My great grand-mother, Annie Horsley, was born on Nov. 27th 1854 at Pallamcottah in Southern India, where her father worked as civil engineer; he held the rank of Colonel in the Royal Engineers. She was the youngest child, having one older sister and five older brothers. On their father’s retirement at the surprisingly young age of 41 – a reorganisation of the Indian Army making many officers redundant, Annie’s mother’s two brothers-in-law, Col. William Cantis and Col. Archibald Young both retiring on Pension at the same time – the family returned to England and settled in Canterbury.
All the five boys were sent to the ancient King’s School, in the precincts of the vast candle-lit Cathedral. They were contemporaries with their cousins John and Stephen; Canon Horsley recalls how they were all identified in order, in the old manner, Horsley Primus to Horsley Septimus. Of these seven boys, all but one – Canon Horsley himself – passed their working lives abroad in the service of God and the Queen, so strong was the family tradition. Annie’s eldest brother William entered the Indian Civil Service from Cambridge and after a career as forest officer served as a judge in the state of Hyderabad.
He has left a vivid memorial of himself in a series of letters from India which he wrote to his father between 1870 and 1891. The conditions of the correspondence were ideal – an affectionate son writing to a father who had lived almost the same life, and would follow every detail with interest and knowledge. There is an old typescript of the letters on rice-paper (perhaps made up for the father) which is in my brother Gamaliel’s possession, well worth reading for themselves, not merely as family records. They provide in fresh authentic detail, the raw material that Rudyard Kippling was to work up into some of the finest of his elaborately polished short stories. According to family tradition an episode from William The Conqueror – presumably the goat feeding – was furnished by Horsley’s experiences in famine relief; and many parts of the finer story The Tomb of his Ancestors – including the local setting – seem to come straight from the text of the letters. What contact there was between the men is not clear, but contact there must have been.
William Horsley was a good talker, who in later life loved to hold his hearers with tales of forest and hill. Stories of bison-hunt and tiger kill, and of his carefree days as a bachelor forest officer, on his own in his little kingdom in the Satpura hills, an un-mapped forest 200 miles from to end; and the occasion when he, along with an Indian tracker, silently pursued a wounded marauding tiger until they cornered it in a cave whereupon he entered the cave and shot the tiger.
There may be significance in the dates; Kippling settled in England in 1889; Horsley retired in 1892; The Day’s Work was published in 1894. (I have a 1st Edition of it).
William Horsley died in 1915. A fine photograph brings before us the splendid old man. But even better is the poem in which his daughter evokes
Tiger stories told to me at night By the fire in the library. Light, Deflected from the reading lamp, falls close,
Cutting angles on the muscled hand, Glittering on the glinting greying hair. His tired eyes, wrinkled by the Indian glare, Stare at the big guns resting in their stand …
My father’s face remains Forever fixed, his features burnt in steel. His tired eyes do not see me, they reveal Steep wooded ghauts, ravines drenched in the rains.