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John Henry Loftus Reade (1881-1914)

John Henry Loftus Reade (1881-1914)    In 1996 a box containing 538 letters written between 1895 and 1914 by Lieutenant John Henry Loftus Reade was presented to the Manchester Regiment’s 1st Battalion, then serving in Belfast. The donor was his kinswoman Mrs Rosemary Wilkinson, daughter of Dr Richard Brandon of Castletown, County Fermanagh.

After some intensive sorting by two members of the Regimental Association, the letters were deposited in their archive which is held in the Local Studies Library of Tameside Council, Ashton-under-Lyne. Loftus Reade was killed in action during the third month of the First World War while serving with the Regiment’s 2nd Battalion. I have attempted to catalogue these twenty years of his writing as part of my voluntary work at the Library, where all the letters and their summaries year-by-year can be viewed. This article aims to summarise the summaries.

Although Loftus Reade had been with the Regiment since 1902, he did not apparently set foot in Manchester until a brief visit six years later. According to Burke’s Irish Family Records (1976), the Reades lived in Ireland from Cromwellian times and George Reade was made High Sheriff of Wexford in 1768. His son, another George, married the niece of Charles Loftus Tottenham, Marquess of Ely (in Ireland), and from then onwards the name of Loftus appears in each generation. The younger George’s son Loftus was a Church of Ireland priest who moved from Wexford to County Fermanagh in 1826, and in 1830 became Prebendary of Devenish near Enniskillen. His marriage four years later proved significant, because his wife Rosanna was a daughter of John Brien from the neighbouring estate of Castletown.

Lieutenant Loftus Reade (who always signed himself as Loftus) was this clergyman’s grandson. Loftus’s father John Henry was a legal civil servant who by 1891 was Principal Clerk of the Local Government Board in London, and his mother Annabella Willans was of Irish origin but born and probably brought up in the city.

The London 1881 Census shows them living with Annabella’s parents, then ten years later they had their own home in Hampstead, where Loftus attended Loudoun House, a local school. But the situation was drastically changed by a series of deaths. Grandfather Willans had died in 1884, then Annabella’s mother and husband both died in 1894, leaving her with three children. These were Elinor (15), Loftus (13) and Constance (11).

Loftus’s letters start in January 1895, four months after his father’s death; they remain edged in black until April 1897. He had just entered the Fourth Form of St Columba’s College at Rathfarnham, on the southern edge of Dublin, leaving his mother and sisters in their new home at Bundoran, on the coast of County Donegal.

This Church of Ireland boarding school of 108 boys, one of the most prestigious in the country, was headed by Dr Whelan, a distant cousin. Loftus would have preferred to attend the much closer Portora Royal School, but the choice may not even have been his mother’s. It soon becomes clear from his letters that Annabella did not have financial control. Her husband had apparently failed to leave a will, and the holder of the purse-strings was an “obstinate old lady” (as he later described her), Mrs Brien, who lived in Dublin. Although she was his great-uncle’s widow, he never referred to her in any closer terms. The Brien pedigree (available on Ulster Ancestry’s website) reveals her maiden name as Frances Smyth.

Until 1912, Loftus wrote generally once a week to his “darling mother”, with a few letters to the “dear girls”. None of their replies are known to have been preserved. Throughout the years his handwriting matured but remained immaculate, his spelling and grammar were perfect, and his sentiments were restrained. Only occasionally, as with Mrs Brien’s miserliness or his frustrations over his army prospects, did he break into sardonic irritation. So in 1895 he calmly informed Annabella about the bullying and caning at his new school, but he reached third place in class and moved into the Fifth Form in September. By July 1896 he was excelling in the curriculum of Latin, Greek and Mathematics, he had been confirmed in the church, and he was made a prefect in September with charge of a dormitory. One of the privileges he most prized was freedom from corporal punishment; though he stopped short of condemning it, there is no sign that he approved of it or carried it out on younger boys.

