Published 20th October 2014
Long before I was acquainted with the Torquay pottery collected by Roy Paine, I was aware of the Tommy Atkins pieces produced by Aller Vale but hadn’t really given them much thought. However, on reflection, I wondered why would Torquay produce pottery to celebrate the role of the humble soldier and who is Tommy Atkins anyway?
Tommy Atkins - a Torquay Pottery hero.
Tommy Atkins had been used as a rather disparaging term for soldiers through much of the 19th century and earlier. I guess this was born out of the fact that those who ‘chose’ to soldier came from the lower end of society, and Devon primarily an agricultural county had its fair share of poor. However, Rudyard Kipling (who incidentally was schooled in Westward Ho! North Devon) did much to improve the profile of Tommy Atkins when he included Tommy in his 1892 Barrack Room Ballads, which included the ironic lines
"For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an chuck him out the brute!’, ‘But it’s Saviour of ‘is country, when the guns begin to shoot".
Although a soldier's life was subsequently looked upon more sympathetically, it was still met with apathy. The Western Morning News, commenting on recruiting for the First World War, documents the response of a group of farm labourers from Buckland St Mary who said "We’ll go when the farmers’ sons go, Let them lead the way."
With regards to why Aller Vale would produce Boer War commemoratives, well the answer is startlingly obvious, both the 1st and 2nd battalion of the Devon Regiment, were deployed to South Africa in 1898. As a busy regiment recently formed in 1881, it had already seen overseas active service in Afghanistan, Burma and the North West Frontier of India – as now, a source of much angst for friends and family. The 1st battalion alone suffered 95 deaths and 85 injured at the siege of Ladysmith, plenty of whom would have come from Torquay.
Heart felt comments from an Aller Vale workman.
So these Aller Vale commemoratives are a piece of potted social history made by locals for the families of fellow county men nearly 8,000 miles away, who were really just labourers and odd job men who happened to be in uniform. I‘ll leave the final words to Kipling:-
‘We aren’t no thin red ‘eroes, nor we aren’t no blackguards too’, But single men in barricks, most remarkable like you’
An Aller Vale Tommy Atkins Boer War commemorative (FS24/488). The palm tree is less South Africa, but alludes to prior campaigns in India and Burma.