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There isn't a Snake in the Cupboard

A Review of the Life of J H Fremlin

CHAPTER 7 Reinet
Reinet Maasdorp, May Day 1937 The Cambridge Scientists Anti-War Group kept up a constant stream of meetings, demonstrations and marches, and Reinet Maasdorp had become one of its staunchest supporters. John had often noticed her in the labs where she too was working on a project for Dr Oliphant, but was also aware that she did not now lack male escorts, for several other Cavendish students were more courageous than he. Now, however, with a shared interest, they were thrown together frequently, and at last he was able to get to know her. Soon he found that he was positively looking out for her, and once he came back early from a visit to the Robertshaws to join a particular protest march where he believed he would see her.

On the first of May 1937, International Labour Day, Charles Smith and John hired an ancient car in which to travel up to London, and took Reinet and Mary Cross (whom John had got to know through the Robertshaws) with them. Mary sat in the front with Charles, feeding him bits of sandwich as they went, and Reinet and John sat on the folding seats at the back and kept going on chocolate, not having thought to bring any sandwiches. Occasionally John had to get out and push as the self-starter did not work, but for the rest of the journey he and Reinet talked and each found the other to be very good company.

The four students joined the National Anti-War procession at the Embankment, wearing their graduation gowns; John was much impressed by Reinet's black and purple hood representing Master of Science from Cape Town University. In the evening, John and Mary were involved in a play, in which John had insisted on having the smallest available part, and he and Mary then returned to Letchworth by train, while Charles and Reinet took the car back to Cambridge. Two weeks later, in a letter to Celia inviting her to visit Cambridge he wrote:

"There's a girl here - Reinet Maasdorp - who is very anti-family life and I'd love to listen to a debate."

I don't know what this anti-family remark referred to but my guess is that it had to do with Reinet's interest in communism at the time.

John and Reinet began to have lunch together on working days in a little cafe called 'Snax' quite close to the Cavendish, which did very good grease-free omelettes, one of John's favourite light meals. Reinet was a lively storyteller and gradually John picked up her history.

H E Maasdorp Her father was Henry Ernest, one of James William Maasdorp's sons. James Maasdorp farmed land near Graaff Reinet, a historic small town in the southern tip of South Africa, two hundred kilometres north-west of Port Elizabeth. When he was seventeen, Ernest, as he preferred to be known, was briefly involved in the Boer War after lying about his age to get into the army. After the war, he and one of his brothers decided to become land surveyors. The family did not have enough money for them both to take the course, so Ernest was at first taught by his brother during the vacations, only attending the college for a reduced length of course when his brother was earning. Once he had qualified as a land-surveyor, he soon became well known although there were hard times for his family whenever he was between jobs. He surveyed the border between Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and Portuguese East Africa (now Mozambique) but not before the South African Government had written to England to ask for someone to do it, only to be told that they already had an excellent man on their own continent! He went on to survey the border between Cape Province and German West Africa (now Namibia).

Reinet's mother, Gladys Grace Fendick, was born in Aberdeen, near Graaff Reinet, but from the age of seven, spent her childhood in England. She became a talented musician, but realising that she could not earn a living through music, qualified as a gym, dancing and games teacher. She then followed her family to Graaff Reinet where she found a teaching position.

Maasdorp I don't know anything about the circumstances of their meeting, but Ernest and Gladys were married in 1911. Reinet was born in Johannesburg in 1912 and her sister Edith in 1913. During the 1914-18 war, while Ernest joined the South African Cavalry and was sent to East Africa and Egypt, his wife and children lived in Graaff Reinet. After the war, they moved to Rhodesia, the family now including a third child, Henry, born during the war. For some years they lived in the country over five miles outside Salisbury (now Harare), which Gladys found very lonely. Eventually, when Reinet was in her teens, they moved into Salisbury and Gladys began to throw herself into social work to do what she could to help African families, particularly the children. Her husband did not like the constant stream of black people coming to the house, so she eventually rented an office in town, taking a part-time bookkeeping job to pay for it.

As her own children grew up, the social work brought Gladys into politics and she joined the Rhodesia Labour Party, even though it did not really go far enough to meet her extreme socialist views. Eventually she became a town councillor, and once, during the 1940's, Mayor of Salisbury. While she was Mayor, Gladys became friendly with the young Doris Lessing, the South African writer. At the time, Doris Lessing belonged to a communist group that Gladys brought into the Labour party in the hope that its members would help to support her proposal for an African Branch for the Rhodesia Labour Party. In her autobiography, Doris Lessing describes Mrs Maasdorp as a 'large, solid, calm woman' and reports with amusement the severe, matronly way in which the Mayor spoke to the young comrades when telling them what they could and couldn't do in their new roles as Labour Party members.

