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There isn't a Snake in the Cupboard

A Review of the Life of J H Fremlin

CHAPTER 2 - 1920 to 1927
Celia and Pete Not long after the children had started school, they were taken away again when Margaret became seriously ill and had to have a hysterectomy, possibly following a miscarriage. For some months, John and Celia stayed with their widowed grandmother and Margaret's unmarried sisters, Elizabeth, Ella and Dorothy (collectively known as 'the Aunts'). In fact Elizabeth was not always at home now, for she and Ella had evaded their father's prohibition on working when the war started, and had become nurses; Elizabeth had found that the life suited her and had continued working after the war, as an almoner -1- . Caroline took a house at Seaford on the Sussex coast for the summer and so the children had a prolonged seaside holiday. When Margaret started to convalesce, she joined her mother and the children at Seaford, giving the children lessons to make up for their missed schooling. Heaver also visited at weekends, and for his own summer holiday.

Living in Finchley, Heaver was missing the countryside, he decided to buy Whitehouse Farm near Bedmond from Margaret's cousin, 'Uncle' Edward Martin. He pointed out that being in the country would allow Margaret to recover from her operation in peace and quiet, while the children's absence made the move easier. Bedmond, north-west of London, was some distance from Hendon, and Heaver accepted that he would have to go to work by walking one and a half miles to catch a bus to take him to St Albans where he could catch a train the rest of the way. Much as he liked the walk, this was a long and complicated journey to undertake twice a day. At the same time, Caroline and the Aunts took over Millhouse Farm, half a mile away across some fields and initially the children went there with their grandmother, and then moved over to their new home on 31st October 1920.

John and Celia loved the house. It had a large yard with outbuildings including a grain store built on solid steel legs to keep out rats, which they soon named the Wickiup after the castaways' hut in 'Smugglers Island'. It contained a couple of hundredweights of sand and made a fine wet-day playing place. There was an apple orchard with a codlin tree, which was particularly easy to climb. John had stomach ache one night, and owned up to having eaten thirteen apples, but followed this admission by claiming that it was not relevant: the day before he had managed sixteen and had felt perfectly well.

The children went to a school at Abbots Langley, which had about twenty pupils, mostly under ten. They were taught by a Mrs Ayre who was helped by a young assistant, Miss Jakes. Margaret found a side chair for her bicycle, and for the first year or so, took the children the two miles to school in this, getting off and walking up the hills.

Soon after the move to Bedmond, Margaret bought a puppy, Pete, who was supposed to be of fox terrier ancestry, but who developed into a large brown mongrel with a good deal of sheepdog and of high intelligence. When the children started to go to school on their own, Pete went with them, and was, with some difficulty, taught to return home by himself. He was thought to be adequate protection on the way to school, and the children were very firmly instructed to refuse lifts on the way home but this later caused trouble. A Mr and Mrs Shepherd-Cross, important persons in local Bedmond society, had befriended Heaver and Margaret. One day, Mrs Shepherd-Cross caught the children up in a pony trap as they walked home from school and offered them a lift. Celia was in favour of accepting, but John stuck to the letter of the law and refused, which seriously offended the grand lady. Meanwhile, Pete was extending his repertoire: he would set out early with Heaver to walk with him to his bus stop, and then race back to be in time to go with the children to school, before finally returning home to keep Margaret company. In the evening, Heaver would whistle for Pete as he approached the house, and Pete would bark and dash off at top speed to meet him, well before the rest of the family could see or hear anything.

The school's teaching methods were traditional, and for John laid the foundation of a dislike of geography, which lasted to the end of his schooldays, by requiring him to learn lists of harbours, rivers and so on, going in one direction round the British coast. There were other things such as his multiplication tables he was happy to learn off by heart because he could see that they were useful. At play time there was a tendency among the other pupils to develop feuds between small groups. Mostly John stayed uninvolved, but when two sisters were sent to Coventry for no reason that he could discover, he spent the ten-minute break deliberately talking to them, despite the fact that he received a lot of pressure from other children not to do so. No reprisals were taken against him after this incident, so perhaps his stand had succeeded in temporarily shaming the others.

