Robert Colin Christison: rugby captain, reader and “the beau-ideal of a soldier”

Photo of Bertie Christison from the Hillhead High School War Memorial Book

Robert Colin Christison was known as ‘Bertie’. An engineer, from a family of engineers, he was an athlete and interested in books and reading. He was described as “universally popular”.

Bertie, was born in 1891 in Frégus, Var, France.

But later that year the family, headed by his father George and his mother Isabel, were living at 3 Carlyle Terrace in Maryhill. George’s job was a Mechanical Engineer and Oilworks Manager, so perhaps his profession was what had taken the family to France?

Parents and family

Bertie’s father, George, was born in Bathgate around 1860 and was the eldest son of a colliery manager; he had seven younger siblings.

Isabel (or Isabella)’s maiden name was Munro, she was born around 1863 in Aberfeldy in Pethshire where her father was a doctor. She was one of six siblings, according to the 1871 census.

By the time of the 1881 census she was as living as a lodger with a family in Portobello, Edinburgh, where she worked as a teacher of English. Her elder sister May (Margaret) was also was also a teacher and lodged at the same address. Teaching became a family profession; another of her sisters, Christina, was a pupil teacher in 1891 (when she was visiting the Christison family on census day) and was still a teacher in 1911 when, again, she was visiting the family and recorded in the census.

There does not seem to be a 1901 census entry for the family – perhaps George’s work had taken the family abroad again?

Bertie’s life in Glasgow

Bertie was a pupil at Hillhead High School. His obituary in the HillHead High School Memorial Book describes him as an athlete who took part in rugby, swimming and tennis, but who also was very involved in the Literary Society.

“At school he took a leading part in athletics, winning many medals and other trophies in the various departments of sport. He was captain of the Rugby team and a sergeant in the Junior Officers Training Corps. He was deeply attached to his old school, and devoted much of his leisure to forwarding its interests. He was for a time secretary, and afterwards president, of the Literary Club, which flourished greatly under his genial rule. But his interests were many-sided, and the Rugby, swimming and tennis sections were all much strengthened by his support.”

Robert Christison’s proposal form for the Arlington Baths (Glasgow City Archives TD965/18)

It seems likely that he was a member of the Arlington Baths as a boy, especially as he was noted for his interested in swimming, but we know for sure that his adult membership started in 1912 when he was 21 years old. His number was 203 and his address was the family home at 2 Kelvinside Gardens.

The 1911 census listed the family at that address as:

  • George, 51, Manager of Cyanide Works, Bathgate
  • Isabel, 48, wife
  • Robert, 20, student
  • Donald, 18, school pupil
  • Margot, 11, school pupil
  • George , 8, school pupil
  • Ellinor, 6, school pupil

The visitors on that day were Charlotte Grant, 60, dressmaker, and Isabel’s sister Christina Munro, 41, teacher. And the family had one live-in servant.

So, by this point Bertie was an engineering student at Glasgow University. The University Story explains:

“Following school Robert studied at both the University of Glasgow and the Royal Technical College. In 1912 he graduated as Bachelor of Science in Engineering from the university. He enrolled as an evening student of the Glasgow and West of Scotland Technical College (subsequently known as the Royal Technical College, now the University of Strathclyde) just before graduating, in the session 1911-12, where he took a course in Motor Car Engineering and qualified for a first-class certificate of merit. The student register gives his occupation as ‘Engineer’… Christison returned to the College in session 1913-14 to take one evening class in Steam Turbines, for which he similarly gained a first-class certificate of merit, and another evening class in Wiring and Fittings.”

At Glasgow at this time were another two of his classmates from Hillhead High School – Captain George Melven Harley and Hamilton Dickson, who also died in the War.

His brother Donald also went to Glasgow University. In fact, the 1913 electoral roll for 2 Kelvinside Gardens lists three engineers there: George Christison, owner of the property, Robert, and his brother Donald Munro Christison.

In 1913 Donald joined the Baths as adult member. The younger children were also swimmers. George Christison, age 10, is listed in the Supernumerary and Lady Members membership book 3 for 1914 and Ellinor Agnes is listed in 1915 when she would have been about 11 years old.

We also have evidence that Bertie continued his literary interests after leaving school. On 8 February 1913 he and fellow member A Murray Whyte (who had also supported his adult application to join the Baths) put a request into the suggestion book to ask for the English Review to be provided in the Reading Room.

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According to Wikipedia “The English Review was English-language literary magazine published in London from 1908 to 1937” which published works by Thomas Hardy, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, HG Wells and later on Hermann Hesse, Aldous Huxley, Katherine Mansfield, Bertrand Russell, George Bernard Shaw, Ivan Turgenev, and William Butler Yeats. By 1911, under editor Austin Harrison, it had a circulation of 18,000 and also reflected his political stance, warning readers about the threat posed by Germany.

