Valentine Baker (1827-87) was, according to the present
Marquis of Anglesey in his authoritative History of the
British Cavalry, 'one of the most remarkable cavalrymen
of the age ... one of the few really thoughtful, progressive
innovators in the British cavalry'. A brave, keen,
professional soldier with war experience in Southern
Africa and the Crimea, who had studied cavalry on the
continent. He was the successful and innovative
commanding officer of the the 10th Hussars from 1860
to 1873. He had wealth and was a close friend of the heir
to the throne. He was publicly praised by the Duke of
Cambridge as one of the best officers in the army, and
was expected to have an outstanding career. But in 1875,
following an incident with a young lady in a first-class
railway compartment between Woking and Esher, he
was convicted of indecent assault, sentenced to a year's
imprisonment, and dismissed from the army, 'Her
Majesty having no further occasion for his services'. He
joined the Ottoman service, fought with distinction in
the Russo-Turkish War, became commander of the
Egyptian police, fought in the eastern Sudan, and died
in Egypt in November 1887. The Times obituary stated
that his career 'but for one lamentable blot might have
been among the most brilliant in our service.
Although there is an article on Valentine Baker in the
Dictionary of National Biogiaphy and another by Michael
Barthorp in the British Army Review (1984), and aspects
of his life are covered in various books. In 1996,
however, Leo Cooper published his first
biography, Mrs Anne Baker's A Question of Honour: The
Life of Lieutenant General Valentine Baker Pasha.
Mrs Baker's biography is not in the style of the
odious Strachey. She is apparently by marriage a
member of the same family as Valentine Baker, and she
has written a loyal, affectionate biography apparently
suffused with family pietas: essentially a eulogy of and
apologia for her hero. It describes Baker's family background, early life, military career, study of horses
and cavalry, the 1875 episode, his later career, the
attempts of the Prince of Wales and others to obtain his
reinstatement in the British army, the deaths of his
daughter and wife, and finally his own death with 'a
broken heart'. It is an interesting, if sometimes sad
story. Mrs Baker's biography draws on family and other
letters and the Royal Archives. It is well illustrated with
photographs of Baker, his family - including his beautiful
daughter Hermione who, had she lived, would
probably have married Kitchener - and
portrayals of scenes of the Sudan war. The book has
maps and a list of sources, but few and inadequate
There is much of value in the book, yet regrettably it
is flawed by inaccuracy, omission and dubious interpretation.
The 1875 episode is, though distasteful, crucial.
According to the book. Baker was the victim of a hysterical
girl whom he had attempted only to kiss, and at the
trial Miss Dickinson 'had only said that he had
"insulted her'". The authoress states that she used 'The
Times' report of the trial. However, her use was selective.
That report shows that Miss Dickinson said much more than that she had been 'insulted'.
One could consider in detail the evidence, but perhaps
this is not the place: anyone wishing to decide for
themselves can read the report on page 10 of The Times of 3
August 1875. This reviewer's own conclusion from the
total evidence - not just what Miss Dickinson said but
what she did, and witnesses' testimony on what the
authoress tactfully calls the 'disarray' of Baker's clothes
- was that The Times and Queen Victoria may well have
been right in their view of the episode. The Times editorial
claimed 'the jury took a lenient view of the case ...
we feel that Colonel Baker may think himself fortunate.'
The Queen wrote to her eldest daughter, 'Was there ever
such a thing and such a position for a young girl?'
However, while the Queen's sympathies were for Miss
Dickinson, those of the present authoress are for
Valentine Baker. Indeed, throughout the book there is
apparently a tendency to rose-tinted spectacles in
viewing him and his associates, and to omission of what
might be considered detrimental to him. That his father was a slave-owner and the family fortune gained partly
from slave labour are omitted, as are his buying most of
his promotions and his command of the 10th Hussars.
The description of the Prince of Wales' set as 'light
hearted' is unduly favourable for a clique characterised
by gambling, gluttony, adultery and bullying - notably
of the unfortunate Christopher Sykes. The authoress
omits that when Baker was inspector general of the
Egyptian police he concentrated on the paramilitary
gendarmerie, leaving the civil police in the provinces
unreformed so that, as Milner wrote, 'the police proper
suffered in consequence'. One odd omission is of any
mention of the attempt at Gumurdjina in early 1879 to
poison Baker and Burnaby.
The book is in places dissatisfyingly vague. For
example the tragic early deaths of Hermione and of Mrs
Baker - so important to Baker - are unexplained: in fact
they were from typhoid. The authoress's historical
knowledge is somewhat shaky. Among the book's
errors are statements that the 10th Hussars had been
armed with muskets and lances; that Arabi Pasha was
young in 1882; that the bombardment of Alexandria
was 'followed by immediate support from the British
Army under Sir Garnet Wolseley' - in fact Wolseley
arrived over a month later; that when he saw Gordon
off from London Wolseley 'hastily pressed three
hundred gold sovereigns into his hand'; and that at
Khartoum Gordon flew the Union Jack. The Illustrated
London News special war artist is in the text called
Melton Bird, and in the picture caption Welton Prior.
The editor of the Pall Mall Gazette is called W.T. Head,
and Sir Philip Magnus is cited as the author of Kitchener,
Architect of Victory.
The absence of a biography of Valentine Baker had
been an odd gap in the historiography of the Victorian
period. Despite its limitations, A Question of Honour is
certainly well worth reading.