When at home, the children were very much on their own because any friends they had made at school lived some distance away but this never worried them. Celia in particular, had always loathed anything that could be called 'going out' and to be at home, either totally alone, or with only her admired brother or adored mother for company, made the time at Whitehouse Farm an idyll. John also liked to be on his own, but in a less passionate way than Celia; he simply found that he could get on with his own projects better that way.

Thrown together for long periods of time when nothing much was happening, one particular game began to emerge as a favourite. The children liked to act out various stories they had been told or had read themselves, each playing the part of one character. Gradually these role-playing games evolved to centre on Rikki-Tikki, played by John, and Kotik played by Celia, two animal characters taken from Rudyard Kipling's 'Jungle Books'. Soon the narrative form became dominant over the original acting and fantastic adventures were developed, with each child taking it in turn to advance the plot from Rikki-Tikki's or Kotik's point of view. The stories were often derivative, focusing on parts of whatever one of them was reading at the time, and went on in serial form for years, whenever the children had a spare moment - at bedtime, on wet days, or when they had been put to bed for an afternoon nap needed by Margaret more than by them. They each tended to influence ongoing stories in different ways. Celia would spend most of her turns in getting the characters into apparently inescapable predicaments or in building up the horror; John would then take over the whole impossible situation and, with great ingenuity, get the participants onto a safer path only to have Celia bring the whole thing back to crisis point. If Rikki-Tikki hopefully spied a light at the end of a tunnel, Kotik would discover the light to be the eye of a demon lying in wait for them, leaving Rikki-Tikki with the task of getting them round the demon. When she was in her seventies, Celia told me she could still picture some of the scenes from these stories, almost as if they were things she had actually done.

Again using their imaginations, the children might spend a day inventing a new private language. The idea would be to have it ready to mystify the maid at tea-time by conversing in it. The attempt usually foundered, for, having made up names for a large number of objects, they neglected to invent enough verbs or other connecting parts of speech for the creation of many realistic sentences.

Children love dares and betting each other that they can't do things, and John and Celia were no different. One day, John bet Celia that she couldn't count to a million, and this she proceeded to attempt to do. The counting was done sotto voce, or in her head, and for the next few months she counted doggedly in all spare moments. Hard task master that he was, John would ask her regularly how far she had got, calculating each time whether she could have got as far as she claimed, and making her go back if the count seemed too far advanced. She remembers having got as far as about one hundred thousand before they were both so bored with the process that it got forgotten.

Thus the games John and Celia played matured with them and it was extremely difficult for outsiders to join in. From time to time Bill and Martin Addiscott, the elder sons of Margaret's brother William, would visit, but John and Celia made little effort to modify or explain their games to allow their cousins to participate, so that by tea-time the visitors were bad tempered and tearful.

During this period John was developing an interest in doing dangerous experiments. One of the outbuildings had been given a concrete floor to take Uncle Edward's car when he came to visit. One day when John was eight or nine, he found a full can of petrol there, with a screw top. He had heard that petrol would burn, and the idea of a liquid burning seemed so unlikely that he had to see it for himself. So he unscrewed the top and applied a match. Fortunately there was no explosion, but a little flame went round the top of the can with frightening speed, so John jammed the screw top on quickly, which put the flame out. He screwed it up tightly and took the dead match away.

Another time, among the usual Fremlin junk in the attic, he found an antique powder horn half full of gunpowder. He thought this would explode nicely if lit, so he experimented with a kind of slow fuse, made of twisted string. Then he put a handful of powder into a small glass jar. This he put behind the house against a wall, lit a fuse which should have had about a half-minute's delay and retired round the corner of the house. Nothing happened, so after a few minutes he looked cautiously round the corner and found that the fuse had gone out. So he attached another, lit it and retired again. This time there was a very satisfactory bang. Emerging from his hiding place, he could find no trace of the glass jar. He had no wish to boast to either Celia or to school friends, nor to repeat the experiment and so he kept the event secret for many years. It is odd that no one came to investigate the noise but no doubt John had deliberately left his experiment until the rest of the family was out.

