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Missing Persons in the Dictionary of Irish Biography – Sir Francis Vane

13 April 2016

A range of lives feature in the December 2015 ‘missing persons’ update to the Dictionary of Irish Biography online, comprising persons omitted from the 2009 first edition. This entry focuses on Sir Francis Vane – soldier and radical.

Sir Francis Patrick Fletcher Vane

by James Quinn

Vane, Sir Francis Patrick Fletcher (1861–1934), soldier, radical, author and scout leader, was born 16 October 1861 at 10 North Great George's Street, Dublin, the only son of Frederick Henry Fletcher Vane (1807–94), a former army officer, and his wife Rosa Linda (née Moore; d. 1895), an Irish-American from Virginia. Francis's father was the younger son of a baronet, and among his ancestors was Sir Henry Vane the Younger (1613–62), the civilian leader of the commonwealth group in parliament who was beheaded after the restoration. On his mother's side, his Irish-born uncle Patrick Theodore Moore (1821–83) was a confederate army general who raised the first Virginia infantry regiment in July 1861. Francis's father was a broad-minded anglican, with quasi-republican political views, and his mother a liberal catholic.

Raised in Sidmouth, Devon, Francis Vane was educated at a prep school in Cheltenham, at Charterhouse School (1873–4) and by private tutors. In 1876 he enrolled at Oxford Military College and in October 1878 was commissioned lieutenant in the Worcestershire militia. He joined the Scots Guards in 1882, but disliked the regiment's social elitism and transferred to the Royal Engineers' submarine miners. He left the army in 1886 to perform social work in Toynbee Hall in the East End of London, where he raised a working-boys' cadet corps. A keen cyclist, he was a captain in the Middlesex cyclist volunteers (1888–9), and believed that the bicycle could largely replace cavalry in coming wars.

Vane spent most of the next decade in business: he was involved with the Anglo–Siberian Trading Syndicate and in 1891 became a member of Lloyds. Pride in his family heritage led him to become a founder of the Honourable Society of the Baronetage in 1898, set up to remove false claimants. In 1900 he was commissioned captain in the Lancaster regiment and served in South Africa during the Boer war as a transport officer, column commander and military judge. His judicial duties brought him to concentration camps and he became sympathetic to the internees and appalled by the British policy of farm-burning. This led to his dismissal as a judge after only three months. By then Vane believed that the war had no moral justification and had been fought solely to benefit wealthy mining interests. On his return to Britain in 1902, he criticised the British conduct of the war and called for a conciliatory settlement in several papers and periodicals, including the Daily News, the Westminster Gazette, the Manchester Guardian and the Contemporary Review. While recuperating in Tuscany, whose people and landscape he loved, he wrote Pax Britannica in South Africa (1905) and Walks and people in Tuscany (1908).

Vane stood as a Liberal candidate in Burton upon Trent in the 1906 general election, but was defeated. In June 1908, after the death of his cousin Sir Henry Ralph Fletcher Vane, 4th baronet, he inherited the baronetcy and a heavily encumbered estate, but continued to enjoy a comfortable private income. He still described himself as a radical social reformer, advocating socialism, pacifism, women's suffrage and home rule for Ireland.

In 1908 Robert Baden-Powell (a near contemporary at Charterhouse) appointed Vane as London commissioner in the Boy Scouts Association (BSA), partly to deflect socialist and pacifist criticism of the new movement. Vane saw scouting as an ideal vehicle to transcend national and class divisions, and emphasised its civilian and peaceful potential. However, he distrusted Baden-Powell's authoritarian leanings and demanded more democratic structures, leading to his dismissal in November 1909. Vane then became president of the British Boy Scouts (BBS), which had seceded from Baden-Powell's movement. He took most of the BSA troops in the London area with him, and criticised the militarism of Baden-Powell's scouts in his pamphlet The boy knight (1910) (he particularly disliked scouts being trained to use firearms). By 1910 the BBS represented about one-third of all scouts in Britain and was spreading to other British dominions. In summer 1910 Vane helped found the Italian boy scouts (Esploratori) and the following year helped organise a French scout movement; he also founded and became grand scout master of the Order of World Scouts, the earliest international scouting organisation. Believing that scouting was eminently suitable for girls, he strongly encouraged the formation of troops of girl scouts in the BBS. He spent so much of his own money on these initiatives that in August 1912 he was declared bankrupt, after which the BBS lost their main source of finance and sharply declined.

