The Writing on the Vic' Wall
Many of us find it entertaining to be mystified and when there are overtones of the supernatural, a little spice is added. Cinema and Television media have hammered to death this type of production for many, many years. Of greater interest, perhaps, is the supernatural tale which is sworn to be authentic and has a local background. Here is the genesis of folk lore, to be passed on, and embellished, by word of mouth from generation to generation. I am told that this is a way of life in Cornwall.
This particular story fulfils these criteria, in being authentic, having a local background and such a surfeit of “co-incidence” as to query whether there exists just a soupcon, of the supernatural. It concerns a wall. Not a whole wall of Chinese dimension but just one small part of an interior wall and of an area, not exceeding a few square feet. I was directly involved in a part of this drama and can vouch for its authenticity.
The story became a part of Mumbles folk lore.
So! Back to September 1939.
World War 2 slowly felt its way into the beginning of “the Phoney War” in France. Following the outbreak of this conflict, there was the jingoistic euphoria of the unenlightened.
“They ring the bells- but soon, they would be wringing their hands”,
There were lessons to be learned.
My father was the well established landlord of that fine old Mumbles hostelry, the Victoria Inn, Gloucester Place, known to all and sundry as “the Vic”. He had held the license for a decade or so and, by virtue of his other employment, (bottling manager of Hancock’s Brewery, Swansea), there was little that Glyn Maggs did not know about the prima donna behaviour of good draught beer, drawn straight from the kiln. Few inns could equal the quality of his Worthington’s ‘A’ and his Hancock’s ‘Dark Malt’ draught ales. Ably assisted by wife, Beryl, he coped, admirably, with both of his occupations, working a sixteen hour day in a six day week. In spite of his small physical stature, he was quite a man.
A few weeks before the first wartime Christmas, Park Street lad, Leading Seaman Alec P. Hunt RN returned home on leave, after a five year stint in the China Seas. He was a member of one of Mumbles oldest and most respected families, a family steeped in the traditions of the local seas and with close, active connections to the Mumbles Lifeboat. Grandfather Hunt was a survivor of the appalling 1903 disaster.
Alec was a very handsome young man with a ready smile, and a wit to match. Needless to say, he captured all our hearts! In view of the long period of overseas service, leave entitlement had built up, as had his back pay. He enjoyed every day of that long leave to its full. Many nights were spent with family and friends in the wonderfully warm environment of the Vic bar. And, what nights they were! Although only a few months into the conflict, a wartime spirit was establishing itself. Locals, servicemen home on leave, soldiers from the Mumbles batteries, sailors from the Twt, airmen from Fairwood, would seek each others company and share an evening of fellowship. A routine was established and sustained throughout the six years of the war. Sadly, only wars seem to be able to arouse such feeling of camaraderie!
Alec’s leave shot by and all too soon, it was time to go back to war.
There was that wonderful last night! All the Park Street crowd were there! George and Nelly Hoskins, Jack and Freda Williams, the Hunts. Amongst the Gloucester Place crowd were Colin Balsdon, Ted Morgan, George Turnbull, Edwin Timothy, ably supported by, Westbourne Place’s Ned Way, Harry Daniels and Syd Bale. In a packed bar room, at the end of the evening, Alex stood on one of the tables and sang a farewell song. He jumped down and there were handshakes, embraces and, the inevitable, floods of tears. The women were even more upset.
But, there was a last gesture! Such a simple one, but one which was to trigger off a string of events that became the subject of great conjecture and debate for many years to come. Alec climbed up on to the wall seat by the dartboard and with a piece of chalk wrote on the wooden picture rail: “ L/Sea A.P. Hunt RN”
(That was the exact wording and the wall concerned was the one adjacent to the house in Westbourne Place. The distance of the writing from, the Vic window on to Westbourne Place, was about eight feet)
This was Alec’s very last action before leaving the Vic that night.
Before dawn on the following day, Alec made his moving, family farewell and, with thick head, was on his way. With traditional kit bag shouldered, he made his way down a dark, sleeping Park Street to catch the early Mumbles Train. This was the first stage of a tedious journey, in troop packed trains, to join his new ship: Destroyer, HMS Hardy.
Events occur at alarming rate in wartime The jackboot of Germany stamped into Norway and on 10th April 1940, BBC’s Alvar Liddell, brought news of the First Battle of Narvik Fjord. Later, on the Six o’ Clock News, more details were given and we were informed that there had been a successful engagement in Narvik and that the Royal Navy had inflicted serious damage on enemy ships occupying this narrow inlet.
HMS Hardy was named.
Ominously added was a statement to the effect that the Royal Naval unit had suffered losses. Then, at nine o’ clock came the announcement that HMS Hardy had been sunk. It’s not difficult to imagine the effect upon the locals!
Was Alec OK?
Sunday morning, a brown enveloped telegram was delivered to Alec’s home in Park Street. It carried the worst possible news,
“The Admiralty regrets……Leading Seaman A.P. Hunt (D/JX138336)…….killed in action……”
Mumbles was stunned, Alex was only the second Mumbles boy to have been killed in action in World War 2. Later official details were released which told a fuller story,
“… half a flotilla fought valiantly against overwhelming odds, sinking 2 German Destroyers, 7 Merchant Ships, severely damaged 5 more Destroyers and shoreline installations…”
Twenty one Officers and Men of HMS Hardy were killed.
