Friday, 12 December 2014


After a succession of posts about dark deeds from our shared Wisbech past, I am reminded that Pickwick has neglected one vital part of our Shared Agenda/Prospectus/Vision Statement/ Policy Guidelines (substitute any piece of modern management bullshit with which you are most comfortable) So, with a General Election - if not exactly looming - a flicker on the horizon, this post is by way of a public service broadcast. You will hear many of this phrases over the next six months, and you may need this essential cut-out-and-keep guide as a translation aid. This installment is free, but future issues will be competitively priced at £7.99, payable to Pickwick's offshore ethical investment account.

After a long and thorough consultation… - "My cabinet colleague has come up with a great idea…"
Community cohesion - what happens when migrants are allowed to burn the British flag and other national symbols, and then play the race card when challenged.
Fall for - what ordinary people do when they vote for an idea or policy not approved of by the mainstream parties.
Immigration - something which is great for businessmen, farmers and crooked landlords.
Foreign Aid - a system whereby working people in one country subsidise palaces, executive motor cars and space programmes in another country
Free speech - a state of affairs when certain people in the community can advocate beheading their opponents, and someone who opposes that idea is arrested for 'hate crime'
I hear what you are saying - "Your opinion is worth jack **** to me."
Laughter - what politicians resort to when their logical arguments fall on deaf ears, as in 'Still Laughing at UKIP'.
Let me make one thing perfectly clear - "I'm not answering your question, but I'm going to spin all around the houses with a load of gobbledygook."
Local elections - a process whereby a minority of people in a city, village or urban area decide who will run their affairs of the whole community for the next four years.
People in my community are genuinely feeling the pinch - "I have an all expenses paid flat in Islington, a family home in the Cotswolds, and a villa in Tuscany."
Political Party - a club where the members have to agree with every decision it makes, no matter how stupid or ruinous to the common good.
Populism - something that ordinary people believe is important, but which mainstream politicians think is bad for us - and them.
Postal voting poses certain challenges - "Strewth, the local Labour party has bought all the Asian votes again!"
Socialism - a form of government which takes money out of your pocket, and puts it into the pocket of someone who is either lazy, inept or criminal.
The electorate are vital stakeholders in our shared future - "Phew! Back in power for another four years! Take the 'phone off the hook, Miranda."
The exploitation of migrant labour is repellent - "Have you collected the rent from the Filipino nanny yet, Giles?"
The NHS is the jewel in our crown - "Anyone know where the nearest pawnbroker is…?"
The xxxx candidate conducted a fair and honourable campaign - "LMAO - the xxxx candidate only got 54 votes!"
We must work together, across party lines, for the good of the village/town/city/country - "I'm going to take the mickey out of my political opponents at every opportunity, and belittle them as much as possible."
We're listening to parents - We are telling parents to make trouble for those Lefty idiots, the teachers.
We must resist the inflationary pressure on wages - "That's a 10% pay rise for us MPs, then!"
We will not let this matter rest - "When the media have got tired of this story, we'll just carry on, same-old, same-old

Sunday, 7 December 2014


The story so far. "SCHOOLBOY GANGSTERS ROUNDED UP!"  screamed the local papers. According to Dr Meacock, who chaired the Special Children's Court, the boys,
 "constituted a centre of vice in the town,
and they must be dealt with drastically."

Those of you who follow this blog will remember that Dr Meacock was at the very heart of the controversy surrounding the life and death of Dr Horace Dimock, twenty years earlier, an unfortnate situation which resulted in the infamous riots. So, who were these five desperados, and what were the Industrial Schools to which they were to be packed off, until they reached the age of 16?

Firstly the names of the boys. I received this information from the County Record Office. I imagine they are all now deceased, but at the time their names would not have been available in the press, for legal reasons. They were:

Horace Stephen Freear, age 7
Frederick Hunt, age 8
Stanley Johnson, age 9
Harry Rivett, age 10
Harry Worth, age 10

Their sentence? To spend the years in an Industrial School, until they reached the age of 16. For Worth and Rivett - a 6 year sentence; for Johnson, 7 years; Hunt would serve 8 years, and Freear a staggering 9 years.

The words 'Industrial School' have a vaguely worthy ring to them. There's a suggestion that they were places where youngsters could learn a trade, benefit from a healthy lifestyle, and be taught the errors of whatever ways had led them to become inmates. Older readers will remember the words 'Reform School' and 'Borstal'. These days we skip around the  truth with phrases like 'Young Offenders Institution', but the fact remains that Industrial schools were usually grim places which probably served as training grounds for future lawbreakers. The industrial schools were invariably grim and forbidding places but it doesn't seem that one existed in Cambridgeshire, with the nearest one being in Suffolk.

