AUSSIE HISTORY ALONG THE THAMES
For Australians exploring the Thames Path there are places of particular interest. On the upper reaches of the river is the village of Buscot, and the National Trust owned Buscot Park. The house was built in the 1770’s by Edward Loveden Townsend. In 1859, Buscot Park was sold to Robert Tertius Campbell, who had made his fortune in the Australian gold rush, not as a prospector but as a gold trader. In a bold move he turned the extensive estate over to the production of alcohol, made from sugar-beet and beetroot. Barrels of spirit alcohol were sent down the Thames and across to France to be used in the production of brandy.
Campbell was an innovative farmer who introduced steam driven ploughs, fitting them with lime-light flares so that work could continue after dark. Water was pumped from the river Thames for irrigation and a narrow gauge railway was installed to collect the beets. Sadly, he was never able to recoup his huge capital outlay and the venture failed. This was partly because, in what I like to think of as an example of Australian egalitarianism, he provided his farm labourers with unusually generous working conditions.
At the height of Robert Campbell’s financial troubles he also faced a crisis within his family. His eldest daughter, Sydney born Florence, was involved in one of the Victorian era’s most notorious unsolved murders.
In 1875 Florence had married a young barrister called Charles Bravo. On April 18 1876, Bravo retired for the night in the couple’s London home, The Priory.
However, he became violently ill after drinking from his bedside water jug. He died in agony several days later, having ingested about 30 grams of the corrosive poison antimony. Not surprisingly, the manner of his death suggested foul play and his wife was immediately under suspicion. During the inquest it was revealed that before her marriage to Bravo, Florence had had an affair with a married man, an elderly doctor called Gully. When her paid companion, also a suspect, suddenly claimed Bravo had confessed to suicide in a fit of jealousy over Dr Gully, every lurid detail of the affair was aired, including the fact that Florence had undergone an abortion. Robert Campbell and his wife were forced to confirm the affair in an effort to strengthen the suicide theory.
A finding of suicide would have been damaging enough, but an inquest ultimately recorded a verdict of wilful murder. There was insufficient evidence to take the matter to trial but Florence’s reputation was ruined and her parents were devastated. Florence died from alcohol abuse just two years later, still in her thirties. Her body was brought back to Buscot but the gossip and innuendo surrounding her remained so intense that she was buried in St Mary’s churchyard at midnight, in an unmarked grave. Oddly enough, her lover Dr Gully features in my first book, The Water Doctor’s Daughters.
In the London Road Cemetery downstream at Reading the grave of an eleven year old Aboriginal boy will soon be unmarked too, as the inscription has almost worn away.
In 1846 fighting broke out between a group of squatters and the Wotjobaluk people, on the banks of the Wimmera River in Victoria. Afterwards a child of about six was found huddled against his dead mother, who had been shot through the heart. The boy was taken away by one of the settlers (reputedly the same man who killed his mother). He was treated as a servant until he ran away and eventually found his way to Melbourne, where he was befriended by a clergyman from Reading called Septimus Chase. In 1851 the boy was taken back to Reading by the Rev. Chase and christened William Wimmera.
When William developed tuberculosis, plans were made to return him to Australia but it was all too late and in March 1852 he died. Long afterwards it was discovered that he had not been orphaned by his mother’s death at all. His father and brothers had survived the battle at Wimmera River, but no efforts had been made to find them.
AN AUSSIE HERO
The mood lightens at the neighbouring town of Henley-on-Thames, where the River and Rowing Museum, records the history of Henley’s Royal Regatta.
Australian visitors should not miss a display of silver cups presented to Stuart (Sam) Mackenzie, a poultry farmer’s son from Sydney who won the Diamond Skulls a record six times, (consecutively from 1957-1962). Sam’s response to the constant jibe ‘How do you sex chickens?’ was, ‘You rattle ‘em!’ which was exactly what he did to his rivals. On one occasion he meandered along the course chatting to bystanders before putting on a last minute spurt to win the race. ‘Very bad form old boy!’ the old buffers muttered, but I doubt if Sam cared. He used to annoy his competitors even more by practicing on the river wearing a bowler hat.
