Ian Fleming and Thame

Flyer for the Garden Fete with Fleming’s parents as patrons. (Source: Lord Williams’s School Archives.)

On the afternoon of Thursday June 24 1909, Lord Williams’s Grammar School held a garden fete to celebrate their newly completed cricket pavilion, and when it was officially opened. The Oxford Town Band were in attendance, and tea was served at a cost of 9p a head.

The cricket pavilion.

A flyer noted that a number of distinguished patrons had put their names forward to support the fete. These included the Lady Elizabeth Parker, The Lady Ottoline Morrell and husband Philip Morrell MP who was the Liberal MP for Henley, Sir William Markby, and the Surgeon General Bradshaw. In fact over 40 representing the top echelons of society in east and south Oxfordshire.

Two of these were Valentine Fleming and his wife Eve. These were Ian Fleming’s parents. As they were new to the area, undoubtedly they were encouraged by some of the other patrons, possibly the Morrells to join the group.

Activities to be held at the fete.

The school could be found in the market town of Thame, on the eastern edge of Oxfordshire, a distinguished and long established school that had been founded in 1559 by Sir John Williams.

But despite being relatively new to the area, the report of the event noted that ‘Mr Valentine Fleming kindly agreed to perform the opening ceremony. In this duty he was supported by Mrs Valentine Fleming, Mr and Mrs Wykeham, the Headmaster, and several Governors of the School.’

Mr Valentine Fleming

The school magazine published the following report:

‘Mr Valentine Fleming met wit a cordial reception, and he said he hardly need say it was a genuine pleasure to accept. He was especially delighted to assist at a ceremony which, he might say with due respect to Dr Shaw, had as its object the development of the lighter and brighter side of education; he meant the development of the athletic, physical and sporting qualities which had placed education in England in advance of the education systems of continental countries, which had put Lord Williams’s Grammar School, a school which could boast of its antiquity, to the position of the most progressive school in the county of Oxford.

He was sure the boys would be more concerned with C B Fry’s discourse on how to hold a straight bat than with Euclid’s definition of a straight line, and took less interest in a Latin grammar than in a cricket score book. He wished that Dr Shaw had invited someone who was a better footballer and cricketer than himself as it would be impossible to find anyone who made less runs or whose bowling was hit further out of the field than his but he could console himself with the fact that during his schooldays he had to devote all his spare time to rowing.

After all, it was the spirit in which they played the game. He did not yield to anyone in the real delight he took in cricket, although he was ninth or tenth man to bat, or fifth or sixth change bowler. He described how he had seen cricket played on many quarters of the field yet he had never seen cricket played with such a genuine keen spirit as he saw in schools all over England.’

A cricket match being played with the cricket pavilion in the background.

After the pavilion was opened Fleming’s mother, as part of a small concert, performed a violin solo.

It was only three years earlier, in 1906, that Valentine and his wife had purchased Braziers Park on Oxfordshire (they also had a home in London where Ian Fleming was born in 1908.)

In Oxfordshire Valentine made great effort to become part of the country set. He joined the local yeomanry regiment, the Queen’s Own Oxfordshire Hussars, and the South Oxfordshire and Berkshire hunts.

Officers of the Oxfordshire Hussars seen with King Edward VII. (Source: National Portrait Gallery, London.)

All this plus his circle of friends as could be seen in the list of patrons meant that in 1910 he was chosen as the Tory parliamentary candidate for Henley. This was won from the Liberal, Philip Morrell. According to Fleming’s biographer Andrew Lycett, Lady Ottoline, the rich artistic patron was ‘so incensed by the result that she marched up to Eve, Valentine’s wife, and publicly shook her by the lapels.’

Life at Braziers Park was said to be idyllic for Ian Fleming and his siblings. So perhaps Valentine and Eve brought Ian and Peter, his older brother, to the fete. (Or more likely, the nanny and governess brought them, although as the weather was inclement, as it always is when an English fete is held, they might have remained at home.)

Valentine Fleming was killed when fighting on the Western Front on 20 May 1917 when serving with the Queen’s Own Oxfordshire Hussars.

Two Old Tamensians were in the same regiment as Fleming and they too were killed: Hugh Kidman and William Roberts.

In an eulogy published in The Times, Winston Churchill wrote, ‘Fleming was most earnest and sincere in his desire to make things better for the great body of the people, and had cleared his mind of all particularist tendencies. He was a man of thoughtful and tolerant opinions, which were not the less strongly or clearly held because they were not loudly or frequently asserted.’

In April 2021, Lord Williams’s School demolished the pavilion.

The cricket pavilion before demolition. (2020)
The site of now demolished cricket pavilion with the demolition digger in the background. (2021)

There is a further more indirect link as well between the school and Fleming. Emma Hutt who was a student at the school in the early 1980s wrote to say that her grandmother, Joyce Emerson, used to work with Fleming on the Sunday Times as a journalist, initially as part as the Atticus team. He gave her a first edition of Moonraker with a cryptic message in it thanking her for ghost writing as she wrote a number of articles for him to help him out when he was distracted by ‘other activities’.

The book was sold at Sothebys in 2015 for £27,500.

Emma also wrote, ‘My grandmother and Fleming worked together for quite a while and I think she may have known him during the war as she was recruited straight from Oxford into the FO as a trilingual French/German/English speaker.’

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