There was something of the knight errant about Vane (he even bore a physical resemblance to Don Quixote), and when in 1913 Sylvia Pankhurst called for a military man to help drill her East London Federation, Vane responded and assumed the title of 'Leader' of her 'People's Army'. However, they had sharply different ideas and fell out badly, after which Vane withdrew to his villa in Viareggio, Italy. He continued to take an interest in Irish matters, and his encouragement to Dublin workers to defend themselves against police attacks contributed to the formation of the Irish Citizen Army in November 1913. In July 1914 he published the anti-war pamphlet The other illusions, contrasting the glorious image of war with the brutal reality. However, when war broke out the following month, Vane donned his military uniform and made his way to London. He was convinced that the war would be long and bloody, but believed it was his patriotic duty to serve and blamed 'some sort of devilment in my blood' (Agin, 229).

In September 1914 he was commissioned major in the 9th battalion of the Royal Munster Fusiliers. Vane was particularly pleased to serve in an Irish regiment and contact with Irish soldiers intensified his sense of Irishness and commitment to home rule. He addressed recruiting meetings throughout Ireland (including large gatherings of Redmondite National Volunteers), stressing his nationalist credentials and encouraging men to enlist to secure home rule, but was dismayed by the anti-Irish spirit of the military authorities and their reluctance to create Irish brigades and divisions with national flags and emblems, which he believed was undermining his efforts.

On hearing of the outbreak of rebellion on 24 April 1916, he was in Bray, Co. Wicklow, and made his way to Dublin where he was entrusted with the defence of Portobello barracks. Having established an observation post in the tower of Rathmines Town Hall on 26 April, Vane was heckled by civilians shouting 'Murderer! Murderer!', and discovered that the well-known radical campaigner Francis Sheehy-Skeffington (qv) and two journalists, Thomas Dickson and Patrick McIntyre, had been summarily executed that morning on the orders of CaptainJohn C. Bowen-Colthurst (qv). He later learned that Bowen-Colthurst had also shot dead at least two other innocent civilians during earlier raids. Vane was appalled, and in an address to his fellow officers made clear that he would tolerate no further summary executions.

On 27 April Vane took charge of a makeshift force of soldiers from various units and led an attack on Irish Volunteer positions in the South Dublin Union. He managed to dislodge the defenders from parts of the complex, but the fight was a hard one, and Vane was impressed by the Volunteers' courage and military skill. He later contradicted Maxwell's report on the rising by writing to the Freeman's Journal (29 July 1916) to insist that the insurgents had observed the laws of war and made all reasonable efforts to avoid civilian casualties. After the general release of Irish prisoners in June 1917, he made a point of calling on William Cosgrave (qv) to congratulate him on the courage and chivalry shown by his men. Vane himself had shown considerable coolness under fire: the writer Monk Gibbon (qv), who served under him during the attack, regarded him as one of the few conscientious and decisive officers he observed on the British side during the rising. For his bravery and leadership, Vane was recommended by Brigadier General Maconchy for a mention in despatches, although this was not approved by his superiors. Looking back on these events, Vane spoke of how it was 'more than painful to me to be forced to fight my countrymen in my native city', but consoled himself with the thought that his presence had probably saved some innocent lives (Ir. Independent, 30 October 1916).

Vane was ordered on 1 May to hand over his duties at Portobello to Bowen-Colthurst, who had still not been disciplined and was now denouncing Vane as a pro-Boer and rebel sympathiser who should be shot. Incredulous that nothing had yet been done, Vane tried to speak to the commander-in-chief, General John Maxwell (qv), but was referred to Major Ivon Price (qv), his chief intelligence officer, who seemed unconcerned and hinted that Sheehy-Skeffington had got what he deserved. Vane then travelled to London on 2 May and reported the murders to John Redmond (qv) and Lord Kitchener (qv), who immediately ordered Bowen-Colthurst's arrest. On his return to Dublin, Vane visited Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington (qv) (Francis's widow) to offer his condolences and inform her of his efforts to bring Bowen-Colthurst to justice.