To their eternal credit, there were those in Wisbech who thought the sentence handed down to these boys was excessive. To use modern parlance, they may well have been "thieving little scrotes", but even so, this was a draconian sentence, even by the standards of 1933. Spearheaded by a Baptist minister, the Reverend R N Armitage (pictured below), a fund was started to appeal the boys' sentence.

Then, the big guns turned on Dr Meacock and his fellow magistrates. The popular periodical, John Bull, said its piece.

After repeating the findings of the magistrates, the journal then let rip.

Early in the New Year of 1934, with the backing of the Isle of Ely Education Committee, a court declared that the sentences imposed on the lads were totally disproportionate. The Wisbech magistrates were humiliated, and costs were awarded against them. It was significant that no-one could explain why Dr Meacroft was even on the magistrates' bench in the first place.

So, what became of The Five Little Martyrs? The records tell us that a Horace Stephen Freear died in 1978, and that Frederick Hunt died in 1971. Of the others, no-one knows. If any readers have information about what these lads did with their lives once they were spared from years in an Industrial School, then Pickwick will be only too happy to publish it.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

In the autumn of 1933, once again Wisbech made it into the national papers. In the same year as the double tragedy of Florence Reeve and her jealous husband shocked people across East Anglia (see the blog for 14 September 2014), a criminal case brought Wisbech into national focus. Here was the headline in the Wisbech Standard.

Let the report in the Wisbech Standard tell the tale of these ruthless gangsters and their reign of terror which had the honest Fenland folk cowering in their beds and in fear of their lives.

For five hours Dr H. C. Meacock (in the chair) and other magistrates sat, on Tuesday, at a special Wisbech Children's Court listening to the evidence in an amazing series of thefts extending over two months, committed by a gang of young Wisbech schoolboys, five of whom were eventually ordered to be sent to an industrial school.

Dr Meacock, I hear you ask. Doesn't he have previous? Wasn't he the man who, twenty years earlier, was most prominent in the sad case of Dr Dimock and The Wisbech Riots? He was, the very same. One of his fellow magistrates was a certain Mr Savory, seen here on the right of the good doctor.

The defendants were first charged with stealing a purse containing a ten shilling note and 2s 6d in silver from the dwelling house of Annie Ward, at Wisbech, on September 5th.

Annie Ward, of Little Church Street, Wisbech, stated that she left her house at 11.55 am to go to a nearby baker's establishment. When she returned five minutes later she found her purse missing from the mantelpiece.

Inspector Bush gave evidence of the enquiries he pursued after being informed of the loss, and read statements which he said were made by the defendants when he interviewed them.

The next charge was one of stealing a box of ante-serum for pigs and 5s worth of groceries, the property of Bert Clifton at Wisbech on September 1st.

Bert Clifton, a farmer, of Gedney, said that about 8 o'clock he left his motor car against the Canal railings near the Empire Theatre. In the car were some drums of ante-serum, which he valued at 22s 8d, and 5s worth of groceries. He was away from his car between 8pm and 10.45pm, and on leaving the Theatre he went direct to the car and did not miss the goods until he reached home.

Inspector Bush stated that on September 11th and on subsequent dates he interviewed defendants, one of whom he said took the groceries out of the car and handed them to another of the defendants, who threw them into the canal. Witness added that one of defendants' parents had rendered every assistance in trying to retrieve the goods from the canal (pictured below)

All the defendants pleaded guilty except one, whose father said that he was in the house at the time of the alleged crime.

The same boys were then charged with stealing a rib of beef and a carton of cream belonging to Susannah Winters, at Wisbech on the same date.

Susannah Winters said that she left her cycle in Clare's Passage at about 6-40pm. On the handlebars was a basket containing a joint of meat worth 2s 3d, and a carton of cream, which had disappeared when she returned to her cycle at 6.55. Inspector Bush spoke of interviewing defendants, one of whom said that one of the others took the meat home and had it cooked. This was denied by the parent. Mr A R Bennett, headmaster of the Queen's School and Mr A V Thompson, headmaster of St Peter's School were present when witness interviewed defendants.

Five of the boys were then charged with stealing cycle lamps at Wisbech on September 8th and 9th, the property of William Callaby, James John Harrop, Kate Rose, and another. Inspector Bush gave evidence in each case.

A charge of stealing two purses and 9d in money, the property of Ivy Irene Hurst, and another, at Wisbech on September 9th was brought against four of the boys. Ivy Irene Hurst said that she went to the Swimming Bath on the date in question, with a friend. After she had left the water, and dressed, she took her shopping bag, which contained her own handbag, inside which was her friends purse, and placed it in her friend's cubicle. A few minutes later they both went back to the cubicle and found that the purses had been taken from the bag. Witness valued the handbag at 7s 6d. Jean Parlett corroborated the previous witness's evidence. Inspector Bush said he interviewed defendants, who admitted being there.

