PARACHUTES, THE PRESS AND DANNY BOY
Here are three pieces, completely unrelated but, I hope, will be of interest.
Firstly, on Sunday afternoon, 7 February 1926, Yeovilians flocked to Westland’s aerodrome to watch Captain A F Muir, of Surrey Flying Service, carryout a parachute drop from 600 feet above the crowd. The excitement of the occasion, and its tension, was heightened by the fact that this was the brave captain’s first jump!
Flying over at 600 feet , the Avro bi-plane piloted by Flying Officer E F Smith, steadied and out jumped Captain Muir coming down in free-fall for the first 200 feet before opening his ‘Guardian Angle ‘ parachute, and waiving to the cheering spectators, landed safely on the aerodrome. The parachuting event was followed by a demonstration of ‘trick flying’ by another of the Surrey Flying Service machines with a Mr A A Anderson and his colleague, Mr B Powell walking to the wing tips of the aircraft as it circled overhead. The afternoon was rounded off with pleasure flights in several aircraft brought for the occasion.
In my second piece, Mr Denys Thompson, the headmaster of the old Yeovil School, appears to have fallen out with the editor of the Yeovil Review who wrote in the November 1946 edition:
‘Bitter critic of the penny daily press is MR. DENYS THOMPSON, young headmaster of Yeovil School. He finds his pupils get their ideas from the sensationalist newspapers and the cinema instead of from the school! And naturally he resents it. He ably puts his case in two books, “The Voice of Civilisation” and “Between the Lines” (both published by Frederick Muller). Some of his criticisms seem unfounded – for example, his pet theory is that newspapers “play down” news of a catastrophic nature because it affects advertising revenue. In out experience the average newspaper reader complains of precisely the opposite – that too much prominence is given to the gloomy news. Look through any week’s front pages and see for yourself. Whatever sinister influences big advertisers may exert on editorial policies – if any – it is offset by the splendid service to the reader that the newspaper is enabled to provide from advertising revenue. However much Mr. Thompson may favour newspapers without advertising, it is worth noting that the one outstanding example of an advertisement-free daily paper, “P.M.” of New York, is switching over to traditional style soon. Its losses have been too heavy to continue without income from advertising. A final word to Mr. Thompson: Mud-slinging at the press and journalists is a favourite pastime these days. But, on the whole, British newspapers do their job impartially under great difficulties. The many are made the scapegoat of the few by critics who usually have as big an axe to grind as the half-dozen or so papers who may fail in their duty to the public.’
And finally, the gentle haunting lyrics of the well-loved ballad ‘Danny Boy’, set to the old Irish tune ‘A Londonderry Air’, was written in 1910 by a Somerset man, Frederick Edward Weatherly. Born in Portishead, in 1848, Frederick Weatherly, was a lawyer and King’s Counsel and wrote over 3000 songs, including the popular song of the First World War – ‘Roses of Picardy’.
Files from the Western Gazette
From The Western Gazette of Friday 20 August 1880:
A MYSTERIOUS WHISTLER
For several succeeding Sundays, the congregation of Holy Trinity Church, Yeovil, have been much disturbed by a noise as someone whistling, which generally commenced with the sermon, and kept up the accompaniment until the end of the service. Sunday night was no exception, for immediately the Rev. Abel Phillips had ascended the pulpit and given out his text, the whistling was again heard. Thereupon the rev gentleman (who, it appears, had received several complaints upon the matter) directed the sexton to discover the delinquent and put a stop to the performance, which had begun in a steady business like way. The sexton and Mr. Churchwarden Curtis left the church for the purpose and soon returned when the noise was again repeated, much to the annoyance of the Vicar, who was evidently disturbed by the incident, as he asked the congregation to be lenient under the circumstances, as he feared his remarks must be rather incoherent to them. Eventually a member of the congregation, who lives in the immediate vicinity of the church, left his seat for a while, and the whistling soon afterwards ceased. It subsequently transpired that a parrot was the innocence cause of the annoyance complained of.
