Front Cover Illustration: Carved head of a biblical king, Stoke sub Hamdon, with considerable surviving polychromy and, probably, dating from the fourteenth century. Carved from Ham Hill stone, its original purpose and setting are unknown. Photo B & M Gittos)

This article came from the Chronicle published November 2009.  Page 138


Church Tales

Author: Jack Sweet


Parish Churches and churchyards are fascinating places. They are full of stories, sometimes quite obvious when a memorial or headstone tells a tale, but often you have to look behind a bland or brief description of a life. The few stories which follow are a brief glimpse and perhaps a taste of what can be found scouting around in a church or hunting through a grave yard.

Combe St. Nicholas – St. Nicholas Church : in Death They Were Not Divided

For over a thousand years this has been a place of worship on the eastern slopes of the Blackdown Hills. The present church of St Nicholas, built at the beginning of the 13th century was enlarged in the 15th on the proceeds of the wool trade, and has remained little changed since that time. The main entrance to the church is through a pair of large iron gates from the main village street just south of the square, and the fine tombs tell of the prosperity of many generations past.

However, the village and its setting against the background of hills and woods, becomes a little sinister following the warning inscribed on the tomb of William Aplin in 1815 which tells the reader that:

Dangers stand thick through all the ground
To rush us to the tomb
And fierce diseases wait around
To hurry mortals home

For two brothers, Maurice and Edward Bethell, remembered on the wall of the north aisle, there were dangers thick enough to daunt the strongest heart a century later on the watery wastes of the North Sea and in the mud and blood of the Western Front.

The Battle of Jutland was fought on the North Sea during the afternoon and evening of 31 May 1916 and was the only time during the First World War, when the great battle fleets of the British and German Empires met in conflict. At about 3.45 pm on that day the battle cruisers scouting ahead of both fleets opened fire on each other, and so began the contest which both navies had eagerly awaited. When the battle was over some eight hours later, the German High Seas Fleet returned to harbour claiming a tactical victory because it had sunk more of the Royal Navy’s ships, but in turn the British claimed a strategic victory because the Germans had been forced to retire, and never challenged the Royal Navy again during the war.

It was during the early stages of the battle, that HMS Nestor, a 1,000 tons destroyer, on which Maurice Bethell was serving as First Lieutenant, found fame. The twelve ships of the Royal Navy’s 13th Destroyer Flotilla, led by Commander The Hon. Edward Bingham in Nestor, were launched in a torpedo attack on the enemy battle cruisers, but at the same time fifteen German destroyers led by a light cruiser, attacked the British. A fierce engagement took place and two German destroyers were sunk. The rest were driven off with no loss the Royal Navy, but the British destroyers were scattered over a wide area thereby reducing the weight of their torpedo attack on the enemy battle cruisers. However, Commander Bingham returned to the attack and Nestor, supported by HMS Nicator and HMS Nomad, charged at top speed towards their huge opponents. Each ship fired two torpedoes but no hits were registered as their aim was thrown out by the pitching and rolling of the sea churned up by the great warships and exploding shells. The 6 inch guns of the German battle cruisers’ secondary armament soon found the range and shells poured down on the audacious little ships. Nomad was hit and stopped dead in the water with her engine room a shambles, but Nestor and Nicator, now joined by HMS Petard, pressed on. More torpedoes were fired, but only Petard scored a hit on the battle cruiser Seydlitz, and then Nestor was hit. A shell exploded in her engine room, and as clouds of steam poured from smashed boilers, the crippled destroyer swung hard to starboard narrowly avoiding colliding with Nicator. She wallowed helplessly some four miles from the disabled Nomad, but as the battle moved away, the two ships were spared further damage; however the reprieve was short, because over the southern horizon came the German High Seas Fleet.

Remorselessly, the huge battleships bore down on the two small destroyers lying in their path, and once again shells fell around them. Nomad was smashed and sank; then came the turn of Nestor. With German shells bracketing his ship, Commander Bingham defiantly ordered the last torpedo to be fired even though there was little chance of it finding a target. Hits were now being registered on Nestor, turning her into a shambles of torn metal and, as she began to sink, the order was given to abandon ship.

