The Roll of Honour

The Roll of Honour

And there was the Roll of Honour, and I seem to remember it was brought out on many occasions where people spoke about their relatives and people came to visit, and the book was brought out and they looked at the photos, and said, "Do you remember so and so?" Agnes Robertson (1926-2011), Lerwick. Interviewed by BBC Radio Shetland.

The Shetland News newspaper ran from 1885-1963. For most of that time it was published and edited by Thomas Manson (1859-1941). The Manson family were brutally touched by the war through the loss of their son Karl at Arras in 1916. There were clearly personal motivations for producing a Roll of Honour and Service for Shetland. It was also in the ethos of the firm as the Shetland News viewed itself as a newspaper of record.

The paper had published a Roll of Honour of volunteers in 1915. The effort made in 1919 was a vastly expanded and complex affair. Thomas Manson had written to every address on the electoral roll, and advertised for information. In the end he used volunteers to canvas house to house. His son, Dr T M Y Manson was interviewed by BBC Radio Shetland in 1986, and remembered taking part as a schoolboy.

.. while I was still at school at the age of fifteen I took a small part in the production of the "Roll of Honour and Service" that my father organised and produced, and this way – it required and had an organisation of house to house visitation over the whole islands to get information and borrow the photographs of those who had been killed. I was in the habit of going to North Yell, Cullivoe, for my summer holidays through the instance of the late Alex, or Ike, Gray, ... who was a great chum of mine at school. So at my father’s request I undertook to do the north half of Yell. We carried printed forms and of course I wasn’t the only one, I mean, there were several others who covered the islands. So I took part in that, in that way.

The Roll is the consequence of information volunteered, a bottom up product as it were. It values place was valued over rank. So the Roll of Service is arranged by parish, in alphabetical order. The Roll of Honour, the dead, is alphabetical except where a family can grouped together. It includes individuals who died in service, not just from enemy action.

Thomas Manson made great efforts to systematise the Roll, and even got an advisory committee together to help him. He never defined eligibility for inclusion and the Roll values reported connection with Shetland. Of the 4,300 plus men it lists in the services, 500 were not resident in Shetland. The diaspora is there, powerfully but not completely. In some Shetland families emigration had been so thorough that there was hardly anyone left to report. Families who were able to note members abroad who’d become involved in the conflict meant that individuals not resident in Shetland for decades appeared. Letters and the renewed contact provided by UK leave for the uniformed services probably strengthened this process. The merchant service sailors ranged widely indeed through the world, and lost contact with home easily. They lacked formal leave procedures of the armed services, and may be under-represented in the Roll. 

The Roll probably didn’t make much profit for the Manson family firm. It may not have been about that for them, in the end. They were proud of their achievement, and it was a considerable one. Research reveals people who could have been in it, but were missed somehow, or possibly didn’t want to be in. There are mistakes. It isn’t surprising given the communications of the time. It isn’t an ultimate statistical source on Shetland and the Great War, and it’s doubtful if there ever will be one. What it was intended to be, what it remains, is a beautiful, affecting, document.

Alistair McEwen, of the Scotland's War team, has been researching the Roll of Honour with help and advice from volunteers in Shetland, and the completed research will appear here in due course.

Roll of Honour Advert Shetland News
Roll of Honour advertised in Shetland News, November 1922