Saturday, January 8, 2011

Found: George Mills at Grey Friars!

What was my most exciting Christmas present? Well, I got lots of great stuff—books, CDs, shirts, wine—but I think the one thing that had me most excited was simply delivered to me near Christmas. It actually wasn't a Christmas present at all!

I had left upon my holiday travels and, while checking my work e-mail from a hotel in western Kentucky, I stumbled upon this very Spartan message, copied here in its entirety: "I have info about George Mills."

After replying, I received the following, wonderful e-mail from Michael Downes, author of the book Oundle's War and master of the blog Budleigh & Brewster United - celebrating sisterhood!

Hi Sam

I contacted a lawyer friend of mine who lives in Budleigh Salterton, in the road where George Mills used to live. He tells me that when he moved to Budleigh Salterton in 1972, George Mills had just died, leaving two sisters living in the house, Grey Friars. The good news is that the house is still there, and has not been demolished to make way for a condo. My lawyer friend tells me that the three Mills were all related to the Mills of Glyn Mills Bank. He will speak to the present owner of Grey Friars to see if he knows anything about George Mills.

I have attached a document which I found on the internet about a Mills of the Glyn Mills Bank; lots of names for you to follow up there.

We have a lot of snow here at present. When it clears I will take a photo of Grey Friars and will also visit the town cemetery to see if I can spot George Mills' grave.

Budleigh Salterton has a literary festival, and one of the documents produced by our local museum for that event was a list of authors formerly living in the town. George Mills (along with many others) was not on the list, and I have added to it over the years with other names. So George Mills is quite a find for us.

If you click on the BudleighBrewster link... you will see that I have an interest in life across the pond.

Best wishes


And this, also in the text, must be an excerpt of an e-mail from Michael's friend:

When we moved to Pagets in 1972 George Mills had just died leaving two sisters living at Grey Friars, which is... directly at the (dead!) end of Westfield Road [pictured, right]. The three Mills were all related to the Mills of Glyn Mills Bank. But what became of that I am not sure. I did not know that George Mills was a children’s author but it is entirely possible. Interestingly there was another children’s author who lived in Westfield Road – he was the author of a series of the “I Spy” books, but at present the name escapes me! I cannot remember whether the Taylors bought Greyfriars from the Mills Family Executor or whether there was another owner(s) in between.

It's odd that messages that so frequently refer to someone's passing would have me so excited, but they do!

I knew George Mills and his sisters, Agnes and Violet, lived in Grey Friars (then apparently written as two words) from several sources, one of which was the Kelly's Directory of Budleigh Salterton for 1939, which contained the interesting residence address: "Spence, Miss, Grey Friars, Westfield Rd ." After finding that, I'd searched on Google Maps and virtually drove the length of Westfield Road, but couldn't determine which house was Grey Friars. The Royal Mail didn't respond to requests for help, and the only additional proof I had that Miss Spence's 1939 home [circled below, left] had also been the residence of George Mills was a letter written to The London Times by Mills, published on Wednesday, 8 April 1959, signed:

Yours faithfully,
Grey Friars, Budleigh Salterton, Devonshire.

We know that Mills spent the summer of 1956 teaching at the Ladycross Catholic Boys' Preparatory School in Seaford, which doesn't seem a place to which he'd have been able to commute daily from Budleigh Salterton. He must have been boarded there, possibly at the school itself.

It's also possible, I suppose, that he stayed with his brother, Arthur, for the summer, but George's commute from Downton would've been roughly 160 miles a day, round trip. That seems extremely unlikely, even in those days of cheaper gasoline. You can see the distances on the map, below right, with Budleigh sporting a purple pin, Seaford gold, and Arthur's home in Downton the red letter "A."

Did Mills teach anywhere else after moving to Budleigh Salterton? It's possible. Had he not written books in the 1930s, we wouldn't know where he'd worked during that era—and even knowing, finding out information about Warren Hill School in Eastbourne, The Craig School in Windermere, and the English Preparatory School in Glion, Switzerland has been difficult. And, as we know, it's been extremely difficult to be completely definitive about the school he referred to in his original dedication to King Willow (1939) as the Eaton Gate Preparatory School in London.

Even with the above schools named, we've only been able to surmise what subjects he might have taught or the lengths of time during which he was employed. Even more mysterious is why he moved so often from school to school between 1925 and 1940.

In 1940, Mills's career took a different path for a few years. He became a 2nd lieutenant paymaster in the Royal Pay Corps during WW II, but resigned his commission due to ill health during 1943, and amost disappeared from the public record.

The Pay Corps was something he'd thought about a great deal, and he must have considered himself quite knowledgeable about its operations as we also have a letter to The Times written by him in April 1944 [below, left] in which he critiques the way soldiers are paid. It's signed:

I am Sir, your obedient servant,
GEORGE MILLS, late paymaster, Royal Army Pay Corps,
Naval and Military Club, 94, Piccadilly, W.1.

Despite his ill health, George was apparently able to drag himself down to the club and use it as his mailing address—unless he was residing there. Either way, his mind was sharp enough to have read a letter about military pay in a previous edition of The Times and very pointedly take issue with it.

Mills discusses the streamlining of office procedures and the difficulty of ascertaining exact pay grades for various members of the military.

Perhaps we should be wondering if thinking that Mills found work in Budleigh Salterton as a schoolmaster is errant, and if we should consider the possibility that he found work in an office doing bookkeeping or accounting, based on his experience in the service.

Except for the summer of 1956 that Mills spent in Seaford with the classmates of young Barry McAleenan, we don't have a shred of proof that Mills taught a single day after, say, 1939-1940. In 1956, Mills would have been 59 years old, just about to turn 60.

His books were coming back into print in new editions [below, right] for a new generation of readers. He must have been called upon to discuss his experiences as a teacher in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and the children and places that'd been the inspirations for his novels.

Even if Mills had worked as, say, a bookkeeper in Budleigh Salterton, he may have retired by age 59 and perhaps sought one more taste of those earlier days, before the Second World War, when he was a bright, funny, popular schoolmaster with a young wife and a bright future as an author of noteworthy children's books that were unique in their ability to capture the quirky and amusing parlance of the prep school boys of that time.

Perhaps Mills even considered writing more books as he saw his stories begin to populate the shelves of booksellers once more—something he hadn't seen since before the war.

He never did write professionally again—as a far as we know. Did he ever author another story or text under a pen name? There's no reason to think so, but no proof that he didn't.

I believe that someone out there must know all of this: The Story of George Mills. And that's why it's so exciting to have been contacted by Michael Downes!

There'll be more here from Michael very soon, but let me close by saying, once again, that if you know anything about the life, career, or family of George Mills, please let me know. And thank you very much in advance!

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