1st July 1916 – Castle Bromwich and Marston Green

Two men from Castle Bromwich  and one from Marston Green died on the first day of the First Battle of the Somme

  • Private John Thomas Churchill, Royal Warwickshire Regiment
  • Lieutenant Robert Quilter Gilson, Suffolk Regiment
  • Private Harry Rudd, Royal Warwickshire Regiment

John Thomas Churchill was the fourth of the ten children born to Frederick Churchill and his wife Florence Ada (née Smith). Frederick was an agricultural labourer from Oxfordshire who, sometime between 1896 and 1899, moved with his wife and young family to a cottage on Hodge Hill Common, Castle Bromwich. By 1911, three of the couple’s ten children had died. At the time of the 1911 census, 17-year-old John was working as a factory hand at a cotton and wool factory. We don’t know when John enlisted in the Armed Forces, but it seems that he didn’t serve overseas before 1916 as his medal index card shows no entitlement to a 1914 or 1914/15 Star.

His name appeared in the Coventry Standard on 11th August 1916 in the list of those “wounded and missing”. His body was never found, and the Register of Soldiers’ Effects notes that “death presumed on or since 1st July 1916”. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing, as well as locally at Castle Bromwich.

Robert Quilter Gilson (known as Rob) was born in 1893 in Harrow-on-Hill where his father, Robert Cary Gilson (1863-1939) taught Classics at Harrow School. Rob had an older sister, Mary Dorothea (known as Molly), who was also born in Harrow. Rob’s middle name, Quilter, was the maiden name of his paternal grandmother.

The family moved to Canterbury House, Marston Green in 1900 when Cary Gilson became Headmaster at King Edward’s School, New Street, Birmingham, a post he held until his retirement in 1929.

Rob’s mother, Emily Annie (née Newton) died in 1907 and his father remarried two years later, going on to have three children – Hugh Cary Gilson (1910-2000), John Cary Gilson CBE (1911-1989), and Caroline Cary Gilson (1916-1976) – with his second wife, Marianne Caroline (née Dunstall), who was known as Donna by her step-children.

In due course, Rob became a pupil at King Edward’s where he met J.R.R. Tolkien and they became two of the four founder members of the T.C.B.S. (Tea Club and Barrovian Society), named after the café above the Barrow Stores. This was a department store on the corner of Bull Street and Corporation Street, Birmingham, where the friends would meet during vacations and lunchtimes to discuss language, literature, mythology, music, art and current affairs (they also met in the school library during term-time for clandestine picnics).

The “Big Four” met for the final time on 24th/25th September 1915 at Lichfield. All four were undergoing military training at the time. A promising artist and intending architect, Rob was gazetted to the Cambridgeshire Battalion (11th Suffolks) as Second Lieutenant on 28th November 1914, a few weeks after his 21st birthday. He was deployed to France on 8th January 1916, being promoted to full Lieutenant whilst in France. He was the first of the T.C.B.S. members to be killed, dying in a shell burst as he was leading his platoon into action after his commanding officers fell. Only one of the battalion’s 16 officers survived the day unhurt. Rob’s death was reported in local newspapers and he is buried at Bécourt Military Cemetery. His is commemorated locally at Bickenhill and Marston Green.

Mr R. Cary Gilson, head master of King Edward’s School, Birmingham, has received information of the death in action of his eldest son, Lieut. R. Q. Gilson, of the Suffolks. Lieut. Gilson was twenty-two years of age, and after a distinguished career at King Edward’s, Birmingham, he passed to Trinity College, Cambridge. He was an undergraduate in his third year when war broke out, having taken first-class honours in classical tripos in the previous year. He was gazetted in the early days the war, and was recently promoted to full lieutenancy in France. Lieut. Gilson was a very good rifle shot, was one of the shooting eight of the School O.T.C., and was was later a member of the Cambridge University O.T.C. He was a skilled draughtsman, and did excellent work both in England and France in connection with trench construction. He was passionately devoted to architecture and intended reading for that profession. (Birmingham Daily Post, Monday 10th July 1916)

A detailed blog by Trinity College Library includes extracts from letters to his family and to [Rachel] Estelle King, daughter of Wilson King, ex-American Consul at Birmingham, who was a friend of Cary Gilson’s. Rob Gilson was attempting to win Estelle’s hand in marriage, having proposed unsucessfully in April 1915. After Rob’s death, she went on to marry Captain (later Major) Alan Stewart Giles in 1924. He became a Councillor for Yardley ward in 1930 and was elected to serve as Lord Mayor of Birmingham 1945/6.

Two Old Edwardians produced a documentary about Robert Quilter Gilson:

ROBERT GILSON: Memoirs of an Infantry Officer from Elliander Pictures on Vimeo.


Henry George Rudd, who seems to have been known as Harry, was born in Hollywood, Worcestershire on 5th July 1895. He was the second child, and eldest son, of Henry and Fanny Rudd (née Greenall), who had married at King’s Norton in 1893.

By 1901, Henry and Fanny were living in Highters Heath Lane, Hollywood with their four children – Gertrude Mary (born 1894), Henry George, James Christopher (1896-1965) , and John Frederick (born 1898) – aged between two and seven. They went on to have four more children – Thomas Ernest (born 1902), Daisy Eva (born 1904), Gladys Amelia (born 1909) and William Joshua (1912-1984) – and were still living in Highters Heath Lane in 1911. Fifteen-year-old Harry was recorded as a farm labourer.

We don’t know when Harry joined the Royal Warwickshire Regiment but Soldiers Died in the Great War notes that he was living in Castle Bromwich when he enlisted. He didn’t serve overseas before 1916 so must have been at the Front for at most a few months before he was killed in action on the Somme. He has no known grave and is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial. His name also appears on the war memorial at Castle Bromwich, and on the Roll of Honour in St Mary & St Margaret’s Church, Castle Bromwich.

If you have any more information about any of these men or their families, please let us know.

Heritage & Local Studies Librarian

email: heritage@solihull.gov.uk
tel.: 0121 704 6977

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