An Honourable Service

Walter John “Jack” Brayley (1887-1976) started Lapford’s first taxi service in c.1923. With his Ford Model T touring car, long dust coat, gauntlets, and peaked cap he looked every inch the 1920s chauffeur. But, behind his proud smile, is the story of a cabbing family for whom the transition from horse-drawn carriages to motor cars was was a tragic time. When Jack arrived in Lapford, he struck up a friendship with The Honourable Norah McGarel-Groves, a Baron’s daughter, who was going through her own troubled time.

1. Heyday of the Barum Cabmen

At the turn of the C20, Barnstaple was booming. It was a destination town where the wealthy came to promenade. Such was the town’s new-found confidence that its old Roman name of “Barum” had come back into use—a reawakening of past importance.

The town’s cabmen were an unmistakable sight with their top hats or summer boaters, smart suits, well-groomed horses and polished carriages proudly lining the town square. Each year they transported thousands of tourists to their their boarding, conducted tours around the town and provided trips into the North Devon countryside and to its famed coast. It was a good living.

Twenty years ago Barum boasted one “hansom”. At the present time—owing, in large measure to the ever increasing recognition by visitors of the charms of North Devon’s pretty metropolis and surroundings—the solitary hansom is superseded by 60 cabs of various descriptions, owned by about 40 or 50 proprietors all making huge fortunes.
The North Devon Gazette,
14 January 1904

Walter John Brayley, “Jack”, was born in 1887 to Barnstaple cab proprietor Frederick Brayley and his wife Caroline. He was one of twelve children. From a young age, he worked as a groom at nearby mews where his father rented a coach house and stabling. By the age of 13 he was living away from home as a farm servant.

With political tensions rising in parts of the British Empire and across Europe, Frederick Brayley probably expected his 9 sons to get military training before entering the family cabbing profession. Jack joined the 4th Devons, a volunteer battalion based in the town, just after his 17th birthday.

Each January the town’s cabmen proudly reviewed their success at a large dinner. These were convivial affairs with congratulatory speeches from local politicians, civic leaders and clergy.

Despite the annual toast for “health and prosperity”, the cabmen were increasingly nervous of a growing threat: the motor-car. At the 1904 dinner, the local MP was reassuring, mocking claims that the motor car would “leave the cabman as extinct as dodo”, and at the 1908 dinner a speaker reported that Barnstaple had more cabmen than any other town of its size in the country. Their continued prosperity, he suggested, was down to their smartness and courteousness. But, in reality, horse-drawn carriage was in decline and the growing number of cabmen was diluting down individual earnings.

When cabmen, like the Northcote brothers, diversified into motor carriage and char-a-banc trips, the once close-knit cabbing community became strained with families on widely different incomes and in competition .

With twelve children and a reducing income, Frederick Brayley probably ran into financial difficulties. On 24 October 1910, he left the family home and walked two miles to the village of Landkey and from there a further mile to Venn Quarry. At about 1pm, with the quarry workers stopped for a lunch, he approached the edge of a large pit and jumped into the quarry pond below. Frances Grigg witnessed the incident on her way back from school and, thinking it was her own father, ran in great distress for help. Relieved, she found her father, who together with her grandfather, attempted to make a rescue, but by the time Frederick was brought to the water’s edge, he was dead.

Venn Quarry

Carriages of the town’s cabmen joined Frederick’s funeral possession but Jack, still in military service, was unable to attend.

Jack’s mother took over as proprietress of the family business, with some of Jack’s older brothers acting as carriage drivers. They had learnt to drive motor vehicles but chose to operate as traditional cabmen.

In 1911, motor vehicles were allowed to rank on the town square in direct competition with horse-drawn cabs. Cabmen were angered that the new “taxis” didn’t have to join their queue; moreover, they had been assigned a more prestigious area to rank. On a cold, wet, night how frustrating it must have been for the cabmen to queue patiently in a long rank whilst the few taximen, in their sheltered cars, returned regularly for almost immediate work.

At the 1914 Cabman’s Dinner, there was clear acceptance that cabbing was no longer as prosperous as it had been. A strike over pay had caused local tension. But, some speakers remained optimistic that the future of the Barum cabmen was assured and that they would be enjoying many more dinners together. Months later the country was at war and the 1914 dinner appears to have been the last.

Cabmen by the Albert Clock, Barnstaple, c.1905

2. War Years

The Brayley family attracted media attention with six of the brothers going into action within the first few weeks of the war. It was a record at the time. At least one more brother enlisted as soon as he was old enough.

