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There isn't a Snake in the Cupboard

A Review of the Life of J H Fremlin

CHAPTER 4 - 1931 to 1932
John as an undergraduate
At about the same time as John finished school, Heaver retired, and the family moved to Ryarsh, a pleasant village in rolling countryside near Maidstone in Kent. Their house, 'Heavers', was familiar to John by this time, for Heaver had bought it ten years previously and had rented it out to John's Great Uncle Soper, at a nominal charge of £ 1 per year, until he died. The original idea had been for the family to join the old man for country holidays, but after her first visit, Margaret had refused to go again, claiming that the place was infested with fleas. Instead, Heaver and John had taken occasional holidays there, going on long walks to catch butterflies, often in Mereworth woods where Heaver could remember individual trees that he had 'sleeved' with muslin to protect growing caterpillars many years ago. John enjoyed staying with his great uncle, who kept a very late day; dinner never appeared until nine or ten in the evening and John was allowed to stay up and play bezique.

Once she was there to stay, Margaret cleared out the fleas, organised Celia to become a boarder at her school in Berkhamsted, and then took John up to Cambridge to find somewhere for him to stay. Not having a Trinity scholarship, John could not have a room in college but lodgings were readily available and they found a sitting room and bedroom for him in Croft Holme Lane, about fifteen minutes' walk from the first year lecture rooms.

John went up to Cambridge on the fourth of October 1931. His landlady, Miss Sennitt, was a thin lady with an anxious expression, but talkative and kind. He was assigned to a Mr Dykes who, as his tutor, was supposed to keep an eye on his general welfare and a Mr de Bruyne who was to help him to choose his courses. Miss SennittThe latter, a biologist, asked him a few questions about his general interests, and recommended him to take life sciences, but John told him it would be easier to continue with mathematics, physics and chemistry, quite sure that he wouldn't enjoy studying biology at university any more than he had at school. He had come up to Cambridge intending to study physics and wasn't about to change his mind.

John had to manage his own finances for the first time, and Margaret hoped to send him sums of money every few weeks for him to divide between a number of different budgets, which would ultimately help her to work out an amount for a weekly allowance. The number of small expenses to be accounted for made the whole thing quite complex, Miss Sennitt charging one shilling and threepence for a breakfast consisting of a dish of liver, bacon and potatoes and sixpence for a bath, so when John wrote home wondering whether the purchase of a cap and gown fell into 'housekeeping' or 'college' expenses, she relented, and suggested that he have a pound a week for breakfasts, lunches, teas and washing, and another for clothes and spending money. (Dinner had to be taken in college, so the price of that would be put on his bill.) She continued to worry that she might be sending him too little, whilst exhorting him to save any excess if she was sending him too much. Writing frequently, she advised him on how to avoid colds, to rid himself of indigestion and to perform introductions. A month after the beginning of term, John had told her about a Chinese undergraduate he had just met and she wrote:
"...don't forget what I said about being too drawn into friendships just at first. It sounds a dull and clammy advice to you in your fresh free life: but there are many reasons and it is very important to try to believe me though you cannot in the nature of things know why yet"
She also told him to be sure that he was getting plenty of sugar in the winter. With Celia also away at boarding school, she missed her children dreadfully, and she and Pete commiserated with each other over their loss. One day, Pete was looking so wretched that Margaret gave him a dose of castor oil and then made him keep up while she pedalled her bicycle as fast as she could go: he came home looking 'quite brisk'!

John obtained the required books, second hand where possible, and started going to lectures, taking copious notes and making a fair copy of each set in the evenings. It did not occur to him to read up the subjects covered in different books to broaden his outlook, but it is unlikely that any of his fellow-students were better motivated.

