Archive for the ‘Guest Blogs’ category

From Petersfield to Margaret River – and Back: The Quest for Margaret Whicher

July 20th, 2011

The Margaret River region, in South-Western Australia, is famously wild and beautiful. It is now as well-known for its fine wines as for its whale-watching. This exotic picture has been kindly contributed by Jan Matthews of the Margaret River District Historical Society. She writes:

The view is of the Margaret River at its mouth, just about to break through to the sea. In the summer it is landlocked, but after the first winter rains it gains enough momentum to breach the sandbank and flow steadily until the next summer. I took this photo last week and since then it has broken through – an event always reported like that first cuckoo … We are enjoying a cold winter with quite a bit of rain, which is very welcome, as storages are low due to several below-average winters.

The time that my camera put on the photo is NOT accurate! It was something like 11.30am – much more civilised – and likely.


Margaret River, in South-Western Australia, is named after an Englishwoman, Margaret Whicher (1822 – 1915). A cousin of John Garrett Bussell, the pioneering settler and explorer of the region, Margaret was the eldest daughter of James Whicher, a surgeon of Petersfield, Hampshire (pictured left), and his wife Anna, daughter of Lieutenant-General Charles Norris Cookson, R.A.

John and his brothers had set sail from Portsmouth on the Warrior on 9 October 1829. While the ship was loading, the Whichers had generously sent down various treats from Petersfield. Such items as gingerbread and pickles proved to be a great comfort during the voyage, and the brothers were profuse in thanking their ‘Petersfield friends’.

In 1837, having founded Busselton, John Garrett Bussell had returned to England in search of a wife. His proposal to the pretty Margaret (she and her sisters were known in Petersfield as ‘the Bewitchers’) had unfortunately been rejected. She was only fifteen, and her father was reluctant to condemn her to a life of hardship and uncertainty in an undoubted ‘wilderness’.

John had married someone else – a capable widow – and within the year was back in Australia, helping the cartographer Arrowsmith to draw up the first map of the region. As James Whicher was one of backers of his proposed sheep-farming venture, he received the compliment of having a range of low hills named after him. The river that rises out of the Whicher Range was named after Margaret, the child-bride who might have been. John must have had a high opinion of her. None of the other ladies in his family (including his wife) has any sort of territorial feature named after her.

In 1852, Margaret (known as ‘Peggy’) married the Basingstoke solicitor Joseph Shebbeare, a man old enough to have been her father. Joseph died in 1860 and in 1876 she married Samuel Chandler, who had been Joseph’s junior partner. There were no children. Peggy’s home for nearly fifty years was a fine Tudor house (with later additions) in Church Street, known later as Queen Anne House. The building was demolished in 1966 to make way for the Basingstoke ‘megastructure’. It stood beneath what is now Marks and Spencer’s store.

As a great-great-great-nephew of Margaret, I have been delighted to assist members of the Margaret River District Historical Society in their quest for information about her (though I have usually found them to be one step ahead of me). In default of a portrait or photograph (none has been found), the search is on for her grave. On her recent visit to England, Jan Matthews and I inspected the Whicher tomb in Petersfield cemetery, but there is no evidence of Margaret being buried there. To our delight, however, we were able to tour the house on the High Street in which she was born.

Lyndum House, as it is now known, is used as offices by Dalton’s, a firm of solicitors. We were most grateful to Gill Moss-Bowpitt, the practice manager, and her cheerful staff for their hospitality. It is a large, timber-framed house of great age. We were impressed by its fine galleried staircase under a domed roof and by the master bedroom overlooking the back garden. Below it, on the ground floor, is a magnificent drawing-room with tall, shuttered windows. There would have been ample space for the many Whicher children. We even explored the spacious attic, with its series of rooms for the servants, and the narrow back garden which, at one time, ran down to the stream. It is altogether a most impressive and desirable property, sadly sold by my family after the death of James Whicher in 1875.

A full account of the Bussell brothers and of Margaret Whicher’s life in Petersfield and Basingstoke is included in my latest book, Basingstoke and Its Contribution to World Culture. See also:


Colin Palmer: English Channel Relay Swimmer

March 29th, 2011

Guest-blogger Colin Palmer’s blasé account of his Channel-swim preparations disguises the fact that he is a man of steel and one of the wild swimming élite – none of which could be guessed from his amiable appearance and manner. Whatever exotic location I think of to swim, I find that he has preceded me, though not if there is any risk of an ‘instant ice-cream headache’. Colin tells me that cross-Channel swimming is firmly discouraged by the French authorities, and exhausted swimmers are liable to arrest when they step ashore. Not the sort of man to be put off by foreign pettifoggery, Colin is undaunted and valiantly supporting a worthy cause.

