The Unusual Exhibition

‘Vines and olives groves, Fressac’ – All paintings on this page are by Robert Lee-Wade, RUA

Robert is sweeping out the dust and straw from the long, covered alley where the horses come to be groomed and fed. Bill, the chief horseman around here, removes the last saddles and bridles from their pegs, while the dogs sniff around eagerly, aware that something unusual is happening. It’s the day of the art exhibition. My husband, Robert Lee-Wade, is a painter in the impressionist style, a member of the Royal Ulster Academy and widely exhibited in various countries abroad. But never before in a stable block in the South of France.

Robert cleaning the alleyway ready for the exhibition.

Robert and I have been at Mas la Chevalerie for several weeks now. We’re staying in a gite on a ranch owned by retired actors Bill Homewood and Estelle Kohler on an extended stay to paint (Robert), write (Cherry) and enjoy the landscape of the Languedoc and the Camargue. It’s September in the South of France, and the grape harvest is coming along, in this idyllic spot. And so is Robert’s art – Bill has helped him to set up a makeshift studio in his capacious office, where he (Bill) also records audio books for Naxos.

Estelle, I should say, was my heroine when I was sixteen and she was a very young actress with the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford. At that time, newly arrived from South Africa, she was playing Ophelia to David Warner’s Hamlet. The innovative production by Peter Hall captured my teenage imagination, and with friends from school in Birmingham, we saw the play several times, usually on cheap stand-by tickets. I never imagined that I might become friends with Estelle so many years later.

Robert Lee-Wade, Estelle Kohler and Bill Homewood
Bill organising the logistics. Camargue pony arrived for schooling. Interested bystanders.

‘Let’s have an exhibition!’ said Bill, after Robert had been painting for several weeks. He and Estelle have been here for decades, and know practically everyone in the Fressac area. They count up who they might invite – the mayor (of course), the baker, the restaurant owner, the dressage specialist, the Danish sculptor, the ex-rock drummer and a whole long list of others. We are to provide the refreshments; being France this must be wine, and being near the Camargue, this must include brandade, a paste made of salted cod. And definitely some baguettes. So be it.

The alleyway is nearly clear now, except that another friend of Bill’s has chosen to bring his exquisite white Camargue stallion for some extra training in Bill’s manège. We’ve had our own exciting encounter with Camargue horses on this trip, taking a three day break down in the marshes to ‘ride the white horses to the sea’.

‘The White Horses of the Carmargue’

The pictures are up, the guests arrive. ‘Everyone will come,’ we’re told. ‘They love a chance to socialise and have an apéro.’ They do, and they mingle, looking carefully at the paintings first– some sales are made – and then it’s time to get down to the serious business of eating and drinking. The party grows merry – why not let the horses join in the fun?

The horses on the lawn, in art and real life

Several hours later, it’s quiet again. Bill and Estelle choose a painting as a gift for their help – it’s ‘Where the Nightingales Sing’, which captures the essence of this magical place. We have also seen golden orioles here, and once, a bee-eater in technicolour glory.

We’ll soon be packing our hatchback car and making the long drive back to the UK. We all talk of doing the same thing another year, but although Robert and I will come back for shorter visits, this exhibition is one of those delightful comings-together that can only happen once. And it’s probably all the more memorable for that reason.

The castle from the horse manege at Mas La Chevalerie

Paintings from the Camargue, by Robert Lee-Wade RUA

You can see more of Robert’s artwork here

‘Just Ordinary Girls’ – Noel Leadbeater and the Secret Army

This post is being published a couple of days earlier than the usual Sunday morning slot, to celebrate VE Day. I’m proud to be sharing Noel’s story with you to mark the occasion.

Many ordinary lives conceal extraordinary stories. I’ve had the opportunity to listen to some of these stories, sometimes when researching for a book, sometimes just out of a strong personal interest. This is the first of an occasional series of posts about such lives, Noel Leadbeater’s story of what she did in World War Two. In the current state of the coronavirus crisis, many of us may be thinking about how the challenges and restrictions compare with wartime, and wondering about the efforts that people made to try and keep their country safe. Some of these were never revealed until many years later.

