(February 26 2008)
In 1957, I was a young Lieutenant, serving in HMS Watchful, a converted World War II Motor Launch, used for Fishery Patrol duties in the English Channel. She was a tiny craft, with a crew of only twelve: the Captain and me; the Petty Officer Coxswain; a Mechanician 2nd class (very much the equivalent of ‘Bai-jove’ Judson’s Mr. Davies); a leading Electrical Mechanic; a Telegraphist and two Stoker mechanics and three seamen.
Among the seamen was a young Ordinary Seaman, a National Serviceman, named Hepburn. One night, he and I had the middle watch together, as we made our way across Lyme Bay at about eleven knots on our way from Portland to Brixham. One of us had the wheel, the other kept a look-out. In so small a ship, under such circumstances, there was no gulf between officer and rating: we were much of an age, and his education had been no worse than mine – indeed, he had a university place to go to when he completed his National Service.
On this particular night, we got to talking about families. I told him how I had been marked down for the Navy from birth almost, having four previous generations of my mother’s family as middle-ranking Naval officers from the Napoleonic wars, throughout the rest of the 19th century. Hepburn replied that he too, came from an old Naval family: his father had been a Leading Seaman in HMS Courageous and had been lost when she was sunk in 1939, a week before his birth. Hepburn added that his grandfather, who had acted as a father to him, had also been in the Navy – a retired Chief Petty Officer; while his grandmother’s father was also in the Navy – a Warrant Officer who had died in curious circumstances in South Africa, at the time of the Boer War, or just after. I said “Oh, how were they curious, then?” and Hepburn replied, “Well, Sir, it’s quite a story – if you’re really interested, I’ve got it all written down by my Godfather, who knew my great-grandfather: they were in the same ship at the time my great-grandfather disappeared. If you like, I’ll bring it back next time I go home on week-end leave.”
In fact, he brought it to me two days later, when we were alongside in Plymouth. It was in the dog-watches, and the captain had gone up to the Barracks for a bath (our on-board facilities didn’t even run to a shower), when he came down the companion-way to our tiny wardroom, knocked on the door and came in, clutching an old sailor’s ditty-box. He put it down on the table and said, “Here’s that bit of paper I told you about, Sir”. He opened the box, took out a folded and creased wad of paper, and gave it to me. I thanked him, said I would take great care of it, and return it to him as soon as I’d read it. It was more than a bit of paper: it ran to four sides of foolscap, and was written in a neat Board School copperplate. There was a superscription on the outside of the paper: “For my Godson, Leading Seaman George Hepburn, from his Godfather, Emanuel Pyecroft, Torpedo Coxswain, Royal Navy”.
The name struck me straight away – I’d read Kipling’s stories all my life, and my father, another Kipling enthusiast, had given me a set of the Macmillan pocket edition when I was one year old (the model railway syndrome, I suspect). I’d only recently read the Pyecroft tales on the recommendation of my own grandfather, and had struggled with “Mrs. Bathurst”. I could never understand how it was that Vickery had persuaded his Captain to let him go up country.
I poured myself a drink, and sat down to read, but I’d got no further than the heading when I sat up, almost knocking over my drink, it read:
‘The events leading up to the death of Gunner Mark Vickery, Royal Navy, in Matabeleland, 2nd March 1903, by Emanuel Pyecroft, formerly a Torpedo Coxswain in the Royal Navy’. Below was a date, 3rd July, 1939.
The first paragraph started, ‘George, now that you’re 25, I think you should know how it happened that your grandfather, your mother’s father, came to die in the bush in Matabeleland, which is called Southern Rhodesia now’.
I read on:
“I was shipmates with him in the old Hierophant, in a commission on the Cape Station – I think they call it the South Atlantic station now – in 1902-05. I was a Petty Officer Torpedoman, and he was the Gunner, and in the normal way, we wouldn’t have rubbed up much against each other, but somehow, one day in the Dogs, round about St. Helena on our way south, we got to yarning and it transpired he’d recently completed a commission on the Australia station, and we found we’d both visited some of the same places A couple of months later, we were in Cape Town and one evening I met him outside the Circus, and he took me in to see a film, because he was sure there was a woman in it we’d both of us been acquainted with in New Zealand. He was fair sweating with emotion, and it was clear she meant more than just something to him. In fact, he insisted that I come with him to the same show five night in all, and each night, after the show, he’d walk from pub to pub, pouring beer and Cape brandy down his throat and mine like there was no tomorrow.
