There isn't a Snake in the Cupboard

A Review of the Life of J H Fremlin

CHAPTER 1 - 1865 to 1920
Caroline Addiscott, John's grandmother John Heaver Fremlin was born on March 4th 1913 in Kingsbury, Middlesex. I never knew his mother, my grandmother, Margaret. She died before I was born, and so I have no way of knowing whether John's arrival was an interruption of her new marriage or the fulfilling of a dream but there can be no doubt his birth was a turning point in her life. Barely two years before, already "getting on a bit" at thirty-one, she had had little prospect of even getting married. When younger, this had not troubled her and she did not always take her suitors seriously. Margaret and her identical twin sister Dorothy would sometimes swap names, after carefully briefing each other on any previous conversations, in order to confuse some unfortunate young man when he came calling. Dissimulating in this way was not difficult for either Margaret or Dorothy Addiscott as they had loved acting since they were children and at school they had written, produced and performed in plays. The twins had three younger sisters, Elizabeth, Ella and Freda and a brother called William so spoilt by his adoring mother that the older girls thoroughly disliked him, although Freda, nearer to him in age, had a soft spot for him.

I was told that while Margaret's father Francis worked as an accountant, some considerable wealth was brought to the marriage by her mother, Caroline Martin, from her family's interest in the fur trade allowing the family to have plenty of servants. But I was also told that the children themselves did not feel rich, as money for doing things they really wanted to do, such as going on school trips, was not readily available to them. These contradictory statements could be explained by the 1901 census, which shows Francis Addiscott working as an actuary's secretary and only two servants, a cook and a housemaid, living in the house. Of course this tells us nothing of any servants who came in daily, but it seems to me that it is possible that the family were less well off than Caroline liked to tell people. Nevertheless, whatever their exact circumstances were, she and her husband managed to provide a good education for all six children. There was in any case always plenty to do without spending any money: croquet, music, at which Margaret was quite talented, amateur dramatics, and never any shortage of lively and intelligent conversation; but as she grew older, Margaret was increasingly aware that she had no useful function whatever.

Their father would not hear of any of the girls getting a job, and as time went on, Margaret could well have regretted making fun of those early suitors. The restricted life of middle class girls in Edwardian times made it almost impossible to get to know any man properly, because they were never supposed to be alone with one. One day when the curate was visiting, Caroline was called away leaving Margaret alone with him. For something to do she decided to take him out into the garden. Later she was told off for walking with him where people might see that she was unchaperoned. Not allowed to be alone with one of the girls, the prospect of visiting all five Addiscott girls at once must have been daunting indeed for any young man, for they were all intelligent and vociferous. I wish I knew more about Margaret's parents and their roles in this lively family, but alas, by the time we are old enough to take an interest in our ancestors, they and their stories are gone. Almost the only snippet of information I have about Caroline's character is that as an elderly lady, blessed with beautiful white hair, she liked to sit near blue flowers or curtains to bring out the blue of her eyes.

By the time of their marriage, John's father, Heaver Stuart Fremlin was even older than Margaret. Born in 1865, he was the son of an earlier John Fremlin, who had inherited a large house and a valuable piece of land in the village of Mereworth near Maidstone in Kent. Heaver's father was an able and generous man but he preferred shooting snipe and woodcock in Mereworth woods to looking after his land. When he died in 1908 at the age of eighty-three, the house was mortgaged, and most of the land belonged to his bailiff, from whom he must have borrowed a good deal from time to time.

Heaver was thought to be delicate when young, and was sent to a seaside boarding school at the age of six. He hated it, but nevertheless he started an adequate education there and picked up a strong sense of duty. At some stage, perhaps noticing that his father's land and money were disappearing, he realised that he needed a profession for he could not rely on an inheritance to support him. A medical career was suggested to him by an uncle, Jeremiah, who, as a vet, had been the first professional in this predominantly farming family. Heaver took up a place at the medical school at Westminster hospital and qualified as a doctor at a time when the senior surgeon there still pooh-poohed the newfangled talk of bacteria and did all his operations in an old shooting coat.

