Ernest Dracup: The Singing Sergeant Major

This Dracup family history explores the life and times of Ernest Dracup (1854-1931) and his immediate family.

Born in Lincolnshire, he joined the Royal Marine Artillery at the age of 18, rising steadily through the NCO ranks. Then, for a further six years, he served as sergeant major in two Royal Artillery volunteer corps, in Glamorgan and Somerset, retiring from the military in 1895.

He spent little of his career on active service abroad, or on board ship.

But, throughout his life he featured regularly in local newspaper stories, often describing the many musical concerts and entertainments in which he performed.

Reputedly a fine bass singer, he sang contemporary popular songs and light opera to appreciative audiences, often at smoking concerts, in pubs and music halls. He was something of a local celebrity, a popular friend and colleague. 

He was for a time a member of a concert party formed by the crew of the Royal Yacht, ‘Osborne’, occasionally entertaining the Prince of Wales and his family.

Eventually retiring to Reading, he worked latterly as a clerk and continued to perform, although his son Ernest Charles Ephraim Dracup, and daughter-in-law Elsie Kate, nee Coombs, were by now more active and prominent.

Ernest junior was a post office telegraphist and later clerk who also served with the Berkshire Volunteers. Both father and son were expert signallers. Ernest junior’s elder sister, Ada, was also a telegraphist, while daughter Joyce became a teacher.

Ernest senior emerged briefly from retirement to become an innkeeper in Bridgwater, Somerset, at the turn of the century, before moving on to Salisbury, eventually returning to Reading in 1905.

At the age of 60, he even made a belated and short-lived return to the forces on the outbreak of the First World War. Then, soon after the death of his first wife, Mary Jane (nee Moores), in 1921, he married a local widow, Florence Davies (nee Goddard), some 20 years his junior.

Father and son both died in 1931, within just a few months of each other, Ernest senior was 77, Ernest junior 51.

Placing Ernest in the Dracup family tree

Ernest was the eldest son of Ephraim Dracup (1828-1888) and his first wife Hannah, (nee Mitchell), (1831-1865).

Ephraim was the second son of Eli Dracup (1799-1837) and his second wife Elizabeth (Betty), (also nee Mitchell), (1804-1869).

In an earlier post, Dracups Head South (March 2016), I described how Ephraim and two younger brothers – Jonathan (1832-1878) and Eli junior (1837-1928) – left Great Horton, near Bradford, during the 1850s to find work further south.

Eli junior was my great, great grandfather, so Ernest is a first cousin, though several times removed.

Whereas Jonathan and Eli went initially to Wickham Market in Suffolk, and from there to Bedford, Ephraim headed to Lincolnshire, settling initially at Skirbeck near Boston, then moving on to Lincoln around 1870. He was employed as an engine turner and fitter.

Descendants of Ephraim Dracup (click here to enlarge)

He married Hannah Mitchell on 19 January 1851, while they were still in Great Horton. He was 22, she 19, the daughter of Hiram Mitchell, a blockdryer and weaver, and Betty, (nee Shackleton).

The 1851 Census records them living in Sellars Fold in Great Horton with Ephraim’s mother-in-law and his sister-in-law, Mary, who would later marry brother Jonathan in 1855.

But meanwhile Ephraim and Hannah had already left for Skirbeck, where Hannah gave birth to Ernest in March 1854.

She was to bear three more children – Frederick (1856-1923), Walter (1859-1939) and Ellen (1861-1861) – before her untimely death in April 1865, at the age of 43.

Ephraim remarried, in December of the same year, to Jane Ann Pool, (nee Wallhead), (1837-1925), a widow and a native of Boston.

She had a five year-old son by her first marriage and, in addition to taking on Ephraim’s three sons, now aged 11, 9 and 6, she bore him three further children: Ephraim junior (1866-1943), Herbert (1870-1871) and Alice Maud (1876-1895).

Ephraim died in Lincoln in 1888, aged 59, when son Ernest was concluding his service with the RMA, his wife Jane outliving him by almost 40 years.

Courtesy HantsAV

Ernest’s childhood and youth

Ernest’s baptism record survives, showing that he was born on 17 March 1854 and baptised at the church of St Nicholas, Skirbeck on 3 April.

The record describes Ephraim’s employment as ‘Brafo fitter’, presumably a type of engine.

The 1861 Census found the family living at 2 Skirbeck Church Road. Ephraim’s employment is now simply ‘engine fitter’. This was just a few months after Ellen’s birth – and she was to die just a few months later. The three boys were all at school.

By the time of the 1871 Census, Ephraim was living with second wife Jane Ann at 17 Ripon Street, Lincoln. Frederick, now aged 14, was still at home, employed as an errand boy. Brothers Walter, Ephraim junior and the infant Herbert are also present, as is Thomas Poole, Jane Ann’s son by her first marriage.

But Ernest has already left home. He is almost certainly the ‘Earnest Draycott’ employed as a general servant in the family of Thomas Armstrong, a wine merchant living a few minutes’ walk away in Guildhall Street, Lincoln. He is the right age and his place of birth is given as Boston.

Within a year, though, Ernest had enlisted in the Marines. His enlistment record states that he did so in Hull on 16 January 1872, under the supervision of a Sergeant Earle and a Captain Jefferies.

He signed up initially for nine years’ service, with re-engagement due on 3 January 1881. He gave his date of birth as January 1854, ensuring that he presented as an 18 year-old. His place of birth is Boston, his trade ‘servant’ and his religion Church of England.

He is described as five feet seven and three-quarters of an inch tall, with a 34 inch chest, a fair complexion, brown hair and grey eyes. He has one distinguishing feature: a small ganglion on his right hand.

His answer to the question: ‘For what Bounty do you enlist?’ was ‘A free kit’.

Recruitment bounties had only just been removed, in 1870, as one of a series of reforms introduced by Secretary of State for War Edward Cardwell. Peacetime flogging had only just been abolished too.

Ernest was allocated the service number 75307 and given the rank of Private. He duly transferred to the Royal Marines Recruitment Depot at Walmer, near Deal in Kent, assisted by the princely subsistence payment of five shillings and seven pence halfpenny.

The Walmer Depot had been established in 1861, when Royal Marine recruits took over the former Royal Naval Hospital, subsequently repurposed as East Barracks.

Walmer

This was also the training centre for the Royal Marine Light Infantry – the Royal Marine Artillery were housed in barracks at Eastney, near Portsmouth.

Back in 1755, the Marines had been formed into three divisions, based at Chatham, Plymouth and Portsmouth respectively. In 1805 a fourth division was established at Woolwich. Each division comprised several infantry companies.

In 1804 each division was also given its own artillery company but, by 1869 – just prior to Ernest’s arrival – these four companies had been amalgamated into a separate artillery division based at Eastney.

The artillery continued separately until 1923, when it was reintegrated with the light infantry in a unified Royal Marines corps.

Eastney Barracks from the air

Ernest’s early military career

Ernest remained at Walmer for 10 months, until November 1872.

Here his education must have continued, since his service record shows that he completed the second class of his school certificate in September of that year. (The first class is not shown as completed until 1889, when Ernest left the Marines)

On 16 November 1872, he transferred to Second Company, Royal Marines Artillery as a Gunner, and here he stayed until May 1874.

His only recorded injury in service occurred during this period, to whit ‘contusion of left great toe’!

At the time of Ernest’s recruitment, the Marines’ full complement was some 14,000 men, of which only 2,675 were artillerymen, formed into 16 artillery companies. Some 11,000 infantrymen were divided between 48 infantry companies.

Rates of pay for artillerymen were fairly modest, but rather more generous than for infantry marines. In 1879, a marine private was paid 1s 2d per day, whereas a gunner received 1s 5¼d.

