George Philbey was born in Nether Hallam in Sheffield, Yorkshire on 16 August 1892. He was the second of five children born to James Alfred Philbey, a police constable, and Minnie Elizabeth Philbey (née Ward). After his father’s death in 1898 George Philbey and his elder brother Frank went to live in the Northern Police Orphanage in Harrogate, while his mother and younger siblings moved in with the children's maternal grandmother in Duncombe Street, Sheffield.
In 1911 Philbey was admitted to Bede College at Durham University. While at the college he demonstrated great enthusiasm for sport, playing in college matches in rugby, hockey, and boating. Although “only one Junior had played Rugby before coming to college and … only four knew what Rugby was”, George Philbey made a positive impression: “Philbey as a forward … [promises] well and with more practice should find [a] place in the team.” (The Bede magazine, Dec. 1911, p.20). As Philbey’s name is recorded in Yorkshire Rugby Football Union’s “In Memoriam” 1914-19 as a member of Darnall RFC, we know he continued to play the game after his time at Durham. His enthusiasm for sport found expression in another contribution to the same issue of the magazine, in which he entertained his friends debating the question ‘Was Shakespeare a sport?’
Upon completion of his degree in 1913, Philbey worked as a school teacher in the Sheffield area. Having served with the Territorial Force of the Durham Light Infantry during his time at Bede College, he enlisted as a Private with 12th Battalion, York and Lancaster Regiment on 11 September 1914. Philbey quickly rose through the ranks, being promoted to corporal on 2 December 1914, then lance sergeant on 18 December 1914. On 19 April 1915 he was again promoted to sergeant and transferred to the Battalion’s C Company.
The battalion was first assigned to defend the Suez Canal, arriving in Alexandria on 1 January 1916, but they were soon re-assigned to France to participate in the planned attack on the Somme. The 12th Battalion sailed on the H.M.T. Briton from Port Said on 10 March 1916, arriving ten days later at Marseilles, and later setting up camp facing the heavily-fortified village of Serre.
On the morning of 1 July 1916, Philbey’s C Company was part of the first wave of the battalion to move into No Man’s Land. The results were disastrous and the casualties high, with some waves losing half of their force before they reached the front line. By 7 July, 495 men were reported dead, wounded, or missing. Philbey was one of the wounded, and he later died of his wounds on 10 July 1916. He is buried at Couin British Cemetery, Pas de Calais.
Sergeant George Philbey is commemorated in Durham on the Bede College 1914-1918 Cross, Plaque, and Roll of Honour. In his native Yorkshire he is commemorated in the Yorkshire Rugby Union’s “In Memoriam” 1914-19, and in Sheffield on the Sheffield City Council Roll of Honour, the Sheffield City Battalion Roll of Honour, the St Hilda’s Windmill Lane Roll of Honour, the St Mary’s Roll of Honour Plaque, and the St Stephen’s Roll of Honour and War Memorial.