Although Loftus always remained modest, his all-round abilities still come through. In January 1897, though not quite 16, he was made Acting Head of the Sixth Form during a measles epidemic, and had to help cope with the aftermath of a serious school fire. He also took a lead in producing “The Columban” college magazine, and was a keen rugby and cricket player. Yet there was no satisfying Mrs Brien, to whom “letter-writing is a weariness unto the flesh”.

By late 1898 he had risen to second in class, but Mrs Brien decided that enough had been spent on his schooling. Loftus wanted to see out the school year, but she had resolved that he should start at Trinity College Dublin the following January. He therefore scraped through the entrance exam and began his studies (which were still Classics and Maths) poorly prepared and in uncomfortable lodgings.

The situation was complicated in May 1899 by the sudden death of Loftus’s eccentric Aunt Willy, actually his great-aunt Mrs Wilhelmina Braddell. This widow was one of the three children of John Brien of Castletown, the others being Loftus’s grandmother Rosanna and John Dawson Brien, Mrs Brien’s husband, who had died in 1881. Only Rosanna had produced children, and Loftus was her sole grandson. Although Aunt Willy had nominal possession of Castletown, she had lived in Dublin for over thirty years whilst her Fermanagh estate was managed by her agent, Mr Plunkett. Loftus had visited her occasionally, but his spirits sank when he discovered the state of her Dublin home, containing endless boxes of old papers and three drunken servants.

Fortunately her brother-in-law came to the rescue. Banknotes were found in unlikely corners and so Aunt Willy was given a good wake before the will was settled. She had lived so frugally that one observer described her funeral procession as “the dearest journey she ever took in her life”.

Less fortunately, Aunt Willy had promised legacies to all and sundry but her will was not the clearest of documents. Loftus found himself neglecting his studies for innumerable meetings with solicitors, much to Mrs Brien’s disapproval. It seems that she had agreed to take her share of the estate on her husband’s death in the form of income rather than actual land, so there was no dispute that Loftus should inherit the whole of Castletown - a mansion largely built by John Dawson Brien in 1869, the year after his marriage, with the ruined seventeenth century Monea Castle nearby.

The house was surrounded by its domain of tenant farmers, covering 5,085 acres at this date according to the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland. However, it was not apparent from the will that the house’s contents were included, and a codicil stated that any unspecified property was to be divided between a string of relatives. What final agreement was reached is unclear from the letters, but in early 1900 Loftus’s mother and sisters were able to move into Castletown. Henceforward Loftus took on the cares of a generally absentee landlord, worried about the expenses of estate management and concerned that Elinor and Constance had no provision of their own. Plunkett (as he was always called) continued as his agent; their relationship seems to have been efficient but always formal.

Although Loftus moved to rooms in Trinity College, dissatisfaction with his course and city life was perhaps increased by his new responsibilities. He was also aware that Boer War recruitment had accelerated, with many regular and militia troops being despatched to South Africa in 1899 and 1900. From January 1900 Loftus considered an army career. He believed that he could receive a commission in June of that year and duly sat a test, but apparently the War Office changed policy on awarding commissions to undergraduates. However, he wrote no more letters from Trinity College after that date, apparently abandoning his course (although his name appears on the College’s War Memorial).

His next letter home is dated June 1901, by which time he was a Second LieutenantJohn Henry Loftus Reade (1881-1914)    in the Royal Irish Rifles’ 5th (Militia) Battalion at Belfast. The next month he sailed from Southampton to Durban, a seventeen-day voyage on RMS Orotava. “There are a few ladies on board” he wrote, “all middle-aged, going out to ‘concentration camps’ at the Cape, one of them being Lady Knox” the wife of a serving Colonel. (These camps had been set up to hold Boer women and children, and reports of their disease-ridden conditions had resulted in British volunteers.)

Once landed, Loftus took the train to Vredefort Road Camp in what had been the Orange Free State, now the Orange River Colony. The final bitter stage of the war consisted mainly of sporadic skirmishes, but Loftus felt that “this life suits me down to the ground”. He was appointed Transport Officer at Kopjes Station, north of Vredefort and closer to the outposts of Boer resistance, where he dealt with both trains and mules, also using this opportunity to learn polo and shoot “a lot of queer birds”. Letters home were still penned regularly once a week on the battalion’s notepaper.

