Another Wall Face: Robert H Forster


A new exhibition is currently (21 August to 9 November 2014) running along the length of Hadrian’s Wall. Wall Face uses portraits of antiquarians and archaeologists involved with the Roman Wall to provide a personal perspective on its study. The rather interesting concept it embodies is a distributed exhibition, with components hosted at different venues within the Hadrian’s Wall part of the Frontiers of the Roman Empire World Heritage Site. To see the whole exhibition you simply have to visit all the sites (and there are incentives to encourage you to do so)!

The exhibition covers Sir Ernest Budge, William Camden, R G Collingwood, John Hodgson, William Hutton, John Leland, Sir Ian Richmond, William Stukeley, and Sir Mortimer Wheeler. To mark the opening of Wall Face, then, here is one more face from Hadrian’s Wall that Per Lineam Valli thinks deserves a little additional recognition; unlike most of them, however, he was a local lad.

R H Forster

A Vanity Fair portrait of R H Forster in their Rowers of Vanity Fair series

A Vanity Fair portrait of R H Forster in their Rowers of Vanity Fair series

Robert Henry Forster (1867–1923) was born at Backworth in Northumberland (now not far from Newcastle Airport), trained as a lawyer, made a living as a historical novelist and poet, relaxed as an oarsman, but was most significantly for our purposes an archaeologist. The one thing he was not was the author of the History of Corbridge, as many of the knock-off POD editions available claim (that was a different Robert Forster, 1815–85, a watch- and clockmaker in Corbridge).

R H Forster packing up an inscription in 1910

R H Forster packing up an inscription in 1910 (courtesy Trustees of the Corbridge Excavation Fund*)

Why was Forster important? Together with Newcastle architect W H Knowles, he directed the excavations of the Roman site at Corbridge from 1907 to 1914 (The Corstopitum excavations) after Leonard Woolley left to start digging in the Near East (when they became the first training excavation in British archaeology). His connection with Hadrian’s Wall began in 1899, when he published The Amateur Antiquary, a series of Wall-themed essays that included a fictionalised description of the frontier as he envisaged it. In his Hadrian’s Wall: A Life, Richard Hingley claims Forster’s book as ‘an inspiration for the approach adopted in this book as it effectively brought the remains of the Wall to Life’ (p.204). As Hingley notes, following Eric Birley, Forster was the first to assert that there were two turrets between each milecastle, something we simply take for granted nowadays.

Forster went on to publish a paper in 1901, rather modestly entitled ‘Some notes on Hadrian’s Wall‘ which, whilst not exactly establishing him as a major-league Wall scholar, served to indicate his abilities and interests. It was perhaps this that brought him to Francis Haverfield’s attention when he was recruiting a team of supervisors to support Woolley for the first Corstopitum excavation season in 1906.

R H Forster supervising excavators in front of the W granary at Corbridge

R H Forster supervising excavators on the portico in front of the W granary at Corbridge (courtesy Trustees of the Corbridge Excavation Fund)

Forster was a perfectly capable excavator in the terms of his day (the only fair way to judge an archaeologist), although the reputation of the Corstopitum campaign subsequently suffered at the hands of Woolley’s rather embittered comments on it. A much better assessment of his work can be gleaned from W H Knowles’ obituary of his friend and colleague, where he noted Forster’s popularity with the labourers (mostly agricultural, mining, and pottery men). Annual interim reports were produced, as well as newspaper articles and sundry other discursive pieces. Interestingly, Forster stood up to Haverfield (‘The Pope of Roman Britain’) over the issue of the function of Site 11, the large courtyard building still visible at Corbridge. Haverfield thought it was a legionary headquarters building, but Forster disagreed and some heated and very public discussion ensued.

The First World War brought an end to the Corstopitum excavations and Forster retired early to Devon, where he lived with his wife in Combeinteignhead in a 17th/18th-century house called Rest Dod. His last published work was a book of poems about his garden there and, rather fittingly, he is buried within sight of the house and garden. However, his tombstone is capped by a significant epitaph: ‘a faithful son of Northumberland’.

R H Forster's gravestone in Combeinteignhead churchyard

R H Forster’s gravestone in Combeinteignhead churchyard

Finally, on the grounds that you can probably tell more about a writer by what he wrote than what he looked like, here is R H Forster ‘imagineering’ in The Amateur Antiquary, describing Roman Corbridge more than seven years before he actually dug there:

Soon the road swerves to the right, and slants down to the level of the haughs; and a few hundred yards bring us to the bridge, which forms the last link in the chain of our day’s travel. The water is swirling and gurgling against the massive stone piers and abutments, and, as we ride across by the great timber roadway, we feel half inclined to loiter and admire the view; for the sun is hanging close above the western heights, and the river, as it steals down towards us, is like a stream of dancing gold. But the keen autumn air has made us too hungry to linger over reflections, actual or sentimental: let us press on up the last short ascent, and enter the town which is to harbour us for the night.

