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Saturday 29 October 2011


Most of my paternal ancestors are elsewhere – if not actually overseas, then certainly in corners of the United Kingdom not immediately accessible to me. Like me, they wouldn’t stay put, always moving on to new opportunities – in fact, I live in Scotland because my London father took a job here and relocated, eventually meeting my Scottish mother.

Her roots are therefore much closer to what for the time being I call home. Many generations of them, the Piper family, lived and died in a small area of Ayrshire. Many lie buried in a quiet country churchyard in the tiny village of Sorn there, just a morning’s drive away from me. Amongst the graves is a memorial to “Pte William Piper, Imperial Camel Corps.”

William Piper (1891-1919)
c1914 in the uniform of the Ayrshire Yeomanry

Sorn’s population may have fluctuated over the years, but today it is no larger than it was in the 1790s – around 300. Everybody has always known everybody else. When war broke out in 1914, many young men who had grown up together at Sorn School queued together to enlist with the Ayrshire Yeomanry – among them my Piper-born grandmother’s cousin William Piper.

The Ayrshire Yeomanry on manoeuvres at Sorn, c1914

After some basic training, the still-raw Yeomanry recruits were shipped off, literally, to one of the worst theatres of the war. They were attached, as the 1/1st Lowland Mounted Brigade, to the 52nd (Lowland) Infantry Division, fighting at Gallipoli.

The Gallipoli campaign was a disastrously unsuccessful attempt by the Allied Powers to capture the Ottoman capital Constantinople and secure a sea route through the Bosphorus to the Black Sea and Russia. Casualty rates on both sides ran to around 60%, nearly half a million men in total. Although only two further Allied soldiers were wounded by enemy action in the mass evacuation which followed in December 1915, many more died in the rain and snow which accompanied it. Disease in the unsanitary trenches also took its toll. Will Piper survived.

The evacuated Allies were ferried south to British-occupied Egypt, where they regrouped. Will, who had spent all his life working with horses, volunteered to join the new camel mounted units being formed to deal with local rebellion and the threat of Ottoman attacks. These units eventually coalesced as the Imperial Camel Corps. Three of the Corps’ four battalions were drawn from Australian and New Zealand light horse, which had suffered very high attrition at Gallipoli. The 2nd Batt. however was composed from the remnants of the various British Yeomanry regiments who had fought there.

Members of the 2nd Battalion, Imperial Camel Corps, c1917

As a force composed largely of antipodeans the Corps had a reputation from the start for disrespect for authority, an attitude derived also in part from its exclusively male camels. Male camels were used because they were cheaper than the female of the species; and they were cheaper because they were noisier and less docile. The roaring from a large group of male camels could apparently be heard for miles. What they presumably lost in the element of surprise by this behaviour, they made up with their ability to go nearly three times as long as a horse without water.

Although losses were still high, the Camel Corps were successful in their role throughout 1917, particularly at the battle of Maghdaba and the third battle of Gaza. In May 1918 many troops were redeployed from Palestine to the Western Front, including what was left of the Ayrshire Yeomanry, now part of the 12th (Ayr and Lanark) Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers. Their redundant camels were given to Maj T.E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia.

Winston Churchill (left) challenged T.E. Lawrence (3rd left) to a camel race in Egypt in 1921, perhaps on surplus camels of the Imperial Camel Corps. Lawrence won.

Will however remained in the Middle East, serving in the Cavalry Branch of the Machine Gun Corps. Machine guns had proved their value on the Western Front earlier in the war, and by now a machine gun squadron was attached to every brigade of cavalry including those of the Imperial Camel Corps. The Machine Gun Corps had a reputation for heroism, and being often deployed in advance of front lines suffered such high casualty rates that it was known as the Suicide Club. By 1918 however, Egypt and Palestine were relatively stable, and Will Piper saw the war out in Cairo.