Thirty-three Riflemen died from gunshot or disease before peace was made in June 1902. Loftus’s final posting was in charge of a line of blockhouses (or small fortifications) with a garrison of 24 soldiers and 50 “kaffirs”. Although the blockhouses had been attacked in previous months, none were ever taken and Loftus did not experience any direct action. Then on 28 January 1902 came “a total surprise”; he was commissioned Second Lieutenant in the Manchester Regiment, which had two regular battalions in South Africa and two at home. By May he was with the 4th Battalion at Cork Barracks, a regular officer who had earned his rank rather than acquired it through any connections.

Henceforth he was to settle into the routines of peacetime military life, with the training of new recruits, countryside manoeuvres, summer camp under canvas and the sporting and social activities of the officers’ mess. In October he was sent off to Hythe in Kent for a six-week musketry course, and on return instantly became the expert and trainer in this field. His reward was to be promoted Lieutenant in November 1903, aged 22, though he commented that “it will take the next fifteen years to Captain”.

Loftus’s Battalion remained at Cork until late in 1905, and letters show that he had “lashings of work”. He was made Assistant Adjutant at the same time as Lieutenant, which entailed administrative and disciplinary duties; he was expected to hand out fines or guardroom confinements for drunken escapades, and had to arbitrate with a local farmer over a sheep-stealing episode. He attended race-meetings with his colleagues but had neither the taste nor funds for their hunting activities, preferring to develop his golfing skills. At the same time he attempted to oversee his estate, ensure Mrs Brien’s annuity and show protective concern towards his sisters, as he must have realised what limited lives they led. He encouraged them in their extended visits to friends and relations, in their gardening and bee-keeping, and, with Constance, her increasing skills in photography. Flowers and photographs were always welcomed.

In November 1905 the Battalion was transferred to Corunna Barracks at Aldershot, a town that Loftus instantly disliked (though he later admitted that he hated all new places but grew to tolerate them before being moved again). He was also made acting Adjutant, a post held off and on for four years until it became official; the job brought him an extra £40 a year plus a horse. After a year in Aldershot, the Battalion was posted to Fort Albert on the Channel Island of Alderney, where Loftus spent a bleak Christmas in 1906. The windswept isle had “six trees and twenty forts, mostly derelict”, yet he came to prefer it to “suburban Guernsey” when some of the Battalion were deployed there and he had the chance of a transfer.

With the company of eleven other officers, one policeman and one magistrate (who had to arbitrate over the islanders’ rights to shipwrecks), he could shoot gulls and play golf every day when weather permitted. He also found that the once or twice-weekly mailboat deliveries cut down on wasteful time in the Adjutant’s office.

Political concerns developed from 1906, with the election of a Liberal government resolved on military cutbacks. While Loftus was on Alderney it was announced that the Manchester Regiment would be halved from four Battalions to two, but he survived reorganisation to emerge in January 1908 as acting Adjutant for the 2nd Battalion, based at Cambridge Barracks, Portsmouth. Then in June he was in the Guard of Honour for the visit of the Duchess of Albany, who was the King’s sister-in-law. “It was extremely hot for a tunic” he wrote, “but it all went off very nicely”.

Meanwhile at home he encouraged Plunkett in selling off land to tenants, so giving a boost to the family’s uncertain income. He lamented that he had “to soldier permanently for a living” after he performed badly at a promotional exam in December because “I haven’t the brains of a fly”. (Modern readers may doubt this on looking at his meticulously researched twenty-page essay about Stonewall Jackson’s 1862 Virginia Campaign, written as a training exercise in 1905.)

