The Muddlecombe Men have been taking a humorous slant on life in Wareham for the last eighty years. John Newth tells their story.
Published in October ’14
As recently as 1933, Wareham fire brigade relied on a horse-drawn fire engine, kept in what is today the Old Granary on the Quay. It was in that year that Gordon Sampson, the landlord of the New Inn (now the Quay Inn), was watching the fire engine being cleaned when he had a brainwave: it would be ideal as a carnival float. Wareham did not have its own carnival in those days, but most other towns did and Gordon reckoned that the fire engine float would provide plenty of opportunity to have some fun, to raise some money and maybe to win some prizes. He gathered round him five friends: Herbie Elmes, well-known in the town for his comedy conjuring; Sid Lumber, whose mournful face and ability to act deaf were great comic assets; Ted Brennan, whose grandfather had been a clown; George Cox, who owned the horse which pulled the fire engine; and another regular at the New Inn, Frank Edwards. These were the first Muddlecombe Men.
Not that they were called that straightaway. They were trying to think of a name when one of Gordon’s customers told him of a coach trip he had recently made to Devon. They had taken a comfort stop just outside the village of Maidencombe, near Torquay, and ‘Ladies to the left of the hedge, gents to the right,’ called the driver, but some couldn’t tell their left from their right, the bank on which the hedge stood was slippery with mud, and the result was chaos. ‘Maidencombe?’ said one of the passengers when all were safely back on the coach. ‘It’s more like bloody Muddlecombe.’ The search for a name was over. The idea that the name was pinched from comedian Robb Wilton, one of whose comic creations was Mr Muddlecombe JP, is wrong: the character did not make an appearance until the late ’thirties.
Gordon negotiated with Wareham Urban District Council, who hired him the fire engine for a fee of 2/6 (12½p) a day and on condition that it was only used outside the Wareham area. In that first year, the Muddlecombe Men took it to Swanage, Poole and Boscombe Carnivals and won prizes. One reason for their success was that in those days the people who manned the floats normally took up static poses, whereas the Muddlecombe Men’s trademark was – and still is – vigorous, not to say frenetic, movement. As their reputation grew, some carnivals like Shaftesbury and Andover actually paid them to attend. They gave the float a different theme each year, so in 1934 (the year that Wareham staged its own carnival for the first time) it was a mobile laundry, in 1935 a bakery and so on. However, only in their first year did the Muddlecombe Men have the use of the fire engine, because it soon dawned on the Council that it would not look very good if half of Wareham were to burn down while their fire engine was moonlighting as a carnival float elsewhere. Fortunately, George Cox owned a flat-top waggon and later, the Muddlecombe Men went mechanised with a lorry loaned by quarry-owner Frank Tatchell.
After a break for the war years, the Muddlecombe Men continued, taking part for several years in the Beating of the Bounds ceremony round Poole Harbour, alongside a similar group, the Poole Pirates. This led to the Muddlecombe Men having their photograph taken with the then owner of Brownsea Island, the reclusive and enigmatic Mrs Bonham-Christie; it is one of comparatively few pictures taken of her and the only one that shows her smiling.
In 1956, the Muddlecombe Men decided, in the words of Herbie Elmes’s son, Hughie, ‘to pack it up while they were still enjoying themselves’. The story now jumps 21 years to 1977, when Wareham revived its Carnival to mark HM The Queen’s Silver Jubilee. Herbie Elmes, one of the originals, was Bailiff of Wareham’s Court Leet that year and re-started the Muddlecombe Men to enter a float based on the Court Leet’s traditional activities such as chimney-peeping and bread-weighing. The following year saw the birth of the Muddlecombe Morris Men, whose performance of masterpieces such as the Pheasant Plucker’s Dance, the Futility Rite and the Dung-Spreader’s Revenge Reel became a staple of the Muddlecombe repertoire. They were booked to appear at fêtes, sometimes because the organisers thought they were a serious morris dancing group; others saw the joke, including an unfortunate gentleman at the 1978 Verwood Carnival who died from a heart attack through laughing so much.
Hughie Elmes carried on the family tradition by becoming Squire of Muddlecombe and thanks to his fertile imagination, exercised in his monthly column in the now-defunct Wareham and Purbeck Journal, Muddlecombe took on a life of its own. It is 7½ miles from Wareham, or indeed from wherever the speaker happens to be, it lies on the River Rundle, it has a pub called the Duck and Gluepot (landlord Walter Widgeon) and a church dedicated to St Arnold, the patron saint of beer, and it is twinned with a village in North Borneo called Bog-a-Bush. Muddlecombe even has its own national anthem, including the line, ‘There’s a shortage of tea but the beer flows free’.
1983 saw the arrival of the Muddlecombe 423 and 5/8ths Fusiliers, whose field gun display included shooting the skin off a rice pudding. This fine body of men, the carnival programme told us, was founded in 1301 to defend sailors coming up the river to the port of Muddlecombe from rape and pillage by the local women. Since that first appearance, they have gone on to provide a motorcycle display team and a Mounted Emu Division.
During this period, the Muddlecombe Men stretched their activities well beyond carnivals. A charity football match was played between Wareham Youth and the Muddlecombe Manglers, they became regulars in Father Christmas’s procession as he arrives at the Town Cross preparatory to going down the chimney of the Red Lion, and as the Muddlecombe Redcoats they performed at dinners, fêtes and other events. To comply with the Trades Description Act when it came into force, they christened their act ‘An Evening of Rubbish’. One Muddlecombe Man, Tony Gepheart, was even attended at his wedding by colleagues in pretty dresses and carrying lovely bouquets – the beards were a bit of a giveaway, though.
In 1997, Hughie Elmes handed the office of Squire over to Nick Caddy, who continues with his colleagues to uphold the proud traditions and standards of the Muddlecombe Men. As well as their appearances at the Carnival and with Father Christmas, they put on shows such as a re-write of The Goon Show, complete with home-grown sound effects, and ‘A Barnes Night’, celebrating ‘the works of the Dorset Poet, William Barnes (and some he might have written given the chance)’. Instead of a haggis, a faggot is paraded and addressed, then speared not with a ceremonial knife but with a pitchfork. A number of musicians among the Muddlecombe Men have recently founded a band, whose repertoire includes ‘Fifty ways to lose your liver’ and an adaptation of Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Homeward bound’, being the sad story of a chap trying to find his way back to his house from the pub.
It is easy to forget the work that over eighty years has gone into devising, rehearsing and staging the Muddlecombe Men’s capers. The results have not only been fun for those taking part but have brought humour and gaiety to the people of Wareham and further afield, and have raised many thousands of pounds for mostly local charities. May the Duck and Gluepot, St Arnold’s, the Muddlecombe 423 and 5/8ths Fusiliers and all those other eccentric creations thrive for many years to come. ◗
❱ The author most gratefully acknowledges Hughie Elmes, without whose prodigious memory, humour and eloquence this article would have been a good deal shorter. There is more about the Muddlecombe Men in his second and third volumes of autobiography: Further Reminiscences of a Local Yokel and 1980 to the Millennium with the Local Yokel, both £4.99 from outlets in Wareham or from Back to Basics, Northport, Wareham BH20 4AT. 01929 552603.