Noel Leadbeater (née Davies) would never tell us what she did in the war. Her daughter Helen was one of my closest friends, since after my parents moved house as I was about to go into the Sixth Form, I lived with the Leadbeater family in term time. Noel was one of the liveliest, most amusing and kind-hearted people I have ever met. She was also a natural raconteur. However, ask her about wartime, and she clammed up. She might mention the Land Army and the ATS in passing. ‘My lips are sealed. I signed the Official Secrets Act,’ she’d say dramatically, when pressed for more detail.

Finally, the secrecy around the operations evaporated, and she was free to tell her story. She had become a member of a hidden army of Morse Code operators, trained to record German signals. The coded messages they took down were then sent to be deciphered at Bletchley Park. Which, as you may be aware, was the place that broke the highly-encrypted messages sent by the Germans via the Enigma Machine.

I visited Noel in 2010, just before her 90th birthday, so that I could record this story in full, and preserve it not just for her family but for a wider audience too. It’s presented here in a slightly shortened narrative version. On my visit, she was full of life and fun as usual, and as bright and sharp as ever. But it was the last time I was to see her, since she died just over a year later.

A treasured, and somewhat battered photo of Noel in her ATS uniform

Noel at the start of World War Two
Noel, née Davies, was born and brought up in Birmingham, where she was one of a large working-class family. Although intelligent and keen to learn, any proper education was out of the question as she was expected to to help at home with her siblings, and to go out to work as soon as legally possible. Nevertheless, as the story will show, her abilities were clearly recognised in wartime, and in later life she educated herself in literature, worked as a teaching assistant, and completed an Open University degree.

Early on in the War, Noel joined the Land Army: ‘Not because I loved the land, or anything else, but I just loved the uniform!’ However, she became ill after the very strenuous work, and switched to factory work instead, working with a company called Avery’s who made weighing scales. There was quite a lot of bombing in Birmingham, so I never knew when I went into work whether the office would be still standing, but it was all right.’ Luckily for Noel, she didn’t stay there too long, since a history of W. & T. Avery records: ‘During the second world war the company also produced various types of heavy guns. At that time the site underwent severe damage from parachute mines and incendiary bombs.’

Call-Up, and the ATS
Then came the compulsory call-up for women, and Noel joined the ATS (Auxilliary Territorial Services) :
‘I had to report to a little town called Droitwich which is near Birmingham, in Worcestershire, and I went on the train with several other girls from Birmingham. We were met at the station by a corporal and a sergeant.’ There, they were put into threes, and told to march into the town. ‘But one unfortunate girl called Janice, her mother had insisted on coming with her! And this woman, she couldn’t march in the road because the sergeant wouldn’t let her, so she was hopping on and off the pavement, into the road and back again. And the poor girl was saying, “Our Mum, our Mum! Do go ‘ome again, our Mum!” But the mother said, “I promised your Dad I’m going to see you into those barracks, and that’s what I’m going to do.”’

At their destination, a hotel that had been commandeered, Janice’s mother was speedily sent home, and the girls were kitted out. ‘We had to go into what must have been the garage earlier on, and we were issued with our kit. Well, we lined up and marched into the garage, and there was a sergeant there – she didn’t bother with things like measuring tapes, she just looked us up and down and said, “Tall – thin – skinny – number three!” Or, “Short -fat – number one!” And we processed along a counter where we were issued clothing. Two skirts, two tunics, shirts and collars and blue stripe pyjamas, and then it came to the greatcoats. The girl behind the counter looked me up and down and said, “Haven’t got your size.” She spoke to the sergeant who said, “There’s some men’s greatcoats in there. Give her one of those!” So I was issued with a man’s six-foot greatcoat.’

ATS recruits struggling to fit into their uniforms (National Army Museum)

In their allocated huts, the new recruits got ready to transform their status: “We all proceeded to put on our uniform, because we were very proud of it. But we were all different sizes, and some of the skirts came nearly down to the ground, and some were – oh, we did look a mess! And when I put my great coat on there were hoots of laughter, because it was nearly on the floor, and the sleeves covered my hands. But when I grumbled to the sergeant about it she said, “Oh you don’t have to wear it dear! As long as you’ve got it. When you get to your next posting, just go to the stores, and they’ll change it for you.” Which really was very typical of the army, I thought.’

