The Unlikely Hero from Sheffield - Irvine Mercer Roberts (1917-1943)

"He truely laid down his life for others"

In the Independent newspaper dated Monday 31 August 1992 there was an Obituary for  JOHN MARSH written by Edward Brech

Henry John Marsh, management consultant, writer and teacher, born 17 August 1913, Austin Motor Company 1932-39, Personnel Officer BOAC 1946-47, Director of Personnel Advisory Services Institute of Personnel Management 1947-49, Director Industrial Welfare Society 1950-61, Chairman Voluntary Service Overseas 1957-60, British National Conference on Social Work 1957-60, Director and Director General British Institute of Management 1961-73, Assistant Chairman and Counsellor 1973-75, CBE 1967, books include Introduction to Human Relations at Work 1952, People at Work 1957, Pursuit of God 1968, Ethics in Business 1970, Organisations of the Future 1980, Late Glimpses (verse) 1984, Management of Change 1989, married 1950 Mary Costerton (two sons, two daughters), died 19 August 1992.

THE death of John Marsh just months short of his 80th birthday has removed from Britain's managerial scene one of its more colourful and pioneering characters.

During the middle years of his life he was accustomed to portraying himself as an iconoclast, but that attribution would have belied his fundamental geniality of humour and his warm personal charm. Those personal attributes were as much a mainspring of his long-running success in an institutional career as was any amount of professional expertise.

He began life in the Far East - his family had trading interests in China and Singapore - but he chose Britain for his working life as an engineering apprentice with the Austin Motor Company. Already his personal skills were manifest, gaining for him promotion to apprentice superintendent at a very early age.

The outbreak of war took Marsh into uniform and he suffered the traumatic distress of the Dunkirk evacuation; a couple of years later that trauma and distress were repeated in much worsened form as a prisoner in Japanese hands after the fall of Singapore.

Some of the best of Marsh's personal qualities were brought to the fore in the harrowing setting of the Burma railway project, but his concern for others contributed to bringing him through that ordeal both physically and mentally unscathed.

The highlight of his post-war life undoubtedly came in 1950 when he was invited to succeed The Rev Robert Hyde as Director of the Industrial Welfare Society, the significance of that invitation readily appreciated by those knowing the relevant contemporary situation. His 10-year tenure took the society into broader fields of interest and service as well 
into a wide-ranging international scope. The highlight was Marsh's role in organising and conducting the Duke of Edinburgh's first Commonwealth conference on human relations in industry held at Oxford in 1956. The public acclaim that he gained led to his being head-hunted for the appointment as Director of the British Institute of Management in 1961.

That institute's success during the ensuing decade owed as much to the contemporary circumstances and influences as the input of any particular persons, but to Marsh must go the credit for the international dimension that the institute gained, especially among the numerous Commonwealth countries where he inaugurated or assisted sibling professional institutes.

Marsh was also as much occupied in journeyings abroad for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and for the Overseas Development Administration in the promotion of managerial expertise as he was with the progress of the institute at home.

Those of us who grew increasingly fond of him over the years, will greatly miss his personal warmth and good humour. Humour at times took odd twists; for many years in younger life John and his identical twin brother drew recurrent fun from confusion of identities, because circumstances enabled them both never to reveal the fact of that sibling pairing.

An interesting and varied life to be sure, but one that experienced the full horror of war as a prisoner of the Japanese in Burma. It was whilst he was giving The Chester Lecture in Sheffield Cathedral on 23rd October 1978 that John reflected on Irvine "it had been an unforgettable privilege to have known him."

Irvine Roberts was a most unlikely war hero - a bespectacled, frail almost a slip of a man, who thought the world of his mum. 

But several hundred people, including his brother were told for the first time last night of his immense courage.

Irvine Roberts died at the age of 27 while working on the Burma Railway as a prisoner of war. He succumbed to dysentery but not before he helped 14 other dying men in the "death tent"

The bother Cryil now aged 68 who lives in the house on Bellhouse Road Shiregreen where Irvine was born, knew nothing of the circumstances of Irvine's death until he attended The Chester Lecture in Sheffield Cathedral last night.