From Soho down to Brighton I must have swum them all.

I did not realise that signing up for an English Channel Relay swim would quite take over my life in such a major way.  I haven’t quite swum in every pool, lido, river and lake between the aforementioned Soho and Brighton but it is beginning to seem like it.  Although Tadley is my default pool where I often talk swimming to Rupert, every trip away from Berkshire means scouring the internet looking for new challenges, places and people to swim with.

I am undertaking the challenge with Aspire, the Charity that works with people with spinal chord injuries, and so I have a ready body of team members (Aspire has five teams of six people doing the Channel this year) to swim with. So far our location of choice has been London Fields Lido, a hidden jewel deep in the heart of Hackney.  The fact that the lido is heated and open all year is its great appeal, but the after-swim coffee and chat at the Hoxton Beach Cafe – you will detect the irony if you have spent any time in East London – are well worth the trip into London.

The Soho link is my solitary training trip to the Oasis pool in Endell Street,Central London, more Covent Garden really but close enough to use Pete Townsend’s lyrics, and Brighton will be our weekend’s cold water acclimatisation in the sea in early May.

I have already managed some early cold water acclimatisation when joining the massed ranks of the South Wales section of the Outdoor Swimming Society (three hardy souls) last Sunday (27th March) at Caswell Bay on the Gower peninsula.  Although the calves froze on impact with the sea, after a while it became fairly comfortable. Front crawl was impossible however due to the face freezing on contact with the water, creating an instant ice cream headache.  Feeling good I saw off a couple of the experienced hands and managed a creditable 25 minutes immersion.  It was not until out of the sea and the onset of uncontrollable convulsive shivering whilst changing that I realised the wisdom of experience, as the old hands were able to chat and drink coffee in the beach side cafe whilst I shook quietly in the corner. A thirty minute drive with the heater on full blast did the trick and thawed me out before Sunday lunch and had me looking at the calendar for the next chance of a weekend swim in Wales.

This weekend I am aiming to take my first dip in the Thames,  a 1/2 mile section in Goring, one of the many stretches I hope to do in the following months (I am sure David Walliams must have overheard my plans).  Next week I am in Cluj, Rumania, and so I am working out how I can access the University’s 50-metre pool.  What is Rumanian for ‘must I wear a swim hat?’. I will be in Cologne over Easter so I have to check the temperature of the Liblar See (an old quarry) and whether or not the owner of the campsite will let me swim in her lake. She looks at me very strangely when I turn up in the middle of summer and  and so my appearance in April will lead to much wailing and gnashing of teeth.  Unfortunately my limited German, ‘ein Bier und ein Käsebrötchen mit Zwiebeln’, is of little help at such times. Later in the Summer I will have the joy of two weekends’ swimming in Dover Docks, with real Channel swimmers, before the big day in July – August.

As you can see I am looking for tips for interesting places to swim and people to swim with so if you fancy a dip, or maybe just a walk along the towpath when I am doing a section of the Thames, drop me an email. I am more than willing to share the fun.

If you are interested in helping Aspire then you can donate through my website

The Search for Sophy: Sophia Hayward and the Naming of Margaret River

January 18th, 2011

The remarkable story of John Garrett Bussell (1802 – 1875), one of the pioneering settlers of south-western Australia, is included in my new book, Basingstoke and its Contribution to World Culture. Margaret Whicher of Petersfield, the young cousin whom Bussell hoped to marry, was to live in Basingstoke for fifty years, in the fine house on Church Street that was later known as Queen Anne House. Jan Matthews and John Alferink of the Margaret River District Historical Society have established that, under other circumstances, the river that Bussell named after her might well have been called ‘Sophia River’. Jan here describes the quest for Sophy Hayward, Bussell’s other lost love.

Margaret River, in the south-west corner of Western Australia, is a beautiful place, named after the river on which it sits. And the river in turn was named by early settler and explorer John Garrett Bussell after Margaret Whicher of Petersfield.

The Historical Society in Margaret River was interested in researching the facts behind this naming, and have indeed found them to our satisfaction, but the story we wished to present had an untidy thread dangling and we thought it should be neatly tied off.

