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Hector Hugh Munro - known as "Saki"

(1870-1916)


Saki




What is Saki's connection with Manning's Pit?

In November 2016 BBC Radio Four Extra put on a Programme called "In The Lumber Room" to mark the Hundred Year Anniversary of Saki's death. The programme was presented by Shaun Ley.  Contributors included Sir Richard Eyre, Will Self and Dr Sandie Byrne, and one of the highlights was the reading by well known actor Ben Daniels of one of Saki's most famous stories, "Shredni Vashtar".

These words come from near the end of the story:

"The great polecat-ferret made its way down to a small brook at the foot of the garden, drank for a moment, then crossed a little plank bridge and was lost to sight in the bushes. Such was the passing of Shredni Vashtar."

When Saki wrote these words, was he thinking of the Manning's Pit bridge? The image below is a portion of a larger painting that shows Manning's Pit bridge as it was in 1914 - not long before Saki was killed in World War One. It was a small bridge, made of planks and bars of wood.

close up of bridge
                      1914

Much of the inspiration for Saki's short stories came from his childhood. He lived  in Broadgate Villa, in Pilton, North Devon, a large house with fields behind it that sloped down to Bradiford Water. A very short way along that small river is the Manning's Pit bridge.

So many other features of the story seem to have been inspired by his childhood memories. The boy in the story has a guardian who, according to Hector's sister Ethel, was their Aunt Agatha "to the life."  He also had a Houdan cock, just as Hector did. I
t does seems likely that, as he wrote the story, he was remembering his childhood home. If so, where else would the polecat ferret escape but down to the river - and the little wooden bridge that went across it?


Manning's Pit

The last part of the countryside that Hector loved is now under threat - you can help save it by signing our Petition at bit.ly/manningspit

Dr Sandie Byrne (author of "The Unbearable Saki") recently signed our petition.  Ken Loach, James Lovelock, Jonathon Porritt and Henry Williamson's son Richard have already signed, while Michael Morpugo has sent a hand-written message of support. 


More about Saki's childhood in Pilton, the location of his home in reference to Manning's Pit, his closest neighbours, Colonel Hugh Hibbert, Sarah Hibbert and F. R. Lee, R.A., plus a connection to Henry Williamson.


Hector Munro lived in Pilton in the 1870s  and 80s. His mother had died in 1872, and his father, Charles Munro, returned to Burma, where he was an Inspector General in the Indian Imperial Police, leaving his children in the care of his mother and two sisters, Augusta and Charlotte.

Hector was better known in later life by his pen-name "Saki."  As an adult he became a political sketch-writer, historian and novelist, but he was most famous for his short stories. They were dark and satirical, and he could be described as the fore-runner of Roald Dahl, but the inspiration for many of his stories came from his  upbringing, under the influence of his two eccentric aunts in Pilton.

Much has been written about about the Aunts, but as - far as we know so far - there has been little mention anywhere about the Munro family's closest neighbours, the Crimean war hero, Colonel Hugh Hibbert, his wife Sarah Catherine Hibbert, and her father, the famous Victorian artist, Frederick Richard Lee, R.A. They lived in Broadgate House, which is directly across the road from Broadgate Villa.  Broadgate Villa was in fact part of the Broadgate Estate. You can read more about these neighbours below, and at the links at the top of the page. Whether the two families did socialise or not, we feel that the presence of such eminent and interesting neighbours could have had a significant influence on young Hector Munro's imaginative development.


Map of Manning's Pit and Bellaire
A historical map showing the locations of Manning's Pit, Broadgate Villa, Broadgate House, the local Church and Benjamin Manning's home.
This map also shows the area that is built up today. Up until the 1960s or so, the area between Broadgate Villa and Manning's Pit was all open fields, and until 1918 most of it was owned by the Lee and Hibbert families. Broadgate Villa was part of the Broadgate Estate.




Broadgate Villa 1858
Broadgate Villa, in 1858, much as it would have looked when the Munro children lived there (thanks to the Pilton Story website for this photograph)

Hector and his family lived almost in sight of Manning's Pit, and despite the obstruction of a modern housing estate it still takes less than three minutes today to walk from Broadgate Villa to the Manning's Pit field.

