Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Was It All Cricket?

Chapter 26 — My Last Days in Britain

page break

Chapter 26
My Last Days in Britain

In London again, I booked my passage to New Zealand. As I had already been through Suez, and via America or Canada was too expensive for me, I chose the Cape of Good Hope route and booked by the S.S. Suevic, a White Star, one-class boat. Apart from a desire to see Capetown, it was the cheap fare that attracted me.

I decided first to pay a flying visit to Scotland where I wanted to see Motherwell, the birthplace of my father, and Wishaw, where my mother was born. It was a thrill to be on the Scotch Express, known throughout the world. It was from this train that the boastful American got his greatest shock. He argued to the last breath that American trains were the fastest in the world, and told stories of their performances. His counterpart on the British side, not to be outdone, undertook to disprove this claim if the American would come a trip with him on the “Flying Scotsman.” He told his visitor that this express went so fast that the telegraph poles appeared to be like a forest of trees. It was at night when the train steamed out of King's Cross. They were soon asleep, dreaming of fantastic speeds. Dawn was breaking when the American awoke, and the express happened to be passing a cemetery. He gave one look and exclaimed, “Good God! Look at the milestones!”

At Motherwell I sought out the oldest inhabitants, for it was more than forty years earlier that my parents had left for New Zealand. I found a man, William Black, who remembered my father. He was interested to hear of him, and of Bob Smellie who left for New Zealand on the same ship. He showed me the old school they went to. He took me down to the Ca'der Brig, alongside which the Reeses had lived. There Was the “wee hoose”—a brick cottage typical of the homes of the village folk of Scotland. The people who then lived there kindly showed me the inside of the house. I remember the small bedroom of my father and his brother; it was very like a ship's cabin, for one bed was above the other. My thoughts ran back to the days when these two boys, and four sisters, with their parents, page 346 lived the strict homelife of the Scots of those times. “Dae ye nae ken it's the Sawbath?” parents would say to a boy if he were heard to whistle on a Sunday. Boys and girls had their Sunday clothes to be worn on Kirk day only: church services twice every Sunday. Measured by modern standards, the Scots of those days took a narrow view of life, but their code was an element of strength in the foundations on which British character is built. On migrating overseas and taking with them the homelife of Scotland, they were to play an important part in transplanting to the Dominions the character of our race. So much for Motherwell and my first contact with the sturdy people of Scotland.

The following day Mr. Black took me to Wishaw, three miles away. There was the grey stone cottage in Cleland Road, where my mother had lived; there was Lady Belhaven's School—which she attended—almost opposite the gates of the castle. Scotland has reason gratefully to remember many such patrons of education as the beloved Lord and Lady Belhaven of eighty years ago.

In my mother's childhood days Wishaw was the village of a countryside of farm lands and meadows. This school for the children of a farming community was akin to a kindergarten school of to-day. Although the gift of Lady Belhaven, it was often spoken of in Wishaw as Annie Lindsay's School, but my mother always referred to her as Miss Lindsay. This splendid woman was its first, probably only headmistress up till the passing of the Education Act of 1870. It is worthy of note that Scotland was in advance of England in education before the latter placed her schooling on a national basis. The Scots are an independent race, and have never believed in something for nothing. It intrigued me to learn that the fees for this school for tiny tots were one penny per week for the primer class, two-pence per week for class one, up to fourpence for the highest class. When I looked around this school in Wishaw and saw the texts and proverbs on the walls of the class-rooms, I realized what a religious atmosphere had surrounded my mother's earliest schooldays before she passed on to the higher standards of the other school in Wishaw. Now I understood why the theatre and the ballroom had played no part in her life.

We walked in the castle grounds. There we saw evidence of the sentimental Scots; under the trees were numerous tomb- page 347 stones over the graves of the favourite dogs of the Lords of the Manor for generations past—“In loving memory of Jock,” of Tarn and of Caesar—I had not seen the like before. We called on old Mr. Thomson and his daughter in Caledonian Road, father and sister of Mrs. Russell in New Zealand, and had the evening meal with Kenny McMarth and his family, old friends of my maternal grandparents. It was a stirring experience for me to see the real homelife of the crofter and the working Scot.

