Plymouth History Heroes: Robert Borlase Smart

Robert Borlase Smart was born in Kingsbridge, Devon in 1881.

During his early life he attended Plymouth School of Art and Plymouth College of Art. From 1900-01 he attended the Royal College of Art, training as a teacher.

From 1903-1913 he lived in Plymouth and worked as an art critic for the Western Morning News.

In 1913 he moved to St Ives to study seascape painting under the Anglo-Swedish painter Julius Olsson, only for the First World War to temporarily interrupt his plans.

Robert Borlase Smart standing by his work 'Munitions'
Robert Borlase Smart (1881-1947)

At the outbreak of the War, Smart joined the Artist’s Rifles as a volunteer. In 1915 he was employed to make technical drawings for the Machine Gun Training Centre. Then, in July 1916, he saw active service and was stationed on the Somme.

It was a brief posting as he was recalled to Britain in the September to join the Machine Gun Corps. Despite this, the experience had a profound effect on him and he produced almost 40 war drawings – many of which featured scenes from his time in France. Some were purchased by the Imperial War Museum while others are in the collections here in Plymouth.

Smart’s short time at the front meant he had to work mostly from memory, sometimes aided by photographs. This did not diminish the quality of his work however. Like the examples shown in this post, his drawings are subtle yet powerful and clearly show the impact of the conflict.

Morning Hymn of Hate by Borlase Smart © Plymouth City Council (Museums Galleries Archives)
‘The Morning Hymn of Hate’ by Borlase Smart © Plymouth City Council (Museums Galleries Archives)
Grandmother prepares to distribute her cough lozenges by Borlase Smart © Plymouth City Council (Museums Galleries Archives)
‘Grandmother Prepares to Distribute her Cough Lozenges’ by Borlase Smart © Plymouth City Council (Museums Galleries Archives)

In August 1917, Smart applied to become an Officer in the Indian Army. On his application he referred to himself as an artist, a specialist in instruction diagrams for Cavalry, Infantry and Machine Gun Training and a camouflage expert.

Given both his teaching and art qualifications, Smart found his niche as an instructor, particularly relating to camouflage, and he was very well-regarded. In fact, his application to the Indian Army was rejected because he could not be spared!

Lifelong friend, fellow WWI veteran and artist Leonard Fuller described him as someone who should be noted for his ‘boundless enthusiasm, his forthrightness and his helpfulness. These three things governed his life.’

Shell swept road north of Arras by Borlase Smart © Plymouth City Council (Museums Galleries Archives)
A shell swept road north of Arras by Borlase Smart © Plymouth City Council (Museums Galleries Archives)

In autumn 1917, Smart married nineteen year old Irene Godson in Surrey. She was the sister of a friend who had been killed in action. They settled in St Ives. With the exception of 1926 when they lived in Salcombe, he remained there until his death from a heart attack in 1947. During his post-war years he immersed himself in the life of St Ives and contributed greatly to its artistic community.

Today he is usually described as a coastal artist but he also produced a series of highly accomplished industrial and architectural drawings. In addition, his works from the First World War endure as a first-hand record of an artist and soldier’s experience.

You can find out more about Borlase Smart’s life and work on his official website.

As part of our ‘Plymouth Remembers’ programme you can hear a talk by one of our curators about Borlase Smart on 8 November. Find out all the details here.


History Centre Heroes: Sergeant Alfred Joseph Richards VC

The Victoria Cross was introduced on 29 January 1856 by Queen Victoria to honour acts of valour during the Crimean War. Today it’s the highest military decoration awarded to members of the armed forces of the United Kingdom, Commonwealth and former territories of the British Empire for courage ‘in the face of the enemy’.

During the First World War four men hailing from Plymouth and Devonport received the Victoria Cross. One of these was Sergeant Alfred Joseph Richards.

Sergeant Alfred Joseph Richards
Sergeant Alfred Joseph Richards

Alfred was born into a military family at Plymouth’s garrison hospital on 21 June 1879 to Charles and Bridget Richards.

During the First World War he served in the 1st Battalion, Lancashire Fusiliers and was one of six members of the Regiment to be elected for the Victoria Cross.

The award reflected their extreme bravery when they supported an attack on enemy machine gun positions during a hard-won beach landing west of Cape Helles, Gallipoli, Turkey on 25 April 1915.

The Allies approached the Gallipoli shores just before 4am, unaware that around 1,000 Turkish soldiers were waiting for them. The Turks had been given strict instructions not to open fire until the Allies were 100 metres away so all seemed calm. Then, just as the first boat grounded the shooting began. Barbed wire on the beach entrapped many of the men as the Turkish bullets rained down.

A beach landing at Gallipoli
A beach landing at Gallipoli

A few survivors, including Alfred were able to overcome the wires and guns and went on to secure the beach for further landings. Due to the time of day when the battle took place they became known as ‘the six VCs before breakfast’.

Alfred was wounded during the action. A month after the attack he sadly had to have his right leg amputated above the knee. He was discharged from the Army on 31 July 1915 but went on to serve in the Home Guard as a Provost Sergeant during the Second World War.

In 1916 he married Dora Coombs, a nurse who had been treating him. They settled in Wandsworth, London and had a son called Harold. Alfred passed away on 21 May 1953. He and Dora are buried in Putney Vale Cemetery, London. A street named ‘Richards Way’ in the same part of London is named after him.

We unveiled a commemorative paving slab dedicated to Alfred in June 2015. The slab is located near the Plymouth War Memorial, at the junction of Citadel Road and Lockyer Street on the Hoe.

The commemorative paving slab dedicated to Sergeant Alfred Joseph Richards VC
The commemorative paving slab dedicated to Sergeant Alfred Richards VC

The slab is part of a national initiative from the Department for Communities and Local Government to honour Victoria Cross recipients from the First World War. Between now and late 2018 commemorative paving stones will be laid in the birth places of all those who were awarded the Victoria Cross during the conflict.

We will unveil three more slabs in memory of John James Crowe, Brigadier General George Grogan and Sir Arnold Horace Santo Waters in 2018.


Find out more about how the Victoria Cross was instigated plus the location of graves, medals and more on the Victoria Cross website.

Find out what the government is doing during the WWI Centenary between 2014 and 2018 to honour our Victoria Cross heroes on the GOV.UK website.