Founded 8th May 1999

Newsletter No. 36 08 May 2011


Thank you to everyone who has already paid their 2011 sub and particular thanks to those who added a donation. As one well known firm says, “Every little helps”. I look forward to receiving the final few!


I am delighted to welcome Ben Critchley from Argyll, who says: “Moonfleet was one of the books my grandparents read to me when I was a child, and great fun it was too. Certain scenes and incidents and phrasings have stuck in my memory since then though, in a way that rarely happens to me from such a young age - John hiding beside a slimy coffin, the church service with the bumping below, the auction and the tallow lump, "there was no soul saved from that ship alive save you." It's always dangerous to go back to memories and impressions like that after an absence (at 24 I make no claims on great age, but it is a gap of more than half my life, I suspect.) but I found on re-reading that it had the same effect on me, which is a rare thing indeed and something to be celebrated. I purchased and read The Lost Stradivarius soon after and promptly forced it upon a friend. I would have read The Nebuly Coat by now were it not for the thought that once done, there was no more. I suspect it won't be long however, and I can console myself with the thought that I can always go back to Moonfleet.” Margaret Carlson, from Grand Rapids USA, has not only joined but done so in tandem with her son-in-law Sean Wilmot who lives in Ontario, Canada. On a recent meet-up they both realized how important a book Moonfleet had been in their respective teenage years. Now, that is a great mother-in-law bonding to have, Sean! Margaret read The Nebuly Coat, having found out that Dorothy Sayers was inspired to write The Nine Tailors as a result of her admiration for the novel.


Introduced by Michael Morpurgo. Illustrated by Michael Manomivibul. Bound in cloth. £24.95

This production is of the high standard associated with this publisher. Below is part of their publicity blurb.

‘One of the most exciting stories in the English language’ LORD DAVID CECIL

The Dorset village of Moonfleet, with its steep pebble beach, is well known to smugglers. They land cargoes there at night to keep clear of the Revenue, although it is a dangerous task – many a ship has been wrecked there and many souls lost. The great Mohune family, after whom the village was named, declined and vanished long ago, leaving nothing behind but tombs and legends. Young John Trenchard has grown up hearing stories of Blackbeard Mohune, who is said to haunt the church seeking a fabulous diamond he stole from King Charles I.

‘Falkner is a master of the art of suspense’ SPECTATOR

Moonfleet transports the reader to a world of mystery, adventure and romance, of smugglers’ paths zigzagging up and down sheer cliffs, of the Channel salt-breeze singing in the trees, the sturdy walls of the ruined castle on the Isle of Wight and, most significantly, Chesil Beach and ‘the awful roar of the undertow sucking back the pebbles’. It has enthralled countless children and influenced many writers, including A. N. Wilson, Louis de Bernières and former Children’s Laureate Michael Morpurgo. In a new introduction, he writes: ‘[Falkner] achieves that rare thing, a rollicking adventure that is also a wonderfully crafted book, beautifully written. Only Stevenson’s Treasure Island compares with it at all.’

‘In the class of Stevenson’s Kidnapped or Treasure Island’ V.S.PRITCHETT


The Very Revd. Peter Atkinson, Dean of Worcester, hit upon an unusual way of raising money for the Cathedral’s education programme: a sponsored poetry reading, lasting an amazing twenty-four hours. He would begin at noon on one day and recite right through the night until noon the next day. People could choose the poems that they would like him to recite and sponsor him at £1 a line. Two months previously, the Dean had conducted the prayer-book funeral of Jane Aldridge, who for thirty years had taken the junior form at Hawford Lodge, and in each one of those years she had read Moonfleet with them. Her son, Nicholas Aldridge, is one of our Society’s founder members, and he thought it would be pleasant and appropriate to sponsor the Dean’s reading After Trinity. The Dean had not come across JMF’s poetry before, and was delighted to be introduced to it in this way. He managed to last out the full 24 hours, and so raised the impressive sum of just under £20,000. The Dean sent this message to our Society: “It was a moving experience for me to be sponsored to read a wide variety of poems, many of which I did not know previously. Some sponsors added dedications, which shows how significant the event was for them”

