In studying this tale to prepare notes for this Guide, I have become convinced that “Mrs. Bathurst” is more of a straightforward ‘Pyecroft’ story than has generally been thought. However, it is most certainly not a farce, nor even humorous, as are all the other ‘Pyecroft’ tales, but a tragedy.
It is suggested that a coherent and cogent account of the story which Pritchard, Pyecroft and Hooper reveal can be built up, even if some of it is by implication, or negative information. In the Headnote, under the sub-heading Suggested Timescale, we have suggested a timescale for these events:
There is little evidence for the events prior to December 1902, but there is a lot of negative evidence which suggests that the above is a not unlikely scenario. The construction of this timescale is dependent on knowing the pattern of movement of H.M. Ships at that time: e.g., a ship’s commission on a foreign station lasted on average three years. On the Australia station, a ship might make three visits to New Zealand, one a year. She would not necessarily visit Auckland each time. At the end of that time, the ship would be ‘ordered home’, and would take a minimum of six weeks from New Zealand.
We know, because Sergeant Pritchard tells us so (page 350), that he visited Hauraki sometime in 1901 – probably late-ish in the year, since his previous draft in the Resiliant (sic) probably lasted until the end of 1900. By the time he’d had a few weeks leave, joined his new ship, HMS Carthusian, made a leisurely passage out to Australia (her passage speed at that time would not have exceeded 12 knots) it would have been mid-1901 that she arrived at Sydney: after settling in to the station, she might have been programmed to visit New Zealand, in September, or thereabouts. When Pritchard visits Hauraki, there is no suggestion that Mrs Bathurst has changed her status in any way: she is still a moderately merry widow, running her hotel. .
From Pyecroft’s account of the passage out from England of the Hierophant in the late Autumn of 1902, we deduce that Vickery and Mrs Bathurst had gone through a form of marriage (on page 353, Pyecroft says: ‘There must have been a good deal between ’em, to my way of thinking”). In today’s Navy, I am certain that under similar circumstances a 21st century Pyecroft would have been explicit. Given 19th century middle class morality, it seems unlikely that Mrs. Bathurst would have granted her favours without a wedding ceremony: since we know that Vickery was already married, it follows that this would have been bigamous. If she was not overtly married when Pritchard visited her bar in 1901, then it follows that Vickery’s ship’s visit followed a few weeks after the Carthusian’s.
This also fits in with Mrs. Bathurst’s apparent movements. She appears in London six to nine months after going through the ceremony: time to have sold up, and made her way back to England. Had she and Vickery met and married earlier, then there would probably have been signs when Pritchard visited in late 1901, and we have an unanswered question of why had she not left for England and hoped-for wedded bliss with Vickery earlier?
Thus, at the end of the tale, Pyecroft is 90% sure of two things: that Vickery and Mrs Bathurst had gone through a form of marriage; and that the guilt of this had so powerfully affected Vickery’s mind that he had decided to desert, with all the implications for his remaining family. Pyecroft is also100% sure of a third thing – that Vickery is dead: Hooper’s evidence (with or without the false teeth) is good enough. He is also sure that the second corpse up in Matabeleland was not Mrs. Bathurst as has sometimes been conjectured: had it been a woman, Hooper must have known, and would have said so – the inspector from whom Hooper took over said he had given the pair “some grub and quinine”. Had one been a woman, he must have remarked on it, and given the story revealed by Pritchard and Pyecroft, Hooper would have reported the fact. And when Pyecroft says “I don’t envy that other man”, Hooper makes no argument
What would have happened next?
The four of them return to Simon’s Town in the brake-van, with Pyecroft sitting silent and thoughtful. At Simon’s Town they go their separate ways – Pritchard back to the Agaric, Pyecroft to the Hierophant in dry dock, Hooper to carry on picking up the crippled wagons to make up into a train for Cape Town, while the narrator – this is all imagination – goes to call on the Admiral, who is an acquaintance of his – to enquire when the Peridot will be returning. But before they separate, Pyecroft says to Hooper; “I’m going to have to say something about this on board, and maybe they’ll want to ask you about it”.
Back on board, Pyecroft goes down to the after cabin-flat, and knocks on the Torpedo Lieutenant’s cabin door: “Can I have a word with you, Sir? It’s about Mr. Vickery.”
Their conversation might have gone something along these lines:
“Mr. Vickery? What do you know about him?”
“I believe he’s dead, Sir.”
“How do you know that? All we know is that he’s gone missing after going up to Bloemfontein – the police are still searching for him.”
“Yes, Sir, I know, but I met this Mr. Hooper while I was ashore this afternoon: he’s some sort of inspector on the railway, and he’s just come back from up-country – Matabeleland. We got to yarning over a beer or two, and he told us that he’d recently – about four weeks ago – found a corpse by the side of the line on the way up to the Falls, which had Mr. Vickery’s tattoos: he’d been struck by lightning, Sir”
“Oh! Well, you’d better come and tell the Commander.”
