Thomas Baker Brown – Story of a local Tommy – November 2018


Photograph of Thomas Baker Brown in uniform wearing an ‘Imperial Service Badge’. Baker Brown (Thomas) Archive,  TBB/1/3/1

This month, marks 100 years since the end of the 1st World War. Our Treasure of the Month is part of the archive of Thomas Baker Brown. Born locally in Tynemouth, he served in France during the 1st World War, was taken a prisoner of war in 1918 and served as a member of the Home Guard during the 2nd World War despite suffering sight damage attributed to his time in captivity.

A highlight of the archive from the period of the 1st World War is a series of over 300 letters written at regular intervals to his family. These cover the period from when he joined the army as an 18 year old, his training for, and participation in the Great War, his time as a Prisoner of War and his return home from Germany at the end of the war. Together they combine to tell a captivating first hand account of his journey from a civilian to an experienced member of the forces fighting in France and give a fascinating insight into daily life of those who fought for the country.

Thomas Baker Brown was born in Linskill Street, Tynemouth on the 22nd of December 1896 to parents Thomas Baker Brown and J.H. Brown, he had an older brother and would go on to have a younger sister. He remained with his family, living in and around Tynemouth, until he joined the army in late November 1915, a month before his 19th birthday.

After joining the army he spent 4 months training at a base near York at Scarcroft School. Whilst there he regularly wrote to family updating them on his progress through training and his life as a young soldier. At this stage his letters detail the training he has undertaken, life in the barracks and other local men who have signed up to fight.

Letter from Thomas Baker Brown to his mother from a training camp in York. He describes getting used to life the military life and applying for a transfer to the signallers. The letter is written from 9th Platton, ‘C’ Company, 2/6th Northumberland Fusiliers, Scarcroft Schools, York. Baker Brown (Thomas)Archive, TBB/1/1/1/1/42

This letter (above) is typical of those written whilst Baker Brown was at the training camp. In this letter he writes about getting used to military life and requesting a transfer the Signallers.

By July 1916 he’d joined the 2/6th Northumberland Fusiliers, 32nd Division as a signaller and travelled to France with them. Their number included his brother, George, who had signed up after his younger brother. He went on join the ranks taking took repeated turns on the front line, being awarded the Military Cross for his heroism and bravery in March 1917. Throughout this time he continued to keep in regular contact with his family back in Tynemouth whilst fighting and remaining uninjured. His letters home from the front discus his experiences on the front line, the weather in France, replies to the letters and parcels he was receiving from home, and the often sad fate those he knew from his home area who were wounded, or worse, in action.

Letter from Thomas Baker Brown to his father from France. He discusses friends who have died or been wounded, meeting his brother George and his plans to perhaps perform in a concert. The letter is signed Derek, a nickname used by Thomas Baker Brown. This letter is accompanied by an ‘honesty envelope’. Baker Brown (Thomas) Archive, TBB/1/1/1/1/216

In this letter from November 1917 (above), he talks about receiving a copy of the Shields Daily News from his parents and mentions other men from his local area who have died and been wounded recently.

He remained in France until late March 1918 when he was taken prisoner on the Arras Front at Bullecourt and transferred to Germany where he was held in Prisoner of War camps. He spent much of his time as a Prisoner of War in a camp at Limburg where he was required to work as a miner in a coal mine adjacent to the camp. Once he became a prisoner of war the frequency of his communications declined and were restricted to briefer postcards lacking the detail of his earlier letters.

As the war drew to a close and the armistice agreement was signed morale amongst the guards lessened to the extent that Baker Brown and 5 other detainees were able to walk out of camp on the morning of the 17th of November 1918 and attempt to travel home. He, and several other prisoners, made their way to a camp in the Netherlands where he was able to write to his parents letting them know the circumstances of his escape and his expectation of being home in time for Christmas.

