Photograph of Robert in Tameside Local Studies and Archives Centre. Reference: MRP/2B/031
(L to R) Victoria Cross; Queen's South Africa Medal with clasps 'Elandslaagte', 'Defence of Ladysmith', 'Belfast'; King's South Africa Medal with clasps 'South Africa 1901', 'South Africa 1902'; 1939-45 War Medal; 1937 Coronation Medal; 1953 Coronation Medal; Long Service and Good Conduct Medal; Meritorious Service Medal
Robert was born on the 4th June 1874 at 11 Charles Lane in Haslingden, Lancashire. His father was called James and his mother was Agnes. He had 8 older siblings; John, Samuel, Agnes, Joseph, James, Liza, Jane and Margaret. He also had a younger sister called Mary Ellen, and one other sibling, who died. The family were members of the Church of England.
James and Agnes were from Kilkeel in County Down in Ireland. They moved to Haslingden between Jane's birth in 1869 and Margaret's in 1873. In 1881 the family lived at 'Cob Castle' on Hutch Bank. James was a cotton beamer, but he was unemployed when the Census was taken in early April.
Aged 10, Robert began to work as a warehouse boy. We know he worked in the warehouse at Flash Mill and as a weaver. In 1891 he lived at 26 Sunnybank Street with his father. Many of his siblings had left home.
By 1895 Robert had decided to change careers. His brother James had joined the Manchester Regiment in October 1882, with the service number 449. By 1895 he held the rank of Colour Sergeant in the 1st Battalion. Robert followed in his footsteps on the 2nd February. His service number was 4535.
After training at the Regimental Depot in Ashton-under-Lyne, Robert was posted to the 1st Battalion at Preston in Lancashire. He joined E Company.
Shortly after this the battalion moved to Aldershot in Hampshire, then they were sent overseas, arriving in Gibraltar during November 1897.
During 1899 tensions between British and Boer settlers in South Africa rose and in August the British Government decided to send the 1st Battalion to South Africa in case war broke out. Robert was stationed in the small town of Ladysmith in Natal when war was declared on the 11th October.
Robert was present at the battle of Elandslaagte on 21st October. This was the first battle of the war in which the Manchesters took part. Although a victory it had no strategic or tactical importance and by the 30th Ladysmith was under siege.
The 1st Battalion was stationed at Caesar's Camp, at the eastern end of a ridge to the south of Ladysmith. The Boers launched a number of attacks on the battalion as they tried to break through. One of the most serious took place on the 6th January 1900.
At around 3am that morning 300 Boers began their attack. They had surprise and the darkness on their side and soon broke into the 1st Battalion's position.
Robert was stationed on the slope of the ridge, along with 15 other men from D Company. They fought desperately to hold off the Boers. The fighting lasted all day, and it was not until 7pm that the Boers were driven off the ridge.
Fourteen of the men with Robert were killed during the fighting, and he was wounded. Only James Pitts survived unharmed. In all the 1st Battalion lost 33 men killed and 40 wounded that day.
This was the largest Boer attack on the defences of Ladysmith, and the last. The siege continued for another 2 months. By the end food was in short supply and disease was widespread. The British relief force reached Ladysmith on the 28th February 1900.
Now that the defenders could contact the outside world, James and Robert's story began to be told. On the 23rd March they were both Mentioned in Despatches by the commander of the Garrison during the siege, Lieutenant General Sir George White. During April 1900 a correspondent for the Manchester Guardian newspaper was able to find James and Robert and interview them. His article was published on the 18th May.
He described Robert as 'a red-haired man, with moustache of like colour. He was...5 feet 9 or 10 inches'.
James described how the fighting had begun.
He began firing, he told me, at about 3:30am, and his picket was on its own resources till the afternoon...The range was amazingly short. The Boers were, he said, within sixteen yards of him and it was death to appear over the rock...
Very early in the fight, [Robert] thought that all was over....He fully expected a rush which would result either in his death or capture...I hung on...without seeing any sign of reinforcements, and indeed without hope of any.
The two had no food, but plenty of water, and James was 'glad of it'. Robert described how they had 'managed about ammunition'.
'There were two of our men lying dead in the sangar with me and Pitts, and we helped ourselves to their cartridges'...
'I got up once to look for reinforcements, and was at once struck in the face by several splinters; so I had to duck down again.' Just before this Pitts and Private Murphy...had also stood up for a moment, and Murphy had been instantly killed. Scott warned Pitts to be careful.
After a minute or two Pitts moved again, ever so little. This was enough for the watchful Boer who had slain Murphy; he showed himself just for a moment, Scott shot him dead, and he rolled down the hill. Their comrade was avenged.