Off they go to the Commander, and much the same conversation follows, and the Commander asks:
“This Mr. Hooper – how did you come to meet him, and can you contact him again?”
Pyecroft replies: “Well, Sir, he’s by way of being an acquaintance of this Mr. Kipling, the writer chap, who I’ve met a couple of times before, and who’s staying at Admiralty House at the moment.”
“Well,” says the Commander, “We’ll need to get hold of him to swear an affidavit, or something. I’m going to tell the Captain about this. Torps, I don’t think you need to concern yourself any more about this at the moment. Pyecroft, you come with me.”
They go aft to the cuddy, and the Commander knocks on the door, and goes in, leaving Pyecroft waiting in the flat outside. After five minutes, the Captain’s steward comes out, and says to the Royal Marine keyboard sentry, “Pass the word for the Captain’s Clerk”, then to Pyecroft, “They want you inside”.
The Captain says to Pyecroft:
“The Commander tells me that you believe that Mr. Vickery is dead: and I understand you were coxswain of the cutter that took him ashore the night he left for Bloemfontein. How did he seem that evening? The police up at Bloemfontein have found no trace of him, and they believed that he must have been set upon and robbed and murdered, the day after he finished overseeing the loading of that ammunition.”
On the entry of his secretary, a young Clerk, the Captain asks:
“Scratch, when did we last hear from the Bloemfontein police about Mr. Vickery?”
“About six weeks ago, Sir, just before we sailed for Tristan.”
“And what did they say?”
“Just that they had no trace of him – he’d sealed the truck after completion of loading on 5th. January, and given the consignment notes to the Station-Master. The Station-Master said that Mr. Vickery had also remarked that he’d probably see him the next day, because he intended to take the Cape Mail the next evening, but the Station-Master never saw him, nor did anyone else. And they asked at the rooms where he’d been lodging. His landlady said he’d paid his shot and left the next morning, the 6th. He hadn’t got much baggage, and he took it all with him.”
“Well, Sir, the Cape Mail leaves Bloemfontein about 6 p.m., so he’d have had all day to kick his heels, but they could find no-one who remembered seeing him, and they could only suppose he’d been attacked by some black skellums, for his gear and money. They thought his body might have been burnt – there is nearly always a bonfire going, somewhere in that section – there’s quite a lot of new building going on in the area.”
“Was he in uniform?”
“Oh, yes, Sir – he was travelling on duty, and the police confirmed he’d been wearing uniform while he was in the goods yard with the ammunition trucks.”
“Well, it looks as though he’s been burnt, all right. It seems his body has been found up beyond Bulawayo, struck by lightning. We’ll have to report to the Admiral for the Admiralty: and who’s his nearest relative?”
“He changed his next-of-kin shortly before Christmas – it seems his wife died at the end of last year, and his daughter is now his nearest relative. I think he said she was working in a Plymouth draper’s shop, living with the other girls over the shop, Sir.”
“Right, well, first things first: we’ll need some sort of affidavit from the railway chappie .. what’s his name …?
“Hooper, Sir”, says the Commander.
“Yes, him. Scratch, I want you to go ashore and see the Admiral’s Secretary or Flag Lieutenant to find out how we can contact Mr. Kipling. You can follow that up, find him, explain, if necessary, why we want to contact Hooper, and then find Hooper and arrange for him to come out here to swear to what he found and did with the remains. Make sure the Secretary is fully in the picture – I don’t want the Admiral complaining that he didn’t know what was going on.”
The Captain went on:
“When that’s done, then we will have to make a formal report of Vickery’s death, enclosing Hooper’s affidavit, for the Admiral, and I must write a letter to his daughter.”
“Right, Scratch, you’d better get off now – you ought to catch the Admiral’s staff before they shift for dinner – and I want you to chase up Mr. Kipling first thing tomorrow.”
All this time, Pyecroft had been making himself small in a corner of the Captain’s cabin, but the Captain noticed him as the secretary left the cuddy, and says:
Right, Pyecroft, carry on. You did quite right in informing Lieutenant Bellairs: thank you. Commander, stay behind, will you.”
Pyecroft and the Commander both said, “Aye, aye, Sir”, and Pyecroft slid out of the cabin door, and listened – – he turned to see Lamson, the Captain’s Cox’n, poke his head out of the pantry adjacent to the Captain’s cabin.
“What’s going on, Pye?
“Let me in to the pantry, and I’ll tell you”.
Lamson drew back, and Pyecroft squeezed into the pantry. He put his finger to his lips, and mouthed “Shhh.” He turned, and reached to the hatch from the pantry into the Captain’s dining cabin, adjacent to the day cabin, where the Captain and Commander were talking. He quietly slid the hatch open, and the voices came more loudly. Lamson turned to the Leading Steward who had also been in the pantry and said brusquely, “Here, you, hop it!”. The Leading Steward duly hopped it, sucking his teeth as he left the pantry.
Pyecroft beckoned to Lamson, and both men leaned forward to hear what was being said in the cuddy.
