In my illustrated talk on ‘The Curious History of Labyrinths & Mazes’, I cover the highlights of this fascinating four-thousand year story. After a recent talk in Cambridge, a member of the audience asked specifically about labyrinths and mazes in the Americas, which is the focus of this post, drawn from a 2018 article I wrote for the website, Mexicolore.
The labyrinth design occurs worldwide during prehistoric times, when travel between the continents would have been virtually non-existent, which simply adds to the mystery. It suggests that humans as a race have always been intrigued by the pattern, preoccupied with spirals, circuitous routes, and their associated rituals. Knowledge of the original purpose of these rituals in specific cultures has not always travelled as effectively over time as the design itself, and from today’s perspective we can only surmise the true meaning in some cases. Labyrinths do, of course, occur in nature and must surely have inspired humans to create labyrinthine symbols. The Greek word for the Nautilus shell, for example, is laburinthoi.
The earliest recorded labyrinths created by humans are found in petroglyphs, ancient rock carvings. Dating these precisely is challenging, and identifying the very first carved labyrinth is tricky, if not impossible. A disputed contender for the earliest is an incision on an inner chamber wall of the Neolithic tomb known as Tomba del Labrinto at Luzzanas in Sardinia; some experts however, have concluded this may actually be Roman. Most intriguing are the early labyrinths of North America.
As Jeff Saward (co-founder of Labyrinthos) declares, the origin of labyrinths in the American Southwest is one of the biggest mysteries of the entire story. Examples are found in southern Arizona, near the Gillespie Dam, and in New Mexico at Arroyo Hondo and Galisteo, but so far, no inscription or decoration has been found on a securely datable object from pre-European times. In the 1930s and ’40s, former Arizona Senator William Coxon recorded labyrinth petroglyphs in the Southwest and devised the theory that these geometric inscriptions, found in very widely separated localities, provided evidence of global migration. Saward calls for further fieldwork and the cataloguing of labyrinth petroglyphs, so we may determine exactly how and when the labyrinth reached the New World.
Meaning and mythology in the Americas
In the Americas the labyrinth can be a symbol of tribal identity. The Man in the Maze design, for example, features in Tohono O’odham and Pima legends. The Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community adopted the Man in the Maze motif as their Great Seal. In this context, the design symbolizes an elder brother or medicine man, living in a place where people could not find him.
Mazes and labyrinths clearly refuse to conform to any rudimentary definition, and in attempting to navigate their winding history, I devised broadly chronological classifications; ‘classical’, ‘spiritual’, ‘medieval’, ‘rustic’, ‘romantic’ and ‘modern’. In many cultures, labyrinths have been given a metaphysical or sacred status that takes us beyond the natural world, as ritualized symbols and sites with different devotional purposes. And it is this that I specifically refer to the Mesoamerican notion of mazes.
Perhaps the most illuminating way of tracing the real origins of the labyrinth (or maze – I use the term interchangeably) is indeed to investigate its deeper significance. As I’ve already acknowledged, the form is integral to cultures worldwide. In the book I explore historical icons in different locations, along with associated practices and what they signify, particularly from a symbolic and spiritual perspective. By engaging with labyrinths and mazes in a spiritual context, we give meaning to their many and various interpretations. These include a metaphor for life’s journey, a means of warding off evil, a method of ensuring fertility, and a form of spiritual devotion.
The mythology of the Hopi of northern Arizona features labyrinths. Most well-known is the Tapu’at, the “Mother and Child” symbol. Both the circular and square forms represent the womb of Mother Earth, the divine birth-giver. The circular in particular is said to represent the road of a human life. In following it, one attains spiritual rebirth. From early on, the labyrinth has been associated with death and rebirth. In death, one returns to the earth (the eternal mother), from which one is reborn. The Tohono O’odham and the Pima peoples employ the labyrinth design extensively in their craftwork.
Mazes and labyrinths are symbols of all that is experienced in life, depicting the choices we have to make along our journey. For some American indigenous peoples, the centre of the labyrinth exists simultaneously in this world and in the spiritual world, providing us with a doorway to a different dimension of reality. A saying in North America for example, tells us, ‘To die is to walk the path of the dream without returning.’ In some cultures, mazes were used to keep the dead from returning. In 1955 the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss wrote in Tristes Tropiques about fragments of Tupi pottery urns in Brazil, with a design that represented a maze intended to confuse the evil spirits looking for the human remains preserved in them.
‘The lacy black markings seemed to form a labyrinth—destined, so people say, to deter those evil spirits which would otherwise have sought out the bones that were once preserved in these urns.’
Kindred spirits across time and continents
In some Mesoamerican cultures it was believed that the wicked could be ‘mazed’ in the underworld, so their souls would not return. The notion of spirits being ‘mazed’ is an interesting one in the context of this history. It gives an indication of where we may tentatively link ancient practices in Mesoamerica to other aspects of the global narrative. For example, the word ‘maze’ itself, like its companion, has multiple derivations. The Roman poet Virgil brings them together in The Aeneid and describes the labyrinth as having, ‘a path woven with blind walks.’ It is a,
‘bewildering work of craft with a thousand ways where the tokens of the course were confused by the indiscoverable and irretraceable maze.’
Here we have ambiguity, confusion, uncertain choices, and the search for a clear path. Much later, in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, we find examples of early English usage that also combine these themes. People are in a state of “masednesse.” That is, they are puzzled or bewildered.
In my book, The Curious History of Mazes, I cover the topic of mazes as puzzles, from early medieval artefacts to the modern maze revival. That revival was (and still is) realized in the hands of extraordinary individual innovators who garnered not only their incredibly creative and inventive minds but also a vast range of tools and materials, taking the design and construction of mazes to levels of multidimensional complexity never previously imagined. Today there are many companies and maze-makers world-wide who create and construct mazes of all kinds. It is big business.
I also compare the maze and labyrinth experience, acknowledging that some will insist that a maze is a puzzle and a labyrinth is not. However, as W.H. Matthews declares in his most comprehensive 1922 history of labyrinths and mazes, the labyrinth itself represents the enigmatic character of life. This is the intriguing – and puzzling – essence of labyrinths and their mythology. Sig Lonegren, founding member of The Labyrinth Society, writes in 1991 that while a myth is not history, it can point to truths far beyond historical fact. I couldn’t agree more. He says that,
‘each teller adds part of his or her own essence to the tale. Sometimes cultures, for purposes of their own, change significant portions of a given myth; however, the essential bones of the story seem to carry through the many tellings and revisions.’
The essential bones of this story, certainly where ancient American cultures are concerned, do seem to be spiritual, although it appears the creator(s) was not always aiming to confuse. Take the enigmatic series of geoglyphs, the Nazca lines, covering nearly 400 square miles (1,036 sq km) of the Peruvian desert. Discovered by archaeologist Toribio Mejía Xesspe in the 1920s, these lines were drawn by the Nazca people, a civilization that disappeared almost 1,500 years ago, living in what is now modern Peru.
Designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 1994, they were originally created by the scraping away of red dust and rock to reveal the white ground beneath. Many of the designs are geometric shapes or resemble animals including monkeys, humans, birds, and fish. In 2012 a team of British experts declared that they were created to be walked. Well preserved, they were probably walked by small groups of people in single file, indicating that they had a spiritual purpose.
In North America, the Navajo peoples sand painted mandalas were created for ritual healing. Each sacred painting was made communally by several artists who started from the centre and worked outward, following the sun from the east, through south and west, to finish in the north. The eastern side of the circle is left open to allow spiritual beings to enter. Every painting is unique, and like the monks of Tibet, the Navajo used the sand paintings not to confuse but to restore order and harmony. They are still created today.
And finally, we find the labyrinth-like meander design featured in South American art and architecture. For example, the xicalcoliuhqui, known as a “step” or “stepped” fret—greca in Spanish—is a common motif in Mesoamerican art. It consists of three or more steps connected to a hook or spiral. The motif appears on temples and other sacred buildings such as the Pyramid of the Niches at the Veracruz site of El Tajin.
The few examples I’ve featured here suggest that the aim of labyrinths and mazes in the Americas was not always to confuse, but also to harmonize and enlighten. In writing The Curious History of Mazes I certainly aimed to do the latter, by introducing a complex history to a wide audience, citing thoughts and theories while echoing the prevailing mysteries.
The Curious History of Mazes by Julie E. Bounford, is illustrated by Trevor Bounford and published by Wellfleet Press, October 2018, price £12.99 ISBN: 978-1-57715-177-7
If you would like to book an illustrated talk on ‘The Curious History of Labyrinths & Mazes’, do email:
Working from home has its benefits, especially when home is a Tudor cottage with great character and warmth. Our abode may not have the grandeur of say, Cotehele, a quietly magnificent Tudor residence located high above the River Tamar, fortunately preserved and cared for by the National Trust. But we do enjoy our smaller scale medieval aesthetic, especially the vaulted ceilings and arcs. As I sit in my study, I like to envisage the labourers assembling the many and varied beams, using the carved Roman numerals as guidance.
Our house also has a distinctive atmosphere which is very conducive to writing. I wrote up my doctorate here and subsequently, on becoming an independent social historian and author, penned ‘This Book is About Heffers’ (2016) and ‘The Curious History of Mazes’ (2018). More recently, I’ve finished work on a new publication, ‘Beer and Spirits: Haunted Hostelries of Cambridgeshire’, a handy gazetteer of over sixty haunted pubs with many local tales. It seems inevitable that the hauntings reflect our rich seam of history and often originate from well-known stories and legends that echo the past. The book also contains two original ghost stories written by my husband, Trevor Bounford.
Now, I don’t know if our home is haunted. I can’t honestly say that I saw any apparitions whilst writing ‘Beer and Spirits’. We do sometimes hear someone entering the house via the back door in the evening, but when we check we find no-one there. One afternoon, an invisible hand brushed through a pot plant in the dining room, vigorously shaking the leaves, and late one night, a notebook was thrown off the bedside table.
There is, no doubt, a rational explanation for these incidents.
The Oxford English Dictionary definition of the verb to ‘haunt’ refers to imaginary or spiritual beings such as ghosts. To haunt is to, ‘to visit frequently and habitually with manifestations of their influence and presence, usually of a molesting kind’, and to be haunted is to be, ‘subject to the visits and molestation of disembodied spirits’. Various types of apparitions are described in the literature. For example, ‘restless spirits’ that continue to haunt their old home until they are laid to rest. Also, ‘psychic recording ghosts’, spirits that replay an event from their lifetime. And ‘poltergeists’, noisy spirits or malevolent energy characterised by noises, moving objects and physical disturbances. Hauntings can occur for centuries or days, and may be cyclical.