On another occasion, John took a cigarette from the box kept for visitors (neither Heaver nor Margaret smoked) and smoked it in the barn. This Margaret did know about somehow and she caught him coming in still feeling decidedly sick. "John, you should have told me you wanted a cigarette," she said sweetly, "and I could have given you one." This remark was so well timed that it worked far better than any punishment could have done.

And yet, in spite of such escapades, none of the adults round him would have called John a naughty boy; to them he appeared quiet and self-sufficient. It is clear that from an early age John thoroughly disliked being ticked off. If he felt that something wasn't his fault or that there were at least mitigating circumstances, he was acutely aware of the unfairness of a scolding. The result was that he used his intelligence not to behave in a particularly saintly way but to make absolutely sure that he wasn't caught when he didn't.

Leaving his fires and explosions behind, John moved on to the construction of an elastic-powered boat for the garden pond. This was perhaps eight inches long with a solid wooden hull scraped into shape with a penknife, tapered at the front and rounded at the back. The propeller was a twisted piece of tin plate cut from a can, with a wire propeller shaft passing through a bearing made of a piece of tin with a nail hole, and having a loop at its end to hold the elastic. This worked very well. From time to time John also made paper aeroplanes. As he sent each one on several test flights, he would watch carefully and decide where more or less weight or a change of shape was required, and incorporate these ideas into the next version. These were not paper darts, as they had an aeroplane-like shape and later creations could glide quite reasonable distances. John liked to watch Aunt Di's husband George (a cheerful man who 'did something in the city' and who had married Dorothy in 1923) doing carpentry in his cellar and at one stage he rigged up a launcher to let John's paper aeroplanes go from six feet up.

One day when Celia was seven or eight, she found a four-leafed clover. She held it up in one hand and solemnly wished she had a donkey. Her wish was not as secret as she had thought, or else it was in line with some current family plan, for one day a donkey called Frisky suddenly appeared. Celia loved everything about her, including the mucking out and spent a lot of time sitting on her back trying to make her move. John was not nearly so keen on riding, mostly because he didn't like falling off, but he did discover Frisky's taste for toffee: she never learnt to suck it but would bite it firmly and get her jaws stuck together every time. She didn't like this and tried to express her disapproval by braying, making a noise, which apparently had to be heard to be believed.

Frisky managed on one occasion to help Celia to earn a long awaited morsel of praise from her father. She was telling her parents that she had been frightened when Frisky had carried her into a field where they were surrounded by bullocks and her mother asked her why she hadn't got off and run away. Not giving Celia time to explain that it had not occurred to her, and that in any case it might have been even more frightening to be down on the ground, Heaver interrupted. "A good rider always stays with his mount," he said loftily.

The children did not see much of their father during the week, especially in the summer. By the time he got home in the evening, all he wanted to do was have a quick meal and go out to look for butterflies or shoot rabbits. But at weekends he still took them out for walks. One day they saw a white blackbird and both children asked how could there be such a thing as a white blackbird. John accepted Heaver's explanation about albino varieties but Celia kept insisting "but white can't be black" until Heaver became cross and put an end to the discussion.

Celia loved to spend time with Margaret, helping her round the house and talking with her for hours on end. Margaret always told her daughter how much she loved the domestic life of looking after the house, the chickens and the garden but all the same, she did not allow herself to vegetate at home. She had always taken an interest in writing, and at some stage wrote a long children's story called "Rat Thing's Magic" about a little creature that led two children into all kinds of magical adventures. It was never published but has so far been read aloud to three generations of Fremlins. While the children were at Mrs Ayre's, Margaret wrote and produced a play for the school's children and another for the local Women's Institute.

