Thursday, January 27, 2011

General Charles Gordon - A Victorian Hero

General Charles Gordon

The 26th January 2011 marks the 126th anniversary of the death of General Charles George Gordon, perhaps more commonly remembered by his nicknames "Chinese Gordon" or "Gordon of Khartoum".

He was born in Woolwich, Kent on 28th January 1833 into a military family (his father was a Major-General). Charles was duly enrolled into the Royal Military College at Woolwich and after passing out in 1852 joined the Royal Engineers in the rank of 2nd Lieutenant based at Chatham, Kent.

In 1855, Gordon served in the Crimean War at the Siege of Sebastapol and remained in Russia until 1858.

In 1860, he volunteered to serve in China where the British were fighting the Opium Wars and endeavouring to suppress the Taiping Rebellion which threatened lucrative European trade interests.

The British occupied Northern China until April 1862 when they fell back to form part of an international force to protect Shanghai which was in imminent danger of attack from the rebels.

The international force was lead by an American, Frederick Townsend Ward and Gordon was attached to his staff as engineer officer. Ward was mortally wounded at the Battle of Cixi on 20th September 1862. Gordon assumed command in March 1863.

Gordon lead a very successful campaign against the Taipings and his force became known popularly as the "Ever Victorious Army". By May 1864 the rebels had been defeated and the army was disbanded.

Gordon returned to the UK and between 1865 and 1871 was stationed at New Tavern Fort in Gravesend, Kent. There he was responsible for overseeing the modernisation of the various forts that defended the lower Thames Estuary.

During his time in Gravesend, Gordon was known for his many philanthropic works with the poor and needy in the local community. He set up a Ragged School for Boys and in his free time taught at a Sunday School held at the Mission House pictured above.

In 1872 Gordon met the Prime Minister of Egypt whilst in Constantinople and was eventually invited to join the Egyptian Army in the rank of Colonel. In early 1874, he left for Egypt with the blessing of the British Government.

Gordon became Governor of the Gondokoro province and later in 1877 was appointed Governor-General of the Sudan.

The 1870's was a turbulent period in the history of the region. The Europeans were tyring to stamp out the slave trade in the Sudan which lead to an economic crisis in the North of the country and much unrest. Egypt and Abyssinia (later to become Ethiopia) went to war in 1875 over a border dispute.

Egyptian expeditionary forces were defeated in two battles at Gundet and Gura so in March 1877, Gordon was sent on a mission to make peace with the Abyssinian King. The mission was not a success. The Abyssinian King had gone South to fight the Shoa (one of the local tribes).

Back in the Sudan, an insurrection had broken out in Darfur (parallels of today?). Gordon decided to use diplomatic rather than military means to diffuse the volatile situation. Accompanied only by his interpreter, Gordon bravely rode into the insurgents camp and following talks succeeded in pacifying them.

Over the next three years Gordon was kept busy dealing with various revolts around the country, trying to broker peace with the Abyssinians and continuing the action against the slave traders.

In 1880, Gordon resigned his position and spent several months in Switzerland recovering from the exhaustion of his work in Africa. Gordon received many prestigious offers of employment from around the world and took short term commissions in India, China, Mauritius and South Africa before returning to the UK in 1882.

Finding himself "between" jobs, Gordon spent a year out in Palestine visiting biblical sites and writing a book "Reflections in Palestine".

On his return to the UK in 1883, Gordon was invited by King Leopold II of Belgium to take charge of the Congo Free State and was about to take up this offer when the British Government requested he return with all haste to the Sudan.

Yet another insurrection had broken out in the Sudan this time lead by the Mahdi, Mohammed Ahmed. The Egyptian Army was unable to contain the rebellion in the Sudan as unrest had erupted simultaneously in Egypt (once again parallels of today!).

By December 1883 the situation had got so bad that the British Government instructed the Egyptians to abandon the Sudan and evacuate their forces as well as any civilians and their families. Gordon was ordered to proceed to Khartoum to assist in the plans for the evacuation.

Gordon arrived in Khartoum on 18th February 1884 and immediately set about evacuating the women and children, sick and wounded back to Egypt. The Mahdi's forces closed in on Khartoum following victories over the Egyptian Army at Suakin and the siege began on 18th March.

In April the British Government withdrew their troops from the Sudan and the garrison at Berber surrendered to the Mahdi in May.

Gordon and his men were alone - effectively abandoned by the British Government.