After that, the circus moved on, and the next thing I knew was that, a couple of days later, he was detailed off to go up country, to Bloemfontein, to make some arrangements about some Navy ammunition up there. I took him ashore in the cutter, and I reckoned he wasn’t himself at all. He spoke to me – something about his wife who’d just died, and that was the last I ever saw of him. That was round about the New Year of `03.
He didn’t come back, and the galley packet said that he’d been murdered up in Bloemfontein. Nobody thought too much of it – the warrants kept themselves to themselves in that ship, and he wasn’t specially popular – nor unpopular, either, but no-one particularly missed him. But, knowing the state of his mind, I couldn’t help but wonder.
And then, about four months later, I was ashore with an old friend, a Red Marine called Pritchard, and we were looking for a quiet place to down a couple of beers he’d been given. We found a parked brake-van, down at Glengariff siding, by the beach. And in it was that writer man, Rudyard Kipling, and a railway chap called Hooper. So we all sat and drank our beer, and got yarning. You probably know that Mr. Kipling – he died a couple of years ago, just after the old King – wrote a couple of tales about some times we had together in Guzz, and in the summer manoeuvres at home in `97 or `98: and he wrote up what me and Pritch and this Hooper put together – we were talking about women and men, and how women could drive men to do things quite unlike their normal selves.
Anyway, the end of the afternoon came when Hooper told us how he’d found, about a month before – so that would have been in early March `03 – a couple of bodies, struck dead by lightning about a hundred miles north west by north from Bulawayo. He described them, and it was clear from the tattoos, and other things, that one of them was your grandfather. We left it there – there wasn’t any more to tell – and later that Mr. Kipling wrote it up very cleverly for a magazine. He changed the name of your grandfather – he called him Vickery, but he put me and Pritch and Hooper in as ourselves. And he changed the names of our ships, but it didn’t much matter, because the magazine he put the story in was quite a posh one, a literary one, and you didn’t see many of them in the wardroom, much less on the messdeck.
Well, the story he told was only half the story – and you can read it in the book he put it in – in fact, you ought to read it (though he makes me out to be less educated than I reckon I am), because what I’m going to tell you now takes up from where Mr. Kipling stopped. The book’s called Traffics and Discoveries.
We went back, the four of us, to Simon’s Town in the brake-van, with me just sitting quiet and thoughtful. At Simon’s Town we went our own ways – Pritchard back to the Agaric, me to the Hierophant in dry dock, Hooper to carry on picking up the broken-down wagons to make up into a train for Cape Town, while Mr. Kipling went to call on the Admiral, who was an acquaintance of his – to enquire when the Peridot would be returning. But before I left the van, I said 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, I went down to the after cabin-flat, and knocked on the Torpedo Lieutenant’s cabin door: “Can I have a word with you, Sir? It’s about Mr. Vickery”. (I’m going to use ‘Vickery’ as his name, so as not to confuse you with the other part of the story.
Our conversation went something like this (remember, I’m writing this about 35 years after it happened, but I can remember it almost like yesterday).
“Mr. Vickery? What do you know about him?”>br>
“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.”
So, off we 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?”
I said, “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.”
We went aft to the cuddy, and the Commander knocks on the door, and goes in, leaving me 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 Secretary”, then to me “They want you inside”.
The Captain says to me:
“The Commander tells me that you believe that Mr. Vickery is dead: and I believe 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.”
Then his secretary, a young Paymaster Lieutenant, comes in and the Captain asks him:
“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.”
“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 goes 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 to the 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, I’d been making myself small in a corner of the Captain’s cabin, but the Captain saw me 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.”
The Commander and me both said, “Aye, aye, Sir”, and I slid out of the cabin door, and listened – and I see Lamson, the Captain’s Cox’n, poke his head out of the pantry next to the Captain’s cabin.
“What’s going on, Pye?
“Let me in to the pantry, and I’ll tell you”.
Lamson drew himself back, and I squeezed into the pantry. I put my finger to my lips, and mouthed “Shhh.” Then I reached behind to the hatch from the pantry into the Captain’s dining cabin, next to the day cabin, where the Captain and Commander were talking. I 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 sharply, “Here, you, hop it!” So the Leading Steward hopped it, sucking his teeth as he left the pantry.
I beckoned to Lamson, and we both leaned forward to hear what was being said in the cuddy.
