liz Larby.

The Five Barker Brothers

The Five Barker Brothers

The Barker family hailed from Sunderland where their father Col. Charles William Panton Barker had settled with his wife Mary Tone at The Hawthorns in Ryehope, Bishopwearmouth, in Durham.  Charles was a solicitor and clerk to the Borough Magistrates, and two of his five sons would later join him in the family firm of Dixon and Barker. The 1891 Census sees the family, by now three sons, Charles, John and Harold, and two daughters, Ethel and Gertrude, at Ryehope with two servants to look after them. All the boys attended the Sunderland High School before Gresham’s, and the family enjoyed holidays on the Norfolk Broads.  Charles and John were registered in January of 1901 and were amongst headmaster Howson’s first pupils in his new School on the Cromer Road site. 

Charles William Tone Barker (1886-1918) set the standard for the brothers that were to follow him, excelling at athletics and steeplechase, playing rugby, cricket and hockey for the School, winning prizes, taking part in debates, and ending his career here as House and School Captain.  He was honoured in his final year, being chosen by Howson to plant a tree on Arbor Day 1904 to mark his great contribution to the School.  Like his brothers, Charles often returned to Gresham’s to attend Old Boys’ dinners or play sport and was a generous contributor to School funds. He had a career as a solicitor before enlisting in August 1914, serving with his brothers in the Durham Light Infantry before his death in March 1918 (see profile in Roll of Honour section).

Harold Frederick Barker (1891-1918) registered at Gresham’s as one on the first boarders in the new Woodlands House with his brother Edwin in September of 1903.  He too showed sporting prowess, in running races, at swimming, as well as playing rugby and hockey for the School. As House Captain and School Prefect, Harold was also asked to plant a tree to mark his service to the School and left at Christmas of 1908 to study for the law exams.  He qualified just months before the outbreak of war, serving as a Captain with the Durham Royal Garrison Artillery before transferring to the Royal Field Artillery and going to France with the Wearside Brigade, which his father was instrumental in forming and had served as its first CO. Harold married Kathleen Patterson at St. Aidan’s, Grangetown, Sunderland on 9 September 1915, and was killed in action in March 1918, five days after Charles, having been promoted to Major five days before his death (see profile in Roll of Honour section). Charles, being unmarried, left his estate to his brother’s widow Kathleen.

Arnold Septimus Barker (1891-1917) was the youngest of the brothers, who registered in the Junior House at Christmas 1905, moving up to Woodlands in August 1910.  He features less in the magazines, but the Woodlands house book records that he played both rugby for his house and hockey for the School and did well in the steeplechase competition.  On leaving School in the Summer of 1912 Arnold went into the offices of coal exporters Hudson & Co. in Sunderland but enlisted with the 19th Hussars on the outbreak of war.  Like his brothers he returned to Gresham’s to play rugby and later subscribed to the Chapel Fund. He too served in the 7th Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry with three of his brothers, going to the front with the Northumberland Division in April 1915 where he suffered the effects of the first severe gas attack.  He was finally discharged in Autumn of 1916 and went to Singapore to work in the shipping office of Guthrie & Co. in the hope that the climate might be beneficial to his health. Arnold died in Singapore in May 1917 and is buried in the war cemetery there (see profile in Roll of Honour section).

John Hugh Barker (1888-1958) was the second of the brothers to attend the School, registering in January of 1901.  Like Charles he was one of Howson’s first boarders, and soon showed promise as a debater, discussing topical issues such as the construction of a Channel Tunnel and trades unions.  John was particularly entertaining on the subject of anarchists, suggesting the ‘extermination of the species’, and when debating the degeneration of English newspapers spoke strongly in favour, but apparently went so deeply into his subject that many were unable to follow! He showed a talent for acting, taking part in a French play in his first year, and playing the role of Cobweb in the 1902 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. John also did well at sports, beating Charles to win the Fives competition in 1904, running as one of the hares against Charles who was a hound in the paperchase, playing cricket for the School and doing well at athletics. He returned to play cricket as an OG and to attend meetings of the Old Boys Club.

The 1909 Gresham magazine reports that John and his younger brother Edwin have returned from Canada, having spent almost a year farming and breaking horses for the war effort in Saskatchewan where they found the work very rough and the weather exceedingly cold.  Their return was hastened by John unfortunately developing blood poisoning after drinking water contaminated by dead gophers!  The report concludes that John was studying to be an architect, but in the following year he is learning farming at Purleigh in Essex.  Whatever his career path, John clearly returned to Canada at some stage as he enlisted as a Private with the Canadian Infantry on 5 February 1914, stating his occupation as farmer. By 1915 he had returned to England with the Canadian Contingent and was in camp near Folkestone and was possibly able to attend the marriage of his sister Gertrude.  Later that year he was listed as serving with the Durham Light Infantry as 2nd Lieutenant, and in the following June was recorded as being wounded in the neck whilst serving as a Lieutenant.  His CO wrote to John’s father of how ‘wonderfully cheerful and, as always full of grit’ the young man was despite his near miss.  John was promoted Captain in 1917 and attached to the Royal Fusiliers, again being wounded in 1918.

