Luton family escape Bolshevik atrocities

Bibesco palace

  • Jesse Funge outside the Bibesco palace in Romania.

A few Luton civilians narrowly escaped being trapped in Europe at the start of the Great War. But among those unable to return home were Jesse William Funge, his wife Ethel and their baby daughter Vallie (pictured below) – and it would be three harrowing years before they were reunited with their family.

Funge familyJesse Funge had worked a a gardener on the Luton Hoo estate during the early 1900s, but at the time of his marriage to Ethel, elder daughter of Mr and Mrs Arthur Kent, of 59 Hazelbury Crescent, Luton, he was described as head gardener at the Royal Bethlehem Hospital, London. The couple had been married at Christ Church, Luton, on November 15th, 1913, and just four days later left for Romania, where Jesse became gardener to Prince and Princess Bibesco at their royal palace and Ethel cared for the Princess's dogs.

On November 25th, 1916, with Romania having joined the war and under threat from advancing German and Austrian forces, the Funge family, including little Vallie, fled to Russia to try to get home via St Petersburg. German submarine warfare prevented them sailing, and Jesse finally found a job as a gardener in Ukraine.

But worse was to follow. Revolution in Russia in early 1917 was followed by the Bolshevik Revolution the following October. The Bolsheviks swept south, bringing murder, rape and pillage to Ukraine. Incredibly and in the face of great dangers, the Funge family survived and finally arrived back in Luton on Friday, October 31st, 1919, as recorded in the following issued of the Beds & Herts Tuesday Telegraph.

Jesse and Ethel were residing at 27 Shelley Road, Luton, at the time of Jesse's death at the Three Counties Hospital, Arlesey, on July 1st, 1959. Ethel died on December 6th, 1973.


On December 2nd, 9th and 16th, 1919, the Tuesday Telegraph serialised the Jesse Funge 1913-19 story in his own words, as reproduced below:


I was formerly employed as a gardener at Luton Hoo, and my wife is the eldest daughter of Mr and Mrs Arthur Kent, of 59 Hazelbury Crescent, Luton. I am a Hertfordshire man, and after marriage I secured an engagement as head gardener on the estate of the elder Prince Bibesco of Rumania, whose brother was Chief of the Rumania Legation in London.

Funge article1Our home was at Nagosia, a most beautiful mansion in a delightful country. There was plenty of work for me, but plenty of help, an employer easy to please, facilities of every kind for the man who wanted to make the best of his abilities – as I did. The climate was delightful, and we were happy indeed until war broke out.

Then we felt sorry for those at home. We felt some of the effects long before Rumania's entry into the war, but that fact brought the effects nearer to us. All Rumania rejoiced in those early successes of the little Rumanian Army as it marched into Hungary and threatened to win the war for the Allies from the Balkan side. Had Italy and America struck at the same time, the Armistice would not so long have been delayed, and who knows but what Russia would have been a very different place today.

Never shall we forget the scenes in Rumania when it became known that the Central Empires were throwing their weight against Rumania and, as day followed day, and they came nearer and nearer, we wondered if they would continue until we were forced to flee.

They did, and on the evening of November 24th, 1916, I was summoned by Princess Bibesco, and she told me the worst. “Pack up and be ready to go at eight o'clock in the morning,” she said.

There was no sleep for us that night. Our baby daughter, Vallie, was the only one to get rest, and she was all unconscious of what was happening. To leave our beautiful home, taking nothin but necessaries and the money we possessed, was a heart-breaking experience, but we felt the best thing we could do was to make for England. We did not care how long it took us to get there is only we could secure a passage, and, as we were advised, the best course appeared by Russia. We followed what appeared to be the best line under the circumstances, and finally reached Jassy, a town on the boundary of Rumania and Russia.

Here we saw the Consul, and endeavoured to make arrangements for a passage to England. We were treated very kindly and assured the quickest route to England lay through Russia, via Petrograd [St Petersburg].