To return to the 1920's, the young Reinet was quiet and self-sufficient. At first she went to a little local school where she was soon moved up to work with older children. At the age of ten, while the family were still living in the country, she had to go to a senior school in Salisbury and initially she used the school bus to get there. However, she loved being at school, and wanted to stay on for all the after-school activities going, games, drama, elocution and the debating society. After these there was no bus, so she used her father's bicycle to get to and fro, despite the fact that it was too big for her to mount unless she could find some sort of step to use for climbing up to the saddle.

The only science Reinet did at school was botany, and this was the only subject she really disliked, involving as it did the study of English plants from books. (History and geography were also taught from English books, and it was only some time after she came to England that she discovered that The Wash, where King John dropped those famous jewels was not near Bath!)

For all her love of school, Reinet did not always feel that she got on well with the other girls in her class and thoroughly disliked parties, which formed an important part of local children's social lives. She often wished she could join in the general frivolity while at the same time finding it rather silly. This is not to say that she spent all her time alone: while her mother played tennis with friends, the players' children were supposed to occupy themselves in the woods behind the club. As it was a long trek back to the clubhouse to use the lavatory, Reinet took a small shovel with her and dug a hole for the children to use instead. Sadly, when this piece of initiative was discovered, she was told off. All the way up senior school, she was at least one and a half years below the average age of her classmates, and still obtained the highest marks in exams, both of which cannot have helped her to make friends easily.

Her mother calculated that Reinet would be only sixteen when doing University entrance, so in her last year at school, took her away for six months and sent her to stay with a divorced cousin, Gladys Birch, who ran a farm some forty miles outside Graaff Reinet. Reinet loved her stay and there managed to mix with everyone. There was plenty to read in the house, and also Aunt Gladys kept her busy driving sheep, and helping with butter-making. At shearing time, Reinet had to help organise tea for the hired shearers in between herding the sheep into the enclosure, tramping the wool down and sewing up the bales. She enjoyed it all hugely, despite getting very greasy from the lanolin in the wool.

Reinet may have felt ill at ease socially, but her prowess in so many of the school activities earned her a lot of respect. She became quite a star in the debating society, frequently took the main part in school plays and competed in Eisteddfords with recitations, playlets and country dancing. She got many of her pieces published in the school magazine and was also the school's 'writer': she had never taken to cursive writing and did all her writing in a pleasantly rounded script, which looked very attractive on school notices.

In her last year at senior school, Reinet was voted head girl by the school, but allowed to be only the deputy by the head mistress. This was almost certainly because she had seen no necessity to conceal her atheism, announcing her lack of belief to excuse herself from scripture lessons and from morning prayers. Reinet had not been brought up as a Christian, and although her mother repeatedly told her she should make up her own mind on religion, even refusing to discuss the subject to avoid influencing her, Reinet could see no reason not to follow her.

After matriculation-1- , Reinet received a gold watch from the Salisbury City Council for the most outstanding pass of the year. Her results also allowed her to get a scholarship to University which amounted to £ 132: the lodging costs at the University Women's Residence took just over half of this immediately. Very little work was available for her father at this time and so she did not expect much money from her family.

Reinet should have started at Cape Town University in the first week of February 1930, but developed Enteric Fever a few days before term was to start. She was very ill and at one point, when her fever was at its height, the traffic in the road outside her window was diverted to keep any disturbance to a minimum. But at last she recovered and started her University life, in a very weakened state, two weeks before the end of term, and took courses in mathematics, English, Latin and logic-and-metaphysics spending a lot of time copying up notes from other people, and finding the mathematics hard to understand for the first time in her life.

In her second year, she decided to try some science, and took mathematics, chemistry, applied mathematics and physics. The physics lecturers assumed no prior knowledge at all and Reinet fell in love with the subject from the first lecture. By the end of her third year, Reinet had taken twelve courses (with eleven class one passes) when only eight were required. She felt she had reached her ceiling in mathematics and was delighted to accept when the physics professor invited her to stay on and do an MSc.

