Fairford History Society

Monthly Archives: April 2015

Thursday April 16th 2015: Letters from St Helena

‘An awfully nice place for a camp’

Fiona worked as a volunteer at Gloucestershire Archives and was involved with cataloguing and transcribing some of the Hicks Beach collection deposited at the Archives some years ago. The letters described were a small group written home by Michael Hugh Hicks Beach to his mother when stationed on St Helena, 1900-01.

The Second Boer War took place from 1899-1902. The 4th Gloucestershire Battalion were stationed St Helena to guard the South African Boer prisoners where they had been confined in the first so called ‘concentration camps’ (because a lot of people were concentrated in one place).

St Helena is a rocky isle in the Atlantic, 10 miles long. In 1900 it took a six weeks boat trip from England and three weeks from South Africa. Its capital is Jamestown. Usually the island was a supply station for ships in transit, the goods had to be unloaded and loaded from lighters as the big ships could not get close in. If anyone had escaped from the island there was no where to go.

Michael writes home about the conditions in both the soldiers’ camps and the Boers’ camps. At first they were all in just tents but later on the Boers were allowed to build their own huts. He writes abut the food, the Boers were useless as bakers but very good at butchering meat, and there were pictures of them with meat cleavers and carcasses. Some of the pictures came from the Soldiers of Gloucestershire Museum, others from pictures that Michael has taken from the Archives.

At the time Michael’s father was Chancellor of the Exchequer and home was Downing Street. Letters arrived by mail boat every six weeks, but there was also a cattle boat that departed just before or after the mail boat. Michael writes to his father that if he sees the Postmaster General could he ask him to change the timing of the mail boat so they get mail every 3 weeks and it so happened, it was changed.

Fiona talked about the leisure pursuits of the soldiers as boredom was a great problem on the island. As in any community there was the social hierarchy, there was a Governor of the Island and Lady Bathurst with another lady had come out to join her husband, the Colonel-in-Chief; they lived at Longwood House, where Napoleon had been exiled. Michael and Lady Bathurst were good friends and hockey, tennis cricket were among the activities. For the soldiers there were games and competitions.

This was a really interesting, well illustrated talk about a place and event that little was known about. St Helena is getting an airport very soon as the regular ship the RMS St Helena will be retired, hopefully this will bring more benefits and prosperity to the Island.

Thursday March 19th 2015: On the run behind the lines (WW2)

In March Air Commodore Graham Pitchfork talked to FHS about some of the RAF aircrew who crashed or were shot down behind enemy lines in Europe during World War 2 and tried to evade capture.

They were mostly helped by the extremely brave local people in the Resistance who put themselves and their families in extreme danger. There were three main escape routes across France:

  • the Comet Line. In August 1941 Andrée de Jongh (nickname Dédée) arrived at the British consulate in Bilbao with a British soldier James Cromar from Aberdeen and two Belgian volunteers, having travelled by train from Paris to Bayonne and then on foot over the Pyrenees. She requested British support for her escape network (later named ‘Comet line’)

  • the Pat Line (named after Pat O’Leary) ran from Paris to Toulouse via Limoges and then over the Pyrenees via Esterri d’Aneu to Barcelona

  • the Shelburne Line which ran from Paris to Rennes then St Brieuc in Brittany, where men were shipped to Dartmouth.

Graham told us tales of some of the individual’s adventures and the heros who helped them. He had personally met some of the evaders and the heroic people of the Resistance. He has written several books on the subject, the latest being:-

Shot Down and On the Run: The RCAF and Commonwealth Aircrews who got home from behind enemy lines, 1940-1945

Thursday February 19th 2015: Fairford in close-up

At the daytime meeting in February to a packed room Edwin Cuss gave a presentation of a random selection of about 60 local slides which were looked at in detail. They ranged from a 1914 picture of the George Hotel before the plaster was removed with the Fire Station Bell on the building to the rear left to the Red Arrows team including Ray Hanna with their Folland Gnat in 1965. In between was Fairford in the snows of the 1960s, groups of firemen, builders and buildings. Edwin could tell us something interesting about each picture and pointed out features that were not always immediately obvious.