Escape from Russia: Percy Blackburn’s story

One of the many and varied materials held at the Glamorgan Archives in the Hughesovka Research Archive is an employment reference for John Percy Blackburn, dated 26/8 April 1918, on the headed notepaper of the New Russia Company Limited.

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To All Whom This may Concern

We beg to certify that the bearer Mr John Percy Blackburn has served the Company since 1894. From that date till 1903 he acted as assistant to the engineer in charge of the maintenance of our railway and its buildings, and was then promoted to the position of responsible chief of that department. In his capacity he also did survey work and built several branch lines of railroad. Subsequently Mr Blackburn took charge of our entire railway service, a position he has filled with ability.

Mr Blackburn is leaving us on account of the troublesome state of affairs in this country and the advice of the British Consul General, and we lose in him a thoroughly efficient railway manager, reliable in every respect. He leaves us with our best wishes and we can strongly recommend him for a similar position.  [HRA/D431]

The ‘troublesome state of affairs’ referred to in the letter were a product of the war raging across Russia between the Red and White Armies following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.  As with many foreign nationals in Russia at this time, Percy Blackburn had been advised to leave the country. However, while most headed for Petrograd and the border with Finland, as the most immediate escape route, Percy headed north to join the British Forces at Murmansk. His story is told through the family records of the Blackburn family held in the Hughesovka Research Archive (HRA/D431) and also though Percy’s military records held at the National Archives in Kew (WO374/6847).

John Percy Blackburn (known as Percy) was born in Blackburn in July 1878 but was brought up in Russia at Hughesovka (now Donetsk). His father, Joseph Blackburn, was a foundry moulder and one of the many men who, attracted by the wages and, no doubt, the prospect of adventure, joined John Hughes’ New Russia Company.  Hughes, an iron master and engineer from South Wales, had been commissioned by the Russian Government, in 1869, to build an iron foundry in the Donbass region of southern Russia (now the Donetsk area of the Ukraine). Joseph Blackburn and most of his family returned to Britain after the Russian revolution of 1905 and set up home in Chorlton on Medlock near Manchester. Percy, however, had married Mary Steel the year before, on 2 April 1904, at the English Church in Hughesovka. Like Percy, Mary came from family that had settled and worked at Hughesovka for decades. As with most of the foreign workforce at Hughesovka, Percy was a skilled man and a valued employee. By and large, the New Russia Company bought in its skilled men, often from South Wales. Percy, however, was part of the first generation to be raised in Hughesovka. He served his apprenticeship as a land surveyor in Russia and by the age of 22 years he was a surveyor working on the development and maintenance of the railway system that played a key role in providing the New Russia Company with raw materials and exporting the iron and steel made in its furnaces. It must have been a difficult decision to stay on in 1905, but Mary came from a large family and most of the Steels had also opted to stay. Many years later, Mary told her family that Percy was convinced that Russia was a land of opportunity and that the New Russia Company would continue to play its part in building a new modern economy.

Bertie, the first of Percy and Mary’s five sons and two daughters, was born in Hughesovka in 1905. Many years later one of Percy’s sons, William, described the affluent lifestyle that the family enjoyed:

The house we lived in was fairly large with extensive grounds. It had separate quarters for coachman, yardman and female help, stables for three horses and loft above to store the horse carriages or sledges whatever the season was. A huge garden with endless rose trees for my mother because she used to make a special jam from the rose leaves. There were two kitchens one attached to the house for winter use and the other across the yard for summer.

Big double gates gave the only entry from the road which, turning left, took us to the works and/or the town. …. And facing our gates just endless open space. I am near certain that the football ground was not far from this area…. 

I and my brothers went to the English School and I remember going with my father to see the foundations for a new school the year we left.

All of this was to change in 1917 when, with the war going badly and the economy on the verge of collapse, the Tsar abdicated and the reins of government were passed to the Liberal Government led by Alexander Kerensky. If those in Hughesovka thought that this might bring an element of stability, Kerensky’s decision to continue the war led to further upheavals. By the summer of 1917 there was a very real prospect of revolution, with the Government’s control of the capital challenged by the Petrograd Soviet and Lenin’s return to Russia in April 1917. Faced with the prospect of a break down in law and order many of the British families in Hughesovka took the decision to leave Russia.

