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The g rave of Henry Singelton Pennell at Dawlish

The grave of Henry Singleton Pennell of Dawlish

The grave can be found in the graveyard of St Gregory's Church

© Richard J. Brine


Henry Singleton Pennell VC did not, like many war heroes die on the battlefield. Instead, he died while on holiday in Switzerland with brother officers. Many Devon newspapers had something to say about him at the time - his deeds were very well-known throughout the county - we have selected his local newspaper - the Dawlish Gazette to tell the outline of the story of his life. This is followed by an account of his untimely death from a New Zealand  newspaper. His obvious courage shines through in both accounts.

From the Dawlish Gazette

26 January 1907

A Reuter's telegram, from St Moritzdorf, Switzerland, dated Sunday last, said Captain Henry Singleton Pennell VC, Staff captain of the Administrative Staff on the Southern Command, died here last night as a result of injuries sustained in an accident on the Cresta Toboggan Run.

Captain Pennell was the second son of Mr Edwin Pennell formerly of Dawlish and presently residing in Exeter. The family of Pennells are held in much respect in this town and Dawlishians heard with extreme regret of the sad occurrence which cut short the career of this brilliant young officer. Born in Dawlish in June, 1874, the deceased was educated at Eastbourne College and joined the Sherwood Foresters (Notts and Derbyshire Regiment) in 1893. He served with the 2nd Battalion of his regiment in the Tirah Expeditionary Force of 1897 under Sir William Lockhart. He was present at the storming of the Dargai Heights (He was mentioned in Despatches at the capture of the Sampsgha and Arhanga Passes) and in the operation in the Khaki Mastura ,Waran and Bazar Valleys.

The act for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross (he also held the India medal with two clasps), took place in the attack on the Dargai Heights. Captain W. E. C. Smith of the Sherwood Forester was struck down, whereupon, Lieutenant Pennell ran to his assistance and made two distinct attempts, under what was described as "a perfect hail of bullets" to carry and drag him back to cover, and only desisted when he found Captain Smith was dead.

The late Captain Pennell also served in the South African War with the West Yorkshire regiment and took part in several engagements including the Relief of Ladysmith, the action at Colenso, the operations at Spion Kop, the actions at Vaal Krantz and Pieter's Hill (at the latter of which he was wounded). Lang's Nek and in the Transvaal and east and west of Pretoria, being twice mentioned in Despatches and awarded the Queen's South African Medal with five clasps.

The news was received with profound regret in Salisbury. The distinguished captain who held the appointment of staff-captain at the headquarters of Administration, Southern Command, was held in great respect by all ranks, and was a welcome guest at social functions in the city and country. He distinguished himself at the Staff College which he passed through in 1903. A message of sympathy was sent to his parents on Monday from his brother Staff officers at Salisbury.

The funeral of the deceased was held in Dawlish yesterday, the sympathy of the towns people being markedly shown. The town flag was hoisted half mast high, the blinds of business establishments and private houses were drawn  and many of the head men of the place, including the Chairman of the Council, Mr J. Shapter, walked in the procession. The body was conveyed from St. Moritz, Canton de Grisons, to this country, under the guidance of the British Consul, via Calais and Dover.

The cortege proceeded from the railway station, the coffin covered with a Union Jack upon which were floral tributes being borne by a detachment of the Royal Field Artillery from Topsham Barracks, under Sergeant Skinner.

Mourners were Mr and Mrs Edwin Pennell, Exeter, father and mother; Misses R and H Pennell, sisters, Mr C. L Pennell, broether, Mr Lovell Pennell, uncle, Miss Pennell of Dawlish, aunt; Colonel Pennell, cousin and Miss Pennell, Mr Hill, cousin and Mrs Landon. Among those who attended were Colonel H. Sinclair, Assistant Quarter Master General, representing the Staff of the Southern Command to which the late Captain Pennell was attached; Colonel Currie CB, Exeter, retired; Major G. W.B. Collis and Mr Lewis, officer in charge of the coastguard station.

The officiating clergy were the Reverend W. P. Alford, vicar and Reverend H. B. W. Hammond, senior curate. The b rass plate on the coffin bore the inscription "Henry Singleton Pennell VC; captain, Shewood Foresters, died 19th January 1907 aged 32 years.

Among a number of beautiful floral tributes , in addition to those sent by the family, was one with a with a card attached on which was inscribed "With deepest sympathy and regret" and adorned with a long and wide sash of violet ribbons; there was a large cross from friends of the Kulm Hotel, St. Moritz. From the same hotel, as a mark of sympathy "from  some brother officers" was sent a very choice wreath. There were also wreaths from the manager of the hotel and others at St. Moritz, and from The Reverend W. P. Alford. 

Messrs Tapper & Sons superintended the funeral arrangements.


From the Ashburton Guardian of New Zealand

9 April 1917


The world-famed Cresta Toboggan run at St. Moritz, in Switzerland, had accounted for a gallant British soldier, in the person of Captain Henry Singleton Pennell, VC, staff captain of the administrative staff of the Southern Command. White enjoying the thrills of the dangerous adventures which the Cresta affords, he received injuries which terminated his life within a couple of days.

The Cresta is about 1300 yards long, and falls about 180 feet. There are many difficult curves. It is these curves that give the real "thrill" of tobogganing. They are "banked" Like a cycle track. At some of the curves the banks are almost perpendicular, and a slight mistake in steering sends the toboggan flying right over the bank. This is the usual cause of accidents, as the tobogganer, travelling at the terrific speed that is attained on this run, may be hurled far over this steep wall.

When travelling at full speed a toboggan is the most difficult craft to steer that a man has ever entrusted himself upon. The tobogganer has, strapped to his feet, steel "rakes". These are sharp claws that make the wearer's extremities resemble those of a medieval dragon. The tobogganer lies face downward on his racing "skeleton", his clawed feet trailing behind. The art of tobogganing at the utmost speed consists in using the feet as little as possible. Naturally, every time the claws touch the ice, speed is reduced. An expert will steer by little twitches or jerks of his body, and will only use the "rakes" at the curves. If the steering is bungled, or the toboggan either jumps the bank or else skids. Sometimes it will turn completely round and the tobogganist may find himself shooting down his run backwards.


A racing "skeleton" toboggan has a sliding seat, so that the rider may throw his weight forward or backward. The runners are slightly curved, and are quite smooth, except at the end, where they are grooved. When going round a curve, the tobogganer throws his weight as far back as possible, and thus causes the grooved part of the runners to bite into the ice so that skidding may be prevented.


Set up in 1884 and governed by the private members' St Moritz Tobogganing Club (SMTC), the Cresta run attracts more than 600 riders every nine-week winter season. Male non-members can ride for a hefty fee, but women have been banned from the course since the 1920s, when a female rider nearly died on its icy slopes. 


We don't need a lengthy verbal description today - we can look at You Tube which has a wide selection of Cresta accidents to watch. Fortunately, today most people get up again after an accident, thanks to the invention of the crash helmet.



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