Home of a hero of the Charge of the Light Brigade

Balaclava Cottage is situated in Lyng, a small village in Norfolk, to the north east of Norwich. It was built during the middle of the 19th century and for much of its history was home to working class families.

Balaclava Cottage - Lyng
Balaclava Cottage – Lyng

However, by the early 20th century this small cottage became the home of a hero. Private James Olley had still been a teenager when he fought in one of the most infamous events in British military history – The Charge of the Light Brigade – in the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War in 1854. It was then made famous by the poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, which appeared a few weeks later, in December 1854.

“Half a league, half a league,CatonWoodvilleLightBrigade
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
“Forward, the Light Brigade!
“Charge for the guns!” he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.”

Charge of the Light Brigade, verse one

James Olley was a member of the 4th Dragoons, and he was part of the charge ‘into the valley of death’, alongside the 13th Light Dragoons, 17th Lancers, and the 8th and 11th Hussars, led by Major General the Earl of Cardigan.

James Olley
James Olley

Private Olley not only survived the horrendous charge, despite severe wounds, but he also wrote about his experience. The first-hand account of his experience as an ‘ordinary’ trooper sold at auction in 2008 and gives us a glimpse into that famous day:

“Whilst fighting at the guns, I received two lance wounds, one in the ribs and one in the neck from behind…I was wounded by a sabre across the forehead by a Russian dragoon…I gave him point and stabbed him. The sword fell from his hand and the point penetrated my foot…”

He went on to describe how he was shot in the eye, but he still managed to ride to safety. He was later nursed by Florence Nightingale, and when he was invalided back to England he was presented to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert at Brompton Barracks.

On his return to civilian life he fell into poverty, with no military pension, and was forced to beg in the streets. It was only after Mr Robinson of Knapton Hall took up his case that he received work and his circumstances turned around.

Balaclava Cottage_2

It was during the early 1900s that it is believed James Olley was first connected with the small cottage in Lyng. Records reveal that by 1911 he owned the house and it is thought he lived there for a short time during the years of the First World War. James Olley lived in several locations across Norfolk and by 1920 was living in Elsing (in another cottage he named ‘Balaclava Cottage’) where he passed away at the age of 82.

For more on the Charge of the Light Brigade visit The National Archives and for more on the history of Balaclava Cottage in Lyng, the full story is in my first book, House Histories: The Secrets Behind Your Front Door. :-)

Espionage and spies in Portman Square

The recent commemorations celebrating the 70th anniversary of VE Day – Victory in Europe – on the 8th May have reminded me of one of my favourite house histories.


The efforts of everyone during the Second World War are worthy of celebration and honour – I don’t think many of us living in the 21st century can fully comprehend the sacrifices made by this incredible generation of men and women. But, it was while I was with Chestertons estate agents that I was researching the history of a mansion block in the middle of Marylebone in London and I uncovered an extraordinary story of its use by the Special Operations Executive during the war.

Orchard Court - Portman Square
Orchard Court – Portman Square

Orchard Court looks like many other mansion blocks you’ll see across London and when completed in 1930 it was very much like any other mansion block, but with the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 it soon took on another role. In 1940, Winston Churchill created a new secret service to undertake operations in occupied Europe. Fighting undercover and working with the local resistance groups, the Special Operations Executive (SOE) played a pivotal role in the war effort.

It was in a flat in Orchard Court that the French section of the SOE were based. In an ordinary residential flat they established an office where they met potential new recruits, as well as met existing personnel. It was also here they met those who were soon to be parachuted into occupied France. “The time the agents spent at Orchard Court was a brief period of luxury before their gruelling, dangerous stints in the field.”

Vera Atkins
Vera Atkins

The French section (‘F’ Section) of the SOE was commanded by Maurice Buckmaster, assisted by Vera Atkins. Vera Atkins has been remembered as an extraordinary woman in her efforts and service to the agents within her care. She was the main point of contact for the F Section, including meeting new recruits at Orchard Court, as well as assisting in their final preparations before being sent into Nazi occupied France. She sent 470 agents into France, including 39 women, 118 of whom were never to return. The F Section was particularly noted for their acceptance of women as they were less conspicuous than men, but this was still highly unusual.

After the war, Vera Atkins also searched out the agents who had gone missing and went to every effort to uncover what had happened to them.

It is also believed that Vera Atkins may have been the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s Miss Moneypenny and Maurice Buckmaster his ‘M’ in the James Bond novels!

In recent years more of the stories of the agents of the SOE have come to light, although many did not speak of their experiences in their own lifetime.

It is extraordinary to imagine these highly-skilled agents walking in and out of this ‘ordinary’ looking mansion block in the middle of London with very few people having any idea of their involvement in the war effort or their experiences of espionage and resistance in occupied France.

There are a number of books and online sources on the history and stories of agents of the Special Operations Executive, but if you’d like to know more, perhaps start with a visit to – The Imperial War Museum