“They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old.”
These familiar words have been echoing around all of our heads on Armistice Day, but, surprisingly, they were penned by Laurence Binyon in the summer of 1914, mourning the losses sustained by the British Expeditionary Force – the regular army – that is, professional soldiers – in the very earliest weeks of The Great War.
The vast number of subsequent war-deaths among the unlucky civilian volunteers and conscripts were, of course, to dwarf the shocking early casualties that inspired the Ode of Remembrance.
Those that remained of the farmers and factory hands, loafers and labourers limped home from a nightmarish military interlude in their civilian lives to “grow old” before their later lives fell under the shadow of yet another war. They broke the routine of their peace-time occupations only to gather for remembrance each November, to hear a recitation of some of Lawrence Binyon’s pertinent words.
Spare a thought, also, for the ragged remains of the regular army after the First World War. In numbers diminished, with funding slashed, they soldiered on, sent to attempt to sooth the violent movements towards independence in Turkey and Ireland, and making themselves useful helping to police the rest of the vast British Empire. In barracks at home, such as those on the elevated wooded plateau of Whittington Heath, near Lichfield, they fought the battle against boredom and lack of purpose by means of sporting activities, and the pomp and rituals of “square bashing.”
Well known as the home of the “Staffordshires”, the parade grounds of Whittington in the 1920s and 1930s also drummed to the boots of other regiments: The comings and goings of the East Yorks., the Shropshire Light Infantry and the Sherwood Foresters are noted with interest in the Lichfield Mercury of the time, along with reports of contests in cricket, boxing and golf both amongst the troops, and against local village teams in Whittington, Elford, and Streethay.
A certain Lieutenant J. St.J. Balguy is mentioned as a useful batsman and soccer player in the Mercury’s reports of sport at the barracks in the early 30’s.
John St. John Balguy was the scion of an ancient patrician Derbyshire family, and the county had been served by various of its members, in legal and military capacities, for several centuries. Born in 1899, by the time 2nd Lieutenant Balguy had obtained his commission in the Sherwood Foresters in April 1918, the victorious conclusion of The Great War seemed likely, but conditions for those fighting remained harsh and dangerous, and he certainly saw active service in France and Belgium. His promotion to Lieutenant came just after the end of the war. Via Turkey in 1922, the 1920s saw him stationed at Gharial on the North West Frontier, then in Karachnid and Multan, in what is now Pakistan. He was ready for a few months at home.
Now a married man, Lieutenant J. St.J. Balguy was allowed a break from the heat and privations of life in the Sub-continent in 1932 by his appointment as Adjutant to more senior officers of the Sherwoods billeted at Whittington Barracks.
While they waited for their villa in Cherry Orchard to be ready for occupation, Lieutenant and Mrs Balguy bided their time at the Angel Croft Hotel, genteelly situated opposite the Cathedral Close, in Beacon Street, Lichfield. If they mourned the loss of the creamy, spicy, deliciousness of Punjabi cuisine they had enjoyed in Multan, I can confirm that some approximation to curry was available on the menu at the Angel Croft that year….
Suitably downstairs from the Balguy’s well appointed rooms, the hotel staff that were assembling at table for their late lunch in the hotel kitchen, included young Mary Horton, my aunt, half way through her first shift in the hotel as a chamber maid. This is from her hand-written notes about that day:
My first lunch at the Angel Croft was, I found, a kind of initiation. Lots of food stood on the long kitchen table. One of the hotel waitresses, Alice Card, pointed to an empty chair next to her. She rattled off the names of all [the other staff]at the table.
There were a number of food dishes on the centre, many I couldn’t recognise – I put on my plate things that I knew. One dish, quite near me, was sort of brown. One by one they encouraged me to try it explaining:”Some people don’t like it, but you should try it” …… “Aren’t you going to try it ?” To please them I did take a spoonful and piled it on a piece of potato…
My whole “innards” went on fire – tongue, cheeks, throat right down burned. All at the table rolled about, convulsed with laughter. I drank water which seemed to boil inside me. When I recovered they were all very nice…
I gather that it was a bit of a step down in the world for 18 year old Mary, to be occupied cleaning hotel bedrooms. She had fled from an over-earnest suitor in her last live-in position as cook-general in Wales. Where to come but home? It was disappointing for her to be greeted on her arrival by her mother’s spiteful “Not big enough for two Missuses!,” and the whapp! of carving knives flung in temper in the poky rooms of Keepers Cottage, Footherley, where the rest of her family had moved to, from Walsall Wood, during her absence. The job at the Angel Croft was offered to her with an immediate start. It paid 12/6d per week, and she took it.