THE MEDIEVAL BOOK (Glosses from Friends & Colleagues of Christopher de Hamel : 2010)

Among the contents can be found “Medieval Manuscripts Owned by J. Meade Falkner by A.S.G. Edwards” (Thanks to member Ian Jackson for noting this)


The Armstrong Whitworth Company was not only capable of turning out a fully-armed battleship but also guns, mountings and projectiles. The areas of production at Elswick covered 224 acres of ground and in 1885 the firm employed 25,000 men whose wage bill totalled £30,000 per week. So it is not perhaps unexpected to learn that amongst many employees was a desire to form a volunteer military force. The 1st Northumberland Volunteer Artillery had been created at Tynemouth in 1859 and over the years that followed several Batteries were raised on both sides of the Tyne. One such was formed in 1890 at the Drill Hall in Dunn Street adjacent to the Elswick Works, this through the encouragement of Armstrong’s vice-chairman Captain Andrew Noble. This unit consisted entirely of men from the Armstrong factory who numbered around 40 to begin with but soon increased to over 200. Although these men were volunteers the Battery was raised with the intention of active service if/when the need arrived. It was not many years before events in southern Africa brought this about.

The process which brought about the participation of the Battery in the South African (Boer) War is of interest to our Society. The volunteers from the firm were not limited to labourers, but received the participation of some senior staff. On February 6th 1891 it was announced in The London Gazette that JMF was promoted to the rank of Captain within the 1st Northumberland Artillery Volunteer Corps and within the same Corps his fellow Armstrong's colleague Philip Watts* was raised to Major.

By 1900 the now Sir Philip Watts had become a director of Armstrong-Whitworth's and had worked his way up to being Colonel of the 1st Northumberland Artillery Volunteer Corps. In the summer of that year Watts heard that Field Marshal Lord Roberts (Commander-in-Chief of the Forces in South Africa) had accepted a personal gift of six pristine Elswick guns ordered and paid for by a Lady Meux, wife of one of Armstrong's directors, as a patriotic gesture. Watts wired South Africa to put to Roberts the suggestion that these guns might be passed on to the Elswick Battery and that the unit be mobilised to serve in the South African campaign. The guns in question were twelve-pounder three-inch guns, each with a range of 10,000 yards, double that of the standard British field gun of the time. Each gun needed four horses to pull it. Lord Roberts was agreeable to Watts' suggestion. There was first one hurdle to overcome: The War Office had declared a policy of only accepting infantry volunteers for service in South Africa - artillery volunteers were specifically excluded. However the Elswick Battery - probably through the intervention of Lord Roberts - was somehow made an exception and thus in April 1900 244 officers and men from the Elswick Battery sailed for South Africa, the only gunners to be armed with field pieces which they themselves had made. The guns were sent in crates direct from the Newcastle factory to Cape Town where they were put together by the Battery. And after three weeks' training at Maitland Camp outside Cape Town they and the guns were sent up to the front. Over the following twelve months the Battery excelled in action at Komatiport, Edenburg, western and eastern Transvaal, and Potchefstroom. No fatalities were incurred. Two DSOs and two DCMs were awarded and thirteen mentioned in dispatches were recorded before the unit left South Africa for home at the end of June 1901. On arrival in Newcastle the Battery was honoured collectively, becoming an Honorary Freeman of the City. Later that same year the Elswick Battery was reorganised to became the 3rd Northumberland (Volunteers) Battery of the 1st Northumberland Brigade RFA but continued operating at its Dunn Street headquarters. On general mobilisation in 1914 most of the Elswick employees were not allowed to deploy as their skills were more urgently required in the Elswick ordnance factories. Both JMF and Watts continued to show an interest in the military volunteer units within the city of Newcastle and so it is not surprising that when the colours of the 6th Northumberland Fusiliers were removed from Newcastle Cathedral in September 1920 JMF should have been present.

