Helping to herd mules at Wiveliscombe

Mules at Wiveliscombe Station. © Tony Hiscock.
WarMule Wed, 21/05/2014 - 18:56
Mules at Wiveliscombe Station. © Tony Hiscock.

During the First World War train loads of mules were unloaded at Wiveliscombe Railway Station in Somerset having arrived into Britain from the US by sea into Avonmouth. After the mules had been disembarked from the ships, they spent a few weeks grazing on local farms in the area to give them a chance to recuperate before they were sent to army depots to be trained for military use and then on to join their regiments on the Western Front. From what I have found, there were about 12 army mule depots in the Somerset area, of which Wiveliscombe was one. Thousands of mules came by sea into the port of Avonmouth to try to avoid encountering German U-Boats at the port of Southampton and were then transported by train to different areas of the West Country throughout WW1.

Over the past few days I've received a number of emails giving me leads to further information, and one of these came from Maggie Robertson who is a member of the Exmoor Fundraising Group for The Brooke Animal Charity. The Exmoor group raises funds all year round to help The Brooke's work in raising standards of care for working equines around the world, and this in turn helps the poor families and communities that rely so heavily on their donkeys, mules and horses. One of the their events later this year will be a Commemorative Ride to remember all the horses, mules and donkeys in the First World War. They will be riding through one of the Somerset farms that took mules from America for rest and recuperation before going to the Front.

Maggie was kind enough to put me in touch with Tony Hiscock from the Wiveliscombe Model Railway Club which has built a 'OO' gauge 4mm scale model of the actual station as it operated in the 1950s and 1960s. Sadly, like so many other stations around that time, it was closed in October 1966 following the nationwide railway cuts in the Beeching Report. But back in 1914-1918, Wiveliscombe was the destination of thousands of mules.

Tony has kindly given me permission to publish these two very rare photographs of mules outside Wiveliscmbe Station. Both the photos were on loan to Tony nearly 25 years ago by a friend of his father-in-law. Being a milkman in the village, his father-in-law would pick up all sorts of information about the station which came in pretty handy as a model was being built of the station at the time. I could imagine the scene Tony wrote about:

"My research led me to a gentleman by the name of Walter Purchase who was almost 90 when we spoke to him. He had lived in or near Wiveliscombe at the time and remembered, as an eight year old, helping to herd the mules along the road from the station so that they could be fed on fresh grass after the sea voyage that had brought them into Avonmouth. We believe from possibly the USA, South America or Portugal."

To me, these memories are so precious. A hundred years have passed since the First World War broke out and we are in danger of such memories being lost forever.

My thanks to Maggie and Tony for generously sharing their knowledge to pass on to us all.

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