There are any number of pubs rumoured to be haunted throughout East Anglia. No doubt, some tales are simply made up to draw in custom, or perhaps to keep unwelcome visitors at bay. Some landlords will tell you that the only spirits present are those behind the bar. Discerning the fanciful from the reported, and recorded, ‘factual’ experiences is no simple task. The ghostly activity I’ve listed in ‘Beer and Spirits’ cannot be verified by me, and I would suggest that only the most intrepid visitors may try to authenticate the accounts.
Whether you believe in ghosts or not, public houses have for many centuries acted as important rural and urban social centres, and many have witnessed life changing and historic events. Ghost stories and strange happenings are an integral part of our folklore, in every city, town and village. In some places we feel a palpable sense of timelessness, almost of standing still, as though nothing has changed. We feel that people from the past are somehow still with us. But of course, over centuries and decades, people have come and gone, and communities have witnessed many changes, good and bad.
The Bell Inn Hotel, Stilton
Amongst the many hostelries featured in ‘Beer and Spirits’, we have included The Bell Inn Hotel at Stilton near Peterborough.
The reported activity at this hostelry includes the sighting of a lady in the oldest part of the building which dates back to the fifteenth century (she has been known to sit and even lay on a guest’s bed, leaving an indentation, and to pace up and down the room); the sound of footsteps in empty rooms; the sighting of Cooper Thornhill, a former landlord who died in 1752, and of a dark figure on horseback outside or standing at the end of a guest’s bed. Some say this is the ghost of Dick Turpin who hid at this inn for several weeks.
Also seen is the ghost of the writer Daniel Defoe, author of a 1724 treatise, A tour thro’ the whole island of Great Britainin which he declares,
“We pass’d Stilton, a town famous for cheese, which is call’d our English Parmesan, and is brought to table with the mites, or maggots round it, so thick, that they bring a spoon with them for you to eat the mites with, as you do the cheese.”
Stilton was the main trading station for Stilton Cheese. Defoe, who regularly stayed at the Bell between 1697 and 1701, has been observed sitting by the fireplace in the hotel reception, smoking a clay pipe. Staff have seen several shadowy figures around the hotel and have often had a feeling of being watched.In 1962 a fire ignited itself in the grate of one of the bedrooms and staff have noticed that objects have disappeared, only to reappear a week later. A table in the restaurant is said to be cursed but by whom and why we do not know.
As noted by Caroline Clifford and Alan Akeroyd in their most excellent 2018 compendium ‘The Little Book of Cambridgeshire’, the village of Stilton hosts a popular annual ‘cheese’ rolling competition. The starting line is at the Bell Inn. Stilton cheese itself is not made locally, but can only be made in Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire.
The first modern ghost story?
Defoe is credited by some with the first modern ghost story, entitled, A True Relation of the Apparition of one Mrs. Veal, the next Day after her Death: to one Mrs. Bargrave at Canterbury, published anonymously in 1706. The original story was not hatched by Defoe, who himself had an interest in apparitions, or ‘appearances’ and, unlike our stories in ‘Beer and Spirits”, was not set in a hostelry or in Cambridgeshire.
Whilst Defoe believed in the spirit world, he warned against excessive gullibility and stressed the need for proper testimony and authenticity in recording witnessed appearances. His approach was not dissimilar to that of the Society for Psychical Research, founded in Cambridge in 1882. The Society is described as the first scientific organisation ever to examine claims of psychic and paranormal phenomena. Its purpose is to gather information and foster understanding through research and education. One of its founders, Henry Sidgwick, had been a member of the Cambridge Ghost Society since the 1850s and, for much of his life, pursued the empirical case in support of the existence of the afterlife. His wife, Eleanor Sidgwick (Principal of Newnham College, Cambridge from 1892) was the Society’s President in 1908/9 and President of Honour in 1932.
Haunted places or people?
The author, Joan Forman, who wrote ‘Haunted East Anglia’ (1974) declared that, ‘Any reader… who decides to visit one of the haunted sites… is asked to remember that the person who originally told the story may be now be over the hills and far away. However, except in a few rare cases, this fact is unlikely to have affected the ghosts, who are always more concerned with places than people. The hauntings will be where they always were. And no doubt new folk will be experiencing them in the old surroundings.’
Trevor begs to differ in his chilling ghost story, ‘The Last Round’, included in our Cambridgeshire edition of ‘Beer and Spirits’.
I enjoy reading at any time of the day and pretty much anywhere. I also like to have my dear husband close at hand. Wherever we go, I have something to read and Trevor has his sketchbook. Trevor works on a drawing as I read. That is, if he isn’t carrying my books.
Choosing which book to read can be tricky, although unlike people, books that disappoint are easily discarded. As Proust proclaimed, with books there is no forced sociability. If we pass the evening with books it’s because we really want to.
I do read a lot in my spare time, which is also taken up with writing, learning French, running, visiting art galleries with Trevor, helping out the Cambridgeshire Association for Local History and (more recently) participating in Extinction Rebellion activity. But mainly, I read and write.
Having joined one book club in January, and formed another of my own, some of my reading material this year has been chosen by others. For an entertaining piece on book clubs, see ‘Book Club Bust-Ups’ by Stuart Heritage.
At the end of each month I compile a collage of the books I’ve read, alongside a selected quotation from one, which more often than not relates to my writing. The themes are easily discerned. You will find January to August 2019 below.
These are not reviews of course, and I do need to be more active on that front. A page turner for me is a well researched biography such as John Hunter’s life of Samuel Smiles.
It’s interesting to see what others like to read and I enjoy the various social media posts on people’s favourite books, as well as the book club exchanges.
When I saw the above value in a recent declaration by a UK university, I could immediately visualise the exuberance, the glee, with which it would have been received in the particular Vice-Chancellor’s Office.
It’s been a while since I have contemplated the discourse of excellence that is endemic in British higher education, and this mental image took me straight back to my 2015 PhD thesis which featured a fictional vignette entitled ‘We are not just ranked in the top; we are in the top 20 ranking’ (see below).
I now see also an interesting and to my mind, most welcome development in this field by way of an international research collaboration on the topic of ‘Grimpact’, which aims to get beyond the domination of economic and non-controversial versions of impact.
Here are two informative blog posts outlining the critical blind spot in the impact agenda; that it has been understood and defined solely in positive terms –
In her post Derrick provides three extreme examples of Grimpact: firstly, the rejection of the MMR vaccine and resulting deaths from Measles; secondly, the generation of a tool that was capable of discerning the emotions of users of social media platforms, leading to the violation of ethical boundaries for political gain; and thirdly, the deregulation of financial services with the resulting behaviour of banks in response to the 2008 financial crisis validated by an overarching belief in economists and economic theory that promoted free-market, laissez-faire approaches.
‘We are not just ranked in the top; we are in the top 20 ranking’
In writing my PhD thesis on the topic of the idea and experience of academic community, I followed Andrew Sparkes’ less traditional approach and produced three fictional vignettes, aimed a revealing elements of academic life within a fictional setting. All three pieces illustrate the institutional culture of contemporary higher education, or as observed, it’s brutality and crassness. They also illustrate the day-to-day lives of the research participants. Bryan (an emeritus professor) is subject to a surprise move as, in his absence, his office (and his status) is eradicated; Jonathon (an academic leader) introduces a new member of staff to a different way of meeting the team, and the Vice-Chancellor gives an address that is steeped in the language of excellence that pervades the institutional discourse, a language from which there is no escape.
The Vice-Chancellor’s address, given below, is made up from phrases selected from the official corporate narrative of the University of Greystone, the site of the research. The confidence of the institutional discourse is emblematic of the grand narrative that tends to be a strong feature of universities today.
The Vice-Chancellor of Greystone gives an address.
‘Let me state at the outset that it is our leadership that is at the forefront of an outstanding reputation. The major contributions we shall make will undoubtedly be our greatest impact. Our particular strength is that we are well equipped for the pursuit of excellence. We are agenda setting internationally, avowedly ambitious and world-leading due to exceptional strengths that make us world-class. Being among the best with our high-quality, high-achieving and highest standards, which are undeniably of the highest quality and thereby market-leading at a high-level. This high-class and high-impact status must be the highest possible. Our highest ambitions, driven by the highest calibre leadership, enable the highest achievements and therefore the highest possible global influence. Inevitably this highest possible performance from our high performing team ensures a high academic engagement. From such a high base we can gain an edge. Our standards will be ratcheted up, supported by a long and proud history with its international distinction making us excellent in our excellence. This excellent achievement, regarded by all as an exemplar of good practice, is not just exemplary but is regarded as internationally excellent. Being internationally recognised, and being internationally aware, our international significance ensures us the strongest international position. Such international recognition of our extraordinary potential keeps us firmly in the top, in the top flight and on the top tier. And we are not just ranked in the top; we are in the top 20 ranking. Recognised as globally strong, the University excels and we can contribute equally with the best universities in the world. And this enviable reputation delivers an exceptional education, and with excellent research our excellent achievement is second to none. Building on the successes, which put us well within the world top 100, our intellectual power and influence obliges us to play a leading role. Our consistent top-20 ranking is an outstanding contribution, which is ranked in the top quartile. Being successful, inevitably there is public good flowing from what we do. This public good ensures a strong culture and our pioneering work in this area is a powerful combination, and a powerful platform. We are, simply, inspiring and innovative.’
What phrases would you suggest to make this excellent address more excellent?
On a visit to the market town of Arundel in the South Downs last year, I did what I always do and looked for second-hand books. At Kim’s Bookshop I found a 1972 biography of Aleksandr Solzhenistyn by David Burg and George Feifer, with around twenty press clippings tucked among the pages. I had great pleasure in giving this treasure to my son George, who had taken an interest in the author after borrowing my edition of Cancer Ward.
For me, I found a 1908 edition of the Complete Letter-Writer for Ladies and Gentlemen, published by Ward, Lock & Co. Ltd.
The book provides nearly two hundred example letters, covering social invitations, letters from parents to and about their children, letters relating to betrothal and marriage, letters of condolence, and letters relating to employment and business.
The general advice on how to write any letter warns the writer against ‘badinage’ which should never be attempted unless the parties are on very friendly terms. And even if they are on very friendly terms, certain conventions apply. The book devotes a not insignificant proportion of the section on ‘Practical Letter Writing’ to the topic of love letters, with strong encouragement to express one’s feelings in loving phrases that are ‘gentleman-like’ and ‘lady-like’,
‘With reference to “love-letters” no rule can be laid down; but even here the less “high-falutin” writing and bombast the better. Affection is very well, but extravagance is not unlikely to provoke ridicule, and that is fatal to a lover’s correspondence.’
