The Petit Beurre Mystery*

Wycombe abbey_2crop‘Stands there a school in the midst of the Chilterns
Beech-covered hillsides encircle it round
Ivy and creepers entwine the old Abbey
Health and contentment within are found.’
(Wycombe Abbey School Song, 1901)

 

The icy waters closed over the girls’ heads as they screamed and thrashed about.
Desperately they struggled to survive but the powerful winter currents had other plans. Cries of anguish, terror and pain wrought the air, ‘Please help us, don’t let us drown.’

The young schoolmistress woke with a start. She sat alone in her sparsely furnished room, trembling with shock at the scene she had just witnessed. It was a recurring nightmare so real that she had to do something about it. However, she had not worked at Wycombe Abbey School very long, and she did not want the headmistress to think she was strange or unstable.

Whenever these vivid dreams occurred, all she could do was to remain awake. She would sit in bed for the rest of the night, sipping tea and munching her favourite petit beurre biscuits to take her mind of that terrible vision. The girls in her nightmare tragedy were clearly from the school. There was no mistaking their distinctive dark blue uniforms. She even recognized some of their faces, or thought she did.

They seem to blur into one special girl whose eyes, filled with fear, would look directly at her, pleading for help as the water closed over her head. Eventually this dream became a torment that she carried around with her day after day.

Dove_drowning

Was it a warning, she wondered, a premonition perhaps? Before long she plucked up courage to speak to Miss Dove, the headmistress, about her experience and the terrible worry she felt. Miss Dove was sympathetic, if a little concerned about the mental anguish this young teacher was suffering. She always put the girls first and her staff were expected to sacrifice everything to ensure that the welfare of the pupils was paramount. No one could give of their best while coping with sleepless nights and such anxiety. However, the teacher felt better having shared her burden and the dreams did begin to fade and then stop altogether.

Unbeknown to that young teacher, Miss Dove herself had experienced dreams that also saw her girls in the fast flowing waters of the River Thames. But, in Miss Dove’s dream the girls were not in difficulties; on the contrary, they were accomplished rowers. She had dreamt that she was standing on Marlow Bridge when she noticed an eight-oar boat coming towards her. She too recognised the Wycombe Abbey School colours, and, again, was able to make out the faces of individuals girls.
Dove
 Dame (Jane) Frances Dove (1847–1942)

All this had left Miss Dove with one important thought. If her dream could come true, as she hoped, so could the terrible tragedy witnessed by the young teacher. She had already considered instituting swimming lessons as part of the school’s activities. but now they were essential. There was to be no boating on the nearby River Thames until all the girls had learned to swim.

The school prided itself on producing the finest educated young ladies possible, but with much more than just academic talents. Miss Dove believed strongly in the fostering of athletic skills in girls, curtly dismissing any claim that such activities were only male prerogatives. In a remarkable statement for its time and only two years after her pioneering work in the founding of the school in 1896, Miss Dove had written an essay entitled, ‘The Cultivation of the Body, in which she said “We do not desire girls to be brainless athletes any more than we wish that they should be delicate or stunted blue-stockings.’
Dove_4
Right from its late 19th century beginnings, Wycombe Abbey had become a much sought after public school for girls. The enterprising and far-seeing Miss Dove, true to her principles that girls were at least equal to, if not better than boys, based her school on the male public school model and then took it that much further in terms of the ‘Health and Contentment’ so heartily sung about in the school song of 1901.
Dove_3She also allowed a great deal of fun to be had at the school: “Let us have games of all kinds, lawn tennis, fives, bowls, croquet, quoits, golf, swimming, skating, archery, tobogganing, basketball, rounders and hailes,’ she wrote.
DOVE_cricket
Wycombe Abbey School Cricket Team 1906

For Miss Dove there was ‘no finer exercise than swimming.’ That and her passion for Swedish Gymnastics, that claimed to provide systematic training of all the body’s muscles.
Dove_6

True to progressing her dream, Miss Dove, had, by 1904, encouraged the formation of a ‘boat committee’ which took every advantage of the magnificent school lake. A few pupils even took to the waters of the Thames in July 1904 under the scornful gaze and sarcastic comments of the ferrymen at Townsend’s Wharf at Bourne End.
When, led by another young teacher, Miss Batchelor, the girls asked for two poles and two paddles, one boatman said in a scathing tone. ‘Oh you be going to do some work, you be?‘ and the men all laughed.

It was, however, on another visit to that same wharf in Bourne End a few years later, in the winter of 1907, that our main story unfolds.

It was a crisp, frosty Saturday on February 2nd 1907. The girls awoke earlier than usual just to be sure that the weather hadn’t changed. Squeals of excitement told that it had not. The school grounds were covered in a heavy white frost and the lake was frozen solid.

Today they were going skating.

Skating on the school lake, however, was much too dangerous and strictly forbidden by Miss Dove. But this didn’t matter because their trip was to be much more exciting. The whole school of two hundred girls was going to a popular skating area in Bourne End called Cockmarsh.
dove-cockmarsh meadow
This damp, boggy piece of land was transformed by frosty winter weather into a magnificent natural skating rink, totally safe and fantastic fun.
After a swift but nutritious breakfast – Miss Dove had very specific views on the value of porridge to start the day – they set off to catch the 8.28 am train from High Wycombe to Bourne End. All of them were under strict instructions to represent the very best image of the school.

With their skates tied around their necks, they clutched their packed lunches, lots of chocolate and other goodies to ward off the cold. This was going to be a great day out. There was plenty of excited chattering and giggling about the great time they were about to have and the boys they might bump into – literally.