Right through her three years as an undergraduate, Reinet had been very hard up, despite taking on a little coaching at two shillings and sixpence an hour. She was rarely able to afford the five-day journey home and frequently stayed with relatives who lived nearer Cape Town during the holidays. If she went out with friends, and they went into a cafe, she would make an excuse to stay outside, to save paying for tea and cakes. Going out by herself to avoid such expenses was not an option: for safety, female students were supposed to go out in sixes in their first year and in fours from their second year onwards, always wearing, of course, hats and stockings. Lack of new clothes did not distress her particularly, and she made those she needed herself, or altered hand-me-downs from various aunts. For her MSc course, she won a scholarship for £ 80, but when she was offered some demonstrating work for the same amount, she chose to do the demonstrating, although this meant giving up the scholarship, because she wanted to spend more time in the labs.

She did well enough for the staff to recommend her to go to Cambridge, and obtained a grant of £ 200 from Cape Town University and was able to persuade the Beit trustees to add £ 150 pounds to this. (British PhD students had grants of £ 250 but did not have to stretch them to cover vacations.)

Reinet had no regrets at going so far from home in pursuit of her love of physics. She had fitted in well enough at Cape Town to ensure that she had people to go about with, but had made no lasting friends and she had now spent several years away from her family. Indeed, one of her mathematics lecturers had once called her 'rather an austere person'. At University, as at school, the work was the exciting bit, not individual people.

Cambridge was a shock. In all her life so far, she had been one of the highest achievers in everything she had set out to do. But at Cambridge, everyone seemed to know so much more than she did. She was way behind all the other graduates in her grasp of physics, and even her general knowledge was not as good as she had thought. She was sent to some postgraduate lectures and spent some time in the Nursery. After two short projects, Reinet joined two others to use an old Cockcroft and Walton apparatus for accelerating particles onto a target in order to find out what was produced. The work resulted in two papers by Kempton, Browne and Maasdorp that were published in the 'Proceedings of the Royal Society'. During the work they encountered those usual difficulties of lack of apparatus and leaks, and Reinet received at least two severe electric shocks. An added difficulty for her was the prevailing attitude to women. To use the library, she had to carry a card saying that she was a 'fit and proper person', whereas any male undergraduate could walk in wearing his gown. For her first two years, no women were allowed at the Cavendish annual dinner, although by her third year this rule was relaxed, to the horror of the guest of honour who was heard to say: "Good God! Women!" But most insulting of all she (addressed as Mr Maasdorp) and her co-authors had received invitations to the Royal Society annual party for authors following the publication of their papers but only two days later she received another letter telling her that her invitation was cancelled as she was female.

As an example of a female physicist, the Cavendish could have had no trouble with Reinet. She scorned female affectation, which was just as well as she could not afford to fuss over fashion. She was sometimes irritated by other women who seemed to need help in traditional areas such as those of lifting weights or anything to do with electricity, and made a point of being able to do these things for herself. Her partners in the labs were nevertheless quite happy to leave occupations they regarded as feminine, such as tidying up the working areas, to her!

Reinet was as eager to join in everything that was going as she had been at school. She stretched her finances to the very limit to join a student trip to America (now that she was so near that continent), went with a friend to Germany and then joined a student trip to Russia. During term-time she went out punting and cycling, but more serious occupations interested her the most. She was recruited to the Communist Party, joining a small group of Cambridge post-graduate scientists who studied the works of Engel, Lenin and Marx, discussed Russia and worried over Hitler. She joined the Association of Scientific Workers, which was working for better conditions for scientists and for better science education. Before long she became the Association's local Branch Secretary and later had a seat on the National Executive Committee.

And of course she joined the Cambridge Scientist Anti-War group, having been the secretary of a similar group at Cape Town University. It cannot be said that Reinet had noticed John in the same way in which he had noticed her. Some of Celia's friends had found his schoolboy good looks, his diffident chivalry and his obvious physical fitness very attractive, but to Reinet he was at first just another research physicist, albeit one who was interested in the same outside activities as she, and moreover, an excellent listener. It may not have struck them at the time, but their backgrounds were surprisingly similar. They both had fathers who had taken up professions, in the face of some difficulties, out of sheer necessity. They both had strong, active mothers with wide interests and well-reasoned opinions.

