Ealdhelm and the Ash

This post was originally published on Dr Eleanor Parker’s Patreon blog, A Journey Through The Anglo-Saxon Year, as a patron request from our secretary. We republish it here with her permission. We encourage readers to support Dr Parker’s work through Patreon, and/or to buy her book Winters In The World, which collects some of the material from the blog.

This week’s post is on St Ealdhelm, “the semi-official patron saint of Wessex”. Ealdhelm’s feast-day is 25 May, which has been designated as Wessex Day in celebration of the region! Ealdhelm is a fascinating figure, though often somewhat overlooked, and he had an important and lasting influence on Anglo-Saxon literature.

Ealdhelm was born in the first half of the seventh century, somewhere in Wessex, though we don’t know exactly where or when. Most likely he was born in the 630s, and that was a significant moment in the history of Wessex: the kingdom was in the process of converting to Christianity, due to the efforts of St Birinus, ‘Apostle to the West Saxons’, who baptised King Cynegils around 635. Ealdhelm was perhaps a member of the first generation of Wessex children raised in the new faith. He seems to have been from an aristocratic family, possibly related to the West Saxon kings; again we don’t know the details, but he certainly had plenty of contact with members of the royal family in his later career.

The middle of the seventh century was an exciting time to be a bright young scholar in Anglo-Saxon England. Ealdhelm seems to have had some of his early education from an Irish scholar, possibly the Máeldub who gave his name to Malmesbury, though the information there is a bit scanty. Much better attested is his period studying at Canterbury, under two of the most important intellectual influences on the early Anglo-Saxon church: Theodore, a scholar from Tarsus who was appointed archbishop of Canterbury in 668, and Hadrian, an African-born monk who at the same time became abbot of the monastery of St Augustine’s, Canterbury. Working together, these men established an unparalleled centre of learning in Canterbury which introduced many new forms of scholarship to England. Bede describes them memorably:

Since Theodore and Hadrian were men of learning both in secular and sacred literature, they attracted a large number of students, into whose minds they poured the waters of wholesome knowledge day by day. In addition to instructing them in the holy Scriptures, they also taught their pupils poetry, astronomy, and the calculation of the church calendar. In proof of this, some of their students still alive today are as proficient in Latin and Greek as in their native tongue. Never had there been such happy times as these since the English settled in Britain.

Ealdhelm was one of these eager pupils, and later wrote with warmth of his “close fellowship” with Hadrian; there are points of contact between Ealdhelm’s writings and the evidence for the teaching of the school at Canterbury. He spent several years there before returning to Wessex as Abbot of Malmesbury Abbey, and in 706 he was made Bishop of Sherborne, a few years before his death. As abbot and as bishop he was active and successful, but it’s for his writings that he’s best remembered – he was really the first major Anglo-Saxon writer, and he left a remarkable legacy. 

His surviving works include Latin poetry and prose on a range of learned subjects, including the intricacies of poetic metre and arithmology, a collection of a hundred verse riddles, and poems in honour of different churches; one of these was for a church built by Eadburg, abbess of Minster-in-Thanet (and daughter of Centwine, king of Wessex). For the nuns of Barking Abbey in Essex, he wrote a long and sophisticated treatise in praise of virginity, which speaks pretty highly for the education of the women to whom it was addressed. None of these texts, except the riddles, are what we’d today find very readable; though at the time writing in Latin would have made his works more widely accessible, he’d probably get more attention now if he’d written in English! But to quote Michael Lapidge, describing Aldhelm’s ‘immense learning and a highly individual sense of style’:

His knowledge of Latin texts, both classical and patristic, was extraordinarily wide, and not matched by any other pre-conquest Anglo-Latin author (including Bede). He quotes from numerous classical texts not otherwise known to have been read in Anglo-Saxon England, such as Cicero, Claudian, Juvenal, and Seneca; and in fact he shows familiarity with certain texts which have not been preserved, such as Lucan’s lost poem Orpheus, from which he quotes two lines. His Latin prose style is like no other: long, almost Joycean sentences, built up coherently from parallel subordinate clauses consisting of clusters of nouns and adjectives (often interlaced and frequently pleonastic) and alliterating phrases, all decorated with various kinds of arcane vocabulary, including grecisms and archaisms drawn from glossaries, and measured out in carefully observed rhythmical patterns… He was also a pioneer in the field of rhythmical Latin verse: he adapted the octosyllabic verse-form used by Hiberno-Latin authors for their stanzaic hymns into a form of continuous octosyllables suitable for narrative purposes; and he linked pairs of octosyllables together by means of alliteration, in the manner of Old English verse. In all of these media, Ealdhelm had eager imitators, both during his own lifetime and for several centuries afterwards. His writings became instant classics.