THE SOLDIER AND THE LANDLADY
The conduct of the landlady of an hotel not a hundred miles from this place and a recruiting sergeant has created considerable scandal recently. It appears that some time ago, a gay young Guardsman was sent into the neighbourhood on a recruiting expedition. He took up his quarters at the hotel kept by the husband of the landlady referred to, and shortly afterwards incidents occurred which led to the landlord and others to believe that the landlady and the sergeant were on more intimate terms than were compatible with their positions. Representations were thereupon made to headquarters, which resulted in the soldier being removed from the district. Shortly afterwards the landlady, who it should be stated is between 40 and 50 years of age, was suddenly found to be missing, and almost immediately afterwards it transpired that the recruiting sergeant had been bought out. The landlady subsequently returned, and of course told a very plausible tale as to the cause of her absence. The young soldier also re-appeared upon the scene, and, being out of a “sit”, was engaged as a pot boy at the hotel. The Landlord’s jealousy was again aroused, and he ordered the man to leave the house. The landlady, however, insisted on his being allowed to remain, and quarrels became common. The neighbours, indignant at the conduct of the wife and the soldier, assembled near the house in crowds several nights in succession, and threatened to give the pot boy a “ducking”. Finding that the place was getting too warm for him, and possibly thinking that “discretion was the better part of valour”, the man suddenly “made tracks”, and has not since been heard of.
The Yeovil Review of August 1942 recalled the Home Guard Camp:
They worked hard, they played hard, they ate well, they slept well, they all enjoyed themselves and came home fitter and better soldiers. This summarises the opinion of all who attended the Yeovil Borough Coy’s Home Guard Camp.
After a rather tedious train journey the Company had a four mile march to the camp situated in one of the most beautiful spots of Somerset. Thanks to an energetic advance party they found the tents pitched, all arrangements made, and a hot meal ready for them. Maybe, some of the less experienced soldiers found the first night rather disturbing under the fresh sleeping conditions, but it took very little time for all to shake down to the new conditions of life and to find what hard work and good company made a really enjoyable holiday. Although, quite rightly most of the daylight hours were spent in hard training, sport and recreation played a very important part in the week’s activities. Several cricket matches were played against local teams with varying results, but the Yeovil Borough Company mustered a very creditable side. Skittles found great favour amongst many of the older Yeovil Skittle League players, but few could find their form with the rubber balls customary to that part of Somerset. Darts of course, there is always darts. Shooting matches and rifle firing practice naturally formed a favourite and instructive pastime.
The “Retreat” played by the Coy”s Bugle Band, and the ceremonial changing of the guard recalled many memories of soldering in happier days.
The Coy’s Sports Day held on the last Saturday afternoon started off with a great swing, but no sooner had the heats of the various events been run off when down came the rain, and the finals had to be postponed until the following morning. However, the rain did not entirely spoil the afternoon as invitations had been sent to the many new formed friends in the district, and especially the younger men were able to entertain pleasant company to tea.
It was most unfortunate that the Sergeant Major lost his voice in the middle of the week, but somehow it did not deter his great persuasive powers.
The great success of the week was largely due to the splendid arrangements made, thanks to the energy and organising ability of the Commanding Officer, Major H. C. C. Batten, D.S.O. to whom all members of the Company are grateful for his untiring efforts.
|Homing Waltz||Vera Lynn|
|Wish you were here||Eddie Fisher|
|Somewhere along the way||Nat ‘King’ Cole|
|High Noon||Frankie Lane|
|Sugar Bush||Doris Day and Frankie Lane|
|You belong to me||Jo Stafford|
SOME MUNICIPAL MOMENTS
A century ago the Yeovil Town Council became embroiled in a dispute over the purchase and type of pipe to be used for the Council’s first large sewerage scheme. The battle between the various factions on the Council rumbled on over a period of years and resulted in some incredible scenes in the Council Chamber. The following example gives a flavour of the antics of the municipal fathers during those long forgotten Council meetings.
This row broke out at the July 1900 meeting when the Sewage Committee recommended that the pipes should be bought by the Council, and then supplied at a profit to the contractors carrying out the scheme. Alderman Raymond, the Committee Chairman, pointed out that the ratepayers would benefit by the Council’s purchase of the pipes, but this was strongly opposed by Council Levi Beer who considered the whole scheme should be put out to contract. Councillor Beer was a man of strong convictions and could be guaranteed to stand by them through thick and thin; he enlivened many meetings with his strong opposition to what he believed to be the Council ‘establishment,’ Levi Beer was in business as a cheese factor, and lived in West Hendford House. He had owned the land on which Beer Street was laid out hence the name of the street.
