Web Magic and Billy’s 21st Birthday

A few weeks ago there was a message on my answering machine. This was unusual as for once it wasn’t from someone trying to sell me green energy or trying ‘to assist me to reclaim mis-sold PPI’. It was from someone who had discovered my website following his own discovery in his mother’s attic following her death. When he and his wife were clearing out thBury St Edmondse attic, they had come across a picture which his parents had bought many years before.

This was a nice, but not particularly exciting oil painting of Bury St Edmunds Cathedral. It had long ago lost its frame and had been left forgotten in the attic for numerous years.

However 21st Birthdayon the reverse there was a surprise – they discovered this beautifully illustrated  ‘Address’ which must have been presented to my grandfather to mark his 21st birthday, which was only shortly after he had joined the Grenadier Guards. It is ‘signed’ by all the workers on the Didlington Estate and is a wonderful and rather unusual piece of family history.

It is perhaps interesting to see just how many Carters were working on the estate at that time – exactly how they were related to Howard Carter is currently unknown.

Also exactly how the Address found its way to that Suffolk attic and how it ended up as the back of an oil painting of Bury St Edmunds Cathedral is a mystery – one guess regarding the painting is that during the shortages of WW2 someone wanted to paint the picture and the only piece of board available was the reverse of the ‘Address’. It is a miracle it survived undamaged, and it is a miracle that it has come home!

That it has, is entirely due to the internet alerting one kind person that I might be interested in it – I owe them a huge debt of gratitude for their persistence in tracking me down… thank you!



The Destruction of Hatra

Yesterday it was reported that Isis had destroyed much of the site of Nimrud near Mosul and had moved on to begin bulldozing the site of Hatra. Previously they had proudly published photos of the destruction of historically priceless artefacts held in the Mosul Museum. Of course the members of Isis have committed appalling and unspeakably brutal crimes against fellow human beings, so why should any of us be surprised that such people who have no respect for the living, should have any respect for their history?

Mitford's sketch of the ruins at Hatra
Mitford’s sketch of the ruins at Hatra


We should all be horrified that one group of blinkered fanatics should be able to destroy the heritage that belongs to all of us. We are all the poorer because of their wanton vandalism. I have never visited the ruins of Nimrud or Hatra and now I never will. How dare they take the possibility of visiting the birth place of civilisation away from me, from you, from any of us.

I find that these particular acts of vandalism seem almost personal. Firstly because the museum and library at Didlington Hall held many Assyrian artefacts, though it was the Babylonian stone tablets that William Tyssen-Amherst particularly valued. He was fascinated by the history of the written word and thus these ancient tablets with their ancient texts held particular importance for him. He would have been appalled by the deliberate destruction in Assyria.

His interest could only have been heightened by the fact that it had been a cousin of his father-in-law, Admiral Robert Mitford, who had travelled with Austen Henry Layard when he first visited the long forgotten historical sites of Assyria.

While most people will not have heard of Edward Ledwich Mitford, he was one time companion to one of the most famous archaeologists of the nineteenth century. Layard was of course, the excavator of the great ancient Assyrian civilisations of Nineveh and Nimrud. His discoveries in Assyria caught the imagination of the Victorians. He was the Howard Carter of the Victorian age, and Nineveh, the tomb of Tutankhamun.

Mitford was there in 1839 when Layard took his first steps on the path to his great discoveries when they visited Nineveh, Nimrud, Hatra, Babylon and many more sites of great historic importance. When Mitford eventually got round to publishing the story of his travels in the snappily entitled A Land March from England to Ceylon: Forty Years Ago’ in 1884, the Tyssen-Amhersts were one of the first to order his newly published book. Layard too wrote of his travels and described his memories of the start of the great adventure when in 1894 he published his own version of his Early Adventures in Persia, Susiana, and Babylonia:

In 1839, Edward Ledwich Mitford,’ wrote Layard, ‘a young Englishman who had been connected with a mercantile house at Mogador in Morocco, and who had made some interesting excursions through little known parts of that dangerous country, desired to establish himself in Ceylon as a coffee planter. Like myself he wished to leave England as soon as possible; but being of an adventurous disposition and dreading the sea, he had formed a plan of going by land through Europe, Central Asia and India. He proposed to me that we should do the journey together.’