Another summons was for stealing half a pound of butter, a box of Aspro tablets and two cycle spanners, at Wisbech on September 9th. Dolly Mary Willimott Barber stated that she left her cycle outside 6, The Crescent at about 6-15pm. On returning at 6-40pm, she found the articles were missing. In his evidence, Inspector Bush said he saw the defendants on September 10th, and one said that they had all shared "the white sweets, which did not taste nice."

Five of the boys were also charged with stealing a leather handbag containing 2s 7d in money, certain photographs, and one NP match-box, the property of Ivy may Hurst, at Wisbech, on September 1st. Ivy Hurst, of Broad Drove, South Brink, Wisbech, said that at about 9-15am she left her perambulator, in which was her handbag containing the articles, outside Dr Gunson's House. She visited Dr Gunson's surgery at 10-10, and when she came out at 11 o'clock the handbag was not there.

Inspector Bush said that when he interviewed defendants one of them said that a boy took the bag out of the perambulator and hid it under some stones near St Peter's School. All the boys admitted they were there when the theft was committed.

Two of the boys were finally charged with stealing 2s in silver and 4d in copper, the monies of Barbara Joyce Bush, at Wisbech, on September 9th. Barbara Joyce Bush, of the Police Station, Harecroft Road, Wisbech, stated that she left her cycle outside Peark's shop. On the handlebars was a basket, in which was a small bag containing the money. She was only in the shop about three minutes, but when she came out her bag was missing. Inspector Bush spoke of the previous witness reporting her loss to him, and the subsequent enquiries he made. One of the defendants admitted taking the money and sharing it one of the other boys. They bought some sweets with some of the money.

This hearing took place at Sessions House, a familiar Wisbech landmark.

                                             NEXT TIME .....

 The summing up and sentencing ...
The horrors of the Industrial Schools...
The town's response....
The five boys named for the first time ....

Monday, 24 November 2014


The Great and the Good (minus one or two of the medical fraternity from Wisbech) gathered to pay their last respects to Horace Dimock, in his home village of Stretham. There had been a kind of 'lying in state' in the family home, before the mourners assembled at the church, ready to make the procession up the hill to the village cemetery. A beautiful old funeral bier still exists inside the village church, and may well be the one which carried Horace Dimock's body on its final journey. The newspaper commented thus, " Many of the mourners came the other side of the Isle, where, week after week, Dr. Dimock had served his patients faithfully and well. The mourners assembled outside the family residence in Red Lion Street, where the young doctor lay dead, and few of them
were allowed look upon his face for the last time. Dr. Dimock, in a will made prior to one of his sea voyages taken for the benefit of his health, expressed a wish that flowers should be sent by the family in the event his death, and this wish was respected on the present occasion. Floral tributes, however, came from elsewhere—chiefly from Wisbech—and the inscriptions on them showed the high regard which the doctor was held by those amongst whom he had laboured. One wreath bore the following inscription, which fairly represented the feelings of Wisbech: "In loving sympathy, for one who worried the few, but loved the many."
The report continued: It was expected that the funeral of the late Dr. Horace Dimock would be largely attended, but the villagers of Stretham were scarcely prepared for the crowds that trooped into their midst on Friday. One of the oldest inhabitants, in conversation with our representative, looked upon the attendance at the funeral as a fine tribute to the popularity of Dr. Dimock, and said he had not seen anything like it in the village before. 
The mourners were met at the churchyard gate by the Rev. S. Stuart Stitt and the choir, one of whom acted as cross-bearer. The surpliced churchmen led the mourners into the sacred edifice, and the coffin, covered with beautiful wreaths, was taken thither on a wheeled bier, which was placed near the entrance the sanctuary. The service was conducted by the Rector. The choir sang "Now The Labourer's Task Is O'er" and "On the Resurrection Morning. You can listen to the tune of this lovely old Victorian hymn by following this link to Soundcloud:
Now The Labourer's Task Is O'er

For the following photographs I am indebted to Robert Bell, of Wisbech Museum who, as always , has been a mine of information.

The floral tributes included the following: In deepest sympathy and loving memory of The People's Doctor, from members of the Wisbech Working Men's Liberal Association: With deepest sympathy, from the residents of Gorefield and Leverington; With united, sincere, and deepest sympathy, from the staff and employes of the G.E.R., Wisbech; With deepest sympathy, from the parishioners
of Elm— "Greater love hath no man than that he laid down his life for others"; With deepest sympathy, from the Rev. and Mrs. S. Stitt; For Dr. Horace, with love, from Hilda: With deepest sympathy for our late beloved doctor from the M. and G. Joint Staff, Wisbech—"Gone but not forgotten." The cinematograph was at work during the afternoon, and one photographer more bold than the others of his fraternity, erected his apparatus on top of a churchyard monument. The interment took place in the cemetery after the first part the service had been held in the parish church. The proceedings were orderly, with the exception that one Wisbech man gave vent to some strong language, which had reference to the way which Dr. Dimock had been treated. The police, of whom two were in plain clothes, had an easy task to perform, as compared with what might have happened under certain circumstances.