He joined the Trinity Boat Club and went out rowing every afternoon except Tuesday and Thursday. The first time he went out in an eight, he got shouted at frequently for making mistakes. After each verbal onslaught he explained politely that it was his first time in an eight. However, he must have improved rapidly, because by the end of the third week he was asked by the Senior in charge to come for a trial on Saturday morning. When John said that he couldn't because he had a lecture, the Senior expressed amazement, never before having had so trivial an excuse presented. John continued to row, but clearly was not going to excel in this sport. He also joined the Old Berkhamstedians and the Natural History Society. These activities still left quite a lot of spare time, and as he did not go out of his way to make a lot of new friends, he was able to spend hours just reading. Leaving home did not result in a break in his cultivation of caterpillars; some caterpillars were left in Heaver's care, and some chrysalides were kept in his rooms.

Within a couple of weeks, he had his bicycle sent, and he and Wallis, who had taken up his place at Caius, were able to go out cycling together, and they enjoyed memorising the quaint names of the villages in the surrounding countryside. The bicycle was also useful for getting around Cambridge but led to disaster. It was just getting dark on the twenty-fourth of November and John had to get from a chemistry practical class to a supervision. He was in a hurry as usual and, misjudging the speed of a car coming towards him on a main road, he started to cross it and the car struck his back wheel. He felt no pain, but heard a loud crack and found himself lying half on the pavement. He tried to get up, but the lower part of his right leg seemed to be attached to him only by his trouser clips. There was still no pain, but, realising that it would be best not to disturb it more than he could help, had some difficulty in preventing well-meaning bystanders from picking him up. When the ambulance arrived, he told the crew quite cheerfully that he had broken his leg, but they didn't believe him until he moved it a little. Then they tied his legs firmly together, which did hurt, and took him to Addenbrooke's hospital. There he got one of the nurses to give him some paper and an envelope and to sell him a stamp. He wrote to Margaret:
"Dear Mummy, I am quite happy except that I feel rather an ass. My leg hardly hurts at all."
His tutor, Mr Dykes, got hold of this missive and filled the rest of the sheet with details of the accident and of the credentials of the Mr Roderick who was going to set the leg at 9 pm. He also explained that John would be moved to the Evelyn Nursing Home the next day, and that his term's residence, vital for a Cambridge degree, would not be lost, as the Evelyn was a place where official residence could be kept.

The receipt of this letter would have been a gentle way for Heaver and Margaret to hear of John's accident. However, a telegram was also sent from the hospital, shortly after John's arrival, informing them that their son had had a serious accident and that he had been admitted at 6 pm. On seeing this, they caught the next train to London, and after many attempts at last got through to the hospital on the telephone to be told that John was still in the operating theatre under anaesthetic.

This was not reassuring, and Heaver and Margaret arrived by John's bedside the following morning after an appalling night, to find that John had had a three-hour operation in which the leg had been mended, the two main parts of the shattered tibia being screwed to a steel plate. Mr Roderick had gained a great deal of experience in the Great War; if this accident had happened before the war the leg would have been cut off below the knee. The surgeon was adamant that, although John would be in bed for some time, he would be able to walk and run normally when healing was complete.

John stayed in the Evelyn Nursing Home for the next three weeks. Mr Dykes managed to get a useful sum of money from a special Trinity fund and his Uncle William got a little out of the motorist who had knocked him down, but this was limited by the fact that John had been riding without a lamp a few minutes after lighting up time.

John was kept well supplied with the text books for his lecture courses, for Mr Dykes took his duties very seriously. He didn't work very hard at them, preferring to entertain himself by playing patience, a form of therapy he regularly used thereafter whenever confined to bed. He tried to calculate the probabilities of getting some of the simpler games out; where he couldn't think of a way of doing this by calculation, he obtained the result experimentally over a large number of games. He also worked out a system for speeding up the finding of prime numbers by a graphical method, which eliminated those divisible by primes up to nineteen.

He liked his night nurse who taught him to knit and lent him a book from which he learned to do a lot of different stitches, using a match as a cable needle when needed. This nurse may have wanted more from him than the prolific production of different stitches, for she used to sit on the side of his bed, and one night, showed him the back of her calf with a slight bruise on it. John found this slightly embarrassing; it didn't occur to him for an instant that she was seeking a more active response. When his mother and Celia came to visit him he told them about the knitting lessons. Celia was immediately jealous, and said that she could have taught him to knit. "Let him have his night nurse," said Margaret.