Unlike the British Government, Gordon resolved to defend Khartoum to the last.

This captured the imagination of the British public over the ensuing months and the Government came under intense pressure to send a relief expedition to break the siege.

Eventually, in August a decision was made to send an expeditionary force to relief. However, this was not ready to move until November.

Finally, the force (mounted on camels) set out from Egypt and arrived in Sudan on 20th January 1885. An advance party arrived in Khartoum on 28th January only to find that Gordon had been killed by the Mahdists two days earlier.

It is believed that Gordon was killed on the steps of the palace around dawn fighting to the last bullet. The Mahdists are said to have cut off his head and placed it in the branches of a tree on public display and children were encouraged to throw stones at it.

Gordon's remains were never recovered from the Sudan.

When news of Gordon's death reached the UK, he was immediately feted as a hero for his stoic defence of Khartoum and for facilitating the safe evacuation of many thousands of women and children.

The statue above (by Doulton), one of many memorials erected around the country in his honour, can be found in Gravesend in the grounds of the New Tavern Fort where he served for five years.

Even to this day, wreathes are still laid in his memory on the anniversary of his death.

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Monday, January 17, 2011


This Wednesday (19th January), a film called Hattie will be shown on BBC4.

The film stars Ruth Jones (of Gavin and Stacey fame) as comedienne and actress Hattie Jacques.

It tells the story of her complex love life during her marriage to actor John Le Mesurier.

Unbeknown to the public at the time, Hattie's young lover John Schofield was living openly in the house at the same time as her husband John Le Mesurier who had moved into the attic!

Hattie Jacques and John Le Mesurier were two of my favourite actors when I was growing up and are sorely missed. Both had strong connections with the county of Kent.

Hattie was born Josephine Edwina Jaques in Sandgate, Kent on 7th February 1922. Her father was an RAF pilot who died in a plane crash when Hattie was still only a toddler and her mother an amateur actress.

During the Second World War, Hattie served as a nurse with the Red Cross and also worked as a welder in a factory in London.

At the age of twenty she made her debut on stage at the Players Theatre in London. She became a regular on stage and in 1947 was spotted by a scriptwriter from the radio show It's That Man Again (ITMA) and invited to join the cast.

She later appeared in other popular radio shows such as Educating Archie and later Hancock's Half Hour.

In the early 1950's she appeared in a number of films including Norman Wisdom comedies.

In 1958 she joined the Carry On team and appeared in Carry On Sergeant - the first of fourteen Carry On films in which she would star. She is probably best remembered for playing the part of the battleaxe matron in films such as Carry On Nurse and Carry On Doctor.

In 1960 Hattie teamed up with lifelong friend Eric Sykes, They appeared as brother and sister in the long running TV comedy Sykes together for nearly twelve years.

In 1965 Hattie divorced John Le Mesurier but they remained on good terms. She even actively encouraged him to marry his third wife Joan.

Following the break up of her relationship to Schofield (he ran off with another woman), Hattie started to put on weight and her health deteriorated.

On 6th October 1980 she died of a heart attack in London aged only 58.

John Le Mesurier was born John Elton Le Mesurier Halliley in Bedford on 5th April 1912. His father was a solicitor. His mother's family came from Alderney in the Channel Islands and he later used her maiden name as his stage name.

John was educated at Sherborne public school and studied acting at drama school from the age of twenty. In 1941 he joined the Royal Tank Regiment serving in the UK and India rising to the rank of Captain. In 1949 he married his second wife Hattie Jacques.

He appeared in over a hundred films during his long career but is of course best known and loved for his role as Sergeant Wilson in Dad's Army. The scriptwriters very cleverly closely based the character's background on John's own.

Even though I've probably seen every episode ten times over I still enjoy them just as much today as I did when I first saw them as a kid.

At the time of his divorce from Hattie in 1965, ever the gentleman and to maintain his ex wife's reputation, John always gave the impression to the public that he was at fault. (News of her tangled love life did not emerge until many years later).

John Le Mesurier was a very heavy drinker. Although he never appeared drunk, it may have had something to do with his trademark vague demeanor.

In the late 1970's he gave up drink on medical advice but became very ill. As a consequence he resumed drinking, regained his health and enjoyed life to the full for another seven years until his death on 15th November 1983.

He is buried in the churchyard at St George the Martyr in Ramsgate, Kent.

