The Honourable Ernest Victor Gibson was co-founder of The Public Schools Special Corps, encamped in the Paddock of Epsom Racecourse, September/October 1914
Researched and written by Brian Bouchard
Early personal history
Ernest Victor Gibson was born in Dublin on 3 January 1875, the 4th son of the 1st Baron Ashbourne (created 1885), subsequently Irish Lord Chancellor. Educated at Wellington College, Trinity College, Dublin, and Trinity College, Cambridge, he was called to the Irish Bar in 1899, Barrister at Law, of King’s Inn, Dublin. He attested for the Imperial Yeomanry at Newbridge on 6 January 1900, subsequently serving as a Corporal in the 45th (Irish Hunt) Company 13th Battalion Imperial Yeomanry in South Africa. Having been taken prisoner at Lindley on 31 May 1900, Corporal the Honourable Victor Gibson was gazetted Temporary Lieutenant with effect from 30 August 1900. The Carisbrook Castle left for England, 26 September 1900, having Lieutenant Hon. Victor Gibson on board for his passage home.
Although commissioned a Lieutenant in the Imperial Yeomanry on 3 January 1902, he resigned from the Army on 5 December 1902. Medals were awarded to 9699 Cpl. Hon. V. Gibson, 45th Coy. Imp. Yeo., Queen’s South Africa 1899-1902, with 4 clasps, Cape Colony, Orange Free State, Transvaal, South Africa 1902.
A wedding to Mary Wood Salisbury, 28 April 1905, took place in Nice but his wife died 21 September 1905, at Geneva, after a short illness. He married, secondly, Caroline de Billier, daughter of Frederic de Billier, on 8 December 1909.
The Great War and the Public Schools Special Corps
At the outbreak of World War 1, Lieutenant John Franklyn Leacroft of the Saskatchewan Light Horse was on a visit to England from Canada. Having found it impossible to obtain a commission in any of the British forces, he encountered Victor Gibson (who usually went by his middle name) and the pair embarked upon a scheme of inviting 100 former university and public school men to join together in forming a company with a view to active military service. There was an overwhelming response resulting in almost 2,000 applications by 10 September 1914, and an unabated flow.
The War Office sanctioned use of the distinctive title ‘Special’ because the body was intended to function as an Officers’ Training Corps, furnishing candidates for the commissioned ranks as such requirements arose. In The Times, it was reported: – “Ninety-five per cent of the men have already undergone a certain amount of training in their school and college OTC., and a number of retired officers are in the ranks. They are all of the well-to-do class and are paying their own expenses. Their camp rations and tent accommodation costing 15s 6d a week have to be paid for a week in advance. The uniform is also coming out of their own pockets. At least 100 are providing their own horses to act as a cavalry squadron. The ranks include some 300 Oxford and Cambridge men, lawyers, doctors, partners in great business firms and clergymen who intend to be trained as army chaplains. The camp at Epsom consists of huge marquees capable of accommodating 1,000 men and the training will begin immediately. As vacancies occur for commissions suitable candidates will be accepted, and if any residue is left it will place itself unreservedly at the disposal of the War Office on the stipulation that all will want to go on active service in any capacity.
The Corps paraded for the first time in its history yesterday [10 September 1914] afternoon, the rendezvous being the Guards Parade Ground, Hyde Park. From 500 to 600 men fell in, and a very fine-looking lot they proved – young, active, and well set up. They paraded in mufti and wore cloth caps or Homburg hats, and most of them displayed their school or college colours. Considering that they were utter strangers to each other the parade worked with remarkable smoothness. The men fell-in in two ranks, and on the commanding officer [E V Gibson] sounding his whistle those who had previously held commissions stepped forward and were allotted to the commands of provisional companies and were roughly told off on the spot. It was evident that the ranks were accustomed to the rudiments of drill, for they formed fours and re-formed two deep with smartness and precision and when the word to move off was given they went away with a swing headed by the band of the Scots Guards. Those who were not on parade have joined the camp independently, while week-end camps have been arranged for those who cannot attend the whole time.”
Second in command, John Franklin Becher Sullivan Leacroft
John Franklin Becher Sullivan Leacroft was a son of Frederick Richard Becher Leacroft and Alice Maude, nee Franklin, born 18 September 1891, baptised 20 October 1891 at Aston, Warwickshire. He appears to have married Annie Vallance (Nance) Alcock in Canada but arrived in England on the Ascania during 1914 and a son was born to them in London during the autumn of that year. Leacroft was gazetted Temporary Lieutenant in the army with effect from 6 October 1914 and moved from the General List to Royal Artillery RFA in 1915. Appointed Temporary Captain in Royal Garrison Artillery, 22 December 1915, he rose to Brevet Major on 1 January 1919. He relinquished his commission on grounds of ill health, 6 June 1919, but retained his rank of Captain & Bt. Major. It appears that he may later have served as a Major in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment and spent some years in North America. During 1931 he arrived from Canada on the Duchess of Atholl to enter a further marriage with Gladys Alice Sennet registered in Holborn for the March Quarter of 1932. Described as having been living at South View, Clearbrook, Devon, he died in 29 January 1933 in North Friary Nursing Home, Plymouth. Probate was granted to his widow, Gladys Ethel Leacroft, 4 February 1933: Estate £25.