It was the beginning of the most extraordinary journey. The two men had numerous adventures and escaped almost certain death on many occasions. Their visit to the ruined city of Hatra was just one more adventure as an extract from the Amherst Chronicles illustrates…

‘While they were in Mosul, Layard and Mitford were told of some spectacular ruins that they should visit at Hatra, some sixty or seventy miles to the south. They were warned that the Arabs of the region would be hostile and previous parties attempting to visit the ruins had been attacked. Layard and Mitford were not to be easily deterred. Mitford writes ‘not withstanding this [advice], and the assurance of the natives that it was impossible, and that we should never escape to return, we weighed all the objections at their real value, and resolved on persevering in our design; it will be generally found that when there is resolution, nothing is impossible.’

They set off into the lawless hills in a small party of five, with four guns, plenty of ammunition, cloaks, which would act as their beds if necessary, and no provisions except a bag of biscuits. Mitford explains they were ‘trusting to our guns for any addition to our frugal meals.’

Their first day’s journey was a delightful ride over sloping hills of gypsum covered with flowers, soft ranunculus, pink stocks and white Star of Bethlehem along the banks of the Tigris, which was ‘varied with broad green islands,’ and the weather was beautiful. However things were less wonderful once they had descended into the cultivated plains and arrived at Hammam Ali, a village of mud huts some 18 miles south of Mosul, where they would stop for the night. The village was almost deserted, its residents having blocked their doors with barriers of mud and stones while they followed their flocks across the ‘grass-clad plains’. The huts seemed likely to provide the perfect shelter for the travellers who broke down a few doors ‘but were repulsed by the myriads of fleas that issued from them.’ Mitford explains that ‘in this climate when a hut or a room is shut up and uninhabited for a short time the fleas multiply to such an extent as to blacken the walls; and the clothes of anyone who ventures in are immediately covered with these sharp-set pests.’

The night was spent in the shelter of an open stable. But while the night might not have been comfortable, the view was memorable, for Layard in particular. Across the Tigris they could see a marvellous sight. Layard wrote years later[1]:

‘As the sun went down, I saw for the first time the great conical mound of Nimrud rising against the clear evening sky. It was on the opposite side of the river and not very distant, and the impression that it made upon me was one never to be forgotten. After my visit to Küyünjik and Nebi Yunus, opposite Mosul, and the distant view of Nimrud, my thought ran constantly upon the possibility of thoroughly exploring, with the spade, those great ruins.’

The ruins of Hatra were extensive. Mitford described their visit…

‘This is a remarkable Babylonian ruin, composed of a mass of artificial mounds, on the bank of the river; the circumference of the ruins is 4685 yards, about 2 2/3 miles; and the highest part, which has probably been a citadel, rises about 140 feet above the plain.’ 

The party spent two days exploring, measuring, conjecturing and wondering about the ruins and the people who once inhabited them. They also found time for some game shooting, which meant they ate well that night.

Thanks to the outrageous behaviour of a group of ill-educated fanatics, these wonderful ruins will never provide the same pleasure and fascination for future generations. Answers to questions about our past will never now be answered. We are all diminished by this destruction, but none more so than than the men who perpetrated this crime against humanity, and who will doubtless move onto commit further acts of devastation. The Mitfords and the Amhersts will surely be turning in their graves, but they will not be alone!


[1] Layard 1903: 311


When Worlds Collide – How Weird Is That?