Primarily because of Vane's actions, Bowen-Colthurst was court-martialled at Richmond barracks in Dublin on 6–7 June 1916. Found guilty but insane, he was confined to Broadmoor asylum, from which he was released in 1919. The verdict failed to satisfy Vane or Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington and, through their efforts, a commission of inquiry under Sir John Simon was established on 23 August 1916. Its report on 29 September 1916 blamed the confused command structures at Portobello for creating a 'considerable laxity of control' and allowing Bowen-Colthurst to operate with impunity, and attributed no responsibility to the Irish high command. Vane dismissed the report as a whitewash and believed that Bowen-Colthurst's actions had been tacitly approved by senior pro-unionist military figures to create further civil turmoil which would prevent the home rule act coming into effect. He also believed that the executions of the insurgent leaders were deliberately 'carried out in the most brutally stupid manner' to aggravate the situation (Agin, 271).

Vane's actions had embarrassed his military superiors, and from 30 June 1916 he was relegated to unemployment for the rest of the war, despite repeated requests to join the Munster Fusiliers in France. In 1916 he published a handbook, The principles of military art, which included a strict code of behaviour for officers and urged conciliation of Germany. He also wrote a book on the Easter rising, but it was rejected by the military censor, and he later lost the manuscript. He supported Monk Gibbon in 1917 when the latter resigned his commission and refused to fight, by attesting to the courage Gibbon had shown in April 1916. Gibbon greatly admired the ageing, ruddy-faced Vane, noting that 'his unprepossessing exterior – he was as ugly in his own way as Socrates – furnished a strange contrast to the beauty and balance of his mind' (Gibbon, 79).

After the war Vane was appalled by vengeful attitude towards Germany during the 1918 general election in Britain, and blamed the demonising of the Germans in crude wartime propaganda. He believed that when the fighting was over, those involved should put all bitterness aside to prevent further recriminations and blood-letting. He moved to Italy, continuing to work with the scouting movement. Repelled by the authoritarianism and brutality of fascism, he left Italy in 1927 after independent scouting bodies were absorbed by the Opera Nazionale Balilla, the militarist fascist youth organisation. In 1929 he wrote his memoir, Agin the governments (with a foreword by George Russell (qv) praising Vane's humanity and moral courage). Vane died on 10 June 1934 in St Thomas's Hospital, Lambeth, London, and was cremated at Golders Green crematorium.

In 1888 he married Anna Oliphant (d. 1922), daughter of Baron da Costa Ricci of the Portuguese legation. After she died, he married secondly, in 1927, Kathleen Crosbie, of Kippford, Dumfriesshire. There were no children from either marriage, and his baronetcy became extinct on his death.


F. P. F. Vane, Pax Britannica in South Africa (1905); Ir. Independent, 7 June, 5 July, 2, 4, 11, 16, 28 Aug., 30 Oct., 15 Dec. 1916; 6, 8 Feb., 20 Apr., 5, 19 May 1917; 16 Apr., 6 July 1918; Freeman's Journal, 29 July 1916; F. P. F. Vane, Agin the governments: memories and adventures of Sir Francis Fletcher Vane, bt (1929); WWW, iii: 1929–40; BMH, witness statements: W. T. Cosgrave (WS 268), M. J. Curran (WS 687), Liam Roche (WS 1,698), William O'Brien (WS 1,766); Monk Gibbon, Inglorious soldier (1968); Tim Jeal, Baden-Powell (1995);ODNB; Charles Townshend, Easter 1916: the Irish rebellion (2005); Davis Coakley, 'A question of integrity: Sir Francis Vane Fletcher and the 1916 rebellion' in Davis Coakley and Mary O'Doherty (ed.), Borderlands: essays on literature and medicine in honour of J. B. Lyons (2002), 88–105

A new entry, added to the DIB online, December 2015.

Read more about the the Dictionary of Irish Biography here.

Image supplied courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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