Donald Large DSM
Donald Large was butler to the Benyon family for more than 50 years, after service in the Royal Navy before, during and after the First World War.
He was born in Thorpe, Norfolk on 21 December 1892 and baptised in the local church on 24 September 1893. His father Ambrose was a groom and later the family moved to Dunston, near Norwich, where Ambrose became a coachman in domestic service.
Donald left school at the age of 13 with a workman’s certificate and went into service in a small household where he had to do everything: clean boots, scrub floors, wash up and pluck pheasant. He was later promoted to hall boy and then to second footman, at which time he was spotted by a visitor, Lieutenant Bernard Buxton of the Royal Navy, who encouraged him to enlist as a steward. This he did on 28 February 1909 at Portsmouth and when, as he told it, in the stress of the moment he gave his real date of birth (making him only 16 and underage) he was roundly admonished for telling lies and the enlisting officer duly deducted exactly two years, recording his birth date as 21 December 1890. This not only had the immediate effect of allowing him to enlist there and then but had an additional bonus many years later when, to everyone’s surprise, his naval pension turned up two years early.
Prior to the outbreak of the First World War he served on various ships and August 1914 found him on HMS KING GEORGE V, then in refit. In December 1915 he was posted to HMS ALERT at Abadan in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq). Mesopotamia was at that time part of the Turkish empire and the Turks were part of the Central Powers group with Germany, Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria. British forces had entered Mesopotamia in 1914 in order to protect their oil supplies and prevent Germany extending the Berlin-Baghdad railway to the Persian Gulf. ALERT was the depot ship that fitted out the new gunboats that operated on the River Tigris providing fire support for the Army. Men from her complement were detached to the various gunboats and Donald went to HMS MANTIS, whose captain was Commander Bernard Buxton.
The first engagement in theatre for MANTIS was on 7 March 1916 in support of the second failed attempt to relieve the British and Indian garrison besieged at Kut-al-Amarah. Between 5 and 19 April MANTIS was again intermittently in action with her guns supporting the Army’s third and final attempt to get through to Kut, sometimes under fire herself. Donald used to tell of the time when a ship ran into a hawser stretched across the river by the Turks and ran aground. This ship was the SS JULNAR, a local river steamer with a volunteer RN crew, engaged in an attempt to deliver supplies to Kut. Three of MANTIS’s crew volunteered to join JULNAR for the voyage but all were taken prisoner by the Turks. One officer was killed in the action and another believed to have been executed by the Turks after surrendering. Both received posthumous Victoria Crosses.
On 22 May 1916 Donald Large’s service record shows him posted to RMIS DALHOUSIE, a troopship of the Royal Indian Marine, moored at Basrah further up-river from Abadan and also serving as a depot ship for the gunboats. It is possible that after initial fitting-out by ALERT and the actions in March and April, support for the gunboats was switched further forward to DALHOUSIE and Donald actually remained with MANTIS under a different depot ship.
In later years he was fond of describing an action in somewhat lurid terms: “The first time we knew we were under attack was when the captain’s head went rolling down the scuppers” was one version. Another was that he was ordered forward when the ship was under fire to take over a gun (although he was not trained to operate it) and “…met the gunner’s head coming toward me”. Stewards acted as medical orderlies when in action but, in extremis, every crew member is expected to fight. During the failed relief of Kut in 1916 no casualties are recorded but during the operations in February 1917 that finally saw the fall of Kut and led ultimately to the capture of Baghdad it was altogether different. On 26 February Lt John Murdock of MANTIS was severely wounded and the following day the Arab pilot and the quartermaster, Petty Officer William Saunders, were killed in the conning tower and only the prompt action of Commander Buxton, who was also wounded, prevented her from running ashore in a critical position under the Turkish guns. Henry Bridge and Herbert Wills, two members of the armourer’s crew, were also severely wounded (Wills died the next day) so this is probably the action that Donald told of. Commander Buxton was mentioned in despatches and awarded the Distinguished Service Order. The official despatch and the citation for Buxton’s DSO actually give the date of this action as 27 March but it is clear that this is an error.
Donald Large was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, gazetted on 7 August 1918, for services in Mesopotamia and the Persian Gulf. No further details are given.
