Tommy this and Tommy that


We are lucky to have a photograph of Troop Sergeant Major Edwin Mole

Here’s a tale about one of the soldiers of the Queen, one Edwin Kempson Mole (1847-1937). For a few months in 1897 this soldier became famous in a Kiplingesque Tommy Atkins sort of way, after his reminiscences of army service were published. But it is worth looking at what parts of the story the book did not relate.

Troop sergeant major Mole told his readers how he first took the Queen’s shilling for a cavalry regiment aged just 16, following  an argument with his foreman while he was working to build the Charing Cross Hotel in London. He served 25 years in the 14th (King’s) Hussars, serving most of that long time overseas, in India — Kalapoosh as the squaddies (or ‘swaddies’, to use the original old northern/Norse word) called the country.

Before he sailed for India he married a girl he met while serving in Dublin. She went to India with him, had a daughter and died there. The daughter he sent home to live with the late wife’s sister. Mole remarried while in India. Tellingly, as we shall see, his biography leaves out what may have happened to wife number two.

At the end of his enlistment, with a pension of £40 a year and quite a bit of his life ahead of him, ex-sergeant major Mole felt himself very fortunate when he left Colchester garrison depot for the last time on July 27 1888.

After that things went down hill, judging from his police blotter and medical records. Maybe he wasn’t such a hero after all, perhaps more a controlling deceiving slimebag — a possible bigamist, probable incestuous child abuser and certainly prone to violence against at least two women – of the three who at different (or almost certainly in the case of the last two, the same) time called him husband. His fall from exemplary grace is so hard to explain. Either he was devious and bad, or sick and helpless. You decide. Either way it shows how much disappears from biography and how little of us is really left to history.

With his honourable discharge in his pocket he moved in with his dead wife’s sister who had minded his daughter when she was sent home. They lived in a tiny village near to his last barrack in Colchester.

It was only just over a year later that he was in court for allegedly raping his only child.  He was charged with “unlawfully and carnally knowing his daughter, Mary Elizabeth Mole, aged 12 years, at Cornard”. The newspapers danced around relating sordid details of the case, so we know not much more than that. However, we do know his defence tried the time honoured tactic of accusing the victim. The paper said that Mole’s lawyer “…severely cross-examined complainant [a 12-year old] at great length to test her credibility.

“He elicited the fact that she had been a great source of trouble to her parents on account of her lying and thieving propensities.”

But there was worse yet… “She denied reading sensational novels, and said she read only what her father allowed her to read. She admitted having left home for a night when living at Ipswich.”

Now if that does make her an absolute harlot, I don’t know what else a court would need.

On the balance of probabilities it appears that something like what she claimed may well have gone on. Her evidence included the fact that she had given some of her clothing to the nextdoor neighbour — and the neighbour had examined them. Not quite a forensic rape test kit, but a married woman’s report of what she found should have carried some weight. Not so. While the paper admitted that she “expressed her opinion” to the court, it does not say what that opinion was. However you can be sure it would have been mentioned if her evidence had disproved little Mary Elizabeth’s claim. The three man panel of magistrates decided there was not enough to take the case to a higher court and so Mole escaped.

By 1893 he had moved 20 miles and was to be found running a pub on the outskirts of Cambridge. We know this because he was fined for allowing gambling on the premises. That’s a minor occupational hazard of all pub landlords, but worth noting in that Mole was closely associated with alcohol..

This leads me to mention that later in his life, in the early years of the 20th century, Mole had a number of short spells in what nowadays we are told to hold our noses when we call them lunatic asylums. As his inpatient stays lasted just months and between times he was well enough to hold down a job – club steward, cold storage warehouse caretaker and house decorator – they are likely to have been alcohol related rather than the other common though more permanent and terminal cause of mental illness – tertiary syphilis.

And that brings us to his wives. Without doubt his first love died in India giving birth to his second child, who also died. His second wife was 20 year-old Agnes Manley Morton, born in the Nagpur cantonment of Kamptee. She parted with him before he left India saying she had to leave him ‘on account of his violence’. They communicated by letter. That is to say he wrote them and she sent them back unopened.

But in 1891 the 44 year old Mole married a 18 year old, Fanny Luxton Dean in Battersea, South London. He claimed he was a widower. They lived together as husband and wife more than a decade and probably much longer, but the spells in the asylum must have been too much for Fanny. Eventually she moved back into London while Sergeant Major Dean had pursued yet another career change – as a chicken farmer in what is now the commuter belt in leafy Surrey.

We next encounter Mole just after Christmas in 1916, 26 years into this probably bigamous marriage to Fanny. He gets discovered through his own folly and violent behaviour. He is now going on 70 years of age, but it does not stop Farmer Mole twice visiting his seemingly estranged wife in London where she is then living, breaking up the chest of drawers and the door lock and on the second occasion threatening to assault her. In January 1917 he appeared in court. Somehow during the hearing the prosecution tells the magistrate that charges have been changed by the police to the much more serious one of bigamy. There is no answer  where they got this information. It’s unlikely the police found this out unaided. Let’s face it, record keeping between Imperial India and a local magistrate just could not have been infallible. Before digitisation, even if the marriage were recorded and accessible back in London someone would have had to know to take down the right ledger for the right year and read the details. Mole could have had his marriage recorded locally in India by his regiment, but would the details have followed him back to England?

Did Fanny know and tell the court? The scanty court reporting makes intriguing if ambiguous reading. The prosecution said that Mole’s wife in India found out about the new model some time soon after the marriage.  That means she was alive and therefore he had committed the crime. For his part Mole said that that wife was now dead from cholera. It’s a nicety in law that bigamy ceases when the first wife dies. Once again Mole escaped.

The final act of this unmasking of the hero came when he finally died in 1937 aged 90. Extraordinarily perhaps he left his money, what there was of it, to his only daughter — the one who rightly or wrongly claimed he’d raped her nearly 50 years before. Families, eh?


To read about military life in India in the middle years of Victoria’s reign told by Edwin Mole to Herbert Compton, go here to download the book, A King’s Hussar

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