Robert John Bartram

EDP Nov 1916As often happens with research, I was browsing for something else when the above newspaper article caught my eye.  Having spent years exploring the lives of the families living in the village during the First World War, I didn’t recognise the name and I knew that Robert Bartram wasn’t listed on the Roll of Honour or War Memorial.  The article itself was intriguing especially that final sentence when Robert pleaded guilty, ‘He said he should like to join the Army, and the case was adjourned for three days for inquiries to be made of the recruiting officer with a view to the defendant having his wish.’ 

As you can imagine, Robert was immediately enlisted into the Norfolk Regiment (end of November, 1916) – the alternative would have been prison.  So, what was this young man’s history and what happened to him?

When he enlisted, Robert gave his birthplace as Carleton Rode and indeed this would probably have been the only home he remembered.  He was in fact born in Banham on the 28th June 1898 to Hannah Bartram (sometimes called Bates) and from the records we can see that Robert had a less than stable early childhood.

Hannah’s family were agricultural workers who had long been established in Tivetshall St Mary.  Samuel Bartram married Ann Sole in the parish church in 1823 and they had many children over the next 20 or so years.  One of these, also named Samuel (born in 1842), had a child with a girl from a local family, Maria Bates, in 1863, whom they named Hannah.  The couple married at the end of 1866.  In official records, Hannah was sometimes named Bates (as on her birth registration) but later changed her name to Bartram, her father’s surname (although she and her siblings sometimes used the name ‘Bates’ on census returns).

Hannah never married but gave birth to several illegitimate children over the next twenty years; Ellen Jane Bates (1884), Thomas William Bates (1887), Robert John Bartram (1898), Herbert George Bartram (1900), Edith May Bartram (1902) and Arthur James Bartram (1905).

On the 1891 Census, Hannah was living with her parents (and other siblings) together with her two children born by that time, Ellen and (Thomas) William.  By 1901, Hannah was still living in Tivetshall but as a live-in housekeeper with her two younger children Herbert and Robert (Ellen was still living with her grandparents and William was living elsewhere in the village as a manservant to a local farmer’s family).  Hannah died, aged just 43, in the summer of 1906 and is buried in the churchyard at Tivetshall St Margaret.

After their mother’s death, her children were aged between 18 months and 22 years – and by the 1911 census, some of them have spread out from Tivetshall, although Ellen and brother William (now an agricultural labourer) are back living with their widowed grandfather, Samuel (together with a one-year great grandson, George Bartram).   Robert at 12 was still at school and boarding with Robert Sturman, a cowman, and his family, living on the Flaxlands in Carleton Rode.  George (Herbert) and Arthur are both at school and boarding with a gamekeeper and his family in Wacton.  The youngest girl, eight-year-old Edith was recorded as an ‘adopted child’ and living with a widow and her daughter in nearby Hapton.

So, it seems likely that Robert came to live with the Sturmans’ in the summer of 1906 aged 8.  He attended Carleton Rode school and would have left school at 12 in the summer of 1911 to work as a labourer – as did most of his contemporaries.

Watts Naval Training School Church Parade
Watts Naval Training School Church Parade

However, two years later, in September 1913, he has been enrolled in the Watts Naval Training School (WNTS), near Dereham, (and run by Dr Barnardo’s) where he spends the next year learning ‘seamanship and gunnery’.  We wonder whether the Reverend Back, at Carleton Rode Rectory, whose own sons served with the navy during WW1, played any part in getting Robert a place?  The WTNS has a fascinating history – although the regime was extremely strict.  Click on the photograph for more information.

Robert left the naval training school in November 1914 and his record card states that he should have joined the Merchant Navy in Liverpool.  At present, we don’t know what happened to him immediately afterwards, but we do know that he is back in Carleton Rode by 1916.  His older brother had been killed in France in March 1915 – was he aware of this?  We simply don’t know.

So, at the end of 1916, rather than face being charged with theft, Robert attested into the Norfolk Regiment.  Almost immediately, he was transferred into The Queen’s Own (Royal West Kent Regiment), 11th Battalion (Lewisham), part of the 122nd Brigade of the 41st Division, which participated in the opening stage of the Battle of Passchendaele.

That first day, the 31st July 1917, the Division attacked astride Ypres-Comines Canal at zero hour, 3.50 a.m., with two brigades. The 123rd on the northern bank and the 122nd brigade south of the canal. The attack of the 122nd brigade from White Château was carried by the 11th Royal West Kents on the left and the 18th King’s Royal Rifle Corps on the right; the 12th East Surreys were in support. The Royal West Kents captured and consolidated Oblique Trench and established a line 150 yards beyond the trench, coming under fire from houses along the Hollebeke road. By 8 a.m. Robert’s Battalion had commenced the attack on Hollebeke and cleared the ruins of the village by 11.30 a.m. Though the attack on Hollebeke was a success, the 11th Royal West Kents had suffered heavy casualties, mainly due to machine-gun and rifle fire coming from the flanks.

Robert was killed during this action although his body was never found.  He was officially reported in the published lists as missing on the 2nd October 1917 and later presumed dead.  No relatives are named on any official document.  In contrast, this was not the case for his brother Thomas, as his sister Ellen (with whom he lived) made sure that he was remembered – and his name is inscribed on the Tivetshall War Memorial.

So, how is Robert remembered?

He is commemorated on the Menin Gate, one of almost 55,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers killed in the Ypres Salient and who have no known graves.  (There are also 35,000 names on the Tyne Cot Memorial nearby who died later in the war.)

In the Soldier’s Effects ledger, payments owed to Robert, including the £5 War Gratuity, were unclaimed.  His medals were returned from the Carleton Rode address the Army had on file.

And from then on, he seems to have been forgotten.  We hope to ‘right this wrong’ – that a young man who sacrificed his life is remembered in the village where he grew up, alongside many of his friends.

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