Robert James Campbell Ferguson

1st April 1879 — 7th January 1919

Corporal Robert James Campbell Ferguson, Regimental Number 21528, died of illness on the 7th January 1919 on active duty in Bombay is in interred at Kirkee Cemetery in Khadki, Pune in Maharashtra, India.

Family Life

RJC Ferguson’s three Christian names were handed down through the family line: Robert (from father and paternal grandfather), James from his maternal grandfather (James Nation) and Campbell which was his paternal grandmother Ann’s maiden name.

As can be guessed by his name, the family’s roots are in Scotland. His great-grandparents (delighting in the names Pringle Ferguson and Beatrix Potter – though not the famous author, mycologist and Lakeland conservationist) both were Edinburgh-born in 1799 and 1787 respectively. The only non-Scot was Ann Campbell (born 1823 in Dublin) though her surname would strongly suggest Scottish descent too.

His grandfather Robert’s military service in the 4th light Dragoons had taken him into the thick of the action of The Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War1. Cavalry life was peripatetic for him and his wife, Ann, evidenced by their children’s places of birth. RJC’s father Robert Alexander was the eldest six children (one brother and four sisters) who were born respectively at Ipswich, Brighton, Birmingham (2), Dundalk and Dublin. By the 1870s they had settled in North Petherton, Somerset which ended the peregrinations.

RJC’s father (born 1853), a Conveyancing Clerk, married Linda Rydon Nation on the 22nd July, 1878 at North Petherton. The marriage register shows by this point that his grandfather, now 57, was still in military service and was by then a Sergeant Major the West Somerset Yeomanry.2 Linda’s middle name is taken from the hamlet of Rydon, 2 miles from North Petherton.

The couple were 25 and 21 years of age when they married and Robert James Campbell was born just over 8 months later in North Petherton.

Heartbreak and Enigma

The history of Robert’s immediate family is tragic. This included some years spent as émigrés in Florida, USA, though Robert and sister Nellie were to remain in England, cared for by relatives 3,4. The  move across the Atlantic was in part prompted by Robert’s gambling problem; he had already squandered his wife’s inheritance. The family’s children are as follows:5

Robert James Campbell: b.1879 North Petherton, d. 1919 Bombay aged 39

Clara Elizabeth: b.1880 Bridgwater, d.1881 Bridgwater aged 3 months

Nellie Kate: b.1882 Worthing, d. after 1901 6

Hugh Alexander: b. and d. 1885 Jacksonville, Florida, USA, aged 3 months

Ernest Adolph: b.1887 Jacksonville, d.1891 Jacksonville aged 3 years 4 months

Lillie: b. and d. 1889 Jacksonville aged 4 days

Ellen Dunham: b. 1893 Jacksonville, d. 1986 Hendon, London aged 92

Frank: It is not known when he was born, or where (England or USA). In adult life he worked around the Taunton area as a beam engine operator—this may have been at Staplegrove Silk Mill just to the west of the county town.

Robert and Linda had opened a store in St. John’s, in the southern suburbs of Jacksonville but due to his gambling it was an unsuccessful venture. The area also had a reputation for disease and poor health, with Yellow Fever being particularly widespread. This may account for the early deaths of the children.

The pitiful American period drew to a close with the death of Robert Alexander on the 5th March, 1895. The widowed Linda must have looked back upon the sojourn with overwhelming grief as she returned to England 7. With her must have been the infant Ellen, her only surviving child from the American births.8

There is no evidence in records that Linda regathered Robert and Nellie into her care. Robert had become an independent young man of 22 by the 1901 Census and moved away. Nellie was 18 and living with her paternal grandmother, as she had for over 10 years. What is more surprising is that eight-year-old Ellen is not with her mother but living with her maternal grandmother, Mary Jane Nation, in North Petherton 9. To understand more we need to see what happened on her return to these shores.

Life must have been hard for Linda on her homecoming. We do not know exactly what pressures she faced but the trauma of the infant bereavements, widowhood, and the failed emigration combined with financial concerns must have been considerable. If this were not enough, the relatives she returned to in Somerset rejected her—why is not known. The next we see of her is living, in 1901, childless and as a ‘Servant’ in one of Bristol’s Dining Rooms.10 She is still in that position in 1911 and died there in the Spring of 1915 at the age of 59.

Returning to Robert: School and Teaching

In the 1890s, the small Somerset village of North Petherton had only one school and young Robert must have attended this.

