Remembering Norfok’s very own Indiana Jones

PUBLISHED: 17:20 19 July 2020 | UPDATED: 17:20 19 July 2020

Sir Henry Rider Haggard in his study at Ditchingham House, pen in hand - all his novels were written in longhand - and wearing his famous camel hair suit.

Sir Henry Rider Haggard in his study at Ditchingham House, pen in hand - all his novels were written in longhand - and wearing his famous camel hair suit.


He was a Norfolk man who died 95 years ago but his name and his work are timeless and famous across the world. Derek James looks at the extraordinary life of Sir Henry Rider Haggard

The Bradenham village sign remembering Sir Henry Rider Haggard who was born at Wood Farm. Photo: Archant. Library / Bill SmithThe Bradenham village sign remembering Sir Henry Rider Haggard who was born at Wood Farm. Photo: Archant. Library / Bill Smith

Would we have had our rampaging film star all-action hero Indiana Jones if it hadn’t been for a baby boy born at Wood Farm in the Norfolk village of Bradenham on June 22 1856?

Before he embarked on his swashbuckling adventures there was a certain Allan Quartermain (a dead ringer for Mr Jones) and films such as King Solomon’s Mines and She. They were exotic tales in far-off places which captured our imagination.

And they emerged from the pen of our own Rider Haggard, whose novels, more than 50 of them, sold in millions all over the world. A complex character of rare talent. Not just a writer but a radical reformer, a farmer, a country squire…and so much more.

A gentleman from a different age. Yes, he was a representative of the British Empire in Africa for a short time but Rider was a caring and thoughtful man who went on to travel the world helping others.

Rider HaggardRider Haggard

A member of the Dominions Royal Commission, he served on the Empire Settlement Committee and in 1905 was appointed by the Secretary of State for the Colonies to inquire into the labour colonies established in the USA by the Salvation Army.

The result was his report called The Poor and the Land.

He also served on the Royal Commission on Coast Erosion and Afforestation and on the Empire Settlement Committee.

All those facts are fine but what was Rider Haggard really like? What sort of a chap was he? What made him tick?

Much has been written about him over the years by different people but there was one journalist and author whose words and thoughts are special. She was the former EDP writer Lilias Rider Haggard. He was her father.

Lilias who wrote a column for us called Norfolk Lives was born in 1892 and she died in Norwich during 1968. Awarded the MBE for her work as an auxiliary nurse in the First World War she went on to serve on Norfolk County Council and was President of the Norfolk Rural Craftsman Guild.

She had a wonderful way with words and wrote that her father was the one of William and Ella Haggard’s ten children who loved the rural life.

“Who knows what governs a man’s destiny? Chance, inclination, opportunity, environment, heredity – they all have their day,” said Lilias.

According to her: “The Haggards were good old yeoman stock, but a marriage into the Amyand family, brilliant but unstable had brought with their vivid fair colouring a mental and spiritual unrest and wandering spirit which warred with their love of the home acres and sent them adventuring into the Army, Navy, Diplomatic and Indian Services.”

At one period all the sons were serving in different parts of the world.

As for Rider, while his brothers had all gone to well-known public schools and universities, he was never considered very bright or robust and was packed off to Ipswich Grammar School.

“It was a rough school in those days and he distinguished himself not at all, partly because of what became a habit of day-dreaming and partly because he was a boy of slow development mentally, a disability not much allowed for in past years,” wrote Lilius.

They called him “Nosey” because of the family feature, a large and impressive nose upon his thin boyish face and he excelled in original essays and Latin verse and more than once he was unjustly accused of “cribbing.”

Rider left school at 16 and his father, hearing that his friend Sir Henry Bulwer of Heydon was going out to Natal as Lieutenant Governor in 1875, asked him to take his son with him…it was a journey to Africa which would change his life and lay the foundations for his writing career.

These were difficult times. Today we can look back and condemn some of the activities of the “British Empire” but Rider was described as a humane visionary who admired the local people, especially the Zulus.

Lilius recorded how some of his first efforts at journalism brought a reprimand from another Norfolk man, Sir Bartle Frere, who was the High Commissioner for South Africa. He pointed out that his habit of speaking the truth was not always “politic,” and had better be supressed.