Just three weeks after the British declaration of war, Jack landed in France and soon saw frontline action. The Kaiser famously described the initial British forces as a “contemptible little army”. (In Lapford, several years later, Jack joined The Old Contemptables: a post-war organisation for the first frontline “chums”).

In December 1914, Catherine Brayley received a letter from Buckingham Palace.

I have the honour to inform you that the King has heard with much interest that you have have six sons in the Army. I am commanded to express to you the King’s congratulations, and assure you that he much appreciates the patriotism which prompted this example in one family of loyalty and devotion to their Sovereign and Empire.

By the time the letter arrived, her son Percy, had already been killed in action; another son, William, had received serious injuries.

Jack had travelled out to France with Percy but the brothers lost contact until they met on the front line in October 1914. Percy was killed days later.

Jack had learnt to drive before the war. In December 1915, he transferred to the Motor Division of the Army Corps. He served in France as a lorry driver. It was dangerous work but the survival rate was better than that of men on the front line. Two of his other brothers also drove lorries in the Corps and survived the war, whilst his three brothers who served in the regular army were all killed in action.

Motorised vehicles, the cabman’s nemesis, may have contributed to the death of Jack’s father but, paradoxically, Jack’s own life may have been saved by his ability to drive.

A Photograph Returned

Jack’s local rector in Barnstaple, Rev W Richards, wrote a hymn Forward Into Battle to offer hope to men on the front line. He included the words in a Christmas Card sent to the Brayley brothers and other men from the parish who were in action abroad.

When Edward Brayley was gunned down in Mesopotamia, it seems likely that he was carrying both the Christmas Card and a photograph of a young woman. Both items were later found on the body of a Turk and eventually posted back to Rev. Richards from India by a soldier who had witnessed Edward’s death.

The rector recognised the young woman as a neighbour, and probable sweetheart, of Edward. She gratefully received back the photograph she had given to Edward after a journey of some 16,000 miles.

Two of Walter’s brothers who died during WW1: Charles (left) and Edward (right)

You have to feel for Caroline Brayley. The 1910s had brought the suicide of her husband, falling trade, fear for the safety of her seven sons serving in the war and the arrival of a dreaded black-edged envelope on three occasions. If that were not enough, a local cabman, Thomas Lemon, was suspected of cashing in on the family’s wartime situation.

In about 1914, William Brayley had taken over the family cab business from his mother. But days after William and his brothers had left for war, Thomas Lemon placed an advertisement in local newspapers claiming that William’s business should be directed to him. Caroline Brayley responded with an advertisement disputing Mr Lemon’s right to any of the business. In the meantime, whilst this played out, poor William had been badly shot in frontline action. He was sent to a military hospital. It was almost a year before he was discharged.

On returning home he found Mr Lemon still trading under the name “Brayley and Lemon”. It seems that the Brayley family’s desire to put the war effort ahead of their livelihood had been taken advantage of. William immediately wrote to the local newspaper disassociating himself completely from Thomas Lemon’s activities.

3. Life Post-War

Above: Two images of Barnstaple Town Square from 1905 and 1926. In the later photograph, motor-taxi’s rank where the cabmen and their horses once waited for trade. Note the loss of the heptagonal cabman’s shelter; the gas lamp turned into a sign-post; and, Prideaux’s Garage , one of three motor garages on the square.

Post-war, many Barnstaple cabmen still believed that horse-drawn carriage had a future. Despite taxi services starting in 1911, there were still around 50 cabmen in the town, little changed since the turn of the century. But the early 1920’s saw a dramatic decline in numbers.

On 24 July 1924, the cabmen suffered the ultimate humiliation. Two motor vehicles, a taxi and a char-a-banc, were involved in an accident that resulted in the complete destruction of the much-loved cabman’s shelter.

The heptagonal structure had been designed by Gould and Webb and gifted by public subscription. It sat prominently on a road junction by the town square. For 37 years, between 10 am. to 10 pm. each day, it was used by off-duty cabmen to eat meals, to keep warm and to socialise.

It was the start of timetabled bus services that ultimately killed the cabman’s trade. The 50 cabmen in operation at the end of the war had fallen to just 9 by 1926. In comparison, there were 71 motor carriage drivers and 28 conductors. Within a year, the number of licensed motor carriage drivers had risen to over 100. A small number of cabman still operated horse-drawn pleasure rides for tourists and the final cabman ceased operating in the town in May 1946.

