Posted February 3rd, 2012
by Richard Savage
Reminiscing about the Bridgwater brick works must have been the reason why I woke up with the expression “You’re a brick!” in my mind, and wondering where that came from.
It refers, of course, to a good, solid, substantial, dependable person. The expression is said to have originated with King Lycurgus of Sparta (ca. 800-730 BC), who was reputed to be responsible for establishing the Spartan virtues of equality (among citizens), military fitness, and austerity. When questioned about the absence of defensive walls around his city. “There are the walls of Sparta”, he replied, pointing at his soldiers, “and every man is a brick.’” [From the "Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins" by Robert Hendrickson (Facts on File, New York, 1997)].
It is strange how words come to mean something different from what they originally meant. Think of today’s use of the word “wicked”. When I was a boy, wicked meant only one thing, and a person who was wicked was bad and evil. Today, it is a compliment when your children say “You’re wicked, Dad!”
Oddly, the word brick seems to have come from the Old French briche which is akin to the Germanic/Middle Dutch word bricke, meaning a tile, or broken piece, with the same root as break. Even today in computer language something that is “bricked” is non-functional and beyond repair.
So, we have to admit there was some sense in Lewis Carroll’s “Alice through the Looking Glass” when the pompous Humpty Dumpty said to Alice:
‘There’s glory for you!’
‘I don’t know what you mean by “glory”,’ Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”‘
‘But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument”,’ Alice objected.
‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
Obviously, people can, and do. And there is also some sense in the strange conversation that Alice had at the Mad Hatter’s tea party in “Alice in Wonderland”, when the Mad Hatter asked:
`Why is a raven like a writing-desk?’
`Come, we shall have some fun now!’ thought Alice. `I’m glad they’ve begun asking riddles.–I believe I can guess that,’ she added aloud.
`Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?’ said the March Hare.
`Exactly so,’ said Alice.
`Then you should say what you mean,’ the March Hare went on.
`I do,’ Alice hastily replied; `at least–at least I mean what I say–that’s the same thing, you know.’
`Not the same thing a bit!’ said the Hatter.
I think that very often we need to say what we mean, as well as meaning what we say, in order to communicate with one another in a way that each person understands what the other is saying.
But let’s get back to the point of this article. What has all this to do with Bridgwater? Now I am thinking of those men and women who we could say have been living “bricks” of Bridgwater, people we can honour and be proud of.
We have written about Robert Blake, and there is no doubt that he was a brick.
But then there are the “Forgotten Heroes of Bridgwater” whom Roger Evans has written about in his book of the same name (ISBN 0 9525674 1 5) and makes fascinating reading. There you can read about military heroes like
Denis Heron (1829-1895), Troop Sergeant-Major and Sergeant-Instructor in the West Somerset Yeomanry Cavalry, but who had been a member of the Queen’s Own Hussars, the 4th Light Dragoons and one of the survivors of the gallant six hundred who had ridden in the fateful Charge of the Light Brigade in 1854. The whole saga is told grippingly by Roger Evans in his book. Irish by birth, Denis Heron spent most of his life in Bridgwater, living in Salmon Parade, and after his death from bronchitis, often fatal in those days before antibiotics, he was buried with full military honours in the top right corner of the cemetery in Bristol Road. Another memorial to those days is the cannon in the middle of the roundabout at the junction of the Bristol and Bath Roads. It was originally a Russian cannon captured in the Crimean War, presented to the town in 1857, and placed in Salmon Parade about 40 yards from the Town Bridge, right outside of Denis’s front door. In 1886 it was moved to the present locality, but sadly removed for scrap metal during the war. The present cannon is a replica.
Replica of cannon from the Crimea
Grave of Denis Heron in Bristol Road Cemetery
Denis Heron was loved and esteemed throughout the whole regiment for his upright and kind manner, and the courtesy he showed to every person who met him during the 25 years of his faithful and devoted service.
An equally gripping story recounted by Roger Evans is that of Edwin “Harry” Murrant -also spelt Morant (1864-1901) whose parents were master and matron of the Bridgwater workhouse at Northgate. His father died during the pregnancy, and his mother was subsequently described as disrespectful, violent and defiant. She lost her job and moved to 2 Bradford Villas in Wembdon. His elder sister Annie became a professor of music and lived in Hamp Crescent. Around 1884 Harry emigrated to Australia, and changed his name to Harry Harbord Morant. There he worked with droving and breaking horses, earning a reputation throughout much of south and east Australia for his audacity and adventurous life-style, and also for his poetry which he published under the pen name “The Breaker.” In 1900 he enlisted with the South Australian Mounted Rifles and fought in the Boer War, becoming a Lieutenant in the Bushveldt Carbineers. By all accounts something of a “dirty” war had developed between the British and the Boers, with atrocities on both sides. Harry Morant was court-marshalled and executed by firing squad for “war crimes” in what has become one of the most controversial wartime trials. The evidence for both sides, as well as the disappearance of vital legal documents from the court hearings, is presented extensively in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Breaker_Morant
On one side he is regarded as a daring and loyal soldier who carried out orders from the British High Command, and was made a scapegoat to cover up vagueness of those orders to “take no prisoners” and also to appease the German Kaiser for the murder of a German missionary. His trial and sentence is seen as a gross travesty of justice for which the British High Command should be held responsible. From the official army reports he is seen as a ruthless, vengeful killer of helpless prisoners-of-war. From Morant’s own viewpoint, he did not deny shooting the Boers, but saw it as carrying out orders and justified reprisals for the killing and mutilation of colleagues.
Was Morant wicked or wicked? True either way, according to the meaning you give to “wicked”. As with the story of Sarah Biffin under “Outstanding Bridgwater Women”, all will be revealed on the Great Judgment Day, when the secrets of men’s hearts will be revealed, as well as their works, and everyone will receive a just recompense for how they lived and died.
Two other “bricks” who survived the ordeal of being Japanese prisoners-of-war were Ron Authers (1917-1990) and Ernie Hobbs, both of whom worked for British Cellophane after leaving the army. Again, you must read the whole story in Roger Evans’ book. Suffice to say that Ron survived the Fall of Singapore, the Railway of Death and the Bridge over the River Kwai, the perils of Japanese cruelty and disease, being torpedoed while being transferred to Japan to work in the Mitsubishi factory, and then witnessing the atomic bombing of Hishoshima and Nagasaki.
Then there are naval heroes, commandos and marines from Bridgwater whose names and exploits should be remembered.
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