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Dick High, his daughter Freda,and his sons Ray and Roly

 

 

Mr Olley, 'Old Balaklava',  1832-1920


James Olley was already an old man when he came to
live at Salthouse in the house that is now known as Marsh Cottage. His fame, as a soldier who fought in the Crimean War and actually took part in the Charge of the Light Brigade, was widely known and, due to the fact that he lived over the years in many different places in North Norfolk, there are probably many villages besides Salthouse who remember him as their own hero.

      Steve Benson, Director Independent Schools Council information service (ISCis) East, when he was a house-master at Gresham's School, wrote an article on James Olley for the special edition of 'The Grasshopper' of 1982, which was a parting tribute to Logie Bruce Lockhart on his retirement after twenty-seven years as headmaster.

The following account is largely taken from that article.


The house (left) where James Olley lived,
next door to the post office at Salthouse.
He called it 'Balaklava Cottage'


INTO THE VALLEY OF DEATH RODE THE SIX HUNDRED


Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them,
Volleyed and thundered;
Stormed at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell,
Rode the six hundred.


Tennyson's poem made ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ in the Crimean War famous, and excited the public in the romanticism of the 'do or die' blind obedience of the British Soldier, but the very few who amazingly survived that famous charge were more or less forgotten. Life in the British Army in the 1880s was hard enough, but unless he had a trade to take up when his time was served, an ex-soldier's outlook was often even harder. James Olley fell on hard times after his return to civilian life. He was reduced to begging in the streets of Knapton with a placard round his neck. But he was noticed and was identified as having played the part he did by the Squire, Mr H. M. Robinson of Knapton Hall, who was Justice of the Peace. He took action to put things right in a stirring article deploring the fact that someone who had taken part in one of the most celebrated military events of the time, should be forced to beg. In the Dereham and Fakenenham Times of 14 January 1888, he declared publicly that 'No one of the gallant six hundred should have to petition for the means to put himself in the way of earning a livelihood'. He called upon readers to donate to a fund to put James Olley 'into some little business'.

In the same article James Olley's own account of that charge showed that Tennyson's description of flashing sabres and mouth-of-hell situation was no exaggeration:

 

 

 

1st-hand description of the Charge of the Light Brigade
in the words of James Olley

 

 

"It was very queer going down the valley, a good deal worse than it was when I got to the guns . . . The first man I happened with at the guns was a Russian gunner who attacked me with a ramrod. I felled him at the muzzle of the gun he was defending with two strokes of my sword . . . Just as I killed the gunner, I saw several Russians dash at the Earl of Cardigan who was near the breech of a big gun; but his horse brought him safely over the limber towards us. I never saw him again in the battle.

"Whilst fighting at the guns, I received two lance wounds, one in the ribs and one in the neck from behind. The Russian Lancer in the rear who stabbed me was killed by a comrade and I struck down the other. In this cavalry encounter, I was wounded with a sabre across the forehead by a Russian dragoon. He made "Cut 7" at me . . . I gave him point and stabbed him.
The sword fell from his hand and the point penetrated my foot . . . ‘

" When we were retiring we met some Russian lancers. We made a charge and they fled to the left incline and rode past. Just after passing the cavalry I got a ball from the Russian infantry on my left. It went through my left eye, passed through my nostrils and the roof of my mouth and came out against my right eye. I did not know at the time that my eye was out. It was not painful at the time; afterwards the suffering was dreadful. After being thus wounded, I still kept the saddle [he had already had one horse shot from under him but had managed to remount that of a fallen trooper] though blood was pouring from my mouth and nostrils, as well as running from my forehead . . . When I came out of battle the Paymaster did not recognise me. I was then blind . . ."

* * *


click the image to go to
the University of East Anglia's explanation of the charge, and read the whole poem which made it famous


Even allowing for some romanticising on the part of raconteur and reporter, it was a gripping tale and certainly helped to increase the flow of cash into Mr Robinson’s fund. Mr Olley further recalled how he was nursed by Florence Nightingale at Scutari (he was certainly taken to hospital there) and then, on his return to England, was presented to the Queen at Brompton Barracks in March 1855 when she visited the wounded there in company with Prince Albert and the Duke of Cambridge, who had commanded a division in the Crimea and who commented, apparently, on Olley's 'miraculous escape'. Her Majesty seems to have been somewhat overcome by the occasion for she asked Olley whether he would like to go back again. He replied in suitably patriotic vein, and was pleased to receive when he got home 'a present of stockings, cuffs, scarves and mittens from the Queen'. Again, as he must have been one of the prize occupants of the Barracks, all this is quite possible, even likely, and with these five wounds and a lost eye, the scars of which he took to the grave, it does seem a little less than just that a new book, Casualty Roll for the Crimea, should refer to him as having been 'wounded slightly'!

And so, thirty three years after his discharge from the army, James Olley, by now a local celebrity, came to Holt. He trained horses for the local gentry, including Lord Hastings and Sir Alfred Jodrell of Bayfield Hall, and had his stables in Church Street where the public library is now situated and which had been the stables of Wansbeck House behind Hubbard's.

He was a regular at the Bull (now a baker's shop almost opposite the Cottage Boutique) and in the yard at the rear would prove his considerable strength by throwing two 56lb weights over his shoulders a distance of over 13 feet. This legendary exercise he could still perform at the age of seventy. He had an aggressive nature, and would return regularly from the annual horse-traders' fair on Aldborough Green with plenty of bruises to testify to his pugilistic encounters behind the tents. But this fiery side to his character was reserved for two-footed creatures only. He was, as his obituary testified, 'a great lover of animals who ruled his horses with kindness'.

Eventually Mr Olley was forced, through illness, to give up his business and he went to live in Blakeney in a cottage in the High Street which is still called 'Alma Cottage' after one of the battles of the Crimea. He also christened his son by this name, which was not appreciated. Although he too became a soldier for a while, Alma Olley was always known as Wallam. Later, 'Old Balaklava' moved on to Salthouse. He lived in the house beside the Post Office, which bears the date of 1891, and he named this house 'Balaklava Cottage', after another battle. He was a Salthouse Churchwarden for a time, and Jane Hales remembers as a child being introduced to him in the early 1900s, on a visit with her father to Salthouse marshes.




Balaklava Cottage (on the left) about the time that Mr Olley lived there

 

Born in Salthouse Post Office, next door to Balaklava Cottage, Freda Morse and her brothers Ray and Roland High (all living in Holt today) can just remember the old man with a black eye-patch who lived the other side of the garden fence. Then later, after James Olley had left Salthouse, Freda’s father, Richard High, having just sold the Post Office, bought Balaklava Cottage and moved his family into it while waiting to find a farm to rent. Being a peace-loving man, however, he couldn't bear to live in a house bearing the name of a battle and renamed it 'Beulah Cottage'.

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Anthony Smith of Mill Street, Elsing sent this message on July11th '06:

I'm doing some personal research into Mill Street, Elsing where I live and have come across this gentleman in connection with his final resting place. The information is essentially anecdotal and briefly is as follows:

James Olley lived at Balaclava Cottage here in Mill Street (now known as Riverview Cottage) where he died. His body was taken by gun carriage from his home to Elsing churchyard where he is apparently buried; unfortunately the exact burial spot cannot be found.

On August 05, 2006 Anthony added this:

I spoke to a friend in Elsing whose grandfather was present at James Olley's funeral at which a twenty one gun salute was given!
Regards.
 
Anthony Smith

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Val Fiddian 2005