The moving story of John Gilbert

Having gone through all our 1914 editions — and the 1912 ones before that — to compile the composite Chronicle 1914 (still on sale, a snip at £1.25), one story leaped out and stayed with us.

It concerns a shooting tragedy at Somerford Booths, when one John Gilbert, who worked for local landed gentleman Mr Swetenham, was found shot dead in the saddle room. He’d injured a puppy that day and was so distraught he shot him-self in the head. John, who was just 19, was a groom at the hall.

At the subsequent inquest Arthur Gilbert, a chauffeur, of Osboston, Market Bosworth, Leicestershire, who was John’s father, said John had come to Somerford Booths as assistant groom the previous December. He said his son was not of a nervous disposition, and he knew of nothing to trouble him.

The coroner referred to a letter that said the lad was most tender-hearted, and his father agreed, saying he was a most affectionate boy, especially to animals.

William Dutton, a farm labourer, said John had been to Dairy Farm with a black retriever puppy. They went up in the loft but the puppy, which John had put on the floor, fell down the ladder. John told Dutton that the puppy was dead, but it was not. He said John appeared to be very frightened when he took the dog away, and said: “Don’t say anything.”
John was seen about the hall by various people including Annie Street, kitchen maid, who said he was quite cheerful until about 2.45pm, when he went to the scullery for the dog’s dinner. When he came back, he looked like he’d been crying but denied anything was wrong.

John was very fond of the retriever puppy, she said.

The body was discovered by Thomas Hanbury, chauffeur to Mr Swetenham, after he re-turned from a shooting trip and found the saddle room locked. After getting in and striking a match, he saw John lying across the hearth rug with the stock of the rifle on his throat and the barrel near his left arm. He had a wound on his forehead, and blood on his face.
On the table, the witness found the deceased’s false teeth (John was only 19, remember) and a letter reading: “Sorry I have hurt the puppy. My life is full of misery. Hope you will make things right.”
James Bailey, gamekeeper, said he had examined the puppy and said its ribs were broken.

Summing up, the coroner said John was alone and had no-one to talk to, but if he had told someone at the hall, the dog would have been taken to the vet and healed.

Why this story was so striking, when 1914 was filled with tragic deaths, from industrial accidents to early deaths in the Great War? We’ve no idea.

It’s possibly just because it’s so sad: a teenager far from home, upset by the dog’s injury. We wonder if he was also frightened of his masters and worried he’d get into trouble? It’s also possible that “most tenderhearted” and other references were euphemisms for “a bit simple” but we don’t know.

Either way, it was a pitifully small event to kill oneself for.

So moved were we by the story that we wrote to Mr Gil-bert’s home town newspaper (he came from Market Bos-worth) to see if any living relatives could shed any light.

It turned out that Jean Gilbert had written to us at some time in the past for details of the death. She had started her family tree in 1997, when her father was already dead. He had never talked of his step-brother John Arthur, known as Jack.
She said young Jack was the second of five children and his mother died of a brain tumour when the youngest was only 15 months old. The eldest daughter, who was only nine, brought the children up. Jack’s two younger brothers went into the army and the youngest joined up as a boy sailor.

One of Jack’s descendants remembered her mother getting a postcard of Hulme Walfield churchyard, with the note “Jack is buried here” — the inquest of 1914 reported that the funeral took place at Hulme Walfield Church one Saturday afternoon, “attended by many of deceased’s friends from Somerford Booths”.

We probably won’t find out much more about poor John, though it would be interesting to find his grave at Hulme Walfield.
Janet tried and failed — if anyone out there tends to the graveyard and has spotted a John / Jack (JA) Gilbert who died in 1914, please let us know.

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