SHOCK - The speaker Mr John Marsh was the major in charge of the camp Kanu 1 on the Burma Railway. At the time he noticed the courageous work of "the frail almost slip of a man" from Sheffield.

In memory he dedicated the Lecture to L/Cpl Irvine Roberts 

At home today with his wife Kate, Cyril said "the news came as a complete shock. Of course we knew Irvine had died but we never knew any of the circumstances.

He was always such a quiet lad at home and he thought the world of his mum.

I know people always say someone who's dead was a nice person but Irvine really was. He was such a quiet man, he never made a fuss about anything. He just got on with it. 

Irvine joined up at the outbreak of the war aged 24 said his brother. He was put in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps. He was evacuated from France with others at Dunkirk and later transferred to the Far East. Singapore had fallen while his ship was ailing from South Africa and they sailed straight into Japanese hands"

During The Chester Lecture Mr Marsh described conditions in the camp where Irvine was sent "The hopeless dysentery cases were transferred to a low tent ..many were so weak and emaciated that they could only stare with uncomplaining resignation, hiccough ceaselessly and lapse mercifully into a coma before death"

Irvine emerged as "an inspiring volunteer helper"

"His own condition was precarious but he never spared himself. He had immense courage, matched only by his faith in that he was truly a practicing Christian: he did not talk about it at all - he lived it. he was an easy giving friend to many and it has been an unforgettable privilege to have known him.

He volunteered to look after the "death tent" and over some four weeks tended 14 men as they died. He knew and we knew that he would inevitably succumb to the same desolation of the same bacillary dysentery all too soon. 


 He radiated a cheerfulness which helped us all - the dying and the living. His own dysentery lasted but 4 days.... he was 27 when he died on 22nd June 1943. He truly laid down his life for others.

Now 35 years later, in Sheffield, in this Cathedral. I dedicate this lecture to the memory of Irvine Mercer Roberts, quiet, brave, gentle son of this city - whose grave I visited at Kanburi Cemetery in Thailand in 1975. It is well to remember the sacrifice of millions like Irvine Roberts when we consider our privilege in being alive to create the world of tomorrow.

Today Mr Roberts said that Irvine was a member of the Firth Park United Methodist Church and he had been a Sunday School teacher. His name is on the honours board in the church commemorating those who died in the war.

He added "Irvine was very devoted to his mother. He was not married and I doubt he would have got married while he was alive. He was a very keen photographer and he loved cycling and hiking"

"He would go for long walks in Derbyshire and he's take his dog  - a mongrel called Major - with him. He thought the world of him.

"After the war we were sent some of Irvine's medals but they have been lost for a long time. I think that they were just service medals and they did not give us any clues about his acts of courage"

ROBERTS, Lance Corporal, IRVINE MERCER, 7611016. 4 Ordnance Store Coy. Royal Army Ordnance Corps. 22nd June 1943. Age 27. Son of George William and Emma Roberts, of Shiregreen, Sheffield.Grave Reference: 8. L. 26 Cemetery: KANCHANABURI WAR CEMETERY
Additional Information: Son of George William and Emma Roberts, of Shiregreen, Sheffield

I only came across this article when I was researching a totally un-related matter. I can find nothing on-line or in print that recognizes the courage and bravery that Irvine showed in his final days. He was truly a remarkable man and we should all feel proud of his selfless actions in assisting his dying comrades in their final days.

Surname First name(s) District Vol Page 
Marriages Jun 1897 
Mercer Emma Sheffield 9c 710 Roberts George William Sheffield 9c 710 

Births Mar 1917 
Roberts Irvine M Mercer Sheffield 9c 1040


Independent newspaper dated Monday 31 August 1992

The Sheffield Star dated 24th October 1978

UK Census

Commonwealth War Graves Commission

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