Bells of Memory A review by John Lea
The three words at the head of this article form the happily chosen title of a book of reminiscences by a Hertfordshire lady who became Lady Robertson Nicoll, wife of the eminent editor of the British Weekly and other journals, who wielded great influence in the spheres of religion and literature until his death in 1923. Lady Nicoll is still living and very alert in her ninety-four year, and she writes a remarkably clear hand. Before her marriage she was Catherine Pollard and lived in a delightful country house, “High Down”, on the eastern end of the Chiltern Hills, three miles from Hitchin. Her father was Joseph Pollard of Quaker ancestry, who on coming of age left the Society of Friends for the Church of England, in which his children were brought up.
The book, which was printed in 1932 for private circulation only, reveals an intimate picture of happy family life during the sixties to nineties of the nineteenth century, and deals chiefly with the period when the children were young. The household consisted of parents and seven children (two boys and five girls), with indoor and outdoor servants, most of whom remained with the family for life. The house which was built in 1504 by Sir Thomas Docwra, Grand Prior of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem, commanded wide views towards Baldock, Cambridge and Bedford. It had a courtyard and a dovecote, with cultivated grounds and gardens, an orchard, woods, meadows and farmland. The village of Pirton was only about a mile away.
“High Down” was originally the home of William Brown, who invited his widowed sister, Mrs. Pollard, and her boy and girl, together with his spinster sister Anne, to make their home with him. For some years after his nephew, Joseph Pollard, brought his bride to “High Down” the old people continued to live there, moving eventually into Hitchin. They always wore correct Quaker garb.
The children were brought up in an atmosphere of affection. They were not left to the care of paid companions and servants, as in some Victorian homes : parents and children shared each other’s lives and interests. It is refreshing in these days to read of the simplicity of the children’s pleasures and amusements and to note the obvious contentment which followed. There were games in the lovely big garden, and each child had an individual little garden to cultivate. There were ponies and a donkey to ride ; rambles on the hills and through the woods; cowslips, primroses, bluebells and other wild flowers to enjoy ; birds’ nests to find ; and all the other wholesome delights of country life.
The schoolroom occupied the children from nine o’clock till noon each day, then came walks till one o’clock, followed by biscuits, apples or ginger-breads ; then school again till three o’clock. Meals were plain and wholesome ; they never thought of having butter and jam on the same piece of bread. To learn the value of money they were given pocket money of threepence per week each when they were small ; at the age of 12 this was increased to 2/6 per months and 2/6 “glove money”. “Boot and shoe money” followed later ; they were expected to keep accounts.
They formed a drawing club, in which rivalry was keen. Mr. William Lucas was its kind patron and gave prizes to successful competitors. Eventually the comments on each other’s work on the back of the drawings grew so satirical and rude that they brought the club to an end. Later on Catherine joined a club conducted by Miss Bella Lister where serious work was done, and she also had sketching lessons from Mr. and Mrs. Harry Hine. She possessed genuine artistic gifts and became an accomplished worker with pencil and pen and in watercolours, as her illustrations in Bells of Memory bear witness.
Sunday was a cheerful and happy day, as parents and children were always together. They were driven in a wagonette to the large village church at Shillington, three miles away in Bedfordshire, where Mr. Pollard was vicar’s churchwarden and where he read the lessons. Friends from the surrounding district met and worshipped together. A picturesque feature of the service was the two rows of middle-aged labourers in their green smocks and white chokers, and also the old ladies from the almshouses in their red flannel cloaks.
On returning home parents and children had midday dinner together, the children being given cowslip wine. They all took a walk in the afternoon, and after tea Mr. Pollard gave a Bible lesson to the four older children at his end of the table. Mrs. Pollard giving a lesson to the three little ones at the other end. Sunday games consisted of puzzles and journeys with maps, one map being the “Pilgrim’s Progress”. Special Sunday books were also read, including the stories of “A.L.O.E.” which were widely enjoyed for a generation. Hymns were sung in the evening and sometimes selections from the oratorios.
