Rupert Bryers - An Homage
Rupert Bryers – killed in action 15 September 1916
Homage at his grave in Les Boeufs Cemetery, 20 April 2013
on a visit by HW Society members
Copied from a very small photograph in HW's old
album and captioned by him: 'Rupert Bryers, 1912'(and added later, incorrectly, ‘killed 1915’)
We know that Rupert attended Colfe’s School from 1906-1912 and was a close friend of young Henry – or Harry, as he was called at that time. Aged 16 when he left school in the summer of 1912, Rupert was a wee bit younger than Henry but in the same school year. Although he had already left school, Rupert is mentioned in HW’s 1913 ‘A Boy’s Nature Diary’ (published in The Lone Swallows, revised illustrated edition, 1933). It is evident from this that he had often been out with HW on birding expeditions. On Saturday, 22 February 1913 HW had written:
I felt very happy today, and thrilled with joy at the thought of all the happiness in store for me. . . . [A few lines further on he is looking at his egg collection and, in a passage rather reminiscent of ‘Alas poor Yorick’, goes on:] . . . I may in the future take up this wagtail’s egg. As I gaze on it with misty eyes, I am transported to a past incident. How well I remember getting it, sitting under the hay-shed of the Farm, eating our homely sandwiches. How Bryers watched the “dishwasher” [that’s a common country name for the wagtail – HW actually wrote ‘dishwatcher’ and then corrected it!] while the more impulsive and restless Williamson was swinging on the rustic swing put up for the farmhands’ daughters.
Rupert appears in the novels – Dandelion Days and A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight – unusually under his own name, evidence of the affection and esteem that HW had for him. In March 1913 HW, having a premonition that he would shortly die, made a Will, written out in the back of his 1913 Letts’ School Boy’s Diary:
Will & Testament
When I die, I, Henry William Williamson, request that my birds eggs be sent, with my diaries, to be sent to Rupert B. Bryers, of 32 Mount Road, Sunderland.
Signed Henry William Williamson
March 26th 1913.
Witness to above [signature of] L. V. Hewitt.
But it was Rupert who was so shortly to die prematurely. Next to Rupert’s name and address also at the back of the diary HW has added:
Those glorious days
To appear no more !!!!
Oh, what heart sorrows.
There is also a small and very faded photograph pasted into an old album [which heads this page], and I have a copy of that with me today which you can look at later. And when HW went down to live in Devon in March 1921, almost the first note he made, on 21 March, the first day of spring, in his ‘Richard Jefferies Journal’ is:
A strawmottled owl (short-eared) flapped in silence. “Ah” I thought, “I will come here later on and find his nest. Oh ecstasy, I have never found a marsh owl’s nest before. What will “Bony” at school and Rupert Bryers say. And then I remembered that I was twentyfive; and that dear tall old “Bony” was also grown up and that Rupert Bryers, the gentle eyed, fell in the second battle of Ypres somewhere up in the Death Salient . . .
What a very poignant entry that is.
Until recently I was puzzled by the fact that, apart from the mention in HW’s ‘Will’, there is in the Literary Archive a letter from Rupert to Henry, dated 16 April 1913, from an address in Sunderland. Why Sunderland? It seemed an insolvable puzzle. But in the autumn of 2011 this mystery was solved. Someone contacted us via the Society’s website mentioning Rupert. This was Tim Bryers – Rupert’s nephew (son of Rupert’s younger brother), and on further contact he has filled in some gaps. The easiest thing to do is to read you Tim’s letter to me.
Many thanks for your letter which I was very glad to receive. I look forward to getting a print of the photo and a copy of the letter. Incidentally I have just read ‘The Beautiful Years’ and was astonished by the unique quality of HW’s writing, especially his descriptions of nature, originally written only just after WWI.
Rupert was the eldest of five. His parents were Thomas Bryers, a solicitor in Sunderland who died in an accident at Aysgarth Falls when he was only 35, and Augusta, née Hancock, a vicar’s daughter who wrote childrens’ books, poems and songs. My aunt Brenda, Rupert’s younger sister, received Royalties [for them] until the 1980s.
The 1911 census shows Rupert living with his Aunt Annie, née Bryers, in Lewisham. Annie, formerly a school mistress, was married to Edwin Dodd, member of the Leathersellers Guild in the City. He must have lived with them for some years as Colfe’s is, of course, a day school. His mother and the rest of the family lived in Sunderland. [So Rupert’s father had died and he was sent down to London to be educated.] . . .
Rupert left school in 1912 when he was sixteen and I think, having passed his railway exam (he was good with timetables) worked for the LNER. He is described as a clerk on his attestation form when he joined the army in 1915.
My aunt told me he already knew morse code and could speak French so it is possible that he may have spent some time in France between 1912 and 1914. He must have been a competent soldier as he had been promoted to lance corporal before he was killed on the Somme on 15th September 1916 in an attack by the Rifle Brigade on Fleur [sic – he means Flers]. This was the battle in which Anthony Eden the future Prime Minister took part and when tanks were used for the first time in any number. As you know, Rupert’s grave is at Lesboeufs.
Aunt Brenda, who I knew very well and stayed with a number of occasions when I was a boy, lived until 1998. Bridget and I are the daughter and son of Geoffrey Bryers, Rupert’s younger brother. I expect you knew some of this,
With best wishes
So that explains the mystery of ‘why Sunderland?’ and fills in the background.
You will probably recollect that there is just one letter from Rupert to Henry in the archive (printed in HWSJ 44, pp. 11-12). It would appear that Rupert typed it while on evening duty when he was, as we now know, a clerk in the LNER. He had learned typing and shorthand at school, as had HW, in the Commercial Class – or ‘Special Slackers’ as the class was called in the novels.
Notes on the letter:
HW recorded in his 1913 diary, entry for Friday, 14 March: ‘Heard that Yandall died last night at 6.30. My prayer for his recovery was then no use. . . .’ And on 17 March: ‘Gave Pool 11d. from boys for Yandall’s wreath.’
C.G.S. is Colfe’s Grammar School.
F.L. is Frank Lucas, their headmaster at Colfe's.
R.A.F.A. is R. A. FitzAucher – or R. A. Rappoport as he was before he changed his name: one of their masters at Colfe’s – see HWSJ 44, 2008, Anne Williamson, ‘Teeth of the Lion’, pp. 5-35, particularly pp. 26 and 29-33, and p. 56.]
One further word: when Dandelion Days was published in 1922, HW received a letter from their old school master, Mr FitzAucher (‘Old Rattlethrough’), in which he states:
. . . I am glad, in one or two places [in the novel] that Rupert Bryers speaks nicely of Rattlethrough, for I remember Bryers with much affection. I have never forgotten the little visit he paid me at the School before he went out to France, where so very shortly after he was killed. He was in the uniform of a Lance Corporal of the Rifle Brigade, & I have never forgotten the impression his sweet & beautiful & gentle & bright personality made on me on that occasion.
Rupert Bryers as a young boy; Lance-Corporal Bryers, The Rifle Brigade
(Photographs courtesy of Tim Bryers, Rupert's nephew – these are only two photographs of him that the family possessed)
He is buried in Guards Cemetery, Lesboeufs
(The homage has been slightly revised for this web page.)