For most of his adult life, Heaver kept a careful record of his activities in tiny pocket diaries. The first sentence of every entry was a description of the day's weather. Following this there would be a mere one or two sentences detailing the main activities of the day, or naming people he had seen. Emotion was very rarely recorded, even to say that he had enjoyed something.

By the time Heaver qualified as a doctor, money was already in short supply and he could not afford to buy a practice, so he spent some years assisting various established doctors or occasionally acting as a locum. At one time he was the assistant to a doctor in a widespread practice in Devon. He would ride over to each of the surrounding villages in turn, and wait in the village centre for people to come and consult him. One very bad winter he skated for several miles along a frozen river past Tiverton to reach a patient in one of the villages after a message had somehow reached him about the man's illness. Sadly, the patient died.

Heaver with his damaged bicycle, eighteen days after his accident Not only did he ride and skate, but he also cycled. One day in 1901, when staying at Mereworth, he hit something at the bottom of a steep hill, cracked his skull and lost the sight of his left eye permanently. Once he had got used to this it did not hamper him at all and he found that he could see perfectly in three dimensions with just the one eye. Years later when his son learnt of the mechanisms behind stereoscopic vision, he argued with Heaver that this could not be so, but Heaver insisted that he really could see things in depth quite as well as he had done with two eyes.

In his free time Heaver was a keen butterfly and moth collector and he built up a practically complete collection of British macrolepidoptera. Whenever he could afford a holiday, he would arrange to go to some part of the country where he had a chance of catching new specimens either by himself or with another collector. Very occasionally, if a species was becoming rare, he would buy a specimen for the sake of completeness, but if he later managed to catch a duplicate, he would then resell the original.

Throughout his years as a doctor's assistant, Heaver was keeping up with advances in medicine and he decided that there could be a case for taking bacteriology seriously. He became especially interested in Robert Koch's work in Germany. Heaver's older teachers may have treated the idea that some diseases were caused by microbes as only a crackpot theory, but even when Heaver was a student, Koch was already well known, having made a number of discoveries that gave the theory considerable weight. He had shown anthrax to be transmissible if he inoculated healthy animals with material taken from the spleens of animals killed by the disease and had gone on to find ways of culturing the bacteria he had found. As he had hoped, he had then been able to demonstrate that the cultured bacteria were still infectious. He had even got as far as finding methods, which he published in 1878, of fixing, staining and photographing the bacteria. During Heaver's first years as a doctor, Koch was working on Tuberculosis and Cholera, discovering and describing the bacteria at the heart of both illnesses.

Heaver's chance came at the end of 1892 when he was out of a job. He was waiting for an answer to an application for a post in Brighton, when on January 6th 1893, he wrote in his diary:
"F 19o Stayed indoors in the morning. Father offered to send me to Germany. Heard from Brighton lost the appointment. Went out skating in the afternoon "tried backwards" did not fall. One game of Crib ahead of Father."
The ageing John, in the midst of his own money worries, had listened to Heaver as he expounded his modern ideas and had realised how much he wanted this extra experience.

After a crash course in German, Heaver caught the boat at Flushing on January 31st 1893 and made his way to Berlin. Unfortunately, during this period he wrote his diary in German. No doubt this was an excellent plan for increasing his command of the language, but it makes these fascinating records, written in a spiky, cramped script, impossible to read, even by speakers of the German language: one can tell where the umlauts are and that is about all. On December 11th, however, he suddenly reverted to English half way through an entry to write:
"............failure 6 leeches on back child bled 2 days died with leeches still on"
Heaver may not have intended this, but the raw emotion here does speak to us down the centuries.

Fortunately he wrote up his laboratory notes in English and they are mostly possible, if difficult, to read. The notes give no indication whether he was doing original research or laboratory practicals, but he reported on different ways of culturing what he called Bacterium Coli, which was probably what we now call Escherichia Coli (or E Coli), obtained from the faeces of various animals.
"Having infected Gelatine with a small quantity of Faeces I proceeded to make a 1st & 2nd dilution from each original; Plates being then poured from each of the different varieties of Faeces obtained.

