The conclusion of the camp fire tales

17 January 2017

Every Saturday morning we drive up The Avenue to the Common for parkrun and, for several weeks now, we’ve commented on the broken drinking fountain on Asylum Green, the grassy verge in the centre of the two carriageways.  Now, while we were deciding which route the Frontiersmen and their Remount horses would have taken to Portswood, I took the opportunity to take a photo of it. 

The fountain was gifted to the town by Councillor John Ransome in 1865, so the horses, if they did come this way, would have certainly passed it. Perhaps some stopped to drink from the now broken and useless trough? Ransome lived in Hawthorn Cottage, now the site of the Hawthorn’s Cafe, on the Common. He was a shipbuilder who owned several shipyards on the Itchen and a timber yard  in Albert Road. In the 1860’s he was one of the largest employers in the town and went on to become Conservative councillor for St Mary’s ward and an alderman. It seems a shame that his fountain should have come to such a sad end with no one noticing, or caring enough to repair it.

It’s possible that Jungle Jim’s horses ran up the Avenue and down Highfield Lane towards Portswood but it is far from the quickest route and I had the feeling them men would have driven them down one of the many side roads instead. With no real facts to go on we took the first of these, Rockstone Lane, a sloping street of little terraced houses that has probably not changed a great deal since 1914. At the junction of Onslow Road, outside the Rockstone Pub, we found another horse trough and drinking fountain. At least the horses would have had no shortage of places to drink if they did come this way. This one dates from the late nineteenth century and is now filled with flowers.

It felt like a long slog up Onslow Road towards Portswood. In 1914, the shops lining the road were probably much as they are today, at least the buildings would have been. I somehow doubt there was much call for fast food or beauty parlours back in World War I.

Pretty soon Portswood High Street was in sight. When Jim’s galloping, neighing mass of six hundred horses galloped through, it must have been a scene of total chaos. Jim tells of pedestrians diving around street corners to get out of the way, cyclists dashing off in all directions and tramcars grinding to a halt surrounded by the rampaging animals. Some citizens, safely indoors, looked out of their windows in amazement, alerted no doubt by the noise. Some cheered wildly at the spectacle but others can’t have been too pleased as horses trampled their little gardens. Looking at the quiet road today, it was hard to imagine such a scene.

Portswood was once a tithing of South Stoneham and in 1894, when it became a civil parish in its own right, there were around ten thousand inhabitants. These days there are many more and, being so close to the University, many residents are students. This could well explain the number of fast food outlets. Back in the early twentieth century, there were two cinemas but both have long ago closed. The old Broadway Cinema building, with its distinctive white stone facade, still stands though, looking much as it must have when the horses came past. These days it’s used as a church.

Soon we’d reached the top of Portswood High Street and I couldn’t help wondering if it was here where, according to Jim, a brave, but fairly foolhardy police constable rushed into the middle of the road to try to stem the tide of stampeding horses. He raised his arms, looked at the animals for a moment and then, realising there was no stopping them, climbed the nearest lamppost. From his lamppost perch he shouted at Jim’s father but the noise was so great his words were lost.

In Jim’s camp fire yarn, the Frontiersmen herded the horses towards Cobden Bridge. It seemed to me it would have been easier to continue ahead and cross the railway bridge onto Woodmill Lane but I suppose, when you have six hundred rampaging horses and just seven men, there is not a great deal of choice about the route you take. At least, as we headed into St Denys Road, I was sure we were following the same route those horses and men had back in 1914. We crossed the railway bridge, much as the horses must have, and carried on along the narrow road towards the river. Most of the houses here date from well before the First World War and St Denys Church along with the school beside it, would have been much as they are today, apart from the cars parked outside of course.

As we came in sight of Cobden Bridge I tried to imagine what it must have looked like with six hundred horses charging across it. It is not the widest bridge in the city and the railings are low. The sight of it must have given the Frontiersmen a few heart stopping moments I’m sure. In Jim’s account startled members of the public were climbing onto the railings and one frightened man climbed a lamppost, much as the Portswood policeman had. It’s a wonder no one ended up in the river.

With no horses to worry about we had time to stop and look over the railings at the little houseboats on the Itchen. The river was like dark blue glass and the park beyond looked beautifully peaceful. Back in 1914 there was no Park here though, the land was then known as Cobden Meadows and was mostly marshland where cows grazed. It was even more prone to flooding than it is today and the river often came up to the backs of the houses in Manor Farm Road behind the modern day park.

It seemed to me the obvious choice of route for the horses would have been across those marshy meadows, so we headed down into the park. This is one of my favourite walks and it always feels like an unspoilt part of the city. In actual fact the park was only created in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. The work began after World War II, with a gradual reclaimation of land creeping from the Woodmill edge of the park slowly towards Cobden Bridge. More than five thousand lorry loads of topsoil was used and a retaining wall built to keep the river in check.

Cobden Bridge, an FGO Stuart postcard

Whether there were swans on the river back then remains to be seen but they were out in force as we passed by today. As usual, they were mostly gathered around the jetty where someone was throwing bread. One black swan was almost hidden amongst all the mute swans. We stopped for a few moments to watch them.