Returning to Canada once again after the War, John married Margaret Howd in British Columbia, and their first child was born there.  The couple went on to have four more children after returning to England, where John continued to enjoy the outdoor life in Cumbria, particularly fishing and shooting, and also writing prose and poetry.  He made occasional broadcasts about his beloved Canada for the BBC from their Newcastle studios.   John had rejoined the Army after the War, relinquishing his commission on completion of service in 1921, and finally left the army reserves in April 1938.  However, on the outbreak of WWII John was called up for service and wounded once again whilst serving with the Royal Artillery during a raid on Barrow-in-Furness.  He died in 1958 and is buried near his home at Greenwell, Cumbria, at Kirkby Thore Church.

Edwin Carr Barker (1892-1928) boarded in Woodlands with Harold from September of 1903, but the only mention of him at School is playing the part of an attendant in the 1904 production of Twelfth Night. He was recorded as returning from Canada in 1909 with his brother after a year’s farming and reputed to be considering going out to South Africa.  Edwin’s Canadian attestation papers, dated June 1915, stated that he was a boatbuilder, who had five years’ military experience in the School OTC, as well as serving with the Seaforth Highlanders.  Five months later he was training in England in Hampshire, but soon hospitalised with influenza.  He went out to France with the Canadian Infantry in April 1916, suffering concussion and bruising after being buried by a shell three months later.  Edwin’s career as a soldier was cut short when it was discovered he had trouble marching due to a problem with a big toe, and he was returned to England for treatment in Kent.  An operation to remove the bone in his toe followed owing to necrosis which was put down to a childhood infection.  Three months convalescence in Sussex followed, and then three months back at base in Kent.

Edwin finally returned to France in April of 1917, but again things went wrong for him and he was reprimanded for his part in a drunken incident at Le Havre. In November he suffered a gunshot wound to the back and four weeks later was evacuated to England to a military hospital in Carlisle, where, to add to his troubles, he was found to have syphilis.  Edwin remained in England for the remainder of the War, finally being discharged in May 1919. He returned to Canada a year later and in 1921 was lodging with the Anderson family in Jordan River, Nanaimo, British Columbia, and working as a farmhand.  Edwin returned home for a month in 1922 after the death of his mother in August but went back to Canada before Christmas.  Col. Barker passed away in March 1926, and in October Edwin married Madge Robertson McGregor in Victoria, British Columbia.  His last journey to England was to visit his sister Gertrude(Shuttleworth) in Durham in 1928, but he died three days after returning to Canada on 25 November at the Montreal General Hospital.  Edwin is buried in the Mount Royal Cemetery there.

The Barker brothers had been amongst Howson’s first pupils in his newly reformed School and were instrumental in setting standards and traditions for later Greshamians. Howson was a friend of the family and often spent holidays with them, teaching the boys fishing and to enjoy the countryside.  He was possibly the author of the tribute to Charles and Harold, two of his most distinguished pupils, which appeared in The Gresham Magazine in June 1918 describing how they were loved and esteemed at School, praising their courage, unswerving loyalty and good comradeship. Col. Barker and his wife must have been very proud of their boys, some who followed their father into the legal profession, others who made a new life in a strange land, but particularly for all of them for fighting for their country. The Barker brothers are remembered on a grave monument in Grangetown Cemetery, Sunderland, alongside their parents.



I am indebted to Tony Vine, the grandson of John Barker, for providing me with photos and information on his family which have added greatly to the story.

James Humphrey Cole - OG surveyor of the Great Pyramid of Giza

James was born in 1891, the fourth of six children of Herbert and Amy Cole, who lived at Hill House in Brundall, Norfolk.  His father was a solicitor, and James attended King Edward VI School in Norwich before registering at Gresham’s in September of 1904. James’s older brother Arthur also attended the School (1902-5) and his adventures in the silver mining district of Canada are recorded in The Gresham magazine, followed in November 1917 by his death at Passchendaele while serving with the Canadian Mounted Rifles. James won an Open Scholarship to Gresham’s and boarded in Bengal Lodge.  He soon proved himself to be a sportsman, playing rugby for various teams, and doing well at athletics and gymnastics, as well as representing his House at swimming.  James won several prizes for science and maths, and was a regular and entertaining speaker at the debating society, addressing some ‘more or less coherent remarks’ on Turkey in 1908 and denouncing the war with Italy. After leaving at Christmas of 1909 he was to return to play in an OG rugby match the following year, and much later in 1920, attended an OG reunion at the School.

