He died for his country, but was forsaken by his family
Robert Warburton Shaw spent his final years in Warneford Hospital after being gassed in the First World War, apparently separated from his wife and estranged from his family. Despite dying for his country, he might have lain forgotten in an unmarked grave, but for the curiosity of one family member.
When Richard Atkinson of High Wycombe began researching his genealogy, he recalled how his father told him that when he was courting his mother there was an uncle called Robert Warburton Shaw who was never mentioned.
Intrigued, he traced Mr Shaw’s grave to Leamington Cemetery, but when he went to pay his respects, found only a grassy plot.
Records suggest a tragic tale. Mr Shaw was born in Yorkshire in 1883 to Irish Protestant parents. His father, Robert Shaw, a doctor and staunch Methodist, had come to England and founded a surgery for the poor in Leeds.
His son went to Leeds Modern School, but seemed to grow apart from his family. At the age of 18 he was living in Heysham, Lancashire, and in 1911 he married Ellen Barry, an Irish Catholic girl who had worked in Ma Egerton’s bar in the notorious Lime Street area of Liverpool.
By 1915 he had moved to Leamington, where he was working for Waring and Gillow, a furniture manufacturer who outfitted the Titanic. He had three children, two born in Leamington, and joined the London Irish Rifles in 1916.
In November 1917 he fought in the disastrous Battle of Cambrai and was among hundreds gassed in Bourlon Wood. He was invalided home, but never regained fitness and died in the Warneford Hospital in May 1920, aged 36.
His medals were sent to his widow, but she had moved away and left no forwarding address. They were returned to the Ministry of Defence and he was buried in a grave marked only with a wooden cross, now rotted away.
Despite fighting and ultimately dying for his country, Mr Shaw’s family had turned their back on him.
Mr Atkinson said: “I have a sense that he was a very unhappy man towards the end. It’s desperately sad that somebody could become so alienated from the rest of his family that it should end that way.”
Mr Atkinson ensured this was not the end. He contacted the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which has adopted the grave.
A new headstone has been cut in France and Mr Atkinson hopes to organise a ceremony with a piper from the London Irish Rifles Association, which will also add Robert Warburton Shaw’s name to its memorial.
Mr Atkinson added: “If it’s not too trite, we’re bringing him back into the family.”
Mr Atkinson is hoping to find out if Mr Shaw has children and grandchildren. Anybody who may have information should contact the Courier on 457720.