When I celebrated yesterday the end of my first year in the blogosphere, a member of my family reminded me that I had said at the outset that I might talk a bit about my early years and other matters relating to my family from time to time.
So this marks a temporary respite from the daily round of legal blogs.
I thought of starting with my fifth birthday on 19 July 1941, when my mother, for reasons best known to herself, threw the garden at our home in Bracknell open for a bring and buy sale and garden party in aid of the Red Cross. A conjurer, complete with black top hat and white rabbit, was the main (if not only) concession made to mark the presence of the birthday boy, although I think there may have been home-made icecream as well – a very rare wartime delicacy.
The venue was the garden of a house called Woodpeckers, in Crowthorne Road, Bracknell, where we lived for five years, just before Bracknell was turned into a New Town. The house has long since been pulled down, although the small hilly wood at the bottom of the garden remains. A school friend’s large garden down the road was transformed into a dual carriageway roundabout.
My father had inherited the house the previous year from one of his aunts who had called it “In Haven”. Indeed, I still possess a letter written on In Haven notepaper, with stand-up lettering, and suitably altered in manuscript, which boasts our telephone number “Bracknell 61”. I can’t remember if we could dial direct to the limited number of homes then serviced by the Bracknell telephone exchange. Certainly, for anything else we had to ask the operator to dial the number – plenty of opportunities for telephone hacking there.
But when I thought of writing about that period of my life, I thought I might go back a little further and write about the previous owner of the house, my great aunt Honor Brooke.
Honor (1861-1940) with her younger sisters Olive (1868-1945) and Evelyn (1866-1947). Photograph by Lewis Carroll.
Honor was the eldest daughter in a family of six girls and two boys who originally lived at 1 Manchester Square, a stone’s throw from what is now the Wallace Collection, with their father Stopford Brooke (about whom I have written elsewhere). Their mother Emma (née Beaumont) had died when her youngest daughter Verona (1871-1956) was one year old, and their father’s sister Cecilia took on the role of mother substitute for what was now a family of seven young children. Their father occupied a study at the top of the house where he would entertain literary giants like Robert Browning and Alfred Lord Tennyson, and he would also prepare the seemingly interminable sermons with which he would assail the conscience of late Victorian London. One of Honor’s sisters, Maud Rolleston (1863-1946), later wrote:
“What a lofty house it was! There were about 90 stairs from the kitchen to the eyrie on top, and as our nursery was on the floor below the study and there were no labour-saving devices in those days, it all meant much work and the carrying of water for baths, lights (such as oil lamps for rooms), and meals for hungry children. No hot water was laid on in houses in those early Victorian days, and every pail of water had to be carried from the kitchen for the children’s and grown-ups’ baths. A large tub for the children’s bath and a leaden-coloured German ‘Sitz-bad’ for the grown-ups.”
The children’s education followed a pattern that was familiar in those days. The surviving son Stopford, later a Unitarian minister in Boston, Massachusetts and then a Liberal MP for Bromley and Bow (1906-1910), was sent for his education to Winchester and University College, Oxford. Education for the six girls, on the other hand was sporadic. Sometimes they attended day schools and sometimes they benefited from the ministrations of governesses and what they could pick up from a household in which art, poetry, music and religion were constantly being discussed. Honor and her sister Maud attended Camden School for Girls (under the formidable Miss Buss) for a time, and later a school near Swiss Cottage, for which they caught the Underground at Baker Street station. Maud wrote:
“Little ventilation existed in the tunnels, dense, thick, sulphuric smoke heralded the incoming train from the City, and with lungs and noses full of smoke fumes, Honor and I daily wended our way to school.”
Later still they both went to a school on the outskirts of the forest at Fontainebleau.
Another memory from Maud Rolleston:
“At one time, when Honor and I were in our early teens, Father took it into his head that he did not wish a maid to wait at his dinner parties and thought it would be a change if his two elder daughters did the necessary handing of dishes etc. It was at times amusing, and to receive a smile from Burne Jones, Browning, or maybe Tennyson was pleasant. Dinner over, Honor and I took our seats for the dessert, and what with pineapple, chocolates, rich dates, almonds and raisins, I daresay we soon accounted for much! The Holman Hunts, Mr and Mrs Walter Crane, Frank Short, William Morris, Mrs Humphrey Ward, Gertrude Bell and others used to come. Often there was an At Home to follow, when other friends joined in.”
