Thursday 16 July 2009

The life and death of Lt George Archer-Shee

George Archer-Shee (6 May 1895-31 October 1914) was a cadet at the Royal Naval College, Osborne, in January 1908 and became a cause célèbre in 1910 when the issue of whether he stole a five shilling postal order went to the High Court of England.

The Archer-Shees were Roman Catholics and Catholics had been long excluded from a commission in the Navy.

This was much less the case in the Army since many Catholic aristocrats entered the Army. The Navy, on the other hand, was much more egalitarian, taking men like James Cook (later Captain), the son of a labourer, but, on the other hand, taking a much more exclusive stand against Catholics.

Even after emancipation, Catholics did not begin to become Naval officers for quite some time. Archer-Shee was thus in a particular minority as a Catholic.

Royal naval cadets between 14 and 16 were trained at the College, which is in the grounds of Queen Victoria's favourite home on the Isle of Wight, Osborne House.

On 7 October 1910, at the start of term, Terence Back, a fellow cadet, received a postal order from a relative for five shillings.

Archer-Shee, wishing to buy a model train costing 15/6d, received permission to go to the Post Office outside of the College grounds to buy a postal order and a stamp.

When he got back, theft of Beck's postal order had been reported. The clerk-in-charge of the Post Office, Miss Tucker, was sent for and claimed that only two cadets had visited the Post Office on the afternoon in question and that the same cadet who had bought a postal order for 15/6d had also cashed the 5s order.

Archer-Shee's father, Martin, was an official of the Bank of England. When he received the Admiralty's letter telling him that his son was being expelled, he retorted "Nothing will make me believe the boy guilty of this charge, which shall be sifted by independent experts".

Martin Archer-Shee engaged Sir Edward Carson KC, ironically the famous Protestant Unionist lawyer and parliamentarian. Carson was a towering figure in the law as in politics and was regarded as one of the leaders at the Bar.

Sir Edward Carson PC KC, later Baron Carson,
the great Irish lawyer and Protestant Unionist political leader
was, ironically, Counsel for George Archer-Shee, and bent all his skill to the task.

Carson, who had a strong sense of justice and right which transcended religious barriers, bent his skill and will to the case and resorted to an archaic legal device known as a Petition of Right in order to bring the case, which was a proceeding before the Crown, there being no right of action against the Crown otherwise allowed (Crown immunity).

The case was heard from 26 July 1910.

Carson's powerful opening has come down to posterity. He rose to say:

"A boy 13 years old has been labelled and ticketed for all his future life as a thief and a forger. Gentlemen, I protest against the injustice to a child, without communication with his parents, without his case ever being put, or an opportunity of its ever being put forward by those on his behalf. That little boy from the day that he was first charged, up to this moment, whether in the ordeal of being called in before his Commander and his Captain, or whether under the softer influences of the persuasion of his own loving parents, has never faltered in the statement that he is innocent".

Carson successfully showed that the elderly postmistress, Miss Tucker, could easily have been mistaken. She admitted that the cadets looked alike to her and she was unable to identify Archer-Shee in court.

On 29 July, the Solicitor-General, Sir Rufus Isaacs, later Lord Chancellor in the Liberal government and Marquess of Reading, accepted the statement that George Archer-Shee did not cash the postal order.

He made this statement:

"consequently... he is innocent of the charge. I say further, in order that there may be no misapprehension about it, that I make that statement without any reserve of any description, intending that it shall be a complete justification of the statement of the boy and the evidence he has given before the court."

After various struggles, the government and the Admiralty conceded that compensation should be paid and the family were paid £4,120 to cover their costs, and £3,000 compensation.

Archer-Shee returned to Stonyhurst College where he had been educated before going to Osborne.

He later worked as a banker in the USA but, when war broke out, he returned home to join the Army and was commissioned into 1st Battalion, the South Staffordshire Regiment and the Regiment was posted to France.

Lt George Archer-Shee was thereafter killed at the First Battle of Ypres in 1914.

His body was never found and so his name is inscribed on the Menin Gate of the city of Ypres with 50,000 other brave and heroic soldiers whose bodies were never found.