Letter written on YMCA headed paper, from Thomas Baker Brown to his mother from a British Concentration Camp in Holland. He writes that he has crossed the frontier along with an Italian man, and they have ‘been dodging about Holland’ and now expect to be home for Christmas. Baker Brown (Thomas) Archive, TBB/1/1/1/1/305

Several years later he suffered damage to his eye sight which doctors attributed to his time as a prisoner of war. This would prevent him from re-joining the army and participating abroad in World War Two. However, he was able to join the Home Guard and play his part in the defence of the country. A number of items including diaries, correspondence and other documents covering his time as a member of the 4th Battalion Northumberland (Hexham) Home Guard form a significant part of the archive.

Images of the letters featured in this post, along with a selection of others written by Baker Brown to family during World War One, are available here on Collections Captured. A full online catalogue of the Thomas Baker Brown Archive is available here, along with the catalogue here of the archive Sir Lawrence Pattinson, another local man whose military career included the First World War.

Pybus during the First World War


Operating Theatre, Fine Art Dept., 1st floor., 1st Northern General Hospital, Armstrong College, 1915 – 16 (Pybus in the centre with a mask on)

Pybus was informed of his mobilisation in 1909, he became a Captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps, Territorial Force. Initially he had very little to do in his role as Captain, he spent time in York Military Hospital and camped at the Royal Station Hotel, during this stay he described visiting the hospital to understand the organisation and also lots of form filling.

In 1913 Pybus was persuaded by a colleague to become a Registrar at the RVI which meant he had to be coached in military law, organisation and equipment, he passed this and became a field officer; meaning his authority changed to training the unit based at the RVI. For Pybus, this mainly meant leading marches. This all changed in 1914 and on the 4th of August he received the mobilisation papers to take authority of Armstrong College and establish the First Northern General Hospital. Pybus surveyed the college deciding which rooms would be turned in to wards, bathrooms and sanitary accommodation. He renamed the main building block A and two newer buildings B and C. Block C first floor was designated ordinary rank and lower floor for officers.


The notebook details patients name, ward, regiment, number, date of surgery, type of surgery, surgeon (Pybus), anaesthetic used, anaesthetist, result and remarks. 1364 operations are listed.

This was organised within 48 hours and set up with Infirmary staff so if any wounded soldiers arrived they could be provided for immediately. It was sometime after the initial set-up that the first wounded were brought to Newcastle, these consisted of Belgian soldiers and officers.


Section of the Operating Theatre C notebook

The Hospital gradually expanded from 520 beds to 2166 in 1917. Huts were built in the grounds of Armstrong College and extra wards built on the North side of main infirmary corridor. Further places were offered as convalescent or auxiliary hospitals these were mainly Country houses on estates such as Howick Hall owned by Earl and Countess Grey. The most northern of these homes was Haggerston Castle just south of Berwick-upon-Tweed and the most southern was Crathorne Hall in Yarm. These were all visited weekly by surgeons and physicians including Pybus, his work also meant that he was on boards which decided what to do with soldiers after injury.

Pybus eventually transferred from registrar to surgeon due to shortages, he was briefly posted in Alexandria, but on his returned continued as surgeon at Armstrong College where he performed at least 1346 operations.

The Pybus Papers

Pybus c. 1913

Pybus c. 1913

Professor Frederick Charles Pybus (1883 – 1975) was a surgeon and alumni of our College of Medicine, graduating  in 1905. He joined the 1st Northern General Hospital shortly after its formation and was serving as its Registrar in 1914. As a Major in the Royal Army Medical Corps, except for a brief posting at the 17th General Hospital in Egypt, he served as a surgeon at Armstrong College throughout the war. Up until 1919, he carried out at least 1,364 operations on wounded servicemen.



Professor Pybus went on to have a distinguished career as a surgeon in the Royal Victoria Infirmary from 1920 until his retirement in 1944, becoming Professor of Surgery in the College of Medicine in 1941. Amongst his claims to fame was inventing a drink to sustain patients before operations, which was later developed and sold by a local chemist to Beechams, becoming Lucozade.



His lifelong concerns included cancer research, developed during his 50 year surgical career from 1924 and pursued through his own cancer research laboratory. He was amongst the first to make the link to atmospheric pollution as a major contributing cause of cancer and his work directly informed the Clean Air Act 1956.

