Portrait of Robert Whitfield Falconer (1885-1916).
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Family History Appraisal
We have been researching the story of Robert Whitfield Falconer who lost his life in France in the First World War. This family history research arose through our interest in our local community, the suburb of Gosforth, Newcastle upon Tyne. Although not strictly a piece of family history research this appraisal demonstrates the volume and detail of information that can be discovered about a family member within a relatively short period of time. Robert’s memory lives on through his generous posthumous gift of two bells to Gosforth All Saints Parish Church.
Read Robert’s Story Here.
Visitors to All Saints church in Gosforth may notice a memorial plaque that reads
‘To The Glory of God and in the memory of Lieut. Robert Whitfield Falconer, 16th Northumberland Fusiliers, one of the original bellringers of this church who fell at Thiepval, France, 1 July 1916, aged 31 years. In his will, he made provision for two new bells to be added to the existing peal in the tower’.
Contemporary photograph of All Saints Parish Church, Gosforth, Newcastle upon Tyne.
The Family History of Robert Whitfield Falconer
The family history of Robert Falconer is not widely known. Robert Whitfield Falconer was born in Gosforth and baptised at St. Nicholas church on 29 March 1885. He was the son of James William, a clerk, and Isabella Falconer. The family had strong links to St. Nicholas Church which at the time of Robert’s baptism was the only Anglican church in Gosforth. Robert’s parents James William Falconer and Isabella Nixon were married there in 1884. At the time of Robert’s baptism, the family were living at 29 High Street, Gosforth.
In 1890 there was an addition to the family with the birth of Robert’s sister, Mary Isabella. By 1891 the family were living at 38 Ivy Road, Gosforth with a female live-in servant. When tracking the family through the census we found, by 1901 the family had moved to 4 Linden Terrace, Gosforth, (a misrecording of Linden Road), again sharing their home with a female servant.
By 1911 they had moved to 22 Linden Road. In both the 1901 and 1911 census James Falconer’s occupation is recorded as a shipbroker. A shipbroker is an intermediary between the owner of a ship and a client who wishes to have goods carried by sea. Robert’s occupation was noted as a shipbroker’s clerk. James is recorded as a clerk in a number of trade directories.
Directories are regularly produced printed lists of businesses and residents produced on a countywide basis. Using trade directories it has been possible to discover something about James’ employment history. His place of employment throughout the 1890s was J.G. Charlton & Company, shipbrokers, of Cails Buildings, Newcastle. The first reference to his own shipbroking business, Falconer, Ross & Company based in Sandhill, Newcastle, can be found in Ward’s Directory of 1906.
1911 census returns showing Robert Falconer, his parents, James and Isabella, and sister, Mary, living at 22 Linden Road, Gosforth.
The New Parish Of Gosforth
The new parish of Gosforth All Saints was established in 1906 and the Falconer family appear to have worshipped there from that point. James William Falconer, Robert’s father, served as a member of the parish vestry from 1906-1917. For some of this time he served as People’s Warden. Robert Falconer was a keen bell-ringer.
The All Saints parish magazines include numerous references to bellringing including some specific references to Robert. As an example, an article of August 1913 records a quarter-peal of triple bells being rung to mark the departure of one of the ringers. Mr A.M.C. Field, was leaving for South America. It records Robert as one of the ringers. Robert was an active bell ringer.
We know from the Annual Report of Durham and Newcastle Association of Change Ringers that in 1913 he rang at churches in Gateshead and Whitley Bay as well as Gosforth.
The memorial plaque in All Saints Church records that Robert Falconer served in the 16th Battalion of the Northumberland Fusiliers. The Battalion was raised in Newcastle in September 1914 by the Gateshead and Newcastle Chamber of Commerce. It is likely that Robert served with friends and professional colleagues.
This Battalion was one of twelve Pals Battalions raised by the Northumberland Fusiliers. Pals battalions were made up of groups of colleagues, friends and neighbours many of whom were acquainted with each other. The already close relationships that existed amongst the recruits was believed to increase camaraderie.
The downside of this form of recruitment was that when large-scale losses began to take place the male population of some families and communities were decimated. In November 1915 the Battalion began service in France. Robert Falconer lost his life on 1 July 1916, the first day of the Battle of The Somme. Five fellow officers also lost their lives with over three hundred and fifty men.
Last Will And Testament
On 3 September 1915, just two months before the 16th Battalion began their service in France, Robert signed his will. The executors were his father and John Frederick Bird, a friend and fellow bell-ringer. The beneficiaries of the will were the two executors, John Bird’s infant son and Robert’s sister, Mary. One clause of the will related explicitly to his wish to endow two bells at All Saints church :
I give and bequeath the sum of one hundred and seventy-five pounds to my said Trustees upon trust that they shall as soon as conveniently after my decease communicate with the Vicar and churchwardens of All Saints Gosforth and offer to provide and install two additional Bells …
Robert’s father ensured that his wish was met. Two bells were dedicated to his memory by Bishop Wild on 3 October 1920.
The Peel of Bells
Extract from the Annual Report of Durham and Newcastle Association of Change Ringers, 1920, reporting on presentation of the bells to All Saints Parish Church, Gosforth.
Robert Falconer is remembered on the Thiepval War Memorial. His full-service record can be accessed at The National Archives, Kew, London. The record provides a full account of Robert’s service from the date that he signed up until his death. Today bell practice in All Saints Parish Church takes place on a Monday evening. Ringing for services takes place on Sundays when the peel of bells ring out over the Gosforth community.