A bombardier earned almost £40 per year, the same as a marine infantry sergeant, while an artillery colour sergeant received the princely sum of £64 per year, roughly half the pay of a lieutenant with three years’ service, but significantly more than an infantry colour sergeant.

On 12 May 1874, after almost two-and-a-half years’ service, Ernest finally embarked on his first ship, joining a complement of marines aboard HMS Lord Warden, a wooden-hulled ironclad armoured frigate which had been launched in 1865.

She had a single steam engine, capable of 13.5 knots, and three masts. Her sailing speed was slow compared with other naval ironclad vessels and she had a reputation for rolling badly.

She was armed with two rifle muzzle-loading (RML) 9-inch guns, 14 RML 8-inch guns and two RML 7-inch guns.

Both the latter were placed in the bow on the main deck, while one of the 9-inch guns was located in the bow on the upper deck; the other in the stern on the main deck.

HMS Lord Warden

The 8-inch guns were positioned for firing a broadside, 12 of them on the main deck and two on the quarterdeck.

The 9-inch guns fired shells weighing 254 pounds, while the gun itself weighed 12 tons, boasting a muzzle velocity of 1,410 feet per second.

The 8-inch guns weighed nine tons and fired 175 pound shells; the 7-inch guns weighed six and a half tons and fired 112 pounders.

From 1869 to 1875, Lord Warden served as the flagship of the Mediterranean Squadron, before returning home for a refit.

During the time Ernest was with her, she was commanded by Captain William Codrington (1832-1888), later a Rear-Admiral and Naval aide-de-camp to Queen Victoria.

This brief period at sea was relatively uneventful. The previous year, Lord Warden had been involved at Carthagena, intervening in the Spanish Civil War to take possession of the Spanish ships Vittoria and Almanza.

We do know from Navy List publications that, on 10 October 1874, Sub-lieutenant J L Marx jumped into the sea to rescue Ordinary Seaman F Bryant, who had fallen overboard in the Straits of Gibraltar.

And on 26 February 1875, Acting Sub-Lieutenant C C Jeffery jumped overboard to rescue W Bears, Boy 1st Class, who fell from the fore rigging at sea.

Both rescuers were awarded Royal Humane Society bronze medals.

As for Ernest, he was promoted, to Bombardier, on 12 December 1874, after serving just over two years as Gunner. He transferred on promotion to 4th Company, returning to Portsmouth.

On 1 December 1875 he was promoted again, this time to Corporal with 12th Company.

And he was further promoted to Sergeant on 12 December 1878, this time with 6th Company. This was a fairly meteoric rise, though Ernest remained at Eastney throughout this period.

RMA Team

Ernest’s marriage

On 15 April 1877, while still Corporal Dracup and aged 23, he married Mary Jane Moores at the parish church of Portsea, a short distance from the Eastney Barracks.

Mary Jane was 21 years old, born in April 1856 in Landport, also on Portsea Island.

She was the eldest daughter and second child of Charles Moores (1834-1895), a carter and coal merchant, and Mary Jane (nee Marsh) (1834-1905) a charwoman.

Their first child, Ada Matilda – sometimes known simply as ‘Matilda’ – was born in January 1878; their second, Ernest Charles Ephraim, in January 1880.

Ernest senior had been almost completely shore-based at Eastney for six years by this point, but he was now to spend two years away, embarking on 16 January 1881.

The 1881 Census records Mary Jane and their two small children living next door to her family on Twyford Road in Portsmouth. She was working as a laundress. Her father was by now an invalid.

RMA NCO

Ernest’s service in Hong Kong

Now a Sergeant, Ernest’s record indicates that, on 3 January 1881, he was re-engaged to complete 21 years’ service.

Almost immediately he embarked on two short voyages, from 17 January to 11 March 1881 with HMS Tyne, and from 12 March to 8 April 1881 with HMS Iron Duke.

The Tyne was a store ship carrying only two guns, captained by Commander John Edward Stokes.

HMS Iron Duke was a completely different proposition. An Audacious Class ironclad with a displacement of some 6,000 tons, she was armed with 12 RML 9-inch guns and four 14-inch torpedo launchers, as well as several smaller guns.

It seems likely that Ernest travelled on the Tyne to rendezvous with the Iron Duke, which was at this time serving as the flagship of Vice-Admiral George Willes, newly appointed Commander-in-Chief of the China Station.

HMS Iron Duke

There is a book ‘In Eastern Seas or, the Commission of HMS Iron Duke, Flagship in China, 1878-83’ which describes the encounter with HMS Tyne, although the dates don’t tally exactly:

‘February 11th. — To-day the “Tyne” arrived from England. To the expatiated seaman the arrival of a troop-ship has a greater interest than have ordinary arrivals ; for has she not scarce two months since, perhaps, looked on the very scenes we so long to behold? She is thus a link between us and home. Then there is also the additional interest of seeing fresh faces, whilst to the more fortunate who are about to leave us she is the absorbing topic. She remained only eight days. On the occasion of her departure we were allowed to cheer — a wonderful concession; at the same time we were given clearly to understand that we were to accept it in the light of a great privilege; and that there should be no mistake on this point, the commander conducted the arrangements with the order “Three cheers for H.M.S. ‘Tyne,’ homeward bound;” “And no extras,” added somebody in parenthesis.’

Ernest was on board the Iron Duke for the 1881 Census, listed as a 27 year-old ‘Sergeant RMA’. The ship was moored at the time in Hong Kong Harbour. There was a substantial RMA complement on board, led by Lieutenant Henry C Sutherland.

He subsequently rose to the rank of Captain but was court martialled in March 1885, while on board HMS Nelson, for drunkenness and being absent without leave. He lost three years seniority and was dismissed his ship.

Meanwhile, on 8 April 1881, Ernest transferred to HMS Victor Emanuel. He was to remain with her for two years, posted to the Navy’s China Station.

Formerly called HMS Repulse, Victor Emanuel had now been ‘hulked’ – relegated to acting as a static hospital and ‘receiving ship’ in Hong Kong Harbour.

She formed one of three bases for China Command, the others being at Weihei to the North and Singapore to the South.

HMS Victor Emanuel

Hong Kong had been ceded by the Chinese to the British in the 1840s and, by the time Ernest arrived, it was a significant hub of the colonial British Empire.

Whereas eastern Hong Kong was predominantly Chinese, the west was strongly influenced by British culture, equipped with a race course, cricket and polo fields.

Essentially Ernest was leading a shore-bound life again, though thousands of miles from home and family.

Hong Kong Harbour c.1880

His record shows that on 10 April 1883 he boarded HMS Thalia, a corvette commanded by Captain John William Brackenbury, for the homeward journey.

He resumed service at Eastney on 20 June 1883.

Two years later, on 5 June 1885, he was promoted to Colour Sergeant with ‘O Company’. Colour Sergeants were ranked between Sergeant and Sergeant Major and were typically a company’s senior NCO.

Here he remained until 31 October 1889, when he left the Marines, having completed almost 18 years’ service.

He transferred to the First Glamorgan Artillery Volunteers in the permanent post of Battery Sergeant Major.