Ealdhelm’s influence on later Old English literature is best exemplified by his riddles, which provided models for the vernacular riddles we find in collections like the Exeter Book (some of which are direct translations of Ealdhelm’s riddles). He was admired in his own day, and in subsequent centuries. Bede, his slightly younger contemporary, described him as ‘a man most learned in all respects… wonderful for ecclesiastical and liberal erudition’. 

One of his most enthusiastic later fans was the Anglo-Norman historian William of Malmesbury, who – because of the Malmesbury connection – was very interested in Ealdhelm, and celebrates the saint in his Gesta Pontificum Anglorum. William tells some nice stories about Ealdhelm which suggest how his memory was preserved in Malmesbury tradition, four centuries after his death. For instance, William claims to have had access to a source – now lost – by Alfred the Great, which attributes to Ealdhelm ‘a light-hearted song’ in English and explains why it was written:

The English people at that time, says Alfred, were semi-barbarians and not too attentive to the teachings in church. Indeed the very moment mass had been sung, they would rush off home. So the saint placed himself in their way on the bridge joining country and town, pretending to be a minstrel. He did this more than once, with the result that the people got to like it and came in crowds. The consequence was that Ealdhelm gradually inserted the words of Scripture into his ballads and so brought the people back to their senses.

– The Deeds of the Bishops of England, translated by David Preest (Woodbridge, 2002), pp. 227-8

Sadly, none of Ealdhelm’s English poetry survives, though William claims that this song, whatever it was, was still sung in his own day (the early twelfth century). Another of his stories tells how when Ealdhelm died in 709, at Doulting in Somerset, his body was brought back to Malmesbury in solemn procession. Crosses were erected to mark the places where his body rested on the journey, and William adds ‘All the crosses are still there, none of them having suffered any damage over the years. They are called ‘biscepstane’, that is, ‘bishop’s stones’. One of them can be seen in the cloisters of the monastery.’ He goes on:

This fact has reminded me not to pass over the true story often told about Bishops Trees. This is a village in a valley, to which Ealdhelm is said to have gone, in order to fulfil his responsibility of preaching there. While he was addressing the people, he happened to have fixed in the ground the staff of ash, which he used for support. During the sermon the staff, through the goodness of God, grew to a marvellous size, all quickened with sap and covered with bark and having put forth young leaves and beautiful branches. The bishop was intent on his preaching, but when told to do so by the shouts of the people he looked behind and worshipped the miracle. The staff he left there as a gift from God. From the growth of this first tree sprang many other ash trees, indeed, so many that, as I have said, that village is commonly known as Bishops Trees.

This is a version of the ash-tree miracles I wrote about here a few weeks ago, and the village in question may be Bishopstrow in Wiltshire, which still bears that name. William also includes a rather lovely epitaph for Ealdhelm, which seems a good place to end: 

Heaven’s friend and priest withdrew to heaven’s realms,

Exchanging earth for stars and fields for skies.

His spirit safe above, his limbs were wrapped

In friendly earth, and earth and heaven alike

Claimed Ealdhelm as belonging to itself.

St Ealdhelm’s Day 2015: Salisbury’s Chequers

This article originally appeared in Wessex Chronicle Volume 16, Issue 2 (Summer 2015)

Jim Gunter’s annual tour for St Ealdhelm’s Day this year visited Salisbury. Jim’s notes for the our run to 50 pages and so only the faintest flavour of the experience can be reproduced here. We started at Crane Street Bridge, calling first at the nearby Diocesan Offices, still
with the original 15th century doors.

Then we were off into the city centre, stripping back the centuries to consider how Salisbury – New Sarum – has evolved since its foundation as a planned settlement in the 13th century. Some 170 new towns were built in England between 1066 and 1350, but Salisbury is the only one planned as a cathedral city and this shows in the contrast between the ecclesiastical Close and the Chequers, the grid plan of commercial streets to its north. Each block has a name, often taken from one of the pubs, as do many of the corners. Because the Bishop of Salisbury controlled the land and regulated its use, and because the records have survived, it is possible to trace which trades have used which streets when and even who was in residence. Modern street names are no guide to past uses as trades have moved around. Even the Poultry Cross

was originally the site where fruit and veg were sold; the original poultry market was in Silver Street. In the side streets, many mediæval buildings have survived relatively unchanged.