In his book, Falklands, Jutland and the Bight, Edward Bingham wrote that during the last moments of Nestor, Lieutenant Bethell had been organising the launching of boats and life rafts, and had reported the successful completion of this operation. Commander Bingham recalled that he had called out to his first officer ‘Now where shall we go!’ to which Bethell’s reply was, ‘To Heaven I trust Sir!’. This answer, Bingham wrote, ‘was characteristic of that gallant spirit and at that moment Bethell turned aside to attend a mortally wounded signalman and was seen no more amidst a cloud of fumes from a bursting shell.’ Commander Bingham and eighty members of Nestor’s company survived and were eventually rescued by a German warship to spend the rest of the war as prisoners.

For his courage in leading the attack on the German battle cruisers, Commander Bingham was awarded the Victoria Cross, one of four won at the battle of Jutland.

The death of Captain Edward Bethell seems doubly tragic. After being severely wounded near Ypres in 1914, and surviving the horrific first battles of the first months of the war, he returned to active service in July 1918, only to die within weeks of its end. On 21 September 1918, The Queen’s Regiment (Royal West Surreys), in which Edward Bethell was a company commander, was taking part in the great assault on the German Hindenburg Line south west of Cambrai, and together with the London and Eastern Counties Battalions, fought their way into the enemy’s outposts and defensive systems in the villages of Epehy and Ronssoy. By mid-day on 21st, they had established a line on some three miles in length, but during the afternoon, in rain and oncoming darkness, the Germans launched fierce counter attacks, and recaptured much of their lost territory. The British put in a new attack and by early dawn on 22 September, had succeeded in retaking about a mile of the German trenches. It was during this savage fighting that Captain Edward Bethell fell leading his men, and on 21 September 1918, the brothers were no longer divided.

In July 1685, the ‘Queen’s Regiment’, recently returned from hard campaigning in Tangier and commanded by Colonel Percy Kirke, formed part of the Royal Army which fought the Monmouth Rebels at Sedgemoor, and gained notoriety for the severity with which they pursued and dealt with the defeated followers of the ill-fated Duke. ‘Kirke’s Lambs’, nicknamed after the Pascal Lamb shown on the regimental colours, became The Queen’s Regiment (Royal West Surreys) – Edward Bethell’s regiment.
Dowlish Wake – St. Andrew’s Church : From Africa’s Sunny Clime to the Klondike’s Icy Stream

St. Andrew’s Church looks south across the roofs of Dowlish Wake to the tree lined ridge of Windwhistle and within its walls rests a man whose destiny lay in the heat of Africa far beyond these green hills.

For centuries the interior of Africa had been a great mystery, but by the end of the 18th century, explorers were starting to unlock its secrets. In 1770 a Scotsman, James Bruce, reached the source of the Blue Nile, but the greatest prize, that of the White Nile remained to be found somewhere in the vast unexplored continent. During the first half of the 19th century, many of the expeditions searching for the source of the Nile were beginning to open up large areas of eastern Africa, and one of the leading participants was John Hanning Speke.

Speke was born into an old Somerset family, and 1844 he joined the Bengal Infantry in India. During the ten tears he served in the sub-continent, he saw action in several campaigns, and rose to the rank of Captain. However, Speke’s ruling passion was exploration, and on leaving India in 1854 he joined an expedition into Somalia led by Lieutenant (later Sir Richard) Burton, author, explorer and translator into English of The Arabian Nights. The expedition failed, and Speke was wounded in an attack by Somalis, barely escaping with his life. He was invalided home and on recovery, served with the Turkish Army in the Crimean War.

