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The Revolver in the Attic: the story of a startling find at Preston Manor

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On 28 May 1940 Captain Hutchinson, the Chief Constable of Brighton, was sent a letter from Henry Roberts, Curator of Preston Manor. The letter begins:

‘Dear Captain Hutchinson, in one of the cupboards in the attic here I have come across a revolver.’

Letter announcing discovery of revolver at Preston Manor, 28 May 1940

This one line creates a thrilling picture, the gentlemanly bespectacled curator creeping about in the vast attic space at Preston Manor looking into old cupboards and being alarmed by his find; a scene reminiscent of an Agatha Christie murder mystery.

But this was no smoking gun. Mr Roberts states that he presumes the revolver belonged to the late Sir Charles Thomas-Stanford ‘and may have been used by him when in South Africa.’

Being a good citizen Mr Roberts is aware of the law: ‘as I believe no one is supposed to hold lethal weapons without a permit I report the matter to you.’

The museum curator in Mr Roberts speaks regretfully when he says ‘naturally I would prefer to retain the revolver here, with other personal mementos of Sir Charles, but I must, of course, leave that to you.’

Present day photo re-enacting moment of revolver’s discovery at Preston Manor

The Webley revolver

I hoped when reading this letter that the revolver was kept as it would be an interesting historical object. Mr Roberts gives a detailed description.

‘On the barrel are the words “Army and Navy, C.S.I.” Below the revolving part are the words “Webley Patents.” Above this is “Mark II”. There is a number 46122, and another number 455/476. I can see no ammunition.’

On 4 June Captain Hutchinson replies from the County Borough of Brighton police station at Brighton Town Hall. He isn’t at all worried by the find and is keen that Mr Roberts keeps the revolver and sends the necessary application form so the weapon can be held legally. ‘Complete and return to me,’ he writes, ‘this will allow you to retain the revolver in question.’

Captain Hutchinson knew Mr Roberts personally so naturally had no concerns.

Typed document on yellowing paper

Uncompleted firearms application found in Preston Manor

We know Mr Roberts declined because we still have the application form and it has not been completed. In fact for a piece of paper 77 years old it is in perfect condition having been in a filing cabinet since 1940. The form is very simple. You give information about the weapon and ammunition and you fill in a few simple personal details. Your date of birth is required only if you are under 21 years of age. You must give a reason for requiring the firearm and ammunition and if the Chief Officer of Police is satisfied that you have met the three conditions listed and have paid your five shillings you have your certificate.

The three conditions are equally simple. You must keep your firearm and ammunition in a secure place. You must report loss or theft, and you must notify the police of any change of address.

The current firearm application form runs to 15 pages and is much more complex. Sections to be filled today include medical history of the applicant, not required in 1940.

Henry Roberts

I can imagine Mr Roberts pondering over the application form. He was a respectable and honest person who satisfied all the necessary conditions. Yet he writes on 20 June that he has considered the matter but is making an unconditional surrender of the weapon to the police ‘for it to be put to such use in the present emergency as you deem advisable’.

In 1940 Britain was at war with Germany, and the south coast was in an especially vulnerable position. Perhaps he thought the Brighton Police might require an extra firearm in the event of invasion.

‘If when the war is over,’ he goes on to add, and ‘track has been taken of it, and it can be returned here, well and good. If not, well it cannot be helped.’

On 20th June 1940 Mr Robert received the receipt he requested proving the weapon surrendered to the police and here the trail goes cold.

Curious as to the whereabouts of Sir Charles’s Webley I contacted the Old Police Cells Museum at Brighton Town Hall. Unfortunately they have neither the weapon nor a record of its surrender. I am disappointed but not surprised. Too much time has gone past and the event described here happened at a time of national crisis. Also, the Brighton Police headquarters moved to new premises in the 1960s and much of the old paperwork may have been destroyed.

It seems the Webley was disposed of. But how?

According to Dr. Robert Maze’s publication, The Webley Service Revolver published by Osprey in 2012 thousands of tons of weaponry including Webley revolvers were exported to buyers overseas in the post-war years, fetching millions of pounds sterling. A trade abounded in wholesale weaponry sold by weight not by the piece – providing Britain with much-needed funds at a time when the British economy was depleted by war.

Could it be that Sir Charles’s Webley became part of this contingent? If so the most likely destination was the United States.

A Webley Mark II service revolver is a collectable item today. If Sir Charles’s Webley is somewhere in private possession it will be easily identifiable by the unique serial number. However it is also possible the gun was destroyed in the postwar years when peace took precedence.

At Preston Manor Sir Charles Thomas-Stanford is remembered  as a man of peace. As MP for Brighton during the First World War his parliamentary questions were largely concerned with social matters such as the employment conditions of children and food supplyfor wounded servicemen at the Royal Pavilion Hospital for Limbless Men. Indeed, in the New Year’s Honours list of 1929 he was created a baronet in recognition of his years of public service.

What then was he doing with a lethal weapon?

Charles Thomas in Africa

In 1895 Charles, at the age of 37, spent time adventuring in South Africa. He became friendly with Cecil Rhodes, the controversial businessman and politician, whom he had met as a fellow undergraduate at Oxford University.

Charles became a partner in a gold prospecting syndicate and wrote of his dealings. Of the riches to be mined he quotes Rhodes:

‘…he suggests the ‘Gold of Araby’, frequently mentioned in the Bible, was in fact produced in what is now Rhodesia…from this country came the treasures of King Solomon.’

On arrival in South Africa, Charles travelled from Capetown to Pretoria by rail and thereafter by coach to Bulawayo in Zimbabwe: ‘a somewhat toilsome journey of six days and nights with practically no stoppage.’

In the little explored southern gold belt he rode on a wagon, ‘with axes to clear the way when necessary.’ Like many men of his time, Charles regarded the local lions as legitimate sport. He writes of taking a shot at some lions that followed the wagon train:

‘I had a shot at one at a distance of a few yards, but it was pitch dark at the time, and I missed him.’

This incident is the only mention I have found so far of Charles Thomas, as he was then named, using a firearm of any kind.

Charles’s Mark II Webley revolver dates from between the model’s introduction in 1894 and its replacement by the Mark III in 1897. This supports Henry Roberts’s comment to Captain Hutchinson regarding its usage in South Africa. Very likely the revolver surrendered in June 1940 had been in the possession of Charles Thomas on his dramatic Boy’s Own gold-hunting adventure.

Oil painting showing a balding man in a grey suit, seated on a chair

Portrait of Sir Charles Thomas-Stanford, 1913

A couple of years after his South African adventure, Charles Thomas married wealthy heiress Ellen Stanford, on 19 May 1897. In accordance with her father’s will he took her family name and became the double-barrelled Charles Thomas-Stanford. Leaving his Boy’s Own gold hunting adventures behind, Charles settled to a quiet academic life pursuing his interests in archaeology and history.

In 1905 the Thomas-Stanfords came to live at Preston Manor where I like to imagine Charles seated in the dining room with his closest friends regaling them with after dinner tales of lions and gold mining over glasses of port. Meanwhile, carefully packed away in the attic, his Webley revolver lay waiting to startle Henry Roberts many years later.

Paul Wrightson, Venue Officer, Preston Manor