A century later, what do we make of the affair? What happened to the participants who survived? Reading contemporary accounts, it is difficult to
believe that Horace Dimock was a totally innocent party. It would have been perfectly possible for him to have won the hearts of his patients, many of them from the poorer side of society, at the same time as conducting a hate campaign against those fellow professionals against whom he bore a grudge. The less lurid of the postcards allegedly sent by Dr Dimock were reproduced in the press, along with detailed evidence by so-called handwriting experts. The ordinary people of Wisbech were not sitting on the fence, however. to them, Dimock was a victim of a vile conspiracy, and a modern martyr. It must also be remembered that this was not a period in British history marked by many episodes of popular unrest. This was still the Golden Age of the British Empire, and despite his death three years earlier, the benign spirit of Edward VII still hovered over his subjects. Within twelve months of Dimock's suicide Europe would be torn asunder by a terrible war which would lay waste to a generation of young men.
And what of Dimock's fellow Wisbech doctors? Dr Meacock, who was the most vociferous of Dimock's detractors, was to make the headlines again, some
twenty years later, but this time in his capacity as a magistrate. This story will be covered in a later blog. Dr Gunson went on to serve with distinction in The Great War. He survived to return to general practice, and is remembered in a street sign near his former home, which was one of the targets of the Wisbech mob in the dark November days of 1913. And now, in 2014? The Dimock home in Stretham has long since been demolished. Horace Dimock's grave lies next to that of his father, who had died three years earlier. His father's tombstone is still clear, but the inscription beneath Horace's cross is barely readable. It is only by comparing the original funeral photographs with modern images that we can be certain of Horace's last resting place.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014


Before we continue with the saga of the Riots, it should be mentioned that the new welfare measures were a national issue not confined to the Fens. The Riots were widely reported in newspapers up and down the land, and the matter of doctors' panels in the town had been raised in Parliament earlier in 1913. This is the report from Hansard, and if at least one of the names seems familiar, he was Captain William Benn, MP for Tower Hamlets and Junior Lord of The Treasury. He went on to serve with distinction in The Great War and was, of course, the father of the late Tony Benn.

So, the people's favourite, Dr Horace Dimock, was dead by his own hand, as a result of persecution form his fellow medical men in Wisbech. Was it as simple as that? Had the other doctors received hate mail? Did Horace Dimock have 'previous'? Here is another side of the story, widely reported in the press, up and down the land. Was Dimock a victim of a concerted plot organised by the establishment, or was he a foolish man with a hatred for anyone who dared to disagree with him?

As soon as he (Dr. Dimock) came to Wisbech, anonymous postcards of all degrees of scurrility and obscenity were sent the secretary of the hospital, to the doctors, and to various lay members the community. These postcards in (hand) printed characters, not script, were found to resemble most closely those used some nine years before in a number of scurrilous documents that were sent to a medical student at St. Thomas's Hospital (London)who was living in the same lodgings also occupied by Dimock. A writing expert considers that the St. Thomas's Hospital documents and the Wisbech documents were, undoubtedly written in the same hand, and anyone who examines the two sets of documents must agree with this. These documents were sent in such a fashion that the wives of the Wisbech doctors saw them. The police, then taking the matter in hand, saw Dr. Dimock post documents at certain pillar-boxes, which were kept under careful observation until the officials of the Post Office could open them. In both cases postcards or similar documents were found near the top, addressed to Wisbech doctors, in the suspected writing, and of a libellous nature. 

But then on the other hand, one of Dr. Dimock's admirers spoke up in his defence.

Who are the authors of the anonymous and libellous letters and postcards written to the late Dr. Dimock, which he received from the first day he began to work in the town ? Why have colleagues called him "blackleg", boycotted and ignored him? Who repeatedly pulled down and defaced his brass plate, and were they acting for others? Who threw the gate to his back garden off its hinges, and who smashed his windows? Who repeatedly called him the telephone at night to attend to distant cases which not exist? and What evidence have the police regarding the secret persecutors of the doctor, which, it is hoped, may lead to an arrest? Not to be outdone, Dr Meacock was not slow to reply in the press.

Sadly for our modern tastes, the salacious postcards allegedly sent by Dr. Dimock were not revealed in their full glory in Meacock's letter, as newspaper readers of the time were expected to use their imagination much more than we are today. It was also evident, according the outraged Meacock, that Dimock was something of an amateur artist. Dr Meacock finished his letter regretting that Horace Dimock had died - if only because that sad fact had prevented justice from being done, and seen to done. 
Meanwhile, the public disturbances had continued, not without a few moments of unintentional humour.