And there began a fascinating and – so far – totally frustrating search which we have come to think of as “Whatever Happened to Sophy Hayward?” 

Sophia (Sophy) Hayward was the childhood sweetheart and heiress whom John Garrett Bussell left behind when he sailed for Western Australia in 1829, and it was a long eight years later that he made a return trip to England with the intention of marrying his Sophy and bringing her back to Australia. It can be seen from extant letters that the reunion was less than a success and neither Sophy nor John’s friends at the time saw the match as propitious. John wrote one letter to Sophy in which he states that he no longer loves her as he once did, but is still prepared to marry her, which does rather sound like a defence against a breach-of-promise suit and hardly likely to set a maiden’s heart a-flutter. The relationship foundered.

John Garrett Bussell went on to marry Charlotte Cookworthy and sail back to Western Australia and it has to be said that Charlotte was an excellent and highly suitable wife. But Sophy?

One of the most poignant letters that we unearthed in our search was one written by Sophy to a cousin and friend, asking her if she would offer a batch of visiting cards to her friend Mrs W. Bussell. These cards Sophy had had printed, she wrote, at a time when she had expectations of becoming a Mrs Bussell and, as “Mrs Bussell” was all they had inscribed on them, they could in fact be put to use by Mrs. W. Bussell.  This was in 1841 and is the last we can find of Sophy.

Investigations have turned up the surprising information that Sophy was the illegitimate daughter of one James Morgan, himself the son of an impressively wealthy James Morgan senior, of Bath, details of whose Will we have accessed. Sophia was born in 1806 and her brother James in 1810 and their father died in 1809. It would seem that both children were born, and their father died, in India. James-the-most-Junior states his birthplace as Bengal on a later census, and information from a family tree on the web indicates that his father spent extended time in India on more than one occasion. Whether this was government, trade or military we have been unable to elicit, but we fancy not military.

When Sophia and James’ grandfather died in 1810 they were mentioned in his will (actually the will mentioned three children, but we have only found trace of two) and baldly described as the illegitimate children of his late son James. They are commended to the care of their Aunt Elizabeth Morgan who indeed cares for them until her death in 1825. Elizabeth bought Loudwater House in Rickmansworth (still existing as luxury flats; one does wonder at the thought of Sophy swapping this for a slab hut in the Australian wilderness!) and James inherited it when Elizabeth died. It is here in the 1841 census that we find Sophy living with her brother and his family. We have traced brother James to his death in London in 1875, but of Sophy there is not a single footprint.

Sweet reason would have her marrying, of course, but using the resources available to us on the web we have assiduously pursued all the likely records to prove each of them inapplicable, one after another. Ditto the deaths.

From our position, using only web resources we can, for instance, see the offspring of Sophy’s brother James and in some cases their offspring, but sleuthing opportunities dry up as records become more current. The privacy aspect is completely understandable, but oh! so frustrating!  We’ve even done some “shoot an arrow in the air” letters to people in the phonebook who we think might have the right name to be related to our Sophie and James, without luck.

We did find that one of James and Sophy’s uncles emigrated to the US with his family and we have as a result of enquiries an emailed copy of a lovely portrait of his son, who would have been James and Sophy’s cousin, of course.  Close, but no cigar. Actually it’s hardly close even, but it’s amazing how excited you can get at the remotest of relationships! We did fantasise that Sophy may have moved to America with her uncle, but can’t find anything that would confirm this.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the story we’re researching here is that Sophy and James are openly admitted to be illegitimate and one would have thought that a family of such obvious substance as the Morgans would move in social strata that concealed rather than revealed these things? We may be well out of touch here with the mores of the time and situation, but it does seem to us that there might well be extenuating circumstances to their illegitimacy. We’ve been unable to trace anything like a birth registration for either of them in India and are completely, completely in the dark as to the identity and situation of their mother.

Yes, this was just a loose end to be followed up and tied off. It’s been over a year of sleuthing so far but we’re not giving up…

Adam’s Wild Swim to Holy Island

November 23rd, 2010

Adam Rattray, the daring adventurer and wild swimmer, resolved, with two companions, to match Robson Green’s recent achievement in swimming the icy waters between the Northumbrian mainland and the Holy Island of Lindisfarne.

