Curse of the Black Dog

In the past, the condition now known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) went by various other names - shell-shock, battle or combat fatigue, even hysterical neurosis. It was rarely treated, being considered shameful, something to hide and never admitted to. Untold thousands of men who had been through the trauma of war would have been impacted by it to some degree. Combine this with a genetic tendency to depression, plus a perfectionist or conscientious personality, and there is a recipe for major difficulties at some stage.

Inspired by a death notification discovered while indexing archives for, I went in search of the life story of one man who reached the tipping point after an impressive career military duty and service but who probably feared loss of control above everything.

Quite a lot about a person's background - and even character - can be discovered by something as simple as the details on a marriage entry - in this case, that of his parents.

Here is the image for the marriage of John Black and Frances Helena Griffith on 27th January 1880 at St. Stephen's Church, Kensington, London. John is a "Clerk in Holy Orders". Both John and Frances were of full age, i.e. over 21, and both of their fathers were described as "Gentleman".

The home address for both was 45 Cornwell [Cornwall] Gardens. This would have been an area of exclusive residences at the time and even today 2-bedroom flats in this vicinity are priced well in excess of a million pounds.

Further research shows that the bride Frances was born in Sligo, Ireland, where her father Henry Griffith was a Deputy Lieutenant and magistrate, and descended from the ancient Irish line of "Griffith of Port Royal", and that the minister James Black, B.A. officiating at the ceremony was the groom's father. There is another record that indicates the wedding service was "... assisted by the Rev. J. Waldo, vicar, the Rev. Canon Black, chaplain to the Indian Forces, Madras, and late rector of Riverstown [in County Sligo]."

So, here we have a couple not quite in the highest strata of the aristocracy, but firmly fixed in privileged and ecclesiastical circles, with links to the Indian Raj and Irish landed gentry. They would have been expected to set an example, to live rigid and respectable lives in accordance with Victorian values.

A year after the marriage, a son, Claud Hamilton Griffith Black, was born at Trivandrum in India [now Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala] where his father was the Vicar of Christ Church.

From the subsequent birth records for Claud's sisters, it looks as if his father moved to other postings in India - Madras, Bangalore, Ootacamund - this information gleaned from the 1911 Census when Frances was a widow living with three of her daughters at Rusthall near Tunbridge Wells. When or how Rev. John Black died is unknown, but it might be interesting to find out in light of what would happen to Claud and one of his grandsons.

Perhaps being unsuitable to the religious calling, Claud followed another predictable path for boys of his generation born in India. At some point, possibly while still quite young, he would have been sent "home" to England to be schooled and at the age of 15 he is listed as a student of Cheltenham College and the Cheltenham Chronicle of 14 January 1899 stated that Claud Black had been successful in the competitive exam for entry to the Royal Military College, Sandhurst. In 1900 he took his first commission in the Indian Army as a Captain of the 34th Horse (usually known as the Poona Horse).

Their dress uniform was quite spectacular - the European officers wore turbans as did the Indian rank and file - and no doubt Claud would have cut a handsome and dashing figure. (Click here for an image of another officer from the same regiment) Claud must have become proficient in his duties as his name appears in an Islamicus Index as an authority on India and the Middle East.

(Copyright Alamy) 

(Copyright unknown) 

On 7 August 1913, Claud married Augusta Shipton Green, the American-born daughter of a British merchant, T. J. Shipton Green. She also had religious antecedents, her grandfather being the Rector of Bromborough. Perhaps they met at Cheltenham or one of the other upper-crust watering holes during "The Season" when eligible young bachelors on home leave from India could take their pick of suitable young women as their brides. A passenger list of 12 September, 1913 shows the newly-weds sailed from London to Bombay on SS Persia.

Cheltenham Looker
31 May 1913 

A marriage is arranged between Capt. Claud Black (O.C.) of the Poona Horse, Indian Army, son of the late Canon Black, and grandson of Mr. Henry Griffith of Port Royal and Castle Neynoe, County Sligo, and Augusta, younger daughter of T. J. Shipton Green of Tunbridge Wells, formerly his Majesty’s Consul for Para, Maranham, and Amazonas, and granddaughter of the late Mr. Robert Singlehurst, of Liverpool.

From The Sketch, British Newspaper Archive 

And similarly in The Tatler ...

On the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Claud again left India and transferred to the 12th Royal Lancers. His war record indicates he could speak French, German, Hindustani, Persian and "other Eastern" languages. (See note below.)

