I first came across George Henry Bonner several years ago as a result of an enquiry at the Library – someone had requested a copy of the inquest into his death on 2nd March 1929. George had served in WWI but was discharged with shell shock in 1919 and had suffered for the next 10 years till he ended his own life by hanging himself from his bedroom window. A shocking and distressing story and I tried to find out more about him and his background. I didn’t get very far beyond discovering from standard genealogical sources that he was born on 26 May 1895, the son of Rev Henry Bonner – Minister of Hamstead Road Baptist Church – and his wife Margaret Elizabeth. He had married an Eleanor Ford in 1921 and they had one son Augustine (known as Austin) born in 1925. His inquest described him as a journalist but I could find no clue as to which newspaper or journal he had written for – or any of his writings.
There was one intriguing lead in the inquest though – one of the witnesses, described as a friend of Bonner’s, was Alvin Langdon Coburn. Coburn (1882-1966) was an American born photographer active in England in the early 20th Century and noted for both symbolist photography and portraiture. His “Men of Mark”(1913) and “More Men of Mark” (1922) featured portraits of the leading American & European literary and artistic figures of the time including Rodin, Henri Matisse, Henry James, Thomas Hardy, WB Yeats and George Bernard Shaw had described him as “the greatest photographer in the world”. But I couldn’t find any connection between him and the Handsworth born journalist Bonner despite an inkling that it may have had something to do with Coburns interests in mysticism and freemasonry.
My interest in George Bonner was rekindled when the inquest was featured in the recent Voices of War Exhibition and I used it as an example in my recent talk at Who Do You Think You Are? Live at the NEC last month as a tribute to those sometimes forgotten victims of WWI who died as a result of their experiences many years after the conflict ended. This time I made a breakthrough – thanks to a tangential line of enquiry by a Tolkien scholar, John Garth. His research into the war experiences of JRR Tolkien had uncovered a link between Bonner (who turns out to have been a near contemporary of Tolkien at both King Edward’s School, Birmingham and Magdalen College, Oxford) Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen via the Craiglockhart Hospital in Scotland. The fascinating story of how Garth happened to make connections with George Bonner’s son and in so doing uncovered “lost” editions of The Hydra, Craiglockhart’s in-house magazine can be seen here.
Following Garth’s intervention Austin Bonner donated his father’s papers to the Archives of Magdalen College in 2013.
So I could finally learn more about George Bonner’s life rather than simply seeing him as a victim of war. His father the Rev Henry Bonner (Illustrated article in Faces & Places Vol II No. 12 April 1890 BCOL 08.2) died when George was just 4 years old, and he and his brother, Austin, were brought up by their mother.
The King Edward School Chronicle (L48.111) for 1912-14 regularly features his name and he comes across as a well-rounded and well-liked young man. In 1911 he was described as “A droll speaker who can call forth tears or laughter at will. He is always cool and collected, but his arguments sometimes lack weight”. He seconded the proposition that “Imagination is a curse to its possessor”, advocated State Insurance and Old Age Pensions for cats!, spoke in support of the Suffragette Hunger Strikers and proposed the establishment of a legal minimum wage. In Oct 1912 he gave a paper to the Literary Society on “The Supernatural in Fiction” where he “urged that a belief in the possibility of …supernatural occurrences was not absurd nor incompatible with a common sense view of life”. But it was not just intellectual pursuits for which he was noted as the following entry in October 1914 shows:
Having gone up to Magdalen College, Oxford in 1914 he left almost immediately to join the South Staffs Regiment. In June 1915 he was transferred to the Royal Field Artillery, where he served as a 2nd Lieutenant in 2 Auto-Anti-Aircraft Battery. In November 1916 he was invalided home probably due to neurasthenia or ‘shell-shock’ and a year later was admitted to Craiglockhart Hospital in Scotland, a military hospital specialising in the treatment of psychological casualties. He arrived on 30 November 1917 just after Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen had both been discharged, but the first issues of The Hydra, Craiglockhart’s in-house magazine, under his editorship contained poems submitted by both Sassoon and Owen.
He appears to have recovered sufficiently to return to Magdalen in Trinity Term 1919 and received his BA in Classics on 17 December 1920. I assume he found some happiness in his marriage the following year and the birth of his son in 1925 but his mother’s evidence during the inquest stated that he had suffered regularly from pains in his head and lack of sleep since the War and that his wife has told her on several occasions that during bad attacks at night he tried to get through the bedroom window and she had to haul him back.
Following his death his wife never remarried. His son, Austin, who like George was left fatherless at the age of 4 lived a long life and died in February this year in Oxford. George Bonner’s writing was apparently not dissimilar to his contemporary Tolkien and his fiction and verse display similar interests in the supernatural, Celtic history and myth, and the British countryside. Most of his verse and fiction appears to have remained unpublished but can now be seen in the Magdalen College Archives – and I hope to arrange a visit soon to see his legacy and will hopefully through future research eventually find the connection with Alvin Langdon Coburn.