The Arrow of Time  

This story is based on fact. All the main characters are - or at least were - real.  

There are many scientists currently studying the nature of time and one of the debates taking place in such communities is whether time is merely a continuous flow or, instead, “granular” in nature. It seems that one of the advantages of granular time is that somehow it can “remember” what has taken place previously and build on this accumulation, going forward step by step, like an evolving story. Somewhat like this one, really, where a whole series of very different events (some of them monumental and some taking place centuries apart) had to occur, each one leading to the next, in order for what eventually happened to have been able to take place.

Like every situation in the whole of human history the starting point probably has to be the “big bang” or whatever it was which formed our universe in the first place, be that a divine instigation or something purely physical (or a combination of both). Without that there would be no stars and no sun and no earth and so on. Those fundamental building blocks are universal, so let’s take them for granted for the moment and consider some of the more direct causes which let to this particular business.

Perhaps, in this case, the place to pick up the unfolding history of humankind is with the dawn of Christianity, for without Christianity there would have been no “Desert Fathers”, those early Christian hermits who sought solace in the Egyptian desert to come closer to God and to work through the teachings of Jesus. It was the Desert Fathers who gave birth to monasticism and without monasticism Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire would never have been built as a religious house. Without religious houses there would have been no suppression of the monasteries and convents by King Henry VIII and thus no Welbeck Abbey as an asset to be appropriated by the King and granted by him to another person. Without the Abbey there would have been no residence there to come into the hands of the Dukes of Portland and no recreation activities taking place on the estate for the Dukes and their guests. In the absence of all of those things, the incident would not have happened.

Of course, it could be argued that other time granules had accumulated in the first place to give rise to properties with estates elsewhere and other Dukes and the people with whom they took company. Whilst that may be true it would not necessarily mean that what took place would simply have happened somewhere else instead. In any case it didn’t: it happened at Welbeck Abbey and it almost - but not quite - changed all the monumental and world shaking time granules which accumulated thereafter.

The Abbey was founded in the 1140s during that period in British history when the number of religious houses seemed to be increasing almost exponentially. It ended up being one of some thirty such houses in England under the Order of the Premonstratensians, an Order which itself had been founded only twenty years earlier in north-eastern France and which went on to possess houses in many other European countries. 

Welbeck Abbey survived as monastery just short of 400 years. Henry VIII’s supression of all monastic communities commenced in 1536 and just two years later, Welbeck was a religious house no more; the monks had been swept away and the property had been granted by the King to a Member of Parliament called Richard Whalley of Screveton, from the other end of the county. At that time the Abbey, surrounded by its extensive grounds, was a fair sized building with a gatehouse and included what had been the cloister and even vaulted basements, once workrooms, storage areas and extra prayer spaces for the community.

After a succession of different owners, the property came into the ownership of William Cavendish, who was later to become Duke of Newcastle. It was the Cavendish family who undertook substantive works on the building, retaining from the original Abbey fabric only the basements and inner cloister walls. Later it became the seat of the Dukes of Portland. The Fifth Duke carried out - at great cost and employing thousands of workers - even more extensive building works around the estate, many of which survive today, although major repairs were needed to the house by the time the sixth Duke succeeded in 1879. The se and further new works were duly carried out and although a fire in 1900 destroyed one of the wings, within five years this had been rebuilt and the property took on its full mantle as a magnificent country seat. It boasted a long, varied frontage, incorporating a castellated entrance, with an impressive four storey wing to one end, whilst the interior included a large gothic hall and state dining room with marble chimney pieces and a great number of fine pictures. 

This lavish habitation and its superb surrounding landscaped parkland, plus gallops, fields, lakes and woodland, made Welbeck Abbey a centre for gatherings of the upper-class and it was really thanks to the sixth Duke, William John Arthur Charles James Cavendish-Bentinck (to give him his full name!) and his wife Winifred, the Duchess, that their home was accorded the status of one of the great social centres of England. The Duke and Duchess entertained all the time, inviting prestigious guests from Britain and around the world, including Monarchs, Prime Ministers and Heads of State plus a seemingly endless succession of other noble and distinguished individuals.  