Percy’s two eldest boys were at school in England, but it must have been a daunting task for Mary, with the help of her mother Tabitha, to plan and make the journey back to Britain. They left Hughesovka, on 19 Sept with the three boys, Harold aged 8, William aged 7 and Joey who was only 3 months old. The journey to England, via Riga, would normally have taken about a week but, due to the war, the only route open was through St Petersburg, Finland, Sweden and Norway. They eventually arrived in Aberdeen on the 2nd of November. It was a journey of over 6 weeks and during the first leg to Petrograd they would have had to thread their way through a war torn transport network, short of food and money and in constant danger of arrest or robbery.

The story of their journey, as told by Mary Steel and her son William to Mary’s granddaughter, is set out in the records of the Hughesovka Research Archive (HRA/D431). As William noted, his grandmother, Tabitha Steel, regretted that they had left Hughesovka in such a hurry.

I always remember her complaining ‘til she died that she should have brought a bag of gold sovereigns that in the haste of departure she left behind. My mother, in later years, told me that she had to use a great many of them to oil the wheels of our departure. I still possess one sovereign and a silver rouble. Father lost almost everything; his faith in the future of Russia caused him to invest heavily but I suppose the revolution caught his too quickly.

The family set up home in Corn Street, Chorlton-on-Medlock, next door to Mary’s brother in law. Percy, however, had elected to stay behind, as William later recalled:

…in the vain hope of saving something of his future and possessions and in the end had to flee to save his own life. It was two years before we saw him again.

Percy’s granddaughter takes up the story drawing on his diaries. Although their families were safe in Britain, it was clear that life in Hughesovka was becoming increasing difficult for Percy and the remaining foreign employees of the New Russia Company. Following the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, the New Russia Company’s days were limited as the state increasingly took control of industry. While there was still a need for the skills that the British workforce possessed, there was also a growing suspicion of foreigners fuelled by the news of British backed armed intervention attempting to topple the Bolshevik government.

After handing to the authorities his rifles and other weapons kept for his own safety and hunting he finally, on 8 March 1918, handed in to the police his Smith and Wesson revolver, No 87033, and commenced to prepare for his move from Hughesovka. He had money in various companies, but the Bolshevik Government were now in supreme power in Russia and everything fully controlled by them and careful watch being kept on foreigners, their business and assets.

The result was that when grandad attempted to realise on his assets they just closed in and he was able to draw 10,000 roubles at the time the currency was 10 roubles to the pound.

40,000 roubles was held back for investigation, as they put it, also property, land and personal holdings. Notes in his diary show covering expenses for the journey. He had decided to make his way to Murmansk.

He left Hughesovka 10 April 1918 and made his way to Moscow to see the British Consulate General to make his claim on assets left behind and obtain passport coverage and he stayed there for six days whilst all was clarified.

The list below sets out the preparations that Percy made in April for 1918 for his journey to Moscow. It is likely that the large sum earmarked for ‘tips and small debts’ included a significant sum to buy ‘the goodwill’ of local officials.

Passport stamps – 4 roubles

Passport photo – 22 roubles

1 pair of braces – 18 roubles

1 portmanter (sic) – 18 roubles

1 Handbag – 20 roubles

Photo with friend – 20 roubles

Tobacco for road (quarter pound) – 9 roubles

Shirts and collars – 45 roubles

2 pairs Gloves (size 6) – 9 roubles

Bread – 20 roubles

Eggs – 10 roubles

Tips and small debts paid – 103 roubles

Percy’s is an unusual story. While the vast majority of the foreign workforce in Hughesovka elected to return home, Percy was clearly intent on joining the British Armed Forces with the North Russia Expeditionary Force based at the northern port of Murmansk. This may have been prompted by a determination to ‘do his bit’ given that his brother in Manchester had joined the Army. It is more likely, however, that he had still not given up on Russia and planned to stay for as long as possible to see how the situation unfolded.