The Borough Surveyor who was in charge of the sewerage scheme, pointed out that Council were always well treated by pipe manufactures, but this brought an immediate objection from Councillor Beer who commented that there were too many commissions being made to various parties. He was not allowed to finish as he was cut short by Aldermen Pittard and Raymond who sought an explanation of these allegations. Councillor Beer said that he could explain what he meant, ‘I am in a position to say that it is known in the trade that on nearly everything that is purchased today, there is a commission paid and that someone receives that commission.’ In trying to smooth things down, the Deputy Mayor, Alderman Cox, who was chairing the meeting in the absence of the Mayor, said that on a previous occasion, the Town Council had bought pipes and sold them to the contractor in a very profitable deal.
Councillor Beer was not going to be deflected from his cause, and he said that he did not care whether a profit was made or not, a commission was given. Alderman Pittard retorted that this was an indirect imputation on the members of the Town Council and its officers, and repudiated the idea that there was any commission. Alderman Raymond protested that unless Councillor Beer withdrew his allegations he would leave the room, because the councillor had insinuated that the Council had given the Borough Surveyor commissions. Councillor Beer objected, and shouted that he had not mentioned anyone, but Alderman Raymond angrily repeated that unless these allegations were withdrawn he would leave the room.
Uproar now ensued with councillors protesting, and the Deputy Mayor telling Councillor Beer that he had said quite enough and had disturbed the peace and harmony of the meeting. Councillor Beer hotly replied that it was a very good thing that he had said too much. Alderman Raymond shouted that Councillor Beer had stated that commissions were being taken by the Council, but which allegation Councillor Beer strongly denied ‘That is a lie!’ he returned. Alderman Raymond then exclaimed, ‘I rise to a point of order!’ to which the redoubtable Councillor Beer responded, ‘Oh yes, you always do that!’
The Deputy Mayor was now getting fed up with whole shouting match and called ‘Order, order, Mr Beer. Unless you come to order I will leave the chair.’ A councillor shouted, ‘I don’t see how any of us can stay here to hear members called liars!’ However, Councillor Beer refused to retract, whereupon Alderman Raymond left the chamber followed by at least half the councillors, and the Deputy Mayor announced that the meeting was adjourned.
Councillor Beer was heard to exclaim during the disorder that, ‘I do not withdraw it. I stick to it as an Englishman. Something will come out of this; something that will not bear investigation. I will go further!’ To which a remark an unknown voice called out ‘Yes, you will.’ Then the meeting broke up and peace returned to the empty Council Chamber. No action seems to have been taken on Councillor Beer’s allegations.
The battle of the pipes rumbled on through the next few years, and in 1901, the Western Gazette, commented with some exasperation that the business at one meeting could have been easily put into a teacup but the councillors had spent one and a half hours doing absolutely nothing except shouting at one another across the benches.
The Town Councillors could also get wound up over an invitation to Church. In July 1908 the Council received an invitation to the Harvest Festival Thanksgiving Service at the Congregational Church in Princes Street on 20 September. Councillor Levi Beer proposed that the invitation should be accepted as it was the custom of the Council to attend a place of worship with the Mayor each year. This was seconded by Councillor Gould who remarked that he had not been to church for a long time.
Councillor Matthews, whilst he was in favour of the Mayor going to his own place of worship with the Town Council on the first Sunday in November each year as a matter of tradition, felt that if the councillors went to the Congregational Church they would have all the other churches in the town asking them to attend every little meeting. He would be candid and was of the opinion that the invitation was to get ‘official recognition and to get their exchequers filled.’
Councillor Gaylard expressed his surprise at Councillor Matthews’ comments because he thought he was the last person to make such an outrageous suggestion. Councillor McMillan stated that if the Town Council held the same views as Councillor Matthews, he would on behalf of the Deacons of the Congregational Church, withdraw the invitation. Whilst the visit of the Mayor and Town Council would certainly increase the congregation, Councillor McMillan strongly denied that the invitation was to increase Church income.
Councillor Matthews then enquired what was the idea of the invitation, to which Councillor Beer remarked that this comment was an insult and he was very much surprised at him.
At this point, the Mayor interjected to the effect that unless the invitation could be accepted unanimously, it had better not be accepted at all.
No doubt with some relief, the Council accepted the Mayor’s suggestion and declined the invitation.
DRINKING AT MARTOCK
In 1860, the County Petty Sessions were held in Yeovil but dealt with offences committed outside the town boundaries. On Wednesday 1 February 1860, Giles Gaylard appeared before the Bench summoned for being drunk in Martock on the previous 7 January. PC Marshman stated that he was on duty at about 1 o’clock in the morning and came up to the defendant who was with a number of friends and who was very drunk. As he passed the group, Giles Gaylard became abusive but when the constable told him to go home quietly, he had used abusive and offensive expressions.
