Excerpt of The Last Gentleman Adventurer by Edward Beauclerk Maurice
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At ten o'clock in the morning of 2 June 1930 about forty young men gathered
round a noticeboard set up on Euston station, which bore the message 'Boat
Train, Duchess of Bedford Liverpool. Hudson's Bay Company Party'.
The other travellers hurrying to and fro across the concourse,
impelled to haste by the alarming pantings, snufflings and whistlings coming
from the impatient engines, hardly spared us a glance, despite the flavour of
distant adventure in that simple notice. For in those days, London was still
the centre of a great empire and it was commonplace for parties to be seen
gathering at railway stations, or at other places of departure, to begin their
long journeys to far-away places. Tea planters for India and Ceylon. Rubber
planters for Malaya. Mining engineers for South Africa. Administrators for the
Indian and other civil services. Policemen for the African colonies. Farm
workers to seek their fortunes in Australia, New Zealand or Canada. Traders
for the South Seas. Servicemen for all quarters of the globe and wanderers
just seeking sunshine or adventure.
We were to be apprenticed to the fur trade 'somewhere in
Canada'. In age we were between sixteen and twenty-three. In occupation
there were schoolboys, farm labourers, office workers, factory workers,
estate workers, forestry people and even two seamen.
We had been told of the wonderful opportunities that awaited us,
but what our informants had not known was that the worst depression the
world would experience for many years was fast developing. Already the
feverish post-war boom was collapsing. The sudden loss of confidence and
the general insecurity of the world markets was soon to undermine the fur
trade. Before some of us had finally reached our new homes, the whole
department responsible for our engagement had been disbanded, with its
members released to swell the ever growing ranks of the unemployed. Never
again would a party such as ours gather in London.
An oriental philosopher once wrote that no matter how near or far
the destination, every journey must somewhere have a starting point. My
journey began in the June of the halcyon summer of 1913, to which so many
thousands of women were to look back with aching nostalgia for all the rest
of their years.
The shadow fell across my mother's life sooner than it did for the
others. Six weeks before I was born, in the evening of a long midsummer's
day, my father was brought home spread-eagled over a broken gate, dead of
a terrible gunshot wound to the head.
Controversy, seemingly inseparable from the human state even in
such tragic circumstances, broke out at once. The vicar refused my
grandmother's request that her son's body should be brought into the parish
church to await burial, on the grounds that he might have committed suicide.
The coroner would have to give him earthly clearance from this suspicion
before the church could grant him asylum. The clergyman had mistakenly
supposed his parishioner, my grandmother, to be a meek and pious woman,
an error he was never to repeat. He was astonished by the ferocity with which
she defended her son's right to rest in the church, and reluctantly gave way.
So my father, poised as it were on the very threshold of eternity,
was brought for the last time into the cool, dim, silent shadow of the ancient
building, perhaps there to find the peace he had been seeking. The following
day the coroner decided that death had been due to misadventure, thus
calming the vicar's disquiet and giving at least some hope of an onward
journey to heaven. For those that were left on earth, and in particular for my
mother, the problems were just beginning.
Aged twenty-three, with three children already and a fourth
expected, her outlook was bleak indeed, for there was no provision at that
time for disasters such as this. No help could be expected from the state,
since there was no social security or child allowances. Those who fell by the
wayside, whether it was their own fault or not, had to pick themselves up or,
as a last desperate measure, appeal to the workhouse guardians for relief.
Copyright © 1995-2004 by Edward Beauclerk Maurice. Reprinted by
permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.