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  • Robert Quilter Gilson, T.C.B.S.: A Brief Life in Letters
  • John Garth (bio)

In Tolkien and the Great War, I dealt closely with the T.C.B.S., the circle of former schoolfriends who encouraged and critiqued Tolkien’s early mythological writings from 1914. Among them, Robert Quilter Gilson played two crucial roles. In life, he was the social hub of the group. His death in the Battle of the Somme was a crisis that helped to catalyze and mature Tolkien’s sense of creative purpose.

For the book it was clearly vital to discover more about the T.C.B.S. and its members. I managed to make contact with Julia Margretts, Rob’s niece, and learned that her family still had a large body of his correspondence. Some of these letters are between him and a young woman, Estelle King—the love of his short life. But most are to his stepmother Marianne, whom Rob and his younger sister had renamed Donna. He wrote so often that his letters become almost a diary. They enriched my book both directly, by revealing new details about the T.C.B.S. and its members, and indirectly, by leading me vividly through the life of a typical junior British Army officer in the Great War. But they necessarily took second place to Rob’s correspondence with the T.C.B.S.

Here I attempt to remedy that by letting Rob Gilson speak for himself at much greater length—although what follows is still just a small portion of the letters he left. I am indebted to Julia Margretts and family for much support and guidance over the years, and for permission to reproduce extracts from his papers.

Robert Quilter Gilson was born on 25 October 1893 in Harrow-on-the-Hill, north London, where his father, Robert Cary Gilson, taught Classics at the famous public school. The family moved to Canterbury House in Marston Green, then a small village outside Birmingham, in 1900 when Cary Gilson became headmaster of King Edward’s School. In due course, the headmaster’s son joined the ranks of his pupils, and there became friends with the young Tolkien, who was his elder by a year and three quarters. The Tea Club and Barrovian Society, which they founded in 1911 (and referred to by its initials), had about 10 members and continued to meet in Cambridge when Rob went to Trinity College to study Classics. [End Page 67]

As the son of the charismatic and influential Cary Gilson, Rob moved easily above his own social stratum, taking holidays in the Scottish Highlands as a guest of the upper-class Moncrieffs, whom the Gilsons knew through their Birmingham friends, the American consul Wilson King and his Quaker family. Even in some of the earliest letters, from 1912, Rob obviously feels a bond with Wilson King’s daughter Estelle:

We have had several opportunities of sitting out in the garden together when nothing particular is doing. . . . Estelle is certainly above the average interesting. It seems so very rare that any-one is really to be found ready to discuss a serious subject seriously. I begin to think that I must be painfully “heavy.” Estelle declares she has no power of appreciating pictures and yet manages to sustain a long conversation on Signorelli, in which I am sure I did not do more than half the talking. I am trying to convert her to Ruskin. . . .

[13 August 1912]

He has John Ruskin’s hugely influential Modern Painters and The Stones of Venice with him and is reading his Baedeker for a mooted holiday in Italy with Donna.

In October 1912 Rob is installed in Trinity College, stopping halfway through his unpacking to take coffee with Chris Wiseman. Others from King Edward’s School at Cambridge include C.V.L. Lycett, not a part of the T.C.B.S., who many years later wrote to Tolkien: “As a boy you could not imagine how I looked up to you and admired and envied the wit of that select coterie of J.R.R.T., C.L. Wiseman, G.B. Smith, R.Q. Gilson, V. Trought and Payton...