Speaking of hats;
ROYAL FEAR OF AN AUSSIE HEIST
Downstream outside Windsor Castle, we paused to inspect Edgar Boehm’s statue of Queen Victoria, which has a humorous connection with Australia. While Sydney’s Queen Victoria Building was under renovation some years ago, a world-wide hunt began for a 19th century statue of Victoria. Nothing suitable could be found, prompting an article about the search in the Times. Queen Elizabeth saw the piece and jokingly told her then Private Secretary, Australian Sir William Heseltine, that her great-great-grandmother was in danger of being kidnapped by his countrymen and taken to Sydney. She suggested that Heseltine put a guard around the statue. (Eventually an alternative Victoria was found, abandoned by the Irish in a Dublin field).
OLD, CHIPPED DESKS…
In 1919 an Australian army nurse visited nearby Eton College after serving in France during WWI. A letter home to her mother reveals a cultural divide as wide at the Gulf of Carpentaria. Completely unimpressed by the school’s five hundred year old history she scathingly described its ‘tiny classrooms’: ‘…old oak desks that are chipped and names that are cut everywhere by penknives. We would not own such schools in Australia. Nothing elegant about Eton. The floors are simply bare boards, not too clean and look worm eaten, the walls are quite bare, quite different to the Aussie schools with their nature studies and specimens in bottle, maps, and pictures.’
WILLIAM BLIGH; GOVERNOR, NAVIGATOR…..AND BOTANIST
The Thames Path continues on under the M25, and ultimately to the city of London. On the South Bank is Lambeth, and the church of St. Mary. The church has been now converted to The Museum of Gardening History. Australians might be surprised to find that Admiral William Bligh is buried in the old churchyard. Best remembered for the Mutiny of the Bounty and for his harsh governorship of New South Wales, Bligh had a profound knowledge of botany. He collected many specimens for Sir Joseph Banks to preserve and study at Kew Gardens. However, the reason Bligh lies here is simply because was living at Lambeth when his wife Elizabeth died in 1812, and a family plot was established at St. Marys. Bligh died five years later. He was buried beside Elizabeth and the couple’s day old twin sons.
A MASTER MARINER
The ships of another famous navigator, Captain James Cook, were outfitted and provisioned down river at Deptford, before he set out for the South Seas in 1768. Along with the usual hardtack biscuits, dried peas and salted pork, the holds of Cook’s ships were loaded with large quantities of sauerkrout, which it was hoped would prevent scurvy in the tropics. The sauerkrout was probably imported from Germany but the hardtack (or ships’s biscuits) would have been produced at Deptford’s Royal Victualling Yard.
Based on information gathered during Cook’s travels, the east coast of Australia was chosen as an appropriate site for a penal colony. Sydney’s Maritime Museum displays a handful of pebbles taken from the bed of the Thames and used as shingle ballast in H.M.S. Sirius, flagship of the first fleet. Perhaps we should keep quiet about the stones; the British government may ask for their return, just as the Greeks are requesting the return of the Elgin marbles.
Nearby, Limehouse basin was a dock built to serve the Regents canal, which enters the Thames here. A ship builder called Duncan Dunbar established a wharf at Limehouse in the mid 19th century and his name will strike a chord with Australians, especially Sydneysiders. Dunbar’s ships took emigrants on the three month trip to New South Wales, then returned home laden with goods from the Far East. On August 20 1857 his namesake ship The Dunbar was heading into Sydney Harbour during a violent storm and was wrecked on the cliffs below South Head.
121 people drowned, the sole survivor being a sailor called James Johnson, who clung to the rocks for thirty six hours before being rescued. Johnson was later employed at Newcastle Lighthouse and in a strange co-incidence he helped rescue the sole survivor of another wreck, nine years later. The victims of the disaster were buried in Sydney’s Camperdown Cemetery .
The Thames Path ends at the Flood Barrier, in Greenwich. The gleaming covers protecting the barrier’s hydraulic machinery have a skin of steel plates, with a slightly rippled finish that reflects the light. Their double curved design was influenced by the sails of the Sydney Opera House.
My own journey down the Thames led to my book All Along the River; Tales From the Thames. Oddly enough it was reviewed by old Etonian Dr James Colthurst, a rower of the river who may well have scratched his name one of those desks at the famous college.
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