St Peter’s (sort of) on the Nile

St Peter’s (sort of) on the Nile

Dec 11, 2017

It has now been a little over two months since the college Archives received one of its stranger deposits, which, alongside 19th-century diary extracts and letters, included the hot-water bottle supposedly found in Africa with the remains of Bishop James Hannington (1847-1885), after whom the college’s dining hall is named.

It was initially assumed by the depositor (Dr Ken Addison), as well as by this blog’s author, that the diaries and letters had something to do with James Hannington, especially since a first glance revealed that at least one of the undated diary entries had been written in Damascus, through which the ill-fated bishop is known to have passed in late 1884 on his second trip to Uganda.

But like many assumptions, this one turned out to be misplaced. In fact, while the diary extracts and letters were indeed written in the 1880s, their author, it transpired, was not James Hannington, but rather a certain Claude Hope Sutton (1856-1925), whose son, Claude Wingfield Hope Sutton (1898-1972), had been fellow and tutor in Philosophy at St Peter’s between 1930 and his eventual retirement in 1965.

Born in Reading, Claude senior was the son of Martin Hope Sutton (1815-1901), who, along with his own father, John Sutton (1777-1863), ran Suttons Seeds, which continues to supply British gardeners with horticultural products to this day. Besides being Victorian entrepreneurs, the Suttons were also thorough-going evangelicals, and it was this aspect of family life that took Claude Hope Sutton, who read Theology at Exeter College in 1875, not just to Damascus, but also throughout Egypt, Palestine, Jordan and Lebanon in late 1888 and early 1889. Leaving European shores behind in November 1888, he travelled first to Luxor, where he took up a winter chaplaincy, before heading on a tour throughout the Near East, visiting various Church Mission Society outposts as he went.

Suttons Seeds, Reading, 1950s

The diaries he wrote while on his travels, which he routinely sent back to his parents along with the letters that also form part of the collection, contain fascinating accounts of the places he visited, the people that he encountered (both local and other Western tourists/missionaries), and the customs and practices he observed. 

His Egyptian sojourn saw him closely associated with the trade plied on the Nile by the steamers  operated by Thomas Cook’s, who had revolutionised travel in Egypt, reducing what had been a journey of many weeks from Cairo to Luxor to one of only a handful of days (river conditions permitting). Once in Luxor, Claude Sutton was not only supposed to offer religious comfort to the British tourists who travelled down the Nile, but also to the British troops stationed in places like Aswan, who were then nervously looking towards Mahdist Sudan, whose rulers had been fomenting rebellion against British-Egyptian rule since the early 1880s.

Visiting a frontline fort, Sutton found the defences wholly inadequate: 

‘We have there some 500 foot soldiers [of the] Welsh Reg[imen]t and 150 Egyptian troops’, he wrote in his entry for 17 December 1888. 

‘Of course, if the Madhi [should] choose to march on tomorrow he could soon spear them all. They have no guns and no means of defending the place. I asked the officer what they would do if it was reported that Osman Digna [c. 1840-1926] was marching on Assouan with 2,000 dervishes, and they simply said they had not the faintest idea; they could only do their duty.’

Fortunately for the troops, the Battle of Suakin three days later dealt a setback to Osman Digna, who suffered heavy losses.

Claude Sutton describes the British fort at Aswan on 17 Dec 1888

When not on the frontlines, Sutton spent much of this time visiting Egyptian historical sites along with the British tourists who made the journey up the Nile. These included such figures as Arnold Morley MP (1849-1916); the pioneer British Assyriologist and linguist, Prof Archibald Henry Sayce (1845-1933); Robert Crewe-Milnes (1858-1945); Thomas Gibson Bowles (1841-1922), founder of Vanity Fair magazine; and the family of Claude Bowes-Lyon (1824-1904), 13th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne, whose granddaughter, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (1900-2002), would one day become Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother.

Besides his descriptions of these sites, and of the people he visited them with, the diaries also reveal that Claude Sutton was an amateur photographer of some skill. As well as taking portraits of the passengers who made the journey up the Nile, and those locals whom he could convince to pose for him, Sutton also took the time to photograph the various historical sites he visited. One set of photographs, of a tomb in Thebes, was later published in the March 1890 edition of The Building News, which reported on the means by which the images were taken (dry plates and magnesium ribbon light) and the circumstances by which Sutton, who seems to have been the first westerner to set foot in the tomb, ‘discovered’ it.

Claude Sutton describes the ambush of his caravan on 24 April 1889

Beyond Egypt, Sutton travelled to Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon essentially on his own, often with only a local guide for company. Along the way he visited places such as Jerusalem, Jaffa, Nablus, Damascus and Beirut, and while the journey in between passed largely without difficulties, it was not without its dangers. On 24 April 1889, the caravan that Sutton was travelling with from Jericho to As-Salt was ambushed and shot at by tribesmen, while a month later, having become lost on his way to Rachaiya, the former chaplain appears to have instructed his guide, Ibrahim, to compel two local men at gunpoint to show them the way!

But such skirmishes aside, Claude Sutton was in general welcomed by the people he encountered, and was a frequent guest of local dignitaries. In fact, if he had difficulties with people in the region, it was often with the other British people he encountered there. He seems to have had a particularly fraught relationship with John Mason Cook (1834-1899), son of Thomas Cook, which even an elaborate parade involving local sheiks could not ameliorate. (‘I had hoped this would have smoothed Mr Cook’s feathers’, Sutton wrote in his diary following the parade, ‘but he did not say anything about it and we still avoid one another.’)

Claude Sutton sketches the house of a local sheik he visited on 4 Feb 1889

Claude Sutton eventually set sail for home on 13 June 1889, and following a brief stint as the chaplain of Sir Thomas Dyke Acland (1809-1898), was appointed in 1894 as vicar of St Edmund’s, Southwold, where he would remain until his retirement in 1924. He seems never to have travelled overseas again for any extended period of time. Fortunately, his diaries passed down to his son, who eventually handed them off to Frank Emery (1930-1987), Tutor in Geography at St Peter’s (1962-1987), through whom they eventually passed to Ken Addison.

As for Claude junior, he too spent time travelling, including more than a year in 1937/8 visiting Nazi Germany as a Rockefeller Travelling Fellow. That, however, is a story for another day...

In the meantime, if you would like to learn more about the Sutton collection, a full catalogue is available here

If you would ever like to deposit materials relating to St Peter's in the college Archives, or would like to know more about the collection, please do not hesitate to contact me at