The Hampshire Telegraph of 2 November 1889 carries a report of the celebrations on his departure:

‘FAREWELL TO A COMRADE – On Wednesday evening the sergeants of the Royal Marine Artillery met in goodly numbers, and held a special smoking concert in their mess-room at Eastney, to bid farewell to Colour Sergeant Ernest Dracup, who has been transferred to the Royal Artillery from this day’s date, for service on the permanent staff thereof, and posted to the 1st Glamorgan Artillery Volunteers, at Skewen, in Wales. The usual smoking concert routine at Eastney was observed, the chair being occupied by Sergeant Major W Tettersall…After songs etc, had been freely contributed by several of the members, the Chairman proposed the health of Colour Sergeant Dracup, who, by the way, has a splendid bass voice, and a short while ago became a gold medalist for his vocal abilities in a competition in Portsmouth. Colour Sergeant Dracup has always been a great favourite with his comrades, and his loss will be very much felt by the entertainment-seekers at Eastney and elsewhere. The toast was drunk with much enthusiasm, and the party broke up at eleven o’clock.’

RMA Colour Sergeant

Some insight into naval gunnery in the 1870s and 1880s

Until this period, naval guns had been short and thick, like cannons, built to withstand the pressure created by fast-burning gunpowder.

But, by the 1870s, the invention of slow-burning powder was enabled manufacturers to introduce longer, more slender barrels which typically fired smaller shells at higher velocity.

During the 1860s, the Royal Navy had trialed the use of breech-loading guns, but had reverted to muzzle-loaders because of the perceived unreliability of breech-loaders.

These could be fired more rapidly, and typically had greater accuracy over a longer range, but ill-trained crews found the mechanism hard to operate. If misused, breech loaders had a tendency to malfunction, and a tendency amongst crews to under load also made them less effective.

Essentially these problems were with training rather than technology, but the Navy continued to invest in ever-larger muzzle-loaders, now using hydraulic power to position the shell.

But, as the size of guns increased, so did their weight. This placed limitations on the number of guns that a ship could carry, as well as their positioning. There was a shift away from traditional broadside batteries – mounted along the ship’s sides beneath the deck – towards guns placed on deck, on rotating platforms, both fore and aft.

Then, in January 1879, there was a serious accident aboard HMS Thunderer, when a 12-inch muzzle-loaded gun exploded during exercises killing 10 men and wounding many others.

The investigating commission found that the gun had been mistakenly loaded twice after misfiring on the first occasion.

This and other similar incidents led to the widespread introduction of breech-loaders during the 1880s, because their loading mechanism made it impossible to mistakenly add a second charge.

Regardless of the type of gun, naval gunners faced two main challenges: how to quickly find the range (the distance between gun and target) and how to cluster their shells tightly around that target.

Both were rendered more difficult because both vessels were likely in motion, while the rolling and pitching of the vessel firing would also affect their aim.

The 1880 edition of the Manual of Gunnery for Her Majesty’s Fleet supplies a series of complex equations and diagrams to enable trainees to make adjustments for the changing distance and bearing of the target.

In relation to roll and pitch it simply says:

‘…there are no records of any experiments ever having been carried out with rifled guns to ascertain to what extent the motion of the ship affects the accuracy. Much depends upon whether the vessel is a quick or slow roller, and of late years great efforts have been made to give increased steadiness of gun platform, so as to reduce this cause of error somewhat.’

There follows a next-to-useless table giving the rolling times of six illustrative ships in still water.

There are comparatively few references to marines in the Manual. The most prominent says:

‘The marines, whether artillery or infantry, are to be stationed at the guns in such a manner as will least impair the efficiency of the arrangements for action in case the marines should be landed, the marine artillery men being given the most important numbers.

A certain number of infantry, depending on the size and armament of the ship, should be told off as marine small-arm men. When machine guns are mounted round the upper deck there is less need for marines as small-arm men, and they are more wanted at the guns.’

It is clear that firing large naval guns was highly labour-intensive: the Manual states that a 12-inch gun should be manned by 17 men and two powder men; an 8-inch gun by 15 men and one powder man.

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Ernest’s musical career as a marine

The first record I can discover of Ernest’s musical activities is in a Hampshire Telegraph report dated 13 December 1876, describing a performance given in the Royal Marine Artillery Theatre by the RMA Dramatic Company.

The ‘popular French drama ‘Jocrisse the Juggler’’ was followed by ‘a miscellaneous collection of vocal and instrumental selections, recitations etc.’ one of which was given by Corporal Dracup.

The RMA Theatre was integral to the Eastney Barracks. ‘Jocrisse the Juggler’ was an adaptation of a French play by Victorian dramatist Thomas William Robertson.

Ernest developed his musical career while posted to Hong Kong. The Overland China Mail of 9 January 1882 contains a lengthy report of a performance of ‘The Pirates of Penzance’ given by the Hong Kong Choral Society at the Theatre Royal, City Hall a few days earlier.

Towards the end we learn that:

‘Mr Dracup, as Sergeant of Police, was an admirable commander of an admirable squad; and the music sung by the Force, not forgetting the intoned responses, formed one of the leading features of the performance. The Sergeant’s song was heartily encored…’

This You Tube extract gives some illustration of Ernest’s role. 

In June of the same year he took part in a charitable concert at the same venue, the press report noting that:

‘”Old Comrades” was capitally sung, the solo by Sergeant Dracup being sung with spirit, and the chorus being taken with elan and accuracy of time.’

Ernest doesn’t feature again until a report of another sergeants’ smoking concert back in Eastney in December 1885, where he is included in the list of performers. There was another similar event in February 1886 and, in March, he was part of an entertainment given at the Portsea Island Union – the local workhouse.

But, by New Year’s Eve 1886, Ernest had become a member of the newly-appointed sergeants’ smoking concerts committee, and gave a further performance. The Colonel Commandant, H B Tuson, attended and gave a speech:

‘Colonel Tuson spoke in highly eulogistic terms of the conduct and value of the sergeants of the corps in which he has had the honour of serving for 32 years. He afterwards sang a couple of first class comic songs, accompanying himself on the piano, which called forth ringing cheers and applause.’

Thereafter, Ernest’s name appears far more frequently.

In February 1887, he is found among the members of a new concert party, the Hyde Park Slate Club, which plans to give a series of smoking concerts on behalf of charitable institutions, this first being for ‘the Eye and Ear Infirmary at the Wellington Hall, Southsea’.

In March there is another sergeants’ smoking concert and another concert at the workhouse.

During this period there are also occasional press reports of shooting competitions in which Ernest features. Perhaps his greatest moment was in September 1887 when, as a member of the Royal Marine Artillery Shooting Club Team, he won the Regimental Trophy at the Army Rifle Competition.

In January 1888, the Anniversary Dinner of the Hyde Park Slate Club took place at the Club House, Hyde Park Tavern, Southsea, Ernest once more heavily involved in the toasting and singing.

The following month he appeared in a concert at the Portsmouth Soldiers’ Institute and we begin to get some insight into his repertoire, since the report informs us that he sang ‘The Skipper’ and ‘They all love Jack’.

In March 1888 he sang at the first variety entertainment given by the Royal Marines Artillery Games Club and was ‘vociferously recalled’.

In April he took part in a competition for bass singers at Fuller’s Hall, Landport, singing ‘The Wolf’ and ‘The Skipper’, but lost out to a Mr Shilling.

In June he was ‘warmly encored’ at a concert given at Southsea’s Portland Hall in aid of the Royal Seamen and Marines’ Orphan Schools and Female Orphans’ Home.

In September, at a Fullers Hall concert given by the Portsea Island Co-operative Choir, he ‘contributed a number of songs in a manner which elicited rounds of hearty applause’.

In December 1888 it is reported that the old Eastney theatre has been renamed the ‘Royal Marines Artillery Hall of Varieties’ and the men have:

‘…organised a first class minstrel troupe under the direction of Colour Sergeant E Dracup, Sergeant Goodman and Musician Barnes’

In January 1889 he appeared in a further competition for bass singers at Fullers Hall, judged by the audience. This time he won comfortably with a reprise of ‘The Wolf’.