Such a constant flow of high-profile guests created a demand for a great army of servants, particularly when those staying were partaking in activities around the estate such as fieldsports. The shooting, in particular, required more than simply the gamekeeper and his entourage acting as beaters, flankers and stops. The re would be a shoot captain having overall responsibility for the gun team, including the loaders and pickers-up, whilst other servants would need to be on hand to attend to their masters and mistresses out in the open without depleting the numbers still required indoors to keep the house running. The whole entourage needed to be carefully managed to ensure that nothing went wrong and that the guests enjoyed themselves to the full, thereby allowing them to speak well of the estate and its hospitality.  At the time in question the house could not properly function without detailed planning for these almost military like operations, all of which came under the aegis of one Mary Marshall, housekeeper at Welbeck. She possessed unrivalled authority over the indoor servants and commanded a fearful respect from the outdoor servants, estate workers and local tradesmen.

When the workload threatened to be overwhelmed by visiting guests and their recreational pleasures, some of the required extra servants were drafted in from nearby Worksop and even from other country house estates in the region. It was into such a melee that a particular servant found himself thrust in November 1913. I shall call him Edward. 

Edward knew from Mary Marshall that there was a group of illustrious persons, including a foreign gentleman and his wife, staying at the house until the end of the week and he speculated that there must have been a good deal of commotion following the arrival of these dignitaries on the twenty-second because some of his servant friends had been continuously busy since then covering various duties in and around the house and grounds.

A day’s pheasant shooting had been arranged and that was why Edward had been drafted in. The decades before the Great War were the heyday of the sport of game shooting on the great English country estates and Edward had assisted at a number of these in one capacity or another. On this occasion, he was chosen to act as loader for the foreign gentleman. A loader’s responsibilities include carrying the guns, cartridges and associated paraphernalia, marking fallen birds if required, offering advice and guidance on the guns when necessary but, primarily and most importantly, having a loaded gun ready to hand over to his master in an instant in exchange for the weapon which had just been discharged. The spent gun would need quickly to be reloaded in readiness for the next exchange, thereby ensuring a more or less constant rate of fire, when needed.

Welbeck Abbey’s gamekeeper had been working for months in preparation for the winter shooting and Edward himself was up early that morning, receiving his instructions for the day in the gun room from the shoot captain, being handed the guns and equipment, preparing himself for the day ahead and wondering if the foreign gentleman would give him a sizeable tip at the end of it if he performed well.

The beaters went on ahead, armed with sticks ready to beat the bushes and flush out the birds. In due course the main party assembled, clad smartly in shooting jackets, bowler hats and thick woollen socks reaching up almost to the knees, with the trousers tucked well inside. The intention was for the Duke and his shooting guests to form a rolling line, gradually walking forward bagging birds as they went, the loaders - with their large cartridge bags and ready-loaded guns – would be in close attendance to their masters and the pickers-up, shoot followers, wives and other servants behind them.

The weather over the previous few days had been mixed; raining then sunny and frosty, followed by a cold snap with snow, some of which was still lying in pockets. This made the ground both hard and soft in places, calling for careful footwork. As the party made its way across the vast fields, there was a sudden rise of pheasants. Edward lost his footing and fell. The gun he was carrying, already loaded, dropped from his grip, hit the ground and discharged both barrels simultaneously. The bullets shot inches past the foreign guest who was just a few feet ahead. Had the trajectory been only a few degrees different, the result would undoubtedly have been the instant death of a foreign dignitary on British soil. As it transpired, such a tragedy was averted - but by the smallest of possible margins.

On that November day, Edward’s fall in a field in Nottinghamshire could have changed world history, for the foreign gentleman who heard the bullets whistling past him and who so nearly met his death was no less a person than Archduke Franz Ferdinand.


Just seven months later a bullet did kill him. This one, however, was discharged not by accident but by design. During a visit the Archduke and his wife were making to the Bosnian capital Sarajevo on 28 June 1914, both were shot dead by Gavrilo Princip. The assassination, by the Serbian nationalist, started a chain of events which, compounded by a series of treaties and national rivalries, quickly lead to the outbreak of the First World War. Had the Archduke died instead in a shooting accident in an English field, perchance the granules of time would not have gone on to a inflict a global conflict lasting over four years and which saw 17 million people killed, 20 million wounded and the face and society of Britain and the world changed for ever.

© Richard Farquharson, Maulden, Bedfordshire April 2016