This guest post is by Dr John Cleaver, Life Fellow and editor of ‘Fitzwilliam: The First 150 Years of a Cambridge College’.

Wilfrid Bertram Hirst

Wilfrid Bertram Hirst

 

On this day, 22 April 2015, we commemorate the centenary of the death of Wilfrid Bertram Hirst, the first member of Fitzwilliam Hall to be killed in the Great War.

Hirst was a typical member of Fitzwilliam Hall in the period immediately before the Great War. He came up to Fitzwilliam from Rotherham Grammar School, where he had been School Captain, in 1911 – his father was Mayor of the town. His aspiration also was typical: he strongly desired to seek Ordination; and after leaving school he became an assistant master at the Lincoln Choir School.

At that time, Fitzwilliam was not a college but provided an economical route into Cambridge for non-collegiate students: Fitzwilliam Hall was situated in Trumpington Street opposite the Fitzwilliam Museum. The Censor, its principal officer, had from 1907 been William Fiddian Reddaway – he transformed Fitzwilliam, drawing the non-collegiate students into a corporate structure, albeit one that placed very heavy emphasis on the clubs and their activities, and he fought unrelentingly on its behalf.

A letter to Reddaway in August 1911 demonstrated Hirst’s determination and character:

I feel very strongly that I should not be doing myself justice if I do not read for Honours; of course I do not lay any sudden claim to brilliancy, but in my own mind I feel that perseverance and determination to fit myself as well as possible for the work in the Church will pull me through.’

Hirst was heavily and successfully involved in athletics – putting the weight, throwing the hammer, hurdling and high jump – and in team sports: he captained both the Football Club and the Hockey Club. The photograph shows the cricket team in the summer of 1913, with Hirst at top left; all but one would see active service, and three were to die.

The cricket team

The cricket team 1913

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The academic side was not totally neglected, although for him it was perhaps for duty rather than for delight; Reddaway wrote later that: ‘above all things a man of action, he won two Firsts in the History Special, surprising those who had not penetrated the depth of his resolve to do his duty, however unattractive. His occasional excursions into coaching or secretarial work were always admirably carried through. The renunciation of a postgraduate year at Cambridge formed another fine triumph of self-discipline. He was preparing for Ordination at Lincoln when war was declared.’

At the onset of war Hirst spent six weeks in the ranks of the local Territorials, which he found a ‘most invaluable experience, if a little rough’ and was highly regarded. One Captain indicated that ‘his steadiness of principle was one of the things that struck me most, for so light-hearted an exterior’. After the frustration of waiting for a commission, he joined the Lincolnshire Regiment as Second Lieutenant. Hirst was delighted when he learned that he was to be posted to the Western Front, finding it ‘supremely gratifying; of all the most horrible things I can think of, a trip to Egypt, or India, with one’s Regiment at such a time would be the worst. Fitzwilliam Hall for the firing line, just as it ought to be.’

His Battalion remained in England until the very beginning of March 1915 when it was shipped to Flanders, and for the last week in March it was billeted at Ploegsteert, training and providing working parties for the Royal Engineers. This was the culmination he sought, and he wrote on 31 March to his mother: ‘A man who probably called himself a sniper had a few pot-shots at us, but was very wide … .’

In early April, he was billeted in the Flemish village of Dranouter, and then on 9 April went into the front line for the first time; for three nights all was quiet, but they were shelled on 13 April. After three nights back at Dranouter, they moved up again on 18 April. Thus began Hirst’s final period in the front line, as the entry for 21 April in the War Diary of the 1st/4th Lincolnshires tells: ‘In the trenches. Lt W.B. HIRST killed. Quiet day and night’. Wilfrid Hirst was brought into a casualty-clearing station unconscious from a bullet in the head, and died two hours later.

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Hirst had survived only twelve days performing duties in, or near, the front line. He was buried in Dranouter; his grave is the second in the single row of graves parallel to the nave of the church, almost overwhelmed by the polished granite of the civilian memorials.

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For Fitzwilliam, the story of Wilfrid Hirst did not end with his death in Flanders – it continues to the present day. Fitzwilliam students are supported by a fund established in his memory and that of Eric Noel Player, his contemporary and close friend, who was killed in 1916 on the Somme.

About £400 was collected in their memories, and a house in Fitzwilliam Street was purchased to generate rental income for a Bursary; it yielded £28 p.a. The house was sold in 1959, prior to the move of Fitzwilliam to new buildings on Huntingdon Road. The current value of the Hirst Player Fund is around £125,000 and its income provides bursaries and studentships for men or women, preferably Ordinands, reading for a Degree or a Diploma in Theology.

At any time, one or two graduate students are in receipt of Hirst Player Studentships. So the spirit of the original scheme to commemorate Hirst and Player lives on, and contributes to the support of their successors a century later.

John Cleaver

About John Cleaver

John Cleaver MA PhD is a Life Fellow of Fitzwilliam College. He joined the College 45 years ago as a Research Fellow in Electrical Engineering, and spent most of his professional life in research in the physics of microelectronics and in establishing methods for microstructure and nanostructure generation. Since retirement from the Cavendish Laboratory he has undertaken numerous College functions and currently is Archivist; he edited 'Fitzwilliam: the first 150 years of a Cambridge College' (2013).

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