First training with ‘Ack, ack’ or anti-aircraft guns. Officially, women were not allowed to actually fire these guns. (National Army Museum)

The first day ended with the ‘Lights Out’ bugle call at 9pm. ‘Which to me was wonderful because I thought, “Well, now you know you’re in the army!”’ Their training was general to start with – learning about the ranks of the army and taking various tests. Then they were asked what section they would like to be in. Noel’s first choice was to be a driver, but as she couldn’t drive already, that was refused. ‘So then I said I would try “Ack-Ack”, which was anti-aircraft guns. We had to do various tests for that, lying on our backs and looking through binoculars – all sorts of things. And I thought, “Oh well, I shall enjoy this.” But then one day, one of the officers called me in to speak to her, and we had quite a long conversation. And she said, “I think I’ve got a job which would be better for you, and that you’d like, but you mustn’t tell anybody about it. It’s very hush hush, and you’ll have to go up to London for some more tests.”’

This was the start of her transition into the Signallers, and her Morse Code training. To begin with, she was posted to London, staying in a hostel in Gower Street which had previously been accommodation for shop workers – it was usual at the time for the bigger London stores like Heal’s or Gorringe’s to house their female workers ‘safely’ in hostels. ‘The main test was to see if we would be suitable to take down Morse. They didn’t send Morse as such, but they sent sounds.’ She recited a string of ‘da-dee-da’ syllables in varied pitch and rhythm. ‘You had to put a tick or a cross whether it was the same sound or not. Then we had to write an essay – there were all sorts of tests, and in the end, some people went back to their unit. But some of us were then held in Gower Street until there was a place for us at the training centre, which was at Trowbridge in Wiltshire. There were thirty girls, and we were going to be known as 37 Squad.’

ATS wireless operators learning Morse code at Trowbridge in Wiltshire, 1941 (Imperial War Museum)

ATS in the Film Studio

One day, as they lined up to be assigned their daily chores, like washing the windows or cleaning the dining room, the officer in charge said, ‘I want six girls who can play table tennis.’  Noel hesitated: ‘I couldn’t play table tennis, and my father, who had been in the First World War, had said to me, “Never volunteer for anything! Keep your head down.” But I thought, “Oo- table tennis – that’ll be nice!”’

She stepped forward, and she and five others were then given travel warrants. Much to their astonishment, they were sent off to a film studio. ‘And for that day, we were ATS in a film called The Gentle Sex.’ The film was made as propaganda, showing a somewhat romanticised but detailed version of life in the ATS. The set for Noel’s scene was designed to look like an ATS recreation room in an ATS centre. ‘Then a chap called Lesley Howard, who was a film star and also a director, came in and said, “Now, you are supposed to be playing table tennis in this scene, so come along to the table.” I’m afraid that not one of us could actually play table tennis! And he was really, really cross. So in the end, they got one of the cameramen to play at one end, and one of the stars at the other. But of course you only saw his hand, and the bat – you never saw him. And we were all in disgrace. So we stood there, and he suddenly pointed at me, and said, “You!” I almost fainted and just managed to say “Ye-es?” Then he said, “You’re too tall! Stoop down or something.” I did what he told me, and made like Quasimodo, and crouched there. And this went on practically all morning – this poor cameraman, sending the ball, and the film star sending it back.’

She and her ATS comrades were told to stand around, admire the game and clap. But they were just a backdrop to the ATS actresses. ‘They didn’t wear the same uniforms as we did. Their uniforms were all carefully tailored, in a different material, and they looked super in them! And there was us in our rough tweed and serge, looking terrible.’

But it wasn’t all bad news. They dined in the canteen with the stars: ‘We sat where we could observe them. Oh, and they all smelt lovely! Their lovely perfume…and our Lifebuoy and Wright’s Coal Tar soap faded into the background.’ And after a further brief stint of filming after lunch, they were actually paid – a welcome surprise: ‘I think we were given something like seven shillings, or eight shillings. I’ve seen the film, of course, many times, and honestly – that day’s work is condensed into about three minutes. You just see my head bobbing up and down! But we did enjoy it, and of course when we got back the other girls were furious.’ The next day, when the officers asked for seven recruits, plenty of the girls who’d missed out stepped forward eagerly, but they were only signed up for domestic tasks rather than the glamour of a film studio!

Images for The Gentle Sex, a propaganda film, showing a factual though somewhat romanticised version of life in the ATS.

