The British Empire and its effect on Plymouth

St Mary's Church, Botus Fleming

St Mary's Church in Botus Fleming in Cornwall is a charming 13th Century church with a 15th century tower. However, it is also the local parish church for Hatt House whose inhabitants have included some very illustrious characters over the years but most interesting of all to me being Major General Penn Symons. William Penn Symons was to be one of the most senior British officers to be killed on the battlefield in the Victorian era as he fell in the early stages of the Boer War in 1899. If anything his major crime was that he was too courageous and too gung-ho and had not appreciated that the Boers had access to the best rifles and artillery that money could buy and that their mobility would run rings around a traditional British Army used to fighting foes with inferior training and equipment. He split up his troops fatally and when they struggled with an attack on Talana Hill he rode up to personally lead the charge. Unfortunately for him his ADC carried a conspicuous red pennant making it easy for the Boer marksmen to identify him. He was shot in the stomach leading his troops forward. His soldiers did actually capture the hill shortly afterwards and technically won the battle but it was a phyrric victory to say the least and Penn died of his wounds three days later at Dundee near Ladysmith with his last words to his doctor being “Tell everyone I died facing the enemy!”

There is a large memorial to Penn Symons at the top of Saltash Fore Street and St. Mary’s has several dedications to him including a rather lovely memorial window with a plaque beneath it outlining his career. He had had a typically diverse Victorian soldier’s career including service in the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879. Indeed he was in the same regiment (the 24th Foot) as Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead of Rorke’s Drift fame (Michael Caine in Zulu) and of Lt-Colonel Pulleine at Isandlwana. Unfortunately it was his regiment that took the brunt of the casualties in that campaign. Fortunately for Penn Symons he was with Lord Chelmsford’s force which had escaped unscathed. Indeed Penn Symons was to be one of the first British soldiers to visit Rorke’s Drift alongside Lord Chelmsford and was one of the first people to put pen to paper to describe what he saw with his own eyes and to record the accounts of the survivors. Funnily enough Lieutenant Chard (Stanley Baker in Zulu) of the Royal Engineers commanding the defence was a near neighbour to the Symons back here on the opposite side of the Tamar River. The fact that his regiment had been so savaged was one of the main reasons he was rapidly promoted. So many of his brother officers had been killed at Isandlwana leaving lots of vacancies to fill. He then went on to serve in India mainly in the various Burma campaigns before being promoted to regimental Lieutenant-Colonel of what was now called the South Wales Borderers rather than the 24th Foot. He was very active on the North West Frontier in the 1890s taking part in many of the expeditions there. On this basis of recent experience on the battlefield he was sent to Natal in Southern Africa as diplomatic relations with the Boers deteriorated.

The reredo at the front of St Mary’s church is also dedicated to Penn Symons. This was carved by the remarkable Pinwell sisters from Ermington. These lady woodcarvers helped renovate and decorate many of the churches in and around Plymouth and up the Tamar valley from the 1890s into the first half of the Twentieth Century. They were also involved in carving the woodwork at St. Mary’s in Laira where I have previously written about a stained glass window there dedicated to my great uncle Percy Luscombe. Funnily enough I did think when I entered this St. Mary’s church how much it reminded me of the Laira St. Mary’s where I had attended service just one week before! No surprise really as the same female carvers had decorated both of them.

William Penn Symons’ name reveals his family’s long and illustrious history. The Symons part dates all the way back to 1066 from ‘Simon, Lord of St Sever’ who came to England with William the Conqueror. The William Penn relates to his grandmother’s descent from the famous Quaker William Penn who was instrumental in setting up the states of Delaware and Pennsylvania in the Eighteenth Century (the clue is in the name of Pennsylvania). Indeed one of the memorials in the church to Agnes Symons proudly makes this connection to William Penn and his ‘Pious and Amiable’ qualities.

There is yet one more remarkable coincidence to the Boer War and the window dedicated to Penn Symons in this church. It was formally dedicated in October 1900 on the first anniversary of his death. The great and the good descended to pay their respects and this included the family of a certain Emily Hobhouse who lived only a few miles to the North-West at St. Ive (not to be confused with St. Ives). I am yet to ascertain whether Emily herself was at the memorial although she was certainly in the country at the time so could well have been. She was the secretary of the South African Conciliation Committee at this time which was adamantly opposed to the war and had been set up by Liberal MP Leonard Courtney and his wife Catherine. There was a very strong feeling amongst many Liberals at this time (not the least being Lloyd-George) against the war and Cornwall was very much a bastion of Liberal thought and representation. There was a surprising amount of tension at the unveiling of Penn Symon’s memorial window between those who supported the war and those who opposed it. Two months after the unveiling Emily would head to South Africa herself where she would uncover terrible treatment of Boer women and children in the concentration camps set up by the British to try and divide the Boer fighters from their support systems and families. Much of this was down to incompetence and disease but her revelations rightly caused an outrage in Parliament and in the national (and indeed international) press. Her reports would embarrass the government into setting up the Fawcett Commission under Millicent Fawcett who was to become a leading Suffragist and who would insist the British Army take much better care of the women and children they had taken charge over. Emily herself was deported from South Africa by the embarrassed authorities there but later in life South Africa would honour her by granting her honorary citizenship and funnily enough buying her a house to retire to in St Ives (not to be confused with St. Ive - I do have to wonder if they made a mistake and accidentally bought a house in the wrong town for her :-) ).

As if this church did not have enough history within its walls, it also has the effigy of a medieval crusader thought to be Stephen le Fleming. This knight or rather his family name, could be where Botus Fleming got its interesting name from. Botus meaning the dwelling of: So the dwelling of the Fleming family at some time.

In the cemetery is the grave of Donald Noel Cummins who died at the very young age of 18. He was a Boy Scout leader who had volunteered to work with the Auxiliary Fire Service during the Blitz. He was at the GWR goods yard next to Saltash train station when a particularly heavy air raid occurred. Just one week earlier six of his AFS colleagues had been killed in Plymouth on King Street when they were pulling a pump that hit an unexploded bomb. Donald was on duty when a bomb fell directly on the goods yard next to the train station. He was due to have been buried at St. Stephens’ church alongside his six AFS comrades but there was an unexploded bomb in the church yard there which required him to be buried at the safer graveyard at Botus Fleming. Having said that St Mary’s church despite its remote location did not survive the war unscathed. It still managed to have some of its windows blown out by falling bombs perhaps from a German plane unloading his payload in error or to jettison them before returning home. Donald was awarded the Boy Scouts Bronze Cross for his sacrifice. He is commemorated on a plaque at the train station where he died and on the Saltash War Memorial.

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by Stephen Luscombe