Mr Jolliffe, the solicitor acting for Giles Gaylard, went on the attack, and demanded to know how the constable knew his client to be drunk, and did he judge this to be from his own experience? PC Marshman replied that did not know what the solicitor meant. Mr Jolliffe, continued with this line of questioning and enquired whether in the constable’s opinion his client was in the same state as he, the witness, had been in at a recent sale? The constable protested that he had not been under the influence of drink on that occasion and went on to say that the defendant had been shouting – ‘There’s no chance for the bobby tonight.’ Mr Jolliffe then asked the policeman whether Giles Gaylard had told him that – ‘You had better try and find out serious offences and protect the property of parishioners than go about eaves-dropping and creating unpleasantness between neighbours.’ PC Marshman confirmed this, and stated that the defendant went on to taunt him by shouting – ‘Who robbed the parson’s house and who stole the sheep?’ This related to recent unsolved crimes in the village, but the taunts had not bothered him.
Police Sergeant Clarke testified that he had seen Giles Gaylard and his party at 1 o’clock shortly before shortly before their meeting with PC Marshman. The defendant had appeared very much the worse for drink and was using threatening language. The sergeant stated that Giles Gaylard was shouting – ‘ I should like to go and fight him for a £1000’ and similar threats which the officer believed referred to him even though the defendant could not have seen him at the time. However, Sergeant Clarke went on to say that Giles Gaylard was a quiet man when sober.
Mr Jolliffee, told the Bench that he would prove that the language complained of had not been used, and claimed that there was animosity between his client and PC Marshman. He believed that the policemen had – ‘stretched their belief for the purpose of getting him convicted of the charge. With regard to the language, it was a mere matter of supposition on the part of the police, just as much as when the sergeant thought his client’s remarks were intended for him even though the officer was out of sight at the time.’ The solicitor went on to say that his client had been at a wedding party at his brother’s house, and he then called several witnesses to show that he was not intoxicated and did not use abusive language.
The first witness was Mrs Job Gaylard (Giles’ sister-in-law), who stated that the defendant had left her house between midnight and 1 o’clock, he was not the worse for liquor and had only been drinking very moderately.
Next came Mrs Gould, who testified that she had been one of the party with Giles Gaylard. He had been very merry, as they all were, but he was not drunk.
Several other members of the wedding party came forward and confirmed that Giles Gaylard was not drunk but merry, and sang a song about ‘the bobbies’.
The case had now been presented and the Magistrates concluded that Giles Gaylard – ‘was not in a state to be termed drunk’ and dismissed the charge.
However the Bench had not finished with the Gaylards for the next case involved Job Gaylard, Giles’ brother, described as ‘a beer house keeper’, summoned for refusing to admit the police on 17 January. The Western Flying Post reported that – ‘Sergt. Clarke said he was on duty on the morning of the 17th near the defendant’s house. It was about one o’clock. He saw lights and observed the defendant through the window. Heard several persons talking. He remained five or ten minutes, and knocked for admission. The lights were put out, and the defendant’s wife went upstairs, looked out at the window and said, “We are gone to bed.” Witness replied that if he was not admitted he would report the house. There was no answer made. He heard parties moving about, and afterwards he went to the back part of the premises, and found the door open. The defendant now denied the charge in toto; but said that he was not himself in the house. Sergt. Clarke: I saw you in the cellar, drawing cider apparently. P.C. Solomon was also examined; and the defendant was fined 10s. including costs.’
Until 1949, Council Elections were held in November, and Yeovil elected the Mayor at the annual Town Council meeting on 9 November (except when the day was a Sunday and then it would be on the 10th.) The election of the Mayor was always something of an event and I have looked at a few of those Mayor makings over a century ago.
On 9 November 1893, Councillor Sidney Watts was elected Mayor and at the close of the meeting, the new first citizen invited his fellow councillors, officials and the press representatives to join him in refreshments at which toasts were drunk and speeches delivered. At the close of the proceedings, and led by the Military Band, the councillors and officials conducted the new Mayor to his home in Princes Street. During the afternoon and evening ‘merry peals were rung from the bells of St John’s church, and the band paraded the town playing lively selections’.