I may here say at once that I failed to develope Colonies of B Coli from the Faeces of Rat, Guinea Pig or Dove"
He went on to some experimental inoculations of rabbits with his cultures. Koch himself was following up an idea of developing a vaccine which could be used to cure people suffering from tuberculosis, perhaps in the hope of emulating Pasteur's earlier success in finding a vaccine to cure rabies, but was unsuccessful. Heaver stayed in Germany just over a year, until lack of money forced him to abandon the later part of his work.

Returning to England, he would have liked to work at the Lister Institute for he admired Lister very much having attended some of his lectures but no opportunity arose. Eighteen months later he applied for a post in the Government Lymph Laboratories at Hendon, and helped by a glowing reference from Sir William H. Allchin, the Dean at the Medical School of the Westminster Hospital, was eventually appointed. His job there was to produce the lymph for vaccinations against smallpox.

His formal duties left him time to do research of his own, which he found much more interesting than the routine production and administration of smallpox vaccine by methods that had been established for some time. A lot of his research work concerned nitrifying bacteria and he wrote papers and had letters published in the Lancet concerning culture methods. For some months in 1897, most of the entries in his diary included the words:
"Saw patients in morning, did bacteriology in afternoon."
A year later, he took on additional work as a technician at the Animal Vaccine Establishment, which was where the animals providing the materials for the Lymph Laboratory were kept. A typical diary entry for this period read:
"Wednesday 5th November 1902
Rain on and off.
A.v.e. -1- 10 calves collected I believe. 10 vaccinated. Went to Entomological Soc. session in evening."
While still working in Hendon, Heaver went to live in St Albans where he attended St Stephen's Church regularly and made friends with the Churchwarden, Walter Martin. It was when he was invited to play croquet in Mr Martin's garden that he met the five Addiscott girls who were having a holiday with their rich uncle. He was identified by them thereafter as 'that one-eyed man that Margaret liked so much'.

This croquet game must have occurred in the spring of 1911. Then on June 22nd 1911, Heaver went with Margaret and Dorothy to see the coronation of George V, already absolutely sure that Margaret was the one that he preferred. Two days later he recorded "Miss Addiscott and I played billiards with Mr. Martin (we lost)", and the day after, "Mr. Martin and Miss Addiscott came to tea." This item had a red cross by it, as did any reference to anything done with Miss Addiscott for the next three months. Eventually her Christian name began to appear, and on September 5th he wrote:
"Lovely day. Hendon till 5.12. Letter from Margaret Addiscott. Had a ride to Bedmond in morning."
A fortnight later, the red crosses were abandoned, and any sentence that included Margaret's name was written entirely in red. Heaver and Margaret became engaged on November 6th, were married on April 12th 1912 and went off to Ventnor on the Isle of Wight for their honeymoon. The red diary entries came abruptly to an end.

Marriage brought enormous changes into the lives of both Heaver and Margaret. For both of them there was a sudden drop in living standards. Heaver now had a wife and home to support on an income that had been keeping him reasonably well on his own for years, and at the age of forty-seven, he did not find the adjustment easy. Margaret had to learn to keep house, having now only one maid, - and she loved it. Here at last was something she could do, and she threw herself into managing their meagre resources to make Heaver's life as comfortable as possible. Dorothy joined in her sister's happiness. The twins were still close enough to share their emotions to a considerable extent, and no one ever detected in Dorothy any of the jealously one might have expected.

John was born nearly a year after they married, and his sister Celia just over a year later on June 20th 1914. When war was declared in August, Heaver was called up to run the First London Sanitary Company, to which he had belonged as a member of the Territorial Force since 1908. The Company's role (and that of its rival, the Second London Sanitary Company) was to train military personnel in hygiene, sanitation and prevention of disease and to send a trained section to join each Division overseas. Heaver became a major, and concerned himself with every aspect of the work, including getting the mess-charges for his officers reduced and ensuring that there was proper laboratory space wherever they were working. In a piece Heaver wrote for "The History of the First London Sanitary Company" he was pleased to note that whereas during the Boer war numbers of deaths from disease were at least five times as great as those from wounds, during the Great War the position was reversed and deaths from disease were only one fifth of those from wounds.