We had great difficulty in finding apartments in Jassy, for there were thousands of refugees there, and when our passports were vised and we were told that we might proceed to Petrograd, we felt that out troubles were considerably shortened, and we made for the station with light hearts.

Alas! The troubles were only just beginning. We arrived at the station in good time – very good time as it happened, for we made a record wait – the train arriving 15 hours after we did. There was food and accommodation on the station but the rooms were crowded, and we were almost worn out with anxiety when the train arrived.

Partners in misfortune were members of another English family, a Mr Hunt, his wife and little daughter, and we travelled in the same compartment to Petrograd. The journey occupied eight days, and, of course, as we travelled north, the weather underwent a great change. From the equable Rumanian climate we went to one which registered 60 degrees of frost.

Even at that time Petrograd was overflowing with refugees, and we had to find apartments. For six hours we toured the streets of Petrograd, travelling in a drooky of sledges, in a vain search for apartments. There was not a room to be found, and finally we sought the British Embassy. From here we were sent to the headquarters of the Red Cross Society, of which Mr Kimmons was the Chief. He had no knowledge of any accommodation in a private house, but he telephoned to Pastor Clare, of the Anglo-American Church, and that gentleman gave us food and shelter in a warm room.

There were 11 of us there at the time, and the Pastor was able eventually to put us in touch with an English family named Sewell, refugees from Riga. They, too, had fled the victorious Germans, and Mr Sewell had managed to get a temporary post as director of works in Petrograd, so under all the circumstances, we considered ourselves very fortunate.

Mr Sewell was exceedingly kind to us, and through him we were able to obtain a room in an hotel. It was a cheerless place, and our longing to get to England became keener than ever. The cold was intense and huge icicles hung from the windows of our room. There was very little fuel for firing, and we had to wrap up in furs to maintain circulation. Food was scarce and very expensive, as it was withheld for Petrograd.

The consulates were besieged with refugees seeking passports which would enable them to leave the country, and we thought our turn would never come. At last we got the necessary documents, and things began to look brighter, when the news came that passages were stopped owing to German submarine warfare. It was a bitter blow indeed. We were faced with completing the winter in Russia, and the weather showed no sign of decrease in severity.

When everything appeared to be hopeless, however, Col Thompson, British attache for Rumania, interested himself on our behalf, and co-jointly with others enabled me to obtain a post as head gardener at Koranobka, Chernigov County, Ukraine, which I was very glad to accept, as the exorbitant cost of living had practically absorbed all our funds.



We left Petrograd on February 20th, 1917, and arrived at Koranobka on the 24th. This place is about 100 miles from Kieff [Kiev], and when we arrived snow covered the ground to a depth of six feet, and as there was about 50 degrees of frost it did not look like moving. It lasted until May.

Funge article 2Nevertheless we resolved to make the best of matters, and we were settling down nicely when, on March 12th, the Revolution broke out. The days following were full of terror. News came day after day of this or that mansion and estate falling into the hands of the Bolsheviks. Many were razed to the ground.

Meetings at which a counter word meant an exchange of bullets were held regularly in the parks; magnificent houses were looted, the proprietors insulted and sometimes shot if resistance was shown.

In this first outbreak the Jews made a bold bid for supremacy. They had long been a strong element in Russian life, but under Imperial Russia their lot had been anything but happy. With the overthrow of the Tsar they realised a chance to gain equality, and they sought to inaugurate a communal system. For a time they succeeded, but they lacked the essentials to solidify their successes.

The railways practically ceased operations, and trade became almost at a standstill. Every day brought us nearer chaos. Men who had been little better than slaves found in this new system an opportunity of living without work, and so they refused to work, and, as they had to live, looting became an occupation, and murder an incident.

While the sentiment was new the Jews were successful, but as gratitude waned they gradually lost control, and disorder, rioting, robbery and excesses of all kinds became the order of the day.

Then came the effort of Ukraine to make peace with Germany independently of other provinces. It was successful, and Ukraine eventually made a President, and the Germans entered the province. It was natural that with their arrival something like order should have been restored, and during their stay we fared fairly well. Of course, our liberty was curtailed and we were thoroughly under surveillance.