The two trees that you can see on the hill in the right of the photo are probably on the edge of the Manning's Pit (although in 1858 it would have been known as North Field.)


Local legend has it that Hector's mother was knocked over by a runaway cow in one of Pilton's narrow lanes, while pregnant and expecting her fourth child, and she then died following a miscarriage.

On the right:

North Devon Journal, 7 March 1872
- thanks to Bill Greenwell for this cutting.


Death of Saki's Mother


Saki's love of the countryside

It is sometimes assumed - based mainly on his sister Ethel's recollections - that Hector saw little of the countryside as he grew up, because of restrictions put in place on the children's activities by the Aunts. Ethel destroyed most of Hector's papers after his death, so the main evidence about his childhood comes from her short biography in the book "The Square Egg."

"Then we should have had more country walks than we ever got," she wrote in that book, "there were lovely fields and woods quite handy, but Aunt Augusta wanted shops and gossip - also she was afraid of cows."

If the story about their mother being knocked over by a cow is true, then it is not surprising that Aunt Augusta was afraid of cows.  Nonetheless, Ethel didn't say they never had walks. She also had this to say about the governess they had when Hector was twelve: 

"She was, however a real companion, and took us for walks in the countryside we loved and explored the whole countryside."
 
Their father did the same when he came back from India once every four years. Their Uncle Wellesley, who visited annually, took Hector on fishing and sketching expeditions - where better to stand with your fishing rod than the Manning's Pit bridge? It is also true that when Hector was older, and came back on holiday from boarding school, he had more freedom to roam the countryside.


So did the "lovely fields and woods quite handy" and the "countryside we loved" include what we now know as Manning's Pit? It must surely be so.  The attractions of the river, and the bridge, and the pools of water where fish can be found, kingfishers dart across the water and otters lurk in hiding, must have been as alluring to the Munro children as they are to children today.  And we have little doubt that when it snowed the steep slopes of the field (described by a local as "Pilton's Cresta Run")  would have been where local children took their sledges  - or make-do equivalents - as they do today.

One final piece of evidence comes from Hector's friend, Rothay Reynolds, who wrote about him after his death. He said, about Hector's childhood, that "He loved above all, the woodlands and the wild things in them, especially the birds."

Old maps of the Manning's Pit area show wooded areas similar to those today that edge the river in many places. Present day people often talk of "the woods by the river, or the woods by the rope swing," for example, and they are still home to wild things, as they were in Saki's time.
Incidentally, a tale we were told about a snowfall in the 1960s (or around that time) would surely have amused Saki. The vicar at the time didn't have a sledge but was so desperate to join in the fun in Manning's Pit, that he was seen sledging down the slope astride an old framed oil painting!

The Munro's Social Life, and their Famous Neighbours, Colonel Hugh Hibbert and Frederick Richard Lee, R.A.

More from "The Square Egg."


Hector Munro's childhood home, 2017

Broadgate Villa is divided into two houses now, with new names, and one has a blue plaque on the wall commemorating the fact that H H Munro once lived there. Note the colour of the wall at the front, visible in the photograph further down the page.
As mentioned above, Ethel destroyed most of her brother's private papers after his death, so that much of what we know about his childhood comes from the short Biography that she wrote about him, which is included in "The Square Egg.".  This excerpt sets the scene:

"Broadgate Villa in the village of Pilton, near Barnstaple, North Devon, was the house my father took for us, after our mother's death, before leaving for India. Here his mother, and his two sisters, Charlotte and Augusta, were installed to look after us. I think Hector must have been about two when we arrived there. He was born in Akyab, Burma, where my father was stationed, on December 18th, 1870 and christened Hector Hugh. He was a delicate child , in fact the family doctor at Barnstaple, whom the grown ups looked upon as an oracle, declared that the three of us would never live to grow up. Probably children not so highly strung and excitable would have succumbed, because judging by modern methods our bringing up was quite wrong. The house was too dark, verandahs kept the sunlight out, the flower and vegetable gardens were surrounded by high walls and a hedge, and on rainy days we were kept indoors.
Also fresh air was feared, especially in winter, we slept in rooms with windows shut and shuttered in, with only the door open on to the landing to admit stale air. All hygienic ideas were to Aunt Augusta, the Autocrat, "choc rot," a word of her own invention."