North door of Newcastle Cathedral: JMF far right


They had been entrusted to the Cathedral during the whole of the Great War whilst the Fusiliers were operating abroad and now they were to be triumphantly returned to the regimental headquarters. Falkner was not only a former captain in the Fusiliers but by then elevated to Chairman of Armstrong's - a major supplier to the Army. He would thus as a matter of etiquette be invited to occasions such as this.

A short film of the emergence from the cathedral's north door of the civic party, the VIPs and soldiers followed by a march through the city centre was made by British Pathé News. The film shows the only known moving image of JMF.**


*Philip Watts was a gifted and close associate of JMF. Born in London in 1846 he became Director of the War Shipping Department at Armstrong's in 1885 and continued in this role until 1901 when he returned to London as Director of Naval Construction for the Admiralty. In 1912 he was back in the north-east to join JMF as a fellow director at Elswick but he remained the Advisor to the Admiralty on Naval Construction. Watts died at his Knightsbridge London home in 1926 at the age of seventy-nine and is buried at Brompton Cemetery.

** This film can be accessed by typing Pathé News into Google. In the search box at the top type Newcastle Cathedral and click on Play on the first of the nine choices. George Robson and Ray Ion


Another author whose path crossed with JMF in Durham was Sir Hugh Walpole (1884-1941), who was a day boy at Durham School from the summer of 1898 until he went to Cambridge in the autumn of 1903; Walpole’s father was Principal of Bede College, so Hugh had to walk across the city every day to school. After a slow start , Walpole became one of the most successful and best-paid English novelists during the 1920s and 1930s, though his popular success was not matched by critical approval. He used his earnings to build up an impressive art collection, dispersed by the Leicester Galleries in 1945 (some paintings and watercolours were bequeathed to the Tate) and a massive library. This library numbered some 10,000 volumes and was sold in a series of six sales at Christie’s in 1945 and 1946. I am going through the sales and putting the named books on a database so that it can be searched. Strangely, there is no copy of Moonfleet listed in the sale, but I can’t believe Walpole didn’t own a copy – it is just one of the many thousands of books not listed by the Christie’s cataloguer. The cataloguer did list his other JMF books. In the Fourth portion of the Famous Library of the late Sir Hugh Walpole, CBE, sold on 11 th Feb. 1946, lot 125 was The Lost Stradivarius and lot 126 was The Nebuly Coat; both came from Thomas Hardy’s Library. Lot 125 made £8 10s and lot 126 £11 10s., both selling to the London dealers Pickering & Chatto. The Lost Stradivarius was signed by Hardy on the half title, which also had JMF’s signature pasted on. In addition there was a biographical note written by Walpole, who loved to write in his books; the Christie’s sale catalogue does not say what this note read, but Rupert Hart-Davis, in his life of Walpole, published in 1952, gives the text, “How well I remember, when a small boy in Durham, watching Falkner’s heavy body lumbering up the Durham street, myself eaten up with wonder, amaze and ambition. He once spoke to me. All the cathedral set were shocked to their skins by The Nebuly Coat. I love the man to this day. He was a real abnormal romantic.” Hart-Davis says that Walpole wrote this when he acquired the book, which must have been in the early 1930s after Hardy’s death; he also notes that the book was then in the library of the book collector and writer Michael Sadleir. Sadleir died in 1957 and his collection of Victorian fiction, of which he had published a two-volume catalogue in 1951, was left to UCLA. The 1951 catalogue does not mention JMF, so I wonder what happened to his JMF books, in particular the copy of The Lost Stradivarius with its remarkable series of owners. Walpole also owned a book that had belonged to JMF and was presumably used by him in his antiquarian work. This was Thomas Rud’s Codicum Manuscriptorum Ecclesiae Cathedralis Dunelmensis Catalogus Classicus, a folio volume published in Durham in 1825, which was in the Sixth (and Final) Portion of Walpole’s Library, sold on 23 rd July 1946; this book, together with another, were sold for £1 10s as lot 170, again to Pickering and Chatto. Walpole hated his time in Durham, and never recalled it fondly, but it exercised a strong influence on his fiction, and appears thinly disguised as the cathedral town of Porchester in, for instance, The Cathedral and The Inquisitor.

