Robert James Neill/Nicholson

The difficult question we are faced with here, is whether Robert James Neill, a man with no past was a spy, probably put in by Thomson. After a lot of digging, I think that the answer is that he probably was not a spy, but changed his name from Robert James Nicholson to Robert James Neill to avoid his wife catching up with him

The family could not find any record of, Robert James Neill before 1918. They had a photo of 'Robert James Neill' dressed in 'convalescent blues' hanging over the fireplace. They believed that he had ended up in a military hospital after deliberately shooting himself in the hand in order to escape being sent to the front-line. There is no record of this happening in his surviving army service records However it turned out that Robert James Nicholson had been wounded in action on his hand

Robert James Neill`s date of birth can be established indirectly- He worked as a lorry driver for the West Gloucestershire Water Company. WGW pension cards dating from the late 1940's/50's give his date of birth - one as 10th August 1899, the other that it was the 12th August that year. The latter, in black ink, is written over the penciled-in date of the 14th August. The 12th August date is in a handwritten entry on the 1939 England and Wales Register. Narrowing down his GRO entry should give his Birth Registration, but nothing can be found. In England nor in Ireland

The oldest document referring to him as Robert James Neill, is his Attestation Paper from late February 1918 when he enlisted as Private with the Motorized Transport division of the Army Service Corps. This states that he was aged 20 years and 2 months (born c. December 1897 as opposed to August 1899 in later records) at the time, his occupation that of a Carter and religion Church of England. His next-of-kin are given as John & Elizabeth Neill of 27 Bridge Street, Lisburn. However, the 1911 census shows that this was a shop/residence with seven rooms occupied by five members of the Wright family. Two newspaper obituaries for the head of the house, John Wright (1932) and his wife Jane (1925) which say that they were still living at this address. The rest of the document is a fairly standard account of his movements on the Western Front attached to various ASCMT Coys/troop units. Royal Logistics Corps Museum at Deepcut, Surrey have images of an RASC re-enlistment register. This gives his age as 23 years and 1 month in late January 1919 when he re-enlisted - ie born Dec 1896. Official forms have his date of birth all over the place, both in the year and the month. His attestation also says that he was born in 'St. Mary's, Belfast, Down'. John & Elizabeth cannot be found, nor can a birth in "St Marys, Belfast , Down" be found. He appears to be deliberately obscuring his past It turns out later that John Nicholson was his father, and his step mother was Elizabeth Moore of Bridge St, Lisburn

The Irish Genealogy website gives a list of around 100 men born on the 12th August 1899. According his army service records, he was linked to Lisburn/Belfast. This left just a handful of potential suspects but just one - Robert James Nicholson - seemed to be the most credible. He had a surviving army service record which showed that he had enlisted as a Private with 5th (Extra Reserve) Battalion Royal Irish Rifles when he was allegedly 18 years and 4 months old (actually aged 16 years and 11 months) at the time. The military careers and personal lives of Robert James Nicholson/Neill neatly dovetailed with the army service records of the former. Nicholson deserted on the 23rd February 1918 and Neill enlisted with the Army Service Corps on the 26th February at Belfast City Hall. Nicholson simply walked out of his old life and started a new one as Robert James Neill.

As Robert James Neill, in May 1919 he married Kathleen Hester Dora Iles in Kingswood, an eastern suburb of Bristol where they would both live for the rest of their lives. His marriage certificate states that he was 21 (he would have been 19 if the August 1899 DOB is correct) at the time and gives his occupation as 'Private, R.A.S.C., no. 43876' [sic]. 

His record also states that he transferred from the the 5th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles to the ASC in February 1918. There are no records to verify this. At the very end of this document it is stated that he was "a man married in the name of Robert James Neill" (his apparent middle name is not mentioned elsewhere). A false Bristol address for 1921 is also provided when he was in fact living with his wife and mother-in-law after May 1919.

So trying to put together the life of this man starting as Robert James |Nicholson and ending as Frank Charles Neill we get the following ;-


1899 Aug 12, Born in Hillsboro, Lisburn,, Co Down as Robert James Nicholson (his father was born 1877 and died in Lisburn in 1956)

1901 census with his mother at Queensland Street ,Shankhill, Antrim. I cannot find his father. Sarah appears as a visitor at her parents house

1908 His mother Sarah died in the Workhouse at Lisburn

1908 Oct 18 His father remarries Elizabeth Moore, John and Elizabeth had a number of children after their marriage, Margaret (b1912, d1913) William (b1919, d1994) Isabella (b1919, d1919) Henry( d1924)