This example letter in the romantic category caught my eye.
No. 150. –Answer to a Missionary’s Proposal Affirmatively.
MY DEAR MR. WALKER, Our friendship, if I may use the word, has not had a long existence, but short though it has been, I have learned to appreciate it more than you can imagine. Indeed, were it not so, I should shrink from replying frankly to the question you ask. You ask me if I will accompany you to Africa, and share the trials of a missionary’s life there, and I answer that I will, believing it to be my duty to join in so noble an undertaking as the wife of one whom I esteem. I cannot, as your wife, aid you as I would like, and to the work I cannot bring more than a willing heart, but perhaps the Almighty will strengthen both my heart and my hands, and enable me to be useful as your helpmeet in your distant home. The day of your departure is, you say, drawing nigh, but, however near it may be, I can be ready. The sorest part of the preparation will be saying good-bye to those I love, and they are many. I am sure, however, that they will not tax my strength too far when they know in whose care I shall go. You will tell me what to do. And believe me, My dear Mr. Walker, Yours sincerely, MARY BURTON
My immediate thought on reading this earnest epistle was that the template would be of no use to Jane Eyre.
I turned to my Blackie & Son edition of Charlotte Brontë’s novel and looked up the episode where St. John Rivers proposes marriage to Jane. He wants, nay demands, that Jane accompanies him to India,
“God and nature intended you for a missionary’s wife. It is not personal, but mental endowments they have given you: you are formed for labour, not for love. A missionary’s wife you must––shall be. You shall be mine: I claim you––not for my pleasure, but for my Sovereign’s service.”
“… do not forget that if you reject it, it is not me you deny, but God. Through my means, He opens to you a noble career; as my wife only can you enter upon it. Refuse to be my wife, and you limit yourself forever to a track of selfish ease and barren obscurity. Tremble lest in that case you should be numbered with those who have denied the faith, and are worse than infidels!”
The next example letter in the handbook affords a refusal.
No. 151. –Answer to a Missionary’s Proposal Negatively.
MY DEAR MR. WALKER, Were I free to consult my own wishes, my answer to your kind and generous letter would be “Yes.” I have seen much in your character to admire since you first became a visitor at my father’s house. But my parents, to whom I showed your letter, consider that I am constitutionally unfitted to reside in a climate so trying as that of Africa, and wish me to remain with them. They are, with myself, grateful for all that you say; and, were it not that you go abroad, their consent would have been willingly given. I feel myself, too, that I would be only an encumbrance even were I spared; and at a missionary station there should be no encumbrances. You will allow me to call myself your sincere well-wisher, if nothing more, and I hope that your efforts in Africa will be crowned with success. Believe me, My dear Mr. Walker, Yours sincerely, MARY BURTON.
Alas, this template would also have been of no use to Jane, whose refusal of St. John is necessarily more forthright,
“God did not give me my life to throw it away; and to do as you wish me would, I begin to think, be almost equivalent to committing suicide.”
Helpmeet – what does it mean?
In the example letter No150 (the acceptance letter), and in Jane Eyre, we find the term, ‘helpmeet’. St. John wants Jane to accompany him as his ‘helpmeet and fellow-labourer’.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, helpmeet is an ‘absurdly formed’ compound of the two words, ‘help’ and ‘meet’. With its biblical roots in The Book of Genesis, the later conjoined version came into prominent use during the nineteenth century. It was unknown to lexicographers Dr Samuel Johnson (d1784) and Noah Webster (d1843). The OED gives this definition of the term,
‘A fitting or suitable helper; a helpmate: usually applied to a wife or husband.’
We know that by ‘helpmeet’ St. John means wife, as he finds Jane’s offer of her companionship to India as his ‘sister’ unacceptable. He wants a wife and nothing less, “the sole helpmeet I can influence efficiently in life, and retain absolutely till death”.
The OED cites a usage of the term by Samuel Smiles in his 1873 book, Huguenots in France, which would aptly describe St. John’s impression of Jane Eyre as a, ‘true helpmeet for him, young, beautiful, rich, and withal virtuous.’ By the time of his marriage proposal, Jane’s inheritance had been divulged.
Whilst helpmeet is a term I don’t use myself, I did recognise it when reading the example letter No150. I was surprised therefore when several of my friends and associates had never heard of it.
The Oxford Etymologist, Anatoly Liberman, writes an interesting post on, Helpmeet, Or Can Stillborn Words Prosper? He concludes that the term is the product of ignorance, and acknowledges that our language constantly delivers such ‘freaks’, which through usage may even for a short while look like ‘well-formed creatures.’ Liberman tells us that in usage, everything is right that the majority considers right, which does not mean that every novelty is beautiful.
Here are a few examples of the term’s usage from the late-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century, from the British Press.
‘Helpmeets and Hinderers’
In 1880, a Miss Farningham delivered a lecture on the topic of ‘Helpmeets and Hinderers’ to a small gathering of the Huddersfield Young Men’s Christian Association. Her paper, especially prepared for women, set out the differences between helpmeets who ‘chiefly gave their hearts to the keeping of others’ and a hinderer, who, ‘was a dreamy thinker, whose thoughts led to nothing but thinking, no working’.
‘A Great Man’s Helpmeet’
A press feature in 1897 on Mrs Thomas A. Edison, the wife of the inventor, is headed, ‘A GREAT MAN’S HELPMEET’. It is stated that Mrs Edison is, ‘in the highest sense of the term, a helpmeet to her famous husband, and the great inventive genius esteems his wife’s advice of greater value than that of the shrewdest lawyer or most intimate friend.’ She is an ‘almost perfect wife and mother’.
Kings and Queens
In his 1936 Declaration to the Privy Council on his succession to the throne, King George VI stated, ‘With my wife as helpmeet by my side, I take up the heavy task which lies before me.’ Twenty-five years earlier his father, King George V had used the same term in his own Declaration when referring to Queen Mary.
In 1947, the Fifeshire Advertiser featured advice for mothers on the topic of giving vitamins to infants, under the heading of ‘Mother’s Helpmeet’.
I was not aware of the term’s biblical origins which others have expanded upon, prompting different interpretations of the Bible and much debate on its true Christian meaning. Heather Farrell, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints, writes a blog, ‘Women in the Scriptures’ (with a sub-heading, ‘The greatest champion of woman and womanhood is Jesus Christ’). Her post on, The real meeting of the term “Help Meet”, concludes that Eve was Adam’s complete spiritual equal and that women ‘have been given a stewardship that is uniquely theirs and which is every bit as important as men’s stewardship’.
I often find comments on a post just as interesting as the post itself. Amongst the comments on Farrell’s post is a declaration that the equality of women we see today, ‘is a direct result of the firearm, particularly the small, concealable revolver.’ Another comment declares that women are never equal to men, that the relationship is complementary and, ‘One leads the other follows, one is dominant the other is submissive, one penetrates the other is penetrated, one is the authority the other is the subordinate.’
Perhaps ‘interesting’ is the wrong word in this instance. Even if I were Christian (which I’m not), I’d still find these views abhorrent and disturbing.
From a brief investigation it does appear that the modern use of the term ‘helpmeet’ has been commandeered by the Christian creed. Farrell’s take on equality between men and women is certainly rooted in her Christianity as she asserts that, ‘Each woman, regardless of her ability to give birth, is a saviour to mankind when she loves men and nurtures a child closer to Christ.’
This association is further extended by Debi Pearl’s 2004 book, Created to be his Help Meet, in which she writes about God’s design for a woman, as a ‘properly-fitted helper’ (in 2012 her husband, Michael wrote, Created to Need a Help Meet). A Christian fundamentalist, Debi Pearl declares, ‘There is no loss of dignity in subordination when it serves a higher purpose. God made you to be a help meet to your husband so you can bolster him’, and, ‘God stands with you when you stand by your man, but you will stand alone if you insist on standing by your rights.’
The book, which contains case studies, advice giving responses to letters, and biblical reflections, is not necessarily representative of the diverse Christian communities across the U.S. and beyond. With nearly 1,000 reviews on Amazon.com (at 28 June 2019), it is described as toxic, dangerous, confusing, a holy grail, tough, raw, truthful and challenging.
A review by the Christian blogger Tim Challies (a pastor at the Grace Fellowship Church in Toronto, Ontario) describes Pearl’s book as, ‘one of the harshest, angriest books I have read on this side of Richard Dawkins and this critical spirit is displayed in insulting language, in lack of sympathy, and in the passing of harsh judgments.’
I was unaware until now that the term ‘helpmeet’ is today being used to castigate women in the name of patriarchy and the Christian God. As Liberman might say, the use of this novelty is this case is not beautiful.
Although one of Pearl’s line did make me smile. In writing about Eve as God’s birthday gift to Adam, she says, ‘My husband, who is a learned student of the Word, assures me that Eve was indeed a birthday present, as seen by the fact that they were both wearing their birthday suits.’ (cue emoji).
Pearl then encourages her reader to greet their husband when he wakes up in the morning with an ‘inviting smile and a welcoming body’. A wife, according to Pearl, is created by God as a helper to suit the needs of her man, to make him complete and not to seek personal fulfilment parallel to him. A failing marriage in Pearl’s book is almost always put down to the wife, whatever the circumstances, and it is the wife who must change her game . For example, if the reader suspects that her husband is having an affair, she must use her feminine wiles to win him back,
‘Write love notes he will find when he gets to the office. Don’t ride him with suspicion. Don’t play detective and follow him around. But do call his work with a giggle in your voice, and give him fair warning that you expect “some loving” when he gets home, then giggle and ask him if he is blushing … Make sure you are looking radiant and delightfully in love.’
As I read on my smile disappears.
I reach for Jane Eyre, thinking if that’s what being a helpmeet means, I’d much rather, like Jane, resist the iron shroud of marriage with a man who, ‘regarded one but as a useful tool.’
Jane may in the end marry Mr Rochester with a love that is strengthened now she can really be useful to him (now he is blind), but in their partnership they are, ‘ever together … as free in solitude, as gay in company.’
If you have never heard of ‘Sleeveless Errand’ by Norah Margaret Ruth Cordner James, or of James herself, it is not surprising. Known as ‘Jimmy’ to her friends and associates, James officially became an ‘authoress’ with the publication of ‘Sleeveless Errand’ in 1929.