The walk from Pilton Church back to Broadgate Villa, photographed today.

Pilton Churchyard
Coming out of Pilton Church, the Munro - and Hibbert -families would have walked through the churchyard here, down some steps before turning shortly afterwards and walking up Church Lane (below)

At the top of Church Lane
From the top of Church Lane, they would have walked along Bellaire,  to Broadgate house (below, the end of the house) home of the Hibberts and F R Lee.

Broadgate House
The Munro's house was just across the road. ( the yellowish wall you can just glimpse across the road is the present day wall of what was once Broadgate Villa)
Ethel describes Pilton as a sort of Cranford: saying "there were about ten families, most of them without children, so we got to know grown-ups well and to be quite at ease in their society".

The grown ups who lived closest to the Munros were F R Lee, R.A., the famous artist, his daughter Sarah Catherine, and her husband, the gallant  war hero, Colonel Hugh Hibbert.  They lived in Broadgate House, directly across the road from Broadgate Villa, and were the owners of the grand Broadgate Estate. Lee was not only famous but very wealthy,
as descriptions of his wonderful yacht Linda, in which he sailed to Australia and back, attest. He appears to have been generous as well .

We have no direct evidence as yet to prove that the two families were on friendly terms, but Henry Williamson's son and daughter in law believe that they were.  One of the children who lived across the road from the Munros and saw them in Church each Sunday was Margaret Dora Hibbert, whose daughter Ida Loetitia married Henry Williamson. You can read more about this connection on the page about the Hibberts, and the Henry Williamson page..


The older Munro Aunt was named Charlotte, but she was always called "Tom," and Ethel wrote that she took the children to Pilton Church regularly. Benjamin Manning and his family were closely involved with Pilton Church, and so were the Hibbert family, so presumably there were many occasions when all the three families featured in our Museum Exhibition were present at the same time.

Ethel wrote this about Aunt Tom:

"For a long time I was struck by her familiarity with the Psalms, which she apparently repeated without looking at her book, but one day I discovered she was merely murmuring, without saying a word at all, and had put on her long distance glasses in order to take good stock of the congregation and its clothes. A walk back after church with various neighbours provided material for a dramatic account to Granny (not that she was interested) of the doings of the neighbourhood."

 Anyone who does that walk today (see our photographs on the left, or look at the map, shown earlier) can easily imagine the Munro Aunts and children passing the time in conversation with Sarah and Colonel Hibbert and their children, as they walked back home, especially going up the narrow Church Lane.

The two families certainly had a great deal in common, and plenty to talk about:

Col. Hibbert had served in India, Captain (later Colonel) Munro was in the Indian Imperial Police.  Hector's mother's family were in Kent, and Sarah Hibbert and her father had lived in Kent. 


Colonel Hibbert, who had lived in Cheshire before his marriage to Sarah Lee, had come back from the Crimean War as a war hero.  He had fought with great bravery, and the town of Macclesfield declared a public holiday on the day that they presented him with a beautiful sword. It was paid for with donations from local people, and decorated with gold leaf and even tiny diamonds in the eys of a lion. You can read the fascinating story of this presentation and Hugh Hibbert's war time exploits at this link to an article in the Macclesfield Express, the war-time part of which is based on research by local historian Dorothy Bentley-Smith.  The young Saki could hardly have had a more inspiring neighbour.

Years later, in 1915 Hector wrote this, about war:

 "Nearly every red-blooded human boy has had war, in some shape or form, for his first love...."
 
and
 "...There are other unforgettable memories for those who had brothers to play with and fight with, of seiges and ambushes and pitched encounters, of the slaying of an entire garrison without quarter, or of chivalrous punctilious courtesy to a defeated enemy
."

