The first part of this tale is true. Beyond that, judge for yourself; me, I’m just not sure. It was my late Great Uncle Edwin who first told us the story, when we were small. Back in the ‘twenties or so he had taught at the village school in a place which he called Hochurch. Up on the eastern slopes of the Northumberland Cheviots it was – just three dozen houses, a General Store and the Three Bells hostelry; further up was an ancient stone chapel and on the way to it some tumbledown cottages, mostly roofless; only one was inhabited, and that by a figure whom no-one seemed to know, let alone understand.
Eric the Postman remembered seeing him arrive, some time before the Kaiser’s War, in dawn’s early light, on a railway cart laden with boxes and pulled by a couple of horses. A big white-haired and bearded fellow he was.
Mrs Bailey, at the Store, encountered him now and again when he came for supplies, grunting rather than conversing, but always paying with a gold sovereign. In the summer, anyone passing his cottage might spot him, tending his cabbages and potatoes, always keeping himself very much to himself.
With little else ever happening around Hochurch, the figure up the hill became over the years a lasting topic of speculation around the bar at the Three Bells. Who might he be? A deposed Russian Archduke? There was no telling. Now and again a letter arrived for him, but Eric wasn’t giving away a postman’s secrets. Only one person had ever been inside his cottage; one November day, after he had turned up at the Store wheezing and coughing as if the Devil was choking him, the District Nurse dutifully cycled up to his place to take a look. Once inside….but there again professional confidentiality held sway. Still, the Nurse did whisper to Mrs Bailey that she had seen a coat hanging in the cottage, dark blue and with gold stripes on the sleeve. The tongues wagged again: A Navy man? Probably an Admiral, no less! But if so, why hadn’t he been out on the seas in the war, shooting up the Kaiser’s fleet?
Then there was that October morning in the late twenties when a travelling hawker came by. But when the Admiral opened up and saw him, he let fly language that would have set the foundations of Jerusalem shaking. Someone promptly coined the phrase “swearing like the Hochurch Admiral” and that stuck. It seemed to tally: seamen did cuss a lot, didn’t they? But there wasn’t time to speculate much further. Just two days later, someone out on an early errand saw a motor van from a removals firm rattling down to the valley, with the Admiral sitting beside the driver. Gone he was, leaving the cottage door open and the autumn rain drizzling onto the cabbage patch. The constable went up the next day to to take a look but the place was truly empty… The Admiral had gone, just as he had come fifteen years before, without a word. My Great Uncle himself left for a job in the south only a month later. And that was that.
And that might have remained that, if I hadn’t found myself in the mid ‘seventies on a working trip to Berwick. Uncle Edwin’s story was still fresh in my head after forty years, and sure enough my roadmap showed a lane snaking up into the hills to a place with a name very like Hochurch. So, on the Saturday morning, driving back south, I turned off the Great North Road to take a look. Sure enough, there it was, though the Store was now run by an Indian, and the Three Bells had become a Cantonese eatery. Wandering further up the slope towards the chapel I came to an abandoned cottage, less tumbledown than the rest – it could have been his place. I was still puzzling about it when I heard a voice behind me: “You’re looking for the Admiral, I suppose.” An elderly clergyman was on his way down from the chapel; he might know something.
And he did. To cut a long story short, he told me how, back in the forties, the County Historical Society had tried to solve the mystery. But then they had run into something that troubled them, so they dropped the trail and scrapped the records. “But I still have my notes” said the good parson. “Since you’re interested, you may want to quote them some day, after we’ve all passed on. Give it a century, I’d say.” Some time later the notes duly turned up in the mail, sealed for posterity, and labelled only “Give it a century….”
Well, the run-up to the Kaiser’s war is a hundred years behind us, so may we pull the certain just slightly aside? The old clergyman’s notes mix facts and fancies, but one page stands out. There he recalls having seen a “dying declaration”, attested to by a solicitor, and signed in a frail hand on January 14th 1934. It told the tale of an ocean liner racing across the wintry Atlantic, commanded by a foolhardy captain who was out to beat records; but the only record he broke was when the ship struck a massive iceberg and sank into the freezing ocean. As the water reached the bridge the conscience-stricken captain sprang overboard and reached a nearly empty lifeboat. Unrecognized, he was picked up after dawn with other survivors by another steamer that took them on to New York. There the captain slipped away into the crowds, hoping to disappear into anonymity. But when an old acquaintance ran into him in Baltimore he fled – first to Canada, then Scotland, and finally to a place up in the Cheviots. And there he had stayed for years until the day when someone, posing as a hawker, had picked up his trail – and once more he vanished
So much for the vicar’s notes. And the name on that dying declaration, you ask? Ah yes, it was quite simply signed: Edward John Smith, Captain, R,M.S Titanic……
Photo: Statue of Captain Edward Smith in Beacon Park, Lichfield [Wikimedia Commons]