Born 150 years ago in 1865: Capt. Henry Roger Ashwell Pocock.
“A splendid adventure”.
Although he liked to claim he was born at the main family home town of Cookham, in fact Roger Pocock was born at Tenby in South Wales, so could well have claimed to be Welsh by birth. He spent much of his boyhood aboard the T.S. Wellesley on the River Tyne, a training ship commanded by his father and for boys so far “unconvicted of crime”. When his father took Holy Orders and emigrated to Canada with his family Roger tried his hand at many trades, even working for a while on the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Not for the first or last time in his life, he was asked to leave that job. He then finished up virtually penniless doing menial odd jobs at Port Arthur Ontario. His weary father sent him the fare to Winnipeg with the suggestion that he should join the North West Mounted Police, a life he came to love and never forget. He was involved in the Riel Rebellion, where he lost the toes on his right foot due to frostbite. After being invalided out he determined to make a career as a writer. He had achieved some success while in the N.W.M.P., often basing his stories around the colourful characters he had encountered. Following a spell tramping western Canada, he acquired a temporary position as a missionary to the First Nations tribes around the Skeena River. There had been some trouble in the region and the incumbent had decided it was too dangerous for him. Roger delighted in listing the “Skeena Indian Wars” on his career highlights, although he was probably the only one to call it a war. He said that the Church would have liked him to continue, but the official suggestion was that he had not been offered a permanent position as he had shown too much of a liking for the local maidens. Following more travels he returned to England in the light of some success with his writings.
In 1898 he led an expedition to run horses to the Klondyke. The failure of that expedition caused much interest in a number of countries as one of the members, Sir Arthur Curtis, walked out of the camp one morning never to be seen again, starting a mystery which gripped the public imagination for a number of years. What actually did happen to Sir Arthur Curtis? What is the full story of that expedition? For the answers to that you will have to read the whole story in Outrider of Empire: the life and adventures of Roger Pocock by Geoffrey A. Pocock (University of Alberta Press, 2008).
Returning to England again, Roger decided to achieve something spectacular or die in the attempt. He the rode on horseback from Fort Macleod in Canada to Mexico City down what can be known as the “Outlaw Trail” – an unarmed Englishman. What outlaws did he meet and what did he see? Again, for the answer you will have to read Outrider of Empire.
More adventures were to follow in South Africa where he served as a corporal in one of the most irregular bands of Scouts to fight against the Boers. In 1904 Roger was sent by the Illustrated Mail to Russia to report on the effects of the Russo-Japanese War on that country. He returned with information and photographs, also some skilfully drawn plans of a naval base. On his return the great interest he received to his sketches and photos from Prince Louis of Battenberg, the Director of Naval Intelligence, finally convinced him that there was a real need for British subjects travelling the frontiers of the world to bring back information of interest to the State. Thus were the seeds of the Legion of Frontiersmen sown.
In the First War Roger served as a temporary Captain of a company of the Labour Corps in France and then as a ground officer in the Royal Air Force in England. When in France he published Horses, considered by many to be a standard work on the animal. He also kept a detailed diary of life in the Labour Company at the Front. To read all about the adventurous life of this extraordinary man, read Outrider of Empire.
Much writing over the years has centred on Baden-Powell. The Boy Scout movement was and is a great success. It actually took more ideas than it cared to admit from the Legion of Frontiersmen. What it did have was the nationally honoured “Hero of Mafeking” at its head. The Legion of Frontiersmen had great ideas and plans, but lacked a nationally admired hero at its head. Roger Pocock was a minor author from a minor branch of a landed family. His sister with the stage name of Lena Ashwell was far better known than her brother. She did have the advantage that she could introduce her brother to men of power and influence. She married Sir Henry Simson who became a Royal doctor. In those still class-conscious days, however hard Roger Pocock worked promoting the Legion, society was still suspicious of him, especially as the newspapers were fond of re-running the story of the disappearance of Sir Arthur Curtis in Canada with strong hints regarding Roger’s part in the story. Once Roger was persuaded to take a back seat and control of the Legion fell to Lt.Col. Dan Driscoll, the Legion gained considerable strength. Driscoll was known to the public and his adventures and bravery in the war in South Africa had made him a public hero, although far less of a one than Baden-Powell.
Roger was a likeable man, possibly more so for his all too human failings. He trusted too easily and was inclined to take an English gentleman at his word. He had little respect for any authority unless it could prove itself, and yet he expected Authority in the shape of the War Office and other Government departments to back his Legion of Frontiersmen, the majority of whose members in foreign parts shared his distrust of officialdom as it then existed. In his obituary in The Times we read that “Roger Pocock was so modest that few except his closest friends could guess that life to him was, and always had been, a splendid adventure.”
Outrider of Empire: the life and adventures of Roger Pocock
is available from the publishers, University of Alberta Press
or in the United Kingdom from the distributors:
(also distributors of The Frontiersman’s Pocket Book)
“An important biography – brilliantly researched and written – Geoff Pocock brings to life an era unrepeated, of real men and real adventures. Roger Pocock deserved better credit; even his hero Kipling failed to doff a hat to the true exploits, travels and experiences shared within. Pocock belongs in the league of men such as: Johnson, Earp, Cody, Hickok, Horn, Cassidy, Custer, Crook, Roosevelt, Pershing. He rode from Canada-Mexico along parts of the Outlaw Trail and changed route to make it harder! I hadn’t heard of him prior to my ’99 equine epic. Adventure lovers will enjoy this scholarly, highly readable biog.”
Simon Casson, author: Riding The Outlaw Trail in the Footsteps of Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid
“Roger Pocock saw himself as a brave adventurer. Others, however, considered him a drifter and a bungler, unreliable, disreputable, socially inferior and morally dubious, a marginal freelance journalist and fiction-writer…. Outrider of Empire describes Roger Pocock’s family background, boyhood in England, youth in Canada–including service in the North-West Mounted Police–journalism in England and elsewhere, disastrous 1898 British Columbia expedition, Boer War service, foundation of the Legion [of Frontiersmen] and expulsion from it, First World War service, postwar misadventures, and finally honoured old age as the reconciled founder of the Legion…. It is the definitive biography and will probably long remain so. Definitely recommended.”
Roger T. Stearn, Soldiers of the Queen, December 2010
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