‘En garde’ – The Bagleys and the Sarnia Sword Club

Desmond and Joan Bagley and the Sarnia Sword Club © Guernsey Press 17th April 2019. Image © Graham Jackson.

© Sarnia Sword ClubThe Guernsey Press recently published an article to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Sarnia Sword Club, which was formed on 17th April 1969 and was the first fencing club to be established on the island. Through the years the club has seen some famous members including Desmond and Joan Bagley.

Desmond Bagley took up the sport of fencing in 1940 and when he relocated to South Africa he kept up the sport by joining clubs in Durban and later Johannesburg. Bagley’s maitre d’armes was the Genovese nobleman Count Ugo Monticelli di Veroli, more commonly known as Monty.

Bagley recalled that following the reported death of the Count, and as he had been such a respected member of the South African fencing community, he was honoured by the creation of the Ugo Monticelli Memorial Trophy.

During the Memorial trophy match the following year, in the middle of a particularly tense bout, who should walk into the Salle but Monty with the announcement that, like Mark Twain, the report of his death was greatly exaggerated. [1]

Fencing was Bagley’s only active sport and it was at a fencing club party in Johannesburg that he was to meet his future wife, Joan Brown. They got on well at the party and soon identified that Joan worked at a bookshop that Bagley frequented. It was a whirlwind romance, he invited her to dinner the following Sunday, took her to the circus on the Monday and on the Tuesday proposed marriage having known Joan for only ten days.

When the Bagleys relocated to England they both continued the sport and on one occasion it caused a delay to the author’s novel writing. In a letter written to Robert Knittel, his Editor at Collins Publishers, whilst he was working on his 1969 novel The Spoilers, he wrote:

The heroin book – as yet untitled, damn it – is almost completed. But for a sprained wrist caused by a too violent bout of fencing it would have been finished already, but it will be on its way to you next week. [2]

Relocating to Guernsey in November 1976, the Bagleys continued their interest in fencing and the Sarnia Sword Club was to gain a new female member, Joan Bagley. Desmond, now at the height of his success and having suffered an angina attack a few years previously, took on the role of a ‘dearly beloved patron of the Club but – sadly – never ventured onto the piste.’ [3]

Combined Royal Navy & Sarnia Sword Club fencing teams March 1979. Joan Bagley back row second from left wearing glasses. © Graham Jackson.
Combined Royal Navy & Sarnia Sword Club fencing teams March 1979. Joan Bagley back row second from left wearing glasses. © Graham Jackson.

The club had originated as a Further Education evening class, based at La Couperderie in St. Peter Port, before establishing itself in its own right at the British Legion Hall at L’Islet, later moving to the sports hall at Elizabeth College. Gaining in popularity the club, in addition to arranging matches against visiting teams, held demonstrations at open-air events. More recently these have included ‘have-a-go’ sessions at family fun days at Saumarez Park, and demonstrations at Candie Gardens and Seafront Sundays on the Albert Pier in St. Peter Port.

By the time the Bagleys arrived in St. Peter Port the Sarnia Sword Club had found a permanent home, major events permitting, at the newly built Beau Sejour Leisure Centre, from which it still operates today.

At its inception the club was chaired by Dorothy Nash (nee Hamon), with David Redhead, a Commonwealth foil and epee fencer as her honorary secretary, and Patricia Hutchins as the honorary treasurer.

Valerie and David Redhead with Bagley and Royal Navy colleague © Graham Jackson.

David Redhead was assisted by his wife Valerie, and they became great friends with the author and his wife. Sharp-eyed Bagley readers may recall that in Bagley’s thirteenth published novel Bahama Crisis, the book bears the dedication ‘To Valerie and David Redhead with much affection’.

Bagley’s own interests are sometimes shared by the protagonists in his novels, in the case of Jeremy Wheale in The Vivero Letter [London: Collins, 1968] his hobbies are described as:

…indoors – recreational mathematics and fencing, outdoors – scuba diving.

Desmond Bagley - The Vivero Letter & Flyaway © HarperCollins Publishes Ltd.