Later in January he appeared at Portsmouth’s Albert Hall singing ‘Anchored’ and at Fullers Hall once more singing ‘The Friar of Orders Grey’ and ‘The Bugler’.

In February he took part in a whistling competition at Fullers Hall, though only four of the eight contestants turned up. Ernest easily won the 10s 6d first prize with his rendition of ‘Bid me discourse’, receiving 306 audience votes against his nearest rival’s 149 votes.

In March he sang ‘Sea or Shore’ at another Fullers Hall concert and took part in a ‘Quartette Competition’ with three RMA colleagues, winning with ‘Comrades in Arms’.

In April he was part of a RMA party that gave a concert at the Lunatic Asylum.

In the month prior to his departure he was extremely active, contributing to a smoking concert at the Hyde Park Tavern for the Third Volunteer Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment, a benefit concert for the late Gunner George Williams, a part in a farce called ‘A Fish out of Water’ at the Eastney Theatre and another benefit concert for a Sergeant West.

Portsmouth Harbour c.1895

The Sons of Neptune

Reports from the Hampshire Telegraph and Naval Chronicle reveal that Ernest was also at this time a member of the ‘Sons of Neptune’.

This concert party was drawn from the crew of the Royal Yacht ‘Osborne’, a three-masted paddle steamer of 1,850 tons which had been launched in December 1870.

It was often used to ferry Edward, Prince of Wales (1841-1910) and his family across to Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, but was also sometimes employed by his wife, Princess Alexandra of Denmark (1844-1925) to visit her native country.

One imagines that the crew of the Royal Yacht was hand-picked, but also that it would be quite unusual for a RMA NCO to be selected. He may have been chosen for his signalling prowess since there was a ship-to-shore telegraph on board.

This would have been a part-time role because the Osborne was not used all the year round.

The Captain at this time was Hedworth Lambton (1856-1929), a friend of the Prince of Wales.

There is an extended description of a performance the Sons of Neptune gave in 1888, at the Portland Hall Southsea, in aid of the Royal Portsmouth, Portsea and Gosport Hospital. Colour Sergeant Dracup is named as one of the soloists.

There is also a shorter description of a similar show in Havant.

But the most interesting report details a performance given on the Royal Yacht, off Cowes, in late August 1889

‘…by the express wish of Her Royal Highness…before a number of members of the Royal Family and other distinguished visitors.’

Colour Sergeant Dracup rounded off the solos with a rendition of ‘The Naval Brigade’ before the entire party sang ‘Rule Britannia’ and the National Anthem.

‘At the close of the entertainment the Princess expressed her pleasure and thanks to the members of the company for the manner in which the entertainment was carried out. After partaking of refreshments, the company started for home, but before finally bidding adieu to the Royal party, serenaded the Princess, who appeared at the window of her cabin and repeatedly bowed, while the company sang the Danish National Anthem.’

Princess Alexandra c.1889

A few songs from Ernest’s repertoire

‘The Skipper’had words by F.J. Dennett and music by W.H. Jude, and probably dated from the 1870s.

‘A skipper am I, no danger

Can my ardent, my ardent spirit daunt,

As I guide my craft o’er the deep blue sea

No fears my conscience haunt

No fears my conscience haunt.

Though storms arise and rend the skies

What matters it to me?

My life is as free as the wind that blows

For my home is on the sea.

My life is as free as the wind that blows

For my home is on the sea.

Yo ho! Yo ho!

Then give me a right good craft and crew

And I’ll contented be,

For there’s no tack in the wide, wide world

Like a life on the rolling sea

Like a life on the rolling sea.’

‘The Wolf’ was written by William Shield and John O’Keefe in 1798 for a comic opera ‘The Castle of Andalusia’. It became a melodramatic staple in Victorian parlours and drawing rooms and was one of the most popular songs in the bass repertoire.

‘At the peaceful midnight hour,

Ev’ry sense and ev’ry power

Fetter’d lies in downy sleep.

Then our careful watch we keep

Then our careful watch we keep.

While the wolf in nightly prowl

Bays the moon with hideous howl

While the wolf in nightly prowl

Bays the moon with hideous howl

While the wolf in nightly prowl

Bays the moon with hideous howl

Gates are barr’d, a vain resistance

Females shriek but no assistance

Silence! Silence! Or you meet your fate

Silence or you meet your fate.

Your keys, your jewels, cash and plate

Locks, bolts and bars soon fly asunder

Then to rifle, rob and plunder.’

‘They All Love Jack’ was a contemporary song, written in the 1880s by singer and composer Michael Maybrick (1841-1913), appointed organist at the masonic grand lodge, who has been identified as a potential Jack the Ripper!

‘When the ship is trim and ready, and the jolly days are done,

When the last goodbyes are whispered, and Jack aboard is gone:

The lasses fall a weeping, as they watch his vessel’s track,

For all the landsmen lovers are nothing after Jack.

For all the landsmen lovers are nothing after Jack.

For his heart is like the sea, ever open, brave and free

And the girls must lonely be till the ship comes back.

But if love’s the best of all that can a man befall,

Why, Jack’s the king of all, for they all love Jack!’

‘Anchored’ was written in 1883, the words by Samuel Cowan and the music by Michael Watson. Here is a modern recording, though not by a bass.

Flying with flowers sail over the Summer sea,

Sheer through the seething gale homeward bound was she;

Flying with feath’ry prow, bounding with slanting keel.

And glad was the sailor lad, as he steered and sang at his wheel:

Only another day to stray, only another night to roam,

Then safe at last the harbour past, safe In my father’s home.

Bright on the flashing brine glittered the summer sun,

Sweetly the starry shine smiled when the day was done;

Blithe was the breeze of heaven filling the flying sail,

And glad was the sailor lad, as he steered and sang through the gale.’

Neath and the 1st Glamorgan Artillery Volunteers

The 1891 Census finds the family living at 23 Alexander Street in Neath, Wales.

Ernest, now aged 37, is described as Battery Sergeant-Major. Mary Jane, aged 35, is no longer working. Ada Matilda, aged 13, is neither working nor at school, while Ernest Charles, aged 11, remains a scholar.

Ernest senior’s reputation as a singer must have preceded him for, just three weeks after his departure from Eastney, he began to feature in the Glamorgan papers.

He first appears in The Western Mail of 23 November 1889, in a report of a smoking concert held at Neath Constitutional Club:

‘The principal feature of the evening was the fine singing of Sergeant-major Dracup, who has lately come to the town as instructor to the Neath and Skewen Batteries of the 1st Glamorgan Volunteer Artillery.’

In December of that year, Number 6 Battery held their annual dinner at the Drill Hall, Neath Abbey, and Number 7 Battery theirs at The Royal Oak Hotel, Neath.

At the first event:

‘Captain Moore, in the course of a short address to his men, said that although the battery had been deprived of the services of an instructor during the great part of the year, he was able to express himself satisfied with the work done…There was a marked improvement in the shooting, and he hoped before long to place the battery in the foremost rank in the county…After the usual toasts, Captain Moore proposed the health of their new instructor, Sergeant Major Dracup, which was drunk with acclamation. The Sergeant Major suitably replied, and the remainder of the evening was given up to singing and toasting.’

At the second:

‘Captain Ryding…introduced the new drill-instructor, Sergeant Major Dracup, and asked the men to rally round him, and make his efforts successful. He hoped to see a large number on Monday next, when the repository squad would commence. Sergeant Major Dracup had been signaling instructor at Portsmouth for two years, and it was intended to start during the winter on Friday evenings a signaling class. He hoped the men would interest themselves in this intellectual amusement.’

This is the first time we learn that Ernest was a specialist signaller while with the Royal Marines.

