Rudyard Kipling in Westward Ho!

PUBLISHED: 11:57 05 January 2011 | UPDATED: 14:56 20 February 2013

Westward Ho! around 1906

Westward Ho! around 1906

One hundred years ago this month, Rudyard Kipling was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. One of the 20th century's most famous writers, Kipling had several extremely strong Devon connections - particularly in Westward Ho! and Torquay

The Nobel Prize for Literature, introduced in 1901, was not awarded to an English-language writer until December 1907, when Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) became its youngest recipient 'in consideration of the power of observation, originality of imagination, virility of ideas and remarkable talent for narration which characterize the creations of this world-famous author'.

The creator of numerous classics including 'The Jungle Book' and the 'Just So Stories' was born in India and named after Lake Rudyard in Staffordshire where his parents had first met. At the age of six, he and his three-year-old sister, Trix, were brought to England and deposited, without any explanation from their parents, at a boarding house in Southsea. Here they were raised and educated by a retired naval officer and his wife until 1878 when Rudyard entered the United Services College at Westward Ho! The college had been founded four years earlier, ostensibly to prepare boys for a military career, but this was never the intention for Kipling, as the college was chosen solely because his mother was a close friend of the headmaster, Cormwell Price. Despite a miserable initiation period at the school, which he later recalled was 'primitive in its appointments, and our food would now raise a mutiny in Dartmoor', the budding author flourished when the head realised 'I was irretrievably committed to the ink-pot' and Rudyard was appointed editor of the school magazine.

A collection of his poems written at the college was published in India by his parents who believed in his potential. With fond memories of the establishment dubbed by Kipling as 'the school before its time', he joyously returned to his family and embarked upon a journalistic career. He also drew inspiration from the land of his birth for his early literary successes. His output was stupendous and he became a marvellous storyteller, standing by the maxim that 'A word should fall in its place like a bell in a full chime'.

After travelling extensively, Kipling married an American woman, Caroline Baleister, in 1892. The couple settled in her hometown of Brattleboro, Vermont, but their happiness was destroyed when Rudyard quarrelled with his brother-in-law, whom he had arrested for making violent threats, resulting in an embarrassing court appearance and damaging publicity.

In the autumn of 1896, the Kiplings left this bitter episode behind them and moved to England. They rented Rock House at Maidencombe, Torquay, built on a cliff overlooking a small cove. The author described the villa as 'almost too good to be true' and waxed lyrical about the location: 'I look straight from my work table on to the decks of the fishing craft who come in to look after their lobster pots.' With the publication of his latest work, 'The Seven Seas', Kipling proudly accepted an invitation to spend several days with the naval cadets based on the training ship Britannia at Dartmouth.

Kipling's enthusiasm for his new home declined as a brooding depression enveloped the household, which would later inspire his short ghost story 'The House Surgeon'. He revealed a gathering blackness of mind and sorrow of the heart: 'It was the Feng-shui - the Spirit of the house itself - that darkened the sunshine and fell upon us every time we entered, checking the very words on our lips.' He also disapproved of the posturing wealthy residents of the town: 'Torquay is such a place that I do desire acutely to upset by dancing through with nothing on but my spectacles.'

For a time, he tried to fit in and took up the current craze for cycling. The gossip columnist of a local paper reported: 'I saw Mr. Rudyard Kipling careering along the Tor Abbey sands on wheels one day last week.' The hobby ended when he and his wife shared pedalling duties on 'a tandem bicycle, whose double steering-bars made good dependence for continuous domestic quarrel'. The couple crashed off their 'devil's toast rack' and walked home, pushing the bike they dubbed 'Hell Spider'.

With Caroline expecting the couple's third child, the Kiplings executed 'our flight from Torquay' in May 1897 and sought refuge with relatives near Brighton. However, their brief sojourn on the English Riviera had enabled Kipling to fictionalise his schooldays. Local author Eden Phillpotts, best remembered for a cycle of 18 novels based on Dartmoor, sent a copy of his latest book to Kipling, which immediately triggered an idea. Early in 1897, Kipling broached the subject with his editor: 'The notion of writing a Devonshire tale is new to me but, now I come to think of it, I was educated at Westward Ho! nigh Bideford and for six puppy years [four, in fact] talked vernacular with the natives whose apples I stole. What will E.P. give to buy me off?'

The result was Stalky & Co. based on the adventures of himself and his two closest friends at United Services College. His beloved former headmaster Cormwell Price spent some time in Torquay hearing passages from the new book read to him by the excited author. These were rare happy moments at Rock House, which was revisited by the Kiplings more than 30 years later when they detected 'the same brooding Spirit of deep, deep Despondency within the open lit rooms'.


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