1911 census at 9 in Back Lane , Lisburn, Antrim with his father & step-mother

1916 Jul 25. Robert Nicholson of Back Lane , Lisburn, enlisted in 5th Royal Irish Rifles. He claimed to be 18years & 4 months (ie born Mar 1898). But gave correct father of John Nicholson of Back St, Lisburn

1917 Mar 6. Married in Belfast to Catherine Williamson and their son was born 6 months later


1917 Jul 9 Posted to 1st Battalion in France. And to 2nd Bat on 17 Jul

1917 Aug 13, Wounded in Action. Shrapnel wound to fingers of left hand

1918 Feb 23 Deserts from Royal Irish Rifles . Nicholson deserted on the 23rd February 1918 and Neill enlisted with the Army Service Corps on the 26th at Belfast City Hall. Nicholson simply walked out of his old life and started a new one as Robert James Neill.

1918 Feb 26. Robert James Neill enlisted at Belfast City Hall as a driver with the RASC.. His service numbers as Robert James Neill were M/373044 for 1918 & EMT/43867 (changed to M/18777) for 1919. There is a reference to having transferred from the 5th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles to the ASC in February 1918.

1918 May 23. He arrived in France and was responsible for transporting troops and munitions to the front-line

1918 Victory & War Medal Roll Entry for Robert Neill

1919 Jan 21. Discharged from service and then re-enlisted with the RASC 'in the field' the following day and spent another month in France before returning to Bulford Camp on Salisbury Plain.His Attestation Paper for 1919 gives his contact details as 'c/o Mrs. Hall, Bulford Road, Kingsway, Bristol'. I think this is a mistranscription for Beaufort Rd. Attestation Paper states that he was 23 years and 1 month old on the 22nd January.

'Mrs. Hall' was a real person. Number 1 Beaufort Road was registered to and Albert Thomas Walters and his wife Emily. However, several other people were also registered there as Division II/absent voters with the electoral register code 'NM' (naval or military voter) next to their name. One of these was Charles Robert H.F. Hall whose wife Ethel Agnes Hall nee Flower lived at number 15. They moved to Bristol sometime between1899 and 1901.

So the question is was Mrs Hall the mother of Robert James Neill, or merely someone he put as next of kin

Number 1 Beaufort Road is an unremarkable Late Victorian end-of-terrace house with 5 rooms. There would have been at least eight people living at this address in 1918/19 - Mr & Mrs Walters, their five surviving children and a son-in-law (James Trott) who married their daughter Emily. The Hall family (two adults and three surviving children) actually lived at number 15 (as shown on the 1911 census) but for some unknown reason Charles Robert H.F. Hall was registered as an absent military voter at number 1.

This property was unoccupied when the 1901 England & Wales Census was taken on the 1st April. This property was not recorded (presumably unoccupied at the time) when The 1911 England & Wales Census was taken on the 2nd April. However, its future occupants lived next door at number 2 Beaufort Road:

1919 May 10. Married to Kathleen Hester Dora Iles. with his address as 1 Beaufort Road, Two Mile Hill, Bristol. His marriage certificate states that his father, called John, was a private with the Irish Rifles (indeed John Nicholson was a private in R Irish Rifles)

1919 . Posted to the Belmont Hutments at Cobh in County Cork later that year with the 1155th MT Coy RASC attached to the 2nd Battalion Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders

1921 Feb When he completed his tour of duty (attached to the 2nd Battalion Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders)

1921 Mar 3 Court Martialed. His conduct as a soldier seems to have deteriorated markedly after returning from France, mainly for the usual military offences (i.e. going AWOL, being improperly dressed, not being present for tattoo/reveille etc.). However, on particular entry stands out. On the 3rd March 1921, whilst in Queenstown, he was arrested for carrying one round of revolver bullets without authorization. He was tried by Field General Court Martial and found guilty, the sentence handed down being 41 days detention, later commuted to 21 days and Field Punishment No.2. The fact that British soldiers sold arms and ammunition to the IRA in Cork during the Irish War of Independence is well documented. For those involved, this was purely business and had little or nothing to do with political ideology. However, military law was quite clear when it came to dealing with anyone caught selling arms or ammunition to the enemy - the perpetrator could expect up to five years in a military prison. Against this , he was treated very leniently. He was later transferred to another RASC MT Coy in Chatham, Tonbridge

1922 Jun 6. Discharged from the Army and works as a lorry driver in Bristol from then onwards

1939 Register gives him living in Bristol and states that Neill, Robert J. was born on the 12th August 1899 and that his occupation was a Motor Driver. Also living at the same address was Neill, Kathleen H.D. born on the 11th January 1899 (unpaid domestic duties) and his children Bernard, Patricia & Robert (all at school).

1961 Sep Robert James Neill died of pancreatic cancer in September 1961. Age given as about 62.

Thomson Agents