On the twelfth of December, John was brought back to Ryarsh in an ambulance for the Christmas vacation. There was a painful moment when the ambulance men caught his leg in the door while carrying him to the downstairs bed Margaret had prepared for him. Soon Celia was home from school and happy to help entertain her brother.

A second family disaster struck soon after Christmas. Poor Pete became ill, and got worse rapidly, until the vet said that he was dying and put him to sleep. John cried for the first time in years. Until he went to Cambridge, Pete had been his companion for every walk he had had for the last ten years, which amounted to most of his remembered life.

John was in bed for nearly a month after Christmas, with occasional forays to other rooms using a broomstick as a crutch. He spent much of the time studying a large number of parchment manuscripts referring to the Fremlin family, going back to the 13th century, which were brought to him by a cousin, Frank Fremlin. The earlier documents were in medieval Latin, in a neat but difficult script, and John merely picked out and recorded names, dates and places. All lived in Kent, the earlier ones in Kemsing, and a lot of the documents were concerned with the purchase or sale of land or about ownership quarrels that had been taken to court.

After about the 15th century, births, marriages and deaths were recorded and names of relatives were mentioned in wills, but it was not easy to connect them together reliably. The birth of a William, for example, would be noted, and fifty years later, the death of a William with the same mother and father, in the forty-fifth year of his age, would be recorded. The discrepancies were often due to the fact that if a son William died in infancy, the next son born would be christened William, a common Fremlin name.

From the eighteenth century on, there were a number of family letters, some of them concerning rather unsavoury characters. There was Joseph Fremlin, for example, apprenticed to a baker in the early seventeen hundreds, who was charged with theft by his master. His grandmother promised to pay the baker for what had been stolen, if the charges were withdrawn. Joseph was then packed off to Holland. When the baker asked for his money, the grandmother denied that she had promised to reimburse him for what had already been stolen, but claimed that she had only said that she would repay anything else that Joseph took before leaving for Holland. Other letters suggested that the rest of the family disapproved of both Joseph and his grandmother, but when Joseph returned thirty years later, immensely rich, he had no difficulty in reinstating himself.

A little later there was Jeremiah Fremlin, cousin to Heaver's father. He went to Jamaica and sent home a lot of begging letters for money to enable him to buy a sugar plantation to produce rum. Other letters pressed his father to use his influence to get him taken on as the manager of certain sugar estates. Then his letters started to refer to his 'dear wife' and at last there came a letter that stated 'we shall be coming home on the next packet'. When he got home to Ryarsh, he was without any wife, but soon married a local girl and produced a large family. A story grew up in the neighbourhood that on dark, stormy nights, Jeremiah would hear a knock on the door, and upon opening it, would see a black girl, dripping wet, outside. He would fire a gun at her and she would vanish. This suggested that his neighbours thought that he had pushed a black wife overboard on the journey home. It is now accepted that Jeremiah had been married to an English woman, Mary Ann Symes, but she had died in Jamaica before he came home, married again and brought up a large family. Jeremiah Fremlin 1805 - 1887

Many years later, my brother David used the data John had collected to create a family tree adding it to an earlier attempt of Heaver's. However, little of the information from before the sixteenth century was of much real use, as John had discovered when attempting to read the oldest manuscripts.

In the middle of January, Margaret bought John a pair of crutches, as recommended by the local doctor. John practised a little in the house, and then went out for a walk. After going down the steep lane into the village for one or two hundred yards, he turned and went back up again. By the time he regained the top, he noticed the astonishing rate at which his heart was beating, so, analytical as ever, he stopped to time it, and counted ninety beats in thirty seconds. Two months of bed-rest had weakened him considerably.

