COCKAYNE HATLEY IS A BIG name for a tiny rural settlement in Bedfordshire, close to the county’s borders with both Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire. Today, it consists of a small parish church and a few buildings about one hundred and fifty yards away. Its population in 2007 was 75 souls. Over the centuries, the place has had various names: Hettenleia (10th cent.); Hatelai (11th cent.); Bury Hattele (13th-15th cent.); Hatley Port, and then from the 16th century as Cockayne Hatley. The name ‘Hatley’ is from the Old English words ‘haett’ and ‘leah’, meaning ‘woodland clearing on the hill’. The first part of the place name, Cockayne, was added to Hatley in the 15th century after John Cockayne (died 1429), Chief baron of the Exchequer, acquired the manor in 1417.
We travelled to Cockayne Hatley to see its church, built during the 13th and 14th centuries and dedicated to St John the Baptist. It was locked up and we did not have enough time to ring the person who holds the keys. However, we took a stroll around the church’s well-maintained small graveyard and found some graves and memorials of great interest.
A pinkish granite stone records the death of Margaret Lindsay (died 1941), whose husband, Lt Col WG Cooper DSO, died in 19?8. What interested me was its Indian connection. WG Cooper had served in India in ‘The Poona Horse’. He was in 34th Prince Albert Victor’s Own Poona Horse, a unit of the Bombay Presidency. His wife Margaret was born in India, the daughter of Peter Stephenson Turnbull, Surgeon General of the Government of Bombay and later, Honorary Physician to the King. William and Margaret married in Bombay Cathedral. The Poona Horse was founded in about 1820, and served in the two world wars, and after India became independent, it served in the India-Pakistan conflicts of both 1965 and 1971 (by which time Cooper was no longer living).
A white stone memorial close to Cooper’s records the death of Private Herber Saunderson in 1919. A Canadian serving in the 17th (Reserve) Battalion, Canadian Infantry (www.roll-of-honour.com/Bedfordshire/CockayneHatley.html), he was aged 40 when he died. He was born in Cockayne Hatley, and then moved to Ontario (Canada) after marriage.
A few feet away from the Canadian’s gravestone there is a black stone monument dedicated to the memory of the crew of a Liberator KN 736 aircraft, which crashed in nearby Potton Woods on the 18th of September 1945. Four men were killed and three were saved as well as a dog called Bitsa. Local people came to their rescue. None of the men who were killed were buried at Cockayne Hatley.
Apart from the graves with military connections, there is one which has many literary associations. The monument to William Ernest Henry and his family is in the art-nouveau style and is the most prominent memorial in the tiny cemetery.
William Ernest Henley (1849-1903) was, according to that font of all knowledge Wikipedia, “…an English poet, critic and editor in late Victorian England.” At the age of twelve, he began suffering from tuberculosis. This resulted in him having to have the lower part of his left leg amputated sometime between 1868 and 1869. Incidentally, Henley was looked after by the eminent Dr Joseph Lister (1827-1912), founder of surgical sterile techniques. The amputation led to an important landmark in British literature. Henley was a good friend of the Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894), author of “Treasure Island” (published 1883). It is said that Stevenson’s well-known character, the pirate Long John Silver, was inspired by his “… crippled, hearty friend” (www.britannica.com/biography/William-Ernest-Henley).
Poor old Henley fell out of a train in 1902. This accident caused a flare up of his tuberculosis, which caused his death in 1903. He was cremated at a crematorium near his home in Woking. His ashes were interred in the graveyard at Cockayne Hatley where his daughter was buried. This brings us back to fictional pirates: not Long John Silver but one with a hook instead of a hand: Captain Hook (created by JM Barrie [1860-1937]), who was an enemy of Peter Pan.
Ernest and his wife Anna (née Hannah Johnson Boyle; 1855-1925) married in 1878. They had one child, Margaret, who was born in 1888. The author of “Peter Pan”, JM Barrie, was a friend of the family during Margaret’s short life. Unable to pronounce the word ‘friend’ the small child called her friend Barrie ‘fwendy-wendy’. As a result of this, Barrie used the name ‘Wendy’ for Peter Pan’s female companion in his famous children’s book, “Peter Pan”. It was published in 1904. Margaret did not live long enough to see it; she died in 1894, aged 5. She was buried at Cockayne Hatley, the estate of her father’s friend, the politician and editor Henry John Cockayne-Cust (1861-1917). The monument to Margaret is on the back of that to Ernest and his wife.
Although our visit to Cockayne Hatley was brief, it turned out to be full of interest. If we had not visited the place, we would have been unlikely to have ever heard of William Ernest Henley and his family’s contribution to the richness of British literature. One of the many things that gives me pleasure during our forays into the English countryside is observing things that trigger my curiosity and often generate new interests for me.