“the vicar, J.J. Toogood, established, as a continuation of the church Sunday school, a day school which was later affiliated to the National Society. It was for 70 children [1837] and was free to those whose parents could not afford to pay. Within a year it had 90 pupils, who were taught reading, needlework, and religious knowledge. The building, on two floors, stood immediately west of the church… A new school was built east of the church in 1877. By 1903 there were 378 children in three classrooms and an evening continuation school was held.”

It would be here that Robert first showed his aptitude for learning and then, being kept on after leaving-age as a pupil-teacher, would have learned the rudiments of the teaching profession. It is difficult today to imagine what it would be like to try to teach a class of 125 mixed-age and mixed-ability children.

He is unusual, compared with other pupil-teachers on the memorial roll, because he moved from his pupil-teacher school and secured a second post before being trained. He moved to Twickenham in 1900 and his name appears on the 1901 Census, living in Upper Grotto Road. His profession is listed as “Assistant Schoolmaster”. The school is not specified but the most likely candidate is Holy Trinity School, Vicarage Road which was a quarter-mile walk from his digs.

To Winchester!

In order to become a fully qualified schoolmaster, Robert needed to undergo a statutory two-year training course at an approved institution of which Winchester Training was one of only a handful. He therefore left Twickenham and studied at WTC from September 1903 to June 1905.

His first mention in the college magazine, The Wintonian, records his sporting involvement as playing in the Reserves football team. In his second ‘Senior’ year, he made his first appearance in the Cricket Team. There was little indication of his significant skill on the rugby pitch.

His popularity in song (see right) was noted in a later edition when it was remarked “old favourites Messrs Hicks and Ferguson” contributed.

He must have had a good singing voice as, in a concert of English Folk Songs, Robert sang two West Country songs: Young Herchard and The Cheerful Arm. Lyrics of the first verse and chorus of the former give a taste:

One Zunday morn, as I’ve heerd zay,
Young Herchard mounted his Dobbin Gray,
And over the hills he rode ameeun,
A-coortin’ the pason’s daughter Jeeun.

Chorus:
With my doomble-dum, dolly-kin, doomble-dum day

Teaching and Rugby

College records show that having successfully complete his training, he secured a teaching post in Twickenham. It was common practice for pupil-teachers to return to their pre-training schools and although Robert had been an assistant-master the assumption must be that he once again took up a position at Holy Trinity School, now probably as a fully-fledged Schoolmaster.

We know at this time that he played rugby for Twickenham Rugby Football Club. This should not be confused with the national rugby stadium: in 1905 this was still known as Billy’s Cabbage Patch and wasn’t purchased for use as a rugby pitch until 1907.

Twickenham RFC records show him playing his first match for them in pre-WTC days, on Tuesday, 17th April, 1900. He had continued playing through his first student year (8 matches) but not his second. He was eventually to become club Captain and he led the 1st XV that travelled to Paris to play the Sporting Club Universitaire de France in 190711, taking over the captaincy from W.Walbanck, sitting on his left in the team photograph, who also played in that match. His final match for the club was 21st March, 1908 against Kingston RFC having played forty-seven matches and refereed one.

RJC Ferguson is also listed as playing for Leicester Tigers 1st XV, in the centre against Richmond at Welford Road on 25 October 1908. This was his one and only appearance for the club although he did score two tries in a 30-11 victory. The circumstances remain a mystery as we do not believe he had any links with the Midlands.

Back to the West Country:

Schools, Singing and Bees

1911 sees Robert back in his old haunts, this time at Stogursey, 9 miles north-west of Bridgwater, lodging in the home of a bootmaker, and employed by Somerset County Council as a Schoolmaster. This small village had one school: which was a mixed Public Elementary School. Mr. Ferguson is listed as the Master and there were two other staff: Assistant Mistresses Miss F.L. Rawlins and Mrs. Florence Lake. In 1914 when Robert left the school, it had 130 children in attendance.

A further teaching appointment is mentioned in his obituary, printed in the Taunton Courier of 29th January, 1919. He took up a position as a headmaster at Bishops Lydeard Parish School on 9th February, 1914. His enthusiasm for singing was undiminished and he was part of the village church choir. He had been at the school for almost a year when he enlisted for military service.

It is from around this time we learn that one of Robert’s pastimes was bee-keeping. He was a member of the British Bee-Keepers’ Association and is mentioned a number of times in British Bee Journal and Bee-Keepers Adviser. He passed the Association’s Expert Certificate examination.