The novel was swiftly ruled obscene at the Bow Street Police Court in March 1929, giving James a place on the roll call of authors with British banned books; a place that is neglected in favour of more esteemed names and better writers including James Joyce, Radclyffe Hall, D.H. Lawrence (see my post on ‘Mr Reuben, Penguin Books & Lady Chatterley’) and Vladimir Nabokov. If it wasn’t for James and ‘Sleeveless Errand’, however, many banned books by these authors would not have been made available so quickly to a wider audience.
James lived from 1896 to 1979, and had numerous occupations. She was an art student at the Slade, a civil servant and trade union organiser at the Ministry of Pensions, a publicist for the English publisher Jonathan Cape, literary talent scout for American publisher William Morrow, a journalist, private secretary to parliamentary candidate Barbara Ayrton-Gould (mother of the sculptor, filmmaker and author, Michael Ayrton), and the Author’s Society representative on the National Book Council. In 1939 James joined the Auxiliary Fire Service and then the Air Transport Auxiliary. She was appointed Staff Captain in the Directorate of Public Relations at the War Office and invalided out in 1943. She later became a borough councillor in Finsbury.
The oeuvre of a minor author
James wrote over 75 publications including novels, radio plays and a great many short stories and articles such as a 1938 feature for the Aberdeen Press and Journal entitled, ‘Are you a cheat in the marriage game?’
A 1936 review of a James novel, ‘The Lion Beat the Unicorn’, describes her works as a ‘gallery of very human men and women–people like you and your neighbour and the rest of the world.’ The review declares that family life is a theme with which James is very much at home. From the titles I’ve read thus far, this assessment captures the essence of James’ approach to her writing and points to her popular appeal amongst a certain demographic.
I wonder if any of James’ readers were aware that she was gay (or as one would say in her day, lesbian). Not many, I suspect. For the second half of her life James lived with her partner, and occasional co-author, Barbara Beauchamp. In her 1939 autobiography (dedicated to Beauchamp), James chose to avoid writing about her ‘emotional life’.
So far, I’ve read the following:
Sleeveless Errand (1929)
Hail! All Hail! (1929)
I Lived in a Democracy (1939) (autobiography)
Jake the Dog: An Animal Story (1933) (illustrated by Ruth Vale)
Mrs Piffy: A Child’s-Eye View of Life (1934) (illustrated with photographs by C.C. Gaddum)
Cottage Angles (1935) (illustrated by Gwen Raverat)
The Hunted Heart (1941)
Green Fingers and the Gourmet (1949), with Barbara Beauchamp (illustrated by Bruce Roberts)
Hospital Angles (1966) (not ‘Angels’ as listed by the bookseller)
In another 1936 review of another novel, ‘By a Side Wind’, described as ‘curiously mixed’, James’ story is said to be told with,
‘a wearying of sincere simplicity. To the simple-minded who are not afraid of writing that does not call a spade a garden implement, this queer mixture might be palatable.’
The romances are not really my cup of tea but I felt I should read a few to get an overall sense of James’ style. When my copy of ‘Hospital Angles’ arrived and I noticed that it was published by Hurst and Blackett, I must confess I couldn’t get Dr Evadne Hinge and Dame Hilda Bracket and their hilarious double entendres out of my mind. I can just hear them singing this line from ‘The Hunted Heart’,
‘His mind sped out the room, tossed forth from the high, bright column of his longing.’
Research and rumours
On reading James’ autobiography, it is not difficult to see that much of ‘Sleeveless Errand’ is autobiographical, though I’m pleased to acknowledge that James’ real life took a very different turn to that of her protagonist, Paula Cranford. James’ life is not terribly well documented and I’m still piecing together a chronology and narrative with a mind to publishing a concise biography at some time in the future. I do have enough material for an illustrated talk and will add the topic to my current list of available topics for groups and societies (see page on this website).
I do know that for a number of years during the 1930s, James had a weekend cottage in Great Gransden, the village where I currently reside. I have our friend Val Davison, organiser of the Gransdens Society, to thank for introducing me to the life and work of James. I’m also grateful for the support and encouragement of Dr Charles Turner, friend and village resident, whose aunt’s dog, Brandy, appears in ‘Jake the Dog.’
People do still talk about James’ weekend life in Great Gransden. There is rumour of a ménage à trois, but that is all it is, rumour. We know she jointly purchased the Old Cottage in West Street with Margaret and Frederick Voigt in the early 1930s and she mainly lived with Margaret in London whilst Frederick worked in Berlin for the Manchester Guardian. In 1929, James had travelled to America with Margaret (an American journalist and biographer, Margaret – formerly Margaret Goldsmith – had had a short affair in Berlin with Vita Sackville-West in 1928 and went on to divorce Voigt in 1935).
James on the book trade
James’ autobiography is one of her more interesting tomes, not least because she had a spell working for the publisher, Jonathan Cape from 1926, and makes insightful observations of the book trade which are still relevant today. She observed the prosaic aspects of the business which involved, ‘sitting at a desk and calculating the price of paper per pound’, and acknowledged also, the excitement of the unknown whereby,
‘the whole thing was a gamble. Probably only one book out of five makes money for the publisher. Although you think that you can generally guess which of the five is a winner, you’re not always right.’
Her specific role at Cape was in the ‘queer game’ of publicity and she astutely recognised that a book sells if people talk about it. For James, a book has to be ‘talk-worthy’,
‘One can suggest, in various ways, to people, the book they should be speaking about, but if they haven’t the urge to talk, they won’t. Nevertheless, it is one of the most important things in selling a book.’
And on authors, she writes, ‘Then there were the authors, quite important people–although not so important as they often imagined.’
The plot is uncomplicated and takes place over two days in the early 1920s. Paula Cranford, jilted by her lover, resolves to commit suicide. She meets Bill Cleland and together they wander around London night clubs meeting Paula’s bohemian associates, ‘The Crowd’. Paula and Bill talk all night at her place about their respective families and circumstances, and form a suicide pact, planning to drive a hire car over a cliff on the coast. They drive towards Hove, break down in Brighton and spend the night in a hotel where they meet with a travelling revue company. Bill has second thoughts about suicide and Paula persuades him to return to his wife. She then ends her own life as she had planned before meeting Bill.
Alexander Lockwood, in his 2014 doctoral thesis, observes that ‘Sleeveless Errand’ fails to support post-war efforts to renew British identity through a ‘conservative modernity’ of fixed social relations, marriage and women’s domesticity. During the 1920s the tide was certainly turning, as Patricia Fara, in her 2018 examination of science and suffrage in the First World War (‘A Lab of One’s Own’), concludes, when she declares that however much traditionalists argued for a return to the old conventions, the upheavals of wartime had proved that social change was possible,
‘gender boundaries were more severely challenged and there was no going back to exactly the same situation.’
The feminist cause does not appear, however, to be a primary concern in James’ perceived rejection of the old conventions in this novel. One wonders if her protagonist, Paula, is wedded to any cause at all, as she rejects life itself and all that it entails. The clue is in the title, as given in this definition from The Oxford Dictionary which James herself cites at the beginning;
‘Sleeveless Errand :– Ending in, or leading to nothing’
(Meaning a fool’s errand, this now obsolete phrase is found in Act Five of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida.)
We know from early on in the novel that Paula is planning to commit suicide. We even know how she will do it. But why?
Various suggestions have been put forward, including the post-war malaise, an augmentation of the disappointment that characterised ‘feminine middlebrow’ fiction and the failure of hope, a profound boredom, and a rejection of the internal reflection that was afforded by the flowering of psychoanalysis in contemporary popular culture.
The literary critic, Edward Garnett, who wrote the Preface for the First Paris Edition of ‘Sleeveless Errand’ (1929), had called the novel, ‘a real diagnosis of the War generation’s neurotics’. He had also concluded, in his Preface, that the novel’s censorship was a case of, ‘moral righteousness and official Pecksniffery’.
In the Preface, Garnett cites Arnold Bennett’s assessment of the novel as,
“an absolutely merciless exposure of neurotics and decadents, and I should say that the effect of it on the young reader would have been to destroy in him all immoral and unconventional impulses for ever and ever.”
James declared her novel was indeed about neurotics but was not of itself, neurotic. The post-war malaise is certainly not ignored, and Paula Cranford has her own distinctive take on happiness, the moral code, pacifism, the Church, democracy, sexual control and corruption, and marriage. Whilst declaring that her generation seems not to have any moral values at all, Paula says,
“as a whole, my generation of women is rotten to the core… We sneer at goodness and decency whenever we come across it. We’re bored with people who aren’t bawdy. We call them prigs and prudes if they don’t want to talk about copulation at lunchtime and buggery at dinner. We despise people who don’t swill booze down as we do,”
She does at least pose a determinant,
“Freedom came too quickly for us. We weren’t ready for it. We had no reserves with which to meet the deadly disappointment after the War of finding ourselves workless, and husbandless and useless. Those of us who had cared a bit about reconstruction and all that came down with even a greater bang, for we found that there wasn’t going to be any reconstruction at all… it’s in the next generation of children that the chance of a better future lies. The only thing my sort can do is to contaminate them as little as possible.”
Lockwood acknowledges that boredom was a common experience in the interwar period. Paula’s boredom is manifested in her refusal to wallow in self-analysis. In her conversations with Bill, Paula refers to her own ‘handicap of bad heredity’ and calls herself a ‘hopeless egoist’ and a ‘neurotic emotionalist’. But having done so, she then rejects the modern way of introspection (a way that could possibly lead to a reason for living) and, ultimately, any perceived notion of a noble obligation to society, as she tells Bill,
“I’m not going from any quixotic idea that because I’m part of the plague spot I ought to; no, it’s simply that I’m unutterably bored.”
Bill thinks to himself,
“She’s right to die; she at any rate is damned.”
The publication of ‘Sleeveless Errand’
In 1928, Eric Honeywood Partridge of Scholartis Press accepted the manuscript of ‘Sleeveless Errand’ for publication. He paid James a £25 advance and received pre-orders from booksellers for around 1,500 copies (the cover price was 7s6d). (Partridge went on to become a renowned lexicographer. I recently bought a 1937 edition of his ‘Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English’, in which I could not find an entry for the phrase, ‘sleeveless errand’, or indeed, ‘fool’s errand’.)
James had previously offered the manuscript of ‘Sleeveless Errand’ to her employer, Jonathan Cape, who, whilst appreciating a ‘glowing’ 1928 assessment by Garnett (‘A very interesting novel very well written’), was concerned about upsetting his authors who might have thought she had neglected the promotion of their books for her own writing. In 1939 James writes,
‘I had to agree with him that it might lead to difficulties with some of our authors. I knew how touchy they could be.’