The Germans knew how to benefit by the arrangement. They began to buy all the produced they could obtain, especially fats, and to dispatch them to Germany. Still, they kept order, and so we dragged hopefully and anxiously on until came the news of the failing of the German front.

And now I must revert to North Russia and the Bolsheviks. The Bolshevik Party, the extremists of the Socialists, had been waxing strong in North Russia, and the movement had spread rapidly. The magic word of liberty meant freedom from all discipline, and the wildest excesses were witnessed. All public services became free, prison doors were unbarred, and the Bolshevik ranks gave shelter to the foulest criminals.

The long-oppressed peasants read into the watchword of equality the superiority of themselves. They armed themselves and took for their motto, “Might is right,” and began the orgy of murder and rapine which is still proceeding.

One cannot imagine what things were like at this juncture. Friend was not sure of friend, neighbours were neighbours only just so long as their purposes did not conflict, and vendetta and feud were witnessed on every hand.

Amidst all this we were living an obscure life, but ever keeping a watchful eye for danger. When the German defeat became obvious their troops began to move out of Ukraine. In one sense we regretted this. While we glad to know that the proud Empires had been humbled at last, we could not but realise that their presence had been to a very large extent a guarantee of local order in Ukraine, and their departure opened up the possibility of the Bolsheviks overrunning Ukraine, and all the evils of their power being imposed on a province which had in some small measure attempted to rehabilitate itself and get back to normal times.

So it proved. The insidious influences of the Bolsheviks now found an outlet. The Jewish influence had been dead for some time, and we were in the throes of the second revolution. The departing Germans were fired on as they left their encampments, and they were not slow to resist when occasion demanded. Food became scarce, for men declined to work.

Towns and villages began to institute governments of their own, to print their own money, and to seize all they could. Group encountering group meant indiscriminate firing of guns and revolvers, and then the Bolsheviks took the chance of entering Ukraine.

The Ukraine Republic was overthrown, and we were now entirely at the mercy of roving bands of Bolsheviks, most of whom were worse than swine in their habits, and not a whit removed from the beasts in their passions. Bands of marauders prowled about the roads at night and robbed every individual they came across unless he could afford clear proof that he was a Bolshevist.

Meetings of antagonistic parties were held in the villages, often resulting in bloodshed. The Jews, as in most places where they found settlement, were principally traders, and their hopes were now blasted, for they found the Bolshevik quite as relentless and cruel an oppressor as the Tsarist element. All the latest superstitions of uneducated Russia against the Jews were loosed, and progroms of a more or less violent character were instituted. They began to gather their portable possessions and flee, they knew not where so long as it was southwards.

Their shops were invaded, and money and property demanded at the pistol point. At Parafievka, the village nearest the estate on which I was engaged, the Jews were pursued mercilessly. In general the Parafievka peasants were peaceable. The trouble came from the Bolshevik raiders.

Last spring an attempt was made to mobilise the men of Parafievka and enrol them in the Bolshevik Army, with a view to attacking the Allied forces at Odessa, but they absolutely refused to go. They were threatened with execution, but it was of no avail.

As in all the communities, however, the worst will join the worst, and the Bolsheviks of Ukraine joined with the invaders from the north and forced men to join them – men to whom the murderous expeditions and brutal villainy of the Bolsheviks were repulsive in the extreme. It was the only way to escape death, and they could leave the vilest work to the vilest hands.

Though it all we lived in constant danger of death – or worse. Fortunately, the estate produced a livelihood, and with the little we were able to procure from the village in the daytime we managed to survive.

In the day we could watch, but the nights were full of dread. From petty pilfering top open looting on the largest scale, the depredations went on, and we knew we could not hope to escape much longer. Mr Olive himself was away. As an officer he was fighting with the remnant of the Loyalist Army. From Koranobka Palace they took only a little at first, but in ever-increasing strength the Bolshevik banditti repeated visits. They came to the mansion where we were and took away all he gold and silver ware, about 8cwt in all. The family had escaped, and it was well for his wife and daughters that they had. Thy could hardly have expected any mercy from the vile gangs who visited their home. Not content with looting the lighter articles, the spoilers came with vans and took away pianos and heavy furniture until the place was denuded.