Councillor Watts was re-elected Mayor for a third term on 9 November 1895, and on this occasion, the Military Band played outside the Town Hall whilst the church bells rang out. Preceded by the Mace Bearer, the new Mayor, councillors and officials accompanied by the Military Band, walked through the streets lined by a large crowd to his home.
Councillor Sidney Watts’ fourth re-election was the occasion of a much grander procession. All the shops and houses in Princes Street were ‘gaily decorated’ and this year the crowd lining the streets was even bigger. The Mayor, accompanied by Councillors C W Pittard and W Cox, his proposer and seconder, rode in an open carriage ‘drawn by a pair of greys, with postilions’ through the cheering crowd.
On 9 November 1898, Councillor John Vincent was elected Mayor and served for three terms. The traditional banquet given by the Mayor on his re -election in November 1900 was quite a splendid affair. The Western Gazette reported that the upper portion of the Town Hall was – ‘skilfully converted by means of curtains and tapestry, into a sumptuous dining room. The walls were also most artistically draped, and the table decorations of the most tasteful kind, reflecting greatly on the caterer, Mr W T Maynard, who personally superintended the arrangements……
The menu was as follows:-
Thick Turtle Princess Royale
Turbot Sauce Mousseline
Devilled Whitebait Soles a la Colbert
Fillets of Beef a la Chateaubriand
Kidneys Saute Au Vin
Saddle of Mutton Rolled Turkey and Ox Tongue
Roast Chicken and Sausages
Pheasant Grouse Black-Cock
St Vincent and Bachelor’s Pudding
Pine Apple Jelly Charlotte Russe
Devilled Sardines OlivesFarci
Pines Grapes Bananas &c
CAFÉ NOIRE LIQUEURS’
After surviving this feast came the toasts – all fifteen of them – The Queen, The Prince and Princess of Wales, and the rest of the Royal Family, The Bishops, Clergy and Ministers of all Denominations, The Imperial Forces, The Mayor, The Deputy Mayor, The Aldermen, The Borough Magistrates, The Town Clerk, The Councillors, The School Board, The Vice-Chairmen’ The Town and Trade of Yeovil, The Press, and finally The Ladies. Between the toasts songs were sung by Messrs G R Allen and W B Milborne, duets from Messrs W Cole and F Clements, and Mr Walter Raymond, the Somerset author, and Mr Shoreland Aplin ‘added to the pleasures of the evening by giving a couple of recitations. The singing of the National Anthem brought a most enjoyable evening to a close’.
Councillor W W Johnson was elected Mayor on 9 November 1902 and the surroundings for his banquet in the Town Hall were quite splendid. Once again the Western Gazette reported that – ‘A tent of muslin drapery with Indian tapestry had been temporarily erected. In this snug enclosure, with the canopy of white and yellow art muslin, its alcoves with huge palms on either side, the glittering candelabras and silver stands on which stood a cornucopia of luscious grapes and fruit, the many-coloured fairy lamps casting a soft subdued light over the whole – the place bore a resemblance to those enchanted apartments, imaginary or real, of antiquity.
‘Four tables had been arranged, the head table running in a parallel direction along the east end of the hall. On this table stood three silver stands on silver mirror centre pieces, while to the other less pretentious tables were allotted one stand each. The windows were hung with white muslin curtains underlined with red, and at various positions in the room stood large mirrors festooned with plants. The carpet had a border of red felt. Those who saw this banqueting hall declare that they never saw it look prettier. The whole work was carried out by Mr Connock, under the supervision of Mr W T Maynard, caterer’.
And what of the menu:
Real Turtle Ox Tail
Turbot-Lobster Sauce Soles-Sause Tartare
Creme of Chicken and Mushrooms Lamb Cutlets and Peas
Grouse Pheasant Golden Plover
Johnson Pudding Macedoine Jelly
Strawberry Creme Charlotte Russe
Devilled Prawns Canape of Olives
Café Noire Liqueurs’
The Toast list was impressive with sixteen toasts, one up on Councillor Vincent – Our London Friends was added. There were songs between toasts, a cello solo and Mr A’Court Simmonds’ band played selections.
They certainly knew how to have a good evening back in those far off days, but before we get too excited about the cost to the ratepayers, I should explain that the entire cost would be met by the new Mayor from his own pocket – You had to have a ‘few shillings’ to be Mayor in those days!
