One of those killed in the Battle of the Somme was the novelist Hector Hugh Munro, who grew up in North Devon, and is more usually known by his pen name of Saki.
Saki’s history is well documented elsewhere so I will just include those aspects of his life more particular to North Devon and/or which can be evidenced using resources that we can access either online or in hard copy in our Local Studies Centre. This includes the Local Studies Library, North Devon Record Office, and North Devon Athenaeum and is open Wednesday – Friday 10am-5pm.
Hector Hugh Munro was born into a military family – his father, himself a Lieutenant, came from an army family and his mother from a naval one. The couple were married in Bengal in 1866 and their marriage was recorded in the Pall Mall Gazette as well as the local Western Times and Exeter and Plymouth Gazette.
Charles’ father, also Charles, and his mother Lucy had both been born in Calcutta, according to the 1851 Census, which finds them in Tawton Road, Newport, Barnstaple – then in the parish of Bishops Tawton. Tawton Road would seem by its place in the census records to be what is now South Street.
The family’s moves can be seen in the birthplaces of the six children – from Barnstaple to Bunalopole (sic), Chittagong and Chunai (sic), in the East Indies, back to Bedford, England, then to Barnstaple. I have not found the family in the 1861 Census, just Charlotte as a visitor at a vicarage in Strenshall, North Riding , Yorkshire. Her birthplace is then more accurately recorded as Barrackpore and her Rank, Profession or Occupation as “daughter of Colnl Munro”. By 1871 Lucy has been widowed and is living further along South Street in Clarence Place with her two daughters and a servant.
Mary’s father Captain Mercer’s benevolence is recorded in the North Devon Journal as having given food and sustenance to the poor of the parish of Heanton, in which Chiv(e)nor (their home as recorded above) lies, over Christmas and New year 1869.
In May of that year he had moved and the house at Chiv(e)nor was up for rent. However by 1870 he was selling furniture from his subsequent home at King’s Close, Newport – changes of address perhaps related to his Naval service.
Meanwhile Charles and Mary’s married life continued overseas. I cannot locate a birth announcement for Ethel but those of Charles, in 1869, and, in 1871, that of the future Saki, followed from British Burmah, as recorded in the North Devon Journal.
It was thought wise that his mother should return to the safety of England to be with the family to have her fourth baby. However, whilst walking the country lanes in early 1872, she was involved in an accident, being charged by a stray cow, both mother and unborn child dying as a result. (AJ Langguth, below)
Mary is recorded in the Bishops Tawton burial register as having been resident at Newport Terrace, a group of Georgian houses near the bottom of Newport Road. Basil Northover, one of our local researchers, compiled a study of the residents of Newport Terrace from its being built up to the 2000s and we keep a manuscript copy in our Local Studies Centre. However this does not mention either the Munro or Mercer family in its index. It is not clear from the burial register at which number she was staying and there are some periods for which Basil Northover was unable to confirm the owner or tenant of a particular house, which may be the case here. It is possible that Lucy had moved here from her earlier address at Clarence Place.
According to Saki’s biographer AJ Langguth, the bereaved Captain Munro then took a large villa for his mother, sisters and children. Consequently the remaining children stayed with their paternal grandmother and aunts in England whilst their father returned to his Army career in Burma.
Broadgate Villa, in Pilton, was part of a small estate then owned by Colonel Hugh R Hibbert, retired, of Her Majesty’s 7th Regiment of Royal Fusiliers. His widow Sarah is named in a mortgage of 1916 for “Broadgate, Broadgate Villa, and a field called Mill Park and the river running through it” which is held by North Devon Record Office (Document reference – B464/22). The Broadgate Estate was eventually sold off in 1918 and a copy of the particulars, plans and conditions of sale are held by the North Devon Athenaeum (Document reference – B81-13).
North Devon Record Office hold a series of leases, mortgages etc relating to the various properties belonging to the estate. Broadgate Villa is nowadays divided into two houses, Fairfield and Fairmead, but the extent of its grounds can be seen in the 1:500 Ordnance Survey map of 1889.
