Quotations from P G Wodehouse are copyright of, and reprinted by permission of, the Trustees of the Wodehouse Estate © 2019 The P G Wodehouse Society (UK)

The P G Wodehouse Society (UK)

On 14th July 2016, the Society planted a tree and unveiled a commemorative plaque honouring Percy Jeeves, a cricketer who gave his name to Wodehouse’s omniscient valet, but lost his life on the Somme. Tony Ring was in Cheltenham to watch the ceremony.

Cheltenham Tree Dedication, 14 July 2016

Three years ago, on 17 July, 2013, the Society spoke at a brunch during the Cheltenham Cricket Festival, which is held on the magnificent playing fields of Cheltenham College, to celebrate the Centenary of the occasion when, while visiting his parents who lived in the town, P G Wodehouse had spent 14 August, 1913, at that ground watching Gloucestershire play Warwickshire, one member of which team was Percy Jeeves.

Jeeves had two seasons of first-class county cricket – 1913 and 1914, during which he impressed many critics as a medium fast right-handed bowler and competent batsman, who was likely to become an established all-rounder in the England team. In 1913 he took over 100 wickets, a benchmark of a season’s successful bowling in those days, and included 3 scores of 50 in his 700 runs. But it must be said that any spectator who went to the match expecting to be impressed by Percy Jeeves’s performance would have chosen the wrong game, for he made a total of 1 run in two innings, and took just 1 wicket in 24 overs.

Nevertheless, Wodehouse was sufficiently impressed with the young man’s performance to remember his name some two years later. As he confirmed in his mature years in a letter to Rowland Ryder of Warwickshire:

“I suppose Jeeves’s bowling must have impressed me, for I remembered him when I was in New York and starting the Jeeves and Bertie saga, and it was just the name I wanted ... I remember admiring his action very much.”

In the story “Creatures of Impulse”, published in 1914, he had actually named a valet ‘Jevons’, but clearly felt this was not quite the name he wanted for a possible series.

Percy Jeeves was recruited into the 2nd Birmingham Battalion, C Company in autumn 1914, a ‘pals regiment’ which was renamed the 15th Battalion Royal Warwickshire Regiment at the start of 1915. He was one of that large number of soldiers who lost his life at the Battle of the Somme in 1916, and thus would never be able to read the stories in which his namesake was to appear, or be aware that in due course his surname would become a household word in the UK and elsewhere, and even be attached to many businesses. His body was never found, so his death was marked by no personal gravestone, and his name was listed with more than 70,000 others on the Thiepval monument.

The P G Wodehouse Society (UK) felt that his incidental contribution to the literary legacy of the twentieth century should be recognised in a manner which would be both personal to him and also allow members of the public to continue to remember such events as the Battle of the Somme. Accordingly, the Society sought permission from Cheltenham College to plant a poplar tree during this year’s Cheltenham Cricket Festival, on Thursday 14 July, close to the Pavilion yet visible through the railings from the public road and pavement beyond.

More than 100 guests, Society members and onlookers congregated round the small tree as a shiny new spade was used, first by Keith Mellard (great-nephew of Percy Jeeves), and then by Edward Cazalet (step-grandson of P G Wodehouse) to throw the final coverings of soil over the base of the tree. Our Chairman then unveiled a commemorative plaque in the shape of a book, with identical inscriptions on both front and rear covers to enable the text to be read from both inside and outside the college premises.

About half the spectators then adjourned for a celebratory lunch after which Hilary Bruce, our Chairman, formally welcomed a number of guests, including the Rt Hon the Earl Bathurst, Patron of Gloucestershire CCC; the Rt Hon the Countess Bathurst, High Sheriff of Gloucestershire; Dame Janet Trotter DBE, Lord Lieutenant of Gloucestershire; Lt Col John Rice, representing Percy Jeeves’s Regiment, now integrated into the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers; Chris Tickle, Deputy Chairman of Warwickshire CCC; Brian Halford, author of the biography of Percy, The Real Jeeves; and members of both the Jeeves and Wodehouse families.

Hilary paid tribute to the enormous support, assistance and cooperation given to the Society and its two organisers, Committee member Tim Andrew and Hilary herself, by both Gloucestershire CCC and Cheltenham College. She singled out for specific mention the practical contributions to the project made by Sir Robert Morland from Gloucestershire CCC, and Kirk Steel, the College Estates Bursar, which did so much to ensure that the project proceeded seamlessly. (She did not tell us how she arranged a fine day for the unveiling – had it been planned for the first, rather than the second day of the county cricket fixture, the ceremony would have taken place during torrential rainfall!)

Hilary then reminded us of the reason for the ceremony – that Percy Jeeves had been a talented cricketer whose name had been remembered by a talented author, who had made it famous throughout the world as a synonym for efficiency, resourcefulness and braininess. That, she said, was why we remembered and cared about both Percy and Plum. Percy might be singled out in the ceremony from the innumerable other victims for that reason, but we also remembered all his young colleagues who lost their futures alongside him.

Dame Janet Trotter remarked in a poignant speech that having such symbols as the plaque and tree visible from a busy public pavement would enable those many Cheltenham residents who lost family members all those years ago to have reason to reflect on their loss, and help to keep those memories alive.

Keith Mellard, Percy Jeeves’s great-nephew and his closest living relative, has had a busy time since the publication of Brian Halford’s The Real Jeeves. He spoke movingly about his upbringing with his grandparents, one of whom was Percy’s brother, and the interest in cricket that was instilled in him. He mentioned his direct family’s wartime experience, recording that his own father, a professional violinist, had returned deaf from his wartime service.

Finally, Sir Edward Cazalet recalled one or two of his own experiences with his grandfather in New York in the 1950s. He pointed out that Plum’s talent in using the English language in expressive an imaginative ways had resulted in more than 1,700 of his phrases being included in the Oxford English Dictionary as illustrations of a word’s meaning or a nuance of its use. He closed by agreeing with Dame Janet Trotter that the physical location of the memorial to Percy Jeeves was well-placed to stimulate the recall in the minds of today’s Cheltenham residents of the many others in the town who had lost their lives in wartime. He thought that Plum would have been very pleased that his fictional character had helped to preserve those memories.

This was undoubtedly the most moving event which the Society has ever arranged, and it is difficult to believe that in this respect it will ever be surpassed.








 the spade

The Jeeves family

The Memorial Stone

After-lunch speakers: (clockwise from top left) Hilary Bruce, Dame Janet Trotter, Sir Edward Cazalet, Keith Mellard