The watchman who was in the pay of Mr Olive was superseded, and then the place was thrown open to anybody and everybody, and people removed just what they liked without let or hindrance. When one understands that the lowest type of Russian peasant exists under conditions which would be a disgrace to a decent pigsty, it may well be imagined what effect this sort of “freedom” had. It aroused all the cupidity and greed and covetousness that is possible in mankind.

When the furniture and clothing were gone they searched the cellars, but they could not find anything at first. On a subsequent search they dug up the cellars and found about 1,000 bottles of wines and spirits which had been hidden in the ground. They all got beastly drunk, and as days went by they developed the wildest and most passionate instincts, firing revolvers and rifles indiscriminately, and showing particular fondness for lighted windows.

During this period many women and girls preferred death to dishonour, while people a little better off in regard to property or homes were robbed in most shameless fashion, and many who defended their homes and loved ones were shot in cold blood. Not a morning came but someone would be missing, and bodies were found in rubbish heaps or ditches, some shot, others foully stabbed.

It was quite a common occurrence when walking in the park to find a naked body, stark and frozen in death because the clothes had been removed, wearing-apparel at this time being practically unprocurable. Occasionally one might buy a garment from a Jew, but the prices were almost prohibitive, and an idea of the price might be gathered from the following – second-hand shows £180 per pair, reel of cotton £10, 14oz fat pork £8.

Trousers and jackets were fashioned from sacks, and suits and dresses from a sort of canvas made by the village people and costing £11 per yard.

The house of the priest at Koranobka was looted three times, and on the last occasion the priest and his wife were stripped of their clothes and could only get away in sacks.

The manager of the estate, Michael Kerele, was compelled to clear out on night, leaving his family of 12, which included three daughters between 21 and 17 years of age, who underwent untold sufferings. They were hunted like rats and outraged in the most abominable manner by successive parties of bandits.

In the villages similar scenes were witnessed, always the better class people suffering the fiercest tragedy. If anyone, man or woman, interfered there was a bullet or a rope. Men were sometimes strung up by the neck of a tripod and there left to strangle slowly.

We escaped by the narrowest margin time after time. For days we lived in the thick forest some distance from the house until the brutes had a surfeit of their crimes and went away. They drank and ate and slept in my house several times, and if we had not managed to get away to the forest we got into the attic at the top of the house, pulled up the ladder after us and closed the heavy trap door against them. Frequently a volley of bullets came crashing through the windows at dead of night as a party of Bolshevik bandits came by. On June 10th at 10 o'clock at night, four or five soldiers tested the house by shooting through all the windows, but by a miracle no one was killed. One came to the door and said that if we did not let them in they would fire the house.

We escaped to the woods, but they caught the manager's daughters. We went for the watchman who was formerly in charge, and with four guns among us we waited for the beasts to come, but they did not turn up. We entered the house afterwards and found they were alone, asleep and drunk. The young women had got away after the beats had drunk themselves to sleep.

One might well have been excused had summary justice been inflicted on them as they slept, but the place was infested and escape was impossible, and all our thoughts were centred on getting Mrs Funge and our baby into safety.

In one of these raids a large party of Bolshevik soldiers smashed the doors of my house and fire through the windows, but could not get at us as we were at the top of the house. On that occasion the Bolshevik watchman was with us, and we had rifles. They threatened to burn down the house, and the Bolshevik called out to them that he would let them in by a certain door. They went to the door, and in the meantime my wife and child, the wife of the farmer, another gardener's wife and three children got away by another door. The wife and daughters of Kerele were caught and shamefully treated.

With another man I waited in the wood shed keeping watch over the path taken by the womenfolk. At daylight some of the comrades of the Bolsheviks came, and the party cleared out. After this it was unsafe to remain in the house at night, as there were visitors every night, and I am glad to say they were frustrated in their worst intentions.