A new Stogursey school was built in 1860, designed by John Norton in a flamboyant Gothic style, of Quantock stone with Bath stone dressings. The school was ‘erected… at the sole expense of the late Sir P. Fuller-Palmer-Acland Bart.’ and it had a capacity of 250 children.

The Army and The Great War

Robert was one the many whose military records did not survive the Blitz in WWII. His extant Medal Card shows that Corporal Robert James Campbell Ferguson, 21528 served in the 1st Battalion, Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry—‘The Lightbobs’. He had originally enlisted in the Somerset Regiment, as may have been expected but he was transferred to the Lightbobs around late November or early December 1915.

Within days he was bound by ship to the Gulf, arriving at Basra in the first week of January, 1916, to take part in the fight against Ottomans.  The Battalion he had joined was a Provisional Battalion as the original 1st Ox and Bucks had been besieged in Kut al Amara. There is a full account of this terrible campaign, from a Hampshire Regiment perspective here.

His movements and the actions he was engaged in can only be guessed but it is clear that the new men were quickly pressed into action in order to relieve the siege.

 Lack of preparation was evident, as the War Diary relates:

 

“February 17th. — Received orders to go into the trenches to­morrow and to send machine-guns in tonight. There are only some six men who know anything about them.”

The fighting was fierce and gives some idea of Robert’s baptism of fire. This is from the attack on the Sannaiyat trenches, still trying desperately to fight a way through to Kut:

[April 6th] “The Battalion advanced and did splendidly, but was wiped out. Practically every officer was killed or wounded, and only 17 men were left at the end of the day.”

Robert’s name was not on the list of wounded, so he was very fortunate to escape such a slaughter.

Much of the next two and a half years of unbroken service in Mesopotamia consisted of consolidating work after gains against the now retreating Turkish forces, a few small-scale actions and almost continual danger from Arab raiders and snipers. November 1st 1918 saw the Turkish Armistice and the following three days were given over to holidays to celebrate. His obituary in the Taunton Gazette records that ‘only last month [December 1918] was sent to India for special duty.’

Shortly after his arrival in Bombay (Mumbai) he died of pneumonia 12. In 1919 this cause of death was usually the result of catching Spanish Flu which killed through lung congestion. The pandemic killed 3 of the 60 WTC Fallen this way in January 1919.13

We will leave the last thoughts with the Taunton Gazette report of the gathering in Somerset for his remembrance

‘There seemed to be something especially sad in the loss of those who, after passing through the dangers and hardships of the battle field, had fallen victims to illness. Such was the case with him whom they thought of that day. They were looking forward to his return to his duties in the schools and in the choir’

The Army Soldiers’ Effects ledger entry records not a next of kin but an Executor: William H Palmer, who was a solicitor’s clerk in Bridgwater. He was buried on January 9th, 1919, in the Sewri Christian Cemetery, Bombay (Mumbai) and reinterred on January 24th, 1962 at Kirkee Cemetery in Khadki, Poona (Pune) in Maharashtra, India, where his name also appears on the memorial of those who lost their lives in the Great War.

 

Researcher and Author: John Vickers

Note for Researchers:

Robert is mistakenly recorded as Richard on the College Chapel Memorial. His date of death is also wrongly recorded by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and his Army records (which was the source for CWGC) as 9th January 1919. He died on the 7th and was buried on the 9th.

