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When Wimborne went wild

Keith Eldred uses more extracts from Henry Joyce’s childhood memoirs to paint a picture of growing up in Wimborne

Young Henry Joyce would surely have played the traditional game of ‘Oranges and Lemons’ at the children’s parties that he attended in Wimborne.  This rather decorous Kate Greenaway illustration belies the boisterous and rather sinister end to the game when one of the children is caught and ‘beheaded’.

Young Henry Joyce would surely have played the traditional game of ‘Oranges and Lemons’ at the children’s parties that he attended in Wimborne. This rather decorous Kate Greenaway illustration belies the boisterous and rather sinister end to the game when one of the children is caught and ‘beheaded’.

Over the last few years I have drawn on the unpublished memoirs of Henry Stanley Joyce for a series of articles intended to depict what it was like for a lad growing up in Wimborne in the 1880s and 1890s. Joyce was born in the town in 1883 and in adult life worked for the National Provincial Bank, but he was also an accomplished and well-regarded naturalist.

When young Henry was a boy, there was much more formality than we have today. For example, parties were serious affairs, and rarely did people just drop in. ‘At Home’ days were the accepted times for calling and taking tea with one’s friends, so once a month, on either a Tuesday or a Friday (market days), time was set aside for those friends who perhaps lived in the country to call, knowing that the lady of the house would be at home and ready to receive callers. For these monthly tea-parties there would be no formal invitation other than the original card informing the recipient that Mrs ––– would be at home on the first Friday of the month or whatever the day might be.

A panorama of the Square very much as Harry would have known it in his early childhood

A panorama of the Square very much as Harry would have known it in his early childhood

However a real party, where there would be an evening meal and some pre-arranged programme and for which one wore one’s best party clothes, required formal invitations on gilt-edged cards requesting the pleasure of your company etc. The reply was always to be in the form of a similar card accepting the invitation; on no account could a letter be considered as acceptable for this purpose.

It was expected that children would put in an appearance during the party evenings. This meant a lot of rather wearisome washing and dressing up in order to sit quietly before coming downstairs to shake hands with the visitors. The order of precedence according to the status of the guest had to be strictly observed – always ladies first – and only carefully rehearsed forms of speech were to be used. Children should then sit quietly and not speak unless they were spoken to, until the guests rose to take their meal in the dining room. The children would then be told to go upstairs and not make any noise! However, they always looked forward to parties because there would be the remains of jellies, blancmanges, trifles and pies to be eaten up over the next few days. Even ‘At Homes’ could generally be relied on to provide thin bread and butter, Madeira cake, queen cakes and jam rolls.

Children’s parties were great events, and all followed the same pattern of games such as ‘Postman’s Knock’, ‘Hunt the Slipper’, ‘Oranges and Lemons’, ‘Blind Man’s Buff’ etc, and generally finished with ‘Sir Roger de Coverley’. Occasionally there would be a special item such as a magic lantern show.

In the summer there would be tennis parties and picnics for the young men and women, but these were really thinly disguised matrimonial opportunities for the mothers to assess the suitability or otherwise of potential partners. They were very well organised and carefully arranged events, with the sexes well balanced. The picnics generally took place at Badbury Rings. A spot would be cleared of brambles and undergrowth for tea and games, and as the evening drew on, a hunting horn would be blown to let people know it was time to go home. Young couples would then nonchalantly emerge from the bushes with an air of complete indifference and innocence, believing that nobody had noticed their absence!

West Borough in the early years of the 20th century. On the left is the Wimborne branch of the National Provincial Bank, for which Henry Joyce worked as an adult.

West Borough in the early years of the 20th century. On the left is the Wimborne branch of the National Provincial Bank, for which Henry Joyce worked as an adult.

Such activities lay ahead for young Henry, who was much more excited by events like the arrival of the circus in Wimborne. On one lucky morning he went down early to the circus field. The Big Top with the poles and the seating had already arrived in wagons. Suddenly Henry heard a soft shuffling behind him and, looking round, he saw to his delight two massive elephants emerging from the mist by the river – not something you see every day at Eastbrook!