A big party of Bolsheviks would undoubtedly have ended my career and that of another man but for his quick wits. The man said to the “commissar” who was ready and fit for any villainy: “I, too, am a Bolshevik, but they have given me a spade instead of a revolver, and it is my job to get food for the Volunteer Army.” The same day five dead bodies were found in one of the streets of Parafievka/

Funge article 3There was a farm close by, the tenant being a Swiss named Gyer, and at midday on June 12th they came and demanded 500 roubles from the farmer. They came again and swore they would kill everybody on the farm. That day we had our food as we lay hidden in the hay until they had gone. On another occasion they caught me and took my boots from me, and for a long time we slept in out-houses, the wood or the hayfield.

The farmer Gyer they robbed of a great deal, and finally he was practically destitute. A director in the village of Paranevka was taken from his home, his wife and daughter taken away, and he was stripped and left out in the cold in about 20 degree of frost.

The womenfolk lived in constant terror, and night after night parties of Bolsheviks came backwards and forwards and entered the homes and gave full licence to all the animal passions of which they were capable. Scarcely a day passed without a handful of tragedies and two or three dead bodied being found in the street.

I was usually fortunate enough to get news of their arrival, and I so arranged that we were able to hoodwink them by slipping out at the back of the house and getting away into the forest as they came in at the front. More than once my wife and the manager's daughters escaped by the back door while we were preparing to admit the villains at the front. If they were not many we felt safest at the top of the house, especially in the daytime when we could see a good distance along the road.

In July an epidemic broke out, and 12 people died in one day. I some cases whole families were wiped out, and in one case I personally knew the only survivor was child. The Bolsheviks would not allow the priest to bury the dead villagers they had killed, but would come to me and demand wreaths and then conduct the burials themselves, making music in the meantime.

In August them commenced to clear away the farm stock – cows, pigs, horses, of which there were hundreds. One week some 200 armed Bolsheviks came and drove off all the cattle of any use, and also took away the carriages, and the outlook was absolutely hopeless.

We were all afraid of each other, wondering who next would join the Bolsheviks in order to have a hand in the plunder. The trains had quite ceased, and for practically two years there had been no post, and apart from what we actually saw, the most terrible reports of atrocities reached us almost daily.

Towards the end of August came rumours that Denikin was marching on to Ukraine, and that the English and the French were helping him. Our hopes rose, and there came a day when we rejoiced to hear the big guns – the salvoes of Denikin's artillery.

A Bolshevik division retreating came to Koranobka, and during their stay they completed the possibilities of looting by clearing the gardens. There were several Germans with them, and they had many big guns, but no ammunition, and it appears to me the only way the Bolsheviks can have continued resistance is by means of German ammunition.

One day one of the chief Bolsheviks wanted to know who I was, and said that if we were English we ought to be cut to pieces. Soon after this they cleared off, and it was evident they feared the vengeance of Denikin.

There was no money to pay the villagers for work on the estate, and they refused to work but lived by getting whatever they could. It was patent that our stay in Koranobka must be brief, and it appeared as though Denikin would never come.

One Sunday I walked all over two villages to try and get a room, and eventually I succeeded. We got a cart and moved the few things left. The stables of the mansion were fired during the night, and two fine horse that were overlooked were burned to death.

I saw the last of the place, and watched men, women and girls carrying away furniture and all sorts of things. This was the last occasion I ventured near the place, as it was openly stated that anyone who returned to work at Koranobka would be shot.

Then came the sound of the guns again, and on September 6th a big battle was in progress at Backmach (English version), a railway junction between the Bolsheviks and Denikin's forces. This lasted for three days.

At Parafievka several ladies were shot for speaking against Bolshevism, and women and girls were shockingly maltreated by the retreating groups of Bolsheviks. After the battle, blood in streams of several inches in depth ran down the streets.

Our hopes rose as we heard of Denikin's success, and on September 10th we heard that his forces were close. On September 12th the news was confirmed, for we saw some of Denikin's men arrive at Parafievka for sugar. On September 13th I went to see them and inquire the possibilities of getting away.