He didn't serve abroad at any time during the war, but for six weeks in 1916 he was sent to a camp in Essex. During this period, Margaret took John and Celia to stay with her mother and father. When Heaver returned, the family moved to a house called 'Markinch' in Nether Street, Finchley, conveniently close to Hendon in anticipation of the time when Heaver would return to the Government Lymph laboratories after the war.

Although they were very young, both John and Celia retained several memories of the war years. John's earliest dateable memory was of being taken to the wedding of his Aunt Freda, his mother's youngest sister, in April 1916. After the wedding, he held up the guests in the church porch by going down on hands and knees to collect little silver paper fishes and stars among the confetti. The people trying to get past him looked very large. Celia's earliest memory was of coming down to breakfast on her third birthday, when her father told her jocularly that she'd never be two again. This seemed so infinitely sad, that she burst into tears, annoying her father and clouding the rest of the morning, thus setting a pattern for her future relationship with her father.

As the war went on, Margaret's new abilities in domestic economy were called on more and more. Food was short and eventually the garden of Markinch was dug up so that vegetables could be grown there, depriving the children of playing space. As an adult, John claimed to actually prefer slightly "off" eggs because while he was very young they were the only sort he ever got. When Celia saw an early draft of this book, she was horrified by this anecdote, insisting that I must take it out. She said that her mother had kept chickens and would turn in her grave at the idea that she might have served bad eggs. However, this was a story that John repeated all his adult life and I can only assume that it derives from a time before Margaret started to keep chickens. A single orange was a very special treat, and Aunt Di (as Margaret's twin was now called under the pressure of childish pronunciation) would make an effort to bring one as a present for the children when she came to call.

The war was close at hand in Finchley: Margaret was distressed by the joy with which the local people celebrated when a Zeppelin was shot down in flames, for she could find only sympathy for the unfortunate soldiers being burnt alive for doing their duty. Certain of her neighbours carried their patriotism to even more bloodthirsty extremes: one day, the Fremlin's dachshund Max came home covered in blood, and later Heaver buried him in the garden. The children were not told at the time, but he had been stoned for being a German dog.
Margaret with John and Celia, about 1917
In October 1918, Heaver took John and Celia out into the back garden after dark to see the last searchlights of the war, telling them that if they did not see them now, they would never see them. John did not at first notice the broad but weak beams of the searchlights, and asked his father whether he meant the points of light overhead, indicating the stars. He was almost sure that his father did not mean these and was really just checking, but Heaver was annoyed that John hadn't understood what he was supposed to be looking at. Looking up the dark sloping garden, John did eventually see the moving beams.

Margaret started to teach John to read and to do addition sums when he was very small, and family tradition claimed that he correctly added up four four-figure numbers on his fourth birthday. John had a letter set to help with his reading, and once, on trying to spell DOG got GOD instead and was scolded. As he did not understand the taboo against taking the Lord's name in vain, he felt badly used. But soon he felt sufficiently confident of his own reading ability to start giving Celia lessons. However, such words as she did pick up were learnt upside-down, for the chosen teaching method involved both children kneeling on the nursery floor on opposite sides of the book. Later, when John was seven, Margaret roped her husband into John's reading practice, by getting Heaver to hear John read all three hundred and fifty-six pages of "Smugglers' Island" by Clarissa Kneeland, a story about a family of five children who were stranded on an island for several years. The reading was done in instalments, and lasted from July 28th 1920 to September 19th 1921 according to childish inscriptions at the front of the book. The time taken did not represent reading time so much as John's developing ability to divert his mother's thoughts into other channels on Sunday afternoons. Her plan was for John to sit on his father's knee while reading, so that neither of them could escape. John found his father to be pretty unresponsive, and realised later that he must have been asleep for most of the time.