Footnotes

[1] He was called to give evidence in the libel case brought by Lord Cardigan against Colonel the Hon. Somerset John Gough Calthorpe who, in his book Letters from a Staff Officer in the Crimea, had accused Cardigan of cowardice in the Charge. AFFIDAVIT of ROBERT FERGUSON, Serjeant in the H. Troop of the 4th Hussars, now stationed at New bridge in Ireland, formerly called the 4th Light Dragoons; sworn 20th May, 1863; filed 2nd June, 1863. SAY, (1.) I have been serjeant nearly eight years. I was a private in the 4th Light Dragoons on the 25th October, 1854. I remember the charge of the Light Cavalry Brigade at Balaklava on that day. Before the charge, the 8th Hussars and the 4th Light Dragoons were in line. The 11th Hussars were to the left front of our line, and the 17th Lancers and the 13th Light Dragoons formed the first line. I was in the centre of the front rank of the right-hand squadron during that charge and was the left guide of the right troop of the first squadron; and Captain (now Colonel) Lowe was squadron leader. (2.) I followed Captain Lowe up to the guns, which were then being carried away by the Russians, and were considerably to the rear of their original position. I was immediately behind him. I saw Captain Lowe knock over one or two gunners off one of the guns with his revolver; we got the gun completely into our possession, but could not bring it away, having no support to enable us to do so. Just at the time I saw Lord George Paget come up and ask, “Where is the General?” We all looked around and we could not see him. He alluded to Lord Cardigan. Lord George Paget then commanded us to form upon what he supposed to be the 17th Lancers. I looked round to my left rear and I saw that the cavalry behind were Russian Lancers, and not the 17th Lancers, and I told his Lordship so. His Lordship then said “You are quite right; men, you must fight the best of your way back,” and that he would find his own way back. We were then a good deal scattered, but we succeeded in retiring past the Lancers without being attacked by them. On our arriving at our original position the few of us that were left formed up, and Lord Cardigan came forward and said, “This is a great blunder, but no fault of mine.” Some of the men, including myself, answered, “My Lord , we are ready to go back again.” His Lordship said, “No, you have done enough to-day, my men!” I never saw Lord Cardigan from the time the first line started until we were reformed , as before stated. If Lord Cardigan had been in advance of us when we were at the guns I must have seen him, and if he returned as we were retiring I must have observed him. He must have retired to our original position before I got back. There were not three persons returned after me.

[2] Probably C Company, which was based at North Petherton

[3] In 1891 Robert was in the care of his aunt and uncle, James and Ann Nation. They lived in the countryside just outside the village of North Petherton, at what is stated in the Census as ‘Millcombe Mills’, where James was the miller. It is clear from the names of the nearest properties on the census that this was actually Melcombe Mill, which histories show as a mill in 1402 and that, in 1901, there were two pairs of stones and an overshot wheel.  The mill was still in use in 1910 but had closed by 1914 and exists as a dwelling house today.

[4] Nellie is being cared for by her paternal grandmother Ann again in North Petherton in the 1891 Census.

[5] The 1911 Census was the first to ask the mother to provide the number of children that had been born, those living, and those dead. Linda is recorded as having had 6 children: 3 living and 3 dead. There is a discrepancy that so far remains unresolved as there seem to have been 8 (4 living and 4 dead).

[6] There is no record of the family having lived in the Southeast

[7] No date or shipping passenger list has been found for the outbound or return voyages

[8] Unless Frank had been born in the USA

[9] Ellen is listed as living at her aunt’s (Kate Nation) home in 1911. She must have gone back to the USA after this as she returned permanently to England on 9th March 1919, sailing from New York on Cunarder The Royal George and disembarking at Liverpool. Ellen is recorded on the ship’s Passenger List as going to North Petherton and her occupation was a Trained Nurse. She worked as a nanny which took her to India where she met her husband to be, Donald Kerr MacDougall. They married during the Spring of 1920 in North Petherton. He was from the Isle of Jura, and they settled in the Southport area of Lancashire. She died on 13th January, 1986.

[10] Sutton’s Dining Rooms, 5-7 Church Road, St. George, Bristol (now Lawrence Hill area). The building still stands.

[11] Sporting Club Universitaire de France, founded in 1895 by Charles Brennus, a cross-discipline sports club with particular emphasis on cycling, athletics, rugby, swimming and water polo. “Since its inception, the SCUF has known many great times, such as rugby before the Great War”. Rugby Club chairman 1906-1907 was Frantz Reichel. It remains active today [2017].

[12] Pneumonia: source for cause of death S.C. Graham, husband of great-niece of RJC (grand-daughter of Ellen D Macdougall, née Feguson)

[13] This outbreak had the unusual effect of being most lethal to adults of 20-40 years. It is thought that the virus triggered a cytokine storm: the immune system is in a runaway mode and attacks the body. Those with the strongest immune system are therefore most at risk. For a discussion of this see Wikipedia 1918 Flu Pandemic article.

Sources

Ancestry (2018). Home page. [online] Available at: www.ancestry.co.uk [Accessed 2018]

Archive.org (2018). British Bee Journal and Bee-Keepers’ Adviser, Volume XLIII, January-December, 1915, p.77. [online] Available at: https://archive.org/stream/britishbeejourna1916lond/britishbeejourna1916lond_djvu.txt [Accessed 7 December 2017]

Baggs, A. P. and Siraut M.C. (1992). North Petherton: Economic history. A History of the County of Somerset: Volume 6, Andersfield, Cannington, and North Petherton Hundreds (Bridgwater and Neighbouring Parishes), pp.300-306. London: Victoria County History. [online] Available at: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/som/vol6/pp300-306 [Accessed 7 December 2017].