The North Russia Expeditionary Force had been established by the Allies initially to protect the Russian ports used to supply the Russian army fighting on the Eastern Front. When the Bolsheviks, following the Treaty of Brest Litovsk, withdrew Russia from the war the Expeditionary Force was bolstered with British and American troops, ostensibly, to protect the munitions and supplies at Archangel and Murmansk.  However, while its remit appeared primarily defensive, the Force was used, increasingly, to support the White Armies in Northern Russia in their campaigns against the Red Army.

Percy’s story can be pieced together not only from the Hughesovka Research Archive but also from his military records held at the National Archives in Kew. It is not clear how Percy, at that time 40 years old and with no military experience, was first received by the British Forces at Murmansk on arrival in May 1918. His family think that, initially, he was employed as an interpreter and this fits with his rank of Acting Sergeant in the Middlesex Regiment. By July 1918, however, it was clear that his skills in the management of railway networks had been recognised. In a letter to the War Office, dated 17 July 1918, Major General Maynard, Commanding the Allied Land Forces, Murmansk asked that Percy be given a commission as an officer:

I have the honour to inform you that Mr J Blackburn who is an experienced railway engineer having many years experience in Russia is staying out here to supervise the Russian Railway Service.

General Poole has recommended Mr Blackburn to have a Temporary Commission as a Second Lieutenant and I beg to request that covering authority may be given for this appointment with effect from 1 July 1918, which is essential for the fulfilment of his duty. [WO374/6847]

However, there were clearly concerns that Percy had not undergone military training and it took 2 months for the War Office to agree, reluctantly, to this arrangement with Percy receiving a temporary commission as a 2nd Lieutenant with the Railway Operating Division, Allied Forces Murman, Russia:

It is no doubt irregular but the circumstances are so peculiar that you may be inclined to agree that covering authority might be granted in this case [WO374/6847]

Given the reliance in a fast moving war on transporting troops and supplies large distances, Percy’s knowledge and skills would have been invaluable. Within months he had become known to others and the War Office received a request from the Russo-Asiatic Company, in December 1918, that Percy be released from the Army to work for the company on the railway network in Siberia. Unfortunately it was evident by then that the work and the conditions had taken a toll on Percy’s health. By October 1918 he was back in Britain in hospital, initially at Manchester 2nd Military Hospital and later at John Leigh’s Hospital in Altrincham recovering from scurvy and ‘neurasthenia’ – a condition usually associated with chronic fatigue brought on by physical and mental exhaustion. Although the Blackburn family believe that he did return to Russia for a short period, his military records contain details of a series of medical boards held in Manchester in the first half of 1919 at which he was assessed as unfit for active service. With the North Russia Expeditionary Force already being wound down, Percy was discharged from the Army in the second half of 1919.

On leaving the Army Percy rejoined his family in Chorlton on Medlock. Despite his impressive references from the New Russia Company, like many who returned from Hughesovka, he found it difficult to find work in the immediate post war period with the downturn in the economy. In addition, it would have been increasingly obvious that there was little or no prospect of retuning to Russia. His granddaughter recalled:

Grandad Blackburn was not able to get work in England. Eventually, and sadly, he did work as a checker on the docks. It must have been awfully hard for him to do this type of work after the life he enjoyed in Russia and the work he did over there.

Although Mary Blackburn lived until 1961, Percy died on 16th November 1926 at the age of 48. Perhaps a fitting testimony to his achievements lies in a reference provided by his Commanding Officer in North Russia:

Mr J P Blackburn joined the North Russia expeditionary Force in Murmansk in May 1918 actuated by a desire to help his country. He was employed in the railways and did not most excellent work for 6 months until invalided home. I saw much of his work and was impressed not only with his technical knowledge but also with the zeal and energy with which he carried out his duties. He is full of initiative and works with considerable tact. He has gained the esteem and respect of the members of the NREF.

Tony Peters, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer

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One thought on “Escape from Russia: Percy Blackburn’s story

  1. Escape from Russia: Percy Blackburn’s story - Glamorgan Archives

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