In 1909 James was awarded a scholarship of £80 per year to study maths at St. John’s College, Cambridge where he achieved First Class Honours, as well as playing cricket and stroking for the Lady Margaret Boat. In 1912 he was appointed to a post with the Egyptian Civil Service as a mathematician carrying out survey work. During the War James was asked to assist the British Army in compiling maps from aerial photographs, becoming so successful he went to Mesopotamia at the request of renowned T.E. Lawrence of Arabia to conduct the first ever aerial survey of the town of Baghdad. In 1917 he left to carry out further surveys in the Sudan and Egypt on which the entire irrigation system of the two countries was based. He was Mentioned in Despatches for his work in 1918, and later made a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.  After the War James was in charge of survey work in the Nile Valley which occupied him for the next twenty years and led to the publication in 1925 of the first accurate survey of the Great Pyramid of Giza.  James Cole retired to Sheringham, and his obituary in the 1963 OG Magazine described him as “a man of quiet and modest disposition who was much liked and esteemed by all who knew him.”

Sun compass designed for use in tanks in the desert during WWII by James Cole.

Photograph copyright  IWM(FEQ 416)

Wartime debating at Gresham’s - researched by Henry, himself a debater of some note

The most remarkably obvious fact about the Gresham’s debating society is simply how popular it is.  Dozens of people vote in each debate, but what is even more striking is that many of them speak on either side.  Individual houses also had their own debating societies, showing the seriousness in which it was taken.  The motions of these were, as might be expected, rather more esoteric than the main debating society, for example, ‘In the distant future passengers will cross the Atlantic by air rather than by sea’. It is perhaps less surprising that debating was seemingly so essential to the life of the School, given the reforms introduced by Howson and later Eccles, making Gresham’s arguably the leading school in the country for those who desired a less traditional and more radical education, for those privileged enough to afford it, of course! 

The main debates were far more dominated by current events.  While some of the contributors clearly mirror the opinions of their fathers, often Liberal MPs, there were enough Conservative members to make for a lively debate. It was all recorded with the dry and quietly insulting wit of the anonymous reporter, eg. ‘J.H. Cole confidentially addressed some more or less coherent remarks’, and the ‘verbose invective’ of N. Drey when quoting figures ‘absolutely unintelligible to himself and others.’ Henry and his classmates were amused by the archaic attitudes shown by some OGs in their debates, particularly in bringing class into everything, although ‘politics is not the trade of a gentleman’, clinging onto to colonialism wherever possible, and, of course, when discussing the thorny subject of women’s suffrage.

Somme commemorations

Gresham's will be remembering those who fell at the Somme in a special service on 1 July. We are researching the 10 OGs and one member of staff and profiles will appear on the website shortly but please get in touch if you would like information on the any of the following in the meantime - 

George Fenchelle, Walter Gissing, Henry Scott-Holmes, Geoffrey Barratt, Henry Russell, Mark Hill, John Foster, Douglas Richardson, Archibald Gilmour, Dawson Atkin, and Geoffrey Day.

World War Archives

I am pleased to be able to go live with the website which is still very much a work in progress with much information still to be added over the centenary years.  I have been very impressed by the way my team of sixth formers have embraced the task of researching our fallen OGs and staff.  Carrying out detailed research using original archive source such as registers, magazines and photograph albums is very different from the classroom based history they are familiar with and they are showing great promise as historical researchers.  We have started researching our fallen in chronological order to tie in with the services of commemoration held on the anniversary of their death in the School Chapel.  However, if anyone has an interest in one of our fallen whose details do not yet appear on the website we would be happy to carry out some research.

Liz Larby

Blog entry by Evie, Emma and Joe

We have wholly enjoyed our first term researching the lives of the boys who fell in WW1. This project has taken us on not only an emotional journey but also a journey of discovery. Over the course of the term we have researched the lives and achievements of these incredible individuals, following not only their time in School but their contributions to the War.  The wealth of information stored in the archives is truly fascinating and brings history to life in a way we have never experienced before. Last term we entered information on Frank Halsey into the database and it was immediately clear just what an inspirational character he was; he was head of school, he had a scholarship to Oxford and he participated in nearly every aspect of school life imaginable. Learning about characters such as Halsey makes us truly appreciate the opportunities presented to us at Gresham’s. One task that proved to be particularly challenging was trying to identify boys in the school photo albums, although this was time-consuming it was very worthwhile as it’s nice to have a face to put to the facts. 

Blog from two of our sixth form researchers, Emma and Maddie -

Throughout the term we have researched the lives of numerous OGs who fell in the War. We have used old Gresham magazines, photo albums and various websites to carry out our research. First, we checked the dates of the boy’s attendance so we could look through the relevant magazines to find out about their lives at school. We have also scanned many photos of OGs, collating a commemorative database. Researching the lives of these men has been truly inspiring and we have loved to find out about the profound effect that the War has had on our school. They all led ambitious and busy school lives, going on to sacrifice their lives for our country.