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.