Even in the main streets, once it’s remembered that the shopfronts are new and that behind those Georgian windows lurk half-timbered buildings, on plots whose dimensions are fixed by ancient deeds, it becomes clear that the city remains remarkably true to its original plan. There’s been infilling (the Market Place today being about half its original size), plots have been amalgamated and sub-divided and roof lines have been raised

but look up or in and you see a different Salisbury from the one of chain stores and motor traffic. Two examples must suffice. Externally, the Odeon cinema on New Canal looks like modern mock Tudor.

Inside it’s something much older, its foyer

being the hall of a mediæval merchant’s house, restored in the 1830s by A W N Pugin, the neo-Gothic architect and designer who worked on the Houses of Parliament, and sensitively adapted in the 1930s by the Gaumont-British Picture Corporation. It’s a surreal experience to walk from the ticket counter to the auditorium by way of something that wouldn’t be out of place in a Harry Potter film. The hall was built between 1470 and 1483 by a Hall, John Hall, a leading Wiltshire wool dealer.We broke for coffee at the Boston Tea Party, whose premises occupy the former Old George Hotel in High Street. Upstairs is all half-timber, panelling and plaster, including some striking wyverns.

Occasionally, an old building emerges from its modern skin; the example on the corner of the Market Place

is now known as ‘Nuggs 1268’, referring to the name of the first known occupier and the date of occupation, though this is of the plot not the building, which dates from a century or two later. A mere youngster by Salisbury standards. Besides its ancient tradition of commerce, Salisbury also has a fine heritage of public buildings, such as the Guildhall (the latest of several civic chambers that have moved location around the Market Place), St Thomas’ Church with its dramatic ‘Doom’ painting and local coats-of-arms, St Edmund’s Church and numerous imposing almshouses.After lunch at our usual venue, the Royal George, we searched the grounds of Wiltshire County Council’s offices, further up on Bedwin Street, for an 17th century urn.

It marks the spot where some old armour was discovered and assigned at the time to the Anglo-Saxon era, relics, it was thought, of King Cynric’s battle against the Britons in 552.

The Latin inscription is worn now but starts off with a reference to ‘Cynricus, Occidentalium Saxonum Rex’. So close to our regular meeting point and all that; we couldn’t have planned it better.

    From Moscow To Murmansk: A Somerset Soldier On The Arctic Convoys (Part 2)

    This article originally appeared in Wessex Chronicle Volume 15, Issue 2 (Summer 2014)

    The story so far…

    When war was declared in 1939, a 21-year-old Able Bodied Seaman from the Chew Valley in Somerset – my father, Charles Barrie Gunter – was aboard the battleship, HMS Rodney on patrol south of Iceland. From May 1942 to the end of the war, my father served on HMS Jamaica, a newly built cruiser, adopted by the city of Bristol, which acted as a distant escort in the frozen hell that was the Arctic Convoys until September 1944, providing cover for 13 convoys. Part 1 included his diary extract for one of those convoys in December 1942-
    January 1943.

    HMS Jamaica, seen in 1944

    At the end of 1942 my father had been given compassionate leave to pay a final visit to his dying mother. On return to the fleet he missed his ship, HMS Jamaica, which had already sailed with convoy JW51A, and was instead deployed to the destroyer, HMS Oribi, covering the twin convoy JW51B. This meant that he missed the action in the Battle of the Barents Sea when Jamaica was one of the vessels engaged against the German heavy cruisers, Admiral Hipper and Lutzow, and six destroyers. By the end of 1943, in midwinter, Jamaica, this time with my father on board, was to play a critical part in another major confrontation well within the Arctic Circle.

    Convoy JW55B, consisting of ten US and nine British merchant vessels had sailed from Liverpool on 20th December en route to Archangelsk. Jamaica was part of the Distant Covering Force with the battleship HMS Duke of York and four destroyers. On 22nd December, German air reconnaissance spotted the convoy, and the German battlecruiser Scharnhorst with five destroyers sailed out of her Norwegian fjord base on Christmas Day in Operation Ostfront aiming to intercept the convoy.


    Unfortunately for the German fleet, their orders had been intercepted by British code-breakers. Convoy RA55A, sailing south from Russia, was also about to cross the path of the northward convoy. This allowed a short window of opportunity when the close escort vessels could share their tasks, freeing up some to join a strike force against Scharnhorst. In all, the British strike force included the battleship, HMS Duke of York, four cruisers and four destroyers. It had another advantage. British radar was more technically advanced than the German navy’s. Whereas the German equipment could only detect ships, the British system allowed them to identify the size of the vessels. Despite these advantages the Scharnhorst was a formidable opponent. She was faster – a top speed of 33 knots (61km/h) – more manoeuvrable and, alone, had more firepower than all the British ships lined up against her.

