A teacher of history in secondary schools for many years, John Lambert began writing historical fiction when he retired.
He has a passionate belief in the value of history to provide an understanding of the present. As a teacher, and now as a writer, he tries to make history come alive through people’s life stories.
Though the stories in this book are fictional, they are very closely related to the history of their time and could have actually happened. The fiction and the history blend together to create believable and highly interesting stories.
The mountains and the western parts of New South Wales feature in his stories.
It is customary to begin one’s memoirs with an account of one’s birth, even if you know nothing of it.
Accordingly, I recount what my dear mother told me. I was born at Strathford Manor, in Shropshire, the Manor being not far from the village of Proxeter. The date was 1 June 1790. My mother was Catherine Prestons, a lady of good middle class family, whose father had been Dean of the local Cathedral. I was baptised in the parish church of St Paul as John William Prestons.
My father, whom I met only twice that I can recall, was the eldest son of the squire of the Manor. My father’s name was George Prestons, and my grandfather, the ‘squire’, was William Prestons. My father was a captain in the British army, serving with the Second Shropshire Regiment. All of my childhood he was ‘away’ fighting the French. As a consequence I knew my grandfather much better than my father. My father had a younger brother called Henry who became an important character in my life, but more of that a little later in my story.
Strathford Manor was really only a small farm, about 100 acres. It had been in the family for many generations and that had led to its title as the local Manor. The Prestons were not wealthy but the fact that they owned their land as independent farmers gave them a status as ‘gentry’, even though they had very few connections in ‘society’ beyond the local area.
My mother ran the household because my grandmother, Jane, was paralysed in her right side as the result of a stroke. She could still shuffle around the house with the aid of a crutch and could talk with difficulty, but she left everything to do with the house to my mother.
My grandfather was a jolly, and rather tubby, old man who enjoyed his pint at the local ‘Proxeter Arms’. In fact, he was acknowledged as an informal leader among those who frequented the establishment. They called him ‘Squire Bill’ and usually sought, and followed, his opinion on whatever was under discussion. He was generally well informed on local developments and knew everyone in the district. He was less well informed on national matters, for the simple reason that news took quite a while to reach Proxeter, and even then was of doubtful veracity. Nevertheless, his strong opinions gained full support at the ‘Arms’. The French were uncivilised barbarians and Bonaparte was the greatest villain unhung.
My grandfather was always kind to me and told me stories of his youth when he had served as a captain in the British army during the revolt of the American colonies. He had been part of the force of seven thousand men, led by Lord Cornwallis, that had surrendered in 1781 at Yorktown. He did not have any polite words about Cornwallis. Upon his return to Britain he had been discharged and was too old to be recalled when war broke out against the French and Napoleon in 1795. My father, George, more or less took his place in the Shropshire Regiment.
It was my mother, called Cathy by everyone, apart from me, who gave me the love and care that made the first fourteen years of my life a time of relative happiness. It was she who also gave me, though I didn’t realise it then, a very thorough education in literature, mathematics, music and Christianity. To these accomplishments were added social manners, polite conversation, and a knowledge of how to dress. My grandfather taught me to look after horses, to ride with considerable skill, to manage farm animals, to plant grain, and to fire both pistol and musket with accuracy. He also taught me how to handle a sword. Moreover, he passed on a rudimentary understanding of army drill, army uniforms, and battle tactics. To this list I should add a knowledge of how to box.
My life was progressing well. I had even found the delights of the female sex, in the persons of Mary, our servant girl, and, with greater intensity, Sally, the daughter of the proprietor of the ‘Arms’. But then everything went wrong with a vengeance. My father returned home on leave in 1802 when a brief peace was declared with France. He and mother made up for lost time and mother announced, two months later, that I was to have a brother or, perhaps, a sister. This was good news, until mother became very ill. So ill that grandfather had to call the local doctor – my father had returned to his post with the regiment. The doctor’s visits increased in frequency as mother, confined to her bed, became gradually worse. The doctor confessed he did not know the cause of her illness. It became so serious that grandfather did not go to the ‘Arms’ for several days in a row.
On the fourth day, about noon, I was called into the bedroom. They were all there, Grandfather, Grandmother, and the doctor. Mother seemed to be asleep, but opened her eyes when Grandfather said simply, “John is here now, Cathy.”
I remember she had trouble focusing her eyes on me, but eventually did so, and took my hand in hers. “John, my son, remember what I have taught you, and always seek to do what is right. Farewell.” She closed her eyes and her hand became very limp.
My father returned home for the funeral at St Paul’s. I remember he cried a great deal. He really did love Mother, though he saw so little of her. Cathy was buried in the graveyard next to the church that had been so much of her life.
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