It so happened that the shell that hit Alex’s gun turret was the same one that took the life of the ship’s Captain.
Captain Warburton-Lee was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross thus becoming the first serviceman of World War 2 to be awarded this supreme gallantry medal. Those who knew little of war had received their first lesson.
It wasn’t long before someone pointed out Alec’s chalked name on the wall and suggested its preservation. First move was made by Glyn Thomas, of the Borough Engineer’s Department. He sprayed the, now precious, letters with a sealant and later fitted an overall transparent plastic sheet. And as such, it stayed for many, many years.
Meanwhile, the Wehrmacht’s lightning offensive, (the Blitzkrieg) tore through Holland and Belgium, skirted the “impregnable” Maginot Line and fanned out into France. Soon to come was the miraculous evacuation of Dunkirk and the stark realization that Hitler was a Channel’s width away from our shores. Mumbles teemed with sailors, soldiers and airmen. The LDV (Home Guard) appeared. The Luftwaffe began to make nocturnal visits and air raid sirens got us out of bed. The “Greasy” Gunners fired their 3.7s from Mumbles Hill.
Mumbles learned another lesson, that there really was a war on! Out of the blue came an injection of magnificent, military might. A real morale booster, when it was needed most! It came in the shape of the 9th Battalion the Royal Sussex Regiment under the command of Lt. Col Gerald Templar (Later to become Sir Gerald Templar, H.C. for Malaya). This Unit was basically composed of regular, time serving soldiers, made up to strength with conscripts. The Summerlands area of Caswell was to be their home for six months.
They soon won the hearts of the Mumbles residents. In appearance, they were everything that the schoolboy’s books described the British soldier as being. Immaculately blancoed webbing set off the brasses that glittered like gold, “boned” boots shone like a gigolo’s dancing pumps, battle dress sported razor like creases that could sharpen a pencil. NCOs stripes were whitened to a brilliance that was unequalled by a Persil wash.
However, important as a soldier’s appearance is, this is secondary to the conduct of each individual member of a crack regiment. Every soldier wore the single-plumed badge of the Royal Sussex with great pride and this was reflected in their exemplary behaviour in the village, throughout their stay.
Like all soldiers everywhere, they picked their favourite pubs and became regulars. The Vic had its fair share and amongst them, was a small group of NCOs, each one being a professional time serving man. They were delightful chaps and soon made many friends. One was a full corporal, name of Legg, a man of Sussex soon to be known simply as, “Leggy”! After a spell of intensive training, the Regiment had been “fined off” and was fit for active service. It was time to move on. Within days everyone in Mumbles, and presumably the Reichstag, knew exactly where their top secret destination was to be- a small village in Norfolk, a holding camp before posting overseas.
On the eve of departure from Mumbles, the Sussex boys came to the Vic for a farewell do. They were given a grand time, especially by old soldiers such as George (Bull) Turnbull, Ned Way, Albert Jenkins, and the like. At ten o’clock sharp, time was called by Glyn Maggs, drinks were downed and soldier turned to civilian friend to bid farewell. Again, farewell embraces, handshakes, kisses and hugs, were the order of the day and the multitude, sentimental with ale, began to spill out into Gloucester Place.
But Leggie had one more thing to do. He picked up a piece of chalk and walked to the wall,
“I’m doing this so that you will remember us boys from the 9th Royal Sussex, and me in particular! We’ve had a great time here in Mumbles. We’re sad to leave. We’ll always remember the welcome you gave us!
Neatly, in block capitals, he wrote on the wall, directly underneath Alex’s name “Cpl. H. Legg. 9th Bn.The Royal Sussex Regiment”
Legg was never to know the implications of this act.
The following evening just as night was falling, the 9th Battalion marched from their camps in Summerlands, through the village and on to Swansea, to board a troop train for transport to that secret destination in Norfolk.
As the boots crunched down Newton Road, so they sang,
“We’re the Men of Sussex, Sussex by the Sea…” They did us the honour of playing the full band and drums, in farewell. It was stirring and it was emotional. They left a lasting feeling of good will, a few potential marriages and a number of broken hearts.
Little was heard of the Regiment for several months. Those in touch came in with the odd titbit of news. Then, surprisingly, one soldier from the 9th returned to our midst! A private in rank, he was six foot plus and known as “Tich”. He chose to spend his embarkation leave here in Mumbles because of a feminine attachment! As a result, we knew the exact date that the unit was scheduled to sail to an overseas destination in the Middle East. Top Secret, of course.
Within a month, news reached us that the Battalion was in action in the North African desert. Shortly after came the shattering news:nCpl Legg had been killed in action! Immediately, the sages of the Vic (no shortage, ever, of those)) pointed out the fact that the two men who had put their names on the Vic Wall had been killed! Cpl. Legg’s name was preserved.
Thus was born the legend of “The Vic Wall”!