In 1857 at the end of hostilities, Speke joined Richard Burton once again in a new African expedition seeking to find and explore the great lake call Nyassa, which was reputed to lie somewhere in the vast interior. Some seven months later, after a journey of incredible hardship, the explorers reached the shores of the lake which we now know to be Lake Tanganyika. Both men were exhausted and ill, but during the march they had heard stories of three great inland seas to the west, and Speke believed that the most northerly could be the source of the White Nile. Because Burton was too weak to continue, Speke set out northwards without his companion, and in July 1858 he arrived on the southern shore of another huge lake which he named Victoria. After taking compass bearings, he confirmed his belief that this lake was the source of the Nile. On Speke’s return, Burton disputed the claim and from that time the relationship between the two men deteriorated until their friendship was destroyed

In 1859, Speke returned to England and wrote articles and gave lectures on the expedition, but his claim to have found the source of the Nile was challenged by Burton when he arrive back in the country claiming that the source was Lake Tanganyika. However, Speke’s claim was taken seriously and, leading an expedition sponsored by the Royal Geographical Society, he set out to explore Lake Victoria and confirm beyond all doubt that it was the Nile’s source. He was accompanied by Captain James Grant, and in July 1862, having reached the lake and marched around its western shore, the party struck the Nile some way to the north. Turning south, Speke finally came to the falls where the headwaters of the Nile pour from Lake Victoria: he had found the source of the great river.

On his return home nearly twelve months later, Speke was publicly feted and his book Journal of Discovery of the Nile, became a best seller. However, once again the discovery was subject to the doubts of some explorers, and one of the most critical was his former friend, Richard Burton. The controversy began to generate much public interest, and a debate between Speke and Burton was arranged for the Royal Geographic Society’s Vacational Meeting at Bath on Friday 16 September 1864. During the afternoon of the day before the confrontation, John Speke went partridge shooting on his uncle’s estate at Neston Park, near Corsham in Wiltshire, but as he climbed over a stone wall his gun went off accidentally, and the discoverer of the Nile fell mortally wounded, shot through the chest. He was buried in St. Andrew’s Church on 26 September 1864, when over 2,000 people were present, including the famous Dr David Livingston and James Grant, his companion on that last great expedition to the source of the White Nile. In discovering the source of the great river, John Hanning Speke had succeeded in solving, in the words of Sir Roderick Murchison, ‘the problem of all the ages’.

Just inside the gate to the churchyard, and on the left hand side, stands a headstone which reads:

Sacred to the memory of
Ludwig Pettersen
Pioneer of the Klondike 1898
Born in Bergen, Norway
Died at Taunton May 22nd 1934
Aged 65
A noble minded, courageous man

Gold was discovered in Rabbit Creek in the Yukon Territory of north west Canada in 1896, and heralded the Klondike Gold Rush, which would become one of the wildest in history. Tens of thousands of men and woman swarmed into the area by steam boats up the River Yukon, or on foot over the White Pass described as the worst ‘this side of Hell’. In summer the Pass was raw rock, and in winter the blizzards swept down with such fury that the Cheechakos or Tenderfoots, as the gold hunters were known, could lean against the wind and not fall over as they climbed in temperatures of -50°F. During the spring of 1858, many of the Tenderfoots died when an avalanche in the Pass buried them under 30 feet of snow and rock, but they still kept coming, driven by the madness of gold fever.

By 1900, however, the gold was running out, and most of the Tenderfoots had left the Yukon for strikes in Alaska: the Klondike Gold Rush was over.

One of the tens of thousands who sought their fortunes in the gold fields was a young Norwegian, Ludwig Pettersen, who struggled up the White Pass and almost died in the terrible spring avalanche of ’98. The work of digging out the dead was said to have greatly affected Ludwig, but his iron will and courage had helped him through the ordeal. Ludwig was also a friend of the author and poet, Robert Service, who wrote extensively about the gold rush, and whose poem ‘The Ballad of Dan McGrew’ (and its variants) is probably better known than his novels – The Trail of ’98 and Songs of a Sourdough – both of which were best sellers in the early 1900s.

After leaving the Klondike, Ludwig Pettersen travelled to many parts of the world before finally settling down in 1921 to carry on a poultry business in Dowlish Wake, and marry local girl Kate Churchill. A local newspaper report of his funeral said that he was a man of iron will and courage, but seldom talked about his experiences.