Every year or so, Margaret bought a dozen day-old white leghorn chicks; the family ate the cockerels, and kept the pullets for eggs. As Margaret was more practical than Heaver, it was she who built the hen houses. Sometimes she got enough eggs to sell some, though she was conscious that her mother thought she was lowering her standards by trading. Undeterred, she told Celia that she wasn't going to let her mother's disapproval stop her.

She was also the family photographer. She had a Kodak camera and films were bought with money from Heaver: he had got into the habit of saving any sixpenny pieces he came across dated with the year of their marriage and of giving Margaret the year's collection each summer. On seaside holidays she managed to take snapshots of the whole family by using a time-lapse mechanism fitted to her camera. In these photographs, she looks cross, for the strain of getting into place in time was apt to show, while Heaver, who rather liked having his photograph taken, looks on benignly with just a hint of a smile. The children, charmingly dressed almost alike in long-line jerseys, shorts or skirt and sandshoes, do not look especially happy either, despite the fact that they enjoyed their summer holidays. Perhaps they didn't like being taken away from their excavations for they, helped by Heaver, loved digging elaborate series of interconnecting tunnels in the sand in order to run ping-pong balls along them. But maybe I am just looking at these pictures with 21st Century eyes: smiling for portraits and photographs, especially with an open mouth, was not the fashion then that it became later on.


It had been decided that when John left Mrs Ayre's he should go to Berkhamsted School where his cousin Bill Addiscott had started a year earlier. This was a minor public school in the town of the same name and it is still thriving there today in its straggle of superb red brick buildings, some dating from Tudor times. Charles Greene was the headmaster in the 1920's, but Graham Greene, who had been an unhappy pupil at his father's school, had left for Oxford the autumn before John started.

Margaret knew that the school had an entrance examination, and believed that it would be similar to those of the well-known public schools, which included Latin, a subject not taught by Mrs Ayre. So a tutor was found in Abbotts Langley, and John walked there twice a week during the summer holidays. The teaching was mediocre and John found the subject dull and difficult. In fact, when he went to Berkhamsted for the examination, he found it consisted only of an arithmetic paper, up to but not including long division, and dictation of a simple paragraph. It is extraordinary that Margaret had not thought to ask her brother to verify her theory about the Latin.

So in the spring of 1923, John joined the school. (Pictures of
Berkhamsted School today.) Although the town of Berkhamsted is only about eight miles to the north-west of Bedmond, getting John there and back daily was not going to be easy. The walk of about three miles to the station the other side of Abbots Langley to catch a train to Berkhamsted was considered too far, especially as it would involve an early start, and so at first he stayed with Mrs Ayre in Abbotts Langley during the week. Hardly surprisingly, the ten-year-old didn't like this at all, and so it was then arranged that he should live with his Uncle William's family at Boxmoor on the outskirts of Hemel Hempstead, so that he could go to and from school by train with his cousin Bill.

The new arrangement was only a slight improvement: John had never been on especially friendly terms with his cousins, and he found their home life to be stricter than his own. The Addiscott boys were expected to have a cold bath in the mornings, and deciding that having to do this was a highly unpleasant way to start the day, John got into the habit of running a bath in, splashing it about a bit, and then running it out again. Apparently no one checked on him, for he got away with it. When John told me this story, I forgot to ask if he washed at any other time instead! Worse, at tea-time, the children had to have at least one slice of bread and butter before they could have any jam, and even then, butter and jam on the same slice of bread were forbidden. He particularly disliked his Aunt Marjory, who whipped her children when displeased with them. One day when he heard Bill crying while being whipped he found that he wasn't the only one to be distressed by the unmistakable noises, for the maid crept along to the bedroom John shared with Bill, dreadfully upset, saying "Isn't it awful?" They then heard Bill running away shouting tearfully "You little beast Mummy," for which he was whipped again. But there was an introverted part to John, which allowed him to ignore the people round him while he pursued his own thoughts, and he was not seriously unhappy. He discovered Sherlock Holmes at this time, and escaped into another world as he sat up in bed reading 'The Speckled Band'.