When they were older, some of them would travel as their father’s companion to interesting places both here and on the continent of Europe. In the summer of 1881 Stopford took his two older daughters on a Grand Tour embracing Brussels, Coblenz, down the Rhine to Mainz, Basle, Lucerne, and then over the St Gotthard Pass to Italy, where they visited Florence, Venice and Baveno on Lake Maggiore before returning home. None of them even contemplated a university education.
Honor inherited her father’s passionate concern for the appalling living – and – working – conditions of so many Londoners, particularly in East London. Like him, she was a member of the Christian Socialist movement, and one snippet of surviving history tells of her accompanying Karl Marx’s daughter, Eleanor Marx and another female friend to address the Silvertown strikers at an open air meeting in November 1889. (Earlier they had shown common cause with the match-girls’ strike at the Bryant & May factory two years earlier).
That female friend was Edith Ellis (later Mrs Havelock Ellis), who wrote in her memoirs how Honor Brooke had saved her from a depressive illness and had channelled her energies into social work in the London slums. She also wrote:
“How well I remember, after the first performance of Ibsen’s drama [A Doll’s House] in London, with Janet Achurch as Nora, when a few of us collected outside the theatre breathless with excitement. Olive Schreiner was there and Dolly Radford the poetess, Dr. Alice Corthorn, Honor Brooke (Stopford Brooke’s eldest daughter,) Mrs. Holman Hunt and Eleanor Marx. We were restive and impetuous and almost savage in our arguments. This was either the end of the world or the beginning of a new world for women. What did it mean? Was there hope or despair in the banging of that door? Was it life or death for women? Was it joy or sorrow for men? Was it revelation or disaster? We almost cantered home. I remember that I was literally prostrate with excitement because of the new revelation.”
In 1890 Honor founded the Honor Club – one of a number of clubs run for working-class women to give them some respite from the tedium of their working lives. It was originally based in FitzRoy Square, but later moved to 118 Great Titchfield Street, just north of Oxford Street. Other clubs in the area included Lily Montagu’s West Central Jewish Club & Settlement, Maude Stanley’s Soho Club for Girls, and a dress-making co-operative founded by Emmeline Pethick and Mary Neal. The area was the centre of the rag trade, well known for its poor working conditions. Maud wrote:
“Pay in all those places was still bad, and sweated conditions existed among the workers. Father took a fine stand with his sermons from the pulpit in trying to better life for those who were powerless in those days to take up weapons in their own defence… My sisters and myself and friends took turns to go to the Club one or two evenings every week to superintend classes, play games, or start classes in embroidery, household needs, hygiene, and many more requirements. Friendships were started there which lasted many years.”
In 1891 Honor left home and went to live for the next 40 years with her friend Agnes Valeris, a singer and music teacher. They often performed together for charity, with Honor reciting poetry or works by Shakespeare and Agnes providing a musical accompaniment.
Although her health was poor, Honor kept up her social work. In 1912 her sister Evelyn (Evie), who like Honor remained unmarried, wrote of the Honor Club:
“Our Club was started 22 years ago, and since then over 1600 members have passed through it. Our average yearly number for some years past has been about 100; but some of the girls do not stay any length of time, either because they do not find the entertainment they want, or they do not make friends, or they move away from the neighbourhood. Many have been with us a long time, and these old friends are a great help in the Club, especially when the lady visitors are away. On these occasions they are entrusted with the management, and we are quite satisfied that everything will be well done.
Our objects are social as well as educational; and we do not press our members to join classes. After a long day’s work what the girls most desire is some quiet place to sit in, which is cheerful and bright and warm, where they can meet their friends, or play games, or listen to music. Rooms are always set aside for rest. We try to have a lady visitor every evening to stir and awaken them to new interests and amusements, for some girls do not seem able to start things on their own initiative and find the Club is dull if none but members are there.
If possible two entertainments are given each month, one by members of the Ladies’ Committee and one arranged and run entirely by the girls. The singing, musical drill, and dramatic classes have all at various times shewn their talent and industry at these entertainments. Shortly after Christmas the singing class gave a Cantata in costume, the dresses being designed and made by the girls themselves; and the dramatic class have acted several plays so well that they have had to repeat the performances, not only in their own club but at other small entertainments arranged by the Committee. We are sometimes almost crowded out, so anxious are the members to bring their friends on these occasions, and as a charge of 3d. is made for each visitor, successful entertainments are a source of income.
We have not been in for many competitions, for we think more enjoyment is got out of a class where the exercises, songs, and other work are not set, leaving the girls to study what they care for most.