In March 1890, Ernest featured in a concert at the New Schoolroom, Aberdulais, in aid of the Ynisgevwn Cricket Club, singing his old favourites ‘The Wolf’ and ‘Anchored’ and also duetting ‘Excelsior’ with a singer called Afonlais. He appeared in several more local concerts throughout that year.

At the 1890 annual dinner of Number 7 Battery:

‘Captain Ryding, upon presenting the prize to Sergeant Major Dracup, drew attention to his remarkable abilities as an instructor of artillery. During his (Captain Ryding’s) connection with the battery he had known half a dozen instructors; but he was pleased to say that he never met with such an accomplished instructor in all branches, including army signalling, as Sergeant Major Dracup, who was equally unprecedented for his geniality and affability, which had won him the esteem and confidence of all the battery.’

However, Ernest’s path was not always so smooth. In March 1891, the Cambria Daily Leader carried a piece entitled ‘The Sorrows of Drill Instructors’:

‘The position of a drill instructor is often an unenviable one. His heart must often ache to find such laxity among his pupils. The more interest he takes in his corps, the more embittered must his life be through the dilatory, unsoldier-like and even unman-like conduct of many of his men. Something must be radically wrong in our military affairs when volunteers are allowed to attend to duties or neglect them according to mere caprice. The last police court gave an example of great indifference and neglect on the part of a Skewen Artillery volunteer. His duties as a volunteer were anything but onerous. Only nine attendances were required for practice. He only put in three drills, and wantonly absented himself from the inspection, thereby causing the battery to lose the grant allowed to efficient volunteers. Sergeant Major Dracup is to be complimented for prosecuting the feather-bed warrior; and a few more similar doses may infuse a little martial vigour into the company. Volunteers should be proud of their position, and a position in their ranks should be the ambition of all the respectable young men in the district.’

This concerned one Edward Hughes, a collier and volunteer gunner, who failed to pay the 35 shillings required. Appearing before the police court, Hughes pleaded guilty ‘but said he could not put in his drills, and that the action was only brought out of spite, as he wanted to leave the Artillery.’

He was ordered to pay £2 6s including costs.

Military signalling at this time

It is evident, then, that in addition to his skills as an artilleryman, Ernest was also responsible for drilling the volunteers and developing their signalling skills.

Army signalling at this time was a mixture of electric telegraphy and semaphore using Morse Code, conducted by a variety of means, including heliographs, lamps and hand-held flags. There were also more exotic methods involving a collapsing drum, limelight or various sounds.

Samuel Morse (1791-1872) was an American artist and inventor who developed an early version of his eponymous code in the late 1830s. It was refined and expanded in 1840 by mechanical engineer Alfred Vail (1807-1859). Further refinements were also introduced by the German Friedrich Gerke (1801-1888) which led to the introduction of international Morse Code in 1865.

The first Manual of Instruction in Army Signalling was issued in 1880, with several versions following throughout the decade.

The 1886 edition focuses particularly on the three principal Morse-based methods listed above.

The Manual emphasises that:

‘The first essential qualification of a signaller is that he should be able to read the Morse Alphabet, when signalled by any of the apparatus in use, as easily as though he heard the letters called out to him. Unless he can do this without effort when he is on the practice ground, it is plain that he cannot be relied on to read accurately under the difficulties and distractions which are often inseparable from signalling in the field…

… When a class is assembled for instruction, the first part of the course should aim at making each individual…perfectly at home in reading and sending the alphabet at a rate of at least 9 words a minute, and until this is effected the men should not form stations for practice. Those who are unable to reach this standard should not continue the course.’

Ernest is only briefly established in Neath

In April 1890, the Neath Constitutional Club Dramatic Society gave a performance of ‘Tom Taylor’s celebrated comedy ‘Still Waters Run Deep”.

This play dates from 1855. Taylor (1818-80) was an academic, barrister, civil servant and journalist who also wrote more than seventy plays. He was latterly Editor of Punch.

Ernest played the role of Mr Potter. The critical review in the Central Glamorgan Gazette decided that he ‘hadn’t a heavy part, but he made the most of it’. In a similarly waspish review, the Bridgend Chronicle described him as ‘happy and natural’.

In March 1892, Ernest’s children, Ernest junior and Ada Matilda feature in an entertainment at the Wesleyan School, Neath, performing a duet for violin and piano. Later we learn that Ernest junior was attending the Alderman Davies National School in Neath at this time.

Courtesy HantsAV

On that same day, Ernest senior is mentioned in a description of a journalist’s visit to the drill hall:

‘At the invitation of Captain Ryding, I, the other evening, paid a visit to the Drill-hall of the local artillery corps, and was well-pleased with everything I saw. The detachment numbers about 50 members, nearly 20 of whom were present on the night of my visit. I witnessed the execution of the Repository Drill, which they have just started going through in real earnest, and then saw some work on the 40-pounder. It was at the latter drill that the battery secured the certificate of merit at the last Shoeburyness meeting (Battery Sergeant-Major Phillips being the captain of the gun), and brought for the first time something tangible from that camp to Neath. The drills were smartly executed, and the members, who are respectable young men of the town, surprised me by the efficient way in which they went through the various manoeuvres. Sergeant-Major Dracup, the Instructor of the Corps, is a painstaking tutor, and he is to be congratulated on the excellent results obtained. The way the premises are kept is also a credit to him; everything looks spick and span, and in order. After visiting the gun room, I crossed the yard which, by the way, is a capital one for drilling purposes, and entered the Non-Commisioned Officers Room. Things looked very comfortable here and in time will, I believe, be made so‘

Relatively few of the reports of these musical concerts relate what Ernest sang, though we know that, in November 1891, at a Bridgend concert for the 2nd Glamorgan Artillery Volunteers he performed ‘They All Love Jack’ and ‘The Wolf’.

At Christmas, he sang at another Cricket Club Concert, this time contributing ‘The Skipper’ and ‘A Tar of the Queen’s’. And, in June 1892, it was ‘The Queen’s Hussar’, ‘Anchored’ and ‘The Old Cathedral’ (the latter a duet with a Mr E Thomas).

But in October, a report of his renditions of ‘Anchored’ and ‘True as the Compass’ concludes:

‘We understand that Neath will shortly lose this admirable singer, as he intends devoting himself to music in the metropolis’.

Clearly that plan never materialised.

There is a note on Ernest’s service record indicating that, on 17 January 1893, having completed 21 years’ service, he was permitted to continue his military career.

His departure from Neath is duly recorded. The South Wales Daily Post of 12 September 1893 reports:

‘A complimentary banquet signalising the departure of Sergeant Major Dracup, the instructor of the local artillery corps, who is about to take up his residence at Weston-super-Mare, was held at the armoury last evening. The chair was occupied by Major Ryding, who was supported by Majors Moore, Gardner and Jacobs, Lieutenants F Kempthorne and Davies – Mrs Jenkins, The Ship Aground, provided a splendid dinner, which was greatly enjoyed. After the usual toasts had been honoured the chairman proposed the toast of the guest of the evening, and referred lengthily to the excellent qualities possessed by him, and his cordiality and geniality at all times towards the members of the corps, who without exception wished him success…’

Waist Belt, Glamorgan Artillery Volunteers c. 1890 (courtesy Hants AV)

Weston super Mare and the Gloucester Artillery Volunteers

The family left Neath for Weston Super Mare, where Ernest was appointed Sergeant Major Instructor to 11 Company of the 1st Gloucester Artillery Volunteers.

Musically he was already in action by the end of October 1893, contributing ‘The Skipper’ and ‘The Queen’s Hussar’ to a concert organised by the Town’s Guy Fawkes Committee.

