The Bragg family in WWI: selected correspondence

The Royal Institution archive holds the papers of the physicists, William and Lawrence Bragg which were generously donated by members of the Bragg family. The collection is mostly scientific but also contains selection of personal items and correspondence, which allows us the privilege of seeing the Braggs as people as well as scientists.

WWI was a period of huge change for the family on a personal level, the tragic death of their younger son, Robert, in September 1915 was closely followed by the news that William and Lawrence had been awarded the Nobel Prize for physics.

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Gwendoline Bragg with William and their daughter Gwendy, standing in their garden. Photograph from Robert Bragg collection.

Gwendoline Bragg

Gwendoline Bragg, nee Todd was born and raised in Adelaide, South Australia. She was the daughter of Sir Charles Todd, the government astronomer and electrical engineer but had little formal education herself, she was a talented watercolour artist who taught both her husband and children to sketch and paint.

The Royal Institution archives do not contain any letters from Gwendoline in this period but her presence is felt in the replies to her letters which we do hold. Also mentioned is their daughter, Gwendolyn or Gwendy who was very young during the war.

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William Henry Bragg, drawn by his son, William Lawrence.

William Henry Bragg

William was a lecturer at the University of Leeds when the war broke out. Just over a year before this he and his elder son, William Lawrence had discovered a way of investigating the structure of molecules using X-rays.

In autumn 1914 William embarked on a lecture tour of North America, he wrote to his family, particularly to his wife, Gwendoline commenting on his experiences and concerns for his sons, both in the army.

October 1914, WHB to Gwendoline, on board S. S. Minnetonka

November 1914, WHB to Gwendoline, Providence, Rhode Island

November 1914, WHB to Gwendoline, on train to Chicago

December 1914, WHB to Gwendoline, Buffalo railway station

In 1915 William was posted to a research station in Scotland to work on scientific developments for the war effort.

Robert Charles Bragg in his Royal Field Artillery uniform. Taken in May 1915, shortly before he departed for Gallipoli. Courtesy of Lady Adrian

Robert Charles Bragg

The younger son of William and Gwendoline, Robert (‘Bob’ to his family), was a student at the start of the war. He was called up for full time service almost immediately but still retained the hope that he would return to university once the fighting was done.

Robert had been in the cadets as a school boy before the war and wrote in detail about his experiences:

30th May 1909, Robert to Gwendoline Bragg, Dryden House, Oundle School

30th June 1909, Robert to Gwendoline Bragg, Dryden House, Oundle School

4th July 1909, Robert to W.H. Bragg, Dryden House, Oundle School

Robert was initially in a territorial cavalry unit but late in 1914 he gained a commission and joined the Royal Field Artillery. In 1915 his brigade was sent to join the Gallipoli campaign.

Summer 1914, Robert to W.H. Bragg, Grove Hill Farm

8th October 1914, Robert to Gwendoline Bragg, Gammon’s Farm

10th November 1914, Robert to W.H. Bragg, Gammon’s Farm

3rd June 1915, Robert to W.H. Bragg, Milford Camp

4th July 1915, Robert to Gwendoline Bragg, on board SS. Knight Templar

15th July 1915, Robert to Gwendoline Bragg, Alexandria

22nd July 1915 Robert to Gwendoline Bragg, Alexandria

28th July 1915, Robert to W.H. Bragg, on board HMT Enkosi, Alexandria

30th July 1915, Robert to W.L. Bragg, on board HMT Enkosi, at sea

August 4th 1915, Robert to Gwendoline Bragg, HMT Enkosi, at anchor Moudros harbour

c.18th August 1915, Robert to Gwendoline Bragg, Hill 10, Gallipoli

22nd August 1915, Robert to W.H. Bragg, ‘A’ Battery dugout, Kiupredere

26th August 1915 Robert to Gwendoline Bragg, A Battery dugout ‘same place’

29 August 1915, Robert to Gwendoline Bragg, A Battery dugout ‘same place’

August 1915 to Aunt Litz , unsent, A Battery dugout

After Robert’s death in September 1915 his parents received many letters of condolence of which we have some examples:

6 September 1915, R.H.Peel to Gwendoline Bragg

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William Lawrence Bragg

William Lawrence Bragg (known as ‘Bill’ or ‘Willie’ to family and here refered to as Lawrence) was just beginning his scientific career in 1914, although he had already made the discovery (of how to determine molecular structures using X-rays) which would make him the youngest ever Nobel prize winner for science.

Lawrence gained a commission to the Royal Horse Artillery but was soon co-opted to ‘Maps GHQ’, a division of the Royal Engineers. He had to wait several months to be deployed but was sent to the Western Front in late summer 1915 and spent the war with a unit developing a method of ‘sound ranging’ to locate enemy guns.

The Royal Institution Archives

The archive collections of the Royal Institution include the personal papers and experimental notebooks of many of the scientists who have researched, lectured and lived in the building, including the Braggs. Alongside this we have an extensive administrative archive, image collection and a collection of historic scientific apparatus in the museum.

You can find out more about the collections and how to arrange to visit the archive on the Royal Institution website.

The full catalogues for the collections are available through the National Archives Discovery search engine:

William Henry Bragg

William Lawrence Bragg

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