Frank, as he was always known, was the second son of Robert Hall Best and his wife Emma Maud née Short. Like his elder brother Robert he was born at the family home, 146 Hamstead Road, Handsworth.
The Best family had been long involved in the production of shades and supports for lighting. When Robert Best opened the first small factory in 1840 he was manufacturing mostly for candles and did so with increasing success. By the time of his death in 1863 the firm had moved to larger buildings but, slightly over-extended, the business hit a bad patch and by 1867 was on the verge of bankruptcy. It was rescued by an old friend of the family (described by Robert Dudley Best as “Old Man Lloyd”), who bought up the stock, fittings etc. of the company and it was refounded as “Best and Lloyd” with Lloyd senior’s son Henry as a partner. In the autumn of 1868 Henry married Sarah, Robert Hall Best’s eldest sister. He was little more than a sleeping partner and when he and Sarah emigrated to the USA, although the name remained, the business was a Best concern. By this time manufacturing gas lamps as well as oil and candle supports, Best and Lloyd prospered and expanded.
Robert Hall Best was 47 years old when, in 1890, he married 25 year old Emma Short but, despite the age difference, the marriage was a happy one. Their elder son Robert Dudley was born in April 1892 (given his maternal grandmother’s maiden name) and “Frank” arrived fifteen months later. I can find no family connection for his middle name “Behrens” and have speculated that it might have been a tribute to the German architect and designer Peter Behrens who his father may have met, but certainly knew about, when he was studying in Germany. Robert senior had a great admiration and respect for what he saw of German design and German educational methods.
In 1897 their father’s invention of the “Surprise” chandelier, an ingenious articulated gas lamp, made the family fortunes when Edward, Prince of Wales had it installed as the main lighting fixture all over Sandringham House. The firm, regarded as the largest lighting manufacturers in the world, had offices in New York, Europe and Asia. They could have afforded to send the boys to any school but their father’s strong beliefs directed Robert away from the conventional public school and, after discussing options with Sir Oliver Lodge the Principal of the new Birmingham University, who had sent his children to John Haden Badley’s new school “Bedales”, Robert Best, impressed by Badley’s views on religion and on the healthy and hands-on education he was offering there, followed suit.
The school was just ten years old and establishing itself in its new home in Steep when the Best boys arrived for the beginning of the summer term 1902 (Robert commented that it remained a building site for most of their time in the school). Frank was the youngest and Robert the fourth youngest of the 83 boys in the school and there were now 12 girls. Of the 83 boys ten were to lose their lives in the Great War. In September Frank was among the youngest who were transferred to Hillcroft, in Church Road, established as a haven for the under 11s who had been in “Division III”. When the new junior school building, Dunhurst, opened in 1905 Frank spent a very happy couple of terms there.
Frank’s ability as a comedian and performer was demonstrated from an early period as is reflected in his account of A Day at Bedales – purporting to be the diary of a junior from 6.40am to 7.50pm – published in The Bedales Record for 1905 - 1906. Both boys began to figure in school publications, writing articles for The Record, and were commended for participation in debate. At a Merry Evening in the winter of 1906 they played a duet as the overture to a play and in “The Show” for 1907 Frank won first prize for his pottery. By that summer Frank was also playing in the second or third cricket elevens with a modicum of success.
Both boys were keen members of the Bedales Corps, refounded in the Spring Term of 1907 influenced by Baden-Powell’s ideas. Frank’s friendship with Vyv Trubshawe had begun and together they were scheduled to participate in the aeroplane competition of December 1907 though the final report attributes the plane solely to Frank. It managed to fly only just over 24 feet, barely a third of the distance accomplished by the victors, Pauley Montague and Launceroy Arthur Newnham. However, they did co-operate in the second competition in 1909. By the summer of 1909 Frank’s enthusiasm for photography enabled him to win a prize, shared with Vyv Trubshawe, for their illustrations of fonts in the churches of the neighbourhood which they had visited on their bicycles. He was also one of the leading members of the Photographic Society and instrumental in the development of the school darkroom. In his will Frank left his equipment to Vyv who in June 1918, wrote: “I am very glad that Frank has left me his photographic things, because we used to ramble round together at Bedales taking photographs of everything … wherever we went the camera went with us, and knows well the great times and great talks we had together.” As might be expected from their background, both Best boys were keen members of the Scientific Society and Robert, with Peter Eckersley, was experimenting with radio in “Wavy Lodge”: Frank delivered a lecture on “the telephoto lens” in the autumn term of 1910.