Within the precincts of St. Andrew’s Church, lie two men of completely different backgrounds but who, by force of will, drove themselves through incredible hardships and now rest in the peace of a Somerset church.
Wincanton – Church of St. Peter and St. Paul : They Found Peace in An English Churchyard

The Parish Church of St. Peter and St. Paul and its churchyard seem almost secreted away in the busy country town of Wincanton but in the south-east corner there is an echo of a time when the whole of Europe was ablaze with conflict and Great Britain stood alone against the might of Napoleon Bonaparte. A headstone stands shadowed by an ancient yew and bears the names of two Frenchmen, Pierre Jacquet and Jean Baptiste Fioupe, who died in 1806 and 1807, and includes the simple sentiment ‘He was a prisoner of war but death has made him free.’

In 1805, Great Britain was at war, Europe lay at the feet of Napoleonic France, but despite the fear of invasion from across the English Channel, Britannia still ruled the waves. There was a stream of prisoners from captured enemy ships being distributed to various parts of the country, some to prisons, some to the hulks floating off ports and river estuaries and some to parole towns for officers where secure accommodation could be obtained in private houses and premises on the captives undertaking not to escape. Wincanton was established as a parole town, and in September 1805, the first batch of 20 prisoners taken in the capture of the 44 gun frigate Didon arrived, during the next seven years, the town would be host to some 500 men and boys.

The Frenchmen were dispersed throughout the town and the 1811 census shows that 19 houses were occupied by 219 ‘French Prisoners of War’. The imprisonment was far from strict and the prisoners were allowed the freedom to move about Wincanton and to walk for a mile outside its boundary in all directions. There were entertainments and indoor recreations, and the Frenchmen were made reasonably comfortable and welcome by the townspeople: the wealth of many of the captives also gave a much needed boost to the local economy. Even so there were men who, as in all wars, are unwilling to see out the conflict or await an exchange of prisoners at some unspecified time in the future and escapes were attempted. On 17 February 1806, Joseph Allemes, captain of the privateer Hirondelle, escaped but was recaptured the following month in London, and as punishment was sent to the prison hulks at Chatham. Young Francis Guieu, son of the cook of the Alexandre, ran away in September 1809, after three years in Wincanton ‘on account of the ill-usage from his father …… he is now again admitted on Parole’. Francis was finally released and repatriated on 7 May 1810.

On 25 June 1808, the French merchantman Tigre was captured and an army surgeon, Jost Duval, was taken prisoner. It was recorded in the Wincanton Parole Register in January 1810 that he was received on transfer from Tiverton because ‘one of the Townspeople there fearing he would seduce his daughter’.

Six months later the lusty Jost is reported to have escaped from Wincanton, and there is no record of his recapture. Perhaps he made it back to France with the assistance of local smugglers and was one of the prisoners mentioned in the following newspaper report in August 1811: ‘George Culliford, a notorious smuggler, has been committed to Ilchester jail, for conveying from Wincanton, several of the French prisoners of war from that Depot. Culliford is said to be one of the gang that for some time has infested the neighbourhood, and been aiding the escape of the prisoners from Wincanton to the Dorsetshire coast, whence they have been conveyed to Cherbourg, and it was with great difficulty and perseverance he was taken in consequence of a large reward.’

The final departure of the Frenchmen was very sudden. One day in December 1811, a troop of cavalry clattered into Wincanton and surrounded the prisoners at their morning roll call. The troopers were followed by a company of infantry, and it seems that this was so unexpected that the prisoners were completely unprepared to move. The Frenchmen were isolated from the townspeople, and by 4 o’clock in the afternoon they had gone. The prisoners were marched to Mere where they were kept in the church under guard all night, and the following day were dispersed to quarters in Kelso, Hawick, Biggar and Jedburgh to await eventual exchange for British prisoners of war. The Wincanton Burial Registers show, however, that 17 Frenchmen remained behind in the parish churchyard but only the final resting place of Pierre Jacquet and Jean Baptist Fioupe, both surgeons, is known today.

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