She had also offered the manuscript to the Hogarth Press, meeting with Leonard and Virginia Woolf who turned it down (later on, following the book’s suppression, Virginia described it as ‘vulgar’ but not offensive).
An obscene book
The British Establishment condemned ‘Sleeveless Errand’ with incredible speed, effectively obliterating the very act of publication. Although according to Neil Pearson in his 2007 history of Jack Kahane’s Obelisk Press (see below), a few collectors and copyright libraries retained a copy from that first print run, technically retaining it as the first edition. Copies had also been sent to reviewers and to Partridge’s contacts in America.
It was reported that on the evening of 20 February 1929, the Police seized 517 copies. They called upon Eric Partridge at home, escorted him to his office in Museum Street, and confiscated all 289 copies therein including 39 that bore James’ signature. They listed the names of all who had received copies; ten booksellers, the distributor Simpkin Marshall (250 copies) and the exporter William Jackson and Company (100 copies). According to one report, Scotland Yard posted a police constable outside the premises of a bookseller who had placed the book on display in his shop window whilst taking a short holiday. They also visited a reviewer and seized her advance copy, and 1,000 unbound sheets from the The Garden City Press Ltd in Letchworth.
James was oblivious to these events and in 1939 recalls,
‘On the day of publication I walked to the office in Bedford Square, and, on my way, passed a news placard saying: “Woman’s Novel Seized.” So far was I from connecting SE with that news item, that I never even stopped to buy a copy of the paper.’
Just three months earlier James had attended the trial of another banned book, ‘The Well of Loneliness’ by Radclyffe Hall. It was the first time she had ever been inside a courtroom. James had got to know Hall through Jonathan Cape who had asked her to read Hall’s manuscript when he was considering publication. Hall and James both frequented the Cave of Harmony, a club owned by the actress Elsa Lanchester (‘Bride of Frankenstein’), a popular meeting place for London intellectuals. James writes in her autobiography,
‘I found her [Hall] an extremely highly-strung woman, with one of the kindest hearts in the world… The Well of Loneliness was a fine and sincere piece of work, and I think it did a great deal of good in enlightening people on a subject that had been too long hidden under a veil of dirty innuendo or shamed self-conscious silence.’
Ostensibly banned because of its obscene language (see below), although in the American edition only three words were cut from the original text, ‘Sleeveless Errand’ tends to be coupled with ‘The Well of Loneliness’ by academics and historians. The challenge that these two books represented to the patriarchal status quo has been observed as a factor in their censorship. Angela Ingram, for example, declares that both novels, in their different ways, show how ‘utterly unalluring’ heterosexual life often was.
The two novels have, however, fared very differently. Initially republished in 1949, ‘The Well of Loneliness’ has over the years gained what Harrison calls, a ‘cultural legitimacy’ that is denied to ‘Sleeveless Errand’. But then ‘The Well of Loneliness’ was a landmark in the history of queer literature.
In 1929, the writer and publisher Percy ‘Inky’ Stephensen, penned a lampoon entitled, ‘The Well of Sleevelessness’, also published by Scholartis Press.
The British Home Secretary, Sir William Joynson-Hicks (a public morality campaigner who had been instrumental in the prosecution of ‘The Well of Loneliness’), sent a copy of ‘Sleeveless Errand’ to the Director of Public Prosecutions. He had received his copy from the editor of the Morning Post with a covering note declaring the book obscene. A Home Office briefing prepared by a senior civil servant declares,
‘It is astonishing that such a book could be written by a woman, but the authoress must be a woman whose command of foul, obscene, indecent and profane language is, I should hope, unique amongst women who can write.’
The Home Office file for the prosecution itself is missing but there is a transcript of the trial and The Times reported the court proceedings on 5 March 1929. The case against the book, as put by Mr Percival Clarke, supporting the summons on behalf of the Director of Public Prosecutions, is reported accordingly,
‘The book itself was a novel of 239 pages. The story concerned a period of two days, and was told in the form of a conversation by persons entirely devoid of decency and morality, who for the most part were under the influence of drink, and who not only tolerated but even advocated adultery and promiscuous fornication. Filthy language and indecent situations appeared to be the keynote of the book. He (counsel) did not pretend to be a literary critic, but it seemed to him to be degrading that such a collection of obscene matter should be published by any respectable firm. It was the aim of some writers to pass off as literature matter which could only have a degrading, immoral influence, and which tended to excite unhealthy persons; and to command a market by writing daring and corrupt stories. One thing noticeable about this book was that the name of God or Christ was taken in vain more than 60 times in a way which shocked. Mr. Clarke quoted from the book the saying of one character, “For Christ’s sake give me a drink”, and said that profanity could not possibly be justified, even by the characters in the book.’
The Crown Prosecutor’s file highlighted certain lines from the novel, such as, ‘We call them prigs and prudes if they don’t want to talk about copulation at lunchtime and buggery at dinner.’
Mr Clarke is reported in The Times as stating, “There are decent-minded people who read books and appreciate some of the beauties in English literature, and they look to the strong arm of the law to check and prevent the broadcasting of such foul stuff as this.”
And for the defence, The Times reports Mr Sandlands as stating, “There were a lot of horrible things in it, but the object of the book was to hold up to horror the mode of life and the language and habits of a certain section of the community… far from tending to deprave and demoralise, this book tended entirely the other way. Shakespeare’s works and the Old Testament mentioned horrible things in order to condemn them or to exhort against their use… It called attention to the despair and hopelessness and waste of the life alluded to by contrasting it with a normal life.”
Lord Chief Justice Cockburn was certain that the book would, “suggest to the minds of the young of either sex, or even to persons of more advanced years, thoughts of a most impure character.” He made an order for the destruction of the seized copies; 785 of the 799 were destroyed (there are questions over exactly how many copies Scholartis Press had in the first print run).
Later, in 1939, James writes,
‘I could not understand why. The book had been read by a number of well-known literary people in manuscript, and no one had suggested that I should make any cuts in it. But, apparently, it was called an obscene book–simply because of the words used in it. I would have cut them out willingly if I’d been told it was necessary. But I’d never been told that. It never occurred to me that it would be considered obscene to let the characters in it use the language they used in real life… I don’t believe the book was obscene. I do know that it was a kind of sermon against the stupidity and futility of the life a section of the post-war generation was leading.’
Harrison acknowledges that the official reason for the novel’s suppression cannot help but be attributed to James’s own supposed naïve or superficial–but ultimately heretical–attempt at “being frank”. Its vocabulary was crude, but according to James and her publisher, not intentionally obscene. In a contemporary interview with The Times, James described ‘Sleeveless Errand’ as “an extremely moral book and a condemnation of the people and the life it portrays.” Eric Partridge was of the opinion that the novel had been suppressed for political reasons, with obscenity being a ‘mere pretext’.
Paris and United States editions
An English writer in Paris, Jack Kahane, was also quick off the mark. Having followed the ‘Sleeveless Errand’ case, he decided to publish an English-language edition in France and secured the rights accordingly. James stipulated that half of her royalties from the Kahane deal be paid to Eric Partridge by way of recompense for the loss of income brought about by the trial. She also agreed to place her next novel, ‘Hail! All Hail!’ with Scholartis, which came out in 1929 with this introduction,
‘Miss James’s first novel, Sleeveless Errandwas suppressed. Her new story deals most attractively with life in the English countryside and with a poor district in West Central London. Hail! All Hail! shows an undoubted advance on Sleeveless Errand, which Mr. Arnold Bennett declared to be well constructed and well written, and to disclose a new talent for fiction. Here the pattern of a certain family’s life is worked out with skill and a rare sympathy.’
Kahane’s first Paris Edition of ‘Sleeveless Errand’ was published in April 1929 (copies appeared in French bookshops as early as the end of March 1929). Kahane paid Edward Garnett five hundred francs for the preface and set the cover price at one hundred francs. The resulting profit of four hundred thousand francs effectively kickstarted Kahane’s publishing career. He went on to establish the Obelisk Press and re-printed several banned books including Henry Miller’s ‘Tropic of Cancer’ and books by D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce and Radclyffe Hall.
An American edition of ‘Sleeveless Errand’ was published by William Morrow and sold well (around 20,000 copies), enabling James to buy a second-hand car and a typewriter (Morrow also gave James the job of representing his firm in Britain as a literary scout). ‘Sleeveless Errand’ was translated into at least six other languages but has never be republished in Britain.
Following the publication in America, Basil Dean, the English film director and theatrical producer, told James that he was quite taken with the book and thought it would make a good play. James, who had high hopes, wrote a script which Dean showed to Noel Coward, who found it to be ‘too defeatist’. The American actress, Talullah Bankhead, told James she thought Paula was not a nice character, and declared, “actresses don’t like being thought not nice–on the stage or off it!”
Wren Sidhe in her 2001 doctoral thesis, considers ‘Sleeveless Errand’ to be ‘an indictment of the generation responsible for the prosecution of the war’ and observes as a matter of interest, the fact that court reports neglect this aspect of the text in favour of one which accuses the writer and publisher of immorality. The novel presented a real challenge to re-imagining the nation. This perspective points to the novel’s suppression as a case of conspiratorial or state-sanctioned action; a conclusion reached by Harrison who calls ‘Sleeveless Errand’ a ‘marginalized and possibly marginal novel’.
‘Sleeveless Errand’ certainly has a place in censorship and publishing history and, as Lockwood points out, it contributed to the establishment of the Obelisk Press and was ‘the first link in the chain’ of their publication of other banned yet more enduring books.
Opinion on the quality of James’ writing in ‘Sleeveless Errand’ is divided. In 1934, T. S. Matthews, literary editor of Time Magazine, described ‘Sleeveless Errand’ as, ‘A story of post-war London; one of the few convincing suicide stories I remember.’ In contrast, Neil Pearson describes it as ‘a deeply terrible book, maudlin, melodramatic and fatally upstaged by its obvious and unabsorbed influences.’ A review recently published on Sheffield Hallam University’s blog on popular fiction 1900-1950, concludes the narrative would have been more successful if the story had been shorter and sharper.
Whilst the subject matter of ‘Sleeveless Errand’ holds much interest, I personally find James’ writing at times clunky and guileless. I’m not offended by the novel’s content, though I suspect there are those today who would find certain terms unacceptable, including the ‘n’ word and, like me, would disagree with Bill’s private thoughts on women and rape.
