Read by Toby Clay, Grand-son
Gervas worked in Africa for 34 years, and was retired for 45 years. As you know, he lived to 102, so this account will, I'm afraid, be longer than usual.
Gervas was born near Burton-on-Trent. His birthday was the 16th April 1907, a birthday he was to share with his wife and eldest son. He was educated at Furzie Close and Lancing College, which he represented in Inter-Schools swimming and athletic competitions.
Gervas went up to New College, Oxford, in 1926, and graduated with B.A. (Hons) (4th Class) in Jurisprudence in 1929. Perhaps he spent too much time on athletics.
Gervas was awarded a Half-Blue for Athletics in 1929; he was Surrey County Hurdles Champion 1929-30 and in 1929 Southern Counties 440 yards Hurdles Champion .
He "hurdled behind Lord Burghley", but on 16th July 1930, the Hon. Sec. to the Council for Great Britain of the British Empire Games (Canada 1930), wrote to Gervas's father:-
"… we are only sorry that he has sailed for Africa as otherwise he was pretty certain to have been in the Team."
Gervas applied to join His Majesty's Overseas Civil Service (HMOCS); he recalled:-
"At interview I was asked, “Are you in the Officer Training Corps at Oxford?” and I said, “No” , and they said, “Would you tell us why not?” I said, “Well, to tell you the honest truth, I had more than I wanted at school.” And they roared with laughter, and said, “Well, Mr. Clay, I think you’re the first honest man we’ve had here this morning!”
In 1930 Gervas Clay went to Northern Rhodesia. His duties included those of Postmaster, Tax Collector, Census taker, Police Chief and Magistrate, and also included the building of airfields.
In 1933 Gervas came home on leave, during which he arranged for a car to be sent out to him in pieces. He flew back by Empire Airways flying boat, which did not fly at night. He was posted to Barotseland, where he had the "hard labour" prisoners build some 120 miles of road through to Mongu, the provincial capital, and his car, by then assembled, (even though D I Y was not his forte) was the first car ever to reach Mongu. About this time, Head Office instructed him to issue driving licenses "to people whom you think capable of driving", whereupon he issued himself with Licence No.1.
He started a school, and added "Headmaster" to his portfolio of titles.
In 1935 Gervas's uncle Bertram Sargeaunt was Government Secretary to the Isle of Man. Gervas wrote home,
"Tell him that my district is 66 times the size of the Isle of Man, & has two-thirds the population, and as I run it alone I can't imagine what on earth he does with himself all day."
In 1936 he went on leave, and met his bride-to-be on the ship. Her parents had met on board ship, and shared a birthday. When it was discovered that Gervas and Betty shared a birthday, his fate was sealed. [See http://www.spanglefish.com/bettyclay ]
Gervas was due to go on leave the very week that war was declared. He was mortified when denied permission to enlist, furious to be told he was more useful doing the job he was in. He was then 32, and only those under 32 were allowed to enlist. He would have joined his father's unit, the Staffordshire Yeomanry, many of whom were killed in North Africa.
He was posted back to the Northern Province, to Isoka, 70 miles South West of the Tanganyika border, and 70 miles North of the nearest Europeans. Frequent convoys of lorries carrying troops and materiel passed through on their way from South Africa to the North African Campaign. Gervas had to ensure that they passed through without incident.
In 1944 Gervas was appointed to the Secretariat in Lusaka, before going on leave to England in 1945, on the SS Mauratania, built to carry 2,000 passengers, but on this voyage carrying 4,268.
His next posting was as District Commissioner at Kitwe, and then at Ndola, then at Broken Hill, before being appointed Provincial Commissioner for the Southern Province in Livingstone in 1953, a post he held for six years. Here Gervas took up bowls and Amateur Dramatics.
Gervas had developed a great interest in the history of the early European explorers to Northern Rhodesia and acquired a considerable library on that subject. He had a column "Gervas Clay's Scrapbook" in the "Northern Rhodesia Journal", and was on the Editorial Committee from 1956-64. He became friends with the Director of the Rhodes-Livingstone Museum, and was able to provide much help and information to him.
In 1958 Gervas was appointed Her Majesty's Resident Commissioner to Barotseland, and the Museum Trustees wrote to thank him for his help.
