The extraordinary story of the letters between Maynard Willoughby Colchester Wemyss and King Rama VI of Siam

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!

Vajiravudh Crown Prince of  Siam and brothers, Chronicle and Graphic, 1902

Vajiravudh Crown Prince of Siam and brothers, Chronicle and Graphic, 1902

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.

Neela Mann
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.

3 thoughts on “The extraordinary story of the letters between Maynard Willoughby Colchester Wemyss and King Rama VI of Siam

  1. Recently the Fairford History Society Chairman read a book called ‘Vivid Faces’ by R F Foster about the background to the Easter Rising in Dublin 1916. The sixteen men held most responsible were sentenced to death. Other less important figures were interred, many in England, in quite relaxed conditions.

    One group was held in Oxford, in a guest house at St Aldate’s. They obtained readers’ tickets for the Bodleian Library, dined with the famous classicist Gilbert Murray, were shown round the city by Ossie Grattan Esmonde (an undergraduate from the celebrated Wexford family), and explored the surrounding villages and churches. One small group was transferred to rural Gloucestershire to the amusement of their friends remaining in Oxford. They pictured their erstwhile colleagues coping with rural life when “a stroke of the pen transformed them to the back of nowhere – Fairford in Gloucestershire.”

    When browsing the Archives Catalogue I found a reference to the letters of MW Colchester Wemyss talking about the Sinn Feiners who came to Fairford he had thought them to be agricultural labourers but when they arrived found they were educated men and moved them from farm lodgings to the Bull Hotel, Fairford.

    “They each had to sign a paper promising not to go more than 5 miles away from Fairford & they have been growling & grumbling ever since. There are only two policemen at Fairford & they have to cover a big bit of Country & so they could not of course look after them & we could only trust their honour.
    On Sunday I got a telephone call from the Police Sergeant at Fairford telling me that 3 of the men had bolted and all yesterday I was writing and telephoning and telegraphing all over the place but I could hear nothing whatsoever of them and conclude they have gone back to Ireland. I am very much annoyed as they had practically given me their parole (quite apart from the papers they had signed) that they would not escape. This is a curious little by-product of the War. There is no doubt the Sinn Feiners were stirred up by the Germans.”

    In a subsequent letter of 16th May 1917 Colchester-Wemyss said he had received letters from some of the men. They had gone to support their candidate at a by-election. It was one of several by-elections that pointed to wide support for Sinn Fein when the post-War election was held. He sadly acknowledged: “I don’t think the Authorities in Ireland are going to trouble about them…”
    What a series of coincidences, the FHS Chairman read the book in which Fairford was mentioned, I happened to see an entry in the Glos Archives catalogue and Neela wrote the article on the Glos Archives blog!

    Like

    • Thanks Alison – what a coincidence – and what an interesting series of events recounted by Colchester Wemyss.

      It is always great to hear what our researchers are studying and I love it when this kind of thing crops up!

      Claire

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s