Shakespearean tragedy in Rabaul: the Earl of Chichester’s secret son and the famous priest who dared.

Arthur Savage (far right) and my mother Mary Louise Harris (fourth from left) taking their bows after performing in the ‘Ghost Train’ play at the Rabaul Dramatic Society in 1952

Few knew the secret of popular former Rabaul character Arthur Savage: he was the son of English nobleman, the Earl of Chichester.

Fewer people still knew that one of Rabaul’s most beloved identities – Father Bernard Franke – ignored strict Catholic rules to give Arthur a proper funeral and burial after he committed suicide thinking he had cancer.

He didn’t have cancer. But tragically his “all clear” medical advice arrived a week after his burial.

The revelation about Arthur Savage being of noble blood and his tragic end came from my mother Mary Louise Uechtritz before she passed away last year.

Arthur Savage (left) and Mary Lou Harris, engaged that night to my father Alf (right)

Arthur was a close family friend. He’d had walked Mum down the aisle and given her away at her wedding to Dad (Alf) at Rabaul’s Francis Xavier church on April 26, 1952. He was godfather to their first child, my eldest brother Peter. In a favourite family photo, a grinning Arthur is pictured with Mary Lou and Alf at the Frangipani fancy dress ball. Typically, the passionate art lover and thespian dressed as a French artist at Montmartre .

Arthur also wrote plays and performed in them for the Rabaul Dramatic Society. The production pictured in the title photo above was ‘Ghost Train’ and features Arthur (far right), my mother , Keith Armistead in the group.

My mother Mary Lou Harris (second from right) in the Ghost Train play produced by Arthur Savage

“He was extremely well educated and had a real love of literature and the fine arts,” Mum told me. “Arthur was the ‘illegitimate’ son of the Earl of Chichester, who was very fond of him and insisted he had the very best education.”

Arthur went to Beaumont College and then the famous Ampleforth College in Yorkshire (left)

It’s not certain how he ended up in New Guinea but he eventually ran the plantation Asalingi on the north coast for my Dad’s stepmother Rita (Uechtritz then Roberts ) and her second husband Tex Roberts.

Mum recounted with great merriment – for a lady herself raised by nuns in  a French convent in Wales  – how Arthur and his great friend Ned Shields were particularly fond of a drink and stayed up all night imbibing and carrying on.

“He and Ned would be up at dawn, whiskies in hand, wandering down the beach and into the sea fully clothed quoting Shakespeare,” she said.

Then came tragedy. Arthur contracted cancer of the oesophagus. I am not sure whether it was a false diagnosis, or he had an operation to remove the cancer. Anyway, Mum said Arthur couldn’t bear the thought of dying a slow, horrible death with chemotherapy and took his own life. His ‘all clear’ message from Sydney sadly arrived in Rabaul a week later.

Father Bernard Franke, beloved by generations of people of all races and religions in Rabaul and the islands 
 

Father Franke was in every sense the ‘people’s priest’. He ignored the Catholic ruling that those who had committed suicide were unable to be buried on sacred ground or receive a funeral Mass. He performed what can only be presumed was a clandestine funeral and Arthur was buried in Rabaul cemetery.

Arthurs father was the Sixth Earl of Chichester, Jocelyn Brudenell Pelham (correct spelling) who died in 1926. He was awarded an OBE in 1918. It is unknown whether Arthur maintained correspondence with him during his New Guinea years. Given Mum’s account of him, somehow I think he did.

More from Ghost Train. My mother Mary Lou third from right.
Rabaul Dramatic Society: Photo on the right is labelled ‘Norma” but no surname. No label for man on left.
Rabaul Dramatic Society: Both these photos are labelled Wally Fishwick, so either father and son or a mistake

4 thoughts on “Shakespearean tragedy in Rabaul: the Earl of Chichester’s secret son and the famous priest who dared.

  1. When I’d finished boarding school & was with Radio Telegrams Commission, RTC. Rabaul 1960, an older Mrs Sutherland was the Despatch Clerk for the telegrams to be hand delivered by the Telegram bois.
    This is the first I’ve heard about her Drama acting days … !
    Also the Arthur Savage I knew as a small six yo girl was Manager at Kurakaukal Agricultural Station (experimental ?) along the North Coast Road. He didn’t appear to me at that time to be so slight as pictured here … ? But then it was so hot up there, weight was hard to put on !

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Jan. Did you know her son Bob? he was Best Man at my parents’ wedding. Trying to work out what he did for a living. Also I know that Ned Shields was manager at Asalingi at one stage, so maybe Mum was slightly confused on Arthur’s role when recounting the story. Or one could have followed the other at Asalingi.

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