EMPIRE DAY 1909
On Friday 28 May 1909, the Western Gazette wrote:
The Yeovil Churches observed Empire Day on Sunday, 23 May, with services in St John’s, Holy Trinity and St Michael and All Angels, all of which ended with the playing of the National Anthem.
Earlier in the morning, the Yeovil Company of the 5th Territorial Battalion , Somerset Light Infantry under the command of Captain Brutton, paraded in the Borough and led by the Town Band marched ‘briskly’ through High Street, Hendford and South Street to Holy Trinity Church, the church of the company’s chaplain. In Hendford, the company was joined by the Holy Trinity Church Lads’ Brigade commanded by Captain H Christian and Lieutenant C P Ewens. The Gazette noted with pride that – ‘Wearing the scarlet of their regular brethren, and being a well-set up lot, looked a credit to any Regiment, and a shining example to the large number of youths and young men who later in the morning, whilst the National Anthem was being played, looked on indifferently, cigarette in mouth and without uncovering their heads.’
Following the service, the Yeovil Territorials and the Church Lads’ marched back to the Borough, where before a large crowd, they formed up and Colonel Marsh presented medals to Sergeant T Sartin, and Privates E Gerrard and E W Lucas, for long service, and Sergeants R S Gibbs, A January and J Perkins (Langport), Corporals A Gough, F England and H Russell. Lance-Corporal H Beare, and Privates A Cook, E Curtis and E Gillard for efficiency. Colonel Marsh then gave a rousing speech, the National Anthem was played, and the ceremony brought to a close.
Monday morning, 24 May Empire Day, dawned fine and sunny, and saw the ‘town very much beflagged, the many staves bearing the National colours in one form or another, whilst several business houses displayed strings of coloured bunting’.
At Yeovil County School in Kingston, the Western Gazette reported that there was:
Meanwhile the children of Huish, South Street, Reckleford and Pen Mill Schools were being given specially prepared lessons following which they marched with flags waving to the Borough. In 1909 things were just as likely to go wrong as now, and the Gazette commented that – ‘The lack of arrangements greatly detracted from the effectiveness of the gathering, for there being no attempt to keep the Borough clear, when the children marched in and the teachers looked for the ground which they were to occupy, they found it taken up by a crowd of people out to see the show, and who meant to see it. It was rather unfortunate, for half the youngsters were cut off from their fellow scholars by the crowd and very much mixed up in it and the singing therefore lacked cohesion.’
However, once assembled, the children sang several patriotic songs, were addressed by several local dignitaries and at the conclusion, Colonel Marsh exhorted the youngsters to ‘Fit themselves to be citizens of the Empire. Everyone one of them who did their best, was a source of strength, but the loafer who did nothing, was a terrible source of danger to the Empire.’ The Union Flag was saluted, the National Anthem sung, and to much cheering, a half-holiday was announced. For Yeovil’s children it was a day to remember.
May 2018 Jack Sweet
DOWLISH WAKE – From Africa’s Sunny Clime to the Yukon’s Frozen Wastes
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 northern 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
Pioneer of the Klondike 1898
Born in Bergen, Norway
Died at Taunton May 22nd 1934
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 -50F. 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 1900’s.
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.
COMPTON PAUNCEFOOT – ST ANDREW’S
A Memorial in Glass and a Great Escape
Traffic thunders along the A303 London to Exeter road less than a mile from St Andrew’s Church, yet the small village of Compton Pauncefoot, with its backdrop of hills and woods, could be miles from the hurly burly of the 21st century. This pleasant 15th century church with its spire, rare in South Somerset, sits beside a small village green accompanied by a splendid Georgian Rectory and an 18th century Manorhouse.
Walk through the lychgate and up to the porch in which hangs a large iron lamp dedicated to the memory of Captain Frederick Gray MC, who was killed on 21 August 1915, at the head of his men in the assault on Hill 70 at Suvla in the Gallipoli Campaign.
In the north wall of the chancel there is a stained glass window in memory of the 1st Baron Blackford who died in 1947, and in the south wall, a stained glass window remembers William Murray Mason, eldest son of the 2nd Baron Blackford, who as a Flight Sergeant Pilot, was killed in action on 23 March 1942 aged 24 years, and Irene Elizabeth Ann Mason, who died on 7 November 1943, also aged 24. This window depicts William Mason in his Royal Air Force uniform.