The circus would always have a procession through the town. The carts and wagons which had carried the tents and poles were transformed into wonderful chariots, and in one would sit Britannia on a gilded throne, while at her feet crouched a live lion! Round the chariot would be the representatives of the Army and Navy with other characters representing the Dominions and Colonies. This tableau was drawn by twenty cream-coloured ponies with pure white tails and manes. Another highly decorated wagon carried the band and was drawn by black horses. Yet another chariot carried a Roman warrior in white and gold tunic carrying a trident. This chariot was blue and gold and drawn by four white horses. The chariots were all in different colours because chariot races were a popular part of the programme.

Wimborne station was used to seeing locomotives taking on water, but here a circus elephant quenches its thirst in the station yard

Wimborne station was used to seeing locomotives taking on water, but here a circus elephant quenches its thirst in the station yard

A clown would sit in the smallest carriage, which was pulled by little Shetland ponies, perhaps with a couple of monkeys mounted as outriders. And then there were the elephants, trunks swinging from side to side as their bright little eyes looked for outstretched hands holding buns or pieces of bread. There would be a man dressed in white tights with silver-spangled red velvet trunks, standing on two horses and driving two others.

Sometimes Henry’s father would take him to the circus or menagerie, a great event in a small boy’s life! On one occasion there was great excitement when the ‘untameable lions’ attacked their trainer, causing panic among the audience. There was a very real risk of injury as people rushed to the exits, but fortunately the incident was swiftly over: red-hot irons were thrust through the bars of the cage to drive the lions back so that the tamer could escape. The tamer had not been harmed by the lions, but at the next town he was badly bitten and had to be taken to hospital.

The dangers of having wild animals in the town became very apparent on one occasion when a leopard escaped and sat down beside the river. It was quickly recaptured in a net but one of the men had his arm slashed open. Another incident occurred when four girls were chased about the cricket field by some ostriches. The girls had been feeding the birds biscuits and, having used all the biscuits, moved away. The ostriches hoped for more food and followed them. The girls began to run, screaming for all they were worth, and of course the ostriches ran after them.

On other occasions the town was visited by a menagerie, which was something that young Henry, the future naturalist, really enjoyed. Once he was taken to the menagerie by his aunt, who thought the hyenas horrible and the monkeys disgusting; their behaviour was quite unacceptable and not fit for delicately brought-up ladies! Henry couldn’t understand her disgust – after all, what they did was perfectly natural. Perhaps it was their resemblance to humans which made their actions so shocking to his maiden aunt.

Henry then had a ride on a camel, but he wasn’t too enthusiastic about this. He didn’t like the expression on the animal’s face, as the haughty, superior expression reminded him of people he knew who wore that sort of face when watching small boys rushing about enjoying themselves! However, he loved the elephants, and with several other boys he rode on the back of one of them. The boys sat one behind the other, holding on to the waist of the boy in front. Henry was right at the back of the line. Wishing to show off his skill to his aunt, he stopped holding on to the boy in front, waved his arms in the air and, as the elephant lurched, promptly fell off. He wasn’t hurt physically but his pride suffered as the crowd laughed.

By now they had seen and done everything but Auntie wished to have another look at the lions. She admired them most of all and expounded on their courage, their strength, their noble bearing and their majesty, which seemed to her to be symbolic of all that was best in Britain and the Empire. The lion appeared bored by all this and turned his back on her and raised its tail. Auntie failed to recognise what this action meant and took no evasive action, so the great stream caught her right in the chest and ran down the front of her black satin dress.

It was so unexpected and funny that Henry burst out laughing, as did the rest of the crowd which had gathered. Thoroughly annoyed by the state that she found herself in and by the grinning crowd, Auntie turned on Henry in a rage, seized him by the hand, dragged him out of the tent and boxed his ears. A miserable end to a great day!

The indistinctness of this old photograph is worth it for the extraordinary sight of elephants walking trunk-to-tail up Wimborne High Street

The indistinctness of this old photograph is worth it for the extraordinary sight of elephants walking trunk-to-tail up Wimborne High Street

Credits
2          Priest’s House Museum
3          Priest’s House Museum
4          Priest’s House Museum
5          Priest’s House Museum

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