Hector Hugh Munro - known as "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 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

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 an Aunt 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?

Saki's Pilton childhood.

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.

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. Broadgate Villa was only about three hundred yards from Manning's Pit in a straight line. It takes no more than three minutes to walk by road from Broadgate Villa to the Manning's Pit gate today, although the route would have been across fields in Munro's time.

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 field (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, but this has not been verified completely.
Questions that also need answering are whether the Aunts were living in Broadgate Villa before her death or whether, as implied in his sister Ethel Munro's book, they moved there following it. Charles Munro's family came from Prospect Close in Newport, Barnstaple, not too far away from the part of Barnstaple that F R Lee's family came from.
Death of Saki's Mother
North Devon Journal, 7 March 1872
- thanks to Bill Greenwell for this cutting.

Saki and Manning's Pit

There have been suggestions that because of the aunts' restrictions, Hector saw very little of the countryside as a young child. This is mainly based on his sister's recollections. It is not unusual for siblings to have different experiences despite shared childhoods. She could have edited their past to fit the story she wished to tell. His memories might have given quite a different slant on this. We do know that when Hector was 12 they had a resident governess. Ethel wrote "She was, however a real companion, and took us for walks in the countryside we loved and explored the whole countryside." Their Uncle Wellesley did the same, on his annual visits, and he took Hector on fishing and sketching expeditions. - where better to stand with your fishing rod than the Manning's Pit bridge?

So did the "walks we loved" include what we now know as Manning's Pit? It seems far more likely than not.  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. It is also true that going through Manning's Pit was the natural way to walk whenever they wanted to go further,  up the Bradiford Valley, or across the river to Anchor Mill. And we have little doubt that when it snowed this would be the place that local children would gravitate towards with their sledges  - or make-do equivalents - as they do today.

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 Square Egg, by Ethel Munro, Hector's sister

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.
Ethel destroyed her brother's private papers after his death, so that most of what we know about his childhood comes from the Square Egg, a short Biography that she wrote about him.  She wrote:

"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 Square Egg"  may have been biased - there is such a thing as sibling rivalry, after all.  We have no way of knowing how dreadful their Aunts (known as Aunt Augusta and Aunt Tom)  really were, for example.

What is especially interesting - from the Manning's Pit view point - about the Square Egg - is the glimpses it gives of the Munro family's daily life.

  Ethel wrote:

"The nursery looked out onto a field, where appeared various farm animals that served as models for Hector's sketches..."

This field was probably behind the house, going down towards Bradiford Water, the small river that winds through Manning's Pit and the Bradiford Valley.

Side view of Saki's home, in 2017
A side view of Hector's childhood home, as it is today. The road did not exist in Hector's time and the view towards Manning's Pit is blocked now, by a housing estate built in the 1970s

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

Pilton Churchyard
Coming out of Pilton Church, the family 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 walked along Bellaire, and past Broadgate house (below) home of the Hibberts and F R Lee.

Broadgate House
The Munro's house was just across the road. ( the yellowish wall across the road is the present day wall of what was once Broadgate Villa)
The older 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 also closely involved with Pilton Church, even after they moved to Joy Street,  and so were the Hibbert family.

It is often said that the Munro children and their Aunts lived a very isolated life, but by a strange coincidence, the boy who was to become Pilton's most famous writer lived straight across the road from Pilton's famous artist, F R Lee, and his family.  Contrary to what is sometimes written, it appears that Lee's daughter Sarah and her husband Col Hugh Hibbert, lived in Broadgate House much of the time during the 1870s at least.
At least three of their children were baptised at Pilton Church, and Col Hibbert was acting as a magistrate when F R Lee returned from his round the world trip in 1873.  We have also been told by a member of Henry Williamson's family that the Hibberts and Munros almost certainly did indeed socialise with one another (Henry Williamson married Sarah Hibbert's granddaughter)

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.

It is fascinating that Ethel actually mentions the walk back from church with various neighbours - among them would have been Sarah Hibbert, Colonel Hibbert and the Hibbert children, as well as FR Lee when he was around.

The two families had a great deal in common:
  Col. Hibbert had served in India, Captain Munro was in the Indian Imperial Police.  Hector's mother's family were in Kent, and Sarah Hibbert's mother was buried in Kent. It also seems likely that Sarah Hibbert, who seems to have been a kindly woman, would have felt sympathetic towards the three motherless children. 

Both families appear to have been very interested in politics, especially locally. Col Hibbert was later to become Mayor of Barnstaple. More importantly, he had come back from the Crimean War as a war hero, and surely must have been an exciting figure in the imagination of a young boy like Hector (scroll down to read more about this at bottom of page.)

Benjamin Manning incidentally, served three times on the Town Council.

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

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
  Aunt Augusta surely must have visited the Manning Butcher's shop in the High Shop!

We cannot prove - so far - 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 Ethel wrote that 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. .
It also seems quite 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. 

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.

Finally: 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.

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 Royal Fusiliers.  Colonel Hibbert had been in the Royal Fusiliers, and was a war hero from the Crimean War, as mentioned on the page about him and his wife Sarah (do look at this for more information.)  We can't help wondering how much influence Hugh Hibbert had on the young Saki. From the story in the Macclesfield Express, linked to above, Colonel Hibbert appears to have been both a brave and a modest man, including praise of his cook, a local man, in his speech

H H Munro in uniform of 2nd Royal Fusiliers
Ethel does say that the children mixed comfortably with the local adults so again we wonder - could Colonel Hibbert have shown Hector his beautiful presentation sword? And how much would visits to Broadgate House, with its works of Art, even a Gainsborough as well as Lee's paintings, have stimulated his imagination? Did Hector meet Lee as well, and was he 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 (even as far as the painting of Eva being sent to Exeter for cleaning.). 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.

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