When worlds collide it can be spine tingling… Today I had just such a moment. As anyone who has even glanced at this blog before will know I have sheep. Cotswold sheep… from the Cotswolds. A historic aThe Queenford Flocknd rare breed they may be and one that I happened to take on because their wool, their upturned mouths which make them look like they are smiling, their crazy forelocks, placid nature and their ridiculous hippo like size, well, just appealed to me. When I am not involved with sheep, or fiddling with Nile Cat I try to get on with my family biography. Cotswold Sheep and Biography are two completely different worlds… at least so I thought until today.1915 F

It was only when I went to collect some sheep in Hampshire and got chatting about the history of the Cotswold Sheep Society and I asked ‘Why Cotswolds?’ that the owner explained his great grandfather had been a member of the CSS and it had seemed right to keep them in the family. He showed me a page from the 1915 Flock Book and commented there were quite a few members of Council who came from Norfolk. We had discussed earlier that I’d been brought up there, so I was asked if any of the names meant anything to me…. I looked and there it was in black and white… ‘Captain C. A. Fountaine, Narford Hall, Swaffham, Norfolk. Elected 1915 – To Retire 1917‘.

It really was the strangest feeling reading that, indeed even heart stopping… Mary Fountaine was William Amhurst Tyssen-Amherst’s mother, and William (my great great grandfather) was born at Narford Hall. Narford Hall was just some sixteen miles from Didlington and for many years the two families were closely entwined. Sadly, when financial ruin hit the Amhersts in 1906, a large chunk of Fountaine money went too. There was a court case and I don’t imagine the  cousins saw much of each other after that.

But it does feel weird to know that there were Cotswold Sheep at Narford Hall in deepest, darkest Norfolk, and that a cousin of mine was a member of the Society of which I am currently Chairman, and that he too served his time on Council as I do nearly a hundred years later. Why did I choose Cotswolds… maybe it was just coincidence or maybe there is indeed more in heaven and earth than most of us can possibly dream of…?!

Anyway there is now a whole new field (!) of research for me to explore… and one question particularly intrigues me… what were all these Cotswold sheep doing in East Anglia? There were flocks near Bury St Edmunds, Fakenham, two near Swaffham, Thetford, and Norwich. In fact in 1915 there were more members on Council from Norfolk and Suffolk than there were from Gloucestershire. If any reader of this blog can shed any light on this – I would love to hear from you!


Sir Henry Cecil and Echoes of the Past

Last week the world of horse racing lost one of its greatest stars with the death of Henry Cecil. The papers were full of comments describing him as ‘a genius’, ‘the toast of Epsom and Royal Ascot’  and ‘one of the most influential and successful racehorse trainers of all times’. And it did make me think about how horses run in the Amherst Cecil blood. I remembered coming across this photo amongst Billy’s letters. Billy grew up to be an excellent rider, and particularly passionate about his hunting. How proud Billy would have been of his grandson Henry. In fact a passion for horses and racing runs further back in the family as May, Billy’s mother was renowned as an excellent horsewoman. Didlington Hall even  possessed its own racecourse on which, Phosphorus winner of the 1837 Derby had trained.

Billy on Horseback
Billy on Horseback

Henry did indeed have an extraordinary career which included  winning The Derby four times and The Oaks eight times. His was a life full of brilliance, mixed with despair – and maybe it was this mix that made him so popular with the masses of race goers. The death of his twin brother David, and his own fight against cancer must have provided some of the darkest moments, while the arrival of Frankel, ‘star of stars’, must have been one of the brightest.

When I heard of Henry’s death last week I couldn’t help thinking how immensely sad it was that not only did Henry never know his grandfather, he never knew his father either.

History can strangely repetitive. When Billy was killed on the Aisne in 1914, at the age of twenty eight, he left behind my father, William who was two years old and, Henry who was just six months. For both boys being fatherless must have been very hard, but for Henry it seems it was a tragedy. He was completely charming, immensely popular, and totally wild. Always after excitement, he was quick to join the newly formed Parachute Regiment. He was fatally wounded in 1942 in the Battle of Oudna in North Africa. He, like Billy, was twenty eight years old when he died. He left behind him four young sons, Strongbow (known as Bow), James and the twins, David and Henry. The twins were in fact not even born until a few days after the news of his death had reached their mother, Rohays.

I am extremely sad that Henry can’t be with us when we visit Billy’s grave next year to commemorate the centenary of his death. But there is no doubt that he will be there in our thoughts.