We 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 our arrival, I suggested to the Torpedo Officer that I should trace Miss Vickery, and return the few personal belongings that Vickery had left behind him. The Torpedo Officer agreed, and so I went off to the address given by the ship’s office writer as being Vickery’s wife’s (that’s your grandma, God rest her) last address. I spoke to the landlady, who told me that Edna Vickery (your mum) had a job as a shop assistant in Dingle’s, in the haberdashery department. And there I found her, after an embarrassing ten minutes among the corsets.
Her supervisor allowed her to have ten minutes off, and to use his office. I explained that I 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 me, 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.”
And that was how I came to know your Mum, and I kept in touch with her, and when she got married, I was invited to the wedding – your Dad had been a young LTO in a destroyer I was coxswain of – the Nubian, back in the year `11 – the old King’s Coronation year.
And now she’s dead, you’re married, and I shan’t be around for much longer, so I thought I’d better set down what happened – better that someone should know the truth as near as we’ll ever get it, than leave it as a mystery.
I’m sure as I can be that your granddad and this Mrs. Bathurst were married in New Zealand. Why he did it, I just do not know. So far as I know, your grandma was a good wife to him, but he’d been separated from her for too much of their married life, and he was reaching that age – well, I saw an article in the Western by one of these Freudian chaps, who said men get what he called the ‘male menopause’. I don’t know, I’m sure. But when he dragged me round the streets of Cape Town five nights in a row after seeing her in the same newsreel, I began to put two and two together with what he’d said to me at sea earlier, and it was clear that he was certain sure that she had come to England to find him. Well, there’d have been a right old to-do if she did find him.
He couldn’t bear the thought of what would happen if she did catch up with him, and he’d just heard that your Mum had died, and I reckon it just drove him over the edge. He decided to go on the run, and start again somewhere – I don’t think he saw beyond the next couple of weeks or so. I remember Pritch saying something to Hooper when we were in that brake-van, about the effect some women could have on a man – he said something about a man goes crazy – or just saves himself. Well, your grandpa met that kind of woman, but couldn’t save himself. I think he did go crazy.
I reckon that when the film moved on from Cape Town, it was a mixture of guilt – for betraying your grandma, for cheating Mrs. B, and perhaps for what your mum would think of all these shenanigans – and a wish to see her on the film again, which made him go to the captain with a tale about fixing the ammunition accounts, and going up to Bloemfontein – and the captain bought it. If it had come out that the accounts were in a mess, even if it was something left over from the last commission, it wouldn’t do him, your grandpa, any good, but no more would it the captain – who always carries the can. So the captain went ashore to square the Admiral’s staff, and that was all right.
I was the last person from the old Hierophant to see your grandpa, when I took him ashore to catch the evening train into Cape Town, before taking the night mail up-country. I knew something was up, because he said to me “Remember that I am not a murderer, because my lawful wife died in childbed six weeks after I came out. That much I am clear of”. I didn’t think much to the remark, until he didn’t come back, and they reckoned he’d been murdered in Bloemfontein. But I got to thinking, and I reckoned he’d done one of those disappearing tricks, so that he could start another life – like that story Mr. Conan Doyle tells about Sherlock Holmes and the Norwood builder.
Here’s how I see it. When he’d finished the job up at Bloemfontein – and that caused us a problem, too, because there wasn’t anything wrong with the ammunition accounts, and instead of being 200 rounds of four-point-seven ammunition short, we now had 200 rounds too many: I think we ‘lost’ them next time we did our quarterly gun-layers’ firings – as I say, when he’d finished, I think he just found a quiet corner to change into some old clothes, and burnt the rest. And then he made his way north via De Aar to Jo’burg, probably like one of these American hoboes you see at the cinema. He could have lost himself in the mines there, but there would have been too many police about, and the risk was too great – remember he thought this Mrs. B. was looking for him, and he couldn’t face the thought of being had up on a charge of bigamy, and going to prison. So he decided to go on north to one of the railway construction camps on the line which was being built from Bulawayo, up to the Victoria Falls, and on in to the copper-mining country. He picked up another tramping man – perhaps on the Reef – and they were on their way to the head of rail and the construction camp. And on their way there, they were caught in a tropical storm, and were struck by lightning. Hooper found them soon afterwards and described to us, in that brake-van at Glengariff, how he’d done it, and the tattoos which I knew were your grandpa’s: and, although I never saw them, I’m certain sure that he had your grandpa’s false teeth in his waistcoat pocket while he was telling the story, but he never showed them to us.
So that’s it. Mr. Kipling never told the whole story, but then, he didn’t know the whole story. Now you do, and you can tell your son – I hope your first will be a boy.”
©Alastair Wilson 2008 All rights reserved