The Robertsons of Aldbourne

Joyce and Tony’s Antigua wedding, January 1938

George and Gladys Nugent’s youngest daughter, Joyce, married Tony Robertson, an engineer at Gunthorpe’s sugar factory, in January 1938. The marriage at Antigua’s St John’s Cathedral was conducted by Rev Dean Shepherd, who thirty three years earlier had performed the same ceremony at the same church for Joyce’s maternal uncle, Colonel Osbern Foster of the Northumberland Fusiliers and her paternal aunt, Monnie Nugent. Frank Henzell, who lived opposite and ran Pan Am Airways’ Antigua office, was Tony’s best man.

Joyce and Tony’s first two children, Edward and Tim, were born on the island. When war broke out in Europe, Tony – who had previously been in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve – returned to Britain to serve the RNVR with the rank of Lieutenant Commander. He took some courses before taking command of a minesweeper group, a role that involved dropping off commandoes on covert missions. He came into close contact with senior officer Louis Mountbatten, later Admiral of the Fleet Earl Mountbatten of Burma, when their vessels apparently collided – fortunately without serious damage. Tony’s son, Tim, says the incident was hushed up because it was Mountbatten’s mistake to have gone thorough a minesweeper group. Later Tony was posted to the US – initially to Charleston, South Carolina – under the ‘lend-lease’ arrangement by which the US lent warships for the British war effort and in return was granted land to build bases on several Caribbean islands including Antigua (see Antigua at War). At this stage the US had not entered the war but was concerned to provide defence protection in the Caribbean with German submarines active in the Atlantic Ocean.

In her diary (extract right) Joyce tells how she travelled from Antigua to the US by seaplane with two small children and a sewing machine – all she had time to pack at half an hour’s notice – stopping at several islands before arriving in Florida, then by bus to South Carolina where they were reunited with Tony. When he was reassigned to Seattle, the family drove across the continent to the new post in a second-hand Studebaker. Their third child, Christopher, was born in Seattle.

Tim, Christopher and Edward in 1944
St Michael’s Church on Aldbourne’s village green.

When Tony’s job in America came to an end he was assigned as second in command to HMS Torbay, a minesweeper mother ship, for service in the Indian Ocean. Joyce had to make her way to Britain with their three small boys. They were assigned quarters on a US aircraft carrier, the only civilians on board. Wartime secrecy was such that Joyce wrote: ‘We were never allowed to know its name.’ The trans-Atlantic convoy received a magnificent send-off from New York with an escort of barrage balloons. Tim, aged about 4, recalls that he and his elder brother Edward were looked after by crew members ‘sliding us down aircraft wings and playing hide and seek’. They docked at Glasgow and stayed at first with Tony’s mother.

Joyce’s brother Kingsley Osbern George is commemorated in the village

After the war ended and Tony returned from naval duty, the family settled at Newmains near Glasgow. From there, the two eldest boys attended Glasgow Academy – which brings back unhappy memories for Tim of a long journey to and from school each day, and a tight disciplinary regime. Around 1953 the family moved to Aldbourne in Wiltshire, staying initially with Joyce’s mother Gladys at Lottage Farm. One day Joyce’s brother, Tim’s uncle (Osbern) George, who like brother Oliver had joined the air force as a navigator, flew over Lottage Farm and ‘We all waved from the garden’. The next day we got the news that his aircraft was shot down over Arnhem and he had been killed.

From left Tony Robertson, Nugent siblings Monica, Nick, Peggy, Oliver, Joyce, and Oliver’s wife Mary at 14 The Green.

Joyce’s aunt, Muriel Foster can hardly have contemplated how central the village would become in the story of several families when she first settled in Aldbourne. Besides her sister Gladys and niece Joyce, three more nephews and nieces, children of George and Gladys Nugent, came to live at Aldbourne with their families in due course: Monica and husband Frank Fowler stayed there on their return from Uganda, before moving to west Wiltshire; Peggy and Peter Delmé-Radcliffe bought Pond House (pictured below) after returning from Malaysia; and Nick and Margaret Nugent stayed at Lottage Farm on their return from Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and Nigeria before settling in Southampton. Tony’s sister, Sheena Taylor, and her family also settled in Aldbourne as did Audrey Foster, the wife of Muriel and Gladys’s nephew Kingsley, with their daughter Patricia during his wartime deployment. Members of the Nugent/Foster clan lived in seven different village homes at one time or another. Aunt Muriel, pictured below, though disabled in later years was a well-known figure in the village, and family members remember how she used to treat all village children to rides at the annual Aldbourne Fair.

Pond House
14 The Green

The Robertsons settled into life in Aldbourne moving to their own home at 14 The Green. Colin, who was born in Scotland, was around four when they moved in. He remembers that at first the only downstairs tap was in what became the dining room. Gradually the small home expanded to accommodate the growing family – eventually to number six children with the arrival of Stephen and Lindsay. The younger family members attended the village school. Christopher, who was born deaf, boarded at a special needs school at Reading.

The family home was immediately in front of St Michael’s Church whose hourly strikes served as an alarm clock. Robertsons were involved in most church and village events including the Aldbourne Victorian Festival in 1980 – much baking and running the book stall. Johnny Morris, presenter of the popular television programme Animal Magic, lived for a time at Pond House, and Stephen recalls that Dr Who episodes about the Daemons with Jon Pertwee were filmed in Aldbourne in 1971. ‘I remember painting the maypole used in the final episode and my mother featured for about 2 seconds looking out of the window onto the village green with happy villagers dancing round the maypole’.

