Archive for the ‘Huntingdonshire History Festival’ Category

The Gaspipe Cavalry

Have you heard of the Gaspipe Cavalry?

This nickname was given to The Huntingdonshire Cyclist Battalions, (The Hunt’s Cyclists) a military unit raised within the county of Huntingdonshire.

As part of the Huntingdonshire History Festival Mr Martyn Smith, webmaster of http://huntscycles.co.uk/ gave a talk at the George Hotel in Huntingdon on the 26 of July.

His talk about the Hunts Cyclist Battalion was interesting and informative. Several of the audience had ancestors or other relatives who had served in our local unit. Many men then moved on to regiments of the line to fight in France or overseas. The Hunts Cyclist battalion was only allowed to deploy in the British Isles under the army regulations of the time.

Hunts Cyclists A Company Filey 1914

A photograph of A Company Hunts Cyclists at Filey in 1914

Most of us didn’t know but guessed at the high casualty rate; of those who joined, 25% were killed and 50% wounded in action. Many more carried hidden wounds until the day they died. Reliving unrelenting memories of horrors they had witnessed or grief for the loss of close, even boyhood friends. Post Traumatic Stress wasn’t identified as a problem then and no treatment was available.

This local battalion, a cavalry unit was started in 1908,  the Earl of Sandwich its honorary colonel. Because Huntingdonshire was a small rural county, there seemed little likelihood that the 1000 men needed to form an infantry regiment would be available. A cavalry battalion only needed 500 men. However instead of horses, their steeds were to be bicycles, the soldiers were described as wheelmen. As some of the bicycles were allegedly made from surplus gas pipes, they became known as the Gaspipe Cavalry.

The Hunts Cyclists spent their active service in Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire protecting the coast from a possible German invasion. As Martyn pointed out their single shot rifles were no deterrent to the German Battleships which shelled some East coast towns. Their failure to deter the German navy led to ill feeling from the affected town’s residents who were disappointed in their failure.

The talk showed in great detail how the local Hunts community got behind their own men whether it was knitting warm clothing for them or converting vehicles to carry machine guns.

He detailed the development of the Gaspipe Cavalry’s mounts (originally the cyclists were expected to supply their own steeds). How rifle mounts were developed, the need for brakes, (very important in the hilly areas where they were stationed not so in the fens). There were many casualties caused by the cycles themselves until their design was improved

Another interesting feature was the billeting arrangements, bell tents for the unfortunate men, a hotel for the officers. He mentioned Charles Laughton, not from Huntingdon but a family member of the hotel owners in Scarborough where the HC. officers stayed. He was evidently recruited there. Charles Laughton became a famous actor in the twenties and thirties. Starring on both the stage and in films He went onto become a renowned film director and producer, dying in 1962 at Hollywood.

Mr and Mrs Richard Cumberland

Mr and Mrs Richard Cumberland. My grandad and grandma.

My grandfather Richard Cumberland served in the army during the First World War. Joining the Hunt’s Cyclist Battalion in August 1914 before seeing active service as a member of Royal Warwickshire Regiment. He was discharged wounded in February 1918.

His first posting was as a member of  A Company to Filey, I am not sure whether during the time he was there my grandmother joined him or not. I have a recollection of a story that Granddad helped out at the fish docks unloading the catches, whether this was at Filey or somewhere else in that area. This may have been as part of his duties or a bit of spare time private enterprise. When you are young you seldom ask the questions you should have done. Thinking that people will live forever you put off finding out information that will become so precious in later years.

War badge record showing Grandad's discharge record

War badge record showing Grandad’s discharge record

Martyn’s love of his subject, the tremendous respect and desire to make sure these men who sacrificed so much are not forgotten is something that will stay with all of us who were privileged to hear him speak, for a long time. He has made it his mission to track down every member of the Hunts Cyclists and commemorate each one, holding memorial services as he finds another grave or resting place. Honouring the men we owe our existence to

Thank you, Martyn, for a most interesting talk.

 

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Cromwell Walk in Huntingdon

The Falcon Inn Huntingdon

The Falcon Inn Huntingdon Headquarters of the Parliamentary forces’

Last Monday evening I joined a group of like-minded people for a guided walk to explore what was left of the Huntingdon Oliver Cromwell would have known. The tour had been organised by Huntingdonshire History Festival, our guide was Alan Butler, a long-serving volunteer at the Cromwell Museum.