    In bad weather, Admiral Erich Bey on the Scharnhorst had not been able to precisely locate the two convoys, so he divided his force, sailing north alone. At 08:40 on 26th December HMS Belfast had picked up Scharnhorst on her radar; by 09:41, HMS Sheffield had made visual contact. Under cover of snow, the British cruisers opened fire; the Battle of North Cape had begun. Joined by HMS Norfolk, the three British cruisers attacked, demolishing Scharnhorst‘s main radar aerial, leaving her unable to return accurate fire in low visibility.
    Norfolk suffered some damage. Meanwhile HMS Jamaica and HMS Duke of York approached from the south west, barring the Scharnhorst’s way.

    Despite suffering further hits Scharnhorst was able to use her superior speed to escape, only the small British destroyers were able to keep pace, hitting her with four torpedoes, slowing her progress. It still took until late afternoon before Jamaica and Duke of York caught up and battered Scharnhorst with gunfire. The battle raged until at 18:00 Scharnhorst‘s main gun battery went silent; at 18:20 another round from Duke of York destroyed a boiler room, reducing Scharnhorst‘s speed to about 22 knots (41km/h) and leaving her open to attack. Duke of York fired her 77th and final salvo at 19:28. Scharnhorst,
    though crippled, continued to fight with her secondary armament still firing wildly as Jamaica and the destroyers closed and launched more torpedoes at 19:32. The last three torpedoes, fired by Jamaica at 19:37 from under two miles (3km) range, were the final crippling blow. The team responsible for those final, fatal shots were Petty Officer J O Mahoney, of Co Cork, J Beck, of Wakefield, R Polkinghorne, of Hayle, S Bell, of Thornaby and LTO (Leading Torpedo Operator) Charles Gunter of Chew Magna, Somerset – my father.

    Torpedomen of HMS Jamaica who finally dispatched the Scharnhorst. C B Gunter at the right of the photograph. (official war photograph)

    It had taken a total of 55 torpedoes and 2,195 shells to cripple the Scharnhorst. As the ship was sinking, all was calm and orderly on deck. Officers were helping hundreds of men over the rails; the captain checked all lifejackets and Admiral Bey shook hands with all the assembled officers. Scharnhorst sank at 19:45 hours on 26th December 1943. Of a total complement of 1,968 men, only 36 survivors – not one an officer – were rescued from the icy seas; three of those were named Gunter, a cruel irony of war.

    Later that evening, Admiral Bruce Fraser briefed his officers on board Duke of York: “Gentlemen, the battle against Scharnhorst has ended in victory for us. I hope that if any of you are ever called upon to lead a ship into action against an opponent many times superior, you will command your ship as gallantly as Scharnhorst was commanded today”. The convoy completed its voyage with no losses.

    In October 2000 the submerged wreck of the Scharnhorst was found by the Norwegian Navy. It lay 300m deep, 130kms NNE of North Cape; 9° north of the Arctic Circle (see illustration at top of page). It was probably the most northerly naval battle ever fought.

    My father continued to serve on the Jamaica to the end of the Russian convoys and for another three years after the end of the war. The cruiser departed Devonport on 25th August 1946 on a tour of duty as part of the British East Indies Squadron. This tour included visits to Gibraltar, Malta, East Africa, the Maldives, India, Sri Lanka (Ceylon), Malaya and Singapore, Indonesia, Mauritius, the Seychelles, Zanzibar and South Africa – a tour that lasted 26 months and covered a total of 69,713 miles. After all those years in the frozen north he seems to have reaped his reward.

    From Mendip to Murmansk: A Somerset Sailor on the Arctic Convoys (part 1)

    This article originally appeared in Wessex Chronicle Volume 15, Issue 1 (Spring 2014)

    The battleship, HMS Rodney – the flag ship of the C-in-C Home Fleet – was on patrol south of Iceland at 11:22 on the morning of 3rd September 1939 when the message was received that Britain was at war with Germany. Amongst the 1,640 crew hearing that message was a 21 year old Able Bodied Seaman from East Harptree in Somerset – my father, Charles Barrie Gunter.

    This voyage, his first experience of colder northern waters, having previously spent six years sailing the Mediterranean, was to be just a taster for the next six years in the frozen hell that was the Arctic Convoys. And to think, he had run away to sea to escape the prospect of falling into the hell that was his father’s life as a miner in the north Somerset coalfield (including mines owned by the Rees-Mogg family, one of whom, Jacob, is the current MP for the area). With the announcement that all sailors who saw action north of the Arctic Circle during the war were to be recognised and awarded the Arctic Star, I started to research my father’s records, which included his own account of one particular voyage.

