October 17, 2018, by Liz Cass

Nottingham in the War: A tribute to Dr Thomas Black

In the summer of 1915 the Registrar of the University College, later to become the University of Nottingham, died in battle.

He was one of at least 23 members of staff from the College to see frontline military action as part of the First World War and the most senior to be killed.

As part of our series commemorating a centenary since Armistice Day we recall his life and the role he played in the University’s history.

Thomas Porteous Black was born in Aberdeen, Scotland in 1878 to Margaret and George Black. He was well educated and was schooled in Darlington before taking a University degree at Durham. He studied for a PhD at Strasbourg which was part of Germany at the time. He specialised in studying radioactivity and published his research in German in the journal Annalen der Physik.

Mike Noble, of the Centre for Hidden Histories, which is part of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Nottingham, said: “It wasn’t unusual for people to travel to study at that time. There was a strong international community of scholars much like there is today. Germany was also seen as the leading nation where Engineering and Science was concerned so there was a strong desire to use that influence either with German scholars at university or for scholars to spend time in Germany.

“A lot of the international connections were threatened by war but sustained due to the personal networks that academics had created and they were revived post-war.”

Black arrived at Nottingham, along with his wife Agnes, as a physics lecturer. In 1911, at the age of 32 and while living in Ebers Road, Mapperley Park, he was promoted to Registrar and paid the princely sum of £500 a year.

He was responsible for all academic issues, with oversight of the faculty and departmental structure, but also handed all the financial and estate matters.

He helped to found a contingent of the Officer Training Corps at the College and, following the death of his wife died in 1914 he volunteered to join the Army as part of the war effort.

Mr Noble said: “Academics had a key role to play in debate during the days leading up to the war – before for and against. The majority were for the war although there were some that were against it –including Robert Sheldon, a lecturer in electrical engineering, who left after informing the College that he was a conscientious objector.

“Scholars also had a further role to play in propaganda and supporting messages of war – giving lectures and speeches and discussing the historical context of the war and why it was necessary.”

Black joined 9th Battalion Notts/Derby Regiment where he was promoted to Captain. He was posted to Gallipoli where he was killed on 9th August.

Mr Noble added: “the Gallipoli Campaign is often linked to Australia and New Zealand as it marked their first major military action, and indeed they mark the battle on Anzac Day. What many people don’t know is that more British soldiers were killed than Australians and New Zealanders.”

Although Black’s body was never repatriated a memorial service was held at Mansfield Road Presbyterian Church, his name marked on Helles Memorial and also, later, on the College’s memorial plaque, now sited in the Trent Building.

Speaking at the memorial service, the Reverend Dr Forbes said of him, ‘he was always one and the same fine spirit; always considerate of others, always careless of himself. I never knew a man more appreciative of any little kindness or any little service, and it is the simple truth to say his generous spirit magnified all such things till his gratitude was often embarrassing. Such was the manner of the gallant soul we knew who has flung his life away in battle with the Turk. Nay, rather let us say he has completed and crowned his life by losing it.’

Towards the end of 1915, his colleagues at the College raised a subscription to found a science research scholarship fund to commemorate his work and to recognise the great service he had done in reorganising the College.

Read current Registrar Dr Paul Greatrix’s tribute to his predecessor.

Posted in Arts