Adjutant of the Special Corps, Lieutenant Harold Bickley Drewe Hughes
Honorary Lieutenant Harold Bickley Drewe Hughes, on joining Public Schools Special Corps, had been appointed adjutant and ‘ran the camp’. He too was gazetted Lieutenant in October 1914 and joined the 3rd Battalion (Reserve) Royal Warwickshire Regiment, to be promoted Captain on 2 February 1915. His photograph with details of his tragically short life appeared in The Bond of Sacrifice, Vol. 2, following his death in action attached to 2nd Battalion Highland Light Infantry on 16 May 1915.
Special Corps training on Epsom Downs
A further account of ‘Life at Epsom’, from a Special Correspondent, appeared in The Times, 23 September 1914: –
“The historic racecourse and its appurtenances on the Downs are now devoted to the purposes of war. On these rolling uplands trainers and stable-boys have given place to men in khaki who are ardently hoping to be fit in time to join in the march to Berlin. The paddock is crammed full of these public school men. Over the grandstand floats the Red Cross. It has been turned into a convalescent home for wounded soldiers when they are discharged from the London Hospitals…
There are two distinct bodies training at Epsom. Those encamped in the paddock are the Special Public Schools Corps. They number between five and six hundred and are under the command of Colonel the Hon. Victor Gibson. They have received the good wishes but not as yet the official recognition of the War Office. As soon as the establishment is raised to 1,100 the War Office will take over the Corps as a unit for service at home or abroad. At present the Corps is being used as a source for the supply of officers for the Regular Army. As many as 50 men have already received commissions in regiments of the new armies.
The grassy paddock, which on so many Derby days has seen prancing assemblies of splendid horses, is now transformed into a serviceable and also very comfortable camp. Around the well-known clump of trees in the centre of the paddock – with seats beneath the shade for ladies on racing days – are wooden huts and tents of all shapes and sizes. There is also a huge marquee which serves as a mess-room and place of entertainment. The tidiness of the camp must strike every visitor. So meticulous is it that not even a cigarette end is missed by the cleaners. That is worthy of record as an illustration of the thoroughness with which all the work of the camp is done. The men turn out in the morning at 5 o’clock. There are physical exercises until breakfast at 7. Company drill on the Downs follows until noon when dinner is served. Then more evolutions and instruction in tactics and strategy until tea-time. The whole spirit of the place is simple and sincere. Everything shows how keen is the desire of the Corps to equip themselves for the country’s service. You will see the men of the guard while waiting their turn to do ‘sentry-go’ – armed with rifle and bayonet – zealously conning little red-back manuals of instruction. Nor is recreation neglected. When the humming movement and bustle of the camp is stilled after dark the mess-tent is full of song and music for a few hours before the men turn in. All that is to the point. For does not the proverb say that a good laugh and a sound sleep are the two best things in the doctor’s book?
Frank Foster had been educated at Solihull [Grammar] School and presumably gained military training there as a member of the Officers’ Training Corps. He would have left the Special Corps by the end of 1914, apparently to return to the Birmingham area. In August 1915 he became involved in a motorcycle accident and suffered a compound fracture to one of his legs. His marriage took place on 13 October 1915, registered at Aston for the December Quarter 1915, and a first son was born twelve months later. On 10 April 1918 he wrote a letter complaining that his foot was still in a bad condition but nevertheless managed to enlist as an officer with the Royal Air Force on 30 May 1918 with a Service Number 177628. His second son arrived at Gowanlea, Lode Lane, Solihull, on 21 November 1918. It has not been established when he returned to civilian life but a tragic decline was detailed in The Independent of 23 November 2011.
By 11 October 1914, the co-founder of the Corps, John F Leacroft, had himself been appointed a Temporary Lieutenant, in the Regular Army. On 13 October 1914, the Public Schools Special Corps left Paddock Camp on Epsom Downs for winter quarters in Crawley. 150 men from the unit had already been commissioned and a further 12 candidates requested by the War Office.
Richard Lintott acted as a Sergeant in the Public Schools Special Corps at Epsom, between September and October 1914. Previously he had been rejected by the Royal Sussex on medical grounds and the East Surrey Regiment because of his poor eyesight and, disgruntled that he had been left with the ‘scum’ remaining in the Special Corps, he transferred as a Private to 2/5th Bn. London Rifle Brigade. During November 1914, he volunteered to join 1/5th Bn. which was under orders to proceed to France: commissioned 2nd Lieutenant in April 1915, he was injured by ‘friendly fire’ when a howitzer shell fell short and died from his wounds on 3 May.
