In July 1923 the Prince of Wales – later Edward VIII of abdication fame – visited Nunney on a three-day tour of the West Country.
The Prince of Wales was also Duke of Cornwall, just like Prince Charles is nowadays. Edward visited the estates of the Duchy of Cornwall in Somerset, Dorset and Wiltshire on 18, 19 and 20 July 1923.
The royal family was very much in the spotlight that summer. As the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette put it, “No persons are harder worked than the members of the royal family, who seems to be here, there and everywhere with bewildering facility.”
The prince’s younger brother Albert – ‘Bertie’ to his family – married Lady Elisabeth Bowes Lyon on 23 April 1923. Much later, after the abdication, Bertie would become King George VI (as depicted in The King’s Speech) and she became the Queen Mother.Similar scenes were seen during a visit by the Prince of Wales to the Black Country, also in 1923.
The original idea of the prince was purely a visit to his tenants in the three counties, but as soon as his intentions became known, invitations poured in. The programme was extended to take in other public functions.
The idea of a landlord showing an interest in his tenants was described as old-fashioned courtesy in the papers. “Despite the encroachments of modernity the traditions of rural landlordism are still deeply routed in this country, and the more historic the soil the more hardily do they survive,” according to the Western Daily Press.
“It is something to reflect that in the West Country the ancient pieties are still practised and that landlowners are to be found who take something more than a rent-roll interest in their tenants. The prince’s tour is that sort of gesture.”
The paper firmly rejected any criticisms of the royal family. “Nowhere is the unabashed loyalty of the masses in this country to the monarchy and all it stands for more widely shared than in the West Country.”
“Amongst those who welcome the prince this week are many aged folk whose grasp on life is relaxing, and to whom the thought that they have set eyes on the future King of England will be the culminating satisfaction of their lives.”
Newspaper coverage at the time was extensive, detailed and – even to our jaded eyes, used as they are to a minor royal’s outfit still making frontpage news on a daily basis – unashamedly sycophantic. Except for one element of the tour, that is – to which we shall return later.
The Prince of Wales’ itinerary was designed to take in as many towns and villages as possible. The 9am to 7pm schedule included not only visits to tenants of the Duchy of Cornwall, but many formal and informal stops on the route.
Day 1 – Wednesday 18 July 1923
The royal tour started at London Paddington, where the prince boarded a 9am train to Bath Spa station. In Bath he visited the Pump Room and Roman Baths.
According to newspaper reports, “The prince was given a hearty reception as he journeyed through the city, bands of unemployed stationed at various points greeting his passing with music.”
Throughout the three-day tour the prince often made unscheduled stops, for example at the headquarters of the British Legion in Bath.
After lunch at the Guildhall, he left Bath and visited tenants along a route through Midsomer Norton, Farrington Gurney, Ston Easton and stopped for tea at Downside College.
He then travelled to Norton St. Phillip, Woolverton, Beckington and Frome in a royal Daimler. His father, King George V, commissioned seven cars in 1923 to be built to his own specification and four were placed into service – nicknamed the ‘Royal Four’.
Travelling with the prince on all three days was the Marquess of Bath. The prince spent both nights of the royal tour at Longleat. En route, the Marquess would ask the driver repeatedly to stop so that the prince could inspect some magnificent prize cattle or receive flowers offered by little girls along the route.
The Western Gazette described the prince’s brief visit to Frome. “Here an unprecedented scene was witnessed. Thousands of people assembled in Bath Street and the Market Place.” The space between the Post Office and the George Hotel was reserved for local dignitaries. The route from the Market Place to the top of Bath Street was lined with Territorials and school children.
The Marquess of Bath introduced the prince to the chairman of the Frome Urban District Council. After a brief welcome and reply from the prince, the royal group left via Bath Street and Keyford to loud cheers.
The British Film Institute’s website has news footage of the Prince’s visit to Bath and Frome.
Day 2 – Thursday 19 July 1923
On the second day the prince visited tenants in Wincanton and a glove factory in Stoke-under-Hambden.
After a tour of the Ham Hill quarries and lunch at the Prince of Wales Inn (with the honoured guests inside the tea room and the massed locals plus award-winning band performing ‘Zomerset Zongs’ outside the open windows), the royal visitor was driven to Montacute House and Yeovil. Here he opened a new hospital, after a dedication by the Bishop of Bath and Wells.
In what can only be described as an ecclectic and packed schedule, the prince then found time for a game of polo at Sherborne Polo Club before visiting Shepton Mallet.
Newspaper reporters followed him wherever he went, describing every whistlestop in minute details. It seems likely, however, that most of them skipped the final stop of the day. There is simply not a word in any of the media coverage on the prince’s brief visit to Nunney.