Mrs. Pollard made all the children’s clothes when they were small, with the help of a dressmaker from Shillington. She was keen on all accounts being paid as soon as rendered. Bread for “High Down” was baked by the bailiff’s wife in the great oven at the farmhouse twice a week, and she made the children little men and mice using currants for eyes.
There was naturally a close connection with Hitchin, and visits were made or parties attended at the houses of family friends, Mr. J. Heck Tuke, Frederic Seebohm, William and Samuel Lucas, the Ransomes, the Delme-Radcliffes at the Priory, and others. They sometimes stayed with relatives at Hertford and Baldock, and there were visits with their father to London for the Zoo, Madame Tussoud’s and the Royal Academy.
St. Valentine’s Day was very important to them. They sang a valentine song outside their parents’ bedroom door before breakfast, and were rewarded with bright new pennies ; later in the day ten to twenty children came up from Pirton to sing and each of them received a small present. Songs were also sung outside the bedroom door on May Day and Guy Fawkes Day, and on the latter there was a bonfire with the burning of the guy. Good Friday brought hot cross buns, but the day was kept as a Sunday and church was attended. In the afternoon primroses were gathered for church decoration for Easter Day.
Harvest home and harvest supper were notable celebrations. At Christmas there were carols and hymns and the hanging up of stockings. One year Catherine accompanied her nurse to a farm to order a turkey to be reserved for Mrs. Pollard “at fourteen pence a pound,” a phrase which rather puzzled the child. On New Year’s Eve it was pleasant to listen to the sound of various church bells which came across the still night air to the family at their hilltop home.
There was great excitement when a German band visited the house, and also when a little Savoyard brought his performing bear, or the “king of the gipsies” came and played on his fiddle. Meets of the foxhounds and harriers were great occasions.
Mr. Pollard was a man of wide sympathies and was happy to be of service in the district. He was a great botanist and keen on archaeology. When a schoolboy in Hitchin, he visited the well-known and hospitable Quaker family of Gurney at Eariham, Norfolk. Two of his school fellows were the boy who eventually became Lord Lister and Birkett Foster the artist, who often visited “High Down” and made sketches there. It was on the advice of St Joseph Lister that Catherine’s brother, Jack, began his medical career. Mr. Pollard served on several committees of the British and Foreign Bible Society in London and sponsored local efforts for its help. He also became a member of the Hitchin Board of Guardians and of the school board for Pirton and Shillington.
He was fond of travel and as the children grew older he would take some of them with him to Scotland and Wales. The family regularly took a house or other accommodation at various seaside resorts in the summer. Visits were also paid to the Continent and in 1890 the father and three daughters journeyed to Oberammergau to see the Passion Play. As the girls grew into young womanhood they made independent visits to friends in London and various parts of the country, taking part in dances, sports and games.
A notable and lengthy tour was made by Mr. Pollard and his daughters Nellie and Catherine in Egypt – he had studied Egyptology for some years. It was a most enjoyable experience for all of them and was especially interesting to Mr. Pollard as he came for the first time face to face with the archaeological wonders of this ancient land. On returning home, he wrote some articles on the tour, and was persuaded dto publish them in book form, Catherine’s sketches providing the illustrations. His friend, Dr. Wright, editor of the British and Foreign Bible Society magazine, suggested a consultation on the project with a London editor, Dr. Robertson Nicoll.
Thus it was that Catherine met her future husband. Her innate love for children found an appeal in his son and daughter by a previous marriage. The wedding took place at Shillington church in the spring of 1897, and in due time Catherine was blessed with a daughter of her own.
Bells of Memory is a happy book, with a gracious and wholesome atmosphere. It shows above all that, given a suitable upbringing, children can be happy and contented without the many elaborate and expensive pleasures of our present day life. One can realize the joy with which Lady Robertson Nicoll inscribed her book “To my dear little Grand-daughters, Rosemary, Prudence and Pamela, Kirkcaldy ; a record of when Granny was a little girl.”