In March 1909 Loftus, now aged 28, was elected Mess President, perhaps because he was not subject to the Battalion’s “matrimonial epidemic”. Naturally he would not disclose all his private activities in letters home, but over the years there is never a hint of romance. In fact, Loftus tried to avoid society dinners and dances whenever possible. Nor does he ever mention any close male friends, whether in school, university or regiment. It would be wrong, however, to assume that he was a recluse; he was known to have a good baritone voice, and was prepared to perform at small gatherings. Yet he always gives the impression of being detached from others,
happiest when reading one of his sisters’ novels, playing golf, or on a shoot in the country.

Loftus’s routine was interrupted in September 1909 when, after six weeks of manoeuvres on Salisbury Plain, the Battalion transferred to Mullingar in County Westmeath. The barracks proved comfortable, though there was “no dirtier town in Ireland”. Social life consisted of visits to the local gentry, including the Tottenhams of Tudenham House who were distant relatives. Contact was easier when his colleague Captain Theobald was prepared to share his motor-car (make unspecified). Loftus still avoided hunting (“the Irishman is a brute where animals are concerned”) and liked escaping from the Mess provided that he was not expected to socialise too much with his hosts’ hopeful daughters or nieces.

National and international politics now increasingly entered into Loftus’s letters. The Liberal government was pledged to introduce Irish Home Rule, but had been frustrated by the House of Lords’ power of veto. Tensions in Ireland had risen, and in Mullingar there were occasional bad words (though no apparent violence) between soldiers and locals. In May 1910 the new King George V was proclaimed at Mullingar without public enthusiasm, only the military singing the National Anthem. Loftus believed the government to be dangerously weak both at home and abroad. He warned his mother in May that “it is high time everybody put their affairs in order with a view to the approaching war with Germany”. But then a war “would settle our promotion troubles”.

There were diversions in June 1911, when Loftus travelled to London in order to supervise the Battalion’s ceremonial drill at the Coronation, and in July, when the King presented new colours to all the five regiments in Ireland. Two months later he feared that the same troops would be used to intervene in a Dublin strike, but in the end they were not involved. Back at Castletown, Elinor had played a large part, along with the Rector of Devenish, in fund-raising for a new school, and she had presided over its opening in February when Loftus was unable to attend. This boosted her confidence into becoming an organiser and speaker for the Women’s Unionist Movement. And as the 1911 Parliament Act had removed the House of Lords’ power of veto, the prospect of Home Rule was drawing closer.

In October 1911 the Battalion moved to Keane Barracks on the Curragh, the grassy plain in County Kildare that provided both a racecourse and the major army base in Ireland. Three months later, they were sent to Belfast because violence was expected during a visit from one of the government’s keenest Home Rulers, Winston Churchill. Loftus wrote home that “The battalion is in Belfast and I am here (at base). I don’t feel very noble over it. But when it seemed as if there would be serious trouble with the Orangemen, I told the Colonel that I really could not go and he agreed to leave me behind.” The troops were not called into action, although “Winston would have been badly mobbed but for having his wife with him”. Loftus however “washed (his) hands of Orangeism and all its ways” because soldiers were illicitly handed leaflets urging them not to fight against their fellow citizens. Unlike his sister Elinor, his mind had become “an absolute blank on the matter” of Home Rule.

Loftus’s adjutancy was due to end in December 1912. He had now served six postings with the regiment, ranging from over three years at Cork to ten months in Alderney, and he reluctantly expected a transfer to India. So he visited Mrs Brien, now nearly blind but still expecting updates on “the safe custody of her marriage settlement”. Then he was saved by the appearance of another lieutenant who drew the short straw. In February 1913 he arrived instead at the Regimental Depot in Ashton-under-Lyne.

There are only four letters home preserved from 1913, sent between February and July. Eight officers were based at what was later called Ladysmith Barracks, built between “sombre moors and endless mills”. A march round the local towns resembled “being led into Dante’s Inferno”. But as four colleagues had cars, there were excursions into Manchester and through the “Stockport slums” to Alderley Edge, home of Lieutenant Holberton (later a war hero). Loftus had attended several refresher courses on musketry skills, and now again took shooting practice with recruits, this time at Fleetwood on the Lancashire coast. These “troglodytes”, as he called them, were required to pass a test and so new officers had to watch out for experienced soldiers being bribed to impersonate the less able. Fleetwood was followed by summer camp near Appleby. Loftus’s life sounds less stressed than in his adjutancy days, though he was bothered about “socialism in the ranks”. But he had perhaps become more cynical, conscious that his career had stalled and he had been sidelined.

