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Robert Slee was born in 1881 in Skelwith, near Coniston and Hawkshead, then part of Lancashire. His father , also Robert, was a quarry labourer when he was born and at some point probably around 1888 the family moved to Patterdale, firstly to the Rookings and then to Blowick, where Robert senior worked as a Wagonner at Greenside mine. Robert’s mother Margaret gave birth to 10 children, including at least 5 in Patterdale. Six of the children were christened on the same day, 10th June 1888, including Robert – perhaps to herald their arrival in Patterdale. We assume Robert and his siblings attended Patterdale School. On Friday 13th February 1891 Robert senior was working as a banksman at Greenside with Thomas Pollock, a 44 year old wagon cager in the 40 Fathom Level off the Lucy Shaft at Greenside. At about 12:00 noon Robert was working the windlass and Thomas was pushing the left hand trap door back but, as he did so, he slipped and fell the twenty fathoms to the bottom of the shaft, dying instantly of a fractured skull and leaving a widow and three children.
By 1901 Robert’s father had died and he was head of the household with his widowed mother, and six of his siblings all living in Escomb, Durham. Robert was a general labourer and Fred and Harry, two of his brothers were Putters in one of the local Coalmines. We believe that during 1901, at some point after the census had been taken, Robert enlisted as a Trooper in the South African Constabulary and fought in a number of the Boer War battles. He was discharged from ''C' (Eastern) Division of the S.A.C. and returned to England on the 25th February 1903. In 1909, Robert received 2 further clasps to attach to the Queen's South African Medal that he had been awarded in the 2nd Boer War -
In 1904 Robert married Mary Elizabeth and by 1911 they had 2 children (another child had died) , and Robert was working as a coalminer. Robert and Mary had also adopted a son, John R Webster, who was 15 and worked as a Driver in the mine.
We know little of Robert’s war service except that he enlisted with the Northumberland Fusiliers, probably towards the end of 1915 or early in 1916 and joining the 25th Tyneside Irish Battalion. He must have must have been an exemplary soldier to have been promoted to Sergeant in such a short space of time. He died on the 26th April, 1917 somewhere near Arras and sadly his body was never recovered. Norman Jackson has done some excellent work on trying to piece together the movements of Robert’s Company in the war. Please click the link to see this on the Patterdale Today website. It was Norman who uncovered the photo of Robert shown here -
Robert is commemorated on the Arras Memorial, one of 35,000 servicemen who died in the Arras sector between the spring of 1916 and 7 August 1918 who have no known grave. He is commemorated on the Patterdale War memorial and the Glenridding Village Hall Roll of Honour (where he is incorrectly listed as a Private), alongside his younger brother John, who tragically died just 5 weeks after Robert, and another brother Harry, who served in the Royal Navy and survived the war. We are unsure what became of his wife Mary Elizabeth and the children, and indeed of Robert’s other siblings, Margaret, William, Ada and Arthur. If you know anything about them please let us know.
Gail Whitmore, a granddaughter of Robert's eldest son Joseph William Slee, contacted us in August 2014 to say that Joseph moved down to the Midlands with his wife Kathleen (Katie) and his daughter Violet (Gail's mother) sometime during the 1930's she believed. They lived in the mining village of New Arley in North Warwickshire where he continued to mine coal for a living until the pit closed down in the 1960's.
Gail asked her grandfather about Robert but he would never talk about him only to say that he was killed in the war (Joseph would only have been 12 years old when his father died). She is in possession of the bronze plaque that was given to Robert's widow Mary. His son Joseph later produced this fretwork frame in which to mount the plaque.
There are still relatives living in Chopwell.
Sergeant Robert Slee
20/476, 25th (Tyneside Irish) Bn., Northumberland Fusiliers
Born 1881 Skelwith. Died 26th April 1917 Aged 36 in Arras France.
Son of Robert and Margaret (nee Young) Slee, once of Blowick Patterdale
Husband of Mary Elizabeth and Father of Joseph and Robert, & adopted son John R Webster of Chopwell Co Durham
Robert and his family in the 1911 Census
Robert’s entry in Ireland’s Memorial Record (above) and below his entry in the Register of Soldiers Effects
A photo of the children at Patterdale School in 1889, which was likely to have included Robert, his elder sister Margaret, and possibly younger brother Fred. We have tried to identify as many of them as possible on our Patterdale School Then and Now page.
Robert’s “Death Plaque” -