The Menin Gate at Ypres
whereon 50,000 names of the dead who were never found are inscribed - including that of Lt George Archer-Shee, late the 1st Battalion, the South Staffordshire Regiment.

His name is also inscribed on a memorial plaque in the village of North Woodchester in Gloucestershire where his parents lived.

George Archer-Shee's story was the inspiration for Terence Rattigan's famous play The Winslow Boy.

Many considered that George Archer-Shee was the victim of nothing more nor less than residual anti-Catholic prejudice in the Royal Navy - a prejudice which previous generations of loyal and patriotic English Catholics had been forced to endure, over and over again, generation after generation.

I am reminded of the very moving memorial in Arundel's Roman Catholic Cathedral to the Constable-Maxwell brothers of Gwendolen, 15th Duchess of Norfolk and 12th Baroness Herries of Terregles.

They were all Roman Catholics and were all killed in the First World War. The inscription reads simply:

"They, too, died for England..."

The Roman Catholic Church of the Annunciation in North Woodchester, Gloucester, wherein a plaque memorial to Lt George Archer-Shee can be found to this day.



gemoftheocean said...

Thank you for this beautiful and moving post. I'd read the Rattigan play in my teens and it's one of my favorites. Your post here was the most complete information I've found about the case on the web.

It's quite ironic that had he gone through Osborne and into the Navy, it would have been a lot less likely that he'd have been killed in WWI.

Glorfindel said...

Edward Carson was also the prosecutor in another famous trial - that of Oscar Wilde, who has recently been claimed by the modern Catholic Church.

In fact in the Blackadder Goes Forth episode 'Corporal Punishment' he's referred to as such under the guise of the famous barrister 'Bob Massingbird'.

In productions of The Winslow Boy the character based on him has been played by various famous actors, including Robert Donat, Ian Richardson and Jeremy Northam.

Ma Tucker said...

Whether or not it was anti-Catholicism that motivated the charge I'm not sure. However, it is noteworthy to contrast the disgrace of thievery in those days to the attitude of todays government ministers regarding the expenses scandal.

Tribunus said...

Thanks, Gem. That's very nice of you. I appreciate it.

Tribunus said...

Thanks, Glorfindel.

Oscar Wilde was claimed by the Church from his baptism and especially after he converted - certainly not merely 2 years ago as Richard "The Fibber" Owen of the The Times pretends.

Owen is famous for making howlers in his reportage of Vatican matters. He knows very little about the subject he reports on and is deeply prejudiced against the Catholic Church.

Poor old Richard.

Pray for him that he might, one day, actually take a real interest in the subject he is supposed to be reporting on.

eloise2003 said...

Great post.

How horrific does a battlefield have to be for 50,000 bodies to never be found? It boggles the mind and saddens the heart.

Tribunus said...

Quite right, Eloise. You have a true heart because you are saddened by it.

Anonymous said...

A short note to say that the Archer-Shee case dates from 1908, the theft taking place on Wednesday Oct. 7 of that year

Anonymous said...

The 50,000 defined as missing on the Menin Gate Memorial were the result of four years of intense fighting over a very confined area. Missing here is defined as bodies not being found at the end of the war, not that they had all just disappeared without anyone knowing what had happened to them. Yes, many had just vanished, but a very large number had been confirmed dead and buried, but their graves were subsequently lost. It is worth noting too that the Churches, including the Roman Catholic Church, were not happy about many of the decisions made by Fabian Ware and the Imperial War Graves Commission that he ruled over.

Archer-Shee, incidentally, was one of those who did vanish. He was last seen very badly wounded at 5pm on 31 October 1914. The German authorities confirmed in February 1915 that he was not a POW. He was described by a fellow officer as 'such a charming and interesting young fellow and had seen such a lot of the world for his years that he was a most pleasant companion at all times and made many friends'.

Tribunus said...

Thanks for that. A sad story...

Gwal said...

I suspect any vestige of anti-Catholic bigotry disappeared once the conflict was underway. Many boys too young for the army went straight from school to Osborne and Dartmouth only to perish at Jutland and Gallipoli.

akouw829 said...

So who took the money? Also, there were additional thefts after the boy was expelled. Was the true thief ever caught or did they ever confess?

Just curious,

Dennis Gannon
Portland Oregon, USA
April 27, 2021