The Secret Of That Dad's Army Joke Of 1904 ( 19 July 1974)
The path of the local historian is bestrewn with pitfalls, especially when he (or she) writes of events which he himself cannot exactly remember but which older people can.
This happened in 1952 to no less an authority than Sir Frank Markham – then Major S.F. Markham, North Bucks MP. That year saw the publication of his book “The Nineteen Hundreds.” This was the sequel to his “History of Stony Stratford”, which had been published three years earlier and which deservedly had made a great impression. The first volume covered the period up to the year 1900. The second dealt exclusively with 1900 to 1914.
“The Nineteen Hundreds” was – and is – an enthralling work. It presents a fascinating picture of the local life of those times – an era which now seems centuries ago even to people like myself but which I have no doubt was as vital, dynamic and meaningful as the 1970s are to us. If you are at all interested, and especially if you are a newcomer to the district, you should read it. It will make you feel more at home in your new surroundings.
Inevitably, the book makes many references to Bletchley, and of all the vast amount of material in the book it was one of these references that brought down Bletchley’s wrath on the author’s benighted, though not yet be-knighted, head.
The reference was to the old Bucks Volunteers, who were disbanded in about 1908 on the formation of the Territorial Army. The Wolverton Company (No. 6) of the 1st Bucks Volunteer Corps had been formed in 1877 and the Stony Stratford Company (No. 7) in 1881. The Bletchley Company (No. 8) was not formed until 1900, when the Boer War was in progress, by which time many Wolverton Volunteers were already in South Africa.
In the opening chapter Major Markham gave an account of the prowess of local Volunteers in the Boer War and of the fantastic “welcome home” scenes.
Then, in the final chapter, he mentioned them again. “One of the results of the Boer War had been a very thorough enquiry into all phases of the British Army, and among those sections which came in for a good deal of criticism were the old volunteers,” he wrote. “They were unquestionably men of great patriotism, good marchers and good shots, but as a first line reserve for a possible European war much was lacking.”
Nor, he added, was the criticism confined to high quarters. For half a century “Punch” had treated the volunteers as a subject for laughter, and even the Wolverton paper had its jokes, for in August 1904, it reported (and Major Markham quoted):
“The Bletchley Volunteers were greatly chagrined at their repeated failure to win the Battalion Cup for smartness, and say their disappointment was brought about by one of their comrades wearing his socks over the bottom of his leggings. The rest of the Battalion is now teaching him to pull up his socks.”
The “Dad’s Army” joke of 1904 did it. The Gazette, in reviewing the book, aided and abetted by repeating the quotation without saying what had gone before. The effect was astonishing. That was 1904, and this was 1952, But surviving members of the old Bletchley company instantly sprang to its defence – as far as 70-year-olds can be said to spring.
Ex-Colour Sergeant Tom Brace snorted: “Whoever told that to the major was dead wrong.”
Ex=Sergeant Harry Dimmock drily remarked: “Now that bit isn’t right, anyway.”
Ex-Sergeant Frank Pacey exclaimed: “He’s wrong, and here’s a photo of us with the cup in our second year to prove it” (photo duly produced).
“The Cup had always been won by Marlow,” he went on, “but we tried for it in our first year and were highly commended. They didn’t like it at Wolverton because we gave them such a run at our first go. So we set our minds on it the next year, stretched our uniforms in my father’s shop in Park Street, and took the cup from Marlow smartly enough.
Bletchley won the cup either one or two years. Then they were beaten by the man with his socks.
“He didn’t have his socks over his leggings, either,” grumbled Ex-Colour Sergeant Brace. “He wore shoes instead of boots, and his socks showed between.”
And who was the man who had so let down his comrades? I shouldn’t have asked. All I got was a stony silence. They had shielded that man from all outsiders for 50 years, and the secret of his name would die with them.
In his researches he collected a mass of information about the whole area of North Bucks and now he is busy taking that history up to 1950 in a second volume of the History of Milton Keynes and District.