Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the dog) was published in 1889 and has become one of the minor classics of English Literature.
Jerome and his two friends, Harris and George decide to take a rowing holiday along the River Thames and begin their adventure at Waterloo Station where they offer the driver of the Exeter Mail half-a-crown to be the 11.15 to Kingston. After arriving at Hampton Court, where inevitably they get lost in the maze, they arrive in Marlow.
The River Thames just touches Buckinghamshire; from Marlow up to Henley it forms a natural county boundary and Jerome thought Marlow ‘one of the pleasantest river centres I know of. It is a bustling lively little town … there are many quaint nooks and corners to be found in it.’
They pass under Marlow Bridge where traditionally any bargee travelling under this bridge was met with the retort: ‘Who ate puppy pie?’ This is a reference to a baker in Marlow who, frustrated with bargees trying to swindle him by complaining that his meat pies weren’t sufficiently filled, baked them a pie filled with recently drowned puppies.
Once past Marlow Jerome finds ‘nestling by a sweet corner of the stream’ the remains of Medmenham Abbey. The Abbey was once home to an order of Cistercian monks – the ‘ white monks’.
The Cistercians broke away from the Benedictines founded by Saint Robert of Molesme at Citeaux, and in 1098 persuaded the Abbott to let them leave and adhere to a stricter observance of the Benedictine order.
They led a secluded, communal life with strict rules on silence and diet. However they were an innovative and resourceful order, introducing many pioneering methods in sheep farming, iron working, salt making, fishing and fresh water drainage systems before being ejected by Henry VIII in 1538.
In 1745 the Member of Parliament for West Wycombe and Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Francis Dashwod, founded the Franciscans of Medmenham, or the Knights of Saint Francis of West Wickham in the restored building. The group were more famously known as one of the Hell Fire Clubs.
Walls that once heard only prayer now echoes to satanic rites, alcohol and sexual excesses. The stories of Black Masses and orgies grew more widespread. The walls were painted with lurid scenes of Bacchanalian depravity and above the doors was engraved the motto: ‘Fay ce que voudras’ or, ‘Do as you please’.
Although rumours of their activities outstripped the reality there was no doubt that members of the Hell Fire Club took physical pleasures to the limit. But it is difficult to know how far down the road of depravity the members trod. Their existence was no secret, people all around knew of their activities and Charles Dickens Jnr says in his Dictionary of the Thames that ‘they lived at a time when drunkeness and profanity were considered to be amongst the gentlemanly virtues and probably … they were not much worse than other people.’
Most probably because of the attention they received, the members of the Hell Fire Club moved on to West Wycombe church and from the hollow golden ball atop the church tower gazed down upon the daily comings and goings of the ordinary people whilst they continued their pursuit of hedonistic pleasures.
Jerome leaves Medmenham Abbey and ‘the irreverent jesters’ and continues along the river to ‘sweet Hambledon Lock’ where the famous lock-keeper Caleb Gould ate a plate of onion porridge every night until his death in 1836. But before reaching his objective Jerome pauses to consider ‘Greenlands, the rather uninteresting looking river residence of my newsagent – a quiet unassuming old gentleman who may often be met with about the region, sculling himself along’.
Jerome is referring unkindly as it happens to none other than William Henry Smith, founder of W H Smiths book and stationery chain. In 1846 his father W H Smith Snr had made him a partner in the family news agency in London’s Strand.
By then the railways were beginning to change the face of Britain and the younger Smith had negotiated with the major rail companies for permission to erect bookstalls at stations. He got rid of the cheap, salacious material for which railways had become infamous, causing Punch to give him the nickname ‘Old Morality.’ This enhanced his reputation and very soon he had exclusive rights on all major stations to sell the magazines and journals that now proliferated with the repeal of Stamp Duty.
In 1868 he was eventually elected to Parliament as Member for Westminster and became a loyal Tory backbencher and minister. In 1877 he joined the Cabinet as First Lord of the Admiralty.
He was immortalised in HMS Pinafore as Sir Joseph Porter, the admiral who had never been to sea in a ship. ‘A junior partnership was the only ship I had ever seen’. Gilbert and Sullivan found him a wonderful subject to lampoon:
I always voted at my party’s call
And never thought of myself at all
Thought so little, they rewarded me
So now I am the ruler of the Queen’s navy.
Smith continued his career saddled with yet another nickname ‘Pinafore Smith’ but remained a loyal servant until his death in 1891 at Walmer castle, his official residence as Warden of the Cinque Ports.
Jerome was no greater an oarsman than Smith for shortly after drifting out of Buckinghamshire to Oxford the three friends finally admit defeat in the face of rain, the boat and inhospitable landing sites and catch the next train back to London.
The romance of the river is not for Jerome. It may seem the perfect bachelor holiday; pubs, camp fires and history at every corner but the reality is totally different. He could have reflected on the epitaph written for Caleb Gould, the Hambledon Lock-keeper by the poet John Gray
‘The world’s a jest, and all things show it. I thought so once, but now I know it.’
© John Barber – originally published in Buckinghamshire Countryside March/April 1999
The photo of Jerome K Jerome (top left) is from the Mansell Collection printed in Three Men in a Boat: To Say Nothing of the Dog an annotated edition by Christopher Matthew and Benny Green. This is a reprint from the original 1889 illustrated version with all b/w photographs and side notes on all historical references which might be lost on the modern reader.
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