The story of the book and its censorship would make an excellent drama, especially if placed in the capable hands of British playwright and director, Stephen Poliakoff, who has so successfully tackled a number of intriguing episodes in twentieth century history.
Durability is something that ‘Sleeveless Errand’ lacks, as it is still ‘quarantined from literary expression’.
Perhaps it is time for a new British edition, with or without expurgation.
Brief bibliography, in addition to James’ works cited above:
In a previous post on ‘Mazes, opium and publishing deals’, I noted that anyone who wanted Heffers of Cambridge to publish their book had to be interviewed by ‘Mr Heffer’ – most likely ‘Mr Ernest’ or his son, ‘Mr Reuben’. By the early twentieth century, Heffers of Cambridge, the bookseller, stationer, printer and publisher was, ‘known all over the world’.
The author and self-proclaimed mystic, Aelfrida Tillyard, described by her biographer Sheila Mann as a ‘forgotten 20th Century writer’, appeared to have had a good working relationship with Mr Ernest (son of the firm’s founder, William Heffer). Heffers published seven of her titles between 1910 and 1926.
Cambridge born, Aelfrida (1883-1959) was the daughter of nonconformists, Alfred and Catharine Tillyard. Alfred was editor of the Cambridge Independent Press and Catharine, a staunch advocate for women’s higher education (Antony Carpen writes about Catharine in his ‘Lost Cambridge’ blog).
The relevant volume of the Heffer publishing diaries is unfortunately missing and I cannot ascertain the exact contractual terms between the firm and Tillyard. I can, however, piece together a cameo that reveals yet another aspect to the fascinating history of Heffers.
The Tillyard titles published by Heffers are:
To Malise and other poems (1910) 2s 6d Cambridge Poets 1900-1913: An Anthology: chosen by Aelfrida Tillyard (1913) 5s Bammie’s Book (1915) The Garden and the Fire (1916) 2s 6d The Making of a Mystic (1917) 2s 6d Verses for Alethea (1920) Agnes E. Slack: two hundred thousand miles travel for temperance in four continents (1926) 7s 6d and 3s 6d
To Malise and other poems
To Malise was published by subscription and, as Mann reports, we do not know if Tillyard covered her costs. The poems contained in the volume are intensely personal, detailing her husband Constantine’s courtship of her and the early years of their marriage. Mann describes Tillyard’s dedication, ‘À toi’, and inscription, ‘to my perfectly beloved husband’ as simultaneously fulsome, truthful and duplicitous. The poems revealed Tillyard’s misery and desperation for freedom from the marriage, in contrast to her professed happiness at the time; ‘I wonder if I shall ever be quite as happy again’. Anyone with the slightest inclination of Tillyard’s true feelings about her marriage would have understood, as Constantine must have done, the significance of this humiliating publication. Was Ernest Heffer aware of the situation? It is unlikely. Whilst we cannot know what Tillyard said in the ‘interview’ with her prospective publisher, we can surmise that her case for publication would have focussed upon the higher themes and her potential sales appeal as an author – she did once describe herself as, ‘better than Christina Rossetti’.
It is not surprising that the relationship between Tillyard and Constantine Cleanthes Graham continued to deteriorate. Later, in November 1917, she writes in her diary:
‘I tried not to be hurt that he was so completely indifferent to my interests & pursuits, and, incidentally, extremely rude to me over my opinions… but it is difficult not to feel chilled when one’s husband says “I do not think thy opinion is worth having.”’
‘This morning he asked me whether I expected to make any money out of my books. I answered no, not a penny. And then he suggested my doing some war work & hinted that he thought I was wasting my time.’
They divorced in 1921.
Cambridge Poets 1900-1913
Mann describes the excitement stirred up by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s 1913 lectures, especially his call for Cambridge to ‘take the lead in English poetry once more’ (having recently edited the 1912 Oxford Book of Victorian Verse). Tillyard was prompted to call on Quiller-Couch (known as ‘Q’) by appointment at Jesus College, armed with a proposal for a ‘scheme of Cambridge poets’. He approved her proposal and even agreed to pen an introduction. Tillyard reported in her diary that upon leaving ‘Q’, she ‘raced to Heffers and told [her] victory’. She also reported that she and ‘Young Heffer’ began to make plans. Presumably, she is distinguishing between Heffer senior (Ernest’s father, William) and Heffer junior (Ernest himself), seeing that Ernest was eight years older than Tillyard.
In writing about the production of the resulting publication, Cambridge Poets 1900-1913: An Anthology: chosen by Aelfrida Tillyard, Mann acknowledges Ernest Heffer’s greater knowledge of the world of publishing. He would have been aware of a forthcoming title, Oxford Poetry 1910-13, and he suggested that Tillyard include poetry written by Cambridge poets between 1900 and 1913. I wonder what Ernest would have made of the Birmingham Daily Post review in which the paper, ‘contemplated with considerable astonishment, but little admiration’, the inclusion of twenty pages of poetry written by the occultist Aleister Crowley. Mann sees this as an early indication of Crowley’s influence on Tillyard, partly because his poems had most likely been written before 1900 (he was at Trinity College, Cambridge from 1895-1898) and therefore did not fit her stated selection criteria. Those who are intrigued by the story of Tillyard’s relationship with ‘Crowley and Crowleyism’, and his Ceremonial Magic, will find a comprehensive account in Mann’s biography.
For details about negotiations between the author and publisher for the publication of this anthology, we just have Tillyard’s personal diary to go on and she was clearly excited about the book. She must have felt it to be a positive omen when Heffers agreed to bear all the expenses and divide the profits with her. Ernest also sought an independent opinion on the book from Maynard Keynes prior to drawing up a contract, but this was not forthcoming and he settled instead for ‘Q’s blessing’.
By 1913, Ernest Heffer (1871-1948) was a respected publisher and bookseller. The fourth son of the firm’s founder, he had been a sickly child of a studious disposition. Ernest learned his trade at the Heffers Fitzroy Street shop which had a thriving Children’s Book Department. During the 1880s, the firm’s connection with the Cambridge Sunday School Association provided a business breakthrough when they began to supply Sunday School prizes. Ernest tells a tale of the time when he recommended Marryat’s Japhet in Search of a Father, the story of a foundling in search of his father, as a Sunday School prize. Evidently, his selection was not well received, as the vicar he recommended it to threw it back at him after having read it.
Despite such early hiccups, Ernest went on to play a significant role in building up the bookselling side of the business, overseeing the Petty Cury bookshop from 1896. He seemed equally at ease in commercial and literary circles. Ernest attended the inaugural meeting of the Cambridge Chamber of Commerce in January 1917 and also served as President of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association. As his son, Reuben declared, Ernest, ‘blew the stuff of books into the firm’. His obituary in The Times described Ernest as:
‘a bookseller in charge who knew something about the insides of books. If he found you dipping into a newly published book he might strongly recommend it, having read it himself the night before, or on the other hand, he might urge you not to buy such rubbish … Both Cambridge and the book trade have lost a “character”.’
The Making of a Mystic
On 22 July 1917, Tillyard took her manuscript of The Making of a Mystic to Heffers for a meeting. Ernest quoted a cost of £40 for a 120-page publication and quickly agreed to act as the publisher. Tillyard writes on 24 July, ‘Quite an exciting day. Heffer says he thinks they will “love to publish” my book’. The contract was not signed until 13 September, shortly after the final manuscript had been submitted for printing. On 11 November, Tillyard writes:
‘I went to the works to see about some labels for Constantine, & asked about my book. “Oh!” cried Mr Frank Heffer “Fate & the Gods are against us! The machine broke down and –“ a long tale of woes. I was prepared to learn that the book would not be out before Christmas, when he added “But you can have an advance copy today”. It quite took my breath away! What is more, I got five copies. I learn too, that 130 copies have already been ordered!! Ad maiorem Dei gloriam.’
Frank Heffer (1876-1933) was the second youngest son of William and Mary Heffer. He had had to have a leg amputated as a child. Ernest wrote of his brother, ‘what he lost in the leg, he made up in animal spirits’, and described him as ‘having the face of a saint; but mischief was always in his vicinity’. Frank studied Medicine at Sidney Sussex, Cambridge, but was brought into the business in 1900. He became managing director of the firm’s printing works, after Heffers obtained the Black Bear Press (Dixon’s Printing Works Ltd) in 1911.
Tillyard’s literary prescience
Tillyard had a number of publishers over the years. It is interesting to note her title published in 1930, not by Heffers, but by Hutchinson. Concrete: a Story of Two Hundred Years Hence, is a novel that depicts a dystopian world following the collapse of civilization in the twentieth century via various events including a revolution of the proletariat in the Western world, a plague that wipes out three-quarters of the human race, and a repetition of the Dancing Mania of the Middle Ages. It is now 2126, the ‘Age of Reason’, an international civilization. Religion is banned and performance of any religious ceremony is punishable by death. Britain is governed locally by the Eugenist Party, with absolute power over human reproduction. The population is divided into eugenic groups, the lower of which are forbidden to propagate. Males are not allowed to marry before thirty. Biologically unfit individuals are euthanatized.
The president of the British Empire oversees a number of ministries such as the Ministry of Reason, headed by an official called ‘Big Brother’. There is also a Ministry of Aesthetics, responsible for propaganda. Described by American editor and scholar of science fiction, Everett F. Bleiler, as a ‘drab dictatorship’, the state in Tillyard’s future Britain is characterized by ubiquitous spying, ruthless thought control and a ready death penalty. The Western Morning News & Mercury declares that Concrete strikes a topical note as Tillyard pictures a world in which Sovietism is triumphant, religion abolished, and the reign of reason inaugurated. This new world is comfortable enough materially, but its inhabitants are thoroughly bored with life. The paper asks, will religion return and help them find a meaning in existence? As Concrete was published in 1930, it is difficult not to assume that her writing influenced both Aldous Huxley (Brave New World, 1932) and George Orwell (Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1949). Tillyard’s protagonist, Alaric, works at the Ministry of Aesthetics and Orwell’s Winston Smith works at the Ministry of Truth. Both are subversives but only one finds redemption.
Originally submitted for a religious novel competition run by Hodder and Stoughton, Mann describes Tillyard’s novel as an attempt to bring the world to light that ended in darkness – sales did not go well. Tillyard put this down to her publisher, Hutchinson, noting they were not being taken seriously and they were ‘known to be circulating library trash’. It is interesting that Mann writes about Concrete in her chapter on ‘Rubbish that will sell’. Tillyard’s indifference to domestic affairs and her failure to economise meant she needed to make money from her writing. I wonder how the novel might have fared had it been published by Heffers.