Charles Nugent

PURSUED BY MOUNTAINS John Meade Falkner and Peril upon the Sea

While a novel can surmount, even gain from, inaccuracy, a ship’s voyage depends upon a keen eye ahead and a steady hand on the tiller. There is no doubt that in Moonfleet John Meade Falkner turned variants upon history and topography to create a story whose pace has ensured it more than a century’s life while many a successful voyage becomes no more than the dry record of its log. It gives nothing away to readers here by drawing attention to the culminating disaster which proves a boon to some of Moonfleet’s characters. “The November night had fallen, and it was very dark, only the white fringe of the breakers could be seen, and grew plainer as we drew closer to it. The wind was blowing fiercer than ever, and the waves broke more fiercely nearer the shore. They had lost their dirty yellow colour when the light died, and were rolling after us like great black mountains, with a combing white top that seemed as if they must overwhelm us every minute. Twice they pooped us, and we were up to our waists in icy water, but still held to the wheel for our lives.” They land ashore, full circle, and this indeed might prompt one to look up the history of “pooped”. As for Falkner’s plausibly rendered grasp of maritime mishap, it could remind one of Richard Holmes’s observation that by the time Coleridge wrote The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, his only seagoing experience had been as a passenger upon a ferry across a river. The transmutation of experience into art defies quantification. The mind is its own place. Even so, we might pause over the Tuesday early in February 1805 when the Earl of Abergavenny was on another voyage out for the East India Company. A storm had arisen after her leaving Portsmouth, separating her from the convoy and, on passing Weymouth Bay, she hit trouble upon the eastern end of the Shambles rather than at the Chesil beach which has been the subject of this series. Among 260 casualties was her thirty-three-year-old Captain, John Wordsworth, brother of the poet, whose family descendants were among Falkner’s friends. As with any disaster, such as the Titanic, the immediate circumstances are the stuff of fragmentary, even contradictory witness and can be transmuted into myth - one theory, occasionally asserted, is that John was Jane Austen’s lover. At any rate, amidst the French wars, via John’s two voyages, China was an offshoot of Grasmere, and made for an unofficial trade in opium. A stash indeed. For the Wordsworth family, much hung on the latest voyage. All of this is neatly delineated by Alethea Hayter in her characteristically brief but amply fuelled The Wreck of the Abergavenny which incorporates such details as one survivor aloft a floating cattle pen until he was taken aboard another vessel while his bovine companions were presumably left to their fate. Another survivor, on duly reaching London, met with opprobrium in Weymouth records for being one of the noisiest in the front row at the Drury Lane Theatre instead of going to church and thanking his Maker for deliverance from a terrible end. Many were the pamphlets and reports which claimed to give a true account of the disaster, and there was even a rollicking poem by a Dorset schoolmaster, John Barlow. Bodies washed ashore along the coast, Wordsworth’s taking three weeks to do so, and some were in a state which made their identification a singularly unpleasant task - and thirty more came from the depths when that April a storm disturbed the wreck. Sub-aquatic exploration of it continues, and there had been attempts at salvage from the beginning - a particular object, Wordsworth’s sword. That is, the Abergavenny was one of the area’s best-known calamities, with the recovered bodies being buried, it seems, in a mass grave at Wyke Regis which no longer bears a marker. There is no doubt that, down the generations, the disaster remained a local talking point and perhaps lodged in the childhood mind of the future author of Moonfleet. Discussions of the novel, such as the one by Brian Alderson in his World’s Classics edition, have not broached a connection. Meanwhile, Alethea Hayter makes passing reference to one account of the disaster’s title-page bearing a quotation from William Falconer’s The Shipwreck. This gives one pause to wonder whether Falkner was ever moved to read that 3000-line poem which, published in 1762, and reprinted several times, drew upon his namesake’s own experience. Christopher Hawtree

Best Wishes Kenneth Hillier



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