As Hector and his brothers played at war, in the Broadgate Villa garden behind its stone walls, it is hard to imagine that they did not think of - or even model themselves on -  the Colonel across the road?
 

As we said earlier, it seems that  little has been written before about Saki's connection to the Hibberts and Lee.  It is only because of our focus on Manning's Pit, the locaton as a whole, and the people who live near the fields, that we have learned about the Colonel ourselves. One thing we can't help wondering about, though, is whether Colonel Hibbert ever showed Hector, and his siblings, his beautiful presentation sword?

A final point in common the two families had was
that both families were very interested in politics, and were strongly Conservative. Hector was from an early age a keen Conservative, which could have given him more reason to admire Col Hibbert (who was later to become Mayor of Barnstaple.) Alternatively, Hector could have become Conservative because of his admiration for Colonel Hibbert.

Benjamin Manning incidentally, was very interested in politics as well, and served three times on the Town Council, but he was a Liberal. This wouldn't exactly endear him to the Hibberts or the Munros - but it would be another reason why they were likely to know about him, and have a keen interest in his shenanigans!


Here is a link to the story of the 1880 By Election in Barnstaple, attended by Hector as a boy.

The story of the Election is a fascinating one, and when you read it you can easily be gripped by the excitement that everyone felt.  The Munro, Hibbert and Manning family were all involved or interested in this election, which was of national political importance in 1880.

Ethel tells us that the Munro family went down into Barnstaple, and watched the events unfold from an upstairs room above what is now Youing's toy and sweet shop, opposite the Fortescue Hotel, from where Lord Lymington made a victory announcement. 

Benjamin Manning was ill at the time, but his son William was one of those who nominated Lord Lymington (Liberal) while Col Hibbert was one of those who nominated Sir Robert Carden (Conservative.)

Hector in 1881

Hector in 1881



The Munro family and Benjamin Manning


Benjamin Manning and his milkman
  Benjamin Manning threatens his milkman with a cleaver. This letter from November 1868 may have been before they moved to Pilton, but is just the kind of story the Aunts are likely to have enjoyed. Click to read.(newspaper cutting from the British Newspaper Archive)




Manning Butcher Shop
 In her searches for  poultry or choice cuts of pork Aunt Augusta surely must have visited the Manning Butcher's shop in the High Street!


We cannot prove that the Aunts knew Benjamin Manning, but we can make a good guess that they did.  By the time they lived in Broadgate Villa he had moved into Joy Street, but he appears to have remained involved with Pilton life as well.

One thing we can be sure of is that the Aunts would know about him, because, as Ethel said, their outside interests lay in politics and the gossip of Pilton.

Benjamin Manning was not only a likely subject for gossip, with his political activities, but also his larger than life character.
As well as seeing him at Church, and probably coming across him in his role as an auctioneer,  it is also possible that they would have met and conversed with him and his sons, perhaps even on a regular basis, as Ethel's remarks make it clear that they were not too grand to do their own shopping. Aunt Augusta would also have passed the Manning and Sons Butchers shop in the High Street on the way to the Evening Service that she attended on Sundays at St. Peter's Church. She may even have walked down Joy Street on her way, passing the Bodega.

About Aunt Augusta, Ethel wrote:

"The other Aunt, Augusta, was the autocrat of Broadgate - a woman of ungovernable temper, of fierce likes and dislikes, imperious, a moral coward, possessing no brains worth speaking of, and a primitive disposition. Naturally the last person who should have been in charge of children...
Aunt Augusta's religion was not elastic: it was definite and High Church, and took her into Barnstaple on Sunday evenings. Neither Aunt permitted her religion to come between her and her ruling passion, which was to outwit the other. What they squabbled about never seemed to be of much importance. If Aunt Tom came back from Barnstaple market bearing reports of poultry she had bought at 2s 6d, Aunt Augusta would know of no peace until she had seen a far fatter bird at 2s 4d and announced it."