MANTIS’s log tells that Commander Buxton left the ship with “two servants” on 30 March 1918 and in April Donald returned to Portsmouth. From 17 August 1918 until 24 January 1919 he served on HMS LEVIATHAN out of Liverpool, a cruiser on convoy escort in the North Atlantic. At the armistice, LEVIATHAN returned to Devonport, and then to Portsmouth when she was taken out of service in early 1919. Donald was posted to HMS NEW ZEALAND, the flagship of Admiral Jellicoe, which immediately departed from Devonport to “show the flag” on a year-long cruise round the world via the Mediterranean, Suez Canal, India, Australia, Canada and the western seaboard of the USA, and through the Panama Canal back to England - much to the disgust of Donald’s wife Hilda, whom he had married in 1918.
Donald continued to serve in the Royal Navy in a number of ships until he was invalided out in March 1924, supposedly with pulmonary tuberculosis. This may well have been a misdiagnosis for it would be unusual at that time, to say the least, for somebody with that illness to survive for nearly sixty further years of active life.
After leaving the Royal Navy Donald worked first at Littlebredy (pronounced “little briddy”) as butler to Sir Philip Williams at Bridehead House. The Bridehead estate is very similar to Englefield, not least in the fact that it has been owned by the Williams family since 1797 and has a model estate village, school and church, all rebuilt from the 1850s onwards. Litttlebredy is today described as “almost the last intact estate village in Dorset”, a description that applies equally to Englefield in Berkshire but the connection is even more marked that that, for Sir Philip’s wife Margaret was the sister of Violet, wife of Henry Benyon. By 1933 Donald had moved to work for Henry Benyon, then living at Ufton Court, but history does not relate whether there was some Wodehousian intrigue involved in this switch of a servant between brothers in law. When Henry’s father, James Herbert Benyon, died in 1935 and Henry inherited, Donald moved to Englefield House with him.
At that time there was a full-time indoor staff of eighteen and his hours were 7am to 10 or 11pm with one day off a month. Things were still very formal then and liveried footmen would stand in the dining room even when Mr and Mrs Benyon dined alone. One day Mrs Benyon noticed a strong smell and Donald was forced to confess that it was the footman’s feet. Thereafter the housekeeper bought a dozen pairs of socks for the footman and he had to wash his feet each time he was on duty in the dining room.
There were also great occasions, with parties for 450 guests and every summer the Eton-Harrow match at Lord’s. The Benyons usually had several nephews playing and so had a private table with 20 to lunch and 50 for tea, all the equipment having to be transported from Englefield. One year a footman got mislaid at Theale when he got off the van to buy a newspaper without telling the driver and was left behind. When they arrived at Lord’s they found him already there having taken the train.
During the Second World War Donald’s duties took on a different complexion when Englefield House once again became a war hospital for convalescent servicemen and he also became a member of the local Home Guard. In later years Mrs and Mrs Benyon lived much more quietly and Donald was able to retire to his cottage at Wimbleton’s after lunch, returning in the evening. He stayed on after Sir Henry died in early 1959, although he did take time off to visit Canada with his wife from July to October that year, and was still performing his duties when he was interviewed by the Reading Evening Post in February 1976 by which time there were just two full-time staff: himself as butler/valet/handyman and a nanny.
Donald was also a great “fixer” and his ability to get things done was well known. One day when his grandchildren wanted to play tennis in the garden but had no net. Donald disappeared for a while and returned with a full-size tennis net - obtained from who knows where. He also had a lively sense of humour: Ken McDiarmid, when assistant agent for the estate, once called at Englefield House and asked if Mr Benyon was at home. The straight-faced reply in the most correct of whisky-matured butlerian tones was, ”No, sir, he has just gone out and as he borrowed a pound from me he may be some time”.
Whatever the circumstances surrounding Donald’s move from Bridehead to Englefield, family relations were obviously not impaired for the present Sir Philip Williams recalls visiting Englefield as a boy, just after Sir Henry Benyon’s death, and being impressed by the scale of hospitality. There would usually be six for breakfast and in the warming trays under the covers would be six portions of various types of cooked egg, six portions of bacon, sausages, kippers, fried bread, etc, etc, in case everybody wanted to choose exactly the same combination and he wondered what happened to what was left over. No doubt Donald knew what to do with it.
He married Hilda Dorothy Vallens at Weymouth, her family home, in 1918, the couple having met earlier in the War in Cape Town, South Africa where Hilda was a nurse. They had three children: George, born in Portsmouth in 1922 while Donald was still in the Navy; Sybil in 1925 just after he left and was at Littlebredy and Rosemary in 1933 at Ufton.
Donald Large died at Englefield in 1980 and Hilda in 1983.
As Butler at Englefield in 1976
(Reading Evening Post)
© 2021 Richard J Smith