Just Holt Articles
This is a small series of articles by Steve Benson (chairman of the society) for Just Holt magazine.
Mr Jex's Pigeon
Early in the year 2000 Michael Hill of Picturecraft asked me to pop in. A lady had brought in a scratched and dirty oil painting offering to sell it for a small consideration. The deal was done, the picture skilfully restored and cleaned and a handsome gilt frame found to complete the transformation. A bright-eyed racing pigeon posed proudly on a roof-ridge, its identifying ring sparkling on its leg. Now visible in the left hand corner was the signature of the artist, "V. Smith". To me this was an exciting moment, as I was about to embark, with a former colleague, on a History of Gresham's School. And I knew that the art master on the eve of the First World War was one Vivian Smith.
Sure enough on the reverse of the canvas were were inscribed these words:
Painted as a Prize for flight from France in 1912 by Vivian Smith, master at Gresham's School, Holt, Norfolk, later killed in World War 1
Smith was a popular teacher and a fine painter specialising in animals and pastoral scenes. He was good enough to exhibit several works in the Royal Academy. A bachelor, he had taken rooms in Hanworth House, a fine Georgian building in Bull Street (then Tower Street), marked out by the date of its erection, 1744, in black bricks on the side wall. Smith joined up early in the war, rising to the rank of captain and being mentioned in despatches "for gallant and distinguished service in the field". Describes as "the best and merriest of companions", he was killed by a shell on 13th November 1916 as he went to the assistance of a wounded man. He was the only member of the Gresham's teaching staff of 1914 killed in action along with 107 pupils, over 20% of those who served.
Pigeon racing was a popular pastime throughout the country in the early and middle years of the last century and Holt was no exception. Interest waned but in 1982 the Holt Racing Pigeon Club was re-founded and, though few in number now, the Club remains active. Indeed to celebrate this year's Holt 1940s Weekend a flight of pigeons was released in the Market Place to mark the heroic work performed by their carrier pigeon cousins during both World Wars.
But what of Mr Jex? Well, Charles William Jex was certainly a dominant character in Holt particularly in the 1920s. Apprenticed to a butcher, he opened his own shop and became partner in a local building company. He served in the Royal Army Service Corps in Palestine during the war, and held a bewildering number of positions in the town. He was a member of the Parish Council, became Chairman of Holt Fire Brigade, Holt Football Club, Holt working men's Club, and Holt Pigeon Racing Club as well as Secretary of the Feathers Bowls Club. Known as "Jobby Jex" he devoted himself to finding work for local unemployed and set up and managed Holt's first Labour Exchange.
Perhaps his greatest service was to the newly founded British Legion. He became Chairman of the Holt Branch, was elected to the East Anglian Area Council and later the National Executive Council. The story goes that he attended these national gatherings with a packet of five woodbines in his top pocket. He would produce it during meetings and often would be told to "put it away, Jex" by senior officers present who would offer him cigars instead. He would return home in triumph with a couple of Havanas in his jacket. Charlie Jex died relatively young in 1932 aged 58 but his portly frame and smiling moustachioed face attest to a full and enjoyable life.
Strange but fascinating how the chance emergence of a forlorn and battered oil painting could bring together so many strands of the history of our lovely town.