    From the outbreak of war, Rodney (and my dad) patrolled off Norway, Denmark and Iceland to keep shipping lanes open. Then, on 8th April 1940 Germany invaded neutral Norway – beating a planned but delayed Allied invasion by seven days. This intensified actions along the Norwegian coast. On the 9th, manoeuvring just outside the Arctic Circle, Rodney was hit by a 500kg bomb dropped by a Ju88 dive bomber. The bomb struck on the port side abaft the funnel; an ammunition locker deflected the bomb and split the fuse from the explosive. The body then passed through the boat deck hitting a table at which two midshipmen were sitting. The bomb then continued down into an engineering store where it broke and where its explosive charge caused a fire. Apart from the structural damage and a small fire, only 10 sailors were injured.

    On 12th April 1940 my father crossed the Arctic Circle for the first of many times. On 10th May, the UK and Canada invaded Iceland to prevent a German occupation that would have put trans-Atlantic supply routes in peril. An inlet on Iceland’s eastern seaboard, Seyðisfjorður, was later to play a major role in the Arctic Convoys.

    Germany invaded the Soviet Union on 22nd June 1941. Acting on Stalin’s demand that the western Allies provide supplies, the Arctic Convoys were commenced. The first convoy sailed in September 1941. The route passed through a narrow funnel between the Arctic ice pack and German bases in Norway. From the start the convoys were attacked by German submarines, aircraft and warships. One convoy, the infamous PQ17, was almost totally destroyed. The merchant vessels were not just British but included American, Canadian, Panamanian, Polish and Russian ones, some quite small – about 3,000 tons (compared with the 17,000 tons of the container vessel featured in the movie Captain Phillips). Escort vessels were also drawn from the navies of all the major allies. Many Soviet vessels sailed
    alongside their British and American counterparts.

    From May 1942 to the end of the war, my father served on HMS Jamaica, a newly built cruiser, which was adopted by the city of Bristol. It acted as a distant escort on Arctic Convoys from September 1942 until September 1944, providing cover for 13 convoys. That’s 13 times patrolling up the coast of Nazi-occupied Norway, crossing the Arctic Circle, and sailing into Murmansk or Arkhangelsk in the far north of Russia. Conditions were among the worst faced by any Allied sailors. As well as the Germans, they faced extreme cold, gales, and pack ice. The loss rate for ships was higher than any other allied convoy route. Even so, over four million tons of supplies were delivered to the Russians, including tanks, aircraft, ammunition, trucks, tractors, telephone wire, railway engines, food and boots. To spice things up a little more, most convoys were in the winter in order to take advantage of the cover of darkness and bad weather which, it was thought, would hamper German attacks

    Route of Convoy JW51B: December 1942

    In December 1942, my father was granted compassionate leave to pay one last visit to his mother, dying of cancer at just 53 years of age. He started his return journey to Scapa Flow on Orkney on 15th December but arrived just in time to see his ship leave harbour without him.

    My father was switched to the destroyer Oribi (adopted by Havant) for one convoy – JW51. This was a large convoy and was split into 2; A & B. Jamaica had left Scapa Flow on 17th December as escort for JW51A; Oribi was assigned as a close escort to JW51B. The “B” Convoy comprised 15 merchant ships from the UK, USA and Panama. In their holds were 2,046 vehicles, 202 tanks, 87 crated fighter planes, 33 crated bombers, 11,600 tons of fuel oil, 12,650 tons of aviation fuel, and 54,000 tons of other equipment and supplies.

    It became the target for a major German naval campaign (Operation Regenbogen – Rainbow) involving the heavy cruisers, Admiral Hipper and Lutzow, and six destroyers. It led to the Battle of the Barents Sea on 31st December 1942 in which two British warships – the destroyer Achates and the minesweeper Bramble – and the Kriegsmarine destroyer Friedrich Eckholdt – were sunk. But 13 of the original 15 merchant ships arrived with their essential cargoes.

    My father’s account of this convoy tells only part of the story. Wartime censorship meant that he had to omit many details but even so it makes intriguing reading:


    (The distant escort vessels, including Jamaica were on this day engaged in the
    Battle of the Barents Sea; while Oribi and the close escort vessels steamed
    ahead with the merchant vessels.)

    (The gap in the journal masks the fact that the official Admiralty Board of Inquiry into the loss of HMS Achates and HMS Bramble took place on-board Oribi at this time.)

    Part 2 will deal with the Battle of North Cape.

    Wiring Wessex

    Note: This article originally appeared in Wessex Chronicle Volume 14, Issue 3 (Autumn 2013)

    “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country, since industry cannot be developed without electrification.” Such was Lenin’s reasoning in 1920; western capitalists after the First World War were no less eager to switch-on the countryside.  In central Wessex, an organisation was created specifically to do the job.

