5 April 2022

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We have previously followed the fortunes of Emma’s stained glass ‘John of Gaunt’ shield, from its installation in Brancepeth church between 1372 and 1387, to its passing into the hands of Dr Alfred Robinson in 1922.  

A Yorkshireman from Leeds, Robinson entered Emmanuel College in 1889. He was a member of the college Musical Society, performing solos at its November Smoking Concerts in 1890 and 1891, singing Balfe’s Killarney in ‘a pretty tenor voice, which sounded well’, and The Lass that loved a Sailor, by Dibdin. After graduating BA in 1892, Robinson completed his medical training at Leeds General Infirmary, becoming a fully–qualified doctor in 1896. For the next few years he was based in Wetherby, according to the Emmanuel College membership lists, but this early part of his career may also have included a stint as a surgeon with the British India Steam Navigation Company. By 1900, Dr Robinson had moved to the coastal town of Redcar, where he is remembered as a physician beloved by his patients, and a man ‘whose interests and public–spirited activities were infectious’. Dr Robinson kept house in Redcar with his widowed sister and his niece, except for a spell during the First World War, when he served as a civil surgeon attached to the Central English Hospital in France, and then in the RAMC, aboard HM Hospital Ship Panama. By 1917, he was back in Redcar as Medical Officer in Charge at the VAD Hospital. An enthusiastic local historian, it was through his good offices that Zetland—the redundant Redcar lifeboat—was preserved and housed in a museum.  This vessel was believed to be the world’s oldest surviving rescue boat, and the National Maritime Museum was keen to add it to its collection, but the doctor assured the locals that ‘you can take it from me they won’t get it’.

Alfred Robinson kept in regular touch with Emmanuel, and whenever he returned for a Members’ Gathering his old friends were ‘always glad to see him’. Unbeknown to the College, he had bequeathed it his precious John of Gaunt panel, which he described in his will as ‘the Shield hanging in the window of my room’.

A blue commemorative plaque reading 'site of Zetland Club destroyed in an air raid on 21 Oct 1941. 15 lives were lostAn image of a garden of remembrance with an iron gate reading thisThe College was to receive the bequest in tragic circumstances, for in the air raid on Redcar that occurred during the evening of 21 October 1941, Dr Robinson was killed. The College believed, at the time, that he had died in his own house, which was badly damaged, but later reports indicate that he perished in the nearby Zetland Club, along with other prominent Redcar citizens (L: Commemorative plaque & Coatham Rd, Redcar Zetland Club memorial garden). During the air raid, the Gaunt shield was ‘blown across the room’ and badly damaged, particularly the section containing the arms of Castile and Leon. The panel was repaired on the orders of the doctor’s executor, but although the conservators did a good job overall, they unaccountably re–inserted the paw of one of the lions upside down!

Having evaded certain destruction at the hands of over–enthusiastic church restorers in the mid–nineteenth century, and near–obliteration by the Luftwaffe a century later, the Gaunt glass has enjoyed a tranquil existence at Emmanuel for nearly eighty years, but there is one more twist to its story.

The inside of a stone church with white walls, stone columns and pointed arch windowsHad the shield remained in Brancepeth parish church (R: St Brandon's, Brancepeth, looking towards the Chancel), and escaped the Victorian ‘improvements’, it would still have been destined for annihilation, for it could not have survived the catastrophic fire that engulfed the church in September 1998. At the height of the inferno, all the windows were blown out, and only a few fragments of stained glass were ever recovered. Emma’s jewel–like panel is, then, a remarkable, battle–scarred survivor, rather like the man it represents: the redoubtable John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster.

Amanda Goode, College Archivist

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