Baggs, A. P. and Siraut M.C. (1992). North Petherton: Education. A History of the County of Somerset: Volume 6, Andersfield, Cannington, and North Petherton Hundreds (Bridgwater and Neighbouring Parishes), p.313-315. London: Victoria County History. [online] Available at: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/som/vol6/pp313-315 [Accessed 7 December 2017].

Baggs, A. P. and Siraut M.C. (1992). Stogursey: Education. A History of the County of Somerset: Volume 6, andersfield, Cannington, and North Petherton Hundreds (Bridgwater and Neighbouring Parishes), p.157. London: Victoria County History, 1992. [online] Available at: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/som/vol6/p157 [Accessed 7 December 2017].

British Newspaper Archive (2018). Taunton Courier, 29th January, 1919. [online] Available at: www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk [Accessed 7 December 2017]

Crider, L.W., (unknown). In Search of the Light Brigade: A Biographical Dictionary of the Members of the Five Original Regiments of the Light Brigade from Jan 1, 1854 to Mar 31, 1856. Unknown: Eurocommunica Publications

Graham, S.C. (Personal contact) With special thanks to S.C. Graham for information about R.J.C. Ferguson’s death, and his father.

Kelly’s Directory (1902). Kelly’s Directory of Bristol 1902. [online] Available at: http://specialcollections.le.ac.uk/cdm/ref/collection/p16445coll4/id/112373 [Accessed 7 December 2017]

Kelly’s Directory (1914). Kelly’s Directory of Somerset 1914. [online] Available at: http://specialcollections.le.ac.uk/cdm/ref/collection/p16445coll4/id/64296 [7 December 2017]

Peters, J., Personal contact: Chairman Twickenham Rugby Football Club. With special thanks for his playing career at the club and the club photographs.

Reynolds, S. (1962). Twickenham: Schools. A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 3, Shepperton, Staines, Stanwell, Sunbury, Teddington, Heston and Isleworth, Twickenham, Cowley, Cranford, West Drayton, Greenford, Hanwell, Harefield and Harlington, pp.163-166. London: Victoria County History. [online] Available at: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol3/pp163-166 [Accessed 7 December 2017].

Rose, M. (1981). A history of King Alfred’s College, Winchester 1840-1980. London: Phillimore.

Sporting Club Universitaire de France – Rugby. (2017). Home page. [online] Available at: http://rugby.scuf.org// [Accessed 7 December 2017].

Stogursey: Education, in A History of the County of Somerset: Volume 6, Andersfield, Cannington, and North Petherton Hundreds (Bridgwater and Neighbouring Parishes), ed. R W Dunning and C R Elrington (London, 1992), p. 157. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/som/vol6/p157 [Accessed 7 December 2017].

Vickers, J. The University of Winchester Chapel Memorial Rail image.

Wikipedia (2018). Spanish Flu. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1918_flu_pandemic [Accessed 7 December 2017].

Wikipedia (2018). Sporting Club Universitaire de France. [online] Available at: https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sporting_club_universitaire_de_France [Accessed 7 December 2017].

 

 

University of Winchester Archive – Hampshire Record Office
Reference code Record
47M91W/ P2/4 The Wintonian 1899-1900
47M91W/ P2/5 The Wintonian 1901-1902
47M91W/ P2/6 The Wintonian 1903-1904
47M91W/ P2/7 The Wintonian 1904-1906
47M91W/ P2/8 The Wintonian 1905-1907
47M91W/ P2/10 The Wintonian 1908-1910
47M91W/ P2/11 The Wintonian 1910-1914
47M91W/ P2/12 The Wintonian 1920-1925
47M91W/ D1/2 The Student Register
47M91W/ S5//5/10 Photograph of 5 alumni in Mesopotamia
47M91W/ Q3/6 A Khaki Diary
47M91W/ B1/2 Reports of Training College 1913-1914
47M91W/ Q1/5 Report and Balance Sheets 1904- 1949
47M91W/ R2/5 History of the Volunteers Company 1910
47M91W/ L1/2 College Rules 1920
Hampshire Record Office archive
71M88W/6 List of Prisoners at Kut
55M81W/PJ1 Managers’ Minute Book 1876-1903
All material referenced as 47M91W/ is the copyright of The University of Winchester. Permission to reproduce photographs and other material for this narrative has been agreed by the University and Hampshire Record Office.