At Berkhamsted School, John was put into one of the preparatory forms, and as a train-boy, had his lunch in Adders, the train-boy house. The preparatory form rooms were in a building separate from the main school and the children had their own large grass playground. John found the work easy, having already covered most of it at Mrs Ayre's, but he had to get used to a ruling that required the entire junior school to print everything they wrote, presumably in order to make their work easier to read. His form master underlined the point by telling the class that one of the boys in the preparatory boarding house had been caught writing to his parents in cursive writing and had been punished. John was deeply shocked by this infringement of personal liberty, but buried his feelings and conformed, learning to write very quickly in the required way, and did not return to cursive writing even when he went into the senior school where it was permitted.

There was quite a bit of bullying, and although it was mostly fairly mild, it was frightening to John at the time. Among the younger train-boys, there was a boy called W-A perhaps a year older than John, who, with his bosom friend M, preyed on smaller boys. John had been told repeatedly by his father that bullies were all cowards, but he could see no evidence of this in either of these two, and avoided them whenever possible. However, one day M cornered him while W-A stood by and watched. M told John that when he and his brothers fought at home, nothing was barred: they hit and bit and kicked. John didn't want to be bitten, and M wasn't bigger than he was, so he lashed out wildly, managing to hit his tormentor hard on the nose, at which the bully started to cry, and gave up. W-A started to slap John's face, and although John knew perfectly well he should hit him on the nose as well, he didn't dare and instead cried too. They left John alone after that, but he never gained sufficient courage to interfere when other children were attacked. Later he decided that the advice he had been given that bullies are cowards missed the point; it would have been better to say that bullies find it more fun to attack people who don't hit back. The discovery of this fact may have influenced him later, when, a convinced pacifist, he nevertheless supported the war effort wholeheartedly against that arch-bully, Adolf Hitler.

He did enjoy properly regulated wrestling however. He would have friendly wrestling matches with another train-boy called Nicks, where the object was for one to get the other lying on his back, with no intention of hurting each other. Nicks was a bit older and heavier, while John was a bit quicker, so they were pretty evenly matched.

Meanwhile John's accommodation was causing trouble again. Sometime in the middle of the summer term, John took Bill back to Bedmond for a weekend. John arrived with a temperature, and the next day, measles was diagnosed. Bill went home forthwith, but too late: he, and then all of his brothers and sisters (six of them by that time) went down with it, and John's aunt and uncle couldn't avoid regarding the whole thing as John's fault. Heaver and Margaret took the only remaining possible decision, which was to move to Berkhamsted, which would reduce John's travelling time and would also bring a suitable school for Celia within reach. They found a small house, number 41, on the High Street. This was a few hundred yards from the school, and, starting late as he invariably did, John could run there in about five minutes. The move also reduced Heaver's journey time to Hendon quite considerably. Caroline, still trailing the Fremlins wherever they went, moved to a house some distance along the High Street, a long road that was almost all that Berkhamsted then comprised. Aunt Ella came with her: she was now the only one of the sisters to live with her mother and had gradually changed her role from dependent daughter to that of the old lady's carer.

After the move Margaret enquired in the district for other musicians to join her in forming a string quartet, in which she played the cello. She was the only musician in the family though: both John and Celia had been told at school that when they had to appear with their classes singing in public they should open and close their mouths but must not let any sound come out. If John heard the quartet's music while he was outside playing, he would appreciate the sound but feel no desire to join in.