Corstopitum is a curious, irregular little place. The cramped fortress, which Julius Agricola planted here on the ruins of some old Otadene stronghold, has already been swallowed up by the thriving town, to which peace and commerce have given birth. There is no troop in garrison now; but some two thousand rough, pleasure-loving soldiers are quartered within a few miles of the place, and Corstopitum lives on them. Even at this late hour the forum is ringing with the clamour of bargainers; for during the afternoon various parties have come hither on leave from Cilurnum, Hunnum, and Vindobala; and every man of them is bent on enjoyment. Garrison life in these Wall-fortresses is a monotonous form of existence; and many a rough soldier knows no other charm to beguile its dulness, than the memory or expectation of these “noctes Corstopitanae”.

But let us take a peep at the scene in the forum, if we dare risk our ear-drums in such a pandemonium. The little square is packed with the stalls of provision-dealers and wine-sellers; each tradesman is volubly extolling his own wares, and giving full, particular, and extremely libellous accounts of the stock, person, character, and genealogy of his nearest rival. Here a spruce Asturian trooper is wildly threatening vengeance against an unwashed Otadene, who is trying, with the aid of many grimaces, to pass off sparrows for larks: here a petty officer of the Ala Sabiniana is explaining, in a mixture of barbarous Latin and good but highly flavoured Norican, that the market-woman’s sausages are no true product of the genuine pig; and the good lady is indignantly, but not altogether truthfully, recounting the names and titles of the various distinguished persons, who have eaten of the accused dainties, and afterwards sent for more: and here a heavy-witted Frisian private, three parts drunk already, stands, like the ass between two bundles of hay, lost in hopeless indecision between two capacious jars of wine, which the smiling and subservient Greek merchant is smoothly assuring him contain prime Massic and choice Caecuban respectively.

“Believe him not, good sir,” cries his subtle countryman from the next stall. “By Dionysus! he made both of them himself, here in Corstopitum.”

Meanwhile the taverns, which appear to be numberless, are doing a roaring trade; and the two or three temples, which the town contains, are trying their utmost to outbid the taverns. The more sedate deities of official Rome find little favour at Corstopitum: orgy-loving gods from Syria and Egypt have ousted them, and the temples are ablaze with lights, and ringing with the clash of cymbals and the rattle of the sistrum. But these places are too thickly crowded to allow us to make further investigations in comfort, and of too dubious a character for respectable travellers to enter without risk of insult or loss of reputation: and finally, seeing that the process of painting Corstopitum red is about to begin, we are driven back to the one building which will escape this general redecoration, the official posting-house, where we are to pass the night.

Morning comes once more, and after much worry and certain explosions of temper we resume our journey. Corstopitum wears an air of depression, and we are up too early to suit the habits of a town which usually goes to bed in the not-very-small hours of the morning. However, threats and promises induce the sleepy posting-house attendants to bestir themselves at last; and soon Corstopitum has fallen asleep again, and we ourselves are riding northward up the long hill, which leads us towards the Wall.

At last the straggling woods, through which the steeper part of the road passes, are left behind: there is a glorious view behind us, the wide expanse of Tynedale, backed by the wooded hills, between which the Devilswater comes rushing out to join the greater Tyne; but we can spare no more than one brief backward glance for all its beauties: a small entrenched camp lies close to the wayside on our left; but we do not stop to examine it. Straight in front of us is something better worth looking at, the Wall itself. Dignified as we are, we set our horses to a canter, and challenge each other to try who shall reach it first; an exciting but frivolous amusement, which nearly brings us into trouble. There are sentries posted at the gap, where the road pierces the great earthworks, which run parallel to the Wall, upon the southern side; and such is the eagerness of our competition that we can hardly rein in our steeds, when the guardians of the pass shout lustily to us to stop (for none may go northward of the Wall without a proper authorization), and angrily enquire whether we imagine that we are in a maledicted circus.

Further Reading

Bishop, M C (1994) : Corstopitum: an Edwardian Excavation, London

Forster, R H (1899): The Amateur Antiquary: His Notes, Sketches, and Fancies Concerning the Roman Wall in the Counties of Northumberland and Cumberland, Newcastle upon Tyne

Freeman,  P W M (2007): The Best Training Ground for Archaeologists: Francis Haverfield and the Invention of Romano-British Archaeology, Oxford

Hingley, R (2012): Hadrian’s Wall: A Life, Oxford

Knowles, W H (1923): ‘Robert Henry Forster’, Journal of the British Archaeological Association 29, 293–5

* R H Forster was an executive committee member when the Corbridge Excavation Fund was set up in 1907. The Fund not only still exists, but owns all of the pre-1930 artefacts from the Corstopitum excavations, making them available to English Heritage through a loan agreement.

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