    In the towns, the 1882 Electric Lighting Act had allowed councils to apply for powers to run their own electricity supply undertakings.  Private companies were let in where the council was less interested, though subject to the council’s right of buy-out after a number of years. 

    Portsmouth was among the first councils to make use of the new powers, in 1894.  Those that did, that went on to run electric trams, and later trolley-buses, were able to benefit from supplying their other enterprises from their own power stations.  The Edwardian era saw the rise of a new breed of privately-owned ‘power companies’, set up to build larger power stations selling in bulk to a wide area, such as a conurbation or a coalfield.  More deeply rural areas remained off the map, electrically speaking, at the start of the 1920s.

    There was no shortage of claims for what electricity could do to reverse the drift from the countryside to the towns, allowing rural craft industries to flourish free from the need for fixed power.  Its use in agriculture – especially on dairy and poultry farms – was urged on efficiency grounds and there were many charmingly exotic, if impractical, schemes for electric ploughing and ‘electroculture’.  Farmers found it increasingly difficult to attract wives without the offer of electric light and appliances in the farmhouse, and the 1939 electrical propaganda film The Village that Found Itself also made play with the role of rural housewives as a pressure group for electrification.  However, distribution costs were inevitably higher than in the towns and rural incomes were not.  In the case of agricultural labourers, they were a good deal lower.  Progress had to be incremental, especially as, unlike in France, no public subsidy was available.

    Some councils responded by extending their supply beyond the municipal boundaries.  Most were cautious about providing a service, even at a higher price, to non-ratepayers and the common urban distribution voltage of the time – 6.6 kV – was in any case insufficient to supply the rural hinterland economically.  Private enterprise holding companies with interests in electricity supply thought bigger, either expanding existing subsidiaries well-placed to exploit rural demand or – if the gap was simply too great – creating a new one.  With their broad base of assets and skills, holding companies could secure access to capital on a scale beyond what was achievable by smaller undertakings that, individually, were liable to be seen as a riskier investment.

    The Wessex Electricity Company

    One of the larger holding companies, the Greater London & Counties Trust, was backed by the wealthy, Chicago-based Utilities Power & Light Corporation.  In 1927, still in Thomas Hardy’s lifetime, the GLCT obtained a special Act of Parliament establishing the Wessex Electricity Company, known to the industry as ‘the Wessex Co’.  It brought together a range of interests that the GLCT had in the Thames valley, with the aim of creating an integrated supply system for the area.  Extra powers were soon being sought, but were never fully exercised, to serve every shire in Wessex.

    The Americans’ timing was no accident.  Legislation to facilitate construction of the National Grid had been passed in 1926; the last of its 26,265 pylons was erected, in the New Forest, in 1933.  The primary Grid routes included a single corridor from London to Reading and from Exeter to Plymouth.  Between Reading and Exeter a northerly route ran via Oxford and Bristol and a southerly one via Southampton and Dorchester.  Both ran through areas of relatively high population density within the Wessex Co’s actual or potential territory.  (Density is very relative: for the Wessex Co overall it was about 300 persons per square mile, compared with over 2,500 even in suburban west London.)


    (Left)   132 kV Grid routes, and main power stations/substations, as completed in 1933.

    (Right)   The Wessex Co, and its Isle of Wight associate, in 1931.  Solid white lines indicate the company’s existing local power lines, dotted lines those proposed.

    At its inception, the ‘National’ Grid was in fact a series of regional interconnection schemes, centrally managed but operating largely independently of each other, designed to allow local undertakings to share excess supply and demand.  Although inter-regional tie-lines did exist, most had a capacity of no more than 50 MW at normal loading.  The Grid was not designed essentially for long-distance transmission; that was a priority that emerged as southern affluence grew but historic investment in plant remained bound to the northern coalfields.  The Grid was also expanded during the Second World War to move energy from now under-used stations in the south-east to areas of munitions activity, such as Gloucester.  Moving electricity around always comes at a cost because of the energy dissipated: combined losses from transmission and distribution in the UK are currently 7% of output.

    Early in 1928, the GLCT bought Edmundsons Electricity Corporation, another large holding company, and most GLCT electrical interests were to be brought together under the Edmundsons management.  Disquiet at once grew over the rapid expansion of a vital industry under foreign direction.  It was not quelled by patently false assurances that such control was more apparent than real and that the British board were simply using American money at low interest rates to electrify southern England.  Investigations followed but the Cabinet twice decided to take no action.