Four camel ambulances of the Imperial Camel Corps

Having survived Gallipoli and seen further front line service in Palestine with the Imperial Camel Corps and the Suicide Club, it is a cruel twist of fate that Will caught a cold after the end of the war, while on patrol in the cold desert air of Winter 1918. He died of pneumonia in an Egyptian field hospital in February 1919, so very far from his family and his Ayrshire home.

 Sorn members of the Ayrshire Yeomanry at training camp c1914
(for the record, back row: Smith of Smeathston, Hugh Sloan of Blairmulloch, S Ferguson, A Thomson, Templeton, S Kennedy; front row: W Mair, R Strathearn, J Alston (Visitor), J Eccles)

Saturday 22 October 2011


Walter S Masterman, whose grandfather Thomas Gurney was my great great grandmother’s brother, is best known as a prolific author of the 1920s and 1930s. He churned out fairly lurid and strange blends of mystery, fantasy, horror, sci-fi and detective fiction from his first in 1926, The Wrong Letter with its preface by GK Chesterton, to his last in 1942, The Man with No Head.

Walter Sydney Masterman (1876-1946)
in 1899, by Thomas Stearn & Sons, photographers

It wasn’t his first choice of career, or his second, third or fourth, and definitely not his fifth. After a well-heeled private education he merged from Christ’s College Cambridge with a blue in football, and played for a while alongside his brother Harry for Tunbridge Wells FC.  He and Harry both joined the Welsh Regiment on its formation and went with it to South Africa in February 1900 to fight the Boer. Harry didn’t come back, and lies buried in Prieska where he was the garrison adjutant and died of malaria and meningitis.

On his return, Walter (now a captain) entered civvy street like so many officers as a teacher at a private institution, Horsmonden Boys’ School, where he was from 1903 to 1905 joint headmaster. He maintained his military role through an attachment to a Cadet Batallion of the King’s Royal Rifles, and in 1910 was appointed Inspector of Musketry with the Welsh Regiment, with whom he served again as a major during the Great War of 1914-19.

Grimsby after the Great War

When he was demobbed in 1919 he got a job in the civil service – the Ministry of Agriculture to be precise. In the days when expertise was no criterion for government work, Walter was made a Fisheries Inspector and posted to Grimsby, then still an extremely busy fishing port in north Lincolnshire. From footballer to soldier, then teacher, and at the age of 43 fisheries officer. It's possible that he was assisted in getting this appointment by his brother Arthur, a zoologist who published extensively on the life-cycles and importance of the fish we eat, including some reports for the Ministry. Otherwise, it seems an unlikely fourth career choice for Walter.

The next year he married Olive Doreen Lowrie, 24 years his junior, the youngest of eight children of a Northumbrian commercial traveller who had stopped long enough in Cardiff for it to be birthplace to Olive and her two nearest siblings. How Olive and Walter met, and how they found life in Grimsby, I do not know. But in Febraury 1922 this news item was cabled to colonial newspapers around the world (I found it in the Sunday Times of Perth in Western Australia!):
Walter Sidney Masterman, fishery inspector at Grimsby, a brother of a former Liberal Minister, is being charged with embezzling £862 belonging to the Board of Fisheries. The prosecution alleges that the defendant paid into his own account sums received, for the sale of coal and gear handed over from German trawlers.

Poor Olive, married two years and stuck in a cold town smelling of fish (sorry, Grimsby, I know you’re sweeter now) while her husband began a new career as a jailbird, convicted and imprisoned for three years for defrauding his employer. When he was released in 1925, it is safe to assume that he had blotted his copybook as far as future employment in any of his former careers was concerned.

Several Walter S Masterman titles were translated
for Dutch consumption in the 1950s

Perhaps he picked up some plot twists during his time inside. No longer employable, Walter sat down and began to write, a string of wild titles such as The Flying Beast, The Baddington Horror and The Hooded Monster. I confess I haven’t read any, but this synopsis from one of four new editions currently available on Amazon gives an idea of his style:
“THE YELLOW MISTLETOE is … the rollicking tale of murder in the tubes of London, which looks to be an accident, until Chief-Inspector Arthur Sinclair proves that it wasn't. The trail of evidence leads to the English countryside where he meets a cast of characters right out of a H. Rider Haggard novel. Then it's off to the wilds of Bulgaria where a hidden city provides enough ritualistic danger for a dozen thrillers.”