Sadly the Club refused the request due to the expense.

“…a most capable and gallant officer…”

Bertie joined up not long after the war began and became a Lieutenant in the 10th Battalion of the Gordon Highlanders.

According to De Ruvigny’s Roll of Honour 1914-1919 he “obtained a commission on 30 September 1914…and…served with the Expeditionary Force in France and Flanders”.

He had been a sergeant in the Junior Officers Training Corps at school and he appears to have been an exemplary soldier. The Hillhead High School memorial book described him as:

“…the beau-ideal of a soldier. Tall, broad-shouldered, athletic, he was a striking figure in his waving tartan.”

The Battle of Loos aimed to drive the German army out France by the end of 1915. It began on 25 September and lasted until mid-October. The attackers suffered very high casualties in capturing the village of Loos, Hill 70 and the Hohenzollern Redoubt, but ultimately the offensive was unsuccessful.

Bertie was in the midst of some of the most desperate fighting on that first day and that is where he is presumed to have died.

“At Loos, on 25 September, 1915, owing to the illness of his captain, he led his company into battle, and was last seen on the slopes of Hill 70 wounded while gallantly rallying his men. His commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Wallace, wrote regarding him, “I thought of your son and his qualities of leading that I specially selected him for promotion. He was doing a captain’s duties, and commanded his company at the Battle of Loos and the taking of Hill 70. I have the highest possible opinion of your son as a man and as an officer, and the suspense about his fate is a great personal distress to me  and to everyone, for he was universally popular.”

Hillhead High School Memorial Book 

De Ruvigny’s Roll of Honour said that he was “reported wounded and missing after the Battle of Loos, near Cité St August, 25 September 1915 and is now assumed to be killed on or about that date.”

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The news that he was missing in action was published in the Glasgow Evening Times on 5 October 1915 (pg 7).

His body was never identified, so instead of a gravestone, his name is listed by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission on the Loos Memorial, along with over 20,000 other officers and men who have no known grave.

According to the National Records of Scotland, half of the 72 battalions in the assault on 25 September belonged to Scottish regiments. Indeed one of Robert’s school classmates, George Melven Harley, who was a captain in the Highland Light Infantry also died at Loos that day.

As with other members killed in action, his name was scored out of the Baths’ membership list.

Bertie Christison's number, name, status - Service, date of admittance and address as his brothers above), scored out and the word killed handwritten next to it
Bertie Christison’s death recorded in the 1918 membership list (Glasgow City Archives TD965:78)

Bertie, had nominated his mother in his will or deed dated 10 June 1915 and left an estate of £492. You can see the details in the 1917 Calendar of Confirmation and Inventories (Probate Index.

Poignantly, the preceeding entry in the register is for his father George, who died on 28 June 1917, two years after his son. Isabel was granted confirmation of her husband’s estate (worth £19,298) on 21 September and her son’s less than three months later, presumably due to the difficulties in confirming that he was indeed dead and not one of the missing.

Entries for George and Robert Christison in the 1917 Calendar of Confirmation and Inventories (Probate Index)

The family after the War

Perhaps the life of Bertie’s brother Donald gives some clues about what Robert might have gone on to achieve. Donald also saw action, serving with Princess Louise’s (Argyll and Sutherland) Royal Engineers. After the war, he returned to Glasgow, married Edith Malcolm Rae and they had at least two children.

Although he appeared in the Glasgow electoral registers until the early 1930s Donald’s work as an engineer took him abroad. Passenger lists show the family travelled to South Africa, returning to Southampton from Port Natal  in August 1937 aboard the Carnarvon Castle, when his son Colin, was eight years old, and daughter Alison, was six.  His address in the UK was given as c/o the Westminster Bank, Liverpool, suggesting that they may have been in Port Natal/ Durban for some time and had returned to take up a new post but as yet had no accommodation in place.

A couple of years later Donald was travelling again, though this time on his own. He sailed from Beria, Mozambique, to Southampton on board the Dunottar Castle in 1939, his occupation still described as an engineer. He died in Liverpool in 1953.

Their mother Isabel continued to live in Glasgow after the War. She is listed on the electoral roll in the early 1930s, living at 16 Clarence Drive with her son George and her daughter Ellinor. She died on 1 July 1933. After this Ellinor left Glasgow and moved to England. She is also listed as a fellow passenger with her brother Donald and his family on the Carnarvon Castle returning from South Africa in 1937.

In fact she went on to have a distinguished career in the Second World War: follow her story in our article about the life of Ellinor Agnes Christison. 

Researchers: Kay, Lindsay, Lucy, Colin


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