We know from a directory published in the Weston Mercury of 25 November 1893 that the family were living at a house called St Briavels on Stafford Road.

During that month Ernest sang ‘Anchored’ and ‘Tomorrow will be Friday’ at an entertainment given at the Assembly Rooms by the Starr-Bowkett Building Societies, both of which were encored.

On 16 December, the Weston Mercury relayed details of a prize-giving evening held by Number 11 Company of the Gloucester Artillery:

‘During the evening squads of men under Sergt-Major Dracup gave exhibitions of physical and dumb-bell drill which were in every way creditable to themselves and to their Instructor.’

Ernest also sang ‘The Queen’s Hussar’ and ‘England’s Volunteers’.

In his speech, Lieutenant Leech, leading the company, referred to the new instructor:

‘They had lost…the services of Sergt-Major Instructor Pritchard, who, after 29 years’ service in the army, applied for and obtained his discharge, with the highest character that could possibly be held by a soldier – that of “exemplary”. He was pleased to stand and testify to the ability with which Sergeant-Major Pritchard had carried out his duties during his connection with the Company. They had, however, the good fortune to have transferred to them from the 2nd Glamorganshire, Sergt-Major Dracup (applause). From the manner in which the latter had made himself known to the members of the Company, and the manner in which they had worked for him, and under his instruction during the time he had been with them, he (Lieut Leech) thought it needed no recommendation or suggestion from him that Sergt-Major Dracup would become an excellent instructor.’

In January 1894 Ernest appeared at an annual fundraiser for the local Fire Brigade where he again sang ‘Anchored’ and ‘Tomorrow Will be Friday’ and:

‘…was loudly applauded and encored for both his songs, which were rendered with his customary ability.’

In a February 1894 concert at the Assembly Rooms, he tried out ‘True is the Compass’ and in March, at a smoking concert after Weston’s football match, he performed ‘Drinking’ and his old favourite ‘The Wolf’.

Courtesy HantsAV

He also appeared that month at a smoking concert held by the Volunteer Corps in the Victoria Hall, in aid of the families of two fishermen who had recently drowned off Steep Holm. One had also been a member of the Artillery Volunteers.

In June 1894, Ernest junior makes his first appearance in print, described as ‘Trumpeter Dracup’, the Orderly Trumpeter for the Volunteers that week. He was just 14 at the time.

In September the Weston Gazette reports the outcomes of the annual shooting competition held by the Volunteer Company at a new range located at Sand Bay.

Ernest senior won The Bent Good Challenge Cup (and £1 10s prize money), Colonel Versturme’s Challenge Cup (and £1 prize money) and Mrs Webb’s Challenge Cup (and 15s prize money). He also took home a marble clock.

But Ernest junior also won a prize for new recruits and Ada Matilda even won the Ladies’ Challenge Cup for the wives and daughters of members.

Also in September an advertisement appears for Weston-super-Mare College which lists Sergeant Major Dracup as the School’s Drill Instructor.

In October that year there was a smoking concert at The Three Queens which Ernest concluded with a rendition of ‘The Longshoreman’. And just before Christmas, at another Victoria Halls concert, he sang ‘The Wolf’, ‘Simon the Cellarer’ and ‘The Wrecker’s Light’.

At the 11th Company’s Annual Prizegiving at the end of January 1895, the prizes were distributed by Justice of the Peace Mr T Mullins, who:

‘…complimented the Company upon having such excellent officers, and so fine a soldier a Sergt-Major Dracup for their instructor’.

In April 1895, Ernest sang ‘Drinking’ at a smoking concert organized by the local Swimming Club, and in May he appeared at the Assembly Rooms, singing ‘Tommy Atkins’, ‘The Skipper’ and ‘Anchored’.

At the annual Company shooting match in August, Ernest ‘put on 14 bulls in succession at 300 yards’, again winning The Bent Good Challenge Cup (and £1 10s).

He completed his service on 31 August 1895, reckoned at 23 years and 228 days, and was ‘discharged to pension having claimed after three months’ notice under par. 107j, section XIX QR 1894’ The Queen’s Regulations) as a Company Sergeant Major.

He was awarded a silver medal for long service and good conduct, though without a gratuity. His address on discharge was 2 Clarence Villas, Whitecross Road, Weston Super Mare.

His character on being discharged was ‘very good’.

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The family moves to Reading

Ernest is first mentioned in the Reading Mercury in June 1897, when he appeared at a Licensed Victuallers’ Trade Diamond Jubilee Banquet in the Small Town Hall.

Here in Reading he threatens to emerge as a prominent pseudo-mason. The Reading Standard of 17 September 1897 describes the second annual dinner of the Royal Berks Lodge (Surrey Banner) of the R.A.O.B. – the Royal Antedeluvian Order of Buffaloes.

Ernest took the chair for the evening and, as well as singing, gave a short speech:

‘Towards the close of the proceedings, the Chairman (Mr Dracup) said he was sure they would join with him in drinking most heartily to the success of the Royal Berks Lodge. He took it that the majority of the gentlemen present were members of the Lodge. If any of them were not, his advice to them was to become members of the Lodge at once. He was sure they would never regret it. He (the speaker) had been a buffalo for over 9 years, and had visited Lodges in various parts of the country. Not being a member of that Lodge himself, he could not say much about it, but he thought one of the local officers might do so.’

This places Ernest’s initial membership around 1888, while he was still living in Portsmouth.

The RAOB was founded by theatre workers in London in 1822. It has never been awarded a Royal Charter – the word ‘Royal’ came to replace ‘Loyal’. Quite why the Order is ‘Antedeluvian’ is unclear, but they are believed to be ‘Buffaloes’ because a popular song of the time was ‘We’ll chase the Buffalo’!

There are apparently four ‘degrees of membership’: Kangaroo, Certified Primo, Knight Order of Merit and Roll of Honour. Primo, the second degree, is awarded on the basis of time served, attendance and ability to take the chair, so maybe the event in 1897 was a test of Ernest’s promotability. 

RAOB Regalia

In a second Reading Standard article, dated 5 November 1897, we learn that:

‘A lodge, composed of primos of all sections of the Order, to be called ‘The Grand Primos Lodge of Reading’ was formerly opened by Bro. Robt. Mitchell K.O.M. at the Weldale Arms, Weldale Street on the 29th ult. While the primary object of its establishment will be the advancement of Buffaloism in Reading and district, it also aims to more closely associate the primos of the different sections here represented, and by the bringing of them together for the discussion and amicable arrangement of such disputes as cannot be referred to their respective Grand Councils (and upon which the advice of the more experienced brethren could be brought more forcibly to bear) to create a better understanding between the brethren of all banners, and cause them to work more in unison.’

Ernest was appointed Grand Treasurer for a 6-month term.

By June 1898 the local papers were full of a visit to Reading by the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII, to open Reading College. He might have recognised Ernest from his time aboard Osborne.

The formal lunch concluded with an appearance by the ‘Reading Quartette’ comprising ‘Messrs. Charles Pearce, James Butler, William Stock and Ernest Dracup (Gold Medallist)’.

They sang the National Anthem and ‘God Bless the Prince of Wales’. They also appeared in a concert later that evening and at further events throughout the remainder of the year.

We know that Ernest junior had joined the First Volunteer Battalion of the Royal Berkshire Regiment as early as November 1898, since he is named as a Private and member of the Signalling Class. He was 18 at this point.

The following year the Battalion’s signalling team – Ernest junior amongst them – won first place in the annual competition for volunteer battalions held at Wellington Barracks.

Ernest senior continued to appear at a series of weekly concerts given in Reading’s ‘Small Town Hall’ and he was clearly busy throughout 1899 but, with the turn of the Century, he recedes into the background and Ernest junior comes much more to the fore.