I’d love to know what happened to Olive Masterman. They had at least one daughter, born that disastrous summer of 1922. Did the marriage survive the jail term?  Or did Olive, with her life ahead of her, find happiness elsewhere? The story of her life remains unwritten.

Saturday 15 October 2011


A dahabeeah on the Nile at Cairo

A news item from the Suez Mail, relayed in New Zealand’s Southland Times on 25th February 1876, reads:
A melancholy accident has occurred on the Nile. While Mr Russell Gurney, and three daughters of the Rev J.H. Gurney, were on the river, a squall capsized the boat, and all the ladies were drowned. Divers are seeking to recover the bodies.
The New York Sunday Courier carries a fuller version of the story (from the London Times) in its 30th January edition that year:

Three Nieces of the Recorder of London Drowned in the Nile
[Egyptian Corres of the London Times]
Mr Russell Gurney himself had started on the Nile voyage first, leaving the rest of his party, consisting of his nephew and nieces, to follow him as rapidly as possible in a second boat, the Flora, with a dragoman, reis, or captain, and the ordinary crew. It is usual, on account of the sandbanks, shallows and many curves of the river, for dababeeahs on the Nile to moor at nightfall; but, in order to lose no time, the Flora pursued on after sunset, against, it is said, the opinion of the reis. At nine or ten in the evening they were some sixteen miles off Minioh, a strong northerly breeze blowing, with squalls. They were passing Gebel el Tayr, the Mountain of the Bird, whose lofty, precipitous cliffs rise abruptly from the river several hundred feet. The Nile, having no tributary for the last 3,500 miles of its course, only decreases in size as it nears its mouth, and is much wider here than it is at Cairo. It is as broad as the Thames at London bridge, and the winds rush down the ravines with great force. The Flora was under full sail – that big lateen sail, twice as big as the boat itself, which makes a dababeeah look like a great swan upon the water. As she rounded the point, a sudden squall took her, and before the sheet could be let go, she capsized in the darkness. The ladies in their cabins, most of the crew, the reis himself, were all lost in the deep, rapid stream, and only one passenger and the dragoman were able to reach the shore. A bright-eyed donkey-boy, well known to frequenters of Shepheard’s Hotel at Cairo, who had begged to be taken on the trip to avoid impressments as a soldier for the Abyssinian war, was among those lost.
As yet the bodies have not been recovered, but divers have gone up to the scene of the disaster, and it is hoped that their efforts will be attended with success. The sympathy for Mr Russell Gurney and his nephew is universal in Cairo, and the catastrophe has cast a great gloom over all English travellers in Egypt. It cannot be too strongly impressed on Nile tourists that the dababeeah is only a fair-weather boat. With its comfortable house on deck, its sixty feet or seventy feet of length, its enormous sail requiring a yard to hold it nearly double the length of the boat and, with  all this, having a draft of barely three feet, a Nile boat is very easily capsized, and accidents would be frequent if travellers did not, as a rule, prefer safety to speed, and always seek the shelter of the banks when there is anything like bad weather.

Rt Hon Russell Gurney, QC, MP (1804-1878)

Russell Gurney was in loco parentis, his brother John Hampden Gurney the sisters’ father having died in 1862. He had no children himself. It’s rather sad that the names of the victims aren’t recorded here or elsewhere: only the manner of their collective death survives to preserve their memory. I do know that the surviving nephew was Edmund Gurney (1847-1888). This tragedy shook him to the core of course, and may well have been the root of his fascination with spirits and the afterlife, of which I have written here previously.

I wish too that I knew the name of the Egypt correspondent of the Times who wrote this moving, poetic account of the accident.

