The Potato Man and the MP —a First World War Story

Discovered in the library of descendants of geneticist Dr. Redcliffe Salaman, author of The History and Social Influence of the Potato (1949 ) is the final volume of an Elzevier Press  edition of Lucan’s Pharsalia,  dated 1671.

It’s fitting that the poem treats of the civil war between Julius Caesar and the forces of the Senate headed by Pompey the Great, because it was found among the rubble of Arras, blitzed by the Germans in 1916, by a soldier, Major Daniel Hopkin, MC, who on returning home to England presented it to Salaman’s son Raphael (then aged about 10 ), who just happened to be one of his  private pupils. On further investigation, the friendship between Salaman senior (b 1874) and Hopkin, his junior by 12 years, becomes even more intriguing.

As far as we know, the two men were not comrades in arms in 1916, though they were both soldiers in the Great War. Salaman saw action in Palestine, while, as we already know, Hopkin was at the Western Front. We do know, however, that in February  28th 1918 both officers took part in the march through Whitechapel of the Jewish Legion, which was composed of Jewish soldiers who were fighting in the War. Quite what Hopkin, of staunch Welsh stock, was doing in this march to celebrate Jewish courage and commitment to the Empire, is not quite clear, but the parade turned out to be a great public relations success. One working class East Ender, who witnessed the event, was overheard to remark that he was pleasantly surprised to see such evidence of Jewish bravery. ‘I was taught that all Jews were shirkers ‘ he said.

Salaman (incidentally, the only man ever to be named after a residential square in London) was interested in the relationship between Christians and Jews, a debate to which Hopkin may also have contributed , which may explain his presence in the Jewish Legion parade.  After the end of hostilities Salaman returned to his home in Barley, Hertfordshire and the pioneering research into perfecting a strain of potato that was resistant to the sort of mould infection that had wiped out most of the crop in 1840s Ireland. The results were a number of important scientific papers and the publication in 1949 of his hugely significant History and Social Influence of the Potato. By then, the theologian James Parkes, had moved to Barley to be close to Salaman, and to set up his huge library of books relating to the field of Judeo-Christian relationships in the village scout hut.

The two men are still remembered in the village, and some who knew them have recalled the many scholarly disputes they had over points of doctrine. One of these was the legendary antiquarian bookseller Patricia Huskinson, daughter of WW1 ace fighter pilot Patrick. She was for a while Salaman’s secretary and on his death in 1955 catalogued his library. However, as Raphael would have moved away from the family home by then, it is unlikely that she would have handled the pocket Lucan.

As for the man who had rescued it from the rubble, Daniel Hopkin became, in 1929, the first Welshman to represent Carmarthen at Westminster. He died in 1951, much revered both among Labour politicians and in his native Wales, where a road in his home town of Llantwit Major is named after him. In 1995 a full length biography by Eric Davies  appeared. However, we must perhaps wait for the forthcoming biography of Salaman before the whole story of Hopkin, the Potato Man and the relic of Arras can be told. [R.M.Healey]

4 thoughts on “The Potato Man and the MP —a First World War Story

  1. admin Post author

    Thanks Robin. I had thought Robin's claim was a bit far reaching. I knew a guy once called Powys– he may have been named after the Square…

  2. R.M.Healey

    It's quite true about Redcliffe Square. His parents–wealthy importers of ostrich feathers –were residents at the time of his birth.

  3. Anonymous

    Hopkin was the first Labour MP for Carmarthen (in 1929), but not the first Welshman to represent the seat. Carmarthen became a Parliamentary seat in 1542 – its first MP was Gruffydd Williams, who sounds fairly Welsh.


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