The Robertson Family outside their home

Lindsay, aged 9, watched the filming during lunch break at school and remembers the maypole was later stored in the family garage. Tony and Joyce’s only daughter, she was born and grew up in Aldbourne, becoming the first female member of Aldbourne Band, a Queen’s Guide (see picture below) and a chorister and bell-ringer at the church. Weekend and holiday activities for the young Robertsons included outings to Savernake Forest and walking the Wiltshire Downs.

As well as running a busy household Joyce was an active member of the Mother’s Union and WI. She played piano and violin despite not being able to read music. Lindsay recalls: ‘She played by ear and used mostly the black notes because she said they were less used and so didn’t go out of tune as fast!’ She was also a prolific knitter, embroiderer and rug maker – invariably presenting a rug to a newly married family member. She was active in the Mother’s Union and WI, was stage manager for the WI drama group and did a spell as Brown Owl.

Joyce and Tony with daughter Lindsay

Ever the practical mother, Joyce presided over a small garden which contained, from Lindsay’s memory, apple, pear and plum trees, raspberries, loganberries, strawberries, blackcurrants, redcurrants, gooseberries, rhubarb, spinach, lettuce, cabbage, tree onions, purple-sprouting broccoli, an asparagus bed, a tin bath full of mint, carrots, courgettes, marrows and a greenhouse full of tomatoes. Christopher grew potatoes in a garden nearby that his Aunt Peggy and Uncle Peter [Delmé-Radcliffe] gave him. He also had a succession of poly-greenhouses where he experimented with hydroponics.

Tony, pictured left at the Aldbourne Festival in 1971, went to work near Swindon, applying his engineering skills with Vickers Armstrong, the company that had produced the Spitfire fighter at factories in Wiltshire during the war and in the 1950s made the Scimitar, a naval fighter jet. He was involved with developing parts for the Concorde supersonic airliner, including mobile gantries. When aircraft production ended he played a role in the development of freeze-dried foods at the South Marston site near Swindon later taken over by Honda for car production.

Robertson siblings in 1980…

Edward and Colin both followed in their father’s footsteps by joining the Royal Navy. Later Edward became a police officer, before moving to farm in South Africa. Colin went to work for Solartron developing electronic measuring devices for civilian and military applications, rising to be Managing Director before moving to the electronic instruments division of Racal. Tim joined the Royal Air Force as a fighter pilot on Hawker Hunters, later moving to Australia as an airline pilot with Qantas. After a stint with Singapore Airlines he flew for Cathay Pacific out of Hong Kong, retiring as a Boeing 747 Captain to run a boat-hiring business on the Norfolk Broads. Christopher worked for a time with his father’s firm, Vickers Armstrong. He was an active member of the Reading Deaf Club and used any break to travel the world including visiting brother Tim in Hong Kong.

…and in 1995

Stephen studied law at Leicester University before working in various housing associations, becoming deputy company secretary of the country’s largest, Clarion Housing Group. Lindsay, who as an adult chose to be known as Sandy, studied maths and computer science at Bath University and, after bringing up three children, worked as an accounting technician in Bath at the Royal Crescent Hotel and then Bath Christian Trust. She inherited from her mother a love of practical crafts and has produced many fine works of art, quilts and embroidery. All except Christopher married and had children providing Tony and Joyce with a total of 15 grandchildren the youngest of whom never knew their grandparents.

One such was Charlotte Hathaway (pictured) who found her way to the island where her grandparents met and married. She writes:

‘In 2016 I moved to the Caribbean, inspired partly by a desire to find out more about the Antiguan side of my family, settling on the French island of Martinique. As a budding sailor I decided it would be fitting to sail to Antigua. I’d read Joyce’s journal and had my own experience of Caribbean living. Antigua is very different from Martinique. After a few days recovery from my long solo sail, I negotiated public transport and made the journey into St John’s. The goal was to find the cathedral where my grandparents had married, the house at Scotts Hill and Gunthorpes factory where my grandfather had worked. Straight off the bus I was picked up by a local guy and he toured me round the town finishing up at the cathedral. I took a picture of the spot my grandparents gathered for their wedding photo back in the 1930s (above). After that we visited the museum, and I was delighted to read of sugar engineers recruited from a Glasgow college – an actual reference to my grandfather!’

‘The next day I made a pilgrimage to Gunthorpes, or where it used to be. It was deserted and stacked high with old car tyres. There were some heavily laden mango trees about and, since rain was threatening, I took some photos before heading to the road. On the way back into town the bus passed Harney’s Motors, the business of Mr Ewart Harney, owner of the house at Scotts Hill. He remembered I had sent him an email and was happy to invite me up to the house. I was amazed to see that it was a beautifully preserved old style colonial house, looking pretty much as I imagined it had 100 years ago. He was born in the house just like some of my uncles. The whole visit was surreal and fascinating to find these little clues connecting me to a part of the family I hadn’t known much about as I was growing up, but had been drawn to by similar experiences nonetheless. I’m on the road to becoming a professional sailor myself though not quite at navy level like Grandad Tony, and I play the violin and stage manage just like Grandmother Joyce!’

Graves and memorials to Foster, Nugent, Robertson and Delmé-Radcliffe family in Aldbourne and grave of KOG Nugent at the Reichswald Forest War Cemetery near Kleve, Germany. (Click to expand.)

For more about Gunthorpes refer to Betty’s Hope – an Antiguan sugar plantation on this site.

For more on Aldbourne follow https://aldbournearchive.wordpress.com/about/


Sources: Joyce’s diary of growing up in Antigua and the war years; memories of Tim, Colin and Stephen Robertson and Sandy Hathaway; photos from family archive; Gunthorpes pictures by Charlotte Hathaway.