Saturday 8 October 2011


Austin Cooper, Austin the Settler, my 8x great grandfather who came to Ireland in 1661, laid out the parkland of Blessington House for the Archbishop of Dublin, Michael Boyle. Perhaps he passed on skills of landscape management to his youngest son Joseph: Joseph returned to England and found a position as Keeper of New Park – better known today as Richmond Park – west of London. There he lived up on Sawyer’s Hill, in a building which became known as Cooper’s Lodge. It still stands, a listed building these days more prosaically called Bog Lodge but still the headquarters of the park superintendent.

Map of Richmond Park, after one by Edward John Eyre drawn in 1754
Cooper Lodge is shown near the top in the centre

(Somewhere along the way, Joseph married Elizabeth Slade, who had been before her marriage Lord Rochester’s dairy maid. Lord Rochester’s wife was Henrietta Boyle, great great granddaughter of a certain Roger Boyle, one of whose great grandsons was Michael Boyle of Blessington, for whom Joseph's father had laid out the park. It’s a small world.)

Joseph was appointed to the New Park post in around 1705, and his appointment is likely to have come directly from the Park Ranger, the monarch of the day. Only in 1727 did the rangership pass from royal control. In that year, as an act of royal patronage presumably designed to ensure the loyalty of his prime minister Sir Robert Walpole, new king George II conferred the role on Sir Robert's son. The park became a playground for the king and the prime minister. They hunted together there; Walpole often chose to work in the peace of the Old Lodge in the park; and the New Lodge (now called White Lodge, built near the old one in 1727) was a favourite home of the king’s consort Queen Caroline.

To preserve their privacy Walpole removed ladder stiles from the perimeter of the park and installed gatekeepers to limit access to “respectable persons.” This was unpopular enough, but when Princess Amelia, the hedonistic daughter of George II,  was appointed Ranger in 1749, she closed the park completely to all but a few special friends.

HRH the Princess Amelia (1711-1786)
c1738 by Jean-Baptiste van Loo

Going the long way round when you were used to cutting through the park was a great inconvenience. After polite requests, direct action and other avenues failed, a group of gentlemen took the deputy ranger to court over the exclusion in 1754. It was a chaotic trial, with a total of 64 witnesses called for prosecution and defence, all stating categorically that in their experience there had either always or never been a right of way through the park.

27 people spoke for the prosecution, including someone who, at the age of 71 and having lived in the park for 50 years, could be expected to know a thing or two about the matter. Elizabeth Slade Cooper, Joseph’s widow and Rochester's old dairy maid, was amongst those who remembered free rights of passage across the land going back to their father’s and grandfather’s time. The defence however produced 37 witnesses, including Lord Palmerston and someone, Mary Cooper, who was presumably not the daughter of Joseph and Elizabeth Cooper of the same name.

They carried the day by sheer strength of numbers and the case was dismissed. But four years later, a local brewer called John Lewis mounted another legal attack (based on his having being refused admission in 1755), and this time won the day. The ladder stiles were reinstated, and eventually in 1761 HRH the Princess Amelia gave up the rangership in disgust. 

So, losing the battle but winning the war, Lord Rochester’s former milk maid Elizabeth Slade played her part in establishing the principles of rights of way for ordinary people in England.

The 1754 trial is recorded in great detail in a book (author unknown) published only a year later by M. Cooper, W. Reeve and C. Sympson, called Merlin’s Life and Prophecies. The book uses the trial to prove the accuracy of the fifth century wizard’s prognostications in dubious verse about “all the Kings and Queens who have fat on the Britifh Throne … with some other events relating [to the Richmond Park Trial] which have not yet come to pafs, but no lefs wonderful than thofe which have already happened.” It makes for spell-binding reading.