Since an early hour this evening a mob has been parading the streets and demonstrating alternately before the residences of Dr. Meacock and Dr. Gunson. At nine o'clock a double police cordon was drawn across the bridge which gives access to the street front of Dr. Meacock's house, and the crowd, which must have numbered about 1,500 strong, concentrated upon Dr. Gunson's in the Crescent .The Police who barred the way were subjected to a fusillade of squibs and detonators, the explosion of which, though harmless, sounded remarkably like revolver shots. An arrest in Bridge-street before ten created some disturbance, and three or four stones were thrown at Dr. Gunson's windows, one or which was broken. About ten o'clock night there was a recrudescence of the rioting in the neighbourhood of the Market-square. A crowd numbering several hundred invaded Market-street, and in a few moments had broken every window in the surgery.

Further rioting took place on Saturday night. The streets were crowded with people, but there was no trouble until nearly ten o'clock. Then the people formed into mobs, and powerful explosives were discharged. Several of these exploded perilously near the faces of some of the police on duty. One bomb was so strong that it smashed the window in a jeweller's shop. That was the only damage to property during the evening, the crowd seeming to be more anxious to attack the police than damage the property of residents. This was probably due to the fact that the police had been too vigorous in  their handling of the crowd on the previous evenings. From ten o'clock until two this morning there were continuous conflicts between the police and civilians in various parts of the town, and the mob was really more riotous than it had been on any previous occasion. The rioters attempted to rush the cordon of police guarding the approach to Dr. Meacock's house, but the constables used their batons, and the crowd was repulsed, several men and women being knocked down and others receiving hard blows from the batons. A number of police were struck in return.

The worst disturbance took place about 11.30 in the market-place. About 2000 people were assembled, and a rowdy element commenced throwing explosives and empty bottles at the officers. Three or four of the bottles struck policemen, inflicting nasty cuts their faces. Then the police drew their batons and charged into the crowd. They hit hard, and several of them were struck heavily in return. One aged man was hit on the head with such force that he sustained a bad wound, and was treated by doctor. The man alleges that he was standing at the top of the passage where he lives and was struck without any provocation whatever. Another man received a blow in the mouth and some of his teeth were knocked out. Order was restored in the market-place about one o'clock, but when the police attempted to clear the streets there was a renewal of the disorder. Blows were freely struck, and there were instances of of stand-up fights between civilians, while police constables on duty in the outskirts of the town were attacked at several points by villagers returning home. It was not until two o'clock this morning that order was restored.

One former Constable clearly was a gamekeeper turned poacher.

There was a sequel to the recent disturbances yesterday at a local police court, when Ernest Langford, an ex-policeman, pleaded guilty of having assaulted the police, and was fined 20s. Constable Wallace said that on Saturday night the police had just cleared the demonstrators from the Bridge, when Langford rushed across and hit the witness on the head with a stick. The blow knocked off his helmet plate and also the chain. The defendant ran away, but fell down, and was stopped by another constable. He was rescued, however, by the crowd and got away. The Defendant expressed regret, and stated that he had been a police officer, and was discharged from the force with a good character. 


Sunday, 16 November 2014


It all started with the National Insurance Act of 1911. For the first time people paid into a scheme which gave them some protection against sickness and unemployment. It was the beginning of the Welfare State.
Among doctors a sequence of events was set in train that in Wisbech would end with tragedy and riot. Before 1911 there were private GPs who gravitated towards wealthier areas. The 1911 Act provided insurance cover for about 12 million workers earning less than £160 a year and included the free services of a GP. The individual became a 'panel patient'. The difficulty lay in finding a private doctor prepared to work at panel wage rates. In Wisbech this was a problem because no doctor would do it. A new doctor, Dr Horace Dimock, was drafted in to help clear the case-load. Though the poor of Wisbech took him very much to their hearts, his arrival created hostility among the other doctors. Dimock was a local man from the village of Stretham, but the local private doctors, fearing a cut in their incomes, turned their backs on the Government's health reforms.

In October 1913, Dr Dimock's already difficult relationship with other doctors became impossible. These other doctors were receiving malicious postcards and anonymous letters supporting the wonderful work of Dr Dimock and criticising them. One of the doctors receiving the hate mail, Dr Meacock, informed the police and Dr Dimock was arrested. He was taken before local magistrates and was remanded on bail. Dr Dimock appealed to the Medical Defence Society but discovered they were already acting for the other doctors. Dr Dimock returned tired and distressed to his home village, Stretham. The next morning he was found dead. He had taken an overdose.

On 30 October 1913, the news broke in Wisbech of the death of Dr Dimock. A crowd gathered and rushed to Dr Meacock's town house by the river and stoned the windows. The local police called for reinforcements but the situation got out of control. Eventually the Mayor of Wisbech read the Riot Act and the police went in with their truncheons.