The train chugged through the frosty winder morning, steam billowing across the frozen landscape and in a matter of twenty minutes they were alighting at Bourne End Station. Already people were arriving from all directions to enjoy a Saturday on the ice. To reach Cockmarsh, however, there was another exciting adventure to experience. A ferry ride across the Thames. The river’s flow was too fast to allow it to become frozen enough to walk on so this was the only way to reach the skating meadow on the opposite bank.

Ferries were already busy plying their trade from Townsend’s Wharf across to Cockmarsh, and soon it was the turn of the Wycombe Abbey girls to cross. They split into groups and the first set off to arrive moments later on the Cockmarsh side of the river.
DOVE_cockmarsh
Wycombe Abbey girls break for lunch at Cockmarsh, Bourne End (1919)

The second party soon filled up the punt with excited girls anxious to join their companions already on the other wide, who were busy putting on their skates.  The ferryman swung the punt around so that the bow faced the opposite bank and had just set off when, in the words an eyewitness, ‘Two or three impetuous spirits thought they might fill up a small vacant place so they jumped for it.
Immediately this happened, the stern was forced below the fast flowing freezing cold water of the Thames. It rushed into the punt, swamping the occupants and tipping around thirty of them into the icy cold river. All was panic and confusion and screams for help.

Some of the young women had been thrown into deeper waters than others, whilst those who could, scrambled out, pulled by willing hands. Those in deeper water were forced to brave the shock of their sudden cold immersion and swim to the bank. Some girls were certainly out of their depth and screaming with shock but, encouraged by shouts from those on the bank, made it to their eager helpers who pulled them shivering from the river. ‘ Here is a press report the following Monday Febuary 4th 1907
Dove_paper_Nottingham_shadowSource: Skating Tragedies . The Nottingham Evening Post (Nottingham, England), Monday, February 04, 1907; pg. 5

When it became clear that all had survived, it also seemed clear that Miss Dove’s insistence on learning swimming skills had paid off. One group of shivering girls was rushed to the nearby Ferry Hotel where the landlady, Mrs. Cleve, wrapped them in blankets  beside the pub fire, The other group hurried to the Railway Hotel and were also made warm and comfortable. Messages were sent to Wycombe Abbey School for dry clothing to be dispatched as quickly as possible and a mixture of all sorts of cosy, warm clothes eventually arrived at both hotels.Dove_paper_shadow_1
Source : “Skaters’ Peril” Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser (Manchester, England), Monday, February 04, 1907; pg.

All subsequent reports of the incident agree that the girls were very brave and in remarkably high spirits given the nature of their ordeal. They were much sadder, however, when they saw their friends who had made the ferry trip safely, returning from their skating fun, but in their own way, they knew they had experienced a remarkable adventure and a fortunate escape.
Dove_5
However, whilst the South Bucks Free Press,the following Friday,played down the danger and reported  ‘An Exciting Incident and Amusing Adventure.‘ the eyewitness reporter for the South Bucks Standard provided a more realistic assessment.

Under the headline, ‘Startling Accident near the Ferry: Young Ladies Immersed’,  it took a far more more serious line. Taking into account that there was an exceptionally heavy frost that day and the girls had been tipped suddenly into icy waters wearing heavy coats, boots, scarves and gloves, carrying skates and packed lunches, then under some circumstances this might have ended more tragically. What the South Bucks Standard referred to as the possibility of ‘…a fatal termination.’

The report paid tribute to ‘....the brave and healthy outlook on life and its happenings which their school precepts induce them to hold.’

After congratulating the victims on their escape and plucky behaviour, certain others at Wycombe Abbey got to thinking about the young teacher who had now left the school and how she awoke startled on so many occasions with her terrible dream until she had the courage to mention her fears to the headmistress. We do not know if, secretly, Miss Dove paid silent homage to that teacher’s second sight which had led her to issue the all important directive that, without exception, every one of her girls must learn to swim.

There is, however,one more intriguing part to this story – a piece of information that does not appear in the newspaper reports about the Bourne End ferry incident. A piece of information that, at first glance, seems relatively trivial and can be found only in the school’s own termly journal, The Gazette of June 1907.

Recalling what happened on the morning of February 2nd under the heading ‘Skating Holiday,’ it records the accident very much as the newspapers had except they blamed the ferryman for allowing too many to board and then pushing off from the bank too suddenly. Whoever was to blame, however, makes no difference to what follows in The Gazette’s report. Apart from the hats, gloves, scarves and other items of clothing that were left floating in the river, the magazine records:

There were innumerable “Petit Beurre” biscuits, which, had been bought for lunch, in the water and when the other lost articles were collected and sent back to Wycombe, some industrious individual carefully gathered together all the scraps of biscuit and returned them as well. They have since been much enjoyed by the swans on the lake.

Who on earth would bother to do such a thing as collect scraps of broken, soggy Petit Beurre biscuits from an icy river and take the trouble to return them, anonymously, but neatly wrapped, to the school? Was this the final mysterious sign that those endless nightmare nights endured by the young teacher had achieved their purpose?
petit beurre

Second sight is a rare gift indeed. It was now up to Miss Dove to realise her dream.

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*This true story was first published in 2003 in a collection entitled Buckinghamshire Tales of Mystery and Murder researched & written by David Kidd-Hewitt and published by Countryside Books in Newbury Berkshire. (www.countrysidebooks.co.uk)

 

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