Maynard Colchester Wemyss of Westbury Court was a man of many titles including Head Verderer of the Forest of Dean, Justice of the Peace, Guardian of the Poor, Chairman of Stroud Brewery Company, Chairman of Gloucestershire County Council, and Chairman of the Gloucestershire War Agricultural Committee. His roles during World War 1, as chronicled in the letters he wrote to the King of Siam, build a unique picture of Gloucestershire at a time of war.
Educated at Eton and Sandhurst, Colchester Wemyss had an interesting early life. He was present at the opening of the Suez Canal and had travelled to Canada, the USA and Damascus. During his army career he was stationed in Guernsey and was befriended by the exiled French writer Victor Hugo. Whilst on the Isle of Wight he became the walking companion of the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson. It comes as no surprise therefore that this well-travelled man should be acquainted with the Crown Prince, who, in 1910 became the King of Siam. The Crown Prince arrived in this country in 1893 aged 13, having previously been privately educated. In England he spent two years at Sandhurst, with a short spell in the Durham Light Infantry and two years at Oxford reading History and Law. In 1902, the Crown Prince stayed for three months at Westbury Court with Maynard Colchester Wemyss and his family, returning to Siam in 1903. Incidentally, he was the grandson of the king on which the musical “The King and I” is based!
Colchester Wemyss accepted guardianship of three of the Crown Prince’s younger brothers in 1905 and collected them from the Winter Palace at St Petersburg, which was a dangerous experience at the time. Tutors, valets and servants were hired for the princes and an academic programme was planned according to the King’s wishes. As the Crown Prince was his father’s Secretary, Colchester Wemyss’ reports on the brothers were received by him and a correspondence was ongoing.
In 1912, Colchester Wemyss was having financial problems with the estate – the brewery and brickworks were failing and there was a recession. To reduce expenditure Colchester Wemyss let out Westbury Court and moved into The Bell House on the estate. When the government called in the mortgage, Colchester Wemyss appealed to the King (as he was by then), and he agreed to take over the £40,000 mortgage for a few years.
At the request of the King, and in gratitude, Colchester Wemyss wrote letters to him from 1913 to 1925 – a total of 601 letters – 221 of them weekly letters during the war years, the rest monthly. The letters were always 4 pages long, as in the belle lettres style – hand-written and a carbon taken – each one numbered. A carbon was taken, so Colchester Wemyss said, in order that he could remember what he had written about and not repeat himself! At the start of the correspondence Colchester Wemyss was 67 years old and the King was 32 – a gap of 35 years.
Each letter was a stream of consciousness of whatever came into his head or whatever he had been doing that week. He always said he had no idea what the subject would be when he sat down to write, which he did every Tuesday evening after supper. As Colchester Wemyss wrote:
“…no sort of way is this a history of the war…but simply a letter filled out with some discursive thoughts…as they come into my mind.”
The subject matter covered was diverse – class differences, what his cook said about food rationing, what his grand daughter Finetta was doing during the war, or his son Jock in the army in East Africa. There are insights into the building of the Munitions factory at Quedgeley, German spies in Cheltenham, his sentiments about the changing fortunes of the working class, the plight of Edith Cavell and the sinking of the Lusitania, European economics and politics. Some of what Colchester Wemyss did has not been chronicled elsewhere. He visited Lilian Faithfull, Principal of Cheltenham Ladies College, and writes of their conversations and the contribution made by the pupils of the College in working on the land. He persuaded Miss Faithfull to get the girls to send out and collate the replies of letters to Gloucestershire farmers, asking them what help they needed on the land at harvesting. So many clerks at the council offices had enlisted there were not enough people to do the work. His writing could be both profound and, to present day minds, really biased, quaintly amusing and often full of insight. For instance, of Militant Suffragettes he said
“…very probably very many of them were not sorry for an excuse to cease practices…abhorrent to a civilised society”
Writing on 25th August 1914 of a meeting he had to organise of 180 people, representing all sections of the community, three weeks after the beginning of the war, he says
“…all sorts and conditions of men and women were there, all distinctions of class or politics or religion were forgotten. I would be talking to a Duke, the next perhaps to a Trades Union Leader, then perhaps to the wife of an Earl and directly afterwards to the daughter of a butcher…”
Colchester Wemyss wrote of reprisals against Germans, Zeppelins, loss of life (both those on the estate and sons of friends – including Chester Master (the Chief Constable) and the Earl St. Aldwyn (Viscount Quenington), stirring up the workers to enlist, finding homes for Belgian refugees, women and work, gas attacks, and how hard he found it cutting down his bread consumption during rationing!
Finally, how could he have known what would happen when he said…
“I copy all the letters and there is quite a big pile of them now and perhaps, 100 years hence, someone will unearth them and read them with interest.”
I read every one of them over a six month period and I found them a very special resource from an exceptional man.
Longstanding volunteer at Gloucestershire Archives, member of the Cheltenham Local History Society, leading research into WW1
Author of Cheltenham in the Great War, to be published in March 2016 by the History Press in association with Cheltenham Local History Society.
The letters can be found in D37, Correspondence of Maynard W Colchester – Wemyss held at Gloucestershire Archives.