For some 40 years Professor Pybus also built up a collection of international importance on the history of medicine, including books, engravings, letters, portraits, busts and bleeding bowls. In 1965, he donated the collection to the Library, where it remains a valuable source of information for medical historians. Meanwhile, his papers, also held in Special Collections, offer a unique insight into a renaissance man of medicine.



Universities at War: Chronicling the Fallen of Newcastle and Durham Universities (1914 – 1918)

Your University Needs You!

Our new project to tell the lost stories of Newcastle and Durham University staff and students who fell during the First World War has been awarded a Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) grant. Newcastle University and Durham University Library’s Special Collections are seeking volunteers in the region and beyond to help research the lives of mainly alumni who were unable to fulfil their potential.

Wounded soldiers in front of the Quadrangle entrance to the Armstrong Building

Wounded soldiers in front of the Quadrangle entrance to the Armstrong Building

Like heritage organisations across the country, we are marking the centenary with a programme of commemorations relating to our collections and the university’s role in the conflict. We are holding a series of exhibitions from 2014 – 2018, the first of which A Higher Purpose explored how the university became a military hospital; the 1st Northern General.


Universities at War itself came from another project based around the 223 names on the Armstrong Memorial in the foyer of the Armstrong Building. Often overlooked as part of the furnishings, our Head of Archaeology Dr Jane Webster sought to remedy this in 2011 through original research by undergraduate Sophie Anderton as part of her dissertation Small Sorrows Speak: Great Ones Are Silent. This piece of work, based around the University Archives, shone a light on many of the personal stories and provided the basis for further research by Archaeology students and library staff.

The Newcastle Institute for Social Renewal recognised the importance of making this research available to the widest possible audience, awarding the project a grant to create the initial Armstrong Memorial Digital Memory Book. This also included teaching resources aimed at schools into how to research war memorials, devised by our Education Outreach Officer Gillian Johnston. The site was launched in 2014 and the project was nominated for a Times Higher Education Leadership and Management Award (THELMA) in the same year.

Digital Memory Book Launch Event

Digital Memory Book Launch Event, with Dr Jane Webster presenting the new interface

The Armstrong Digital Memory Book on a kiosk in front of the memorial, with Library Systems Developer Scott Bradley, Archivist Ian Johnson, and Archaeology student Ben Howson

The Armstrong Digital Memory Book on a kiosk in front of the memorial, with Library Systems Developer Scott Bradley, Archivist Ian Johnson, and Archaeology student Ben Howson

It now takes a prominent place on a kiosk in front of the memorial itself, providing context and personal depth to the names. This resource has also seen many descendants of the fallen and members of the public get in touch with more information, and it was this that sparked us and colleagues at Durham, already undertaking their own research on everyone that served, to team up and create a much more expansive picture.

However, the information we have, including the 53 fallen from our Medical College not yet represented, is incomplete. Further research into these important stories will be promoted through public events and an exhibition in 2017 showcasing the work of any volunteers who come forward. Both Universities will also work with local schools to help young people understand the local impact of the conflict and develop the skills to research their own memorials.

We are thrilled to have received the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund to engage the public in the important aim to make these fallen more than just names on a memorial. As many of these fallen were local and the commemorations have sparked everyone’s interest nationally, we know the experts are in our communities and we want them to get in touch to make this a success through credited contributions.

Ivor Crowther, Head of Heritage Lottery Fund North East, said:

“The impact of the First World War was far reaching, touching and shaping every corner of the UK and beyond. In this Centenary year we’re pleased to fund this project which will provide a truly personal link to the conflict and ensure the stories of Durham and Newcastle alumni are heard and remembered.”

Both universities invite anyone interested in learning more to an open event at Newcastle University’s Robinson Library at 6pm on 25th June. The work done so far is available to view both at the Armstrong Memorial Digital Memory Book and Anyone interested in joining the team are also welcome to get in touch through contact details available on these sites.

Durham University Officers' Training Corps, Stobs camp, 1914, Durham University Library Special Collections, Ref: MIA 1/307

Durham University Officers’ Training Corps, Stobs camp, 1914, Durham University Library Special Collections, Ref: MIA 1/307