In 1900 I could find no references to Ernest senior in the local press, while Ernest junior appears on at least five occasions, either related to his volunteer service, or to his employment at the Reading Post Office. We know that he joined the Post Office as a Learner in October 1897.

The Small Town Hall

Ernest senior departs for Somerset and Wiltshire

The reason is revealed in the 1901 Census, which places Ernest senior and wife Mary in Bridgwater, Somerset. They are living at 91 Chilton Street, otherwise known as the Crowpill Inn, where Ernest is innkeeper.

The Inn, which opened in 1869, had closed by the early 2000s. Ernest seems to have been landlord from 1900 to 1902 only, and I could find just three brief references to his performances in Bridgwater during this period.

Meanwhile, the 1901 Census records Ernest junior as a lodger in the home of a Post Office sorting clerk by the name of George Wilkins, at 11 Salisbury Road in Reading. Ernest’s employment is given as ‘Post Office telegraphist’.

Sister Ada Matilda (also a Post Office telegraphist) was boarding with another family in Frimley, Surrey, for part of the time her parents were away from Reading.

We know from press reports that on 23 April 1901, Ernest junior was fined 2s 6d for riding his bicycle without a light in London Street Reading! He was also beginning to gain wider experience as a baritone singer and violinist at various Post Office events.

A report in a local paper places Ernest senior in Salisbury, Wiltshire towards the end of 1903, where he is listed as a member of the Sarum Choral Society and something called the ‘Salisbury PSA’. It seems that Ada joined her parents in Salisbury as, in April 1904, she is listed amongst the contraltos of the Sarum Choral Society.

The last record of a Salisbury concert I can find that involves Ernest dates from November 1904. I have been unable to confirm whether he was also an innkeeper in Salisbury, but this seems likely.

He appears to be back in Reading by August 1905, since a Mr and Mrs Dracup are listed amongst the participants in a trip to Goring organised by the Battle Ward (No 2 Division) of the Reading Central Conservative Association.

And ‘Mr E Dracup, Bass Vocalist, Gold Medallist’ is on the bill for a Boxing Day evening concert at Reading Small Town Hall.

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An aside about Post Office telegraphy

Ernest junior and his sister Ada were both employed as Post Office telegraphists during the first decade of the Twentieth Century, when telegraphy was still far more popular than telephony.

In The Post Office and Its Story (1912), Edward Bennett describes the evolution of telegraphy and how it was operating as the First World War loomed.

He notes the rapid increase in usage, such that, by 1912, some 86 million telegrams were being sent annually, the daily rate ranging from 120,000 to 165,000. The average cost per message is estimated at 7¾d., although some local telegrams were free.

Though land lines had been carried until now on telegraph poles, the Post Office was in the process of laying underground cables throughout the country.

In 1912, the Post Office’s telegraphy service employed 4,596 staff, of which 1,214 were female. The pay scale for male telegraphists in the Inland Section began at 16s and rose to 65s per week. For women the scale was from 14s to 40s.

In relation to the advance of the telephone, Bennett says:

‘Telegraphy has held undisputed sway for a number of years, but latterly the telephone has entered largely into competition, and there can be little doubt that telephoning is and will become its very dangerous rival. While some considerable time may elapse before the effect of the trunk line telephony will make itself felt in competition with telegraphy to provincial offices because of its somewhat high rates, it is possible that as these rates are reduced it will show its effects upon telegraphy. With regard to local telegrams, telephony has undoubtedly already brought about a diminution in the number dealt with by its vigorous competition, and unquestionably local telegraphy will have to look to its laurels… At present, however, there is room for both services, and with the efforts which are continually being made to accelerate the telegraph service it is more than probable that both telegraphs and telephones, each serving the public in its own particular sphere, will together thrive and flourish for a long time yet.’

Telegraphists c. 1900

Ernest junior progresses meanwhile in Reading

By September 1901, Ernest junior had been promoted to Corporal in the Volunteers and, by March 1906, had reached the rank of Sergeant.

In April that year the Reading Amateur Operatic Society gave a performance of The Pirates of Penzance but, though Ernest senior was involved, he was only part of the chorus this time.

On 1 December 1906 there is a report of the annual Reading Post Office ‘Social’, noteworthy because Ernest junior sang a duet with his sister They also gave a rendition of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’. Meanwhile, a Miss Elsie Coombs is also on the bill…

In November 1907, the Reading Amateur Operatic Club gave a performance of The Yeomen of the Guard, in which Elsie Coombs featured as Kate, while Ernest junior and Ada were both part of the chorus.

In March 1908, Ernest senior and Ernest junior were both present at a Bohemian Concert in the Sergeants’ Mess at the Barracks of the Royal Berkshire Regiment. This is the first time I can find them on the same bill.

The family were at this time living at 70 Shaftesbury Road, to the west of Reading, but moved in 1907 to 31 Tilehurst Road, nearer the centre of Town.

Reading tramways 1903

Shortly afterwards, in April, there is a report in the Berkshire Chronicle of the reorganisation of the 1st Volunteer Battalion of the Royal Berkshires, consequent on the Territorial and Reserve Forces Act.

It became the 4th Battalion of the Royal Berkshire Regiment, with an establishment of 29 officers and 980 other ranks. Only two Companies – A and B – were now posted at Reading rather than the previous three.

The Volunteer Club held a smoking concert to mark the transition. Sergeant Dracup and ex-Sergeant Major Dracup were again both on the bill.

Giving his annual review at the Dinner of the Reading Territorials that November, Captain Cooper commended Ernest junior, who had clearly become a signalling expert in his own right:

‘The signallers had again done excellently. Eight were inspected on October 24th and all qualified, and were classified first class. The report reflected high credit on Sergt. Dracup and the members of his signalling class.’

Ernest junior received the signaller’s prize of £12.

Early in 1910 the Reading Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society performed ‘HMS Pinafore’, with Ernest junior taking the role of Becket, while his sister and Elsie Coombs were part of the Chorus.

Ernest senior continued to perform regularly in Reading. For example, the bill for the Second Grand Annual Concert of Reading Football Club, in December 1910, features both him and Miss Elsie Coombs. He sang ‘The Wolf’; she ‘When the Heart is Young’.

In 1910, the family moved to an even more central address at 35 Zinzan Street. The 1911 Census records them here. Ernest senior gave his employment as ‘Naval pensioner (temporary invoice clerk)’. Ada continues as a post office telegraphist, but Ernest junior is now described as a post office clerk.

In January 1914 Ernest senior served as toastmaster at a dinner to celebrate the victory of former Royal Marine Officer Captain Wilson in the Reading by-election.

A report in The Reading Mercury says:

‘Mr Dracup, the toastmaster, fully realised the dignity of his high office, and in stentorian voice proclaimed the toasts.’

Captain Leslie Orme Wilson

In February there is a description of the weekly meeting of Reading Philanthropic Institution, another masonic-style lodge. Ernest junior took the chair.

Then in May 1914, Ernest junior married Elsie Coombs. The Reading Mercury reports:

‘Much interest was evinced in the wedding of Mr Ernest C Dracup and Miss Elsie Coombs, two well-known Reading vocalists, which took place in Broad Street Chapel on Tuesday. The Rev W M Rawlinson officiated. The bride, who was given away by her father, was attended by two bridesmaids – Miss E Francis and Miss E Coombs (niece of the bride). Mr A E Parker officiated as best man. Both bride and bridegroom were the recipients of many presents.’

Broad Street Chapel (courtesy of Bill Nicholls)

Two weeks later, the Reading Philanthropic Society presented ‘Bro E C Dracup’ with ‘a comfortable easy chair and an illuminated address’.