From the start of 1914, Loftus was concerned about his mother’s sciatica which confined her to bed, but his letters continued to comment on the fraught Irish situation. On 20 March the Commander at the Curragh gave his officers the choice between resigning their commissions or fighting the Ulster Unionists, a step which he believed the government was about to order; fifty-seven (though none from the Manchester Regiment) offered to resign. Word got out, and the government claimed there had been confusion about its intentions, but others smelled a plot. Loftus had no time for Unionist conspiracy theories. “I’m sick of the government, equally sick of the opposition, and sick almost more than all with the Morning Post” he wrote home on 2 April. “The whole trouble did arise out of misunderstandings – the evidence of a plot to force a conflict in Ulster isn’t enough to hang a fly on.”

Then on 30 April Annabella died, aged 72. She must have concealed her terminal condition from her son. Blacked-edged correspondence resumed with the sisters in June along much the same lines as before, ranging from speculation about a general election to comments on a jolly trip to Blackpool. Two months later “Armageddon has come at last”. War was declared on 4 August, which gave “an unrivalled opportunity of getting rid of the German menace”. The Home Rule Bill was finally given royal assent in September, but suspended for the war. However, Loftus realized that the fighting was not going to be finished quickly and he did not expect Irish Nationalists to be “loyal citizens until the war’s over”.

Loftus returned to his Battalion at the Curragh on 10 August and sailed six days later on the crowded “Buteshire” from Dublin. The battalion currently comprised 20 officers and 570 other ranks, and were to join the British Expeditionary Force in northern France. During the next eleven weeks Loftus managed to send his sisters five pre-printed postcards and five letters in minute pencilled handwriting.

He began by assuring them of the arrangements made with his solicitor before departure, then listed his practical needs for socks, handkerchiefs, soap, chocolate and cigarettes. Censorship meant that he could not describe the campaign, but he could tell Elinor and Constance that he had been made Adjutant again in September after his predecessor had been killed in carrying out the hazardous task of passing on orders. Yet it was still “a wonderful time to live through”.

His last letter is dated 28 October. “I am still as fit as ever” he wrote, “but sleep has been at a discount”. He knew that he had already been mentioned for valour in despatches, and “to know that it has given you pleasure gives me pleasure too. God bless you both”. This was written the day before his death, and so must have reached home after the fateful telegram of 1 November, sent in the War Secretary’s name. “Deeply regret to inform you” it stated, “that Lieut. JHL Reade Manchester Regt was killed in action 28-29 October. Lord Kitchener expresses his sympathy.” Loftus was aged 33 years and 8 months. Mrs Brien had outlived him; she lingered on until December 1917, and was buried with her husband in Dublin.

Memorial plaque for John Henry Loftus Reade (1881-1914)    The box of Loftus’s letters also contained the official notices of his death, obituaries clipped from Irish newspapers, a few South African photographs and twenty-four letters of condolence. No family letters were included. The earliest, dated 2 November 1914, is from the Rector of Devenish, William Steele. Comments on Loftus’s “blameless and upright life”, and his support for the church, were to form the basis of the Rector’s funeral sermon, reproduced in full by the Fermanagh Times. Other missives were from the Parish Vestry, the local Rifle Club, the Orange Lodge, the sisters’ war nursing class, and several neighbours. One of these wrote that “everyone hoped he might settle down as Squire in Castletown”. But the most poignant were six letters from Loftus’s wartime colleagues, written whilst recovering from wounds in England and so free from the censorship of the front. It is from their accounts that the Lieutenant’s movements during his final weeks can be reconstructed.