Saturday 1 October 2011


I’ve been sifting through another bundle of letters from the writing desk of my 3x great uncle Charles Castle. This lot are from his niece Mary, who married the Rev Edmund Thomas Daubeny. To be honest, these letters, from early 1871, are rather dull as correspondence – concerned with a series of delays in the reinvestment of interest received on mortgages which Mary and her sister Augusta had funded with some sort of inheritance. Not my field, anyway! But as ever they are littered with fascinating references to the family and to the times they lived in.

Mary's sister Augusta married Edmund’s brother Albert James Hesketh Daubeny in 1866, a year after Mary and Edmund’s wedding. One imagines Albert in his dress uniform turning heads at the earlier occasion; he had joined the 12th Regiment of Foot in 1862 as an ensign and was working his way up through the ranks. By 1866 he was a lieutenant, and he eventually retired as a Lieutenant Colonel of the regiment.

Uniforms of the 12th Regiment of Foot in 1848
probably procured by Cox & Co, Army Agents

In 1870, just before the correspondence in front of me began, he was posted to India with their wife and their two children to date, Augusta (nearly four years old) and Margaret (two). Mary wrote to Charles in February 1871 of news from Augusta that they had “got over the effects of the climate, and are strong and well.”

Mary was saddled with having to sort out the financial complexities by herself on behalf of both her and her sister, about which she probably understood almost as little as I do. She turned to her uncle, who had a lifetime of business experience behind him and she was at great pains to get everything in writing, often repeating in her replies what she had understood from his letters to her.

The interests and dividends, when they did come, were easy enough to transfer to her account. But in the days of Empire before global banking, how to get Augusta’s share out to her in India? Needless to say, the British Army had a system.

Richard Cox (1718-1803) by Sir William Beechley
banker and freight agent to the British Army

It all started in 1758 when the Right Honourable John, Viscount Ligonier, colonel of the First Foot Guards appointed his secretary Richard Cox as a “military agent” with responsibility for paying Ligonier’s troops. Cox had been in Ligonier’s service for some 15 years and had an understanding of soldiers’ ways and requirements. Soon other regiments were taking advantage of his expertise not only in financial matters but in the shipping of property, the selling of officer commissions and the provision of uniforms and even armaments. By the time of Cox’s death in 1803, Cox & Co were bankers to virtually the whole of the British Army.

Cox’s grandson continued the business, expanding as the British Empire expanded. They were the natural choice for Mary Daubeny to use when sending funds to Augusta. At the outbreak of the First World War, troop numbers rose rapidly of course, and Cox & Co were there to take advantage of the fact. Their staffing levels rose from 180 in 1914 to 4500 in 1918.

Cox & Co played another, surprising humanitarian role during the war. Often the cashing of a Cox & Co cheque in Hamburg or Hanover was the first intimation that a missing British officer was captured and not dead, and the company was able to trace prisoners this way to the relief of their families. (Truly, they were different times, when a captured officer was able to cash a cheque!)

Sir Henry Seymour King (1852-1933) by Bassano
banker and unlikely women’s lib pioneer

Like many companies whom war benefited, Cox & Co struggled in the ensuing peace. They hung on long enough to buy out their main rivals in India, the Henry S King Bank, in 1922. (King’s deserve recognition for being in 1887 one of the first firms to employ women typists, some 25 years ahead of the field.) But as Cox’s and King’s they were in turn swallowed up by Lloyds only a year later. Cox’s and King’s formed the basis of Lloyds new Eastern Department, based at their Pall Mall branch in London.

In the 1930s changes in banking regulations forced Lloyds to sell off its non-banking activities, including the travel and shipping aspects of Cox’s and King’s. The resulting independent company survives to this day as prestigious travel agents Cox & Kings.

A cheque from Cox & Co c 1880 
during their heyday at Craig’s Court, Whitehall

All of which is why Mary Daubeny wrote to her uncle on 2nd February 1871, “I enclose a statement (as you wished) of the Interest due up to that date; Augusta’s share has to be paid in to Messrs Cox Army Agents, Craig’s Court, but I will gladly see to that matter, if more convenient to you to send the whole sum to us.”
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