Before he died, he wrote his own typically laconic obituary which later appeared in The Times -

"John Le Mesurier wishes it to be known that he conked out on 15th November. He sadly misses family and friends"

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Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Kent for Less than a Fiver

If you're planning a day out in Kent this year, here are ten suggestions of fun places you can go, or things you can do, for less than a fiver.

Yes, that's right, even in these austere times it is still possible to have a good day out in Kent, without breaking the bank.....

1. Take a Walk

There are over 4000 miles of public rights of way in Kent including long distance paths such as the North Downs Way, Pilgrims Way, Saxon Shore Way and Darent Valley Path.

Not only is this an excellent way to see the beautiful Kent countryside, you can also keep fit at the same time.

Best of all, walking is free.

If you are looking for ideas on where to go walking, I have written about a number of walks I have made over the last few months or you could also check out the following sites -

Rambling in Kent by Twisden

Kent County Council

2. Visit a Country Park or Nature Reserve

There are many country parks and nature reserves dotted throughout Kent, some run by KCC and others by organisations such as the Forestry Commission and RSPB.

Admission is usually free although in some, parking charges apply.

One of my favourites is Shorne Country Park near Gravesend where you can find the spider tickling a worm (pictured above). Parking during the week is currently £ 2 and on weekends/Bank holidays £ 2.50

There is a visitor centre/cafe, various waymarked paths suitable for all ages and even outdoor exercise equipment.

Activities are laid on for kids at various times during the year, for example - Easter Egg hunts, Christmas trail etc.

For details of some Kent country parks, please see here.

3. Visit Rochester Cathedral

Rochester Cathedral which can trace it's history back to before the Norman Conquest is well worth a visit and entry is free. The architecture is breathtaking and if you are lucky you may hear the choir singing - very atmospheric.

I would highly recommend a visit to the adjacent Cathedral tea rooms where they serve delicious home made cakes.

4. Spend A Day by the Thames

This year regattas will be held in Gravesend in June (date TBA) and on 24th July.

Apart from the rowing races, a fun fair, charity stalls and other entertainment will be provided alongside the river on the Gordon Promenade.

Entry to the Promenade is free.

5. Attend Whitstable Harbour Day

Whitstable Harbour Day takes place during the Summer. This year's date is still to be confirmed.

Various commercial and historic vessels are open to the public and there are charity and trade stalls lining the quayside. Entertainment is provided such as salsa bands (and one year, even sand dancers!).

Admission free.

6. Visit Hall Place, Bexley

Hall Place is an historic manor house in Bexley surrounded by gardens with magnificent topiary. Entrance to the house and gardens is free.

Inside the house there is a museum with an eclectic range of exhibits from wedding dresses to old bones!

7. Visit The Hurricane & Spitfire Memorial

Admission to the Hurricane and Spitfire Memorial at Manston Airport is free, although they greatly appreciate donations to assist in the upkeep of the aircraft.

Please see my earlier post for more details.

8. Visit South Foreland Lighthouse, St Margarets Bay

This historic lighthouse stands on top of the white cliffs at St Margarets Bay just outside Dover and is well worth a visit.

Excellent guided tours are provided by the National Trust and the current entrance price is £ 4.20 for adults. The tour ends at the top of the lighthouse where you are afforded excellent views over Dover Harbour and across the Channel to France.

For more information, please see here.

9. Visit New Tavern Fort, Gravesend

The New Tavern Fort next to the Promenade in Gravesend was first built in around 1780 and remained in active use until the early 1900's.

It's most famous resident was General Charles Gordon (of Khartoum) who had a house within the grounds (later destroyed by a V2).

At weekends between April and September the labyrinth of tunnels below the fort where munitions were once stored, are open to the public. There is a nominal entrance fee.

Various exhibits illustrate the fort's history from the 1780's onwards as well as that of the town of Gravesend itself during World War II.

10. Visit The Guildhall Museum, Rochester

I would recommend a visit to the Guildhall Museum in Rochester. The building dates back to 1687 and is very impressive.

The museum has numerous interesting artifacts and exhibits relating to the history of Rochester and some of it's more colourful characters like Sir Cloudesley Shovell.

An area of the museum realistically recreates one of the numerous prison hulks which once anchored in the River Medway and where French prisoners of war and convicts were incarcerated in terrible conditions.

Quite spooky!

Admission is free.

I hope you have found this post informative and enjoyable.

Please feel free to leave any comments. They are always welcome.