An Anthony Ditty: Following a Mother’s Last Wish

A view down the Henley stretch from the Henley Bridge, where Gully Nickalls fed the swans. Photo: Tim Koch.

4 December 2017

Here follows a ‘little ditty’, as signature ‘Anthony, An Old Oxford Oarsman’, calls his true, short story. This ditty is about Guy Oliver ‘Gully’ Nickalls, a rower whose veins course with famous rowing blood. He was the son of Guy Nickalls and Ellen Gilbey Gold, who was a sister of Sir Harcourt Gold. ‘Anthony, An Old Oxford Oarsman’ writes:

Gully Nickalls, c. 1935.

My first serious rowing coach at school had been coached by Guy Nickalls’s son, Gully, while up at Oxford. After boating one day, Gully, in a jovial mood and having retired to a local hostelry, told him that following his mother’s death in 1935, he was charged with disposing of her ashes. The instruction was given in her will, and it was to follow the process of several previous Nickalls’ demises, whereby the elder son was to scatter the ashes onto the waters of the Thames. This should be done from Henley Bridge in Henley, as the ashes might flow gracefully into oblivion over the stretch of water of which so many family triumphs had been recorded throughout the years. So far, so unexceptional.

However, around this time, this had become a frequent request of celebrated oarsmen, and no doubt by members of Leander Club, which is adjacent to the said bridge. This, in turn, had caused quite a few complaints made to the Town Council, and after a while, a by-law was passed and the practice banned.

Gully, honour-bound to follow his mother’s wishes, was in a quandary. No lawbreaker, he felt though that he had to follow a serious family tradition. Gully cogitated long, then he adjourned to the local bakery, bought a dozen ‘penny buns’, as they were then known, in a capacious brown paper bag. He broke each bun into small pieces, added the ashes in question and shook the bag well. He sauntered, in what he thought was an innocent enough way, onto the bridge. Leant on the parapet, Gully started gently feeding the gathered swans below. Although there was quite a breeze blowing, and although any casual onlooker might have wondered why the pieces were so very dusty as they fell, he was proud to have got away with it and fulfilled his filial duties to his mother’s will. He didn’t think that any of the swans had suffered any ill effect.

A year or two later, I was able to ask Gully if this was a true story, and he affirmed it was!

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