John had no sooner got on his foot and crutches when the third and worst calamity of the winter hit the family. Margaret became ill with cystitis, and started to spend a lot of time in bed. Heaver and John would go up to her room for tea every afternoon, but, preoccupied with rebuilding his own strength, John did not see that anything serious was wrong. Margaret told him that she believed that cystitis was sometimes caused by a bad shock, and maybe Pete's death had had something to do with it. This led John to wonder if the ghastly experience of his accident was a more likely cause. Probably this is just what Margaret did think, but in trying to divert John from this idea, succeeded in introducing it to him. As a bacteriologist, Heaver would have been more aware than the rest of the family that what had started as a trivial infection was becoming more serious by the day. Indeed, I have wondered if he himself thought his work might have had any involvement in the cause of this illness: he undertook research into nitrifying bacteria at the same time as his vaccine collection work and carried on with it for some years after he retired. To provide a growth medium for these bacteria all the family were supposed to urinate into a bucket with some chalk in it; when full, a colourless liquid could be run off from a tap at the bottom. He also received soil samples from all over the world in his search for new bacteria. Could some of these bacteria have been the basis for a nasty infection? But whatever the cause, there was no effective cure available for an illness we could nowadays easily treat with a course of antibiotics.

In February, John allowed himself to be taken back to Cambridge by car. Within a few days he had learned to negotiate the wooden steps up to the lecture theatres and also to use his newly acquired long gait to outpace other students who charitably offered to walk slowly with him.

Then he heard that Aunt Di was seriously ill with cancer. Back in Ryarsh, two old family friends arrived on March 2nd or 3rd to tell Margaret that her twin sister was dying and asking for her. Heaver was reluctant to let Margaret go, and not realising how ill she was, the messengers interpreted this as his selfishness in wanting his wife to stay at home and look after him. This is most unlikely: from the start of Margaret's illness, there was a comment on her condition in every entry in Heaver's diary, whether she was better or worse, or experiencing more or less pain. In fact when she tried to get up to go to her sister, it was he who ordered her back to bed. She died early in the morning of March 4th, John's birthday.

John received Heaver's telegram at breakfast time. As he reeled with the shock another telegram arrived, which he thought must tell of Aunt Di's death, but Heaver had sent a repeat of the first about Margaret. Aunt Di actually died three days later.

He went home by car, and Celia was also brought home from school. When Margaret's coffin was placed in the dining room, Celia felt that it would be quite wrong to go and see her mother dead. Heaver was most upset by Celia's refusal to go and pay her last respects, while Celia decided that Heaver couldn't care at all about Margaret, as he was able to talk about her. The continued lack of understanding made the two of them unable to obtain any comfort from each other, and strengthened the first thought Celia had had on learning of her mother's death, that now she was left with a parent with whom she had never been able to communicate; she had lost her greatest friend as well as a wonderful mother.

John also suffered. Margaret's illness had in no way prepared him for the death of the mother he loved. The feeling that struck him when he first heard of her death, that her loss was a total disaster, never ever left him. He went in to the dining room see his mother without telling Celia, and found her looking tired but peaceful, noting in particular the stillness of her hands. Aware of the positions of both Heaver and Celia on saying goodbye to Margaret, he asked himself if seeing her made him more or less unhappy and decided that it did neither.

However, when he eventually returned to Cambridge, he was able to pick up the threads of a normal existence fairly quickly. He was at a stage in his life when his daily actions would not call his mother constantly to mind, and he had already made the necessary adjustments for living without his family during his first term at Cambridge. Had he accepted any connection between his own accident and his mother's death, guilt would have made his grief considerably worse. Once he had thought about the theory that the illness could have been caused by shock, he became convinced that any blame belonged to the hospital for the insensitive way they had broken the news to his parents. And unlike Celia, he still had a parent with whom he had a lot in common.

Margaret was laid to rest in the churchyard in Ryarsh, a sprinkling of other stones to earlier Fremlins around her.

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This page updated 10th May 2024