Well-off family lost both son and daughter to war

Information has come to light about a brother and sister from a well-to-do Wallsend family who lost their lives during the First World War.

Robert Brewis Stephenson and his elder sister Mary Sylvia Stephenson had very different war experiences, but sadly, both were to become victims of the conflict.

Like many other families right across the social strata, the Stephensons suffered at least two war deaths. It was clear that this war of the early 20th century was no respecter of class, creed, age or sex.

Their father was Christopher Stephenson. As Wallsend’s mayor in 1908, he presided over the opening of Wallsend Town Hall that year.

William Richardson’s History of the Parish of Wallsend states: “During the ceremony on September 16, 1908, Sylvia Stephenson, daughter of the mayor, started the public clock.”

Despite its change of use, the town hall and its clock are still there, echoing other times.

The 1911 census records the family as living at Hawthorn Villas, the Green, Wallsend.

Robert Brewis Stephenson was 14 and still at school at that time. With his education over, he became a draughtsman at Wallsend’s Swan Hunter and Wigham Richardson shipyard, where his father was yard manager.

His father oversaw the launch of the illustrious Mauretania in 1907.

By the time war was declared, Robert’s medal index card, a record of his entitlement to honours, places him in the Northumberland Yeomanry.

He joined the Northumberland Fusiliers and became an officer, gazetted as a second lieutenant.

Service followed in France, and he was awarded a Military Cross “for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in leading his men to the attack”.

“As soon as the objective was reached, he pushed forward with his platoon, harassing the enemy as they retired and inflicting heavy casualties,” the London Gazette reported on March 7, 1918.

It was a posthumous award. An appendix to an extract from the war diary for the 22nd Northumberland Fusiliers (Tyneside Scottish) at Langemarck outlines the numbers of those killed, wounded or missing.

One officer was listed as wounded, one as missing and RB Stephenson was reported to have been wounded on October 20, 1917, and to have died of his wounds on October 23.

An obituary in the Newcastle Journal a few days later said: “He was only 20 years of age but, like the other members of the family, very popular in the town.”

Elder brother Christopher too was an officer in the Northumberland Fusiliers and he was also awarded a Military Cross. He survived the war.

Sylvia is, at present, the only female casualty on our First World War database.

The British Red Cross register of overseas volunteers for 1914-18 shows that she answered the call by joining the voluntary aid detachment and becoming a nurse.

She was given the service number 5729 and sent to Egypt to administer to the wounded and dying from the Gallipoli campaign of 1915 and 1916 in Turkey.

A paragraph in the British Journal of Nursing dated December 4, 1915, tells us of her death at the Cairo Military Hospital of dysentery, and she is buried in the Cairo War Memorial Cemetery.

I must confess I have a soft spot for Sylvia and would really like to know more about her.

The expanded Northumbria World War One Commemoration Project is encouraging volunteers to join in its research into this fascinating and troubling period of our history.

Anyone interested in helping with this research, and also anyone with information about any person killed or who died as a result of the war, is asked to contact the project.

The main project workroom at Linskill Community Centre, in Trevor Terrace, North Shields, is open from 10am to 4pm each weekday for visitors and for anyone wanting to learn more about the project or how to get involved.

The address for correspondence is c/o Essell, 29 Howard Street, North Shields NE30 1AR.

The Northumbria World War One project, with help from the Heritage Lottery Fund, aims to create a free and accessible database, of casualties of the Great War from the

modern borough of North Tyneside. It follows on from the very successful Tynemouth World One project, based on the old borough of Tynemouth, which researched nearly 2,000 deaths from that area as a result of the war.

The rest of the geographical area of North Tyneside has, for practical research purposes, been divided into 3 distinct areas within the council boundary. At the coast Whitley Bay, including Monkseaton, Backworth and West Allotment; in the east, Wallsend, Willington Quay and Howdon and lastly, near the river and the former mining communities of Dudley, Seaton Burn and Killingworth including Benton and Forest Hall to the north of the borough. Early preparations indicate a further 3,000 casualties in these areas.

The research is conducted by a dedicated team of volunteers who, through records such as Births, Deaths and Marriages, Census reports, the National Archives and local newspapers, cemeteries and memorials have been building up a picture of the lives…and deaths of all those combatants from the borough who perished in the war.

Many of these volunteers became involved in the project after having conducted research on their own family history; many others had no experience whatsoever but wanted to find out more about their own family connection to the Great War. In a short period of time these volunteers have become very experienced researchers and all enjoy the research involved.