The girls have been learning cookery under an L.C.C. teacher for the last two winters. We have also tried a class for First Aid, but the L.C.C. is so particular about “average attendance” that we could not satisfy the Inspector. If members from various clubs who are attracted by the less popular classes could meet together and form a full class, the necessary attendance of 16 might be obtained.
We are busy now arranging for our Holiday Fund, which can be joined by any girl in the Club. The members are asked to pay in what they can, generally 6d. a week, and they begin in January and continue paying till the end of July, when each member receives back her contributions with a bonus varying from 4/— to 7/—, according to the wages earned. Each girl is asked to fill up a form stating her average weekly earnings all the year round, and in this way we are able to give more help to those earning small wages. They arrange their own holidays.
Much help is given by a lady doctor who comes to us once a week and sees any girl who cares to consult her, makes up simple medicines for them, and gives them excellent advice. Many are the girls who have passed through her hands and been grateful for her help. This is, I think, very important work.
The Refreshment Bar, which is managed by the members, pays its way well; we have generally at the end of the year about £2 in hand. Some of this is used to buy cake and lemonade and coffee on our Anniversary Evening, when all members and honorary members try to come to the Club. Any balance from the Refreshment Bar is either kept in hand for a rainy day, or is used for things particularly needed.
And so our Club goes on from year to year. It is a happy meeting place for all, and we all try to be a help to one another. Club life is excellent, and I always feel we and the working girls owe a great debt of gratitude to Miss Stanley for having first started Clubs for working girls. Sometimes of an evening as I sit at the Club taking the fees, I listen to the girls talking (just now) on the difficulties in the working of the Insurance Act, or on the latest Militant Suffrage outrage, or teasing some friend of theirs who thinks it the right thing — and I wish that some of us had as much life and interest at the end of a long day’s work as many of these working girls have. They make an evening at the Club go very pleasantly.”
For me all this brought back memories of the Inns of Court Settlement, which occupied premises in Drury Lane on a 99-year lease: there was no question of being able to afford a new lease when the original one expired. I was on its governing board (chaired by Lord Justice Scarman) for a time in the 1970s, and its activities, for males rather than females, were very similar. An American journalist spoke to a local taxi-driver about it:
“When I ask him what he was most proud of in the area, he lights up to tell me more about his father’s boxing club, the Gainsford Amateur Boxing Club, run by the Inns of Court. It used to be located at 44-46 Drury Lane, he remembers, and the great thing about it was it ‘got kids off the streets,’ he recalls, as he himself boxed for it. He remembers kids and teenagers could play snooker and table tennis and even go on organised holidays abroad to Spain and France. ‘They had a great football team, like soccer in your country’, he jokes with me about my American background. It is closed now, but the Gainsford Club had a rich history of training boxers and was visited by Prince Philip in 1958. The club was central to John’s childhood, to his father and to his father’s brother Peter and cousin John who also coached boxing at the Gainsford. The club contributed to the community atmosphere of Covent Garden.”
The Honor Club continued to flourish – indeed, I remember my parents hosting an annual tea-party at their Hampstead home each year in the 1950s for a steadily diminishing group of very old ladies – but this apart, I know nothing more about my great aunt’s life, why she moved eventually to Bracknell, or why her home there had such an extraordinary name. She left it to my father because his seven-year lease at 19 Oakhill Avenue, Hampstead (my first home) ran out in 1940, and she behaved in a way one has come to expect of the best of aunts, providing a wartime home for the about-to-be-homeless couple with their two young sons.
Once upon a time I thought it was she who had greeted us when we first arrived in Bracknell in the early summer of 1940. On reflection, as she was now dead, it was probably my grandmother’s favourite sister Olive (see the photograph above), the wife of Lawrence Jacks, a Unitarian philosopher who became the Principal of Manchester College, Oxford. She became the mother of five splendid sons and the mother-in-law of a future Lord Mayor of Liverpool. But that is another story.
 The second son, Graham, died of typhoid fever in 1869.
 In Stray Memories, published privately by her grandson Patrick Drysdale in 1990.
 Still commemorated in the ditty, alongside the Headmistress of Cheltenham Ladies’ College:
Miss Buss and Miss Beale,
Cupid‘s darts do not feel.
How different from us,
Miss Beale and Miss Buss.
 In an article in Girls’ Clubs News, June 1912.
 During the week my father stayed with his now widowed mother at her home at 28 Hollycroft Avenue, Hampstead.