Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Tracking the Life and Travels of Vera Louise Beauclerk Mills, Part 2

When last we peeked in on the life and travels of Vera Louise Mills [née Beauclerk], she had just pledged her troth to George Mills at the altar of the Holy Trinity Church in Brompton on 23 April 1925.

A reception was held at the Hans-crescent Hotel afterwards, after which the couple must have honeymooned and began their lives together. The honeymoon likely didn't take too long as George was likely on holiday from his duties as a schoolmaster.

Mills, then recently of Oxford, had just secured what appears to have been a "junior appointment", a position that was "seldom held for long," at Windlesham House School [its gardens as seen in Portslade, above left]. Despite that, the new couple apparently bought a house near on Benfield Way in Portslade.

George appears to have been very active at Windlesham and quite happy. Not only was he a master there, likely in "English or English subjects," he was involved in extra-curricular activities, especially in the arts of drama and music.

In fact, to say that Mills had been happy there may be understating the reality of the situation. Mills wrote three children's books based on the acquaintances and experiences he accrued at Windlesham, and was still proudly proclaiming his allegiance to the school as late as 1935.

As we know, however, by the end of the Summer Term in 1926, Mills surprisingly disappeared from the faculty list at the school, and Windlesham seems to have recorded no reason why—although they know a remarkable amount about him personally, even today. It has been speculated that Mills was one of the prep school masters at that time who were "excited about the General Strike" that occured during term.

British teachers at the time, according to the book, The General Teaching Council, by John Sayers, were more politically charged—confrontational and involved in unionization—than ever in the 1920s, and Mills could well have been involved. Still, given his family and connections, and those of his new bride, along with his newfound position as household breadwinner, I simply find it hard to believe that Mills would have been willing to chuck a plum job like the one he'd found in Portslade in favor of playing union politics. I find it more likely that the school found he'd lied about having a "B.A. Oxon" but, liking him very well, allowed him to resign rather than being dismissed.

Over the next decade or more, Mills became an itinerant teacher, and given the economic landscape of the Great Depression, he may well have been forced to find work at other positions as well to support his young bride.

Mills lists his teaching stops between 1926 and 1933 as the defunct Warren Hill School [right] in Eastbourne [actually Meads], The Craig School in Windermere, the mysterious English Preparatory School in Glion. Later, in 1938, he will add the surprisingly unknown Eaton Gate Preparatory School in London. How long Mills taught at each institution is simply unknown as these schools have been largely if not completely forgotten by their various communities.

Vera Mills, we can assume, had a mother still residing at 4 Hans-mansion, S.W., for at least the outset of this time period of one dozen years. Would she have traveled with Mills as he moved about?

It's possible George lived in the master's dormitory at Warren Hill, but perhaps not, preferring to reside in Portslade and drive to Eastbourne. From Benfield Way by automobile, he'd likely have to have driven down Old Shoreham Road east, turned south until it met the coastal highway, A259, through Seaford and between Eastbourne Downs and Beachy Head, on into The Meads. The trip would have been over 35 kilometers, one way, each morning to make the school bell and breakfast with the boys.

Given the technological advances of the time, autos were clearly hardy enough to make that journey easily in 1926. However, with a round-trip of 70 km, each day, all week, one wonders if there was such a 'commuter culture' at the time that Mills would have done it. Would Mills really have spent that much time behind the wheel of an automobile to teach?

It's natural to assume, from today's perspective he might've commuted by auto, but it simply seems to me so unlikely. Perhaps he rode the London Brighton and South Coast Railway, traveling from Brighton into Eastbourne daily on the East Coastway Line. Would that have been a better possibility? I suppose it's also possible he'd sold the house and just moved Vera over to Eastbourne, but I'm not sold on that idea either.

Either way, he was subsequently off to Windermere in Cumbria, anyway, and then to Glion, Switzerland, and one wonders for how long those positions were held, and whether or not Vera was in tow in those cases as well.

Vera's family had been certainly not one to worry about whether or not a wife accompanied a breadwinning husband at his out-of-town [or out-of-country] employment. Her grandmother, Hester Hart, as we know, gained a reputation for being "the absentee wife" of Sir Robert Hart in Peking, China, and she consequently almost evaporates from the family record.

Hester left China with two of her children, Bruce and Nollie, in 1881. Except for what were characterized as "rare and brief visits," she never returned to live with Sir Robert [right]. He faithfully corresponded with her until he left China in 1908, and there was one 17 year period during which the husband and wife never met, although Hart "provided generously for her rather luxurious style of life in England."

By 1878, Hester had "established" her children with her mother in Portadown, Ireland, to arrange for and oversee their educations, and then she began "the life of independence and travel that was to be hers over a long lifetime." Hart's London agent in Customs "reported her whereabouts from time to time, but mainly by hearsay."

Sir Robert provided Hester, then Lady Hart, "a house in a good section of London together with a handsome allowance and frequent presents. [She] entertained well and traveled widely."

Vera's mother, Evelyn Amy Hart Beauclerk, had been educated in England and Ireland and apparently came to visit Sir Robert in Peking in 1892, having been between "Aden and Colombo" in March earlier that year, traveling to China with her uncle, James Hart.