What we do know is that it was quite late in the day. The prince arrived in Shepton Mallet at 7.45pm, looked around a council house, was serenaded in Collett Park and then drove back to Longleat via Lower Downside Farm. He arrived at Longleat at 8.40pm.
We can only speculate which route the royal party took. If they used the A361 it would have taken them through villages that would undoubtedly have been mentioned in the itinerary. Given that Lower Downside Farm is north of Shepton Mallet, it seems more likely that they drove along the Old Wells Road and came through Nunney via Castle Hill, the Market Place and the High Street, past Nunney Catch and off to Longleat. Or perhaps Berry Hill and Ridgeway.
All we know is that at some point around 8.30pm the royal car reached Nunney. Was there a welcome party, a choir of school children, cheering locals? Likely, but we have no evidence. Perhaps someone in the village remembers a parent talking about it. There may even be a souvenir or photo hidden in a drawer.
Wherever the prince went he was greeted by girl guides and brownies, bands, farm staff and quarry workers.
One imagines that the scene in Nunney would have been much like that the next day in Fontmell Magna, described in the Western Gazette of Friday 27 July 1923:
“Hearty cheers were given HRH The Prince of Wales passed through the village on Friday in brilliant weather.”
“The Prince was looking bronzed, and he raised his hat several times to the school children and grown-up folks. Flags were flying in the village as well as on the church tower in honour of His Royal Highness’s visit.”
Does it matter? Who cares? Fair point.
The only known previous royal visit to Nunney was when Charles I stayed at Mells Manor in June 1644 before joining his troops “near Nunney” to go on to Bruton.
Given the roads at the time, it is likely he and his son, the future Charles II, travelled through Nunney on horseback.
There were no photographers then, although we do have a very detailed account written by a man who travelled with them.
Local history is full of things that are ‘nice to know’, rather than ‘need to know’.
Day 3 – Friday 20 July 1923
On the last day of the visit the prince had lunch with Thomas Hardy at the famous novelist’s house, Max Gate.
Hardy was born in the prince’s manor of Fordington; Max Gate stands within the same manor, about a mile from the centre of Dorchester. It was designed by Hardy and built by his father and brother on land bought from the Duchy of Cornwall. It is now owned by the National Trust.
From Longleat the trip went via Warminster, Mere, Shaftesbury, Blandford and on to Dorchester for lunch with Thomas Hardy. The prince met the author at the opening of the new Territorial Drill Hall, to loud cheers from the crowd, before the two set off in the royal car to Max Gate.
In the history of English literature there have been many meetings between royalty and authors. Charles Dickens recalled an interview with Queen Victoria. A conversation between Dr Johnson and King George III in the Queen’s library was recorded by Boswell: “It was not for me to bandy courtesies with my Sovereign,” Johnson said.
But there is no other account of an heir to the throne going down to visit an author and poet at home. Hardy was 83 and didn’t smoke. The prince was 29 and a devoted cigar smoker. Interesting conversations, no doubt.
The Prince was the only guest. A Dorset parlour maid waited on the table, and the lunch was very simple. When invited to stay for lunch, the Prince said, “This is, indeed, a great honour.”
After lunch the Prince and Mr Hardy motored to the farms occupied by Mr Hardy’s tenants. The Prince stopped his car at Maiden Castle, saying, “I think I’m 20 minutes ahead of schedule,” and threw himself on a grassy slope for a rest.
A girl on a Shetland pony came along and had a chat with the Prince.
He then drove to the famous wishing well at Upwey. Surrounded by mainly young women, he drank water from the well and – as instructed – threw the rest of the water in his glass over his left shoulder.
“Did you wish, Sir?” asked one of the girls. “No, I didn’t,” the Prince replied. “But you should,” said the girl. “You should wish for a happy princess.”
The Prince of Wales raised his hat and smiled, as he seemed to detect a carefully prepared plot, saying, “Well, I’ll think about it!”
The girls cheered as the Prince drove to catch the train at Weymouth, back to London.
The Prince and the abdication
Edward became king following his father’s death on 20 January 1936. Only months into his reign, he caused a constitutional crisis by proposing marriage to the American socialite Wallis Simpson, who had divorced her first husband and was seeking a divorce from her second.
Choosing not to end his relationship with Simpson, Edward abdicated. He was succeeded by his younger brother Albert, who chose the regnal name George VI. With a reign of 326 days, Edward was one of the shortest-reigning monarchs in British history.
On the night of 11 December 1936, Edward, now reverted to a prince, made a broadcast to the nation and the Empire, explaining his decision to abdicate. He famously said, “I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as king as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love.”
Can you help?
Do you have any information on the Prince of Wales driving through (or indeed past) Nunney in 1923? Any stories your parents or grandparents told you? Any photos? Share it with others on this site!