Family Gathering at Downside

On the 28th October 2017 over 140 members of the extended Agius family gathered in the Abbey church to mark the centenary of the death of Captain Richard Agius (R14), killed at Poelcapelle on 26th October 1917, and to celebrate the family’s 117 year connection to Downside.

The family patriarch, Edward Tancred Agius, started a shipping business in the Mediterranean, and relocated from Malta to London in 1869 to expand trade. In 1872 the newly married Edward settled in St Dominic’s parish, Hampstead, and with his Maltese bride, Maria Concetta Muscat, eventually produced 15 children. A short history of the family was written in the 1950s by one of Edward’s daughters, Marie Denaro, mother and grandmother to the two Arthur Denaros (C33 & R65).  The original pamphlet was embellished by nephew David Arrigo (C/Ra60) and published as ‘Daughter of an Empire’ in 2003. With my help (Peter Agius/Ra70), a full list of the descendants of Edward T. Agius, was printed in David’s book.  The original list numbered 303, and now – with new arrivals – totals 414 across 6 generations.

On advice from his good friend and neighbour Edmund Bellord, (whose son Cuthbert started at Downside in 1899), Edward Agius sent three of his younger sons to the school in 1900: Alfred, Edgar and Tancred (later Dom Ambrose).  They were followed by Arthur in 1903 and the youngest, Richard, in 1907.  Dom Leander Ramsay was appointed Head Master in 1902, and whilst he skilfully expanded the school, found time to keep a watchful eye on the Agius boys. Ramsay had a long and detailed correspondence with their father Edward and transcripts of many of these letters are held in the family archive. Since 1900, 26 direct descendants of Edward Agius, in 4 generations, have attended Downside, not to mention many other Maltese cousins by marriage.

Five years ago an extensive archive of family photographs and documents was passed to me from my aunt Sue McEvoy – sister of Dom Denis Agius (S31). With the aid of modern technology we have set about making the contents of the archive accessible to the whole family. We were fortunate to inherit over two years of almost daily correspondence from the Western Front, written by Arthur Agius to his fiancée in Hampstead. In 2014 we started a blog on our newly created family website – posting each letter on line, one hundred years to the day it was originally sent.  And now, with the marking of Richard’s centenary, a chapter has been closed, but there is still much to say for the last year of the Great War as his brothers, cousins and friends continue the fight.

In parallel with the website, we created a family Facebook group to post additional notes and draw in all the stories, memories and photos from our cousins scattered around the world.   Over the last three years, an ever-growing number of family members have tuned in to our WW1 story.  Mindful of Richard being killed in action in October 1917, we sensed a growing feeling to mark his centenary in some suitable way, and provide a reason for as many cousins as possible to gather and meet – many for the first time. 

As interest increased, it became necessary to choose a location for the gathering. When Richard was killed in 1917 his body, like so many other soldiers, simply sank into the mud of Passchendaele and was never identified. He is commemorated on the Tyne Cot memorial in Belgium.  However, Richard is also commemorated on four memorials at Downside, and with a great-nephew, Fr Christopher Calascione, in the community, there really was only one location such an event could take place. As general family interest crystallised into something more definite, in March of this year we began the planning process with Jane Vines and Team Downside. The family team included Arthur Denaro, John Dymond, my wife Marilyn and myself, with Mark Vassallo (Ra83) coordinating the Maltese cousins.   Once we had an idea of costings and a firm programme of events to put before the family, we began the booking process – a little overwhelming at first, as family became committed to flying in from Malta, USA, New Zealand and Scotland.  On the day we had 146 guests, of which 103 were cousins, ranging in age from 1 to 83, across 4 generations. It all made for a truly wonderful day that will be recalled for many years to come.   Amongst that number were 6 OGs :  Michael Agius (S62) , Arthur Denaro (R65), Peter Agius (Ra70), Mark Vassallo (Ra83), Dom Agius (S86) and George Denaro (R03).

The Centenary Celebration day began with a Memorial Mass for Captain Richard Agius, concelebrated by Fr Christopher and family friend Fr Paul McCourt, (RC Chaplain, Sandhurst). The service included a welcome from Fr Leo; a reading of Richard’s last letter home by his great-great nephew and namesake (also a soldier); an original setting of the hymn ‘Abide With Me’ (specially composed for the occasion and sung by a great-great niece); extracts from an original memorial Sermon written by D. Ambrose in 1923, read by George Denaro; and a reading of Head Master Ramsay’s condolence letter to the Agius family by Mark Vassallo.

The family then proceeded to the Weld Café for drinks and a stirring speech of welcome from Arthur.  That was followed by a truly sumptuous buffet lunch, beautifully laid out by Sarah and the catering team in the main Refectory.  The skills of the Denaro and Muscat families provided floral arrangements for each of the dining tables. The table decoration also included photographs of the Agius & Muscat family crests, reproduced from the windows in the original Hampstead home.

In the afternoon, we assembled at the War Memorial, for a short dedication service led by Fr Paul, including laying of wreaths for Richard and the first Arthur Denaro, killed at Arnhem in September 1944.  Arthur gave us a short account of his Uncle Arthur’s story.   Then guided tours of the School and Abbey for those who wished, finishing with afternoon tea back in the Weld Café.  During tea, Fr Christopher displayed a couple of family artefacts currently held in the Monastic archive, including a statue of St Ambrose presented to Edward Tancred’s brother, Archbishop Ambrose OSB, when Apostolic Delegate to the Philippines. Earlier that week Steve Parsons had discovered some letters in the Downside archive dating from 1915, that Richard (in Khartoum) had sent to his brother Dom Ambrose at Downside. We had never seen the correspondence before, and Jane Vines was kind enough to allow us to display the originals for the family to read.

To complement all this activity, Marilyn had produced displays of family photographs, documents and artefacts to decorate the Weld Cloister and Café.  John Dymond – the family Genealogist – organised a slide-show in the Weld Café, and produced a magnificent 20 metres worth of family tree  (with thumbnail portraits of most of the 414 descendants), laid out in great style in the nearby Butler Room.  

The final part of our commemoration was for Marilyn and me to attend the School’s Service of Remembrance on 11th November, where the family re-laid the wreath for Richard.

On behalf of the family we would like to give our thanks to Fr Leo, the monastic community, Jane Vines, Sarah Kriek and team Downside for welcoming us so generously, and for giving the many descendants of Edward Tancred Agius an amazing and unforgettable day.

Links of interest …

Remembrance at Downside [2017]

Centenary Celebration

Richard Victor Joseph Roy Agius (1896 – 1917)


Photos by: Jane Vines, Dom Agius, Peter Agius, Nigel Lightfoot, Mark Vassallo, Nicola Vassallo

Article written by: Marilyn & Peter Agius (Ra70)