This is how the riot unfolded, according to one newspaper.

"There was tremendous excitement and grief when the news reached Wisbech. On Thursday evening, October 30th – two days after Dr. Dimock's death – four or five thousand people attended a meeting in the Market Place. The meeting was orderly enough, although the speaker declared that Dr. Dimock had been “persecuted from the day he came to Wisbech”. Tributes were paid to his services “especially to the poor”, and the crowd, standing with heads bare and bowed, passed a resolution of sympathy with his relatives and then sang “O God our help in ages past”. But, said a reporter “apparently an undercurrent was at work”.
Hundreds of people went & stood in front of Dr. Meacock’s house on the North Brink. There were cheers for Dr. Dimock and loud boos for Dr. Meacock. Then stones were thrown, and several windows were smashed before the rush from the police broke the crowd up. But they crossed the bridge over the river and reassembled again in front of Dr. Gunson’s house in the Crescent where,  booing and hooting, they smashed all the windows. The police charged again and drove them away – only for them to return to Dr. Meacock’s house."

This is the obituary from the British Medical Journal, for the unfortunate young doctor.


Wednesday, 22 October 2014


Years ago, I used to take my sons to France and Belgium on Great War battlefield pilgrimages. Now, they are all grown men, but one son recently decided that he would like to go back and trace our footsteps from years ago, when he was little, and I was able to walk more than a mile without the joints creaking and the lungs working overtime. In the previous blog, we returned to Ploegsteert - 'Plugstreet' to the occupying Tommies - but there was another special place which we needed to visit.

This part of our pilgrimage was to a place which, in terms of Western Front visitors, was relatively forgotten twenty years ago. This is mainly because it had become a proud but infamous name to Australian historians and veterans, but had little significance for British enthusiasts.

Fromelles is a relatively insignificant village in northern France, between the conurbations of Armentières and Lens. The land is almost unremittingly flat, apart from a gentle ridge which runs SW - NE. On this ridge sit the villages of Aubers and Fromelles. As modest as the ridge is, it gave the German defenders a commanding position once the trench lines had been established in late 1914. In two battles of 1915 - Neuve Chapelle and Aubers Ridge -  the British tried and failed to take the high ground. 

There was also a military disaster at Loos in September 1915, and General Sir Richard Haking (1862-1945) had, in various ways, been associated with these setbacks. He was regarded as a 'thruster' - a commander who would press ahead with an attack, even if common sense and military logic weighed against it.

By the summer of 1916, plans were in an advanced stage for what was intended to be the decisive break through astride the River Ancre, north of The River Somme. It was decided that a diversionary attack should be made well to the north, in order to prevent German reserves being packed in front of the anticipated attack on The Somme. Haking was in charge of this diversion, and it was decided once again to try and assault the Aubers Ridge. This time the attack was to be by three British brigades - the 182nd, 183rd and 184th (61st Division), and three Australian - the 8th, 14th and 15th (5th Division)

The preparatory British artillery bombardment was ineffective, and when the attack began on the evening of July 19th 1916, the three British brigades were easily beaten back, but the Australians had more initial success. Unfortunately, what were depicted on captured trench maps as German support trenches were little more than indefensible water-filled ditches. With no support on the flanks, the advancing Australians become fatally isolated. The Germans came out from the safety of their dugouts and swiftly wrapped up the Australians in a deadly trap. The casualties for the Battle of Fromelles were horrendous. A total of 1547 men were killed or wounded from the 61st Division - 50% of strength. The Australian 5th Division suffered 5533 killed or wounded - a staggering 90% of total strength.

Part of the debacle was due to the amazing complex of tunnels and surface blockhouses the Germans had built. The tunnels were deep underground, and kept dry from the waterlogged land by constant pumping. In a dry summer in the 1990s, these tunnels were pumped dry and explored by local military historians. Within 24 hours, they were waterlogged again.

When we first visited Fromelles in the late 1990s, one of the entrances to the tunnel system was still open - provided you were equipped with an aqualung - and a death wish. Now, the area has been sanitised, tidied up, and made into a 'Battlefield Park'. The deep tunnels still exist. Until time and geology absorb them, they remain beneath the feet of the villagers. waterlogged and inaccessible, but a tribute to German engineering.

After July 1916, the opposing front lines at Fromelles remained static. It wasn't until the afternoon of November 11th, 1918, that Australian observers were able to wander into the narrow strip of No Man's Land beyond their parapet. They found skeletons, clothing, rusted equipment and other tragic reminders of those fatal days two years earlier. Some of the dead were to know known grave, but those who died behind German lines were buried in mass graves by the defenders. 