From that day on, it afforded the bar regulars, immense pleasure explaining to strangers, why these names were retained on the wall.
With considerable relish they pronounced,
“If you write your name on that wall, you will die an untimely, traumatic death!”
This warning was heeded by all and sundry. It was no laughing matter.
However, there’s always someone who will push his luck and defy convention! And it was just the man I expected who was to take this action!
Jack Williams from Park Street!
Captain Jack was one of the most colourful and popular men in Mumbles. A young Master Mariner, he had made many Atlantic crossings. For a background to this horrendous period in British Maritime history, read the story of the part played by the Merchant Navy in World War 2. Read about the U Boat packs. Read about the millions of tons of shipping lost by their activities and read that the losses sustained in manpower far exceeded the combined losses of all the Armed Forces put together.
The Atlantic wartime crossings were a nightmare.
On the last night of a ten day leave, Jack was in contemplative mood and early in the evening, he was talking quietly to me at the end of the bar,
“Early home night tonight, Graf. Off at the crack of dawn. Sailing from Liverpool. Not happy about it at all. I’ve had tremendous luck with the crossings, so far, but wonder if I’m pushing my luck a bit now! Odds are getting shorter with every crossing. Frankly, I get more scared with each crossing!”
He was deadly serious. Reluctantly, he bade me farewell, shook hands and departed, I couldn’t help but admire his turnout, the gold braid around his hat, the four rings on his epaulettes and the beautiful cut of his greatcoat, tailored in Montreal. But did Jack go home? No! Fate decreed otherwise! He bumped into an old crony outside and moved on to the Park Inn to receive a warm welcome from landlord Ronnie Jenkins, wife Winnie and their dozen cats. The one quick one in the cosy bar, developed into a session!
To everyone’s surprise, at a few minutes before 10.00, Jack reappeared at the Vic. Now well into his cups! He swayed into the Vic bar requested a nightcap and was served. Then, as Jack said later, all reason left him and there came a moment of drama! He left the bar counter, walked across the room and picked up a piece of dartboard chalk. He turned to the wall and in bold letters wrote his name below those of the deceased Hunt and Legg.: Captain Jack Williams, SS Stanridge”
I saw him write it and I remember the wild swirl of the chalk as he underlined it with a half loop. To his stunned, gaping, befuddled, end-of- the –evening, audience he loudly proclaimed,
“Here’s one b…… that’s coming back!”
I shall never forget those words!
He turned rather laboriously towards the exit and, en route, cannoned against several tables. He reached the door and staggered off into the blacked out night. Time was called by the Landlord and what was usually a protracted affair, sending revellers on their way, was accomplished in a fraction of the usual time. Subdued customers departed quickly and quietly. Instead of the noisy calls of farewell and alcohol induced cries of eternal amity, there was near silence.
Strange powers had been challenged!
Mumbles being what Mumbles! Within twenty four hours, the defiant gesture of Captain Jack Williams was common knowledge the length and breadth of the village!
What would be the pay off for this foolhardy act?
The night’s drama had not been fully acted out and, an hour or so later, whilst having a late supper with my mother and father, the doorbell rang. Most unusual! I was despatched downstairs and, before opening the door, I checked on the identity of the caller,
“It’s me, Graf! Freda! Can I come in?” With permission granted, I let Captain Jack’s tearful wife cross the threshold. She was very distressed. In her hands was a cleaning cloth.
“Did Jack write his name on the wall, Graf?”
I confirmed that he had. She burst into tears.
“May I go in the bar and wipe it off?”
By now both parents had joined me and Dad unlocked the public bar to give Freda access. She walked across the bar and her eyes focussed upon the writing on the wall.
There were now three names. This set off another wave of grief but did not stop her from wiping away every trace of Captain Jack’s name and his ship. If she did it once she did it three times. I was told to walk her back through the pitch dark night, down Westbourne Place, to Park Street. She hugged me. And was that the end of the story? Alas, no! Nine days later, SS Stemridge was torpedoed and sank in the icy waters of the North Atlantic. The news reached Freda Williams forty eight hours later. There were few survivors but by the Grace of God, Captain Jack Williams was one of them.
After rescue, he was hospitalized in Montreal and eventually, some six weeks later, was safely delivered home, a chastened man but being Jack Williams- an irrepressible man! Perhaps Jack Williams’ reaction to all this is summed up in the last few sentences he uttered when interviewed, years later, by Derek Evans, on BBC’s, “Good Morning, Wales!”. The story of ‘The Writing on the Wall!’ had been told and interviewer, Derek had asked Captain Jack for his final comment on this bizarre episode,
“Well, Derek, on my life boy, I honestly believe that if Freda hadn’t wiped my name off the wall that night, I’d have b….. had it!”
The two remaining names were retained on that wall for the duration of my father’s tenure at the Vic. No one ever added a name to it.
Out of respect for Alex Hunt and Cpl. Legg the names stayed for many years. Landlords came and went and somewhere along the line, during a period of refurbishing, the names were lost. There were no contemporaries left amongst the customers to voice an opinion. They’d all gone, too.
I’ve been asked, “Would you ever write your name on that wall?” ….well……