While in Peking with her father, "Evey" decided to marry the First Secretary of the British Legation, William Nelthorpe Beauclerk, a British diplomat who was assigned to China, Hungary, Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia from 1890 through his death in 1908.

Her mother, Hester, did not attend the "Jerusalem style" ceremony in Peking.

After her honeymoon, the soon pregnant Evelyn was in England in early in 1893 when her father posted a letter to his London agent, Campbell, on 18 February to cover the cost of a new maid for "Evey." Where Beauclerk was or why he could not cover the cost is unknown. She would soon return to China, however.

Vera was born on 5 September 1893, and Evelyn left China the very next day! "Evey" would soon return to Peking, as her younger sister, Hilda, would be born there in 1895.

By 1896, however, Beauclerk was assigned to the legation in Hungary, and I find it hard to believe that with an endowed mother in London and a rich father in Peking, that "Evey" would be raising her two infant girls in Hungary. This is especially true since the duties he would encounter in his new eastern European locale were characterized as a "hard card to play—against Russia and France politically, and against Germany (von Brandt) economically."

Evelyn, who had family and economic roots in both the United Kingdom and Peking, may indeed have followed Beauclerk, twenty years her senior, from Asia, to Europe, and on to South America. From her earliest life, though, Evelyn would not have seen a her own father and mother together as husband and wife very often, if at all.

And it's quite likely newlywed Vera Mills had never seen that either. It's hard to imagine Vera sitting alone in Bowness-on-Windermere in distant Cumbria, waiting for Mills to come home from a hard day up at The Craig, especially after she had led a relatively cosmopolitan lifestyle—one that certainly was not in any way limited in its opportunities to socialize and travel.

I can imagine her seeing George in Glion once or twice, but not finding herself by any means chained to an English prep school there. It simply doesn't seem to have been something the women in her family would have ever considered!

In my mind, there's no way Vera was following George around the United Kingdom and Europe, simply in his tow. Her own mother was clearly quite established in a nice part of Kensington in 1925, and her monied grandmother, Hester, wouldn't pass on until 1928 in Bournemouth, Hampshire, at the age of 80. Vera clearly had places to stay and people to spend time with while George pursued his career in the preparatory education of boys!

By 1933, however, the sands had begun to shift.

In that year, George Mills published his first book, Meredith and Co.: The Story of a Modern Preparatory School, with the Oxford University Press. Aspects of it indicate that he'd been back in London for a while.

In the book's preface, Mills thanks a close friend, Mr. H. E. Howell, who has been associated with All Saints Church Margaret Street, just to the northeast of Hans-mansions, past Hyde Park Corner and Grosvenor Square, as well as mentioning a headmaster from a school in Brackley.

He's also had a difficult, perhaps even bitter, time editing the book under the eye of a Mr. E. M. Henshaw, whose name disappears from later editions of the book. It's unkown if Henshaw was employed by the O. U. P., but Mills obviously was obliged to pay attention to his "devastating, but most useful, criticisms"—criticisms he may not have found in a softer editor outside of the hard core of British publishing in London.

George's parents were probably still in Onslow Gardens, at least until the passing of George's father, Barton, in 1932. Mills's brother and sister-in-law, Arthur and Lady Dorothy Mills, also lived just south of there on Ebury Street, at least through their divorce in 1933.

Yes, there certainly were a lot of reasons for Mills to have finally returned to this area by the early 1930s!

There's no reason to think, then, that Vera is not with George at this time, 1933, no matter where she may have been during his nomadic years just before. The questions are: Did they have a place of their own in 1933? Were they living with George's parents in Onslow Gardens? Or might they have been residing with Vera's family? One wonders where George was actually sitting as he was writing the manuscript for Meredith and Co.!

1933 brings us to another interesting piece of paperwork as well: A manifest from a ship called the Dempo from the Royal Rotterdam Lloyd Line that steamed into the harbor in Southampton, England, on 10 April 1933. Aboard were Vera's mother, Evelyn Amy Beauclerk, and sister, Hilda de Vere Beauclerk, ages 64 and 38 respectively, sailing in from Surabaya, Indonesia, on an itinerary that had included stops in Singapore, Belawan, Colombo, Tanger, Port Said, Marseilles, Gibraltar, and Lisbon.

The address of both Mrs. Beauclerk and Hilda is listed on that document as "45 Knightsbridge Court, London SW. 1." That address today would seem to be in the vicinity of Harrod's, premier hotels, fine shopping and dining, the Kuwaiti Embassy, and an awful lot of expensive-looking automobiles. Might it have been a pretty nice area back then as well?

Yes, perhaps I can imagine Vera shopping out on Knightsbridge in April 1933 while George pecks at his typewriter near a window in his mother-in-law's fine home, awaiting the arrival of both "Evey" and Hilda from their voyage to the Far East.

Hilda would very soon marry Canadian Miles Malcolm Acheson [who puzzlingly was not aboard the Dempo, at least not as a passenger, but was employed then by Chinese Maritime Customs] on 21 June 1933, just over two months after their arrival in Southampton. Had she arrived home for just in time for her own wedding, which was held in Canterbury, Kent?

