Family History Story contributed by Cynthia Mills (close family friend)
Robert James Stark was born in Feltham, Middlesex, on 22 September, 1893, to Charles John Stark, a wheelwright and carpenter, and Elizabeth Ann Stark (nee Beacon). Both parents were from Devon, ‘Charlie’ from Broadclyst, and ‘Eliza’ from Sidmouth.
Robert was named for his two grandfathers, Robert Stark, a woodsman for the Killerton estate in Broadclyst where Charlie had grown up and been educated with the family heirs, and James Beacon, a blacksmith.
Shortly thereafter the family moved to Godstone, Surrey, where Robert was christened at St. Nicholas Church in December 1893. He had one sibling, Sydney Charles Stark, born November 26, 1894. Sydney served in the Army Service Corps (ASC) and survived the Great War.
Robert attended the Caterham Valley Board School because his father felt the village school would not give his sons the best educational opportunities. Sydney recalled making the long walk from Caterham to Godstone after school every day in all sorts of weather.
After leaving school Robert worked as a shop assistant for the W.C. Brooks Company of Caterham, Oxted and Godstone. An article in the Surrey Mirror from November 24, 1916 has an article about Robert, “Godstone Lad Missing.” The article says:
News has been received by Mr. and Mrs. Stark of Salisbury Road that their son, Pte Robert Stark of the Queens, is reported “missing” in the last “push.” Pte Stark was well known in the district, having been an assistant to Mr WC Brooks, draper, at Godstone, Caterham and Oxted, and it is hoped that some brighter news will soon be forthcoming to his anxious parents.
He was also a member of the Caterham St. John Ambulance Brigade. The only surviving picture the family has of him shows him dressed in his full St. John’s uniform.
By all accounts Robbie was a gentle, upstanding young man who possessed some artistic abilities, a talent he used frequently in his work with the WC Brooks Company. His brother Sydney jokingly told his only child David that his brother was “better looking than me, smarter than me, and got all the girls.”
In 1914, Robert became engaged to Margery Pitt. The couple were deeply in love and the villagers said they were “going strong.” Robert was known to everyone as “Robbie,” and had a fine baritone voice and sang in the choir at St. Nicholas Church. He also enjoyed dancing the latest dances and was known as the “village heartthrob.”
In 1915, after much deliberation, Robert enlisted in London under the Derby scheme on November 15, 1915. Charlie Stark was opposed to his sons joining up, believing there would never be conscription, so when Robbie came home and told him the news, the row they had was so loud the entire Salisbury Road heard it!
Robbie was called up on January 20, 1916. He was sent to France on his mother’s birthday, August 24, 1916, and was killed six days after his 23rd birthday on September 28, 1916 at the Battle for the Schwaben Redoubt on the Somme. Sadly, Charlie and Robbie had a row when Robbie joined up. Robbie went all the way to London to enlist so his father would not somehow know what he was up to and try to stop him. Robbie had received several white feathers and could no longer stay out of it, as he told his brother. The comment Charlie made to Robbie when he threw his enlistment papers at him was: “Well, my boy, you have just signed your death warrant.” Sydney said he regretted those words for the rest of his life.
Although his family never knew what happened to him, his father tried desperately to find out for years until he was tragically killed in a workplace accident in 1926. One story, although unsubstantiated, came about twenty years after the War ended, when Sydney was at the pub, and began a conversation with two other men. As is often the case, they had all served in the War and began talking about it. It transpired that the two men had been in the Queen’s (Royal West Surrey) Regiment with Robbie, and remembered him. They told Sydney that the attack on the Schwaben Redoubt was hell, and they had to retreat. According to them, Robbie survived the attack while many wounded were lying in No Man’s Land, asking for help. An officer asked for volunteers to bring in the wounded, and Robbie, as a St. John Ambulance man before the War, volunteered. As one man put it, “He brought in a few, and then went out, got hit by a shell, and disappeared.”
When Eliza Stark began packing up Robbie’s things after he went missing (they did not have confirmation that he was KIA until 1921), she asked Margery if she wanted anything to remember him by. Margery chose Robbie’s St. John Ambulance white gloves, which can be seen in the photograph. Her reason? Because when she put her hands inside the gloves, she could hold his hands forever. Robert’s mother died in 1950 at the age of 90. She kept a shrine to her son in her room, surrounded by his pictures and memories of him. One of Elizabeth Stark’s nieces remembered being invited into Auntie Lizzie’s special room, and recalled seeing pictures of a “lovely young man with a beautiful smile.”
Robert’s brother Sydney later married Margery, who declared that she would never love anyone except Robert for the rest of her life, and kept her engagement buckle ring from Robert on her hand as her wedding ring. She died in 1968, asking for “my darling Robbie” on her deathbed. Sydney died in March 1993 at his son’s home in Vancouver, BC, at the age of ninety-nine years.
Robbie is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial and is one of the 600 faces shown on the Panel of the Missing at the Thiepval Visitor Centre.
Always Beloved and Never Forgotten