After Hector's father came back, he and the children moved to other parts of North Devon, including Heanton and Westward Ho. Later Hector moved to London where he became well known for his historical and political writings. But he was also always known especially for his love of nature, and the countryside and wild places.

This is especially evident in his short novel, "When William Came." He describes a "land where the mill race flowed cool and silent through water weeds and dark tunneled sluices, and made soft music with the wooden mill wheel."
 
The novel isn't about Devon, but those lines could be a description of the Bradiford Valley, as it was when he was a boy, with its sluices and its leats and its six Mills. 

Hector Hugh Munro was also a keen naturalist and his collection of bird's eggs is said to have been given to either Bideford or Barnstaple Museum. As of yet it has not been discovered, but could be somewhere in the attics of one of these buildings.  We have also learned that other items connected with the Hibbert family and otter hunting are in the possession of the Museum in Barnstaple.

More will be added soon about the six (or even seven, if including one in the Manning's Pit fields) Mills of Bradiford Valley and their influence on both F R Lee, who loved to paint Mills,  and Saki.


Saki lost his life at the age of 41, when he was killed by a sniper in the First World War, but his stories remain popular today, and there is world wide interest in his work.

The photograph on the left shows him in his Army Uniform of the 2nd (or 22nd?) Royal Fusiliers.  He enlisted first in the 2nd King Edwards Horse but he wasn't strong enough to cope with life in the calvary, so he exchanged to the Royal Fusiliers. 

Incidentally, Colonel Hibbert had also been in the Royal Fusiliers.
From the story in the Macclesfield Express, linked to above, Colonel Hibbert appears to have cared about the ordinary men who served under him, and included praise of a cook, Bradley, a local man, in his speech. That sympathy for ordinary men may also have been something that Hector modelled himself on later.
H H Munro in uniform of 2nd Royal Fusiliers
One more thought in regard to the Munro's neighbours at Broadgate House -  how much would visits to that house, with its works of Art, even possibly a Gainsborough (we believe, still checking!) as well as Lee's paintings, have stimulated the young Saki's imagination? F R Lee was away on his yacht during much of the 1870s, and died in 1879, but whether Hector met Lee or not, he would have heard all about him, and he certainly could have been another souce of inspiration.

Art and artists certainly feature in some of Saki's stories, for example The East Wing, which reads as if it could be a description of Broadgate House (with the painting of Eva being sent to Exeter for cleaning.)

Another story that brings Lee to mind is "The Stalled Ox", with its references to the Royal Academy, as well as to artists who paint cattle (Thomas Sidney Cooper who collaborated with Lee was famous for his cattle and sheep paintings.) Just because Ethel does not mention anything about their glamorous and interesting neighbours doesn't mean that they were not of interest and influence to Hector.

Once we started looking for links between Hector's life in Pilton and his stories, we have kept on finding them, and here are two more:

In The Toys of Peace, the boys have a great uncle who fought in the battle of Inkerman.... just like Hugh Hibbert.

And in "The Watched Pot," a Colonel arrives at a West Country Manor who wants to nominate a candidate for a forthcoming election (see our notes above about the 1880 By Election).

Of course, this may all be coincidence - we are not historians or scholars - but it makes a new and interesting way to look at the stories.... just type in "sword" and Saki for example, and you come up with another story that could have  been tirggered by some childhood memory. We haven't investigated butchers or pigs yet...

Interesting Links


Saki: Wikipedia

Videos and podcasts

Tom Baker reads Shredni Vashtar

Stephen Fry and Shredni Vashtar


Saki's birds

The Open Door

The Lull

Improper Stories

The Double Life of Saki - BBC4 film, not accessible on iplayer at the moment

Saki  TV Mini Series 1962

Books and Articles:

The Unbearable Saki
Sandie Byrne

The Toys of Peace
Rothwell Reynolds

The Square Egg, and other sketches
with three plays, by Saki (H.H. Munro)
with a biography by his sister.

Blowing cigarette smoke at Greenfly

Saki, A Life of Hector Hugh Munro
by A.J Langguth

Jeffrey Archer on Short Story Writers