The next stage
‘Well, then, as I said, thirty of us formed this 37 Squad and went down to Trowbridge in Wiltshire.’ This is where the Morse training began, going at a very slow pace. It was a long process to accustom fresh ears to distinguish the different Morse signals, some nine months in all. ‘Longer than an air crew, because it had got to be perfect. We were told we could not make mistakes’ If they weren’t sure of a letter, then they had to leave a blank and not put it down. Otherwise: ‘It could cause such a lot of trouble. This was dinned into us, and of course the need for secrecy. We had to sign the Official Secrets Act.’

‘We did our training in Nissen huts in a sea of mud.’ That was a disaster for Noel’s new shoes. ‘They couldn’t fit me with two pairs of shoes, so I had one ordinary pair and one officer’s pair. Oh, the lovely pair! I used to polish them every day. But of course with this mud, they didn’t look so good.’ (On reading this transcript, Noel’s daughter Helen said: ‘She was still talking about those officers’ shoes, years later. I don’t think she ever had a pair of shoes she liked as much.’)

The huts and the sea of mud caused other problems too. Once, Noel was sent off to see a major in his hut for a review, and when she left, she couldn’t work out which direction she’d come from! ‘I stood in the mud and thought: “Which hut did I come out of?” I hadn’t got a clue, because they all looked the same! So I went across to the nearest hut and opened the door, and they were all men, signallers, and they wolf whistled and shouted, and their sergeant said, “Shut up!” I backed out quickly, and went to another hut. These were girls, but not any girls that I knew. So after visiting about four huts, I said to the sergeant in charge, “I’m in 37 Squad, and I don’t know where it is!” She said, “Try that one.” Much to Noel’s horror, when she entered the door pointed out, she found herself back in the major’s hut again. ‘I could have died! And he said, “You’ve just been in here! And your shoes are dirty.” And I, forgetting where I was, said, “Yours would be dirty if you’d just walked through all this mud!” So that wasn’t very successful. I’ve never made up into corporal or anything, and I think it was that interview that did it.’

Noelene Muriel Davies married Raymond Leadbeater in 1943. The wedding dress was apparently a communal dress to be shared amongst the ATS brides! We think it may have had an adjustable hemline, as Noel was very tall but nevertheless, it hangs rather well.

Marriage and the Isle of Man
The training began in the autumn 1942, and the following January Noel was given an extra week off, known as Marriage Leave, for her wedding with Raymond Leadbeater. In her absence, the rest of the squad was told that they were leaving Trowbridge, to finish their training in Douglas on the Isle of Man. ‘It was very hush hush.’ Noel had to follow later, after her honeymoon, catching a boat alone and suffering terrible sea sickness en route.

‘I kept thinking, “Oh please let a submarine come and shoot us down, and we can go to the bottom of the sea!” But the minute my feet were on the ground, I was OK.’ OK enough to go off with her friends who were waiting on the quayside, for a free meal of egg and chips.

Squad 37 was billeted in boarding houses, where apparently Italian internees had been living. ‘I didn’t understand what they’d written on the walls, but the powers-that-be sent soldiers with whitewash to cover it up!’ Every day, the squad members marched up the hill to ‘quite a nice hotel’ for their Morse sessions. The two male drill instructors, one short and squat, the other tall and thin, sent the girls into fits of uncontrollable giggles when they gave out orders for the drill. ‘They used to get so mad, and scream at us, “Stop that!”’ Although the girls liked their instructors, they couldn’t curb those giggles. ‘We just couldn’t – we just couldn’t.’

But it was becoming a serious business. ‘We now became aware that we were going to listen in on German messages.’ They were trained to get used to background noise, and to pick out the individual ‘voice’ of their operator. ‘And this was quite difficult. But in the end, we all passed, and we then really became Signallers.’

The return crossing to England was smooth, and Noel travelled back to her home town of Birmingham by train on April 30th, 1943. She remembers what a delight it was to see the countryside again. ‘There are not many trees in Douglas – it was so lovely to see all the trees, so green and fresh. And I had a week’s leave at home – of course I was married by then.’

Beaumanor Hall, Woodford Eaves, Leicestershire. A secret intercept centre in World War Two

Final training
After this, the ‘girls’ were sent to Loughborough, in Leicestershire. ‘There we did the final training for the job we were going to do. It really was quite traumatic because we had all this noise and interference, and you had to learn – in the way that you recognise a friend’s writing on an envelope – we had to learn our Jo’s method of sending the Morse. They were all different – it was amazing!’