In 2008, archaeologists discovered a burial site in a location known as Pheasant Wood. Many of the 250 soldiers buried there were later identified by DNA analysis, and during the early months of 2010 were buried with full military honours in a new cemetery.

We were privileged to watch several of these burials on a grey and icy day in February 2010. When we visited in October 2014, the headstones had been put in place, the turf laid, and the landscape restored. After 98 years, brave men had been accorded the last resting place that their heroism warranted.

On that day, there were no headstones. Just the cold dark clay in which the soldiers had perished. 98 years earlier, their burial had been even more perfunctory. perhaps a few words in German. Perhaps a sign of the cross. There would have been no names, no blessings. No tears. No regrets. In 2010, the final resting place of those 250 brave souls was little more than a muddy field on the gentle slopes beneath a village which Britain and her allies failed to capture in four years of bitter conflict.

But time does wonderful things. It destroys, but it also creates. Four years after those cold February burials, we returned. And we saw a green field, with white marble headstones, row upon row. And we saw a young woman explaining to her daughter what a sacrifice these young men had made. What lives they had left behind. What dreams and ambitions would never be fulfilled.

Sunday, 19 October 2014


Let's take a temporary break from the criminal history of Wisbech and district. Tonight's blog has little to do with the town, but is more personal. Years ago, I used to take my sons to France and Belgium on Great War battlefield pilgrimages. Now, they are all grown men, but one son recently decided that he would like to go back and trace our footsteps from years ago, when he was little, and I was able to walk more than a mile without the joints creaking and the lungs working overtime. He had visited Chartwell, the former home of Winston Churchill, and had been fascinated by one of WSC's paintings. - that of a scene near Ploegsteert, in Belgium. How did someone so eminent as Churchill end up near the front line in The Great War?

Following the ill-fated Gallipolli campaign, Churchill resigned from the Government on November the 12th 1915. He had made up his mind to serve overseas, and stated in his resignation letter "I am an officer, and I place myself unreservedly at the disposal of the military authorities, observing that my regiment is in France." Churchill was appointed Commanding Officer of the 6th Royal Scots Fusiliers, and was based at Ploegsteert for some time with this unit around early 1916. 

Churchill was a great wartime leader, and a man whose grasp of the English language was second to none. The celebrated American broadcaster, Ed Murrow, had this to say:

"He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle to steady his fellow countrymen and hearten those Europeans upon whom the long dark night of tyranny had descended."

Great man that he was, I think that his paintings brought him more joy than it did those who were to look at them in later years. We found the location of Battalion HQ for the 6th Royal Scots Fusiliers - it is near a modest farm, just to the south of Ploegsteert Wood - and tried to match up Churchill's painting with the actual scene. Suffice to say that the great man's imagination was as vivid as his use of language. The painting appears to be from high ground, and there are hills in the distance beyond the ruined church. The landscape around Ploegsteert (which the soldiers renamed 'Plugstreet') is even flatter than our Fens, if that is possible.

In the village of Ploegsteert, Churchill's time in the area is commemorated by a plaque on the wall of the church, the destroyed tower and spire of which he sought to capture in 1916. There is an interesting but effective anachronism in the plaque. Churchill is shown as the man he became in World War II, not the man he was in 1916. His hat is jammed determinedly on his head, his jaw juts out, and between his lips is the obligatory cigar. 

There is much more to see around Ploegsteert than the Churchill memories. It was on this stretch of the Western Front that the celebrated truces of December 1914 first occurred. Thanks to a diagram and a diary entry from Bruce Bairnsfather (the creator of the 'Old Bill' cartoons) we can trace almost exactly where that spot is, and today a wooden cross marks the location. In the distance, across the flat fields, is the village of Messines, with its distinctive 'pepper-pot' dome. It is alleged that a certain Corporal Hitler was treated for wounds in the church crypt during the war. If all the Great War locations for AH are to be believed, however, he would have to have been the most widely traveled German soldier of the war.

In the quiet depths of Ploegsteert Wood today, there is still a sense, within the silence, that this is a special and hallowed place. Tens of thousands of British and Commonwealth troops would have lived - and died - here. Small cemeteries are dotted here and there in gaps in the trees. They are quiet and sad places, but still visitors come and pay tribute to the young men for whom this was their last resting place. Within the wood, the visitor can still find the crumbling remains of bunkers. Most have been swallowed up by the unsentimental power of nature, but here and there, a pile of moss-covered stones reminds us that young men joked, laughed, existed - and suffered - under the vast canopy of the trees.