They heard the Captain say:
“Well, here’s a pickle. What the h*ll was Vickery doing up there – always assuming that it was him? How are we going to explain that without revealing that he’d run?”
The Commander replied:
“Well, Sir, I’m not precisely sure what tale you pitched to the Admiral’s staff to allow him to go to Bloemfontein in the first place, I’m afraid.”
“Well, I told ’em more or less what Vickery told me – that there was a major discrepancy in our ammunition accounts, left over from the last commission, but that he knew there was ammunition left up at Bloemfontein from the war, and that if he could be authorised to fetch it, he could square the commissary storeman up there – no one would know that the naval brigade hadn’t expended a couple of hundred more rounds than they actually had. Then, when the trucks reached the dockyard, before being shunted into the Armament Depot, he would organise a working party to remove the number we needed to square the books, and no-one would be any the wiser. When the trucks arrived without him, I got Mr. Hargreaves, the Gunner (T), to check Vickery’s ammunition accounts – he said there was nothing wrong with them.”
“Ah!” said the Commander, “There’s more in this than meets the eye! It looks very much as though Vickery had made up his mind to go absent before he left – he must have had some purpose in heading north. Is there any way we can explain that?”
“I can’t think of any reason. If we could have said he was struck by lightning near Bloemfontein, we might be able to get away with it, but we cannot ask Hooper to swear an affidavit and perjure himself at the same time – and anyway, it’ud get found out. No, I think I’ll have tell C-in-C what we’ve discovered – that Vickery “told me a tale” for reasons unknown, that he went on the run – presumably for the same reason – and …”
The Commander broke in:
“Sorry, Sir, but I’ve just thought – does C-in-C have to report the exact circumstances to the Admiralty? Won’t it be sufficient to “regret to report the death of Mr. M. Vickery, Gunner, Royal Navy, of H.M.S. Hierophant, while on detached duty at Bloemfontein. An affidavit as to finding and identifying his body has been received from Mr. Hooper, Inspector, Cape Government Railways”? Won’t that do?”
The Captain thought for a moment, then:
“We..e..ell, if I can square the Admiral’s secretary, we will probably get away with it. We’ll have to make sure that the date we give as his death matches the date we marked him as absent in the ship’s books.”
And that is how it was quietly dealt with. Mr. Hooper came down to Simon’s Town two days later, and swore an affidavit as to finding the bodies of the two tramps, and the identification marks on one of them. He gave the correct date, March 2nd, and gave the correct place, at milepost 94½ from Bulawayo, on the Victoria Falls line. The official report was duly rendered to C-in-C, and in turn forwarded to the Admiralty, in the terms that the Commander had suggested and without a copy of the affidavit. It happened that C-in-C was very much concerned with the political aftermath of Joseph Chamberlain’s visit to the Cape that autumn, and didn’t worry too much about what his Secretary asked him to sign.
The Captain wrote to Miss Vickery, and also to a Naval Charity, reporting the circumstances of Miss Vickery being left an orphan, and the charity gave her a grant of fifty pounds.
And the Hierophant completed her commission on the Cape station, and returned to Devonport in October 2005. Her arrival went unnoticed – the naval pages of the Western Morning News were full of the keel-laying the day previously of HMS Dreadnought.
Two days after her arrival, Petty Officer Pyecroft suggested to the Torpedo Officer that he should trace Miss Vickery, and return the few personal belongings that Vickery had left behind him. The Torpedo Officer agreed, and so Pyecroft went off to the address given by the ship’s office writer as being Vickery’s wife’s last address. There he spoke to the landlady, who told him that Edna Vickery had a job as a shop assistant in Dingle’s, in the haberdashery department. And there Pyecroft found her, after an embarrassing ten minutes among the corsets.
The supervisor allowed her to have ten minutes off, and to use his office. Pyecroft explained that he had a bag containing a few mementoes of her father – his sword, his hair brushes, a photograph of her mother and herself, a pair of tortoise-shell cufflinks from the Seychelles, and a silver-plated candle-stick from his cabin. She thanked him, and said:
“Of course, I never really knew him much: the most I saw him was for about two years when I was nine or ten when he was in a torpedo boat based here in Plymouth – he came home about every other night, and he helped me with my school work, but then he was sent out to Australia, and almost as soon as he came home, he was sent to your ship, and out to South Africa. It was pretty dreadful when Mum died, but our vicar’s wife got me this job. It was quite funny though – sometime that summer that Dad went away and when Mum was about six months gone, there was a lady called one day – she spoke a bit funny – sort of like from London, but I don’t know. She knocked, and asked if Mr. Vickery lived here, and Mum said “Yes, I’m his wife, can I help you, he’s not here.” “Oh!” she said, sort of surprised, “I think I must have been given the wrong address – my Mr. Vickery isn’t married. I’m so sorry to have troubled you”. And that was that: she walked away – but I saw her go down the street to the park at the bottom, and she sat down there and pulled a hankie out of her reticule, and I think she was crying. But that was the last I saw of her.”
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©Alastair Wilson 2008 All rights reserved