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More from ‘The Messenger House’.


MY GREAT-GREAT-GRANDFATHER George Davies travelled with John Wheeley Gough Gutch, a Queen’s Messenger, on his journey to Serbia in both 1846 and 1847 and left two handwritten travel journals which I have transcribed. They travelled from Downing Street, where the Foreign Office was at that time, to Dover and then to Calais and across Europe, staying in a messenger house in Aleksinac, Serbia, which was near the then-border with the Ottoman Empire. Dispatches were carried by Mr Gutch from the UK and consulates along the way and they waited at the messenger house for dispatches from Constantinople which they then conveyed back to the UK in haste.

During the first journey my ancestor tells of meeting a Wallachian Princess on board a steamer. Of course we don’t know what her thoughts were about meeting him, but I have supplied them in the form of her notebook, written after their meeting. Mr Gutch and Mr Davies also met Captain Spencer, a prolific travel writer who journeyed extensively in Serbia, and wrote about it in Travels in European Turkey, in 1850 Through Bosnia, Servia, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Thrace.1 The second piece included here uses some paragraphs of Spencer’s in which he describes how he went about obtaining meat during a fast of the Orthodox church. A cockerel, a housewife, and Death have something extra to say about their antics.

George Davies meets a Wallachian Princess

Tuesday 12th May Got up at 2. A cup of coffee & went to the boat. Excessively amusing to see all the passengers asleep – some on Deck & some below in the saloon. The scenery from Semlin of Orshova2 abt. 150 miles down the river is the most magnificent I ever saw – running nearly the whole way between Rocky & beautifully wooded mountains rising perpendicularly to the height of 2000 feet. Curious old castle at Semendriou with abt. 24 towers. Made an agreeable acquaintance on board with a Walachian3 Princess (Kgüche)4 spoke Germ. French. Greek, Walach, Eng, Ital. Span. Had read Sopl. Xenoph. Herod.5

(the Wallachian Princess adds notes to her journal, evening Tuesday 12th.)

7.30pm: Quiet again, thank God!  Supper and reading.

8pm:            “See how he struts, the uncivilized brat—
amazed at my studies, my erudite chat—
he met a Princess, but I met a prat.”

8.05pm:      “I drown in the sweetness of the Greek–
Xenophon brought me to Babylon,
and I returned with him, over wasteland
and snow-packed mountain passes. From him
I learned flanking manoeuvres, rear-guard
combat. Long was the way, and hard,
till we met with Thibron, the Spartan.”

—arrived at Orshova at 6 ½ — no room in the inn – an Embassy to greet the Sultan came with us – going on tomorrow to Ranschituck – ordered a “Wagen” to Mehardia – three horses abreast – a lovely night & the scenery exactly similar to what we had had by water – the road winding thro’ narrow valies[sic] with the most stupendous rocks interspersed with the most luxuriant foliage rising abruptly to a great height above our heads. Mr. Gutch compared it to the commencement of the ascent of the Simplon– arrived abt. 10 – 12 miles – 5 Guld.6

Spencer’s Cock and Bull Story (with two penn’orth from the cockerel, the good housewife and an old friend of the family)

 There was once a cockerel, a fine fellow, who slept each night with his many hens in the wide-spreading branches of a mighty oak. Each evening in this vast resting place they settled down, the cockerel taking the topmost branch. A good housewife looked after them, an honest woman, who kept them safe.

TGH: Good Housewife, hah! That’s what they call an ‘independent businesswoman’, around these parts!

We had unfortunately set out on our tour during one of the interminable fasts of the Oriental Church and as the stock of provisions, with which we had furnished ourselves at Belgrade, was now exhausted, we could get nothing in the town better than stale carp and tench from the Danube and the Morava – poor fare for hungry travellers. In vain we despatched Georgy in quest of a fowl, or even eggs – it was of no avail; the fanatic inhabitants would neither sell, nor even cook, an article of food forbidden by their church.

