In January 1892 the writer Rudyard Kipling, then aged 25, wrote an exuberant letter to his uncle following his return from a trip to New Zealand:
‘O.U.S.C.s’ were Old Boys of United Services College, the boarding school in Devon that Kipling had attended from 1878 to 1882. The College had been founded in 1874 at Westward Ho! near Bideford, in a row of converted houses that Kipling described as ‘that white barrack by the sea.’ The boys were mainly the sons of army officers and many of them went on to have military careers, including several who reached high rank and six who won the Victoria Cross. Kipling in this and many other respects was an unusual boy at the school – his poor eyesight disbarred him from games and any prospect of a military career, and led to him being bullied (he was called ‘Gigs’ after the lamps on either side of a gig-carriage). Nevertheless, his remarkable ability with English was recognised and encouraged at the school, and he made a number of close friends. The school was the basis for his fictional schoolboy stories in Stalky & Co (1899), in which several of his masters and contemporaries can be recognised.
Among his friends were the Gordon brothers mentioned in the letter – my great-great-great uncles Edward Robertson Gordon (1863-1915), Frank Lindsay Gordon (1865-1938) and Charles Leith Travers Gordon (1868-1935). They were the sons of Captain Thomas Edward Gordon, a retired cavalry officer who had gone with his father from India to New Zealand after the Indian Mutiny and established a large sheep station at Cape Kidnappers at Hawkes Bay. Edward and Frank had been born in New Zealand and Charles in Scotland, and they had gone with their father to England to be educated. Captain Gordon himself settled near Bideford, living in a succession of large houses there from 1875 – Richmond House in Appledore from 1875, Porthill in Northam from 1885 and nearby Cluden Bank from 1909. Major Edward Robertson Gordon, the elder son, returned to live there with his father after retiring from the Army in 1906, and the Gordon connection with Bideford did not end until Cluden Bank was sold in in 1921. After finishing school Frank and Charles Gordon returned to New Zealand where Kipling visited them at Clifton Station at Cape Kidnappers, and where Frank’s descendants continue to live to this day.
My grandfather Captain Lawrance Wilfred Gibbins often spent time at Bideford with his Gordon relatives before and during the First World War - his mother Helen Mary Gibbins (nee Gale) was the daughter of Ina Gordon, the boys’ elder half-sister.
The following photographs showing the Gordon boys at United Services College in the early 1880s are from Major H.A. Tapp’s United Services College 1874-1911: A Short Account of Rudyard Kiplings’ old school at Westward Ho! (for private circulation), also the source of the photo of the school above. ‘Gordon’ is Edward, ‘Gordon (ii)’ is Frank and ‘Gordon (iii)’ is Charles.