John Soul: Local Historian, Druid, Shopkeeper and Personality
John Soul was a prominent figure in Amesbury from the late nineteenth century to the earlier part of the twentieth century, remembered mostly from the 1920s to 1940 or thereabouts. Here we have two accounts of him. The first, created by member Hazel Ledgard, is derived from research and an account by her mother who, from the 1920s to the 1940s, came with her family to Amesbury for the summer solstice ceremony at Stonehenge. The second is from the memories of Amesbury residents who still just remember him from their childhood.
The Traveller’s Tale
John Soul was not originally from Amesbury - he was born in Shaftesbury in 1866, the eldest of seven children. His grandfather Richard Soul and three sons were all born in Olney Buckinghamshire. The sons were: John James (the Amesbury John’s father), Edward, and the youngest - also called Richard.
Richard the elder had a grocery business in Olney before moving to Shaftesbury where he was a grocer and tea dealer. In 1871 he was in Fisherton Anger and, by 1875, he and all his sons were established in Amesbury.
Richard senior and his son Edward were grocers and bakers, John James was a coal merchant, and Richard junior was a draper who later moved to Totnes Devon to continue his business there.
When John was sixteen his father, John James, died. His uncle Edward had died two years previously in 1880. Richard senior continued to run the grocery and bakery here until he retired and went to live in Totnes with his surviving son Richard.
John Soul arrived in Amesbury in 1898 and continued the business. In 1906 he married Marie Haylock, whose father had been in the army. She was born in Beggars Bush Barracks in Dublin.
John and Marie had a son in 1911, also called John, who died as a baby. The following year, Marie gave birth to a daughter - Marie Patricia, later known as Pat.
John became increasingly interested in Stonehenge (which he had visited first in 1871) and in the history of Amesbury. In 1901 he had secured Stonehenge entry ticket Number Two at the first turnstile to be installed, and was the first to sign the visitors’ book at the automatic turnstile in 1935. It was the enigma of Stonehenge that continued to intrigue him for the rest of his life.
During the First World War John Soul became a Druid in George Watson MacGregor’s An Druidh Uileach Braithreachas Order (ADUB). He was often to be seen at Stonehenge, explaining the history and mystery of the Stones to the growing number of visitors.
In 1927 he published a pamphlet: ‘Stonehenge and the Ancient Mysteries’ and, in the 1930s, ‘The Mystery of Stonehenge’. He also wrote about the history of Amesbury; for instance ‘Amesbury Historic and Prehistoric’ published in 1926.
My grandfather, George Smith, became a Druid in the early 1920s. From then until his death in 1955 he came to Amesbury with his wife Alice, and was often accompanied by his children George (known as Leo), Millie and Joan. The Smith family travelled to Amesbury every summer, around summer Solstice time, from Clapham in south London.
They knew John Soul very well. In later years, Joan Letchford, née Smith, (my mother) wrote about her memories of Amesbury and Stonehenge. She describes John Soul as ‘an Amesbury character well-known to everyone. He was an amateur historian and eccentric’. Mrs Soul ‘was a bit prim and, I guess, did not always approve of John’s unconventional notions, especially where the Druids were concerned. He always wore a beret and carried a shepherds crook. He knew everything that went on and had ever gone on in Amesbury’. Pat Soul ‘was very good to us girls and would take us around the village sights while the adults had their boring conversations’. Mum told me that Pat showed them how to make poppy dollies from the wayside flowers, and once took them illicitly into the grounds of Amesbury Abbey!
When my mother was sixteen, she became an ovate - an apprentice of the Druid Order - partly to please her father. After that, she took part in a ceremony at Stonehenge. Later, the family and John Soul walked back to The Mound where the Smiths were camping in the garden of Garnett Whiting’s house and café on Stonehenge Road.
My mother writes: ‘Mrs Whiting had prepared a splendid breakfast for us all, with Wiltshire bacon, and eggs from her own chickens. Breakfasts like these were rare for us and seemed more like a feast. As we ate and laughed, John Soul sang old country songs with verve and jollity and with a surprisingly good voice’.
All this must have been in the early 1940s. In 1942 John Soul died, aged 75. After his cremation a ceremony was held at the Double Circle - two disc barrows near Stonehenge. My mother was there to see his ashes scattered.
The Locals’ Tale
Local memories are principally of John Soul, his wife Marie and their daughter Pat, and centre mainly on their grocery and bakery shop in Salisbury Street. However. entries in the Post Office and Kellys’ Directories between 1875 and 1920 indicate a family business initially at Amesbury, growing to embrace Tidworth, Andover and Salisbury. The 1920 entry suggests that the business was being run solely by John Soul.
In addition to his role as shopkeeper he was a local historian, Druid, and played a significant part in the town’s Scout troop. Although individual memories vary, there is a consensus that he would lead celebratory processions in the town dressed in his Druid regalia. Postcards show him in his Scouting, or similar quasi-military uniform. He is remembered by the nick-name ‘Gunner’, although no reference can be found to any military service.
It is thought that at one stage he lived in a bungalow named Caer Caradoc, near the railway station in London Road, but no reference to this building can be found. In 1935 he and his wife bought a detached house named The Dawn in London Road. By this time his interest in Stonehenge had grown, possibly to an obsessional level. He is reported to have been travelling there daily, and would spend considerable time at The Mound - the home of former postman Garnett Whiting in Stonehenge Road, and lived out his beliefs by camping in Lords Walk and writing anti-war slogans on the road surface in London Road. Again, a common memory is that because of his obsessive behaviour he was no longer welcomed in the newly-acquired family home, and lived a solitary existence. This would have been during the last few years of his life. His widow is remembered as giving piano lessons. My thanks to Jim Buckland, John Keynes, Maud Masson, Dimp Richards and Ann Wingrave for sharing their memories, and to Jim Fuller for his help in providing some previously unpublished photographs.