Ernest junior and Elsie moved to a house in Priory Avenue, Caversham, where they were to remain until his death.

In July 1914, sister Ada also married, to Charles John Vink, a house furnisher’s cost clerk, leaving Ernest senior and Mary Jane alone in Zinzan Street.

Reading in 1913

War is declared

A report dated 8 August 1914 names Sergeant Major Dracup as the Battalion Orderly Sergeant for No. 1 Battery of the Berkshire National Reserve.

The record survives of Ernest senior’s formal recruitment as a special reservist in the Royal Berkshire Regiment on 7 September 1914. The form is headed ‘For service in the United Kingdom only’. He was aged 60.

He reports that he is employed as a clerk and remains part of the National Reserve, having previously served in the Royal Marine Artillery (time expired 1895).

At the time of enlistment, he was 5 feet 8.5 inches tall, weighed 180lbs, had a girth of 42 inches, with a range of expansion of 2 1/2 inches. His eyes are described as grey, his hair light grey and his religion is Church of England.

His record shows that he was promoted to Sergeant on the day of his recruitment, and to Colour Sergeant the following day! But he claimed discharge in December 1914, by virtue of his age, under (Para 8 of War Office letter No. 27), and was granted discharge on 22 December, having served for only 109 days.

A further press story in October 1914 lists Ernest as a member of the Reading’s Citizen Army, some 700 strong, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel J H Hodgson who:

‘…is fortunate in having the services of a number of ex non-commissioned officers, who have built up for themselves a good name as to their ability. Among them may be mentioned Messrs Burling, Dracup, Scotcher…’

In January 1915, at a dinner and smoking concert for soldiers, Ernest senior sang ‘Excelsior’ in duet with his daughter-in-law, now known of course as Mrs Dracup.

Increasingly, as the War progresses, it is she who features most prominently in the local press.

In October 1915 she took part in several concerts designed to aid the recruitment effort and, thereafter, a series for wounded soldiers. One report from December says:

‘Mr E Dracup is too well-known to Reading audiences to need introduction, and her vocal style and accomplishments stand in no need of indiscriminate praise. Having opened the concert by taking the solo part in the National Anthem, she proved herself in excellent voice in the song, ‘Waltz Song’ (Merrie England), Edward German, and she was equally successful in a duet, ‘Come to Arcadie’ by the same composer, which she sang with Mr Joseph Boddy.’

She was busy throughout the war and, by June 1918, was appearing on the bill at Reading’s Palace Theatre, performing in ‘A Night in the Latin Quarter: A Musical Pallette in One Scene’.

Little or nothing is reported of Ernest junior doing this period. It is not clear whether he remained in Reading and his military role is also unclear.

This wartime photograph shows him in the uniform of a sergeant, though the cap badge looks suspiciously like the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry’s rather than the Royal Berkshire Regiment’s.

Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry Cap Badge

There is also an intriguing loose end in an article in an Essex newspaper dated 28 July 1917. It records a farewell concert marking the departure of the ‘Signal School’ from Dunmow, Essex. Both a ‘Mrs E Dracup’ and a ‘S-M Dracup’ featured on the programme.

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Peace is restored

Ernest junior and Elsie had a daughter, Joyce Eileen Dracup, born in Reading on 6 June 1919.

With the War over, Ernest senior begins to reappear in the press, initially as a member of various veterans’ associations.

A memorial service to those lost in the war took place in August 1919. It featured five columns of veterans and discharged soldiers, each marching through the town under the leadership of a former sergeant major. Ernest was one of the five.

The press reports tell of a huge crowd:

‘Sunday last was a red-letter day in Reading, being set apart as the day upon which discharged and demobilised sailors and soldiers honoured the memory of their fallen comrades. Headed by bands the processions converged on the King’s Meadow Recreation Ground from all parts of the town and thousands of people assembled to witness and take part in the deeply impressive drum- head service. So great was the rush to be near the front that a strong body of police, including a mounted detachment, had the utmost difficulty in keeping a clear course for the processions and in ultimately marshaling into their correct places.’

The 1919 Memorial Service

In October 1921, Ernest senior’s wife Mary Jane died in Reading. The following July, he married Florence Goddard, a 49 year-old widow whose first husband had also died early the previous year.

By 1923, they had moved to 66 Waverley Road where they remained until Ernest died.

During this period, Ernest junior occasionally reappears, often in a supporting role to his wife. He was a member of the Broad Street Congregational Choir, which continued its tradition of performing a different light opera each year.

In 1922 the choice fell on Planquette’s ‘Les Cloches de Corneville’. Elsie played Germaine.

The Reading Standard says:

‘Mrs Elsie Dracup (as Germaine) also sang well, her voice being quite equal to the requirements of the part. Her rendering of the beautiful solo ‘From pallid cheek’ evoked loud applause and an encore…

…Mr Ernest C Dracup, a member of the choir, ably sang the part ascribed to Gobo, and in doing so upheld the best traditions of these concerts.’

Ernest senior was still performing as late as January 1923, although his repertoire – on this occasion he sang ‘Anchored’ and ‘The Skipper’ – must have seemed increasingly dated. Eventually, his name disappears from the local press.

c.1923

In 1924 the Broad Street Choir performed ‘The Rebel Maid’ with Elsie in the leading part and Ernest Junior once more in a minor role. In 1925, Elsie again had the lead role in ‘Tale of Old Japan’.

In 1928, eight year-old Joyce makes her first appearance, having passed her ‘first steps’ examination with the Trinity College of Music.

Early in 1930, Ernest junior had a last minor role in another production of ‘Merrie England’, this time by the Berkshire Operatic Club at the County Theatre Reading. 

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Exit, stage left

On 15 August 1931, the Reading Standard announced Ernest senior’s death:

‘On August 8th at 66 Waverley Road, Ernest Dracup (Ex Colour Sergeant Royal Marine Artillery), the dearly loved husband of Florence Dracup, after a long illness, patiently borne, aged 77 years.’

I could find no coverage of his funeral.

Then on 21 November, Ernest Junior’s death was announced:

‘On November 18th, at 30 Priory Avenue, Caversham, Ernest Charles E., the beloved husband of Elsie K Dracup, in his 52nd year.’

On week later there is a report of his funeral, including a photograph. But, once again he has to play ‘second fiddle’:

‘Mrs Dracup, better known to concert goers as Madame Elsie Dracup, has received many expressions of sympathy in the loss she has sustained by the death of her husband, Mr Ernest Charles E Dracup, which occurred at his residence, 30 Prior Avenue, Caversham, on the 18th inst. in his 52nd year. Mr Dracup, who was a post office telegraphs official, had been away from his work on sick leave for some months. He was a popular figure in the Town and was a member of the Morland Lodge of Masons and a member of the Caversham Social Club. Mrs Dracup is one of the best-known vocalists in Reading.’

There is also a short anonymous obituary that focuses on the man himself:

‘….it was my privilege to work with E C Dracup, and, consequently, to know him well down many years. Always the same calm strength and quiet confidence; the same considerateness for the attitude and feelings of others; the same pleasure in helping a chum; the same willingness to contribute to the pleasure of his friends by means of that sweetly-attractive gift of song that had been given to him. For many years I have never thought of “Ernie” Dracup without hearing on my heart chords echoes of his appealing interpretation of that old favourite of his – and ours – “Trumpeter, what are you sounding now?” and, in face of the dearness of the loss of him, it is easy to attach a deep and tender significance to the oft-repeated questioning – “Is it the call I’m seeking?” For the Great Trumpeter has made reply, and, now, it would almost seem that “Ernie” had known what the answer would be. Thank you old friend and colleague.’

TD

October 2021

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