As we walked towards the reedbeds and Woodmill we tried to decide which way the Frontiersmen would have gone.
“It would be hard to get all those horses across Mansbridge,” CJ said.
“Or through Woodmill,” I added. “It’s not a great deal wider. It seems to be to be a case of Hobson’s choice. Either way is narrow and difficult but I think Woodmill is the slightly shorter route and the horses would have been less likely to end up in the river with the high walls of the mill.”
Of course, we couldn’t know for sure but, in the end, we decided to go through the mill.

For once there were no cars going through the narrow chicane and I stopped to take a photo of the bare branches reflected in the river. Between the wars some of the land beyond Woodmill, where the pitch and putt is today, was used as an unofficial rubbish tip and, later, to dispose of debris from the Second World War bombing raids. Thankfully the creation of the new park turned a landfill site into a beautiful green space in the heart of the city, something for which I shall be forever grateful.

Walking through the mill, between the high walls on the narrow road that isn’t even wide enough for two cars to pass, it was hard to imagine how the Frontiersmen had got six hundred horses through. Somehow they did though, or they managed to get them across Mansbridge, which would have been no easier.

Once the Frontiersmen had squeezed the horses through the mill or across the bridge they would have been almost home and dry. From there on it would have been moatly country lanes and fields, a route far easier to negotiate than the town. Perhaps, like us, they passed South Stoneham House with its gardens landscaped by Capability Brown? Back then the estate was owned by the Montague family. These days it’s owned by the University and we had to negotiate a stream of students passing between the campus and the halls as we headed for Wessex Lane. They were probably easier to get past than the horses would have been but at least the horses wouldn’t have all be walking along looking at mobile phones.

On Wessex Lane we were coming to the end of our long journey. Jim’s horses were bound for the camp at Swaythling Park, so their adventure was not quite over. Somewhere on the winding country road, perhaps even on Wessex Lane, the herd spilt into the fields and farms they passed. Some even ran through a cowshed. Eventually though, the Frontiersmen managed to get them all safely to the camp. The Commandant was not impressed however, especially when the beasts were counted. The men had started out at the docks with six hundred horses. By the time they got to Swaythling they had somehow ended with six hundred and twelve plus two cows and a goat! The next day the poor Commandant had a long procession of angry citizens wanting their animals back plus compensation for trampled gardens. Perhaps he should have thought of that when he ordered just seven men to transport six hundred horses.

It isn’t clear which camp Tobin and his men headed for with their hundred horses or the route they took after they stampeded through the centre of town. Eventually they arrived though and, over coffee and a bite to eat around the camp fire, they told their tale. After chasing the horses ‘hell for leather’ through the streets, they finally gathered them in a quiet street and got them onto the country lanes. Whether they’d lost any they couldn’t tell. The C.O. was livid, having already been telephoned by the police and told about the stampede in the centre of town. With a face red with rage he ranted at the men about the valuable horses they’d most certainly lost.

Yank was responsibly for herding the horses through the gate to be counted and, when he led just seventy through the C.O. was incandescent, thinking a fifth of the beasts had been lost. The Frontiersmen were playing tricks though and, a few moments later Gringo and Digger began to lead more horses through, having kept them back purposely to cause a scare and perhaps teach the C.O. a lesson. The final count was a hundred and seven. Like Jim’s men, they had somehow picked up seven horses along the way.

We ended our walk at Swaythling Station where the horse sculpture on the wall is a reminder of the Remount Depot. At least, this was where we turned for home. This though, was where Arthur Marini’s camofire yarn began with a call at 4 o’clock on a Sunday morning to say a hundred horses were at Swaythling Station. The poor animals had been travelling since the day before and desperately needed to be taken to one of the nearby camps, in all likelihood North Stoneham or Bassett as these would have been closest. Thirty two men answered the call and all was going well until the horses stampeded. They managed to get them to the camp but, when they counted them, found they had one hundred and two horses. The next morning a local butcher solved the mystery when he came looking for his two missing horses. They had obviously joined the stampede and ended up at the camp.

It is quite possible that more than a little embellishment has gone into these amusing campfire yarns. Even so, the Frontiersmen did a difficult job throughout the war, leading horses, many of which were unbroken, back and forth from the docks to the camps or from the camps to the station. There were almost certainly times when less men than was sensible were charged with far too many horses. With so many tales of stampedes there is no doubt they happened from time to time and it’s almost certain a few stray horses and even the odd cow or goat got caught up in the melee. These were undoubtedly brave men, very skilled with horses and it’s a terrible shame that the important role they played has been largely forgotten. More information can be found about them on the Legion of Frontiersmen of the Commonwealth History and Archives website, the source of these wonderful stories.

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Writer, walker, coffee drinker, chocolate eater, lover of nature, history and the little things that make me smile

7 thoughts on “The conclusion of the camp fire tales”

    1. As the horses, cows and goats must have been important to the farmers who owned them I imagine they were pounding on the doors of the Remount Depot fairly quickly. In fact some of the horses they used were requisitioned from English farms so they couldn’t really complain too much.

  1. South Stoneham House’s gardens are thought to be designed by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown.The House was built to the design of the famous Architect Nicholas Hawksmoor.

  2. I live on Bassett green road and to imagine these horses careering through portswood! A lovely well written story. I very much enjoyed it thank you.

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed it. It is hard to imagine all the horses stampeding through the town isn’t it? I love it when I discover a wonderful story like this.

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