Robert Service (1874 – 1958) Preston-born poet and actor.
On January 16th, 1874 Robert William Service – Poet, Actor and Bard of the Yukon – was born in Preston, Lancashire.
His father Robert was a banker from Kilwinning and his mother, Emily Parker was the daughter of a factory owner from Lancashire. His parents married in Lancaster in 1872 and lived in Preston where their first 3 children (Robert being the oldest) were born. They then moved to Glasgow and had 7 more children. Young Robert was sent to live with his grandfather John Service, the town’s postmaster, and his 3 aunts in Kilwinning. In fact it was in Kilwinning that Robert wrote his first poem at the tender age of 6!
“God bless the cakes and bless the jam;
Bless the cheese and the cold boiled ham,
Bless the scones Aunt Jeannie makes,
And save us all from belly-aches. Amen!”
There is a Heritage plaque outside the building where the Services lived in Main Street, Kilwinning which is now a café.
After a few years Robert joined his family in Glasgow and attended Hillhead High School. He left school at 15 and joined the Commercial Bank of Scotland for a period of time before deciding to go to Canada to try his hand at ranching. From there he moved to Duncan in British Columbia, Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles, working as a labourer and farm hand.
In 1903 he returned to Canada to work in the Bank of Commerce in Vancouver and then to the frontier town Whitehorse on the Yukon River. It was here that he would give recitations of well known poems and ballads before writing his own. One of his most famous poems “The Shooting of Dan McGraw” was composed here after Service heard sounds of revelry from the local bars and was almost shot! Stories and yarns from the Yukon would further inspire his poetry and he soon had enough for a book and “Songs of a Sourdough” was born. It was a success and there were editions printed in London, New York and Philadelphia, eventually earning Service in excess of $100,000 (approx. $2.6 million in today’s money.)
As well as writing novels, Service was the correspondent for the Toronto Star during the Balkan Wars. In 1913 he moved to Paris and married Germaine Bourgoin. When WWI broke out Service worked as a stretcher-bearer and ambulance driver until ill-health forced him out. Whilst convalescing in Paris, he wrote the book of war poems “Rhymes of a Red Cross Man” – which he dedicated to his youngest brother Albert Niven Parker Service who was killed in action in August 1916 aged 22. Service himself received 3 medals for his war service – the 1914-1915 Star, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal. After the war and back in Paris he would walk the streets at night and observe the city and these observations resulted in his poetry book “Ballad of a Bohemian.”
In 1930 he returned to Kilwinning and erected a memorial to his family in the cemetery.
During the outbreak of WWII Service left France for California and Hollywood. He performed recitations of his poetry along with other celebrities to boost the morale of the troops in US Army camps. He also starred in the 1942 film “The Spoilers” playing a version of himself called “The Poet”. The film starred John Wayne, Randolph Scott and Marlene Dietrich whom Robert had a scene with.
The Services returned to France and wintered in Monte Carlo with the rich and famous. Robert wrote further books of verse and 2 autobiography’s before dying aged 84 at his villa in Brittany. He’s regarded as the only poet who became a millionaire in his lifetime.