The Battalion’s first encounter with the Germans occurred on 23 August, at the Mons-Conde canal. Three days later there was a fierce fight at Le Cateau, south of Mons, after which Loftus’s commanding officer, Colonel James, mentioned him in despatches. Another participant was a Private Richards who was nursed by the sisters’ friend Alice Tottenham in Torquay. She got him to describe what had happened, and then passed on the details. “All his men used to wonder at his courage. He went across a zone of fire to get orders, and would let no one go but himself. When a bullet hit his cap, he got up and came back laughing, and he used to wear the cap afterwards with the hole through the peak.” Loftus’s old motoring colleague from Mullingar, Captain Theobald, also wrote that “he was absolutely without any sort of fear in action.”

Two witnesses to Loftus’s final moments also contacted the sisters. One was his immediate chief, Captain Hardcastle, whom he had first known on Alderney. Hardcastle was with him in the trenches at Festubert, about fifty miles west of Mons, where Loftus had told him that “I’d sooner be here than at Ashton”. He wrote that “Suddenly we saw them (the Germans) rushing our forward trenches, and Loftus ran along the supporting trench, steadying the men. He must have exposed himself in his haste, because he’d hardly got to the end of the line before a man told me he’d been hit. As soon as we had driven them back, I went to him and found a bullet had gone through his neck. When night fell, he was buried with others near a small farm, and after the burials the regiment withdrew from the firing line. ”

Alice Tottenham also prompted another wounded Private for his memories, which he committed to paper himself. JM Hall wrote that “About seven o’clock on the morning of 29 October Lieut. Reade was dashing up and down giving his orders and urging on his men when a sniper fired and hit him in the head. He never spoke a word after, and I can honestly say what I saw of Lieut. Reade was, he was a brave and gallant soldier.” The sisters sent Private Hall a cigarette case, and in a letter of thanks he promised on his return to look for their brother’s grave if possible. But there seems to be no further word from him, and in November 1916 Elinor and Constance got the Director of Graves Registration to confirm that Loftus was indeed buried at Festubert.

Included amongst the letters was one sent to Loftus himself in April 1914 by Arthur Bathurst, an acquaintance from another regiment, in reply to an earlier post. Bathurst wrote that “Your letter sums up both the political and military situation with an impartiality which is extremely rare in any class of the community, and especially so in the Army and from an Irishman!” Loftus’s impartiality was mature and enlightened; he understood that the Irish troubles would not be resolved by one party triumphing over the other, and that the German conflict would be prolonged and devastating. Yet it was also symptomatic of that sense of detachment which had grown increasingly cynical during the frustrations of twelve years’ peacetime soldiering. Once at the front, however, an entirely different spirit of heroic recklessness seems to have taken him over, and the twelve years of detachment were followed by two months of glory and then death.

Back in Fermanagh, her wartime duties over, Elinor Reade married Rector William Steele on 4 March 1919. She was now aged 39 and he was 53; there were no children. Constance meanwhile lived on in Castletown, presumably tending the garden as before, perhaps still taking photographs, but above all ensuring that the possessions and letters of her brother remained intact. She died unmarried in 1968, aged 85. There were no Reades nor Briens to succeed her, and the house with its remaining 135 acres was left to Dr Richard Brandon (1916-2001), whose mother Gladys Reade was Constance’s third cousin. Their common ancestor was the George Reade who had been High Sheriff of Wexford in 1768. Coincidentally, they shared another forebear as Dr Brandon was descended from a sister of John Brien of Castletown. It may also have come to the old lady’s notice that he had served as a Flight Lieutenant in the Second World War, and that his name had been mentioned in despatches.

Acknowledgements

For their work in preserving Loftus Reade’s records and their help in preparing this article, I would like to thank Captain Robert Bonner (retired), Chairman of the Manchester Regiment Advisory Committee, and his two volunteers, Peter Ashworth and Frank Fenton; Frank McHugh, Secretary of the Fermanagh Family History Society; Larysa Bolton and Michael Keane, present and previous Tameside Council Archivists; and all the staff of Tameside Local Studies Library in Ashton-under-Lyne.

David Ian Hamilton