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A Suspicious Looking Box in Chard

In late February 1915, there was a minor sensation in the Chard area when it was reported that a ‘suspicious-looking box’ was unearthed during road works near the Axewater Bridge which spanned the Dorset and Somerset county boundary just outside Winsham. Recent floods had caused the road to subside and Thorncombe contractor, Fred Reed and his gang were busy reinstating the carriageway.

Fred was shovelling some soil when he was surprised to turn up a small metal box, of ‘a suspicious character’, some five inches long, and with what appeared to be a fuse protruding from one end. Curious to see what it contained Fred, watched by his companions opened the box and found inside some wet powder emitting a strong acidic smell. On the outside of the mysterious object the words ‘Nuremburg, Germany’ could just be made out and with the fears of spies and saboteurs still engaging much of the community, the immediate thought was ‘a bomb’.

Closing the box, Fred Reed put it to one side and when work finished for the day took it home, packaged it and despatched the box to the War Officer in London. (Remember, this was thought to be a bomb!!). The following day Fred went to Chard and notified Inspector Worner of the find and the action he had taken. The Inspector, in turn notified the police at Beaminster as the mysterious object had been found on the Dorset side of the bridge.

Rumours were soon circulating of German spies and saboteurs and there was much speculation that the ‘bomb’ had been placed to blow up the Axewater Bridge or set to demolish the nearby mainline railway bridge and had been washed downstream in the recent floods.

However, the fears were soon put to rest when Fred Reed received a letter from the War Office stating that the mysterious object was not a bomb, but probably a battery similar to those used in flashlights.

Jack Sweet
January 2021

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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
Ludwig Pettersen
Pioneer of the Klondike 1898
Born in Bergen, Norway
1868
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 -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.


Jack Sweet
April 2018

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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.”’


Jack Sweet
April 2018

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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.


Jack Sweet
April 2018

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A memorial stone in St Mary’s Church, Weymouth reads:

‘This stone was erected in remembrance of the cruel murder committed on the body of Ffloyd Morgan (who lies here) on the 27th April 1792 aged 22.

Here mingling with my fellow clay,
I wait the awful judgement day:
And there my murderers shall appear
Although escaped from justice here’

And this is the story. Early in the morning of Friday 27 April 1792, the body of a young man was discovered on the drawbridge at Weymouth. He had been brutally murdered and was soon identified as Thomas Floyd Morgan, a 22 years-old engraver from Herefordshire. The coroner’s jury was summoned immediately and heard that the deceased had spent the night at a house of ‘ill fame’, and had there met his end; the jury reached a verdict of ‘Wilful murder by some person or persons unknown.’ The following day William Hardy, William Theddon, Sarah White and Priscilla Ryall, were arrested and committed to Dorchester gaol, on suspicion of murdering Ffloyd Morgan, and there they languished until the Dorset Summer Assizes in July.

Hardy, Theddon and Sarah White were brought before the court charged with the murder of Ffloyd Morgan, but were acquitted despite Priscilla Ryall turning King’s Evidence against the trio. It was reported that nothing material could be found to prove their guilt.

Many local people were furious at the verdict and erected the memorial stone paid for by a public subscription. Originally the memorial had been in the old St Mary’s Church which was demolished and present church was built between 1815 and 1817.


Jack Sweet
March 2018

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On a Saturday night in April 1790 fire broke out at the Greyhound Inn on South Street destroying the cellar and several outhouses. A couple of days later, a second fire was discovered in some outbuildings but it was extinguished before it could spread to the Inn. When a third fire broke in the next door smithy, arson was suspected and 19 years-old Alexander Pearce, a servant at the Greyhound was arrested. He was put on trial at the Somerset Assizes, found guilty and hanged at Ilchester Gaol.

On the night of 16 November 1876, the East Coker policeman, Nathaniel Cox, was killed and his colleague Constable Henry Stacey, severely beaten in a fight with four poachers. Charles Baker of West Coker was arrested, but the other three from Hardington Mandeville, George Hutchings and his sons, Giles and Peter, went into hiding and were not arrested until January 1877. The following March they appeared at the Somerset Assizes charged with murder, but because it was impossible to establish who struck the fatal blow, the prisoners were sentenced to 24 years penal servitude for manslaughter. However, it was later testified that George Hutchings had not been involved and he was given a free pardon but died before he could be released. This is not the end of the story because twelve months later Giles Hutchings , who was reported as being a troublesome prisoner, escaped from a working party and stayed on the run for some three years. He was recaptured on the Isle of Wight where he had been living as a labourer and on one occasion had worked on building the new police station at Newport!

Now, for a couple of heroes. George Strong was an Odcombe man, the son of a Ham Hill stone mason, and was serving with the Coldstream Guards at the siege of Sebastopol during the Crimean War in September 1855. Under a heavy Russian bombardment, a live shell with its burning fuse hissing, crashed into the trench he was manning with several comrades but before it could explode, George picked up the hot live missile and threw it over the parapet where it burst harmlessly. For this act of selfless bravery which saved the lives of his comrades, George Strong was awarded the Victoria Cross.

Yeovil born Corporal James Knight, was serving with The Kings (Liverpool) Regiment on operations near Pretoria on 21 August 1900 during the South African Boer War, and was covering the rear of a small detachment which was in danger of being surrounded. Corporal Knight with four men fought off continuous Boer attacks for nearly an hour and when forced to give ground he withdrew carrying one of his wounded comrades for nearly two miles under heavy rifle fire. For this act of gallantry, Corporal Knight was awarded the Victoria Cross.


Jack Sweet
February 2018

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Winter Talks-2021/22

Fri 1st Oct 2021 – ‘Henry Hunt’s Mistress Revealed’, a juicy story of Georgian scandal.

Fri 5th Nov – ‘St Ivel the History of Aplin and Barrett’.

 

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