Then some of the villains who had robbed, raped and murdered without mercy got their desserts. Wretches who had gloated over the tripod executions of their victims expiated their crimes in the same way, but General Denikin's revenge did not cover a tithe of the crimes and villainies the Bolsheviks had committed,

The blackest of all crimes escaped punishment, for the time at any rate, for the authors fled, and whatever may be said of Koltchak or Denikin in the way of atrocities can never be sufficient punishment for the terrible deeds committed by the vile wretches whose only thought was the gratification of their own lustful and black hearts.

Many of the scenes I have left untouched, for they are not printable, and I proceed to our escape.

Never have we longed for England so much, and I got an interview with a captain of Denikin's Army and asked if we could get away. He asked about me and I told him I was English, and he said I could have two carts to get away to Hitchney (English version) 17 miles away, if I so desired. Did I not?

We left Parafievka at five o'clock in the morning of September 15th, and arrived at our final stage at nine. We had to wait then for the commandant in order to get orders to travel on a troop trains carrying baggage and stores.

After signing necessary documents, a place was found for us in a cattle truck, three-fourths of the space being being occupied with straw and barrels of stinking meat. We had to sleep as best we could on the floor.

After 40 hours we arrived at Priluke, and were able to leave the troop train for the passenger train, but the carriages were cattle trucks just the same. The were wet, dirty and cold, unlighted, and the train often travelled at snail's pace, and at some of the stations we had to change and wait for a day for the next train.

The stations were overcrowded, and people lay on top of each other for warmth. At several of the stations where the Bolsheviks had been, the houses were wrecked, railway rolling stock smashed up, and the people were living in wagons on the line. So anxious were people to get away that they rode on the top of the carriages and between the buffers.

Arrived at the next town, it was necessary to get vouchers to travel, and often we had to walk twn miles in a heat which was up to 120 degrees, for we were now well in the “Sunny South”.

We made friends with two Serbs and three Slovaks who were trying to get home, and the last stage of the journey to Odessa was made by boat. Then came the usual hunt for apartments. After a five hour search we managed to find a room in an hotel, which had been in the possession of the Bolsheviks. This was anything but clean, and practically everything had been destroyed.

The scenes in Odessa were horrible, and the stench well fitted. Heaps of dead bodies lay about close to the town, and the windows of almost every place were smashed. There was the advantage of sufficiency of food, but it was very expensive. Bread was £8 per loaf, butter £6 for 14oz, jug of hot water 8 shillings, and the room cost us £3 10s per night.

We stayed six days and then received an order from the British Consul enabling us to travel on the British destroyer HMS Tumult. We were taking no risks, and so we arrived at the harbour overnight, but after staying a few hours we were told we could not go, and we wondered what would happen to us.

Then we got permission, and it was a tremendous relief to set foot on a British ship. The destroyer took us down to Yalta, in the Crimea, when the captain kindly arranged for a room in an hotel where we could stay the night. The next day we received instructions to go aboard HMS Montenol, where Capt W. A. Wooster and his officers treated us with extreme kindness, especially our little Vallie.

On September 29th we left Yalta for Constantinople, passing through the minefields and the Bosphorus. After a lot of trouble with passports at Constantinople we had to wait for a ship to England.

On October 16 we left on the Danube, when Capt W. H. Lainson and his officers again showed us the utmost sympathy and kindness, and it was almost worth while enduring all that we had suffered in order to participate in the warm and hospitable friendship which we experienced on the voyage home. We shall never forget it.

Through the Dardanelles we saw some of the war effects as well as the lovely scenery, and at Malta, where the steamer coaled, we got a peep at the beauties of this island. The coats of Algeria and Spain were very interesting, and in many parts lovely, but there was noting to equal the beauty of that first glimpse, after three years of terror and suffering and longing, of the coastline of old England.

Just what we felt we cannot say, but the gratitude which filled our hearts will be more than a memory to the end of our lives.