High on the inside north wall of the tower is a memorial to Robert Hunt and other members of the Hunt family who, for two centuries from 1630, owned the Manor of Compton Pauncefoot. Robert Hunt died in February 1679, aged about 71 years, and during his long life was a lawyer, Member of Parliament for Ilchester and Sheriff of Somerset. Although he was an active supporter of King Charles I during the Great Civil War, following the defeat of the Royalist cause he reconciled himself with the Parliament and was appointed Sheriff of Somerset in 1654.
In March 1655, a minor rebellion led by a veteran Royalist, John Penruddock, against the Commonwealth of Oliver Cromwell, broke out in Wiltshire. After occupying Salisbury, breaking open the gaol and releasing all the prisoners, the 300 rebels marched to Blandford where they proclaimed Charles II, King of England. Unfortunately for the rebels, the good folk of Dorset wanted nothing of this rebellion as the memories of the late Civil War were still fresh in their minds, and Penruddock and his little army retreated west through Yeovil and Chard, until they were routed in a bloodless skirmish at South Molton. John Penruddock was captured with some of his followers, and was executed at Exeter on 16 May 1655. Another rebel officer, Captain Thomas Hunt, was sentenced to death by beheading and transported to Ilchester Gaol where he was given into the care of the Sheriff of Somerset his namesake, but no relation, Robert Hunt.
Captain Hunt’s execution was fixed for the evening of 7 May, but the axe needed to remove his head was proving difficult to find. It had to have a blade of 11 inches to carryout the task, and implements of this size were not in plentiful supply. The problem in procuring the axe, and the time required to build the scaffold before the Shire Hall in the market place at Ilchester, had now delayed the execution until Thursday 10 May.
On the Wednesday night, the eve of the execution, Captain Hunt was allowed a last visit from his two sisters, Marjorie and Elizabeth. They arrived at the gaol at about 10 o’clock, and were shown to their brother’s cell which he shared with two other prisoners. His two companions were absent during the visit, and alone with his sisters, a daring escape was put in hand. Captain Hunt quickly changed clothes with Marjorie, and then with Elizabeth went through the gaol, passing three doorkeepers and the main gate guard, to freedom. Back in the cell, Marjorie placed her brother’s cloak and hat on a chair and got into his bed. On their return, the captain’s cellmates thought he was asleep and took to their beds.
Having parted from his sister, Captain Hunt found himself wandering alone in the vicinity of Ilchester as dawn broke but without any idea of where he was; he could also hear the great bell of the gaol begin to toll for his impending execution. Just as he began to lose hope of making an escape, the captain espied a collier coming along the road leading a packhorse loaded with coal. Still in female disguise, Captain Hunt hailed the collier and in the conversation which followed discovered his destination. Telling the collier that that he was travelling in the same direction, ‘the lady’ managed to persuade him to allow ‘her’ to ride with the coal on the horse. During the journey, the collier’s Royalist sympathies soon became apparent and the captain took a desperate chance and disclosed that he was an escaped rebel. As events proved, this chance encounter was to save Captain Hunt’s life, and in company with his new found saviour, he rode across country to the collier’s home on the edge of the lonely Somerset Levels.
The escape had now been discovered, Marjorie was arrested and confessed. Sister Elizabeth was also apprehended, and both ladies were lodged in Ilchester Gaol, where they remained without being brought to trial until their release two years later in 1657. On discovering Captain Hunt’s escape the hue and cry was raised, and Parliamentary troops stationed in Ilchester were soon scouring the countryside. On reaching his home, the collier barricaded the door, no lights were lit, and the two men took cover in a small upper chamber of the cottage, each with a loaded musket preparing to sell their lives dearly if discovered. Before long a sheriff’s officer with a troop of mounted men clattered into the yard and hammering on the door demanded entrance. At first the collier and his wife made no sign, but as the shouting of the troopers became more threatening, the collier put his head out of the chamber window as if disturbed from sleep, and demanded an explanation for this uproar. The sheriff’s officer bellowed that the party was in pursuit of a prisoner escaped from Ilchester Gaol disguised as a female, and as he had orders to search every house, his men would force their way in if necessary. The collier replied that he would open the door as soon as he could get a light, but pretended that he had lost the steel for the tinder box. As no one else had any means of producing light, the troopers were told that they must search the house in the dark. The sheriff’s officer by now had lost his patience with the apparent ignorance of the collier, and calling out that it was useless to waste time here because the stupid fellow did not know his right hand from his left, away galloped the party to the inexpressible relief of the fugitive and his faithful friends.