The skill was not just in notating the Morse, but in finding their individual ‘Jo’ (probably a term for a Jerry or a German) on the wavebands. The transmitters often changed frequency. ‘So we had to carefully track them down and be sure that it was ‘our’ chap.’ Noel thought it was likely that each ‘Jo’ they followed was also being followed by another trained operator in the UK, as a double-check.

Beaumanor – a ‘Y’ Intercept Listening Centre
In Leicestershire, the squad was stationed in the village of Woodhouse Eaves, once again in huts in a field. However, the actual work was carried out at Beaumanor house, a grand stately home, to which they were transported by troop carriers. As a recent article about the centre says:

Beaumanor was a highly strategic “Intercept Station”, concerned with monitoring the enemy’s main channels of wireless traffic and communications. The “Y” Intercept Listening Service operated from 1941 to 1945 and its wartime activities were as top secret as those at the Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park. By the end of the war, there were more than 1,200 ATS women operators and 300 male civilians working at Beaumanor.
Much of the monitoring took place in specially built huts in the grounds of Beaumanor, many disguised as cricket pavilions and greenhouses to confuse spies and nosey neighbours. Civilians and girls of the Auxiliary Training Service were the main members of staff, each having their own allocated part of a radio waveband to monitor for Morse-coded messages.
Leicester Mercury, 7 Feb 2020

Morse code operators at Beaumanor (Imperial War Museum)

Despite the seriousness of the work, the recruits learned to unwind and enjoy each other’s company.

‘Oh, it was quite fun really! We did have a lot of fun, in spite of the work. I mean, we all knew it was absolutely vital, but at the same time, we were only girls. And we did have our fun.’

The job itself was so strenuous, requiring such extended concentration, that they weren’t asked to do any extra chores. Once they were qualified to join these ‘ops’, they worked in four watches throughout the 24 hours. ‘So the Set Room, as they called it, where all the wireless sets were, was never ever empty.’ Transitions from one shift to another went as seamlessly as possible. The other girl would just get up and say, “He’s here,” and show us where on the dial.’ But even that didn’t hold, since the frequency could move, and the signal would have to be tracked down all over again. ‘We really, really did work so hard. But, as I say, we did have a lot of fun. Sometimes the girls would get a tin of condensed milk, and we’d make toffee over the stove in our hut. We got to know the girls we were with very well, of course, and I was friendly with so many of them. It was a lovely, lovely time – I mean, it wasn’t a lovely time! It was terrible with everything that was going on – but the companionship was so wonderful. I’ve never really found that since. And we all felt that we were really doing a very good job in the work that we did.’

More Morse operators at Beaumanor. Could Noel be the one on the right?
(Source Leicester Mercury)

‘All our messages went to Bletchley, either by motorbike or on the tele-printer. The work we were doing was monitoring the German army. Sometimes it was Gestapo.’ (The operators could tell this by the way the letters were sent.) ‘And oh God, it really upset us, that did.’

The messages were taken down in ordinary English letters in blocks of five, which in themselves were strings of meaningless letters. ‘But it was interesting in as much as we knew that we’d got to get it right. As I say, if we weren’t sure, we didn’t guess, we put a blank. And then these were sent to Bletchley, who then had to decode them. They were so clever, those people, really, really clever.’

A filled-in W/T Red Form, similar to the one Noel and her colleagues would send to Bletchley Park for de-encrypting

By the time Noel was a qualified operator, the team at Bletchley Park had cracked the Enigma Code. She recalls the Enigma machine: ‘It was like a typewriter. But in addition to the Qwerty things, there was above that another keyboard with lights. At the beginning of the war, the Poles got hold of an Enigma Machine and passed it to our people. Otherwise I don’t think we could have done it. Also, one of our ships intercepted a submarine, and they were able to lift an Enigma machine, and a code book from the submarine’

Just Ordinary Girls…
‘We were so keen, and just ordinary girls. And yet, this secret never got out. It was wonderful. I’m really proud of the fact that we did that work, and that we kept the secret. And all through the years, I’ve kept in touch with people that were with me then, and there are still a few of us left. You really felt you had done something towards the war effort. What you had done, mattered.’