The cockerel scratched each day in sweet dark leaf mould…his talons sharp and his eyes beady, his comb and wattle blood-red banners, always ready to ride his hens. Stab, stab went his beak for a husk of corn and a silky earthworm.

TGH:  I keep to my faith and that’s a very private thing. My soup of Danube river-fish is always very tasty.7

Determined to provide ourselves with a more substantial meal than the mess of soup, composed of fish, garlic and beans, the hanji was disposed to set before us, we sallied forth towards the environs of the town on a foraging expedition. We had not proceeded far when our eyes were gladdened by the sight of a goodly array of barn-door fowls, preparing to take up their quarters for the night in the wide-spreading branches of a mighty oak; but, alas! No offer of ours could prevail upon the good housewife to sell us one of her cackling charges, and so become accessory to our breaking the commandments of her Church.

The cockerel ruffled his hackle and sickle feathers, flapped briskly up to find his usual perch.

TGH: I kept repeating, “No, they’re not for sale!”

Thus balked in our endeavours to procure a supper, like two hungry men we determined to carry off by force the first fat fowl we could lay hands on, even at the risk of paying an exorbitant price, but we soon found that we did not give our feathered friends credit for half the agility they possessed, as they one after the other, eluding our endeavours to catch them, took refuge among the branches of their vast roosting-place; so that our promised supper began to assume the doubtful aspect, if not of a castle, at least of a bird in the air; and as we stood panting and wearied with our fruitless chase at the bottom of the tree, we could not help feeling that, in our case, a bird in the hand was worth a score in the bush.

He watched the crafty hens run rings around them, squinted at little panting-puffing-men, at his own good housewife berating them, and then let out a yell, cock-cock-cock-a-doodle-doo! What’s the cost, the cost, the cost?

TGH: How dare they take by force what wasn’t theirs! I swore at them!

Coûte que coûte, determined not to be conquered by a chicken, I resolved as a dernier resort to have recourse to the loaded pistols I carried in my belt, and drawing one forth, took deliberate aim at an insulting chanticleer, who in imagined safety, at the top of the tree was clapping his wings, and crowing defiance at our futile efforts to entrap him; when, lo! A bullet through the head laid him struggling at our feet,

The branches of the tree kept falling past him, his nerves and sinews trembled. Where does the blame lie? the cockerel coughed, as the sky dived past him and he met with Death.

TGH: I couldn’t speak. My breath was taken from me.

Death (takes a deep breath): an opening they slide through

and throwing a dollar to the astounded and horror -stricken owner, we hoped to escape in peace to our han. Vain delusion! The uproar which followed could not have exceeded if the Arnouts had stormed Hassan-a-Palanka; and we were followed to our inn by an angry, vociferating crowd of men, women and children who heaped upon our devoted heads every abusive epithet which their voluminous, and not over choice vocabulary furnished them; we were in the same breath called dogs of heretics! Latin hounds! And unbelieving flesh-eating Franks! All uniting in clamorously demanding justice on the transgressors.

His body softened, his feathers draggled. A red brown stain dripped from his lolling head. Where does the blame lie? His shadow fretted as he went forwards cradled in the good wife’s hands.

TGH: This dead weight in my hands and, in my heart, this rage.

Death: no barriers to this crossing

Fortunately, in the midst of the uproar, the kapitan and the judge made their appearance, with several civil officers of distinction in the town. As soon as anything like silence could be obtained, I stated my case at full length, to which the judge listened with the most profound attention, evidently treating it as a matter of the highest importance,

I was never allowed an opinion, the ghost of the cockerel muttered.

TGH: I was never allowed an opinion, never allowed a voice.

Death: their sentences unfinished

and finally, much to our satisfaction, pronounced a verdict in our favour. “Were we not Franks?” said he; “and was it not a manifest violation of the laws of hospitality to refuse to furnish strangers with such articles of food as their Church, like an indulgent mother, permitted them to enjoy? How,” as this light of the law most logically argued, “could the same laws be expected to hold good for all creeds? Here we have two distinguished Frank travellers come to visit you from the Far West, who after a long and fatiguing day’s journey, have been unable to procure, in the whole town of Hassan-Pasha-Palanka such an ordinary article of food as a fowl – for shame, Servians! For shame! Blinded by your fanaticism, you have violated the laws of hospitality, and by forcing these strangers to an act of violence, you have brought down disgrace on the name of a Servian.”