Captain Hunt remained hidden in the collier’s cottage, and when the hue and cry had calmed down, the collier helped him in his escape to France where he joined the exiled Charles II with whom he remained until returning to England at the Restoration some five years later. The name of the collier who saved the captain’s life, and whether he was rewarded for the terrible risk he took for a stranger, remains one of history’s secrets.
As for Sheriff Robert Hunt, the escape of his namesake was an obvious embarrassment, but it did not effect the career of this widely respected man. He continued in the office of Sheriff of Somerset for another year, served the County and Ilchester in the Parliaments of 1659 and 1660, and for the last two decades of his life continued to play an active role in County government as a Magistrate and Deputy Lieutenant. He now lies with his kin in St Andrew’s Church, in the peaceful village of Compton Pauncefoot.
A NOVEMBER WEDDING
On Thursday 21 November 1867, the Parish Church of Maperton, near Wincanton, was the scene of the society wedding of Charlotte Elizabeth Harriet, the eldest daughter of Major H T G Fitz-Gerald, of Maperton House, to Captain J T Coke. The Western Gazette, reporting on the occasion, wrote that:
‘The bridal party proceeded from the residence of Major Fitz-Gerald to the church, which is close by, on foot, the pathway having been covered with cocoa-nut matting. The approaches to the church were lined with spectators, and the building itself was crowded by persons, principally young ladies, who were anxious to witness the ceremony. The church had been decorated with flowers and evergreens, and presented a very pretty appearance. The bride was led to the altar by her father, who also gave her away, and was accompanied by six bridesmaids, viz:- Miss Geraldine Fitz-Gerald, sister of the bride, Miss Munck, Miss Louisa Munck, Miss Fanny Munck, Miss Florence Wyndham, and Miss Clare Dickenson. Their dresses were of white grenadine, with scarlet violet trimmings, scarlet jackets with white goat’s-hair fringe, and white bonnets with scarlet feathers. Each carried a splendid bouquet, composed of white and scarlet chrysanthemums bordered with scarlet, and frosted- margin maiden-hair fern. The bride worn a dress of white satin trimmed with swans down and d’Alencon lace, with pearl ornaments; lace veil, and wreath of orange blossoms, and carried a lovely bouquet, composed of white camellias and pink roses, bordered with frosted-margin maiden-hair fern. The whole of the bouquets were arranged by Mr. Wallace, gardener to Major Fitz-Gerald. The bridegroom, Capt. J.T. Coke, was accompanied by Capt. Robertson of the 17th Lancers, who acted as “best man.” He was attended by – Curtis-Hayward, Charles Fitzgerald, Heathcote Wyndham, and Reginald Butterworth, who acted as groomsmen. Amongst those who were present at the breakfast were Colonel and Mrs. Coke, Debdale hall, Nottinghamshire; Mr. and Mrs. Fitzgerald, Lurlough Park; Colonel Mayo; Mr. and Mrs. Bligh; – Munck, Coley Park, Berks; Mrs. Wyndham, Yarlington House; Rev and Mrs. Moore, Hordley Rectory, Shropshire; Mr. and Mrs. Bowles; Miss Peal; Mrs. Chatfield; Miss Drake; Miss Weatherton; Miss Kingswell; Capt. Robertson (17th Lancers); Capt. Curtis-Hayward (25th Regt.) Mr. Newton-Dickinson (20th Regt.) Mr. Reginald Butterworth, Mr Heathcote Wyndham, Mr. Edward Wyndham, Rev. Calcraft Wylox, Rev. G. and Mrs. Saunders, Mr. Charles Fitz-Gerald, Mr. Gerald Fitz-Gerald, &. The ceremony was performed by the Rev. G. Saunders, assisted by the Rev. S.W. Moore, uncle of the bride. The weather which has hitherto been so fine, proved unfavourable; but, although it was so gloomy, was not enough to damp the joy which was depicted on the countenance of the bridal party. As they issued from the church the bells burst forth a merry peal. The presents were very numerous, numbering over 120. The inhabitants of Maperton presented the bride with a very handsome silver cream-jug and sugar-basin, as a token of the respect which they entertain for her; and as she leaves them, she will be followed by many an earnest wish that the state of the weather may not be a criterion of what her future life will be; but that the sunshine of happiness may shine upon her throughout her married life, and that for once it may be said, “Happy indeed is the bride whom the sun did not shine upon.”’