I came across Tillyard’s connection with Heffers quite by chance, when reading her 1917 diary at the Girton College Archive for another project. Intrigued, I purchased a copy of Mann’s 2013 ‘novel biography’ of Tillyard, Hints of a Perfect Splendour. It is a tour de force and a joy to read.
I continue to discover more about the history of Heffers and regularly give illustrated talks on the topic to groups and societies in and around Cambridge, and beyond. If you would like to book a talk, do get in touch – email@example.com
I will soon visit Histon Road Cemetery in Cambridge, to look at the Tillyard family monuments. The cemetery is located close to where I grew up.
And finally, I have ordered a copy of Tillyard’s biography of her aunt, Agnes E. Slack (1926), as I am interested in the history of Methodism and the Temperance Movement.
It seems the older I get, the more ‘joined-up’ my research and writing becomes.
As we advance the clocks it’s now warm enough for me to work in the ‘Philosopher’s Hut’, my pimped garden shed geared up for writing, and I have much to think about. I’ve been ruminating of late on existential topics, reading Joan Forman on the nature of time and Simone de Beauvoir on the meaning of what it is to live and to die. It’s partly the work on our new book, Beer & Spirits: Haunted Hostelries of Cambridgeshire, that led me to Forman’s writing, which in turn led me to revisit works that I haven’t read for years such as T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.
My cerebral batteries have also been re-charged by a fresh dialectic between a long-proclaimed Cambridge family doctrine and the ‘truth’ that lies behind the life and death of my great-great grandmother Susan Anstee (1864-1914), whose name I learned only last year thanks to a disclosure by a distant cousin.
As a child I wanted to connect with people from the past. I was drawn to stories that shifted our sense of time and history. Particular favourites were Tom’s Midnight Garden, The Secret Gardenand Charlotte Sometimes. It’s a revelation for Tom Long that neither he nor his new friend from the midnight garden are ghosts. He discovers whilst different people have different times, they’re really all bits of the same big Time. People are not really living in the past but are instead living out their individual existences in different layers of that same big Time.
I didn’t know then that I would have to wait over forty years to experience that interruption of now, that moment of timeless synchronicity, when a far family memory is revealed in all its unseemly glory. Consequently, as well as continuing my researches on the topics of Cambridge college servants (which I began in 2016) and the life and work of the author Norah C. James (which I began in 2018), I’m now looking into plight of sex workers in Victorian Cambridge.
Yesterday I attended a course at the Cambridge Central Library – ‘An introduction to memoir writing’. The whole session was a series of writing exercises, what I call ‘fast-twitch’ writing. Whilst stimulating, this was slightly disappointing. I wanted us to talk about what we mean by ‘memoir’ and to hear about published works that might be a good read. During the last six months I’ve read A Lincolnshire Childhood by Ursula Brighouse; I Lived in a Democracy by Norah C. James; In the Days of Rain by Rebecca Stott, and A Very Easy Death by Simone de Beauvoir. For one of the workshop tasks we were given a few minutes to write about food that we did or didn’t like. I wrote about a memory from when I was eight or nine.
Gritty, chewy bogies on toast. My grandad would use a needle to delicately pick out the winkles one by one and lay them across a slice of thickly buttered toast. He offered me a taste and, not wanting to displease, I screwed up my eyes, held my nose and popped a tiny grey morsel into my mouth. He didn’t seem to notice my revulsion and smiled approvingly. Trying not to chew, I swallowed as quickly as I could and then took a gulp from my glass of lemonade.
The workshop was certainly a useful anaerobic interlude, prompting a return to the blog writing and a review of my collection of filled notebooks. These are not diaries but ‘sketch’ books, much like my husband Trevor’s but unlike his, filled with words rather than drawings.
Whilst my muscles do need stretching, it’s probably a good thing that my running days are over. The recent unsurprising diagnosis of osteoarthritis in my ankles and knees means I have more time to spend in the hut. Last year I completed The Curious History of Mazes which had to be written according to a strict schedule set by the publisher. Immediately after that I went on to the research and curation for the Window on the Warexhibition on women in Cambridge during World War I, and to the research for our first ghost book, Beer & Spirits: Haunted Hostelries of Bedfordshire.
Last January I stepped down from the Monday Collections volunteering at the Museum of Cambridge, to release more time for me to assist Trevor with paid work in the studio. Besides working on the next in our Beer & Spirits series, I’m delivering many illustrated talks for a range of groups and societies on three topics; The Remarkable Story of Heffers of Cambridge, 1876-1999; The Curious History of Labyrinths & Mazes, and Beer and Spirits: tales of sightings, sounds and sensations in our local haunted hostelries.I enjoy engaging with different audiences and I enjoy winkling out the past, unsavoury though it may be for some.
My distant cousin said the other day, ‘I suppose you’ll be writing about Susan’.
Cambridge journalist Chris Elliott included my plea in his regular Memories feature and I keenly awaited the calls. I distinctly remember picking up the phone just a day or so later and hearing a gentle and cultured voice saying,
“Good afternoon, my name is Criddle. I understand you are seeking memories of Heffers.”
Subsequently, I spent many happy hours in the convivial company of Mr Criddle – Gerald – as he looked back upon his fifteen years at the firm. Before establishing his own Cambridge gallery in 1970, Gerald worked as an artist based at the Heffers Sidney Street stationery shop from 1955; a shop once aptly described by another former employee, Sarah Burton, as a “tower of treasures” (now a librarian, Sarah writes an interesting blog). Gerald’s office at Sidney Street was on the top floor, alongside the art gallery and boardroom, and he himself recalls the building as having, “a quality about it, you nestled into it.”
Award winning window displays
At Heffers, Gerald focussed on promotions, displays and greetings cards. His artistic talents were employed in putting together many inventive and award-winning window displays. Over the years he earned a total of £998 in prize money for the firm. Often, he would go up to London for the presentations. On one occasion he was presented with a cheque by the publisher Sir George Harrap, made out to him personally and not to Heffers. Sir George insisted that Gerald should have the money as he had done the work. However, the Heffers directors did not view it that way and insisted the money be set aside for purchasing window display materials.
This is Heffers, not WH Smith!
Gerald was also involved with greetings cards and calendars. For many years, Heffers had stocked a wide range of cards from suppliers such as J. Arthur Dixon and Valentines. In the 1950s and ’60s the industry was beginning to change with greetings cards imported from US companies such as Hallmark and Hanson White.
Gerald recalls answering his phone one day to John Heffer, who wanted to see him immediately in the boardroom (known among the staff as ‘Mr John’ to distinguish him from other members of the family working in the firm, John was a grandson of the firm’s founder and in charge of the stationery side of the business).
Whenever Mr John wanted to show someone something, he would slip it into a large notepad and fling it across the table. If the person on the receiving end side-stepped in order to avoid a collision, Mr John would exclaim, “butter fingers! On this occasion, Gerald caught the pad and inside were two Hanson White greetings cards, known as ‘slim-jims’, with black and white illustrations. One depicted a vicar at a sale saying,
‘Oh Miss Smith, what a lovely pear you’ve got!’,
to a very glamorous female holding up some fruit. The other also featured a vicar, this time standing behind a stall which held a large vegetable marrow and a lady saying,
‘My goodness, vicar, you have got a big one!’
Gerald thought they were funny. However, Mr John did not and exclaimed, “they are disgusting. This is Heffers, not W.H. Smith!” He asked Gerald to speak to Mrs Webb, the buyer responsible for cards. On doing so, Gerald discovered that whilst being pleased with the new stock of up-to-date designs, poor Mrs Webb had no clue about the innuendos.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover
Different Heffers shops approached sales of the new unexpurgated edition of Lawrence’s controversial novel in very different ways. Gerald recalls that at Sidney Street, it was deemed that each sale would be individually handled by Mr Hobson, the store’s book buyer. Customers were to be shown the cover and then the book placed in a plain bag. After it had been on sale for a few weeks, Miss Dudley-Hay, in the Church Supplies department, had a customer enquire after the book. Her most emphatic response, heard by everyone right across the floor, was a loud cry to Mr Hobson,
“this gentleman wishes to purchase a copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, will you attend to it?!”
Lunch at the Dorothy, visits to the theatre and a flight to Boulogne
While Sidney Street was undergoing another refurbishment, staff were given a voucher to buy their lunch at the Civic. Mr Court, manager at Sidney Street, one day asked Gerald for assistance during the lunch hour, and offered to pay for his lunch by way of compensation. Seeing this as an opportunity to dine somewhere nice, Gerald popped to the Dorothy Ballroom next door and had a three-course lunch for 6s 6d. Unsurprisingly, the firm refused to meet more than half the bill. (Gerald would often attend trade fairs at Earls Court in London or Birmingham, with Mr Court or Mr Biggs. These also involved dining out but, as Gerald recalls, he would be the only one drinking as both his managers were teetotal.)
Although shop-floor staff frequently worked on Saturdays, the Thursday half-day early closing had its benefits. Together with colleagues, Gerald would attend theatrical performances in London on these afternoons. These were paid for by a subscription of one shilling a week and organised by Miss Star on the Pen Counter and Mrs Snell. In the 1950s and ’60s it was possible to travel to London, go to the theatre and have dinner, all for twenty-five shillings (£26 at today’s value). I was not surprised to learn recently that Gerald was a member of the St John’s Players in Cambridge for many years.
In 1961 Heffers was feeling adventurous and scheduled an outing by air to Boulogne, France, with a charge to employees of £10 (£208 at today’s value) per head. Many had never flown before. Gerald (who went on fifteen staff outings in all), recalls the firm were so anxious about safety, that husbands and wives were asked to travel on separate planes. Some of the older ladies were full of trepidation but in the end thoroughly enjoyed it. At Boulogne they lunched in a casino and took a walk along the sea front. Dinner on the way home was at Stowmarket in Suffolk. As everyone disembarked the coach at the end of a long day they were reminded not to be late for work in the morning.
Gerald sadly passed away in January 2019.
These are a few of his Heffers stories and I’ve enjoyed revisiting them as I fondly recall our conversations. Gerald’s son, Tim, kindly told me that his father had been most impressed with ‘This Book is about Heffers’. My hope is that the book and my illustrated talks which include some of Gerald’s stories, will in a small way contribute to his legacy.
It was my privilege to meet such an interesting, talented and convivial gentleman.
Are there Cambridge women in your family who lived through WW1?
