Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Cecil Roberts (1892 - 1976) - British Poet, Writer and Journalist

I discovered Cecil Roberts while researching Nadja Malacrida (nee Green) who was one of the Female Poets of the First World War featured in the exhibition of Female Poets at The Wilfred Owen Story museum in Birkenhead.   I noticed a ‘Cecil Roberts’ included in a volume of Welsh Poets so I had to find out whether it was the same man and so I read some of his books and discovered what a great writer he was and what an interesting life he led.

Born Cecil Edric Mornington Roberts on 18th May 1892 in Nottingham, Cecil’s parents were John Godber Roberts (1858 – 1908) and his wife Elizabeth Mary, nee Woolfitt, (1855 – 1926).   Cecil had an older brother, William, who was born in 1881.

Cecil was educated at Mundella Grammar School, Nottingham, where he demonstrated an aptitude for poetry and literature.  Leaving school at the age of fifteen, he worked first as an office boy in a solicitor’s firm, then as a clerk for Nottingham Corporation and, for a short time as a school teacher.  Cecil’s father died in 1908 and, as his elder brother was married, it fell to Cecil to support their mother, so he put his dream of becoming a writer on hold. Every spare moment he had was spent writing poetry and prose. 

When war was declared in August 1914, there was initially no general call up and recruiting was on a voluntary basis. Cecil and his friends joined the local University Officer Training Corps (OTC), training three nights a week.   He decided to join up but was rejected on medical grounds.   At around that time, as his writing career began to take off, Cecil joined the “Nottingham Journal” as a ‘gentleman pupil’ - an unpaid post, following in the footsteps of J.M. Barrie.

From there, Cecil went to work for the “Liverpool Post” newspaper – first as Literary Editor, then as a war correspondent. This was soon after the loss of the "Lusitania".   Enchanted by the great Mersey River with its liners, ferry boats and tugs, Cecil took lodgings in Seacombe on the Wirral Peninsula.   He worked from 6 pm till midnight, so he walked along the Promenade to Egremont Pier and took the ferry to Pier Head in the shadow of the Liver Building.  He was lonely, missed his mother and his friends in Nottingham and was still mourning the loss of his father. The sound of the foghorn on the Mersey in wintry nights inspired Cecil to write a poem.

And oft the siren's wail is heard,
Borne inland, like a cry of pain
Of a lost soul, to darkness lured,
That has no hope of light again.

"The Years of Promise" p. 90

Cecil was sent to report on the Royal Navy and the newly-formed Royal Flying Corps. Head-hunted as assistant to a top Civil Servant, Cecil moved down to London in March 1917 where he worked during the daytime at the Ministry of Munitions and in the evenings as theatre critic for the “Liverpool Post”.

In 1917, Cecil became an official War Correspondent – by then they had a uniform similar to that worn by officers in the British Army and special brass badges for their caps and shoulder tags with an initial “C”.   Cecil was sent to the Western Front where he joined some of the top war correspondents of the day who accompanied the British Army as they advanced, sending reports back about the last days of the war.

During the Second World War, Cecil worked for Lord Halifax, British Ambassador to the United States of America.    He died in Rome on 20th December 1976.

"Prayer for a Pilot"

Lord of Sea and Earth and Air,
Listen to a Pilot's prayer -
Send him wind that's steady and strong.
Grant that his engine sings the song
Of flawless tone, by which he knows
It shall not fail him where he goes;
Landing, gliding, in curve, half-roll -
Grant him, O Lord, a full control,
That he may learn in heights of Heaven
The rapture altitude has given,
That he shall know the joy they feel
Who ride Thy realms on Birds of Steel.

From "The Years of Promise" p. 279

Painting "Handley Page Bomber" by French Aviator artist Henri Farré (1871 - 1934)

Cecil Robert’s poems appeared in ten WW1 poetry anthologies and his WW1 collections were:
‘War Poems’ (1916)
‘Twenty-six poems’ (Grant Richards, 1917)
‘Charing Cross and other poems of the period’ (Grant Richards, 1919)

Sources: ‘The Growing Boy’ by Cecil Roberts, Hodder & Stoughton, London 1967
‘English Poetry of the First World War A Bibliography’ by Catherine W. Reilly, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1978
‘The Years of Promise’ by Cecil Roberts, Hodder & Stoughton, London 1968.