Both knew that physical attraction between a man and a woman was nothing like enough for a long-term relationship, and in the other, each had found an attractive mind. Both were serious-minded people to whom logical thought was part of their normal lives as well as of their scientific personae and integrity and honesty were accepted as vital characteristics. John had been brought up to display a stiff upper lip but underneath he could be quite emotional and had the capacity to love very deeply. He had shied away from this for years for he had known that he could not afford to marry as a student and held the old-fashioned view that to kiss a woman (except under the mistletoe at Christmas) was to take on some sort of a commitment to her.

Now he had to acknowledge that something very special was happening. One day he found himself waiting at a window, scanning the street below for Reinet to arrive so that they could go out to lunch together. It suddenly came to him that he didn't usually wait at windows for people to appear, and that the only reason why he could possibly be doing it now was that he was falling in love!

In Cambridge, a favourite place for young lovers was the River Cam. One evening, John took Reinet up the river in a canoe, but turned it over by hitting an underwater branch of a willow tree. As soon as they had extricated themselves, John told Reinet to run round a field to get warm while he dived down to collect her handbag and other oddments from the bottom of the river and then they went back to his rooms to get properly dry. They often went out on their bicycles together and John loved to help by pushing Reinet up hills as he had done with Celia.

John had also become a member of the Communist Party. He agreed with the ideals of the party in general, although he hadn't read much of the works of Marx and Engels because he found them difficult and boring. Many in the party had joined because they felt that this was the only party that seemed to recognise the danger from Hitler and John also took this view. Anti-Stalinist stories were already coming out of Russia regularly but the Cambridge Communists chose to regard all such stories as capitalist propaganda. A party returning from a visit to Russia told John that people who disagreed with Stalin were being put in labour camps in their thousands, and each prisoner had to cut down two trees every morning before being allowed any breakfast. John calculated that, if this were so, the camps would be advancing through the trees of Russia at ten miles a day and so discounted the whole anecdote instead of regarding it as a simple exaggeration. However, this led to his ignoring all anti-communist news, much of which later turned out to be all too true. With some trepidation he told Heaver of his membership. "Oh well, at least there's one gentleman in the Communist Party," said Heaver.

As members, John and Reinet attended a communist camp in Kent. Most of the men slept in tents, and John got a certain amount of teasing about his bourgeois values, because he walked out into an ornamental lake to shave in cold water each morning when most of the others were not bothering at all. This was because he did not want to give Reinet prickly kisses on their usual evening stroll. While there, they cycled over to Ryarsh to introduce Reinet to Heaver. Celia could see perfectly well at this meeting how things were going, and was not in the least surprised when she and her father were informed of her brother's engagement at the beginning of August, although she might have wondered briefly whether Reinet had been persuaded to give up her antipathy to family life. Heaver was quite put out at the apparent suddenness of this announcement however, and John wrote him a long letter explaining that he always found it difficult to put feelings into words; that ever since he had really noticed Reinet as different from other girls he had always wanted to report progress to his family at each stage; in fact he had been unable to do more than work Reinet's name into anything he was saying about Cambridge.

John bought Reinet an engagement ring and then decided he was going to make her a wedding ring himself. He practised on a halfpenny and when sure of the technique, made a very successful thin ring out of a South African golden sovereign. Reinet promptly started to wear the half penny ring on her right hand, as a substitute for displaying her engagement ring while they nursed their delicious secret.

Cambridge friends were kept uninformed of the engagement until the Anti-War Group were doing a further experiment on gas-proofed rooms to investigate the effects of overcrowding. After warning his bedder to stay away, John's bedroom and the gyp room were carefully sealed to a higher standard than in any of their previous attempts, with ten members inside. The gyp room was equipped with a bucket, and they had a good supply of food for a ten-hour stay, at the end of which a 'rescue squad' was to come and let them out. Each participant had a specific task: John measured the carbon dioxide concentration every hour; others measured temperature, humidity, and breathing and pulse rates. Someone even proposed to record signs of bad temper, but it is not remembered whether he had anything to record. Contributing to a wall newspaper provided entertainment for anyone with nothing to do. Reinet prepared the food, putting together a South African fresh fruit salad, based on oranges. During the day, John and Reinet announced their engagement but were just a touch disappointed when no one seemed in the least surprised at their revelation.

None of the measurements they took so carefully changed very much, except that the temperature went up quite a bit. In particular they noticed no stuffiness or odour, although when their rescuers unsealed the door they were appalled by the atmosphere that met them, to which the bucket had no doubt made its own special contribution.

1. In South Africa, matriculation is the process of taking the last school examinations and leaving school.back

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This page updated 22nd June 2012