The 1881 Census finds the young Hector living there with his sister Ethel, elder brother Charles having been sent away to school. Charles is recorded, in the same census, as one of 42 boy boarders attending Pencarwick School, run by Charles R Carr, schoolmaster in holy orders, at 10 and 11 Louisa Terrace, Exmouth, with three assistant schoolmasters, a matron, cook, waiting maid, kitchen maid, two housemaids, and two washerwomen. By 1893 Pencarwick was advertising its special class for preparation for the Royal Navy, based on “authoritative assurances that “uncrammed” boys are preferred on board the Britannia”.
The head of the household at Broadgate Villa is Hector’s grandmother, Lucy Munro, and other occupants are a servant and the aunts, Charlotte ( known as Tom) and Augusta. These were the aunts who would find future fame, or infamy, in Saki’s short stories. Lucy died in 1882 and was also buried at Bishops Tawton, despite then living in Pilton. After this the house would be run by the aunts…
The Lumber Room, one of Saki’s short stories, concerns a boy who is punished for a misdemeanour at the table by being left at home whilst the rest of the family go out for an impromptu outing to the beach, and is likely to have developed from a real incident at the house. I won’t spoil the story by saying how the authoritative aunt receives her comeuppance but let’s just say that her fate is less gruesome than the revenge exacted upon the female guardian in another short story, Sredni Vashtar. Both can be well imagined as taking place in the setting of Broadgate Villa.
Hector was to join his brother at Pencarwick School, going on to school at Bedford, and then to Burma himself, in the police, but returned to England after suffering ill health and took up a career in journalism.
He then paired up with another who had grown up in Barnstaple, the caricaturist Francis Carruthers Gould, who illustrated his The Westminster Alice, a parody of political figures as characters from Lewis Carroll’s book. Gould presented a copy of their work to the North Devon Athenaeum in 1903, as reported in the North Devon Journal, and where reference is made to the pen name of Saki.
Saki was in his forties at the time of the First World War and so officially too old to enlist. He refused a commission and joined as an ordinary soldier, rising to the rank of Lance Sergeant.
His army service record is luckily one of the “unburnt” survivors of the WW2 blitz and so we can glean a few pieces of personal information at this time.
This details his physical description on enlistment, together with his occupation…
…and records his signature to his attestation.
Saki was sheltering in a shell crater near Beaumont-Hamel when he was shot by a sniper, his last words are reported variously along the lines of “Put that bloody cigarette out!”
His army record shows that Charles and Ethel are listed as his next of kin. Their father had died in 1907 having retired to Westward Ho!
Charles has countersigned this declaration as being correct at the time of Saki’s death.
After this, his sister Ethel destroyed most of his papers but wrote her own account of their early life.
The North Devon Journal report of his death (below) refers to his career in journalism and experiences as a foreign correspondent.
I can find no report of any memorial service for Saki.
With no known final resting place he is one of the 72,240 soldiers who are commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.
Saki : a life of Hector Hugh Munro AJ Langguth (1981) Hamish Hamilton – available in the Local Studies Centre
North Devon Record Office – Pilton Deeds – Collection B464 re Broadgate Estate
North Devon Athenaeum – Document B 81-13 Particulars, Plans and Conditions of Sale of The Broadgate Estate, Pilton, near Barnstaple. May 1918.
1:500 Ordnance Survey (1889) Devonshire sheet XIII 2.9 – available in microfiche form in the Local Studies Centre
British Newspaper Archive – (free access available in the Local Studies Centre, subject to conditions) – North Devon Journal; Pall Mall Gazette; Western Times; Exeter and Plymouth Gazette
Ancestry Library Edition – (free access available in the Local Studies Centre and any Devon library, subject to conditions) – Census records; WW1 service records
findmypast – (free access available in the Local Studies Centre, subject to conditions) – Bishops Tawton burial register
Commonwealth War Grave Commission website http://www.cwgc.org – Thiepval Memorial image