One hundred years ago today, four young men convened in an English town, not having seen each other for some time. What makes this trivial event significant is that one of them was J R R Tolkien, and the four comprised his first ‘fellowship’, the TCBS – a group with a profound impact on his youth and on his legendarium. This reunion, on 25 and 26 September 1915, was the last time the four met before they were separated, permanently, by war.
The reason for today’s article is the discovery of a small archival treasure marking the event. The signatures of two TCBS members, Geoffrey Bache Smith and Robert Quilter Gilson, have been discovered in the guest book at the birthplace of Samuel Johnson, the author and lexicographer. (Tolkien, of course, looked rather further back for his inspirations, to the Middle Ages and beyond; though his Times obituarist did note that he had a ‘Johnsonian horror of going to bed’.)
Signatures of R Q Gilson and G B Smith in the guestbook at Samuel Johnson’s birthplace, Lichfield
Both Smith and Gilson were fascinated by the era – Smith by its literature, Gilson by its architecture. On a recent visit to Bath, as Gilson wrote,
we have immersed ourselves in an eighteenth century atmosphere — Bath does it of its own accord — and conducted most of our conversation in Johnsonian and Gibbonian periods. GB Smith composes excellent Gibbon. He is at present reading Amelia and revelling in it. I very quickly catch his enthusiasm for that extraordinary century. It really did know how to build private houses.
As well as their addresses – Marston Green near Birmingham for Gilson and Corpus Christi College, Oxford, for Smith – they append ‘T.C.B.S.’ to their names. It is a poignant sign of the value they placed in their fellowship.
The friendships had been formed at King Edward’s School, Birmingham, coalescing in 1911 into a kind of secret society that brewed clandestine teas in the library office, where Tolkien was in charge. They would also meet in the tea rooms of Barrow’s Stores. So they had called themselves the Tea Club and Barrovian Society, eventually just the ‘TCBS’. Though its members had dominated school cultural life – the debating and literary societies, and so forth – the youthful TCBS had been at least as much about drollery and japes. When Tolkien left for Oxford University, he formed another club there, the Apolausticks, in a similar vein; but the TCBS continued to meet.
R Q Gilson, at right and facing the camera, marches with soldiers from his 11th Suffolks battalion during training (Image courtesy of Julia Margretts)
Under the shadow of war, from 1914 the TCBS had acquired a powerful sense of itself as a serious force, as I tell in Tolkien and the Great War. It had halved its numbers to just four – Tolkien, Gilson, Smith and Christopher Luke Wiseman, who had sealed their bond with a December 1914 meeting dubbed ‘the Council of London’. They were all four exceptional young men, and they were rapidly forming the idea that somehow they could change the world for the better through art and writing. For Tolkien, who had just been making his first steps at serious creative writing (see my articles here and here), the Council of London changed everything.
Steps became strides, and 1915 had seen him laying the foundations of Middle-earth in poems and an invented ‘Elvish’ language. He wrote to Smith later, ‘That Council was as you know followed in my own case with my finding a voice for all kinds of pent up things and a tremendous opening up of everything for me:— I have always laid that to the credit of the inspiration that even a few hours with the four always brought to all of us.’ He shared his early poems with the TCBS, and it is quite clear they had a deep though indefinable influence on aspects of his Middle-earth writings.
G B Smith, second from left at the back, with fellow officers from the 19th Lancashire Fusiliers
By September 1915 all four were undergoing military training for the war that had been raging for more than a year. Wiseman was in the Navy. Smith and Gilson had enlisted in the Army much earlier than Tolkien, and knew that it could not be long before they were sent to the front to fight. Tolkien’s training battalion, the 13th Lancashire Fusiliers, was based at Whittington Heath near Lichfield, Staffordshire. Gilson had written to him from hospital, where he was recovering after a serious bout of influenza. Here I’ll let my book Tolkien and the Great War take up the tale:
Tolkien now sent him a second sheaf of his poems and Gilson, feeling revivified by the TCBSian spirit, promised to criticise them. Abruptly he had learned he was about to be released from hospital, and was going on leave…. He determined to visit Tolkien at Lichfield, and sent telegrams summoning Smith and Wiseman as well. ‘At times like this when I am alive to it, it is so obvious that the TCBS is one of the deepest things in my life,’ he told Tolkien, ‘and I can hardly understand how I can be content to let slip so many opportunities.’ Wiseman came up from Greenwich, where he had begun his navigation course, and Smith travelled from Salisbury Plain, where the Salford Pals [his battalion, the 19th Lancashire Fusiliers] were now encamped. Arriving first, Smith and Gilson — now no longer the comfortably rounded figure of school and college days — visited the cathedral and the birthplace of Dr Johnson. Tolkien joined them, and finally Wiseman, and the four stayed at the George Hotel for an evening of ‘that delightful and valued conversation which ever illumines a council of the TCBS’, as Smith put it. The four were assembled for the last time. It was Saturday 25 September. In northern France, in a foretaste of the battle which lay in store for three of the TCBS, the British army at Loos (including the first Kitchener volunteers) launched an assault so disastrous that, as the attackers turned to retreat, the German machine gunners who had mowed down eight thousand men ceased firing, finally overcome with pity.
Two of Tolkien’s friends from Exeter College’s Apolausticks – Max Windle (Michael William Maxwell Windle) and Osric Staples – died on 25 September 1915 at Loos. It was a harbinger of the losses that lay ahead for the TCBS itself. Rob Gilson was killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916. G B Smith, a poet who perhaps shared Tolkien’s youthful vision most closely, died on 3 December 1916 of wounds sustained from a shell burst three days before. He was several miles behind the Somme front line, organising a football match for his men.
Many months earlier, ahead of a perilous night patrol in which he thought he might be ‘scuppered’, Smith had written what he thought might be his final letter to his friend, declaring himself ‘a wild and whole-hearted admirer’ of Tolkien’s work; we might now call him the first ‘Middle-earth fan’. Fearing the worst for the night patrol, Smith was defiant:
… the death of one of its members cannot, I am determined, dissolve the TCBS.… Death can make us loathsome and helpless as individuals, but it cannot put an end to the immortal four!
Smith’s and Gilson’s signatures were found by Joanne Wilson of the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum after an enquiry by Marty Smith of the Ridware History Society, who had heard about the ‘Council of Lichfield’ in a talk by David Robbie, an expert on Tolkien’s time in Staffordshire. It is intended that the visitor book will go on display in an exhibition about Tolkien in Staffordshire being planned by the Haywood Society, the Staffordshire Library Service and the Museum of Cannock Chase for next year.
I can’t account for the date ‘24th’ next to signatures: it’s perfectly clear from their correspondence that Smith and Gilson arrived on 25 September and visited the Johnson birthplace that day. The entry stands as a quiet testimony to a bond of fellowship that underpinned the beginnings of Tolkien’s Middle-earth – and to two young men who did not survive to see his work reach fruition.
- I’d like to thank David Robbie for alerting me to the guestbook entries; the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Trust for allowing me to reproduce them; and Julia Margretts for permission to use the Gilson photograph.
- I’d also like to thank the members of the Tolkien Society who voted this Best Article in their 2016 awards. It comes after another article of mine, ‘Tolkien and the Boy who didn’t Believe in Fairies’, was named Best Article in the Tolkien Society Awards 2014.