    By 1932 the situation had changed dramatically.  Utilities Power & Light were now in serious financial difficulties and, far from investing, began squeezing their British subsidiaries for every penny.  How much cash was exported is now impossible to determine but the amount was certainly huge.  For example, in 1935 the Americans cabled their British board instructing them to declare a tax-free dividend of 50% on the ordinary share capital.  Pressure for change mounted and in 1936 the Americans sold out to a consortium led by British financial institutions.  Edmundsons’ prices then fell rapidly amid fears of closer scrutiny by the regulators.  The challenges faced in supplying rural consumers had been advanced as an explanation for the higher prices.  To an extent this was true but they had also been a convenient excuse to conceal some outrageously creative accounting.

    Although never an independent company, the Wessex Co enjoyed enough autonomy to develop its own public face and the abiding loyalty of its staff.  That business model had been developed by the British Electric Traction and Tilling groups in the tramways and motorbus sector, where a local identity helped sustain local backing.  In road transport, the local company structure survived both nationalisation and privatisation before dissolving in the drive for corporate uniformity during the 1990s.  In electricity, Edmundsons’ policy by the end of the 1930s was one of vigorous amalgamation to reduce its subsidiaries to about 10, which meant that customers in its Wessex area ended up dealing directly with the Wessex Co itself.  The result eventually achieved was seven large and compact geographical groups, including the Wessex Co, the Cornwall Electric Power Company, the East Anglian Electric Supply Company and the Isle of Wight Electric Light & Power Company.

    One thing largely unchanged by the British takeover was the pivotal position of Edmundsons’ American Managing Director, Wade H. Hayes, who had transferred his loyalties to his adopted country.  A Virginian, of conservative instincts, Hayes had studied at Columbia University and worked in journalism (becoming Sunday editor of the New York Tribune) as well as serving in the US Army, where he rose to the rank of Colonel and later Brigadier-General.

    During the Second World War, Hayes raised his own Home Guard unit in London, the 1st American Motorised Squadron, despite the very real risk of losing his US citizenship (this being before Pearl Harbor).  He had arrived in England in 1926 as an agent of the Chase National Bank, becoming Deputy Chairman of Edmundsons in 1932 and group Chairman in 1934.  He played a leading role in the development of the Wessex Co and in the campaign that Edmundsons, in conjunction with Balfour Beatty, waged against nationalisation.  It was a campaign they pursued long after the rest of the industry was adapting to the new reality.  Fittingly, Hayes is the only American to have been elected to membership of the Carlton Club.  

    Winston Churchill inspects the American Squadron in London, with Wade Hayes (left), January 1941

    Oxford’s Electricity War

    With the rise of the motor car, the once clear distinction between urban and rural living began to blur.  The Wessex Co, operating over a regional area uniting both, was well-placed to respond.  Others were determined to stress the value of more localised autonomy.  In 1932, Oxford City Council exercised its right to buy out the local company franchise and immediately slashed prices.  The result was a long legal battle for control of supply to Oxford’s suburbs.  In the 42 years since the franchise had been granted, the city boundaries had been extended in line with new development.  So should the right to acquire relate to the whole city as it now existed or to the more limited area of the city as it used to be?

    In 1938 the House of Lords rejected the Council’s private Bill to take over the suburban assets, which served about a quarter of the city, including Cowley.  This left Oxford’s electricity supply divided into inner and outer zones under separate control until 1948.  Within the outer zone, the Council was not even allowed direct use of its own electricity for street lighting but had to buy-in at Wessex rates.  But since the generating station at Osney was in the older part of town, it was the Council that supplied electricity in bulk to the Wessex Co.  It seems the Council was contractually bound, by its company predecessor, to sell this electricity at the wholesale price, but had to buy it back at the retail price, including the Wessex Co’s tidy profit.

    The urban ‘island’ now created within the Wessex area provided much material for political debate.  Which offered the better deal for the consumer?  A regional company applying economies of scale for the benefit of more remote areas (a more equal geography – wherever you live)?  Or a local council without the profit motive to maximise monopoly prices (a more equal society – whatever your income)?  The Bursar of Merton College, writing in The Spectator in 1938, was in no doubt which arrangement he preferred:   

    Oxford’s former Osney Power Station

    “One argument, and really only one, was urged by the Wessex Company, and this must have been regarded as decisive by the Lords, it was this—‘The Wessex Company have an enormous area of supply stretching from near Oxford to the South Coast and going West nearly to Bristol and Exeter.  This area is almost entirely rural and in the few large towns such as Swindon or Reading the electricity is a municipal supply.  Cheap electricity can only be given to rural areas if associated with urban areas, and the absorption of the O.E.C. [Oxford Electric Company] in Wessex is essential for the benefit of the rural dwellers on Salisbury Plain, or the wide expanses of Dorset.’  In other words, the citizens of Oxford are not to be allowed to assist their own working-class population to cheap electricity because those workers are required to pay high prices to subsidise agricultural labourers over an area of hundreds of square miles.

