The adventurous life of William Fairley

The eastern end of Sedgmoor Rd in Flackwell Heath, 1930. The field which can be seen in the distance at the end of the road was a part of Sedgmoor Farm. The whole area is now developed with housing.

James Rivett on his 99th birthday last week

First published in Nostalgia by

William Fairley

William Fairley lived in Flackwell Heath for the last 17 years of his life. He lived a privileged, charmed and adventurous life. He moved in high-level circles in volatile locations and may have been an undercover agent. We tell his story.

William was born on Feb 27th 1877, the youngest son of Francis and Fanny Fairley, who lived at 37 Grey Street, Newcastle on Tyne. His father Francis was a ‘Bank Agent’ and clearly quite wealthy as the household in the Census of 1881 included five servants.

In 1890 thirteen-year old William was the only child who was named as a beneficiary in the will of his Uncle William. He received his watches, jewels and personal ornaments, so clearly he was a favourite of his uncle.

After his education at Malvern College public school in Great Malvern, Worcestershire, William followed his father into banking and moved abroad. He returned to England and was living at the White Hart Hotel in Windsor when he married twenty year old Mary Page Routh on January 6 1914.

Mary had a relatively modest background, her father being a clergyman who in 1911 was the Chaplain of Middlesex County Lunatic Asylum.

Mary died in childbirth in 1915 and a year later their baby son also died. Clearly William was distraught and so later in 1916 decided then to move to Moscow, Russia, which turned out to a life-changing move. He joined a small British export firm William Higgs & Co.

William soon found another love and in 1917 he married twenty-year old Daisy May Godfrey, the daughter of English expats, in Moscow.

1917 was of course the year of the Russian revolution, with the February revolution toppling the Tsar, and a counter-revolution in October put the Bolsheviks headed by Lenin in power.

One of Lenin’s first acts was to end Russia’s involvement in WWI, which allowed the Germans to move their troops from the Eastern Front to the Western Front. This alarmed the Allies, who were desperate to get Russia back in the war.

An envoy was therefore despatched to Moscow to covertly conspire the overthrow of the Bolshevik rule. A spymaster and network of Agents were recruited. Their meeting place was the offices of Higgs & Co, and so William had his first contact with espionage.

But being newly married, and his wife now expecting a baby, he decided that life in Moscow was too dangerous. They left in the Spring of 1918, which was just as well as Lenin was shot, but only wounded, on August 17th.

William and Daisy made a hurried escape with other expats, and had to leave most of their possessions behind. They did however manage to sew jewels and other valuables into Daisy’s clothing.

Back in England their daughter Audrey was born in late 1918, when the couple were living in Bromley. But life here was too humdrum for William and by January 1922 the family had moved to Tehran, then in Persia, where a son Richard Durant Fairley was born.

William was working as the Tehran representative of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, which eventually became BP. In 1923 William was also appointed the Swedish Consul in Persia, probably due to family connections with Sweden. In Tehran William and Daisy had an opulent lifestyle, entertaining many important guests.

In the late 1920s William was appointed Deputy General Manager of the Anglo-Persian Oil Co. on the Continent, and was based in Paris.

The family also spent time in Tangier in North Africa. Their family home in England was Elms Court in Cheltenham. In 1937 William received a large inheritance following the death of his cousin Edward Dickson Park. This included the 11 acre Sedgmoor Estate in Flackwell Heath.

Edward had lived in Sedgmoor House since the 1890s and had demolished the original mansion to replace it with a modern 14 roomed building with a unique appearance.

He became the Squire or Lord of the Manor of Flackwell Heath in all but name, and he and his wife Fanny Lucie Park were deeply involved in the life of the village.

For example, Edward was the chairman of the committee appointed to raise funds for, and then commission, the Flackwell Heath War Memorial after the Great War.

After inheriting the Sedgmoor estate William lived there with his wife Daisy until he died on April 3rd 1954 aged 77. He is buried in Little Marlow cemetery. During his eventful life he had travelled extensively, became a fluent Russian-speaker, and moved in exalted circles.

Whether or not he was actually involved in spying cannot be proved, but he certainly had the attributes and opportunities to do so. After his death his son Richard Durant Fairley inherited the estate in Flackwell Heath, but soon sold it for redevelopment.

Sedgmoor House was once again demolished and a new modern house built on the site, and the site of the farm is now a select housing estate. He served in the Royal Air Force, Bomber Command in WWII, an experience which undoubtedly effected his life thereafter.

He committed suicide on November 26 1968, aged just 46. William’s wife Daisy died in November 1973, having outlived both of her children.

William Cunnigham Fairley Fairley is just one of those buried in Lt Marlow cemetery whose life story will be told during a tour of the cemetery by costumed members of the Flackwell Heath & Loudwater Local History Group.on Sunday Sept 14 at 2.30pm.

Tickets for the tour must be purchased in advance from Flackwell Heath Library or by contacting Sally Scagell on 01628 521332.

James Rivett

Many readers will have met James Rivett who was Managing Director of Murrays from 1953 to 1973. During this time he built-up the business to become an iconic store in High Wycombe.

He was born James Clayton Rivett on 21st August 1915 in Norfolk. From the age of 8 he was educated at a boarding school, and then joined the British Army in the mid-1930s.

During the second world war he served in the Middle East and was captured. He was a prisoner of war for four and a half years in Italy and then Germany.

He contracted pemphigus. This is a rare and serious condition which causes painful blisters to develop on the skin inside the mouth, nose and throat, and other sensitive areas of the body.

The blisters are fragile and can easily burst open, leaving painful areas of raw unhealed skin. It is what is known as an autoimmune condition. This means the immune system (the body's defence against infection) malfunctions and starts attacking healthy tissue.

There is no cure, although the symptoms respond well to high doses of steroid medication. James had the last rites read to him in hospital, but hearing an English voice gave him the will to live.

After the war he returned home and his father Reginald gave him a small shop in White Hart Street. Initially it sold army surplus. Gradually he built it up into the largest department store in Bucks. He was a Rotarian and was also involved with the bridge club in High Wycombe.

This used to meet in the restaurant of Murrays initially. He was also strongly involved with the local cricket and rugby clubs and became president if the rugby club.

He has been married to married to Joan Rivett for 45 years, and they have four children, ten grandchildren and eight great grandchildren.

The Great War Timeline

• September 5. William Mitchell Poulton of Farnham Royal is killed and remembered on that War Memorial.

• September 6 to 9 the Battle of the Marne rages and results in the withdrawal of the German Army to a line from Noyon on the river Ouse to Verdun. This is a decisive strategic defeat. It results in the failure of the German master plan for the Western Front, the Schlieffen Plan. This means that Germany will have to fight the war on two fronts.

• September 9. King Albert of Belguim launches an attack against the Germans forces outside Antwerp, which has not yet fallen.

• September 10. Private Sidney Beldon of Marlow is killed and remembered on the All Saints Roll of Honour, also Captain Douglas C.L.Stephen of the Grenadier Guards from Bradenham who is remembered on the St Botolph Memorial Lynch Gate.

• September 12. Major Arthur Francis Henderson of the 27th Indian Light Infantry was killed in action and remembered on the War Memorial at Penn.

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