By the school year of 1910 - 1911 Frank featured in both the football and cricket first XIs and won the high and the long jump (a new record of 18 feet 10 inches) in the annual sports day. In March 1911 he delivered a lecture to the Musical Society on the evolution of the piano and ended by playing one of his own compositions. By June 1911 Frank had joined his friends Sylvia Mundy and Vyv Trubshawe on The Bedales Chronicle committee and in October Vyv became Editor with Frank as his assistant.
Following the departure of Pauley Montague, during his last year at Bedales Frank, Vyv, Oswald Horsley and “Moony” Wills became the leading lights in Merrie Evenings. One such in 1911 when Frank staged a musical event including his own compositions and played a leading part in a farcical drama, is recorded by The Bedales Chronicle: “Best has set up a record of laughter which it will be hard to beat”. However his studies were not neglected and in the Summer Term of 1911 Frank passed the Oxford and Cambridge Board Higher Certificate in Mathematics, English and Mechanics but failed in German.
Frank was very sad to leave his friends behind in December 1911. They were to complete the school year and then, in the autumn of 1912, go to Oxford. Mr. Best did not want his sons to follow that path. Robert had already studied abroad and then joined the firm; Frank was to follow the same path. For most of 1912 he served his time in the nine departments of the firm and then spent January to July 1913 in Dusseldorf, studying two days a week at the School of Industrial Design. The first part of 1914 found him on the same path in Paris. Frank returned home for his twenty-first birthday celebrations in July and then, at the end of the month, he and Robert travelled to Steep for the annual Old Bedalian reunion. Within days, with the declaration of War, many of those attending found themselves in uniform.
Jack Best, a favourite older cousin of Robert and Frank, was already a territorial in the Army Service Corps with a base near the Best’s home. The young men, with their father, visited headquarters on 15th August and both were offered commissions. Under heavy pressure from his parents Robert refused but Frank accepted and was gazetted 2nd Lieutenant on 18th September.
Frank’s chief concern was with the horses, used to transport goods on huge wagons from railway stations to bases around the area. Initially lack of preparation and poor organisation left the animals in bad conditions. Frank constantly complained about lack of stabling, poor bedding and fodder and lack of understanding of the animals’ needs on the part of some senior officers. Cold weather intensified the problems and on more than one occasion Frank’s letters home mention horses found dead in the morning or collapsing by the roadside from exhaustion. By the beginning of 1915, partly through pressure from army veterinary officers, the situation was much improved.
Life in the A.S.C. left a good deal of time for riding, sporting and other activities with local people or even friends in London. Also Frank was much in demand as a pianist and comedian at entertainments in the Mess. Things were to change a little when towards the end of February 1915 Frank’s Division received orders for France. He was heavily involved in settling accounts in the Luton area and then organising the transport of men and horses to Southampton. At 10pm on 4th March S S Maidan left Southampton for France: Frank was to remain on the Continent, with only one spell of home leave, until 15th November.
Whilst in Europe officers in the A.S.C. were regarded by many of their compatriots in the infantry brigades as having a soft life. It is true that mostly they had more comfortable billets and were able to organise many amusements for themselves, both in the Mess and in local towns and villages. Whenever possible Frank obtained a piano for his Mess and was constantly called upon to perform. However, the roads were treacherous and, particularly on night-time deliveries, their heavy wagons were at risk from enemy bombardment.
From early in his time in Belgium Frank was increasingly attracted to what he saw of the Royal Flying Corps. Since the days of the aeroplane competitions at Bedales he had been interested in flying and he wrote home that regular conversations on the theory of flight took place in Mess. In June he had a conversation with a flight officer “on the subject of what a chap might expect” if he transferred to the RFC and suggested the family should discuss what their reactions would be if he applied for a transfer.
Whilst in Belgium and France, like most other OBs, Frank was always on the look out for an opportunity to meet up. As early as 15th March he wrote to Vyv Trubshawe that he had met Margetson who was “getting up … a Merry Evening” for his Mess. In August he reported a casual encounter; taking about 20 wagons to the stores of the Royal Engineers “suddenly a Tommy called out, 'Hello; it’s Bug' … He jumped off the wagon having almost ridden past me , … it was none other than little Nicholson ... who was in my dormitory at school.” Twice in October Frank actually managed to meet Vyv, on one occasion riding over in three hours from his billet to Vyv’s. By contrast Frank was present at an inspection by King George V and saw the King thrown off his horse, an accident from which his majesty never fully recovered.