Unfortunately her mother, Evelyn Beauclerk, never attended the affair, having passed away on 10 June 1933, exactly two months after their arrival!

Given the 1928 passing of Vera's grandmother, Hester, the 1932 death of George's father, Barton, with his sister-in-law, Lady Dorothy, still recovering from a horrific car 1929 accident, with his brother Arthur's divorce dragging from 1932 into 1933, which had followed on the heels of the death of Lady Dorothy's own father in New Zealand in 1931, it certainly had to have been a difficult five years for the families of George and Vera, particularly with George seemingly having apparently suffered concurrent employment woes and the world having been embroiled in a Great Depression!

1935, however, found George casually visiting Steyning, and singing the praises of Windlesham House School, while mentioning he'd authored a book based on Windlesham and Warren Hill back in 1933. Was Vera along? Perhaps not. Either way, he was apparently in good spirits that day!

1938 saw George publishing a sequel to Meredith and Co. called King Willow, this time with G. G. Harrap & Co. In the book's dedication, dated June 1938, he mentions that "Eaton Gate Preparatory School" in "London, S.W. 1," where he presumably had been teaching sometime between 1933 and that year. Eaton Gate is in Belgravia, just a stone's toss from "Cadogen Gardens" [where George's sisters will be living by 1935] and presumably less than a half-mile south of where Evelyn Beauclerk had lived at Hans-mansions in 1925, and in Knightsbridge in 1933.

Unfortunately, the school using that particular name has been forgotten completely, although there is another prep school at Eaton Gate today.

In 1939, George published two more books, Minor and Major [the third in his trilogy of tomes based at least partly on beloved characters from his fictional Leadham House School] and St. Thomas of Canterbury, which was published in Burns, Oates & Co.'s "Shilling Series" of children's books.

Surprisingly, at least for me, 1939 also found Mills abandoning any career he might have had as an author and returning to the military as a commissioned officer and paymaster at the outset of Britain's entry into the Second World War on 3 September 1939. Mills, 44, was commissioned on 11 October of the same year and given the rank of Lieutenant.

Not bad for a fellow who, some twenty years before, had checked out of the army after the First World war holding the rank of Lance Corporal!

I had assumed Mills had been assigned to a Royal Army Pay Corps in London or Sussex, but I now believe that I was wrong. I think he must have been assigned to the RAPC in Taunton [right].

His grandfather, Arthur Mills, had been an M.P. from Taunton from 1852-1853 and 1857-1865. The family of George's grandmother, Lady Agnes Lucy Acland Mills, owned a great deal of land in northern Devon and into Somerset. His great-grandfather, Sir Thomas Dyke Acland, had been a lord and power broker over an area of land that ranged from the rocky coast of Cornwall, through Devon, past Exmoor, and on into Taunton throughout the late 19th century.

The Holnicote Estate in Exmoor has been owned and managed by the National Trust since 1944, but it had been a home of the Acland family, along with Killerton in Devon. I'm not suggesting that Mills lived there while he worked for the RAPC, but I suspect he at the very least may have lived nearby.

The death certificate of Vera Louise Mills was filed in Exmoor, Somerset, on 5 January 1942. Holnicote House is a good ways from Taunton, but the Aclands would have had plenty of land around there [pictured is a 1890s cottage in part of the estate called Selworthy Green]. Perhaps George rented one of the estate's 170-some cottages from the Aclands. Perhaps, with a war on and George in the service, he was even given a place to stay with Vera free of charge. Could it even be that Vera stayed on as a guest of the estate itself with George at the barracks? One could easily imagine a cosmopolitan girl like Vera making herself quite at home in such surroundings!

Perhaps, though, George Mills simply had been randomly assigned to Taunton. After all, there wouldn't have been too many places around southern England where he could have landed and you couldn't have made a case that he'd have had some kin nearby, or in a locale that had had something to do with his family's history. Still, he didn't end up in Manchester, Leicester, or York with virtually no connections. He landed in Taunton.

The circumstances of Vera's death are unknown to me. Just 48, she seems to have been so very young to have died. Still, I don't know what caused her passing. Illness? An accident? It's hard to say, just as it's hard to say exactly what effect it might have had on George.

Mills, a man who was known for his humorous stories and for "making people laugh, a lot," presumably had a good relationship with his wife. He obviously had been working well at his desk in the Pay Corps, having been promoted to 2nd Lieutenant in April of 1942.

Yet, on 3 November 1943, Mills relinquished his commission on account of "ill health" and was given the honorary rank of Lieutenant.

Is it a coincidence that Mills took so sick within two years of Vera's death that his health drove him from the armed forces during the middle of a global conflict during which Great Britain literally had its hands full?

Perhaps. But one actually might tend think that George—not coming from a nuclear family in which husbands and wives lived separate lives, and by 1942 finally having the chance to spend quality time together with Vera while he was gainfully and steadily employed—took her death very hard.

[To read Part 1, click HERE.]

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