Noel Leadbeater, just before her 90th birthday in 2010

Further information:

Links to other accounts by other women who trained as WW2 Morse operators

Linda Battle and Margaret Crook

‘The Gentle Sex’ (1943) can be viewed on Amazon Prime Video. It’s surprisingly interesting and entertaining, following the fictional progress of seven recruits, but showing different sides of genuine training in the ATS. The table tennis clip comes about 21m 30s into the film – and lasts for about 3 seconds!

Other links to aspects of women’s war work:

Trowbridge Training Centre

Women’s place in the War -ATS

Women in the work force WW2

Female conscription WW2

Related Books by Cherry Gilchrist

Seduction, Sin and Sidmouth An Ancestor’s Scandal

The historic village of Hemyock, in the Blackdown Hills

I was idly browsing the online newspaper archive one evening, looking for entries about my respectable great-grandmother, Mary Masey Walker and her staunchly Baptist family from the Devon village of Hemyock. They may have been pious, but they were also entrepreneurs. Mary’s mother Catherine had begun making butter, and soon expanded the business into a sizeable and successful dairy. Becoming ultra-respectable and prosperous, they then moved over the Blackdown Hills into the nearby town of Wellington, becoming pillars of the community there. The last thing I was expecting was scandal – until I hit upon a startling court case from 1869 headed:

Walker versus Salter – An action for seduction

The defendant, one Edwin Masey Walker (and as it happens, my 2 x great uncle), was accused of deflowering a young girl called Jane Salter, getting her pregnant, trying to persuade her to have an abortion, and eventually abandoning her. Jane had kept the baby, and now her own mother was suing Edwin for ‘loss of her daughter’s services’.

I’m probably the first member of the family since that generation to come across these newspaper reports – I’m sure that it was swiftly hushed up after the event. There are several accounts of the two trials, delivering the sordid details with gleeful relish. Edwin was the son of Catherine nee Masey and Thomas Walker. Both the Maseys and the Walkers had been in Hemyock since at least as early as the 17th century, two of prominent and close-knit tribes of the village.

Hemyock lying at the foot of the Blackdown Hills; dairy herds do well in this area

At the time of the scandal, the dairy was doing well. My formidable 2 x gt grandmother Catherine had twelve children, and she and her husband roped many of them in to help out both with the dairy and their local shop. Catherine’s reputation lived on after her; according to family memory, certain visiting reps would always try to make an appointment to visit on a day when she was not in charge! The dairy certainly took off as a business, and Catherine and Thomas decided to expand it by moving to Wellington. Here they also acquired a comfortable new brick-built villa, something now more suited to dairy owners, the Walkers of Wellington.  And Edwin was told to change his ideas – his father had found a new candidate for him to marry, someone more suitable than a country cousin such as Jane.

The formidable Catherine Walker, nee Masey, who sales representatives feared to deal with.

But Jane Salter, back in the village of Hemyock, now wrote to him Edwin to tell him she was pregnant. The statements read out in court declared that not only had he reneged on his promise to marry her, but he had instead committed the unpardonable sin of offering her money to go to Sidmouth for an abortion. (From the tone of the report, it seems that in those days, Sidmouth had a reputation as the Devonian den of vice.) And at that point, Mrs Salter decided to bring the whole matter to court.

‘Up the Steps’ – probably a former shop run by the Walker family in Hemyock

Now the counter accusations flared up. Edwin had primed his defence, Mr Prideaux QC, to interrogate Mrs Salter about the nature of the house she kept in Hemyock. Was it not, in fact, a bawdy house? Was young Jane no better than she ought to be, coming from such a home? He had a witness: John Pursey, confirmed that he and another friend had had sexual relations many times with both Jane and her sister Sarah – and while the girls slept in one bed. Was Jane then really an innocent deflowered maiden? According to Pursey, she shared her favours generously around the neighbourhood.

The judge hovered, almost ready to throw the case out, but Mr Collins, Mrs Salter’s attorney, leapt heatedly to Jane’s defence, and protested that the ‘abominable insinuations’ would be refuted by the ‘minister of the parish’ who would testify to the family’s ‘irreproachable characters’. If this was the Baptist minister, then the temperature was getting hot indeed, with Edwin’s family also prominent in Baptist circles. The Baptist Church abhorred any sex outside marriage at the time; people were often excluded from the church for less.

