EJR notes that he had received a letter from his friend, Hervey Benham, who had formerly been working on "The Gazette" newspaper and was now stationed at Southsea on coastal patrol duty. Benham wrote to ask EJR to keep a record of wartime events in Colchester. EJR's humorous reply is published below:
September 30, 1940
My dear Hervey,
What a pleasant surprise to receive a letter from you, and with what pleasure did we manage to read every third or fourth word of it. It is very nice to know that you still want news from the ancient borough, but I cannot understand why you should expect from me a “spicy and scandalous missive”. Just as if such a thing was possible. Just as if I should tell you what I really think of the ARP, the AFS and that noble police force of which I am such an insignificant honorary member.
As regards making notes and records of these times, as you may imagine I am already doing that, and of course any material I have will be available for publication after the war, providing it survives. [EJR later contributed to Hervey Benham's book: Essex at War (1945)] To do anything now to help on the good old “Gazette” is not so easy, owing, as you say, to the ultra cautious attitude of the office. You see, I can’t even write snappy little bits about the quaint people who come in our Castle Vaults in the middle of the night, because so far as Banyard [the editor of the "Gazette"] is concerned there are no raid alarms in this town, nor are there any shelters – such things are just not mentioned. A few months ago we sent in an account of the discoveries made when digging shelters in Colchester, some of which are very important. All mention of the actual shelters was carefully removed, so that the report became somewhat meaningless.
You are quite right that the office do not seem to have any idea what is or is not printable. Even when a few bombs fell on this town, causing me to evacuate my post on top of the Castle quicker than I have ever done before, not one word appeared in the papers, yet when Clacton had a raid, the Clacton “Graphic” gave a full report of the whole affair, describing it as taking place at a “S.E. Coast town”, but mentioning names of persons so that it was absolutely clear to all that Clacton was intended. I have not yet heard that the editor and staff have been sent to the Tower for this.
However, I will see what I can do, but I don’t see how to get anything past Banyard, unless you like to drop him a line and suggest that contributions from this quarter should be looked on as leniently as possible. From what I hear, there is now the very greatest difficulty in filling the paper, which contains enormous quantities of padding, so I should have thought that almost anything would be welcome, but I believe old Banyard is in mortal fear they will shoot him for giving assistance to the enemy on the slightest provocation. He lives in dread of hearing the “Gazette” mentioned on the Hamburg Radio.
When the Repertory Theatre re-opened a few weeks ago, there was a raid alarm on their first night, but the only mention in the report was that “owing to circumstances over which they had no control”, the performance was an hour late in starting. Incidentally the Rep. was nearly ruined in the week when the Voluntary Evacuation papers were sent out. On the same board where these notices were displayed was an order made early in July regarding a curfew for the coastal defence area, and people reading the new notice read this, without looking at the date and without seeing that it was nothing to do with Colchester. The result was the Rep. audience that night was a mere handful, and a military cop, who had also read the notice or heard the rumours, took it upon himself to go into the hall where people were buying tickets and to tell them that as there was a curfew at 8 o’clock they would not be allowed to go home, but would have to remain in the Albert Hall all night. They stopped buying tickets and went home at once, instead of telling the fool where he got off. Two more “redcaps” went to the Town Clerk’s office during the afternoon and enquired whether there was or was not a curfew, because if there was they were going to enforce it.
However, I believe they are doing much better now. I went last week to see the lovely Beatrice as the mad Welsh girl in “They Walk Alone”, and there was a very good crowd there. She had a nice accent. The pictures are open on Sundays, and are always crowded, although most of the films are rotten.
In August I had the great luxury of three weeks off to do harvest work at Lawford. It was great fun, although the enemy activity in those parts was rather too much of a good thing. I missed about 15 alarms here, mostly at night, but we’ve made up for it since, as we had the 86th last night. Can Southsea beat that? I expect so. I believe London has had about 120 now. I went up there this weekend to see Daven Soar who lives at Stanmore.
Yesterday (Sunday), I cycled back across London and on through Essex as far as Chelmsford, the furthest the old man has cycled in one go for about 15 years. Today we don’t feel quite so brisk. However, I saw several churches including the famous twins of Willingale Spain and Willingale Doe, which, together with the adjacent and delightfully named Shellow Bowells have each had one window broken by bombs.
I believe one or two more churches have been damaged in South Essex, and of course Coggeshall, which has had the whole roof brought down, but this is repairable, and what is more all the important monuments are safe. The real disaster is of course Lt. Horkesley. Two bombs or mines fell over there, one on the church and one at the back of the Beehive. These mines are not at all funny, and they seem to be dropping them all over the place. I saw one at Chelmsford yesterday, which fell a fortnight ago and had only just been dug up. Two fell at Ipswich, but one did not go off and the other dropped on the golf links, while another was fired on over Billericay and burst in mid-air.
Well, I really think this letter is about long enough. I won’t bore you with an account of how I worried and bullied everybody into providing ARP stables for horses, so that drivers can now get their horses off the streets and tie them up. Nor will I weary the reader with the sad tale of my efforts to get ladders and fire-fighting apparatus at the Castle. The authorities have stood up to me well on this, and not only have they prevented me from getting anything at all, but they now profess complete amazement that we should bother to man the Castle during raids, and suggest that we are all being very silly. It’s a great life if you don’t weaken.
I still pop in and out of the "Essex County Standard" office pretty regularly, and admire the High Steward’s [Hervey's father, Sir W. Gurney Benham] complete indifference to raid alarms. One day there was a lot of Germans coming over about lunch time, and a bit of machine gunning was going on overhead. Just as he was going down in the passage into Culver St. the siren went off, people rushed about, police and specials dashed out of the Library basement etc. “Ah”, remarked the HS, “That must be the All Clear”, and went home to lunch. In these alarms the rest of the [ECS] office staff can do nothing else but stay put as the managing director ignores the whole affair, but Cook always goes out to the shelters at the back. As you say, he may be nervous, and if he is I can’t blame him. So am I.
As to who is dead, decorated or otherwise distinguished I really don’t know. So far as I am aware, I don’t know a single person who has been killed since the whole disgusting business began, for which I think I am very lucky. Nor for that matter do I know anyone decorated or distinguished, unless you are. I am none of these things, and so far have the incredible and quite undeserved luck to be in a reserved job, though how long this will last I don’t know, as we continually hear rumours about the alterations of the reserved age. It’s all very unsettling, as I should like to buy another horse and start cultivating some land at Bourne Mill, but it seems absurd to start when everything is so vague. I am not at all keen to see the inside of the army, because I know that being unfit for general service I should only be put on peeling potatoes and cleaning out the lavatories, occupations which I think would soon pall. Gentle enquiries put out have revealed that most of the “soft” jobs in the army, where you sit down all day and sleep in a bed at night, are already filled by professional boxers and footballers. However, it is no good worrying, we haven’t got there yet.
I am very glad that you still seem to be enjoying life up to a point. You seem to have worked things the right way so far. Please give my regards to your wife. I saw your sister a week ago, looking very well in spite of everything, and I cycled past her hospital yesterday morning and saw it was then quite untouched. Write to me again, and I will see if we can dig up some more news but nothing scandalous, dear me no.
All the best,
P.S. – Have just heard that 12,000 people have left [Colchester as part of the evacuation scheme].