On his return to this country Rider married Louisa Margitson of Ditchingham, near Bungay, and they returned to Africa where he started ostrich farming in the Transvaal. He took his young wife to Hilldrop, the name of the farm, and his only son was born there.

Amid growing unrest and the Boar War they returned to this country to live at Ditchingham House and the books started to be written. His boy’s adventure story, as Lilius described it, King Solomon’s Mines was turned down by half a dozen publishers until in 1895 it finally saw the light of day.

Rubbished by the critics it went on to become a best-seller loved by generations hooked on the adventures of explorers hunting for diamonds in deepest Africa. Films followed, in the 1930s, the 1950s, and then in 1985 with Richard Chamberlin and Sharon Stone.

Then there was She, another rampaging romp, this time about a Cambridge professor and his friends who travel to a lost city to meet the Queen who cannot die – until she falls in love. Peter Cushing and Ursula Andress appeared in the 1965 version of the film.

Rider was writing and travelling. He was in Mexico when tragedy struck and his son Arthur (Jock) died from measles aged 11. His death cast a shadow over the rest of their lives.

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He returned to his beloved East Anglia, spent more time farming and enjoying the country – writing about both. He was a magistrate in Bungay and a churchwarden in Ditchingham.

Rider stood as a Unionist and Agricultural candidate for East Norfolk in the bad-tempered and 1895 election which turned nasty. Eggs, stones and insults were freely thrown and Rider and his followers were once besieged in a hotel in what became known as the “Battle of Stalham Bridge.”

Sounds like one of his books!

He lost by 198 votes – some Conservatives may have been relieved as Rider was calling for old age pensions, national insurance, subsidised railways and even for the church to hand back some of its land to the poor so it could be farmed by them.

Rider wrote on many different subjects and continued to travel the world. Closer to home he took an interest and was a regular visitor to All Hallows Hospital at Ditchingham and was on the Board of Guardians at the Workhouse in Heckingham and fought hard to improve conditions, especially for the children.

A friend of both General Booth of the Salvation Army and writer Rudyard Kipling he was a fine ambassador for Norfolk and wrote a moving introduction in The Norfolk Register of Honour which listed the 12,000 Norfolk men who died in the First World War. He loved and admired the reserved and brave nature of the local men

He was knighted in 1912 and in 1919 made a Knight of the British Empire.

Lilias wrote of her father: “Through much rebellion of spirit, he had grown to love the bonds which bound him to East Anglia.

“He used to say that the view from the Vineyards Hills across the Waveney Valley was to him the loveliest in all the world.

“One of the saddest days in his later life was when age, ill-health and conditions brought about by the First World War forced him to give up farming and when he stood in the auctioneer’s waggon one sunny autumn day and watched all his pedigree stock pass under the hammer,” she said.

Not long after, in 1925, he died.

He once wrote of himself:

“A lover of the kindly race of men, a lover of children, of his friends (and no hater of his enemies), of flowers, of the land and all creatures that dwell thereon, but most of all perhaps a lover of his country.”

Oh, I almost forgot. They named a mountain and a glacier after him in Canada, a road in Norwich and his face is on the village sign at Bradenham. There is also a fine memorial at Ditchingham.

Rider’s dream: One night Rider had a dream. His black gundog Bob (or Rob) was in need of him, dying by the side of water.

He discovered when he woke up that the much-loved dog had in fact wandered off, been hit by a train and fallen into the river below where he had drowned.

This made Rider rethink his belief that believe that animals had no souls or spirits. (He never shot for pleasure again).

The story was told in The Times and caused so much interest that the paper sent a representative to Ditchingham House to meet Rider and discuss this strange tale.

He explained that no-one knew the dog was missing when he had the dream. It was later discovered the dog had died three hours earlier. Mrs Haggard had also had a dream.

It was, he said, a “spiritual happening.”

Rider told the man from The Times he couldn’t share many of the letters he received about the incident but, with a twinkle of the eyes and a laugh, handed him a postcard he had been sent with a Southport postmark.

It said: “Telepathy? Insanity you mean, Tell us no more of your d----d lies. Indeed we are most surprised that a responsible paper like The Times should think it worthwhile to publish such preposterous nonsense emanating from the idiotic brain of the author of ‘She.’

“As for your corroborators, we do not believe one word they say.”

This was signed, “The Public.”

“You can use that,” Rider told the man from The Times…with a smile.

He also had a keen sense of humour.

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