And so the jury found in favour of Mrs Salter, with Edwin ordered to pay £50 damages, just over £2000 by today’s values.

Wellington High Street, a grander place to live than Hemyock for the ambitious Walker family
The solid villa in Waterloo Road which Thomas and Catherine Walker moved to

But that was not the end of the matter. John Pursey was brought back to court on Wed August 3rd, 1870, accused of perjury. The ‘friend’, Robert Wright, who said he had slept with both girls, hastened to back off from his testimony. John now maintained that he had plainly fallen into a kind of trance, and that he had found himself by the girls’ bedside one day with no idea of how he had got there. Of one thing he was no sure – there had been no intimacy. Edith Salter likewise denied that her house ‘was frequented by young men who played cards and drank to a late hour.’ The colourful accusations were hurled backwards and forwards in court that day, which finally resulted in a bemused verdict by the jury that ‘there was a doubt in the case’, and so Pursey was released.

After I’d investigated this scandal, I was contacted by two new descendants. One was descended from Edwin’s legitimate heirs – his father Thomas Walker had indeed persuaded Edwin to marry into a better family – and the other was the grandson of the illegitimate daughter with Jane Salter. Jane had defiantly named her daughter Emily Masey Walker Salter, and sadly, my new contact confirmed that Emily had carried a sense of betrayal and resentment all her life. Both of these men, who didn’t know each other, were curious to know anything I could tell them about their ancestor Edwin. I pondered this – one of the ethical dilemmas of family history can be whether to tell the whole truth. My solution was this: to both of them I replied that I could certainly do so, but I should warn them that nobody came out of this very well. Did they still want me to go ahead? Oh yes, they each replied enthusiastically – please dish the dirt!

A rather faded but telling photo of Edwin Masey Walker – note the rather flashy tie pin. The census reveals that he was born with a club foot.

There was some rough justice, as Edwin didn’t make a success of his life. He became a failed and bankrupt businessman several times over, and his socially desirable marriage ended in separation. Meanwhile, others in the family prospered. Two other sons, Clifford and Eustace Walker took over the dairy business and became pillars of society. Eustace served as a Justice of the Peace and Portreeve of Wellington, while Clifford built a classy mansion known as the Gables, where the cream of the town gathered for tennis parties on the lawn. They died well-established and wealthy, and the dairy was not forgotten even after various take-overs and its final demolition in the 1980s. ‘Walkers Gate’, a small development of executive-style houses, is built on the site. I think formidable Catherine would have approved.

The housing development standing on the site of the old Walker’s Dairy, run very successfully by Eustace and Clifford Walker, Edwin’s brothers
The dairy as it used to be in its closing days of business. It was the principal employer in the town. The Walker family had sold it on some decades beforehand.
A more flattering newspaper story than the reports of Edwin’s court case

As for my great grandmother Mary, family memory relates that she resented acting as a nursemaid to her six younger brothers and sisters, and was only too pleased to an offer of marriage from the Rev David Owen. Great-grandfather David arrived in his first pastorate in Hemyock as a newly-qualified Baptist Minister from mid-Wales. The story also relates how he found the Devon mindset too closed for his liking, (he was a highly-educated scholar of Hebrew and Greek, even though he came from humble beginnings), which is why he whisked his bride off to a new life in Ohio, USA. They returned later to England, but never a word was breathed about the scandal of the wicked great uncle Edwin.

In the 1980s, I used to live on Exmoor and would drive over to Wellington to buy feed for my horse and chickens. The dairy was still operating then as a sizeable factory, and under a different name. I had no idea that it had a family connection. Since then, I’ve moved away, and then back again to Exeter, from where I’ve explored Hemyock and Wellington more thoroughly, seeking out the family stories. What has struck me is the comparative remoteness of Hemyock as a historic but quiet village, reached by a maze of lanes, whereas Wellington has what must once have been Victorian sophistication, and was well-connected to places further afield. Although there are only five miles between them, they are two different worlds. I have pity for the girl that Edwin abandoned, but am also proud of the 2 x great grandmother who set the scene for family success. Family history can certainly be a cause of conflicting emotions.

Moving over the hill, from Hemyock to Wellington, certainly brought about a new era of family life for the Walker family, but was also the cause of a scandal long hidden out of sight.

If you’re interested in viewing another blog which focuses on discovering lost ancestors, try:

A London Family

Huguenot Jo

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