Gresham's School in Wartime

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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.