Mark Twain, W. H. Barrett & The Ship at Brandon Creek

The Ship Inn at Brandon Creek (recently sadly closed) has a long and colourful history, with tales of hangings, witchcraft and (perhaps even stranger) a visit by Cliff Richard. It seems that there was an inn there as early as the 17th century, and it thrived under a succession of landlords and landladies during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Walter Henry (“Jack”) Barrett was born on July 23 1891 and spent his formative years in and around Brandon Creek, then a small village on the edge of the fens. As an elderly man in the 1960s he recounted a large number of old tales, legends and personal reminiscences to Enid Porter, then the Curator of the Cambridge and County Folk Museum. These stories were published in two books (unfortunately out of print) called “Tales from the Fens” and “More Tales from the Fens”.

In the introduction to the first of these volumes, Enid Porter relates Barrett’s tale of his encounter with Mark Twain at the Ship.

He explained that Mark Twain was staying in Cambridge after suffering a nervous breakdown and that he came to the Ship to complete his recovery at the recommendation of Mr. Thurston who owned Thurston’s Café in Cambridge. He remembered receiving sweets from the American humourist and the fact that he and the other local children followed him around hoping to receive more. He also reported that Mark Twain enjoyed the tale-telling skills of the fenmen and joined a long session after supper at the Ship, which concluded with Mark telling a tall tale of his own.

I became fascinated by this story and attempted to verify it.

I contacted Cameron Hawke-Smith, who was then the curator of the Cambridge and County Folklore Museum and he kindly let me have a copy of the story that Twain supposedly told. I then contacted the Mark Twain Project at Berkeley University and had some very enjoyable exchanges with their researchers who could neither confirm nor deny Barrett’s story but, to put it politely, they had their doubts. And despite numerous invitations, none of them ever made it to the Ship for a pint of good “warm” British beer. (Incidentally, I have never understood why some Americans think that English beer is served warm. It is served at room temperature. Have they ever been to an English pub?)

In another stage of my journey I enlisted the help of the well-known local historian Mike Petty who kindly put a plea from me in his newspaper column asking if anyone had any information about Twain visiting Cambridge. The replies hardly flooded in – in fact there were none. And no biography of Mark Twain makes any mention of a visit to Cambridge, let alone Brandon Creek.

Now Twain was very fond of a tall tale, as were the people of the Fens. I am not the only one to have come to the conclusion that Jack Barrett was pulling a number of legs with his story of Mark Twain. Perhaps we’ll never know but it is telling that he doesn’t mention his encounter with Twain in his autobiography “A Fenman’s Story”.

However, I think Jack Barrett might go along with the view that it’s not a good idea to let too many facts ruin a good story.

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