The Commanding Officer of the 1st Battalion, Arthur Curran, was keen to make sure James and Robert's bravery was recognised. He 'hoped [they] would be considered worthy of the Victoria Cross'. His superiors decided that they were, and the medals were awarded in the London Gazette of the 26th July 1901. Both men had the same citation:
During the attack on Caesar's Camp, in Natal, on the 6th January 1900, these men occupied a sangar on the left of which all our men had been shot down and their positions occupied by Boers, and held their post for fifteen hours without food or water, all the time under an extremely heavy fire, keeping up their fire and a smart lookout though the Boers occupied some sangars on their immediate left rear. Private Scott was wounded.
Their medals were presented to them by Lord Herbert Kitchener on the 8th June 1902.
After Ladysmith the British Army defeated the Boers at the Battle of Belfast, or Bergendal between the 21st and 27th August 1900. Robert was wounded during this fighting, on the 26th.
After Belfast Robert served with the 1st Battalion in many smaller operations intended to restrict the Boer's movements and force them to face British soldiers. This strategy was eventually successful and the war ended on the 31st May 1902.
James Scott also fought in South Africa. He was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal in the London Gazette on the 27th September 1901. We don't know what he did to earn the medal.
Robert was transferred to the Army Reserve and returned to Haslingden on the 30th October 1902. He was given 'an enthusiastic reception', which he admitted he was 'totally unprepared for'.
Civilian life must not have agreed with Robert, as he re-enlisted the next year. He was assigned to the Regimental Depot. He worked there as Schoolmaster, and later was promoted to Regimental Quartermaster Sergeant.
On the 1st April 1907 Robert married Alice Grimshaw in Haslingden. She came to live with him at the Depot. They had 2 daughters; Ellen on the 23rd September 1910 and Beatrice Alice (Betty) on the 1st March 1920. Both girls were born at the Depot.
The First World War broke out in August 1914. Robert left the Depot to join the 3rd Battalion of the Manchester Regiment. This was a training unit, and it was sent to the Humber coast soon after the war began. Robert spent the war with this unit.
On the 1st January 1918 Robert was awarded the Long Service and Good Conduct Medal to recognise 18 years in the Army. He was Orderly Room Sergeant at the time. The Orderly Room was the battalion office. On the 22nd February 1919 he was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal. This recognised his long and devoted service.
Once the war was over the 3rd Battalion moved to Blackdown, near Aldershot. On the 10th July the Battalion headquarters staff returned to the Depot and was disbanded. The staff was made up of just 8 men; Robert was one, and Alfred Ball, whose medals are also in the Museum of The Manchester Regiment collection, was another.
Robert stayed in the Army until the 1st February 1923, when he retired. This was a 'great loss'. He was a 'quiet, unassuming man, extremely conscientious and hardworking...everyone wishes he and his wife the best of good luck in civilian life'.
Robert and Alice moved to Ballinran, near Kilkeel, where 'some of the farmers are related to me'. He joined the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). Robert eventually became a Sergeant in the RUC and was based at their Depot in Newtownards.
On the 9th November 1929 Robert attended the VC Dinner in the House of Lords, along with eight other Manchester Regiment holders of the medal. Four of these men's medals are now in the Museum of the Manchester Regiment collection; James Pitts, William Forshaw, Robert and George Stringer.
When the Second World War broke out in 1939 Robert tried to rejoin the Manchester Regiment. He was rejected as too old. He was able to join the Royal Air Force on the 2nd December 1942. His service number was 2202887. He spent the war in the UK serving in a security capacity with RAF Ground Staff.
After the war Robert returned to Kilkeel. His daughters had 2 children each in 1950. They both lived near him, and Robert would take two of his grandchildren to school 'and meet them coming home'. He eventually had 7 grandchildren.
In June 1953 Robert and Betty attended the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in London, along with George Stringer. They spent the night of the 31st May at the Regimental Depot, and Robert remembered the occasion 'as one of the happiest of my life'. In June 1956 Robert and George attended the Victoria Cross centenary celebrations.
In 1954 he and James Pitts met for the first time in 28 years, and only the third time since they had left the Army 50 years before. This turned out to be their final meeting. James died on the 18th February 1955 aged 77. Robert was 'sorry to hear of the death of my pal Jimmy Pitts, he was one of the best'.
Robert attended the Manchester Regiment's final parade before its amalgamation, the Trooping of the Colour, on the 22nd April 1958. He was 'feted in the Sergeant's Mess as one of the Regiment's greatest heroes'.
Alice died on the 6th July 1960 aged 72. They had 'enjoyed complete matrimonial bliss'. Robert fell ill and died on the 21st February 1961. He was 87 years old. His funeral was held at Christ Church, Kilkeel. The 1st Battalion of the Cheshire Regiment, stationed in Northern Ireland at the time, provided the Bearer Party and Guard of Honour.
Robert donated his medals to the Museum of the Manchester Regiment in mid 1960.