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Dr Edwin Leonard Gill and the First World War

Edwin Leonard Gill (1877-1956) was the Curator of the Hancock Museum from 1901 until 1922. During his time at the museum he was called upon to serve his country and he volunteered for the Friends Ambulance Unit in 1915

Dr E. Leonard Gill was employed as the Curator of the Hancock Museum from 1901 until 1922. When the war broke out in August 1914, Gill soon volunteered for the front, leaving the Hancock Museum behind.

Gill was a Quaker, and consequently a conscientious objector to the war. Morally he was unable to participate in the conflict itself. Instead, he contributed to the war effort as a volunteer in the Friends Ambulance Service.

He began his training in York, in July 1915. After which time he was stationed at Dunkirk from January 1916.

Image taken from personnel cards of the Friends Ambulance Unit, provided by the Society of Friends, and shows the details of Gill’s service over the course of the war.

Gill’s personnel card records that he was stationed at ‘AT 11’ on the 25 January 2016 were he worked on an ambulance train as a cook. He was later stationed on Ambulance Train 5, from 1918.

He left France, and was demobilised in February 1919, after which time he resumed his work as Curator of the Hancock Museum.

While Gill was away from his post, his father, Joseph J. Gill took over the reigns as Deputy Curator and regularly updated the Curator’s reports with his son’s exploits. Personnel cards of the Friends Ambulance Unit give the dates of Gill’s leave when he returned to Newcastle to check on the  Museum and to see he sister and father. The manuscript Curator’s Report of 1917-1918 confirm that Gill was on leave over these dates.

The Personnel cards from the archives of the Society of Friends reveal the details of Gill’s service and provide an interesting insight into the character of the Hancock Museum’s former Curator.

From these archives, we can ascertain the type of work undertaken by Gill during his service. Initially, in 1916, when posted on Ambulance Train 11 he was the cook, and a month later he was promoted to the role of corporal. After being transferred to Ambulance Train 5 in 1918, he worked as an orderly and was soon promoted to the role of corporal again, before being demobilised in 1919.

Gill’s personnel card reveals a lot about the museum’s former curator. Under the section entitled qualifications, Gill claims to speak French and ‘a little German’, which undoubtedly aided his work in the European theatre of war. He further claims to have special skills of camp cooking and domestic jobs, indicating why he initially served as a cook on Ambulance Train 11.

The medal card to below shows that Gill was decorated with the Victory Medal. This was awarded to all military personnel who served during the First World War, acknowledging their work and sacrifice during the 4 year conflict.

leonard gill medal card

© Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain

After being demobilised in early 1919, Gill soon returned to the Hancock Museum and his position as Curator.

He remained in this role until he was offered a position at the National History Museum of Scotland, in Edinburgh where he was responsible for the Bird Room, a job he would have particularly enjoyed given his love of ornithology. Gill left Newcastle on 31st August 1922 having completed 21 years as Curator of the Hancock Museum.

Two years later he emigrated to South Africa with his sister Marion taking up the position of Director and Keeper in chief of the South African Museum. After which time the role of curator was taken over by T Russell Goddard who led the museum through the Second World War. 

With special thanks to the Religious Society of Friends in Britain.

Written and researched by Ashleigh Jackson, a History and English Literature undergraduate student from the University of Edinburgh on a summer placement with the Natural History Society of Northumbria.


Read an obituary on Gill from The Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa here

Short biography of E L Gill from the online History of the South African Museum.

E L Gill and Conchology

View Gill’s War Service here