Where does the blame lie? the cockerel wondered. One rule for them, and one for us, he marvelled.

TGH (sings bitterly): Thieves and bullies never listen,
politicians make things up.
Vile pretence is all around us,
we can see they’re
all corrupt!

Death (sighs, rubs his head): nothing is permanent

The piece of money we had thrown to the good housewife was now demanded, and with some reluctance produced; upon viewing it, our Aristides gravely declared it to be ten times the worth of the fowl, and after estimating its true value, the residue to the amount of several piastres was presented to us, which we however added to the prime cost, as an indemnity to the rest of the feathered troop for the loss of their gallant leader.

The ghost of the cockerel still lives in the ghost of the tree, sleeping each night with the ghosts of his many hens. The ghost of the good housewife still watches over them. What’s changed, he croodles. Nothing much! That arrogance of men; those who travel, those who rule and those who deny the rights of good women.

TGH: The cockerel knows the truth; I won’t deny it, though he’s a little light on Feminist theory, gender inequality, discrimination, objectification, oppression, stereotyping, cultural imperialism and patriarchy.

Death (smiles enigmatically): and so we go onwards.8

Janet Sutherland’s collections include Home Farm (2019), Bone Monkey (2014),Hangman’s Acre (2009) and Burning the Heartwood (2006), all from Shearsman. She is currently working on a new collection about her great-great-grandfather’s travels to Serbia in the 1840’s. A critical essay on the poet Charles Reznikoff appeared as an afterword to a new edition of his work, Holocaust (Black Sparrow Press, 2007). She received a Hawthornden Fellowship in 2018. More excerpts from The Messenger House can be read here.


  1. Edmund Spencer, Colburn & Co, 1851.
  2. Orsova
  3. Both spellings are in general use.
  4. Possibly this was Marițica Bibescu, born Maria Văcărescu, also known as Marițica Ghica (August 1, 1815 – September 27, 1859), the Princess-consort of Wallachia between September 1845 and June 1848. A boyaress ( A boyar or bolyar was a member of the highest rank of the feudal Bulgarian, Russian, Wallachian, Moldavian, and later Romanian, Lithuanian and Baltic German nobility) by birth, she belonged to the Văcărescu family. Her father Nicolae, her grandfather Ienăchiță and her uncle Alecu were politicians and professional writers; Marițica herself was an unpublished poet.
  5. Sophocles; Xenophon, who wrote Anabasis; Herodotus.
  6. The price of the journey.
  7. Her ingredients: Take five mixed river fish (some of carp, catfish, barbel, perch, pike, sturgeon), 5 ½ tbs  sunflower oil, 3 bay leaves, 7 peppercorns, 2 yellow onions (chopped), 2 carrots (diced), 1 parsnip (chopped), 2 potatoes (quartered), 5 ½ tbs celery root (or white part of stem), 2 cloves of garlic (optional), ½ tbs sweet red paprika powder, ½ tbs hot paprika powder, ½ cayenne pepper (whole), 1 tomato (chopped) water (2 pints), handful  of parsley, handful of lovage, few basil leaves, a few leaves of dill, 1 tsp thyme, pinch of anise seed, salt, pepper, 11 tbs tomato juice, 1tbs red wine vinegar.—JS
  8. The underlying text in this piece is taken from: Travels in European Turkey, in 1850 Through Bosnia, Servia, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Thrace (35). The book describes Spencer’s travels in Serbia in 1847 when he met George Davies, my great great grandfather and his friend Mr Gutch, the Queen’s Messenger. In this passage, though, Spencer is travelling with Georgy, a Serbian commercial traveller, who was acting as his guide and who became his accomplice in this sorry tale.
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