This image of the smart and good-looking Claud is from the collection in the Imperial War Museum and it reflects his cool, military bearing and a trace of the infamous British "stiff upper lip". He was to be " ... mentioned in Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig’s Despatches for distinguished and gallant services and devotion ..." for which he received the D.S.O. (Distinguished Service Order). After the War, he continued with the Lancers until 1927, retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel.

Captain C. Hamilton Griffith Black, Copyright Imperial War Museum 

Augusta and Claud had three sons, Peter Claud Shipton, Robert Alastair Lucian and Douglas James McGregor, all of whom would join the armed services.

Prior to World War II, Claud can be traced in a number of 1st Class shipping passenger lists to places like Argentina, Venezuela, Accra (West Africa), South Africa and Australia, apparently in connection with his involvement in various mining enterprises throughout the Empire.

Two later photographs of Claud are to be found in the National Portrait Gallery. His fierce and icy stare must have put the wind up many subordinates, yet when one studies these images closely, there is a hint of a man who may have some inner demons.

Copyright National Portrait Gallery UK 

Perhaps the beginning of the end for Claud began when tragedy struck the family in 1938 and their youngest son, Douglas, was killed in a horse-riding accident:

Essex Newsman
Sat 1 October 1938


An inquest was held at Colchester on Saturday on Lieut. Douglas James MacGregor Black, aged 21, of the 27th Field Royal Artillery, stationed at Colchester, who was fatally injured when a horse he was “schooling” fell on him on Sept. 22. The deceased was a son of Lieut. Colonel C H G Black, D.S.O (retired) of Orchard House, Sheen Common, London.
Major Robert Darley gave evidence that Lieut. Black had been with the regiment a year. The young horse concerned in the affair was not fully trained, but it had never given any particular trouble during the month or so Lieut. Black had been riding it.

Gunner Fred Fox, groom to Lieut. Black, stated that on the morning of Sept. 22, witness saddled the horse. Lieut. Black put his left foot on the stirrup and threw his right leg over the back but before he could insert his right foot in the other stirrup the horse became restless. Lieut. Black told witness to release the reins, which he did, and the horse immediately reared and went over backwards. it got up quickly and bolted. Lieut. Black, who was unconscious, was conveyed by ambulance to the military hospital.

Capt C. P. Allen, R.A.M.C. said the cause of death was a fracture of the base of the skull and severe laceration of the brain.

It is to be deeply regretted that a young officer should have his life cut short in this tragic manner,” said the Coroner, recording a verdict of Accidental Death.

Claud returned to full duty during World War II. He was a Liaison Officer with the Free French and Allied Forces, served in the Army of Occupation in Germany, on the British Delegation at the Peace Conference in Paris, and on the Allied Military Committee at Versailles. It is very likely he would have witnessed at first-hand evidence of the Holocaust.

Within a year of peace being declared, however, this poignant short item appeared in a newspaper.

Birmingham Daily Gazette
28 June 1946

Lieut. Col. C H G Black (65) of East Sheen, and a dog were yesterday found dead, side by side, in a plantation at Richmond Park, Surrey. Both had been shot.

A more complete report followed in the 5 July edition of the West London Observer:

The comments of his son, Peter, are interesting: his father "hated any form of sickness or physical infirmity" and that headaches, accompanied by a "very severe skin condition" of unknown cause were the reason Claud decided to commit suicide. It is now known that stress is a major factor in skin problems that often have no physiological cause. 

That he took his dog with him is a sad postscript - this man so used to being in control had finally unravelled. * And Augusta died only a few months later in February 1947 - perhaps her own health had deteriorated following the blows of losing both a son and husband within a few years.

Eldest son Peter had joined the Royal Navy and is on record as the first commander of HMS Rupert, and he died in 1989.

Claud's second son, Robert - who apparently preferred to be called Alastair - was also in the Navy during the War and later moved to South Africa where he joined the staff of the Central Mining and Investment Corporation in Johannesburg.

Information from mining records at the Imperial College in London, state that in 1956, Alastair became Professor of Mining at the University of the Witwatersand and later Head of Department, but also that he had long suffered from depression and he committed suicide in 1967 from a drug overdose at the age of only 46. 

Images from Find-A-Grave, Colchester Cemetery, Essex, England

Note:  Claud wrote a number of articles for the 12th Lancers Journals, including on Africa and the Middle East, which can be read on the Regimental website.

* While one should never make light of such a tragedy there is an irony that a man with the surname of Black suffering from the Black Dog may well have really had a dog with a black coat.


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