The Angel Croft, originally a mid 18th century mansion, had only recently been converted to use as an hotel. Its final private resident, solicitor Herbert Russell, had died in the summer of 1930. Kelly’s Directory places him still residing at 3, Beacon Street in 1928. In his tight, small, handwriting, he completed the 1911 census for 3 Beacon Street, which he aggrandised to “Beacon House.” He, his second wife, and his son were rattling around in the 14 roomed dwelling with a cook, a parlourmaid, and a young housemaid to serve them.
As a hotel, a couple of decades later, the top floor of the building alone accommodated four guests in three rooms. These were to be Mary’s particular responsibility, and she records that they were “permanent” guests. Post war, the middle classes, living on limited private means, had been deprived of an easy source of cheap and capable domestic servants. Life in a respectable hotel like the Angel Croft was a decent approximation of the comforts they used to enjoy, before the footman went to war and the tweeny to the factory, or even the office. The permanent guests, described by Mary as “the lady who put fresh lemon slices on her closed eyes during her afternoon nap,” the married couple, and the elderly gentleman, can be imagined peering from the smaller upper storey windows of the building at the fine views of the three cathedral spires. It seems that the bedrooms of the piano nobile, with their taller, elegant windows, were the province of more affluent guests. Mary remembers:
One day Adjutant J. St. J Balguy and his wife arrived on the floor below mine – he was an officer of the Sherwood Foresters, home from a spell in India. On the rare times I saw her she was pleasant and smiling. I took care to mind my manners and always say ” Yes, Madam” and ” No, Madam,” but thought no more about her. To my surprise, as I passed their room, she called me in and said: ” Are you happy working in a place like this Mary ?” I said ” Not really, Madam, but at the time I needed a job.” ” What does your father do ?” ” He’s working building houses,” I said, as I thought that sounded better than “he’s a building labourer”……. ” How would you like to work for me ?” I worked my week’s notice at the hotel – but doing not my usual work but cleaning bathrooms, and wash basins in the loos.
From this change of duties we can guess that the hotel management were less than pleased to lose a “good girl,” but Mrs. Balguy must have been delighted to be able to recruit Mary to her household. After India, the thought of having to run her home without help must have been daunting.
For Mary, it was an interesting move.
I learned a bit about what it’s like to be attached to the army. First, there was the Adjutant’s batman, a nice soldier who attended to all of Sir’s wants, including being his valet. It was he who showed me how to wash Madam’s silk stockings which, I was told, must be done promptly every day. Each morning I was given a list of things to cook and told how many people would be in for dinner. The batman did a lot of supervising, showed me how to “lay up” with all their monogrammed silver – even his chairs had his “coat of arms” on the backs, with ” J. St. J.” entwined.
Those associated with the Sherwood Foresters continue to commemorate Badajos Day on the 6th of April each year, remembering the victory the Foresters enjoyed in 1812, when they ended the siege of Badajos against the forces of Napoleon in the Peninsula Wars. During the Foresters’ sojourn in Whittington, that festive day was celebrated with a Trooping of the Colour, which provided a memorable outing for Mary. Her presence was essential on the parade ground: her duties were to hold Madam’s handbag and coat. Treat of treats, she was driven back to Cherry Orchard by the nice batman in the Rolls Royce.
It was disappointing for Mary when the Balguys were posted back to India, but her new job at Four Oaks began the following day, and she went to it, in the knowledge that, with her distinctive copper haired looks, she had already caught the eye of the son of the family who farmed the land adjacent to Keepers Cottage.
John St. John Balguy was awarded the O.B.E. in the 1950’s, and lived out his long retirement in Dorset.
As a child, I loved to help Aunty Mary lay the table for her B & B and Evening Meal guests during her retirement in North Wales. The cutlery had to be lined up just so, and the butter – that she had churned herself from the rich milk of long-lashed Jersey, aloof from the Welsh Blacks on the sloping pasture – was always served in unnecessarily artistic curls.