Alec, as he was usually known, came from a family with a close relationship to railways, though his great grandfather James Staats Forbes, born in Scotland about 1795, served all his adult life in the Royal Artillery. His eldest son (who shared his name), as a young man entered the offices of Isambard Kingdom Brunel as a draftsman, rapidly moving to positions on the Great Western railway. He spent several years in railways in the Netherlands but by census day 1871 was back in Britain as a Railway Director. He ended his life as Chairman of the London, Chatham and Dover Railway, dying in his splendid Arts and Crafts house, Garden Corner in Chelsea in 1904. It was there he had kept much of his wonderful art collection.
William, Alec’s grandfather, also spent his life on the railways. Initially he worked with his uncle on the Continent then, for several years, was manager of the Midland Great Western railway of Ireland and it was there that Alec’s father, Alexander Stanhope Forbes, was born in 1857. His elder brother William de Guise Forbes, studied at Dulwich College and then followed the family tradition into the railways; he ended as manager of the London, Brighton and South Coast Railways and was knighted in 1915.
Like his elder brother, Alexander spent some of his school days at Dulwich College but through ill health completed his studies privately with a tutor in Brussels where he developed his drawing skills. After studying at the Lambeth School of Art and then the Royal Academy, Stanhope Forbes moved to France where he lived for several years and developed his distinctive style. Several works painted there were exhibited at the Royal Academy in the early 1880s.
In 1884 Stanhope Forbes moved to Newlyn in Cornwall and became the leading figure in the artists’ colony that developed there. In 1889 he married a fellow artist, Elizabeth Armstrong who had been born in Ontario, Canada; Alec was their only child. He spent his formative years surrounded by painters and other members of the artistic community. His mother painted him lying reading in the sand and, on another occasion, reading under a tree (captioned The Half Holiday. Alec home from school) and also captured the young Alec in cricket whites, ready to go out to bat. A portrait of a young boy playing the piano by Stanhope Forbes looks very like Alec. This reflects his developing interest in literature and the arts: Alec had already exhibited a strong interest in drawing and in architecture before he arrived at Bedales in September 1906 (of the 12 boys who arrived that term, five were to die in WWI).
Alec’s skill in drawing was recognised early in his school career. In the Prize work at the end of the Spring Term 1908 he was the first recipient of the Guilford prize (Junior Division) for his work on Architecture (Everard Leaver Guilford OB, who had just graduated from Cambridge, had established the prize to be awarded annually). Later in the year he won other prizes for an essay on the French artist Millet and for his design work. By the following year his talents had further developed. In Prize work (Spring 1909) Alec was placed second for his drawing, being surpassed only by Ivon Hitchens, and then in the Summer Term was awarded the Senior Guilford Prize for his work on Window Tracery. The report in The Bedales Record comments: “This work shows how sound is the method of limiting the scope of the study undertaken, of basing it on a careful collection of local examples and of connecting such independent work with what can be learned from good books on Architecture”. Alec spent his prize money on a copy of “Early Renaissance Architecture in England” by J Alfred Gotch which is still to be found on the shelves of the Bedales Memorial Library (see below). It was sixteen year old Alec who contributed a short note on activities connected with Architecture for The Bedales Record 1908 – 1909.
From his early years Alec had been an occasional contributor to debates. In October 1907 as a Junior he spoke forcefully in favour of mountaineering as a sport; by November 1908, now classed as Middle, he proposed the motion, “That this house approves the action of Bulgaria in declaring her independence”. On both occasions he was on the winning side of the argument. Part of the terms of the Prizes presented by OBs was that they could not be won by the same person more than once so Alec wasn’t eligible for the Guilford Prize in 1910. Ivon Hitchens had already left for the Royal Academy and Alec’s competitor this year was Ronald Wilson (three years his junior). The judge commented that “The drawings made by Forbes either from actual buildings or from photographs were greatly in advance of anything he had done before.” He was, however, awarded the Hoffman Prize (W. Hoffman was at Bedales 1893 – 1897) for his essay on a literary subject.
Alec Forbes left Bedales in the summer of 1911 to pursue his studies at The Architectural Association; there he flourished and was clearly regarded as a very promising student. Despite his sorrow at the untimely death of his mother from TB in 1912, he continued to excel at the AA. In its edition of 2nd August 1914 The Bedales Chronicle reported: “A S Forbes has received a travelling Scholarship (value £50) at the Architectural Association.” The advent of War, declared two days after this publication, clearly prevented Alec from taking advantage of his prize.
Alec wasn’t physically strong and was classified as “unfit to fight” but resisted his father’s attempts to keep him out of the war. Almost certainly he appealed to his uncle William, then General Manager of the London, Brighton and South Coast Railways as it was Engineer in chief of the Brighton Railway who supported his application for a commission. His good moral character was attested by the Head Master of the Architectural Association Schools. Alec obtained his commission on 25th April 1915 and was despatched to le Havre as Military Forwarding Officer in the Railway Transport Corps. The Bedales Chronicle wasn’t fully informed as they repeated his position in the Railway Transport Corps right up to the edition of 3rd September 1916. However, Mr Badley seems to have been better informed as he says “he was transferred at his own request to the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry” in September 1915.
Initially Alec was in the 3rd Battalion which was stationed at Freshwater on the Isle of Wight to do duty with the Portsmouth Garrison. At some point he was attached to the 1st Battalion which had been in France since August 1914. A member of the local community in Cornwall says he went to France only on 29th August along with four other Second Lieutenants. If that is the case he lived for only four more days (Mr Badley believed Alec had been in France for three weeks before his death).
In the War Diary of the First Battalion the C/O recorded that September 1st was a fine day and the battalion was still in bivouac but on the 2nd they “moved up the line”: by 4 am on 3rd of September they were “in position” and at 12 noon, in preparation for the attack on Guillemont, “all ranks were full of confidence”. They faced “a very heavy barrage” and also “severe machine gun fire” but the “men pressed on steadily”. He continued, “It was during this advance that most of the casualties both to Officers and men were sustained. Lieutenants Kitson, Forbes, Teague and Hitchens being killed or fatally wounded at the head of their platoons.” This occurred in the first 50 minutes of the attack.
Mr Badley received the news as The Bedales Record for 1915 – 1916 was being printed and added his tribute to Alec to the eleven who had died during the academic year that he had already written about. He quoted from the Colonel’s letter to Alec’s father, Stanhope Forbes: “He was killed at the head of his platoon whilst leading them to the assault … He took his platoon over in a most gallant way. He is buried where he fell, not far from Guillemont.” Alec’s body now lies in Grave plot I. A 1 in Guillemont Road Cemetery.
The Architectural Association inaugurated a prize to be awarded annually, in Alec’s honour, to a student who excelled in the field of colour; he was described as a “brilliant student” who “excelled as a colourist”. Alec’s will was proved the following year; in it he left £50 to Bedales school and whichever of his books the School wished to take. 21 of them are still on the shelves of the Library today, about half of them concerned with Architecture but also two volumes of Tolstoy’s stories, a complete Chaucer, a book about King Alfred, a volume on English Heraldry and some concerned with pre-history and archaeology. His early death marks yet another promising Bedalian student who was never allowed to make his contribution to post war British life. Alec’s father had not painted his adult son from life; the portrait shown with this tribute was painted posthumously and from a photograph in 1916 and is the one we have in the Bedales WW1 Memorial book.