    Most who have studied the subject agree that the urban areas must help the rural areas, but can a more hopelessly illogical demand be conceived than that about 8,000 working men in Oxford should alone be called on to give the benefits of comparatively cheap electricity to Oxfordshire, Berkshire, Wiltshire, Dorset and Hampshire, while towns close by like Bournemouth, Reading, Bath, Bristol and Exeter, with a total population of over a million, contribute nothing whatever?  For that matter what rural area does London help?”

    It was the same question that plagued the expansion of mains water and sewerage in the countryside.  Today, the roll-out of rural broadband has re-ignited familiar fears that the countryside is lagging behind the towns in access to essential modern services.  France, with its huge rural lobby, is again looking to public subsidy, while Britain proceeds piecemeal.

    In the case of electricity, the answer ultimately selected proved to be a medley of both options: regional organisation under State ownership.  Implicit in this was that urban consumers (including the poorer ones) should cross-subsidise rural consumers (including the richer ones).  Wider access to electricity for all was deemed more beneficial than cheaper electricity for a few.

    Wessex into Southern?

    The Wessex Co disappeared at nationalisation in 1948.  Over its two decades’ existence it had changed the rural way of life.  By 1939 every village in England of 500 people or more had been provided with an electricity service and the Wessex Co played its part in that achievement.  A step-by-step account would require lengthy research in the archives but a snapshot is provided by considering what was handed over to the new nationalised industry.

    The British Electricity Authority, responsible for generation and main transmission, inherited six power stations from the Wessex Co, at Newbury (Berks.), Andover and Lymington (Hants.), Frome and Yeovil (Som.) and Downton (Wilts.).  A seventh, at Earley, near Reading, was built under war conditions in 1941-42 by the Central Electricity Board (the builders and managers of the Grid) but was operated on their behalf by Edmundsons, the Wessex Co’s parent.  On the distribution side, the Southern Electricity Board took over a business organised into 14 districts based around Abingdon, Andover, Cirencester, Frome, Henley, Lymington, Marlow, Melksham, Newbury, Oxford (Rural), Salisbury (Rural), Shaftesbury, Wallingford and Yeovil.  The Oxford (Rural) and Salisbury (Rural) labels indicated that the two city centres were excluded from the districts.

    The Wessex Co’s last General Manager, based at Newbury, was an Australian, R.R.B. (Robert) Brown.  In 1948 he became Deputy Chairman of the Southern Board and later served for 20 years as Chairman.  He brought an aura of authority with him.  When in 1967 the Board’s Principal Officers’ Conference reached Minute No. 1,000, the Secretary remarked on the fact that they had now made 1,000 decisions.  Brown’s reported response was something like, ‘Yes, gentlemen, and I didn’t disagree with any of them.’ The Wessex Co was one of 48 undertakings combined to form the new Southern area.  It contributed over two-thirds of the territory, but only a quarter of the population.  

    Robert Brown, of the Wessex Co and the SEB

    To make up the population to the national norm, a slice of west London was added, stretching as far in as Acton.  Whatever it did for the figures, this was no way to create an identity.  Some staff carried on doing things the Wessex way.  It was heard said that those at Andover had ‘never really been nationalised’.  In Hampshire especially, the Southern Board had to bring together staff from what had been intensely rival company groups, where personal disagreements had impeded integration.  Where the new Sub-Areas and Districts followed pre-nationalisation boundaries, there was plenty of scope for managers to inculcate a spirit of friendly competition.

    The Wessex electricity industry of today, post-privatisation, is dominated by three firms.  Western Power Distribution is owned by Pennsylvania Power & Light and is therefore American.  EDF – Electricité de France – is 85% owned by the French Government.  SSE – formerly Scottish & Southern Energy – is based in Perth, Scotland.  Remote control is back, but this time without even the facade of an identity respecting regional difference.

    In its own time, the Wessex Co with its power stations, showrooms and vans must have had a very visible presence.  Today it has vanished almost without trace.  Hardly any information about it is to be found easily online.  That is a pity, because among the makers of modern Wessex it deserves to be placed very highly indeed.

    Wessex memories featured among the displays at the former Museum of Electricity in Christchurch

    Further reading:

    Leslie Hannah (1979), Electricity before Nationalisation, Macmillan

    Clive Collier (1992), Southern Electric: a history, Southern Electric

    Footage of Winston Churchill’s inspection of the American Squadron, followed by Wade Hayes explaining the background to its formation