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.