In 1960 Gervas was host to the Queen Mother in his Residency for three days. Her hand-written thank-you letter ran to four pages.
His duties were to advise the Paramount Chief, and he accompanied him and his Government to Britain for pre-Independence talks. Gervas was in a very difficult situation, for the Barotse wanted to retain their original Protectorate status, while the Zambian Government-in-waiting and the Colonial Office wanted Barotseland to be incorporated as part of Zambia. No prizes for guessing who won. Gervas gained no plaudits from the Colonial Office, for he failed to convince the Barotse, nor from the Barotse, for he failed to persuade the Colonial Office.
After three years in Barotseland, and approaching retirement, the post of Director of the Museum became vacant, and Gervas quoted the Trustees' letter as a reference in his application for the post – which he was awarded. Gervas related that during his time at the Museum, sometimes, poring over historical records, he would catch himself guiltily with a start, and say firmly to himself, "Now I must get on with some WORK!" – and then realise with relief that this actually was the work he was being paid to do. He was delighted to be able to stay on in Zambia, as he felt that leaving at Independence would set a bad example to his junior colleagues. In 1964, Gervas retired to England and on the voyage home he finished writing his book, "Your Friend, Lewanika".
Back in England Gervas maintained a spectator's interest in events in what was now Zambia, a country for the benefit of which he had devoted his working life. On one occasion he was at a function where he had heard that there was a young person home on holiday from working in Zambia. He met her, and explained who he was. She drew herself up, and said, "Oh, you're one of those DREADFUL Colonialists", turned on her heel and walked away. Gervas met that uninformed and bigoted attitude quite often, and it hurt him dreadfully to see his life's work unappreciated and despised.
In 1994 he circulated the story about "Aquitaine" that is printed on the back of your Service Sheet. Three days ago we received from the current Director of the Museum, an African, a message that reads in part – "For his contribution to the preservation of Zambia's cultural heritage he will always be remembered."
Gervas lived in nearly twenty different houses during his time in Africa. At each, he made a garden, with fruit trees, knowing that he himself would not benefit, but successors would.
Gervas was Chairman of the House of Laity in the Synod of Northern Rhodesia from 1948 to 1964, and a Lay Reader in Wiveliscombe from 1972 to 1997; and he claimed to be the oldest Lay Reader in the Church of England.
Arriving back in England, Gervas joined the Scout Movement, and was Somerset County Commissioner 1964-70 and County Chairman, 1970-80. He was awarded the Silver Acorn in 1974, the Silver Wolf (Scouting's highest award) in 1984, and, on his 100th birthday, a 70-year's Service award from George Purdy, ex-Chief Scout, who shared his birthday.
Gervas wrote poetry from his schooldays, and he had a small booklet of poems privately printed – as had his father. He also published numerous articles in various journals.
Gervas was a keen shot, an ardent stamp collector, and a dedicated family historian, as well as a competent bridge-player, actor/singer, ornithologist, gardener and historian.
In 1956 Gervas was diagnosed with bilharzia, and he spent several months in the Hospital for Tropical Diseases in London. The bilharzia was eliminated, but there is a view that some of Gervas's "spark" seemed to have left him. At that time it was commonly regarded that the cure was worse than the disease. Here, his stubborn-ness stood him in good stead – although infuriating the staff. He was told he would get unbearably stiff - unless he exercised. He pushed trolleys and wheelchairs everywhere all day long just to keep the joints working - and never got the crippling stiffness all the other victims did.
Gervas always kept fit and active, though he hated to walk merely for the sake of walking - he had to have a purpose, but when he did (shooting, for instance) he could stride for hours.
Gervas was married on 24th Sept. 1936 to Betty nee Baden-Powell; she died on 24th April 2004. Gervas is survived by his daughter Gill and his three sons, Robin, Nigel and Crispin; by his eight grandchildren, and by his 14⅞ great-grandchildren.
Always fond of chocolate, we understand that on Wednesday 15th April 2009, he devoured an entire box of Belgian chocolates given him as an Easter present. The following day, his 102nd birthday, seven of his family joined him for a party that lasted an hour and a half, with cake and candles, and the appropriate serenade – and he slept through it all. He slept right through Friday, and much of Saturday, until he was pronounced dead at half past five in the afternoon of 18th April 2009 in Elliscombe House Nursing Home.
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