Both men chose to disregard the conventional means of access to the island – the causeway of which Sir Walter Scott writes, where

‘Twice a day the waves efface

Of staves and sandalled feet the trace’

– but Green is a tough Northumbrian and Adam half a Viking, descended, no doubt, from some of the fierce marauders who sacked Lindisfarne Priory in 793 and again in 875. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the earlier sack was presaged by ‘whirlwinds, lightning storms and fiery dragons seen in the sky’. The seas were hardly enticing for Adam’s visit – in September 2010 – but at least the dragons stayed away. Here is his typically modest account of the feat:

‘It was a little rough. Force 5-7 winds do horrible things to the North Sea so we changed the time and angle of the crossing. Dave (one of our party) drove four hours on the morning despite a 3 a.m. text from me that told him there was no chance that we would be able to swim (the wind was howling, and the coastguard irritated). When we finally started swimming it was actually not too difficult – we had seals to accompany us – but I had foolishly smeared vaseline over my hands and face; this then got onto my goggles so I swam in a greasy mist with little idea where I was going. Reaching the shore line was a relief and we raised over £600 for charity.

Leonida Georgievna, the Grand Duchess Vladimir of Russia

June 29th, 2010

The late Grand Duchess Vladimir of Russia was a jolly, buxom lady with dark, heavily-coiffed hair and of decidedly Asiatic appearance – she was, after all, Georgian. Peter-Gabriel de Loriol Chandieu, effortless writer and gifted flaneur, recalls the following encounter:

The recent death (23/5/2010) of Leonida Bagration-Moukhransky, the late Grand duchess Vladimir of Russia, and her subsequent obituary on the 28th May in the Times reminded me of an event in her life that brought the reality of her situation into sharper perspective.

I was a very young (just 21) manager of a very exclusive ‘private’ hotel in Chelsea in the late 1970s. Private inasmuch as it was not classed as a hotel, but just as ’11 Cadogan Gardens’, a superior ‘Bed and Breakfast’ for patrons who were habitués or recommended by people known to the manager.

As such, the hotel was a magnet to visiting grandees of all declinations; diplomats, actors, politicians, heads of state, monarchs or elected, senior members of various professional bodies, who wished to come to London in relative anonymity to visit friends, relations or just to shop. They loved the relative cheapness of an establishment of 63 bedrooms and suites with en suite bathrooms, which catered to their every whim, in the centre of London, and with a high Victorian décor and service that put the five star hotels to shame!

On that particular Friday I was waiting impatiently to interview a new member of staff, a cleaner, sent by an agency. She was late – it wasn’t a good start! I’d seen half a dozen and they were either too young, too stupid or couldn’t speak a word of English. I sat in my pin-striped trousers, black jacket, white shirt and black tie behind my huge Victorian desk in my oak panelled office, occasionally looking out of the window onto the street. This one wouldn’t be taken on either, she was too late.

A discreet knock at the door followed by the perpetually surprised face of Antonio, the supremely efficient Spanish Head Porter (on whom, I was sure, the Fawlty Towers Manuel was based), saying that the lady had arrived. I asked him to show her in.

She was large, dressed in an almost bohemian way with swathes of tawny coloured capes and scarves carpeted around her busty carapace. She smiled perfunctorily and plonked herself into the chair opposite me. Irked, I started with the obvious questions: did she speak English, did she know London…the obligatory ‘of course’ followed my every question, at first patiently and then with marked indifference and a glimpse of what I surmised as a bad temper. Not good! I thought I’d put her off by telling her she would be working for six days a week and one Sunday in every four weeks, the times she would be expected to be at work and she would also be fitted with a uniform. It was all too much for her. She bulked up to a standing position.

“How dare you speak to me like this – don’t you realise who I am? I am the Grand Duchess Vladimir of Russia.” Her whole body trembled with rage.

“…And I’m the Emperor of France… “. This charade had gone quite far enough! She was rude, arrogant and I would speak to the agency. What agency? Just then the door opened a crack and a worried Francisco looked around the door. He told me that the lady’s husband was her and would like to introduce himself.

A slim, well dressed middle aged individual walked into the room with a smile on his face. In Spanish accented English he presented himself as Vladimir Grand Duke of Russia. You could have heard a pin drop! She broke into a smile and presented her husband to the ‘manager’ of the hotel.  I, meanwhile, couldn’t stop smiling, at myself, for having made history and put my usual two feet in it, as all Sagittarians do. We did part as friends! Francisco couldn’t stop laughing for days – Senor Peter had done it again!

Pg de Loriol