South Shields Local History Group

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Chapman, Robert (Sir)

Sir Robert Chapman, 1st Baronet, was born in Wood Terrace facing South Shields cricket and rugby ground.  He was the second son of eleven children of Henry and Dora Chapman of Westoe, South Shields.  Henry Chapman JP was himself a well-known figure in South Shields.  He founded the chartered accountancy practice of Henry Chapman Son & Co, where Sir Robert would become a senior partner.  He was very active in civic affairs and was President of the South Shields Cricket Club, among many other appointments.

The young Robert was educated at South Shields High School, where he was school captain, and he gained his Bachelor of Arts degree at London University.  He became an ‘articled clerk’ (trainee accountant) at his father’s firm, Henry Chapman Son & Co, in Barrington Street.  In 1902 he passed his final chartered accountancy exam with honours, coming fifth out of all entrants across England (he had been first in the intermediate exam).

He married Helene Paris MacGowan, who was born in 1886 in Paris.  She had been at boarding school at St Leonard’s in Scotland, where she had become friends with one of Sir Robert’s sisters, through whom they met.  Sir Robert and Lady Chapman were married for 55 years and had two children.

Sir Robert had a distinguished record in the First World War.  He served in the Royal Artillery, commanding the 4th Durham (Howitzer) Battery at Ypres, but a wound in action in the last year of the war brought an end to his active service.  He was mentioned in dispatches four times and awarded the DSO, created a CMG and appointed to the French Honour of Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur. 

Colonel Robert Chapman

Sir Robert had a long and distinguished career in the civic life of South Shields.  He was elected a councillor for what was then the new Harton Ward in 1921, and he became an Alderman in 1936.  He was a leading spokesman for what was, at that time, called the ‘Moderates’ until his retirement in 1952.  He was Mayor in 1931/32, during which time he carried out numerous duties in the town, including welcoming the Prince of Wales (who later became King Edward VIII). 

When Sir Robert was adopted at short notice in 1931 as the Nationalist Unionist candidate for what had been the safe Labour seat of Houghton-Le-Spring, he had no idea that the 1931 General Election would involve Labour losses on a huge scale.  So, to his surprise, and after a tough campaign, he became an MP.  He therefore had the most unusual experience of being for a year both a Member of Parliament and a Mayor. 

For about half a century after becoming a qualified Chartered Accountant in 1902 with his father’s firm, Henry Chapman Son & Co, where he became senior partner.  Sir Robert had close contacts with industry and commerce throughout Tyneside.  He had numerous business interests including commercial and Building Society directorships and for four years was Chairman of North Eastern Trading Estates Ltd.  He was also an active JP, sitting on the Bench for 43 years.  Sir Robert was President of some twenty voluntary organisations in South Shields and the county, including sports and athletics clubs, Boy Scouts, the British Legion and Finchale Abbey Training Centre for the Disabled (where he was Chairman for 17 years).  Among the other clubs where he was President were the Sunderland Gardeners’ Association and the South Shields Chrysanthemum Society.  He was also patron of the Monkton Leek, Vegetable & Floral Society.

As far back as 1906 he was a churchwarden of St.  Michael & All Angels on Westoe Road, and he held the same office at St.  Peter’s Horton and All Saint’s Cleadon.  Sir Robert furnished the Toc H Chapel in Westoe Village in memory of his brother, Major C.  L.  Chapman MC, and his sister Nurse Dorothy Chapman VAD, both of whom died on service in the 1914-1918 War.

Sir Robert was appointed High Sheriff of Durham County in 1940, and Vice-Lieutenant from 1946 to 1958.  He was a Deputy Lieutenant for more than forty years.  In these positions he accompanied members of the Royal Family on their visits to the North East.  He was made a Knight in the 1950 Honours List and was created a Baronet in 1958 in recognition of his ‘political and public services to the North of England’.  In his own words, “The centre of my life and all my work is Durham County”. 

Lady Chapman and Robert Chapman

 Sir Robert died at his home, Undercliff, in Cleadon, in 1963 at the age of 83 after a very busy and fulfilled life.  In the words of the Shields Gazette, ‘He devoted his time and ability to industry, public life, the welfare of youth and the cause of charity.’


Compiled at the Central Library, South Shields with the aid of a brief history of his life, kindly provided by his grandsons Sir David and Peter Chapman.

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