Our group set off from the Town Hall heading for the North end of the High Street. It was here that Royalist troops entered the town following their thrashing at Naseby, to start what became known as the Battle of Huntingdon. The Royalists overcame local resistance and occupied the town for two days before withdrawing.

Moving South the next point of interest was Cromwell House, the site of Oliver Cromwell’s birth and home of his parents. Outside the house set in the pavement is a commemorative plaque one of several around the town. The original building in Cromwell’s time was a Priory. The house is now a care home.

St John’s churchyard is a little further along on the opposite side of the road to Cromwell House, Oliver was baptised here, the church was in a state of disrepair even then and didn’t survive the civil war pulled down near its end in 1651.

Moving along the High Street, Alan our splendid guide directed to cast our eyes to the roofs of the buildings on the George Hotel side. To the surprise of most of our group, we learned that most of these buildings dated from the seventeenth century. The twisted chimneys an important clue. My great-grandfather, then my granddad (his son in law) had a corn shop in one of these buildings no 63. I knew it was old but hadn’t realised it was that old. Now an estate agent the beams in the ceilings and in the party walls have been exposed and clearly visible, through the front windows. The George Hotel (outside). was the next stopping point, Alan said that Charles the First had his headquarters here for the two days the Royalists occupied the town.

On our left, as we moved southwards to what is now the Cromwell Museum. The rebuilt Old Grammar School where Oliver Cromwell and been a pupil and later one Samuel Pepys.

Cromwell Museum Huntingdon

The Cromwell Museum Huntingdon from all Saint’s churchyard.

All Saint’s church was next, opposite the museum occupying one side of Market Hill, there is another commemorative plaque set in the pavement just outside the church gates. Oliver Cromwell’s father Robert is buried here in the family tomb. An old former Huntingdon neighbour claimed to have shaken hands with Oliver Cromwell’s father when work was being carried out on the tomb.

The Falcon Inn to the left of All Saints also in Market Hill was used as the Parliamentarian’s headquarters during part of the Civil War, it was also reputedly the recruiting station for the New Model Army. Remaining original features of the Inn include the heavy oak doors and the first-floor bow window.

The Falcon Inn Huntingdon

The Falcon Inn Huntingdon Headquarters of the Parliamentary forces’

The present Town Hall directly opposite All Saints Church is built on the site of an earlier town hall. We walked behind the town hall passing the Market Inn, though old it isn’t thought to date from that period.

Moving south along the High Street we paused at Saint Benedict’s Court site of the church of that name. The church was said to have been destroyed by Royalist cannon fire during the Civil War. Stone reclaimed from the ruins of the church was used to build the Barley Mow public house in nearby Hartford.

Continuing along, Alan told us that lurking behind many of the present day shop and building frontages, older building remain. Again he directed our attention skyward to the evidence of twisted seventeenth-century chimneys. An open door from the High Street to one of the remaining passages gave us a glimpse of half-timbered walls on either side.

The present-day Hartford Road is shown on John Speeds map of the time, on the corner of which stands the Three Tuns Public House. My great-grandfather is recorded in the 1911 census as landlord (William Dixon). His daughter, my grandmother Lily, is shown in the record as working there, not Cromwell related but a bit of local history.

The Three Tuns public house Huntingdon

The Three Tuns Huntingdon

Saint Mary’s Church was our next port of call, this was old in Cromwell’s time, Robert Cromwell, his father had been one of its bailiffs. After passing more seventeenth century buildings, including the wonderfully restored 147 High Street, next to the former studio of photographer Earnest Whitney, we crossed the ring road to arrive at the stone bridge between Huntingdon and Godmanchester. During the Civil war, the central section was removed and a wooden drawbridge substituted as part of the town’s defences.

Entrance to Saint Mary's Church Huntingdon

Entrance to Saint Mary’s Church Huntingdon

After visiting the Bridge we made our way back beside the ring road to Castle Hills, during the Civil War the earthworks were used as defensive positions. The hill top commands a good view with firing positions for cannons over the river and the bridge. The site would have been larger in Cromwell’s time the encroachment of first the railway then the A14 has taken a sizable portion of the site.

We completed the tour near the Bus Station, at the town sign, lamenting collectively about the lack of a statue to Oliver Cromwell, in this his birthplace. He is described by Antonia Fraser as our “Chief of Men” and by Christopher Hill as “God’s Englishman”.

Thanks Alan for a most interesting tour.

If you fancy seeing what’s on offer at the Huntigdonshire History Festival try this site:

https://huntshistoryfest.wordpress.com/calendar-of-events/

 

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