The Hutchinsons of Hythe Part 2: Tales from the Vault

There is a twentieth century postscript to the Hutchinsons of Hythe  story (see The Hutchinsons of Hythe Part 1: Practical Men).

It begins in April 1965 when the Vicar of Hythe, Canon Eric Newman, received a troubling letter. The writer, Lt. Cdr. C.R. Hutchinson, resident in London, explained that in 1826 his family had paid for a family vault to be prepared urgently in St Leonard’s Church and he would like to have it opened to receive his own remains when his time came. He had been taken to the Church as a boy in 1909 to view the vault of his Great Aunt Anne; he remembers ‘it was near some steps’ and he also retains a hazy memory of ‘several minutes’ happy play with some skulls and bones in the Crypt’. He quotes the inscription the family had placed above it, as follows:

In the vault beneath are interred the Remains

Of Anne Hutchinson

Eldest daughter of Scrope and Anne Hutchinson.

She died at Canterbury after a very short illness

On the 20th of Jany 1826 in the 19th year of her age.

Why was this story troubling to Canon Newman? Because he had, by an accident, already discovered the vault, and had found it ‘entirely empty’.  And it was he who, not knowing the owner, had it converted into a Columbarium, to receive the cremated ashes of departed parishioners,  in 1961. It is a large space, 8 feet by 18 feet by nearly 6 feet high and Scrope Hutchinson, Anne’s father,  must have intended it as a family vault. Indeed, he kept the receipt for the completion of the work, which passed down through the family.

Canon Newman wrote to Commander Hutchinson to explain the circumstance and making an offer: ‘if you favour cremation, perhaps your ashes could rest here?’ And indeed they do. The Commander died on 19 January 1986 and his ashes now rest in a marble urn in the erstwhile family vault.

The entrance to the Columbarium which lies under St Leonard’s church

Who was he? I have known this story for some years and assumed that he was a career naval officer, now retired and perhaps rather dull. This could not be much further from the truth.

Charles Ross Hutchinson was born on 6 April 1905 in Blackheath, the son of George Ross Hutchinson and grandson of Charles Scrope Hutchinson, the Railway Inspector.  He usually omitted ‘Charles’ from his name and was known just as ‘Ross’ . He was, by the age of sixteen, a cadet in the Royal Navy, following in the footsteps of his older brother William, who had died aged nineteen at the Battle of Jutland.  However, Ross was already taking part in amateur dramatic presentations and giving ballroom dancing demonstrations in Plymouth where he was posted. 

Ten years later, he had left the navy and was performing regularly on the London stage  and in plays on the wireless. By 1934, he had moved to Bristol and was writing and producing his own work, combining this with repertory. He also occasionally worked as a BBC announcer. It may be that acting was in his genes. He was the first cousin of Laurence Olivier – their respective mothers were sisters.

When war broke out, Ross was soon back in uniform, in the Royal Naval Voluntary Reserve. For the first six months, he served as lieutenant on HM Yacht Cutty Sark, a private steam vessel requisitioned by the Admiralty and equipped as an anti-submarine vessel. From 1941 to 1943, he was in Liverpool working as a signals officer and in 1944 he was at the signal school in Petersfield. From December that year until the end of the war, he served in Sydney, Australia at the Royal Navy manning depot, with the rank of Lt. Commander.  

HM YACHT CUTTY SARK. 21 FEBRUARY 1942, RIVER CLYDE, NEAR GOUROCK. (A 7544) Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205141609

The RN encampment in Sydney in 1944

Despite all this activity, Ross found time to write, producing the first of his comedies based on his naval experiences: The Dog Watches was performed in the West End of London in 1944.

Then Ross turned his attention to politics. He was adopted as prospective parliamentary candidate for Thornbury in Gloucestershire in 1946, but resigned in late 1947, citing ‘private reasons’.  The reasons were that he had found employment as private secretary to Oliver Baldwin, 2nd Earl Baldwin and son of the former Conservative prime minister Stanley Baldwin.

Oliver was not a chip off the old block. He hated Eton, which he left as soon as he could, became a socialist and served two terms as a Labour MP. Outside politics, he earned a living through writing, including some dramatic works which were performed on the London stage and on radio.  Presumably this is how he met Ross. Baldwin’s biographer records that Ross was ‘courteous and efficient and also a good pianist, excelling in the lighter repertoire of Gilbert and Sullivan’. (1)

Oliver Baldwin

In February 1948 Baldwin was appointed Governor and Commander in Chief of the Leeward Islands, a British colonial territory in the Caribbean. He and Ross sailed to Antigua on 8 March 1948. They would be joined later by Baldwin’s lifelong gay partner, Johnny Boyle. 

As far as HMG was concerned, Baldwin’s sojourn was not a success. He wanted to improve the economic and social infrastructure of the islands, but in attempting to do this he disturbed the social hierarchy on the islands between a minority white ‘plantocracy’ and the thousands of ordinary black or mixed race labourers who worked the sugar plantations. Moreover, he was distrusted by civil servants in London and by some of the colonial elite within the Caribbean sphere itself.

Oliver Baldwin as Governor of the Leeward Islands

Before Baldwin resigned his post in early 1950, citing exhaustion and ill-health, Ross had created a photographic record of his time there which is now held at the National Archive in Kew (2). 

Oliver Baldwin & Johnny Boyle in Antigua

Oliver Baldwin & Ross Hutchinson in Antigua

Ross returned to the theatre. In June 1951, his play Navy at Sea was on in the West End the next year he was himself performing again.  He had another brief foray into politics when he stood against Herbert Morrison at South Lewisham in 1951. Morrison was widely tipped to be the next leader of the Labour Party and Ross lost, though with an increased Conservative vote.

Herbert Morrison, who never became Labour Party leader

More plays followed: in 1954, Fortune’s Finger and in 1958 The Navy at Sea. He played Dan Archer in a stage version of the radio series, in 1957 was on tour in an Agatha Christie play Spiders Web  and in 1959 performed in panto. The sixties saw a move into TV and film. Ross appeared in Dixon of Dock Green and The Avengers among many other series, in a couple of now-forgotten films and in 1963 adapted a play for film. It was a rewrite of a  restoration comedy, The Relapse and was to be retitled Virtue in Danger. According to The Stage it was to be ‘a large scale picture, made for the wide screen, in colour’ with a score by Wilfred Burns, but somewhere along the way, the project was dropped. 

Ross in an episode of The Avengers entitled ;’Man-eater of Surrey Green’ (1965)…

…and in the film ‘Paid to Kill’ (1964)

Thereafter, Ross disappears from the public record. He lived at 45 Thurloe Square in Kensington in his heyday, but died in the Lambeth District

But none of this explains what happened to the remains of his great-aunt, Anne Hutchinson. Bodies do disintegrate over time, as do wooden coffins, but it might be expected that the brass handles of the coffin & its name plate would have survived, as might some fragments of clothing, but there was, according to Canon Newman, nothing. 

It must remain a mystery

With thanks to Mike Umbers 

  1. Christopher J. Walker, ‘Oliver Baldwin: A Life of Dissent’  Arcadia, 2003, p. 279
  2. The file reference is CO 1069/415, much of which is available online at  Antigua | Flickr

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