The Wildgoose Chase

I met Chelsea Pensioner Walter Wildgoose in 1977 when he was 87 and I was 26. Through a series of letters written over the last year of his life, he passed along his life story - the workhouse children's home, a life in the British Army witnessing the opening battles of World War I and life in India, a remarkable family surviving the bombs of World War II London. This blog will document my research and progress on the novel I'm writing about this amazing man.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Did you ever know a goose that wasn't? Wild, I mean.

Walter Wildgoose, 1980 (age 90)

Walter Wildgoose, 1912 (age 22)

That's what Walter said after he'd introduced himself to me in the middle of Whitehall/London on a warm Saturday in July 1977. Judy Cofer and I were down from Oxford for the weekend, and since she'd never been to London, I figured the most efficient use of our short time would be to take one of those 2-hour sight-seeing bus tours to hit the high spots, then choose two or three things to visit after the tour was over.

On the bus tour we saw all the usual suspects – Big Ben/Parliament, Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Tower of London. The guide pointed out things of interest and told attention-grabbing stories along the way – as tour guides are wont to do. While traveling through the Westminster and Whitehall, we saw a sprinkling of old gentlemen in distinctive red coats walking in ones and twos along the avenue. The guide explained that these were Chelsea Pensioners, so-called because they lived at the Royal Hospital Chelsea built by Sir Christopher Wren on the banks of the Thames. He explained that the Royal Hospital wasn’t a hospital per se, rather a veterans’ home for non-commissioned military men.

After the tour, I asked Judy which of the sights she’d like to re-visit for a closer look. En route to one of our destinations we found ourselves walking along Whitehall. Sharp-eyed Judy spotted one of the red-coated gentlemen from a distance and said, “Come on – let’s go meet him!” I was afraid we’d scare the life out of the old man as we swooped down on him, but he was more than up for the intrusion.

He was charming, in fact. His name was Walter Wildgoose and he was 87 years old. We talked with him for a few minutes. He invited us to come to the church service at the Royal Hospital Chapel the next morning; he served as verger for the service. We said we’d try (knowing that we wanted to do a pub crawl that night and probably wouldn’t be up for a Sunday church service). After giving us his address at RHC, we left to continue our sight-seeing.

We did not make the service at the Royal Hospital Chapel the next day. I felt a little guilty for not going, so when I returned to Oxford I wrote to Walter telling him how sorry I was that we hadn’t come to see him again. I did promise that I would let him know the next time I was going to be in London so that we could go to tea or for a little stroll. I also wanted to see the Royal Hospital after hearing so much about it.

After finishing my studies at Oxford, I decided to stay in England for a while. I was able to land a part-time job at the pub in the Ashley Park Hotel in Walton-on-Thames (about 25 miles southwest of London), which gave me time during the afternoons to catch the train into London for museums, theatres, etc. It also allowed time to visit Walter at the Royal Hospital.

He was always a wonderful host and a great tour guide, knowing all the interesting stories and history of the area. Sometimes we would leave the hospital grounds and stroll around Chelsea, occasionally stopping for tea. As a lover of history, I never got tired of his reminiscences. Having been raised in a boys’ home in Sheffield, fought in World War I, stationed in Egypt, Iraq, Aden, and India during the 1920s and 30s, he had a deep well from which to draw. He remembered the death of Victoria and the coronation celebrations for Edward VII and George V. Walter actually took part in the funeral ceremonies for Edward, as a member of the Royal Lincolnshires.

When I returned to the States, we continued our correspondence. During summertime trips to England,visits to Walter were, of course, mandatory, and on one occasion I met Walter’s son, Ron, and his wife Alma.

A couple of years into our friendship Walter began writing his memoirs and sending them to me. Over the course of a year, letters arrived full of names and places and events straight out of history book. Here was someone who actually lived them! What fascinated me most was that this was the story of a regular person – not of royalty, generals, and politicians. Walter provided a true social history of the time, with a lot of political events thrown in. But the events in and of themselves weren’t important. It was how the Average Joe had to work through them and how he was impacted. Along the way, Walter celebrated his 90th birthday and continued to write to me throughout 1980.

When I got the letter with Alma’s return address on it, I knew what it contained. His daughter-in-law had promised to write if anything ever happened to Walter. Here was the letter. Walter died in February 1981, just a few days after his 91st birthday.

So that's how it started. I treasured the letters for over twenty years, not really knowing what to do with them (except be amazed by them). A couple of years ago, I pulled them out and started tracking down the details of Walter's story via the internet. And the story continues.

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posted by MaryB @ 1:33 PM  


  • At 9:23 AM , Anonymous John Wildgoose said...

    My name's John Wildgoose. I live near London now, but I was a Sheffield lad too. There are quite a few Wildgoose's up there, apparently (although I have no proof of this) one of Wesley's disciples landed in the area and stayed. Further back, the name was probably Wiltgens (pron: Vilt-genz) so we were most likely trader people from northern Europe. Possibly Viking, but that's just too mythical for me!
    Anyway, the reason I write is that I was over in France recently with my young family and we visited some of the Great War sites. At Thiepval ( I discovered a John Wildgoose buried a few kilometers away in Aveluy. He was killed on 2nd September 1916 if I remember right.
    Thiepval commemorates all the dead and missing, boys whose bodies were never recovered. There are 72,000 recorded. I found there another Walter from (I think) the Sherwood Foresters (Derby & Notts) and a Richard from a Lancashire regiment.
    So it was nice to see your comments and read about Walter. I think the one remaining vet is now Harry Patch.
    I just thought I'd contact you and let you know some of what I do.
    best regards

  • At 10:11 AM , Blogger MaryB said...

    Thanks for the information, John. I'll check out the website you mentioned. I hope to get to the Great War sites someday - specifically Ypres and Aubers Ridge. Thanks for writing!


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