In the following autumn term, John was moved up to form 2b in the junior school, bypassing 1a Junior. He did well there, soon being top in maths, and then for a term enjoying history more than any other subject. This was taught by a Mr Baker, starting with ancient Egypt and Sumeria and ending with the Norman Conquest. John cannot have been alone in thinking that interesting history came abruptly to an end in 1066. But in this form, his dislike of school botany was established. A young master was giving a lesson on floral anatomy. He handed out a pansy to each boy and instructed them to remove the sepals and petals in turn. Unfortunately, John had stood his pansy in his inkpot on receiving it, and had just noticed that the ink had been taken up and was being distributed into a number of beautiful fine blue lines on the white petals. He was completely absorbed in this when the master came up behind him with an angry remark to the effect that he was supposed to be learning botany and not fooling about. This put-down, for the sensitive John who disliked being told off more with every passing year and who now believed that he had discovered something interesting, cut off any possibility of a career in botany at a stroke. John told me that he had always thought a more imaginative teacher could have seen further instruction for the class in what he had done but I expect the teacher was too concerned with stopping him making a mess with ink to take any notice of an experiment that wasn't on the syllabus. John continued to enjoy country walks with his father looking for new kinds of flower and insect, but school natural history became an unrelated chore.

From form 2b, John was moved up with one other boy to 4a. This was a mistake, for John would have been too young to go up to the senior school at the end of the year anyway. He came bottom but one for the form subjects, English, history, Latin and geography and top or second in maths. The next year he stayed in 4a, and got into the first few for most subjects. Whether he was top or bottom in exams did not particularly concern him, and as his mother never appeared disappointed by poor results, he had little incentive to improve his attitude. He accepted the teachers' right to adjust which classes he attended until he could do well without any special effort. In all games lessons, however, he always tried hard: he had always been good at all forms of athletics and gymnastics, loving running, jumping and rope climbing, only swimming defeating him until he was eleven or twelve. He liked to gain peer approval whenever possible in any kind of physical activity: and to do well enough to merit such approval when he was often a couple of years younger than the majority of the boys in his class, most of whom were just as competitive as he was, must sometimes have been quite a challenge. Friendly rivalry also spread into the changing rooms after swimming, where they all tried to be first dressed, resulting in a queue of very wet boys waiting to return to their classes.

Margaret may have appeared vague about John's exam results, but she did try to keep an eye on her children's literary education. For Celia this was easy enough, for she shared her mother's love of reading and would discuss everything she read with her, but Margaret hoped that Berkhamsted School would inject some culture into her son. This resulted in John being caught in a pincer action between his mother and the school. While he was still too young to understand it, the school provided him with a copy of 'Pickwick Papers' to read. When Margaret saw this volume, she was horrified to find that it was heavily abridged. So she got her own full-length version down from a shelf and commanded John to read that instead. Poor John had no choice but to obey, and spent many miserable hours ploughing through something he found intensely boring. He counted the pages he read and every time he put the book down knew just how many more sessions he was going to have to endure. This episode left him with a dislike of Dickens, which lasted for several years. Paradoxically, it was Margaret herself who managed to dissipate this dislike: when John was about seventeen, she decided that the family would make some rugs with patterns symbolising the Fremlin family history. While Heaver, John and Celia sat hooking lengths of coloured wool into the designs Margaret had herself marked out on the canvas, she read selected Dickens novels to them, which they all thoroughly enjoyed, John and Celia completing their homework quickly so that they could get on with the current story.

Caroline also did her bit to try and civilise her grandson: when sending a postal order for his fourteenth birthday she wrote:

"Aunt Ella and I had a pleasant little time at Aunt Di's after supper last night, Mr Nicholson being there and fond of music. I'm sorry that does not appeal much to you, but hundreds of other things do, so of course you lose nothing ... so keep your ears open and see whether a G sharp doesn't appeal to you, played very gently and listened to quietly - it appealed to a genius once, Beethoven, and he wove a lovely skein from it."
Although John had not by this time involved himself in music in any way despite his mother's interest, he did eventually allow himself to enjoy one type of music: he learnt to appreciate the work of Gilbert and Sullivan. The Berkhamsted dramatic society staged performances three years running starting with 'The Mikado' and he was hooked for life by the clever lines and lively melodies.

1. Since 1880, almoners, formerly distributors of alms, had been increasingly linked with hospitals where their role was to offer counselling services and financial advice to patients. They were replaced by medical social workers during the 1960s. back

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This page updated 22nd June 2012