Two of Jack’s brothers worked as taxi drivers in and around Newport Street. William Brayley, despite being shot in the knee in 1914, operated a taxi business from The Rising Sun where he was also landlord. On a wet and windy night in 1929, a man stepped off the pavement in front of William’s Taxi and was killed. William had only been travelling at 10mph and had pulled up quickly in a few feet. He was exonerated of all blame but it left an emotional scar.

Jack lived with his mother for a couple of years after the war ended. There was no longer a real family business; it was each brother for himself. Jack still favoured working with horses and looked for a role away from Barnstaple.

4. Arrival in Lapford

Jack initially came to Lapford in the early 1920s, living at Wood Cottage. He may have worked as a horseman or chauffeur at nearby Lapfordwood, then owned by Major Charles Grant. The Major had won the Victoria Cross and become something of a national hero in the 1890s as “Grant of Thobal”. Retired in Lapford, he was still a household name.

Jack left in the summer of 1921 for a job in the grand stables at Lord Fortescue’s Castle Hill Estate. The lord was one of the most influential men in Devon at the time, and an aide of the King. Jack only stayed a season, returning to live with his mother in 1922. He finally settled in Lapford in 1923, initially residing at The Malt Scoop Inn, and living close to the inn for the next ten years.

Although only 5ft 2in tall, his character was far from diminutive. He occasionally acted as the MC at dances in the village hall, introducing music supplied by a radiogramophone. At a New Year’s Eve dance in 1930, he played the role of Old Father Time, passing out of the hall at midnight with Little Miss 1931 (Joan Withers) ushered in. Time was passing for Jack; he was 44 and still a bachelor.

Jack bought a Ford T Tourer and offered himself as a taxi service. He got work from the clients of the nearby Malt Scoop, regular wedding work and there was a good demand for chauffeuring services from local wealthy residents who didn’t own their own vehicle. An impeccable appearance was expected for upmarket work. Walter fitted the bill perfectly; appearance was something the cabmen of Barnstable had prided themselves in.

Amongst his regular clients was Hon. Norah McGarel-Groves, only daughter of the late Baron Magheramorne. She had not inherited the baronetcy because of her gender, but she was wealthy nevertheless.

She had moved to The Grange, Lapford in 1930 with her husband, an army Major who was regularly away on business. She soon got involved in village life. Keen also to get acquainted with mid-Devon Society life, she excepted an invitation to join a meet of the Eggesford Hunt, taking her 6-year old daughter Celia with her. Celia was looked after by a live-in nanny, Annie Luxton

Norah was something of a village celebrity: the first woman in the village to be titled “Honourable” and known, mostly through the renown of her two grandfathers.

Norah’s paternal grandfather, the 1st Baron, played a prominent role in the building of London’s road network. As chair of the Metropolitan Board of Works he commissioned the building of Leicester Square, Shaftesbury Avenue, Northumberland Avenue, Charing Cross Road and The Blackwall Tunnel, to name a few. His committee also purchased or built several of the Thames most famous bridges and the city’s parks, including Hampstead Heath, Clapham Common and Battersea Park. Norah’s maternal grandfather was the Earl of Shaftesbury.

Lapford residents looked forward to the Honourable lady’s potential benefaction and involvement in local affairs. Sadly, her husband appears to have been conducting affairs of a different nature. In 1932, Norah filed for divorce and The Grange was put up for sale. Her husband remarried the following year and Norah moved to Battramsley, an estate in the New Forest.

She had become good friends with Jack and he left Lapford to become her full time chauffeur. Nanny Luxton moved from Lapford too.

The Honourable Mrs Norah McGarel-Groves and her chauffer, Walter Brayley.

5. Later life

Jack stayed on the Battramsley House estate until the early 1940s. Still a bachelor, he must have been good company for the Honourable Mrs McGarel-Grove who never remarried. Annie Luxton stayed for a similar time nannying a small number of local children who boarded at the house.

Then, in 1943, aged 66, Jack married! He settled with his wife, Elsie back in Barnstaple. He enjoyed 7 years of married life until Elsie’s death in 1951.

Jack lived to be 87. He died at the Alexandra Hospital in Barnstaple, just a few minutes walk from the town square, the inviting carriages of the town’s proud cabmen, long gone.

Red Cottage on the Battramsley Estate, where Walter lodged