From November 1915 to April 1916 Frank returned to the more humdrum occupation of A.S.C. supply work in England but suddenly, on 25th April, the Division was ordered to prepare to move to an unknown destination. In fact they found themselves at Liverpool, embarking on the Wicklow for the short crossing to Kingstown, to cope with the aftermath of the Easter Rising. The only good thing about this period, so far as Frank was concerned, was the fact that Robert was also in Ireland and they had made good friends with a local businessman Edward Lee and his family. On 27th July Frank wrote to Vyv Trubshawe, “I shall be moving to The Curagh very soon.” This move took Frank away from his burgeoning friendship with Nellie Lee and to a place he came to hate. On 27th September he wrote to Vyv: “This place is a bloody awful hole.” In the same letter he continued, “I don’t think the A.S.C. is the right place for young chaps like ourselves (Frank and Robert). Things have changed so much since ’14.” News that they were likely to remain in Ireland on barrack duty rather than returning to England, or even better France, was the deciding factor. Both Frank and his brother applied for a transfer; as Frank informed Vyv on 5th October, “Application for R.F.C. has gone forward.” It was after Christmas before the brothers received orders to report to the R.F.C. School of Instruction in Oxford where, on 28th December there were allocated rooms at Brasenose College.
In his account of Frank’s life Robert Best wrote of this period, “To say we found the work absorbing would be an understatement.” Both of these mechanically minded young men rejoiced in the opportunity to take apart and reconstruct all sorts of aircraft engines. Frank wrote home on 3rd January, “to think we might have missed it all – drudging along in the old groove.” Whilst on the training course a chance meeting in the street with “Mrs. Jarry” led to an invitation to tea and a reunion with OB Dmitri Jarintzoff who was on leave, visiting his mother after being wounded in France, (he had already been award the M.C. for his part in Gallipoli). A couple of days later, coming out of a restaurant, they bumped into Oswald Horsley, OB, another M.C., recovering from his third wound and recently transferred to the Flying Corps.
Following completion of the Oxford training in April, Frank was posted to the 48th Squadron in Dover. Here he was learning the art of flying solo and had a number of near misses. He also began to take photographs from his plane, practising on Sandwich and “took oblique photos with 5 x 4 Naval air camera.” Early in May Frank was ordered to report to Turnberry in Ayrshire for an aerial gunnery course and was pleased to find his brother on the same course. Course completed on 21st May the brothers parted for the last time. Frank’s last training course in Hertfordshire introduced him to other planes, including a bi-plane, and he had a little instruction in formation flying. At the end of his courses Frank had managed 58 hours 10 minutes of solo flying, by some standards rather more training than many other applicants to the R.F.C. At the beginning of June he left for France.
In his biography Robert Best observes, “The estimated average effective service of a pilot or observer in France was four months. … Frank survived a little over five weeks.” When days were bad for flying Frank, in true Bedalian fashion, devoted himself to improving his personal kit. He modified his flying helmet to prevent it being blown backwards by the uprush of air over the windscreen. Having sent back to Birmingham for a pair of hinged goggles which could rapidly be swung away to improve his vision, he also modified the cushion on which he sat to give added comfort to a man of his height (he was over 5 feet 10 inches). Finally he devised a folding map case which was smaller than the one provided. On 27th June Squadron No. 70 arrived to join Frank’s No 19 and he found himself in contact with another OB Jack Gotch, a fellow competitor in the 1909 flying competition at school.
Frank had hoped to get home leave for Robert’s wedding on 28th July but with the prospect of the third battle of Ypres (Passchendaele), due to start on 31st July, all leave was cancelled. Instead Frank wrote a cheery and congratulatory letter to his family and went off to spend the evening with his cousin Jack Best. The following day he was taking part in a sortie when he became separated from the rest of his flight during a severe thunderstorm. On 30th July the C O of No 19 Squadron wrote to Robert Best senior saying that Frank was missing adding “I sincerely hope that we shall hear that he is safe and a prisoner…” It was 24th September before the Bests received the final blow. The official communication included the following information:-
“In a list of English flying losses during the month of July 1917 published in the Deutscher Allgemeiner Zeitung the following report appears:-
‘B.3531 Occupant dead’
This has been identified as referring to (Lieut, F. B. Best). However, this report has not been accepted as official, so should be treated with reserve.”
It wasn’t until 26th August 1918 that the War Office confirmed that Frank’s death should be assumed to have taken place on 29th July 1917. The Best family had endured months of suspense and conflict. Mr. Best recorded that it was at least twelve months after the initial news of Frank’s presumed death before he could bring himself to open the package left with him by Frank in 1915, with specific instructions about the disposal of his estate. He had left cash bequests to three of his closest friends Vyv Trubshawe, Sylvia Mundy and Oswald Horsley and also some money to Bedales for a piano. As the school had recently received a new piano the recipients (or in Oswald’s case his executors) agreed the money should go towards the Bedales Memorial Library Fund so Frank is doubly remembered in that splendid building – his name above the window in Bay 2 downstairs and as a contributor to the fabric itself.