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Blue Plaque Hero: George Arthur Roberts (1890-1970)

Last week, the life of a Camberwell war hero, firefighter and community activist was celebrated with the unveiling of a blue plaque. Deceased Online is proud to hold the cremation record of George A. Roberts as part of its Southwark Collection.
The new plaque dedicated to George A. Roberts. (credit: @heritagemonster on Twitter)
In 2015, the Southwark Heritage Association asked for members of the public to vote on who should win that year's Southwark Blue Plaque for their contribution to the London borough. Sergeant George Arthur Roberts was the first nominee in the contest. Having won the award, George's plaque was unveiled at at a ceremony on Sunday 11 September 2016 at his former home in Warner Road, Camberwell under the watchful eyes of a guard of honour from London Fire Brigade. Also present was Tedwin Herbert, the Acting High Commissioner for Trinidad and Tobago.

Portrait of George A. Roberts by Norman Hepple
Described by renowned historian Stephen Bourne as a "forgotten Camberwell hero", George Arthur Roberts was born in 1890 on the West Indian island of Trinidad. Roberts enlisted in the Trinidad Army and then in the European Service to fight in the First World War, where he saw conflict in the Somme, Loos and the Dardanelles. According to Every Week magazine (1918), 6' 2'' George became known as the "Coconut Bomber" thanks to his skill at throwing bombs long distances - as he did with coconuts as a child.

After the war, Roberts settled in Britain in the south London area of Peckham. While there, he helped to found the Royal British Legion. He led thousands of ex-servicemen, including those with battle-wounded who were unable to walk, in a march demanding improved rights and higher pensions. During this period, George's wife, Margaret, gave birth to their sons, Cyril (1921) and Victor (1922). George managed two visits to Trinidad in 1921 and 1935, as part of an army recruitment campaign in the West Indies.

Honor Oak Crematorium Register of 1970 showing the entry for George Arthur Roberts
In 1931, George Roberts helped to establish the League of Coloured Peoples, a civil rights organisation for ethnic minorities in Britain.

Too old to serve formally in the Second World War, Roberts was nevertheless keen to be involved in war and signed up to work as a fireman with the National Fire Service. It was in this capacity, fighting fires throughout the Blitz, that he is remembered by the blue plaque. Although he had worked as an electrical engineer during the inter-war years, Roberts was made a section leader in 1943. The following year he was awarded the British Empire Medal for "general duties at New Cross Fire Station and for his part as a founder and pioneer of the Discussion and Education groups of the Fire Service throughout the Second World War." Around this time, George had his portrait (see above) painted by English portraitist, Norman Hepple (1908-1994).

George lived the rest of his life near his family in Camberwell. He died on the 8th January 1970 at King's College Hospital, London. A fortnight later, on the 20th January, George A. Roberts was cremated at Honor Oak Crematorium and his ashes scattered on the New Circular Lawn.

Do you have any forgotten heroes in your family tree? It is surprising how many men and women who were celebrated during their lifetime have been neglected by historiography. Do let us know via the Comments Box below, or our Twitter and Facebook portals if there is anyone you would like remembered!

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  1. It is refreshing and inspiring to see a black man get recognition and a certain type of respect bestown on his achievements,.... easpecially in these troubled times...

    Neil Ap Jones, a young Welshman of Icons of Cymru, greats of Wales


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