Geoffrey Winthrop Young, a writer, poet and teacher, wrote a prophetic verse in 1909 which has become linked to these silent graveyards. He wrote:
                          There will be voices whispering down these ways,
                                  The while one wanderer is left to hear;
                                And the young life and laughter of old days
                                          Shall make undying echoes.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014


Wm. Chas. Sullivan, medical officer at Holloway Prison, said Mrs. Rowell was brought to the prison from Cambridge. He had frequent interviews with her and kept her under observation. She was very depressed at first, and it was impossible to get her to attend or to answer questions. She was afraid of the other prisoners in the ward, and said she did not like to eat her food because she had not earned it, and did not deserve it. She had a good memory, and was able to give an account of the crime with which she was now charged. She said that whenever she was pregnant she was unable to do her work, and the children got out of control. She stated that the child Emma worried her, and she took her upstairs to punish her. She locked the child in a room, and as she continued to cry she placed her on the floor and put her foot on her. When she removed her foot the child did not come round, and she tried to revive her and failed to do so, so she left her and went downstairs. She did not in the least recognise the seriousness of her own position, and when it was pointed out to her she said she did not mind.
When the last child was taken away from her while she was in prison she did not to mind, and did not even ask about it. She got brighter as soon as the child was weaned, and this improvement had continued. In reply to Mr. Brodie. the witness stated that it was by no means uncommon for a woman’s mind to be affected as the time of child-birth drew near. In his opinion the prisoner was insane three weeks after the birth of the last child.
Mr. Brodie, addressing the jury, urged that there could not be the slightest doubt, after the evidence given, that prisoner was insane at the time she committed this act. The evidence of Dr. Sullivan, who had doubtless had a great deal of experience in such cases, must be regarded as conclusive. In summing up, Mr Avory reminded the jury that in law everyone was presumed to be sane until they were proved to be otherwise. There was a legal definition of insanity which alone could excuse crime, and the jury must be satisfied that at the time the woman committed this act she either did not know the nature and quality of the act - in other words she did not know that she was killing the child or was doing something likely to kill it. The jury must be of the opinion that she did not know when she committed the act that she was doing wrong. The jury returned a verdict to the effect that the prisoner was guilty, but at the time she committed the act she was not responsible for her actions. Mr Avory ordered that she be detained as a criminal lunatic during His Majesty’s Pleasure.

Note well that Rebecca Rowell gave birth to her latest child while she was under arrest in Wisbech Police Station. It is hardly surprising that the baby was taken away from her. By the press reports, it seems that Rebecca Rowell was in an almost constant state of pregnancy. The un-named infant was her tenth. 

Skipping on a couple of years, we look at the 1911 census. Husband Harry Rowell is bringing up four children - Harry junior, George, Elizabeth and Robert. Poor, dead Emma makes five. The un-named child born in Wisbech Police Station makes six. We can only assume that four other children have either died or been taken into care.

On August 3rd, 1914, Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey uttered the words which have become the stuff of legend. He said,
"The lamps are going out all over Europe.
We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime"

Sir Edward Grey
Across the country, in hamlet, village, town and city, young men from humble backgrounds queued for hours around the block, some lying about their age, all desperate to be part of the greatest adventure for a generation. Men who were better connected called in favours via their parents, and went off to train as officers. Meanwhile, the tiny regular army, designated the British Expeditionary Force, reeled from the onslaught of overwhelming German forces in the fields and towns of Flanders. It seems that young Harry Rowell, sixteen in 1911, enlisted as a private in The Norfolk Regiment, and joined what was called 'The New Army', or 'Kitchener's Army'. His battalion, the 9th Norfolks, were not involved on that bloodiest day in British military history - July 1st 1916 - but as the fighting on The Somme stretched throughout that long hot summer, and into autumn, they were part of the 71st Brigade during what was officially known as The Battle of Flers-Courcelette. 
Their main objective was a heavily fortified German redoubt east of the village of Ginchy, known as The Quadrilateral. On the morning of September 15th, the attack began, but despite an artillery barrage, and conscientious planning, the attack failed. The Battalion diary records that four officers were killed, and twelve wounded. It also notes that among 'Other Ranks', there were 431 casualties.

One of these 'Other Ranks' casualties was Harry Rowell, from Foul Anchor, one of the surviving children of poor, mad Rebecca Rowell, possibly still languishing in a mental institution, at His Majesty's Pleasure.
Harry's name is on the simple but dignified Foul Anchor war memorial. It is also inscribed on the overwhelming and powerful memorial at Thiepval, along with 72,193 other men whose bodies were never found. 
There is a trend among modern historians to view the carnage of The Somme as an unfortunate, but necessary ingredient which led to the collapse of the German Army in 1918. The casualty figures, however, are astonishing. Between July and November 1916, the total casualties for the Allies was 623,907, of which 146,431 were killed. The German losses were 465,000 including 164,055 dead.

So ends a story which begins with a poor, mentally fragile woman, driven mad by constant pregnancy and worry. The story ends seven years later with her son, probably scared out of his wits, climbing out of a trench at the officer's whistle, and walking headlong into a hail of enemy fire which was to end his life.