What links: a newspaper cutting of a 1946 wedding; a slightly mythical great grandfather; and a chance encounter with a Berwick historian? The answer is Thomas Grey, ‘Border Poet’, born in 1863.
Thomas is about to be returned to the limelight with the publication of a collection of his poems put together by his great granddaughter, Susan Brown. “Thomas Grey: Berwick’s War Poet” will be launched, as part of the Berwick 900 World War I Story, at Berwick Library on April 25.
Susan said: “Thomas has been talked about in my father’s family for many years. A press clip from my parents’ wedding in Bristol referred to my father as the grandson of ‘The Border Poet’. When I retired seven years ago I began to piece together more about Thomas.” Susan, who lives in York, visited Berwick Library five years ago to progress her investigations into her family tree. “Phil Rowett [a local teacher and historian] heard me chatting to my sister about where to start. Phil asked if we knew when Thomas had died. It turned out that there was a detailed obituary in the Berwick Journal on August 16, 1928.”
The obituary gave Susan lots of information about her literary ancestor. He was born in Norham and lived in Tweedmouth and Berwick. He had worked on the railways as a greaser, a fireman, and finally as an engine driver before illness forced him to give up work. “He was diabetic so the fact that he was bedridden and crippled from about 1908 may be linked to that illness. But he didn’t give up. The obituary says ‘he settled down to cultivate his mind which was still left unimpaired’.” Susan is proud that Thomas was an altruistic gentleman who worked extensively through organisations such as the Co-operative Society, Tweedmouth Ratepayers’ Association and the Baptist Church to improve the welfare of fellow Berwickers.
Susan said: “He was also a prolific writer. He published a volume of poems in 1906 and was made a Fellow of the International Institute of British Poetry in 1914. In 1916 he was invited to publish 200 of his ‘effusions’ in Braille for the Royal Normal College for the Blind.”
Over several years, Phil Rowett emailed Susan details of Thomas’s poems which had been published fortnightly in the Advertiser. Many were about the Great War. “Although Thomas did not serve,” says Susan, “three of his sons did. Remarkably they all survived. Arthur, my grandfather, had a lucky escape when he was buried alive by a shell explosion. Many of the poems tell the stories of events like the sinking of RMS Lusitania on May 7, 1915.”
The growing database of poems was the impetus to reconnect Thomas to the town he loved: this time as ‘Berwick’s War Poet’. “I knew that my great grandfather had wanted to publish another volume of poems and, with Berwick 900 happening, this seemed like the moment to fulfil his wish with a collection of his poems written during the Great War.”
In just three and half months Susan and family finished the book and commissioned Martins the Printers – who, serendipitously, had printed Thomas’ 1906 volume. Thomas Grey seems to have lived his life in accordance with the sentiments which imbued many of his poems.
“Do all the good both when and where we can
And make the earth a better place for man”