The Royal Naval Division (Public Schools Battalion)
Around November/December 1914 a notice appeared in Newspapers: –
‘THE ROYAL NAVAL DIVISION (PUBLIC SCHOOL BATTALION).
The Admiralty have given official permission for 1,000 University and Public School men to serve together as a Battalion for the above branch of the Service.
This Corps will be strictly limited to University and Public School men.
Those wishing to join must comply with the following conditions, subject to their passing the necessary medical examination :
1.To serve during the period of the War.
2.Must be between the ages of 18 and 35.
3.Mean chest measurement must be 34 inches.
4.Minimum height to be 5 feet 3 inches.
There are no expenses incurred by recruits, free kits and food being provided by the Admiralty. Recruiting hours from 10 a.m. to 5.30 p.m. Men are paid at the Service rate of 1s. 3d. per diem.
6, 7 & 8 OLD BOND STREET, LONDON, W.’
Some of the remaining ‘cadets’ from the Public Schools Special Corps appear to have volunteered to move over to the Royal Naval Division to become seamen at HMS Crystal Palace. Initially the members of this Battalion were given Service Numbers with the prefix ‘PSB/’, which was replaced with a fresh number prefixed ‘Z/’, or ‘LZ/’ for London, on entry into a regular RND Company during 1915.
Douglas Jerrold’s history The Royal Naval Division refers to the re-formation of the Hawke, Benbow and Collingwood battalions following their action at Antwerp which took place between December 1914 and January 1915: –
‘The Hawke Battalion was fortunate enough to be allowed to absorb, as one of its companies, the Public Schools Battalion, raised originally by Commander the Hon. Victor Gibson for service in the Army, and later re-enlisted in the RNVR for service in the Naval Division. The senior officers of the Battalion could not, of course be absorbed in the Hawke Battalion, and were transferred to service elsewhere; the men transferred were under the command of Lieut. [Eric Gordon] Wolfe-Barry, RNVR., who thus became the O.C. “D” Coy. in the new Hawke Battalion.’
Members of the Public Schools Battalion are known to have entered Hawke Battalion, RND, during March/April 1915. They remained in England when the RND sailed for the Dardanelles, finally rejoining the RND at Cape Helles on the 30 May 1915. The Hawke Battalion saw action at Gallipoli, from 30 May 1915 to January 1916.
Ernest Victor Gibson’s commission as a Temporary Commander in the RNVR had been gazetted with effect from 17/4/1915 but he appears to have remained stationed in London, with his home address The Aldermoor, Holmbury St Mary, Surrey.
On 27 August 1915, a Bankruptcy Order was issued against ‘Gibson, The Honourable Ernest Victor (described in the Receiving Order as The Honourable Victor Gibson)’ of 49, Old Bond-street, London. At the public examination, the debtor disclosed that since 1908 he had been interested in three limited companies – one to exploit the invention of a steam engine to be worked in tropical countries using the heat of the sun, the second to sell a new engine to be employed in that fashion and the third to market a patent food – shareholdings which had become valueless. Holding the rank of honorary Lieutenant in the Army for his services in South Africa, he had acted as the honorary commandant of a training camp at Epsom from August to November 1914. Although gazetted a commander in the Royal Naval Division, RNVR, during March 1915 he had already resigned from that position. His liabilities amounted to £1238, including £892 owed to Harrods Ltd. in respect of goods supplied to the training camp for which he had signed as commandant. The War Office declined to honour that deficiency on the grounds that the camp had been a voluntary venture.
A sad demise
On Thursday 12 January 1922, Victor Gibson visited his family home, The Knoll, Peaslake, to find that his wife was out of the house. He left to spend Friday night at The Black Horse Hotel, Horsham.
Subsequently newspapers reported an inquest into the circumstances of his death: –
“The mystery about a dead man who was found Saturday in a chair at the Crown Hotel in Horsham, Sussex, was cleared up .. when he was identified as the Hon. Ernest Victor Gibson, fourth son of the first Baron Ashbourne …. Gibson was twice married. His first wife was Mary Wood Salisbury, daughter of Joseph L. R. Wood of New York, who married him in I905 and died the same year. His second wife, who survives with a two-year-old son and a four year-old daughter, was Caroline. daughter of Frederic De Billler of New York. Much speculation had been aroused as to the dead man’s identity. He declared at the hotel that he was an Irish rebel, known under six names in Ireland, and had lived with his father at the Vice-regal Lodge in Dublin. His signature on the hotel visitors’ book was undecipherable. The only money found on him was threepence. In the fireplace was some smashed glass, while some liquid had been spilled on the floor. At the inquest the doctor who made the post-mortem examination said he found the man poorly nourished and thin… There was no appearance of corrosive poisoning. Cause of death was syncope, following pneumonia. The Coroner returned a verdict of death from natural causes.”
After that determination became known, there was criticism of the failure to order a toxicology report in the absence of a jury.
Death, aged 47, registered Horsham District 3/1922.