Heaver was deeply religious and he always attended church every Sunday. While Margaret stayed at home to cook the dinner, John and Celia accompanied him from an early age until they both went to University. At first, John would visualise God as a man lying face down above the ceiling, but it wasn't long before he started to collect supporting evidence for his theory that there was no such being. At the age of five, sitting on a bus with his mother, he asked her in a loud voice, "Did God make that lady?" glaring at a passenger in a seat opposite. "Yes darling," Margaret replied, at which John roared out an indignant: "Why?" By the age of ten, both John and Celia were contemptuous of any belief in God, but they both continued to go to Church, unwilling to upset their father. Apart from the boredom of sitting through the service, the only difficulty with this was that during the walk home Heaver would go over the sermon with the children and expect them to be able to report what was said but Celia found that she was not allowed to debate the content: the clear message was that girls were not expected to have opinions. All the same, both of them respected the way in which their father adhered to his beliefs. Celia was most impressed when Heaver refused to try to catch a Camberwell Beauty, a very rare butterfly he needed for his collection - because it was a Sunday when he saw it.

However, country walks were permissible on Sundays. As soon as they were able, the children joined Heaver on his rambles around the district, and John started to absorb Heaver's love of natural history from the first. For walks on weekdays, Heaver bought the children butterfly nets, and John soon started his own collection. Celia wanted to join in, but was deeply worried as to whether the butterflies felt pain when they were caught and killed. It would appear that Heaver was being a very attentive father, but in fact he was only doing what he wanted to do with his spare time anyway, and allowing the children to follow him. He rarely went out of his way to do anything specially for the children, and left all the details of their upbringing to Margaret, although he was not averse to administering a stinging slap on the side of the face if a child was cheeky or irritated him with too much noise. The result was that John, quickly developing the same interests as Heaver, got on very well with him and gained a lot from the father-son relationship, while Celia, who did not share these interests, could not generate any rapport with her father and, much as she longed to impress him, often felt that the only responses she ever got from him were sharp, repressive retorts.

The children were often left to their own devices, and, close in age, played together endlessly, often developing imaginative games. Not all of these games were necessarily of a particularly constructive nature, however, as John, a small boy, with a smaller sister, could not resist using Celia's own imagination to frighten her. He discovered that if he used a slow build-up, he could get Celia very satisfactorily to screaming pitch as they went up the stairs and along the dim passage at bedtime.

He would tell her, in graphic detail, about the enormous snake that was waiting for them in the cupboard along the passage. He would enlarge on its great glaring eyes and the sharpness of its teeth, and soon a terrified Celia would be screaming the house down. After several evenings of having to calm Celia and somehow get her into a state of mind in which she would consent to go to bed, Margaret banned John from this delightful game by threatening him with dire punishment if he was so much as to mention the existence of a snake in the cupboard.

By the next evening, John had already had a brainwave as to how to get round the troublesome edict. Celia was of course confident as they mounted the stairs. Hadn't Mummy told her brother that she should not be frightened? So when John appeared to be starting the same old story, with the same slow build-up, she was hardly nervous at all. But soon he was saying, "Celia, there isn't a great big snake in that cupboard, and he hasn't got great glaring eyes, and he hasn't got millions of sharp little teeth, and he isn't going to ..."

Celia's screams brought an irate Margaret up the stairs, and she started to scold John, shocked that he had disobeyed her so blatantly.

"But Mummy," said John, wide-eyed with assumed innocence, "I told her there wasn't a snake in the cupboard."

What the threatened punishment had been, and whether it was carried out, has long since been forgotten.

On January 20th, 1920, John and Celia went to a small local school, Miss Semple's. John thoroughly enjoyed the first arithmetic lesson. The teacher put three or four small groups of marbles one after another into a bag, and asked the children to tell her how many marbles there were in the bag when she had finished. John gave the right answer every time before any of the others, and looked forward to the next lesson. This however was with another teacher and not such fun. He had probably been moved to a more advanced class after his success on his first day. Meanwhile, following her reading lessons from John, Celia had to be repeatedly corrected for placing her reading book upside down on her desk.

While at Miss Semple's, John had a fist-fight with a boy called Paul, which ended with both participants retiring in tears. A few days later, some other children asked him to fight Paul again, because they had enjoyed watching before. Both John and Paul refused, and when he got home later, John told his mother about it, including the fact that he now liked Paul, and wasn't this surprising? Margaret told him that you often got to like someone you'd been fighting, a typical remark from a woman who never failed to find people fascinating.

1. A.v.e. refers to the Animal Vaccine Establishment.back

Next chapter

This page updated 22nd June 2012