Eton College

Cyril Pelham Foley

Cricketer, sportsman, adventurer, soldier and writer

The Raider

Cyril Pelham Foley was a cricketer, writer, journalist, gambler and soldier. He was a journalist and has given us an often witty account of the Parker expedition.

Given that he went on an expedition to find the Ark of the Covenant it is fitting that his nickname was The Raider, which he gained when he was a member of the disastrous Jameson Raid which helped spark the Boer War. The raid’s goal was to spark an uprising in the Dutch-speaking Boer republic of Transvaal and bring its gold and diamonds under British control. The operation turned out to be a disaster and Foley and the other raiders were captured by the Boers.

During his cricketing career he played for Middlesex, Marylebone Cricket Club, Lord Brackley’s XI, AJ Webbe’s XI, Cambridge University scoring over 3,000 runs during his career. Reports describe him as a patient batsman, a slow left-arm bowler and an almost comically awful fielder! He played against many of the great cricketers of the day including WG Grace and in his autobiography he recounts what is possibly the earliest recorded account of a reverse sweep. It happened in a game between Gloucestershire and Middlesex at least seventy years before that stroke’s supposed invention, William Woof was the bowler and Sir Timothy O’Brien was the batsman:

‘The latter treated him as he afterwards treated W.W. Read at Lords, except that he back-handed him through the slips, and did not, ofcourse turn round to do so. E.M. Grace who was fielding close in at slip, narrowly escaped injury, the ball passing with great velocity through his whiskers twice. W.G., whose fraternal affection was aroused, said to O’Brien: “You mustn’t do that Tim, you’ll kill my brother.” O’Brien, who disliked E.M. replied: “And a good thing too” and promptly did it again. W.G. then warned O’Brien that if the stroke was repeated, he would take his men off the field. Needless to say O’Brien repeated it, and W.G. marched off the field.’

WG Grace

Cyril Foley came from a privileged background and was educated at Eton and Cambridge. He was the second son of a general and the grandson of a baron. The Foley family had a long military tradition encompassing both glorious success and disastrous failure. One relative was a member of Nelson’s band of brothers and rose to the rank of admiral. During his illustrious career he led the manoeuvre at the Battle of the Nile that destroyed Napoleon’s fleet. Cyril’s father was a general in the British Army. During the Crimean War he watched his wife’s uncle, Lord Cardigan, lead the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade. Foley himself served in the Boer War, the First World War and the Irish War of Independence, surviving all three. In the latter conflict he served in British Military Intelligence  in Dublin Foley narrowly escaped one of the most notorious and bloody days of the war, the original Bloody Sunday. He returned to London at the end of October 1920 and shortly afterwards relinquished his commission. On the 21st November 1920, the Irish Republic Army or I.R.A. killed fourteen members of British Military Intelligence in Dublin in a single day.

Foley always looked for adventure and in 1909 he went to Jerusalem in search of the Ark of the Covenant. The Parker expedition consisted mainly of upper-class young Eton-educated Englishmen who believed that a Finnish scholar had found secret cyphers hidden in the Bible which told where the Ark was hidden. It sounds improbable; Downton Abbey meets Indiana Jones meets Dan Brown, but it is absolutely true. They tried to keep secret what they were looking for but could not help drawing attention to themselves Foley wrote that one day while they were playing cricket he hit a six into the Pool of Siloam, where the Bible records Jesus healed a blind man. Foley wrote that his six was ‘a thing which I believe, has never been done before, not even by the Hittites.’

Sunday Express Headline from 1926



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The connections to the UK

Floreat Etona

The connections to the UK were very strong.  The bulk of the expedition party came from the United Kingdom, the syndicate was formed in London and the company which was later set up to manage the expedition was also founded in London.

The expedition members from the UK were born into families with wealth and status at the centre of the British upper classes. Most had also been educated at Eton College. Eton College was the most prestigious. King Henry VI founded the College in the 15th century. His goal for the College was to educate poor children around Windsor Castle, the king’s principal residence. However, over the years, the College changed its role. Its purpose became, and in no small degree still is, to create the next generation of English gentlemen. At the College they learned this role and to rule their estates and the Empire. A contemporary of Parker’s at Eton wrote:

‘Etonians imbibe a certain sense of the effortless superiority which haunts every imperial race. To be an Etonian seems better than to become great or successful. Boys are lulled into a sense of unassailable primacy which they extend later to the Empire.”

The network of connections the boys made while they there were at Eton was paramount to their futures. They formed many of these connections through the various sports they played. Many at the College reserved the greatest passion and effort for sport. These included cricket, football, rowing and the sport peculiar to Eton, the Wall Game. The formative experience for young English gentlemen who attended Eton is neatly summed up in the words of sixth stanza of the school song, the Eton Boating Song:

‘Harrow may be more clever, Rugby may make more row,
But we’ll row forever, Steady from stroke to bow,
And nothing in life shall sever, the chain that is round us now,
And nothing in life shall sever, the chain that is round us now”

Eton School Uniform in the late 19th Century

Four of the initial members of the expedition attended Eton. Besides Montagu Parker, there was Cyril Foley, Clarence Wilson and Robin Duff. They were all upper-class young men. One other common factor was they were mostly younger sons, not necessarily destined to inherit their father’s titles. Montagu Parker was the second son of an earl. Cyril Foley was the second son of a general and the grandson of a baron. Clarence Wilson was the third son of a rich, knighted member of parliament. For such men, not meant to inherit their family estate and title, the question was what they did with their lives. Robin Duff was an exception, as he was a first son.

Several of the Englishmen who took part in the Parker expedition joined elite military units after Eton. these included the Grenadier Guards, the Horse Guards and the Life Guards. Several of them served in South Africa during the Second Boer War. In the years before the expedition the army careers of many of the individuals were petering out and they needed something else to do.  The expedition provided a perfect opportunity.

Other geographical connections

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On the 6th November 1914 Gordon Wilson died in battle

He led an incredible life. He stopped an assassination attempt on Queen Victoria married Winston Churchill’s aunt fought at Mafeking commanded the Blues went on the Parker expedition to find the Ark and died leading at Klein Zillebeke.

He was born in Wimmera in Australia but educated in England. At Eton he stopped Roderick Maclean shooting Queen Victoria in Windsor by beating him with his umbrella.

He married Lady Sarah Spencer-Churchill who was Winston Churchill’s aunt. He served at the siege of Mafeking with Baden-Powell during the Second Boer War and Lady Sarah acted as a war reporter there for the Daily Mail.

Lady Sarah Wilson (nee Spencer-Churchill)

Gordon joined his brother Clarence on the Parker expedition to Jerusalem to find the Ark of the Covenant and was there when they secretly dug in the Dome of the Rock and caused riots. The Wilson family were the largest funders of the expedition.

Gordon rose to command the Royal Horse Guards and commanded them in 1914. He died at Klein Zillebeke leading his men in battle. Wilson’s men galloped to the engagement dismounted and fixed bayonets. He then led the charge of his troopers at the Germans and was shot dead.

Lady Sarah chose the inscription “Life is a city of crooked streets Death the market place where all men meet” for his CWGC headstone. She read it on a clipping she found that Gordon had kept with him.

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