Max Stafford, Bagley’s protagonist in Flyaway [London: Collins, 1978] mentions:

I felt a shade better when I arrived at the office next morning. I had visited my fencing club after a long absence and two hours of heavy sabre work had relieved my frustrations and had also done something for the incipient thickening of the waist which comes from too much sitting behind a desk.

The club had established an early connection with the Royal Navy, David Redhead being coached by Robert ‘Bob’ Anderson, a professional Royal Navy coach who later worked for film director George Lucas in the making of the Star Wars films and became the stunt double for Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. He was also sword master for The Mask of Zorro, Highlander and The Lord of the Rings – Return of the King. This Royal Navy connection was to be strengthened in 1971 when the club issued a challenge to the Royal Navy’s fencing team to travel over to Guernsey for a fencing match for the first time. This was to be the first match of a long-standing rivalry between the two teams that continues to this day.

09-the-tightrope-men-cover-gallery-low-resOne of the Royal Navy team that made that initial visit to Guernsey was a midshipman named Meyrick Simmonds, who at that time was fresh from winning the Combined Services Master-at-Arms Championship – with gold medals at foil and epee – at the Royal Tournament at Earl’s Court. In 1996, after a career with the Financial Times in London and Brussels, Meyrick and his family moved to Guernsey permanently and started fencing at the Sarnia Sword Club. Meyrick, who is the author of the Guernsey Press article [4], points out himself that it was ‘a classic case of poacher turned gamekeeper’.

It’s worth pointing out to those sharp-eyed Bagley aficionados that the name Meyrick pops up as the surname of Finnish scientist Harold Feltham Meyrick in Bagley’s novel The Tightrope Men [London: Collins, 1973]. Although the novel was written four years before the Bagley’s move to Guernsey, Meyrick Simmonds had in fact already met Joan Bagley through a fencing club in Devon.

Meyrick underwent his Naval Officer training at the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth in 1970 and 1972 and although he didn’t meet the author, both he and Joan fenced at the Dart Vale Sword Club in Totnes. It was during this period that Bagley was writing The Tightrope Men and it’s feasible that Joan mentioned Meyrick’s name to her husband, which was unusual enough to stick in his ‘fly-paper’ mind. Meyrick was, until now, completely unaware that his name had a connection with one of Bagley’s novels.

The Bagleys became great friends, and benefactors, to the Sarnia Sword Club and it was their support of the club that enabled it to acquire an Olympic, full-sized, aluminium fencing piste. They also helped organise the visit of the Royal Naval Fencing Team to the island in March 1979 and December 1982. The couple were also active at the club’s social functions, some of which were held at the Bagley’s home Câtel House.

As well as befriending Valerie and David Redhead the couple also became friends with Sarnia Sword Club fencer, and professional photographer, Graham Jackson. Jackson was to photograph Bagley at the author’s home in August 1979, leaving us with a unique and world-class collection of 61 portrait photographs of the author.

Graham Jackson pictured with two of his portrait photographs of Desmond Bagley at the Guille-Allès Library, Guernsey May 2018 © The Bagley Brief.
Graham Jackson pictured with two of his portrait photographs of Desmond Bagley at the Guille-Allès Library, Guernsey 10th May 2018 © The Bagley Brief.

‘The Sarnia Sword Club is ably administered by a proactive and energetic committee and looks forward with relish to another 50 years of existence.’


Images and text © & courtesy: Meyrick Simmonds / © Guernsey Press; © HarperCollins Publishers Ltd; © Sarnia Sword Club; & © Graham Jackson.

1. Bagley, D. ‘Writer’, from the Desmond Bagley Collection, Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University: Unpublished.

2. Bagley, D. Personal correspondence to Robert Knittel, Collins Publishers, London dated 25th January 1969 from the Desmond Bagley Collection, Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University: Unpublished.

3. Simmonds, M. (2019). pers.comm 25th April 2019.

4. ‘Sarnia Sword Club celebrate their 50th birthday’ Guernsey Press (Guernsey Press, 2019) 17th April 2019, pp. 32-33.