Do you have letters, documents or photographs you’d be willing to share?
If so, do please check out the Window on the War website or email firstname.lastname@example.org
My research so far, thanks to a number of leads including Ann Kennedy Smith’s excellent blog, has drawn me to the plight of Belgian refugees and the extraordinary altruistic response, initially of women and of the wider community.
It’s not knitting
In writing about the topic of philanthropy during the First World War, I’m sensitive to the danger of perpetuating the ‘sock knitting’ image of women’s voluntary action. Yes, many did knit, but that was not all they did. Press reports at the time, and indeed, several subsequent accounts are, at the very least, condescending in tone when it comes to the role of women.
As an undergraduate in 1980-83, I studied aspects of nineteenth and early twentieth century altruism and, from a personal perspective, came to venerate women social reformers and activists. Octavia Hill (1838-1912), for example. I may not have agreed with her distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor, but Hill did inspire me to pursue an early career in social housing. Which reminds me of another more recent activist I greatly admired (and had the good fortune to meet); the homelessness campaigner Sheila McKechnie (1948-2004).
It is on housing where the initial response to the plight of Belgian refugees provides an interesting case study of private charity involving women during the First World War. Described by Dr Peter Grant as immediate, spontaneous and ‘bottom-up’, Britain’s response to this crisis in 1914 was characterised by a humanity that was (and still is) shared by members of all social classes. (Except, perhaps, Sir Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, who wrote privately in 1914 that it was no time for charity and that the Belgians ‘ought to stay there and eat up continental food and occupy German policy attention’.)
In 1914, the London Society for Women’s Suffrage (a branch of Millicent Fawcett’s National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies) carried out the registering of Belgian refugees and facilitated the provision of 150 French and Flemish interpreters.
In 2018, we have of course been commemorating the centenary of women’s suffrage whereby 8.5m British women gained the right to vote. Whilst the non-violent Suffragists and the more militant Suffragettes still had much to campaign for (full suffrage was not gained until 1928), both put aside their crusades in 1914, in order to concentrate on supporting the war effort.
I’m thrilled that in 2018, Millicent Fawcett (1847-1929) finally gained the recognition she deserved in Cambridge (and London), although I do wonder if, for Fawcett, the Cambridge City Blue Plaque unveiling would have been somewhat marred with the accompanying re-enactment of Emmeline Pankhurst’s speech, whose militancy was anathema to her.
The overall co-ordination of Britain’s response to the Belgian refugee crisis in 1914 was then taken up by the newly formed War Refugees Committee (WRC), who’s founding members included Lady Lugard and the Hon. Mrs Alfred Lyttleton. Communities across the country stepped up to the plate, as evidenced by the 1,000 letters to the WRC offering accommodation for the refugees, and offers of hospitality for 100,000 people. (The WRC itself quickly became overwhelmed and the Local Government Board took over the legal responsibility for the settlement of the refugees.)
Assistance flowed from town and gown. On 1st September 1914, Baroness Eliza von Hügel wrote to the Cambridge Daily News,
‘HOMES FOR BELGIAN REFUGEES
TO THE EDITOR
Sir,– Your readers must already be aware of the terrible misery at present existing in Belgium, and that great efforts are being made all over England to afford shelter as well as sympathy to the women and children of all classes who have been rendered homeless by the outrages of the last few weeks. Many of them are now in London in most desolate plight… I have already secured some premises from various friends in the town, but it would greatly facilitate the work if others, where hearts are moved towards Belgium, would kindly let me know, with the least possible delay, if they are able to help in any way in this urgent work of charity.’
This was the beginning of Cambridge’s Hügel Homes for Belgian Refugees, which ran from 1914 to 1918.
Families cannot be separated
In October 1914, Cambridge received wounded Belgian soldiers and 100 Belgian refugees. All the refugees were expected to be housed temporarily at the Corn Exchange before they were found homes. It was mid-September when von Hügel learned that the refugees would be coming in large families and again writing to the Press, she declared that, ‘practically all the refugees continue to arrive in families which cannot be separated.’
As you may imagine, the phrase ‘cannot be separated’ leapt off the page. One cannot help comparing the treatment of the 1914 Belgian refugees with that of families in ‘modern day’ America, traumatised by the implementation of Trump’s zero tolerance policy towards immigrants. Trump is not the first US President to have families separated at the Border Patrol Processing Centres but his policy of detaining and prosecuting adults is reportedly resulting in many more family separations. The sight of families being broken up and of children being held in chain-link fence enclosures is deeply disturbing, no matter when the photographs were taken.
What would the Baroness have made of this? In her 1919 report on the scheme, Hügel Homes For Belgian Refugees (co-authored with her husband), she observed that it would have been ‘both difficult and unkind’ to break up the large family groups.
In 1914, von Hügel’s friends and the residents of Cambridge rallied round to keep the families together and to provide them with homes, provisions, medical care and education. Mrs Poole undertook to prepare the houses for occupation by the families. Her band of volunteers laboured, ‘early and late as char-women, house-maids, upholsterers and decorators’ and in a very few days put house after house into commission.
It has been suggested that the Cambridge Belgian Relief Committee went to great lengths to be sent only socially acceptable refugees, though Baroness von Hügel did emphasise in her second letter to the Press that the first families will, if possible, be selected from the poorer category (on registration, the refugees were divided into two classes, ‘officielle’ meaning skilled and ‘ouvrière’ meaning non-skilled, possibly echoing remnants of nineteenth century Charity Organisation Society moralism).
The Trumpington Local History Group has published an account of their own local charitable support for a family of Belgian refugees, as reported in the Cambridge Press at the time. In November 1914, a house at 27 Shelford Road was taken and furnished for occupation by a Monsieur Latour and family. ‘Practically all’ the Trumpington residents assisted in some way or other. A French class, hosted by Miss Pemberton at Trumpington Hall, gave Monsieur Latour employment as the instructor. And in March 1915, Mrs J. Collins organised a fundraising concert for the Trumpington Belgian Relief Fund, attended by the Latour family.
Over 60,000 Belgians worked in Britain during the First World War. The Belgian women in Cambridge worked as dressmakers, lace makers and as French and Flemish teachers. Some of the unmarried women took posts as resident or daily governesses, nursery governesses, companions or mothers’ helps, as noted in a 1915 Cambridge Town Committee Report.
Abundant with donations of all kinds
Money was raised across Cambridge for the Belgian refugees through weekly and monthly subscriptions (individuals and organisations), events such as an amateur concert in New Chesterton (Mrs White, raising £23 7 0), a children’s French entertainment, a whist drive (Mrs N C Richardson & Mrs W J Collier, raising £14 10 3), school children’s penny collections, the sale of Trinity College Hospital post-cards, a Rose Day, and a church collection box.
In 1919, a full list of subscribers and donors was published in the Press. It is not surprising to see donations from Cambridge firms such as Messrs Heffer & Sons, Sayle & Co, Kings & Harper, Boots, Matthew & Son, Sindall and Eaden Lilley; also, the workmen of the University Press. Individual donors included Miss Darwin, Mrs Fawcett, Lady Jebb, Mrs Eaden Lilley, Mrs Poole and the von Hügels.
A total of £2,534 19s 2d was received and disbursed (the equivalent in today’s value of around £278,000 in 1914, reduced by wartime inflation to around £167,000 in 1918). The monies were spent on various items such as carting and labour, travelling expenses of refugees, children’s education fees and dinners, repairs, house removal expenses, college fees for a boy and holidays.
Cambridge residents and businesses also contributed in-kind with donations of food and clothing, milk, confectionary, coal, toys, and even the loan of motors and bicycles. Doctors, surgeons and dentists undertook to look after the health of the refugees free of charge, and an optician volunteered to supply spectacles. Trade discount was prominent and the Hügel Homes report notes the special assistance provided by Mrs Tanner’s Clothing Depot. Schooling was undertaken by St. Mary’s Convent, assisted by two qualified Flemish school teachers, both resident in the Homes. Over forty children attended classes.
Dwindling support and repatriation
This level of support, however, could not be sustained, in Cambridge and elsewhere. As Grant observes, the issue of the refugees faded later in the war as other causes came to prominence. The von Hügels acknowledged in their 1919 report that the steady flow of support became intermittent and then ceased altogether. At Midsummer 1918, the work of the Hügel Homes for Refugees Committee was brought to a close by the transfer of one family then remaining in their charge, together with the balance of their fund, to the Cambridge Borough Belgian Refugee Committee.
In 1918, many local committees were disbanded across Britain and those that remained became frustrated with the lack of clear information on the national operation to repatriate the refugees. The situation may well have been aggravated by the Local Government Board’s abolition of the WRC on 31st December 1918, touching upon the complex issue of the changing relationship between voluntary action and state aid in Britain. As acknowledged by the Migration Museum Project, the Local Government Board’s role in this crisis was the first time that Government itself had taken policy responsibility for the settlement of refugees.
Within twelve months of the war ending, 90 per cent of the Belgian refugees (around 250,000) had returned home from Britain. There is little to show of their four-year presence.
Various explanations of why the Belgians received such a warm welcome in 1914 have been given. Lloyd George described the country’s response to the crisis as a ‘great act of humanity’. More recently, Professor Gary Sheffield is quoted as saying that contact with the refugees acted as a good reminder of why the war was a war worth fighting. And Christophe Declercq of the Centre for Research on Belgian Refugees, is reported as observing they were ‘treated rather like pets’. At least they were not held in cages.
What I’ve tried to do in this post is simply describe something of the Cambridge scenario and in particular, the role of Cambridge women. There are many interesting accounts of how communities across the country supported the Belgian refugees during the First World War, and of the many ways in which the refugees themselves contributed to the war effort whilst in Britain. Again, as pointed out by the Migration Museum Project, by 1916 there were 2,500 local committees of volunteers and there has not been such broad public engagement with migrant reception since then.
The von Hügels ended their 1919 report as follows,
‘Already those days when Belgians thronged the town and Flemish and French were heard spoken in every street, seem remote and dreamlike. Cambridge has regained its normal life, and a few graves of those who died among us in exile remain the only material trace of their reality. With them rest four “petits soldats” who fought the good fight in 1914 and, brought from the Front to England, died of wounds in the First Eastern Hospital. They were buried with military honours, and were followed to their graves, in the Newmarket Road Cemetery, by never to be forgotten, long, straggling processions of maimed, sick, or blinded Belgian and British comrades. R.I.P.’
Was anyone in your family involved with assisting Belgian refugees in Cambridge during the First World War?
If so, I’d love to hear from you – email@example.com