For generations the Canadian Scots have paid visits to Scotland. At first it was the old pioneers themselves who made one trip to see their dear Homeland, revisit the scenes of their youth and renew acquaintances with friends and relatives who might still be living in their native town or village. Then came the second generation, who wished to see the birthplaces of their fathers and their mothers. Next came the descendants, more numerous and more prosperous, but still imbued with the desire to see the land of their forefathers. It was thus that the Canadian was a well-known visitor both to the Lowlands and the Highlands.

With a New Zealander it was different: the Scots had emigrated to our Dominion in but hundreds, as compared with thousands to Canada. New Zealand was far away—it was a distant British Colony. Relatively few of the early New Zealand Scottish emigrants were ever able to revisit the Homeland. Increased prosperity in the Dominions changed this and many New Zealanders now see the land of the oatcake and the heather, but at the time of which I speak, a visit from a New Zealander was something of an event. I remember how Mr. Black seemed proud of showing me round. He would stop people in the street and speaking of my father would say, “Do you remember Dannie Reese? This is his son.” He was much older than my father and it was as a boy he remembered him.

On the following day we visited Hamilton, but a few miles distant. I remember standing with him on the Cadzo Brig. He showed me where my father had once worked. We then walked round Hamilton Castle and the Duke's estate which revived memories of my childhood. My father was a wonderful story-teller and every Saturday night some of us would climb on his knee, some on to mother's on the opposite side of the fire, to hear our weekly story. I can still see that scene as a lovely picture of family life. Among the stories my father told was one page 348 about his outings as a lad—with a gun—and how they climbed the hills at the week-ends to shoot rabbits. The word “poaching” means little to-day, especially in the Dominions, but it was something akin to a crime ninety years ago. Had it been thirty or forty years earlier they would have risked being sent to Australia had they been caught. My feelings can be imagined when, looking across the Hamilton estate, I had pointed out to me the place where my father and his mates, with their guns? crept along the slopes, keeping an eye open for the Ranger, who was always on the look-out for trespassers.

On the way back to Motherwell we passed “Dalziel House.” My father's mother's name was Jean Dalziel, of a generation less prosperous than the original family. Our family records show that the first Ralph Dalziel signed the Scottish Covenant, so we have some sturdy Scotch blood in our veins, even though the original Daniel Reese, the first name in our family Bible, went to Scotland from a place called Llamsamlet, a few miles from Neath in Wales, where his father was a small farmer. This was nearly two hundred years ago.

I left these scenes with happy thoughts of the early days of my parents. I also left with feelings of gratitude to Mr. Black for having spent three days in showing me the countryside of this part of Lanarkshire, and enabling me to get such a vivid picture to take back to my mother, and my brothers and sisters in New Zealand.

Next day I was in Edinburgh, so rich in its historical associations. My visit was a hurried one, typical of the speed of the American tourist. Princes Street, the University, the castles, the stories of Mary, Queen of Scots, the many places of historic interest—it all enthralled me. I did not know anything of golf in those days or I would have been bound to go to St. Andrews. I knew a Jennie Geddes in New Zealand, so of course I had to see the place where the original Jennie hurled the stool at John Knox. Then a visit to the great Forth Bridge. A few miles away was Leith, the estuary port from which my mother and my father sailed for Gravesend to transfer into the ship for New Zealand. It will be seen that wherever I turned in these parts I was to be stirred by memories of the stories told by my parents. From Edinburgh I went to Glasgow. The Clyde! So here it was; the man-made port in the higher reaches of the river. What an inspiring sight! Ships on the stocks in various stages page 349 of completion; tugs and lighters moving up and down the river; ships outward bound, and ships coming home. On the Greenock side of the estuary was the stretch on which the trial runs of new ships are carried out. Tremendous industry was in evidence everywhere. There were many drunken men in the streets; never have I seen so many in any city. Unlike beer, whisky is not a thirst quencher, and any who try to make it so soon become top heavy; the working man cannot work on whisky! Halfpenny newspapers, halfpenny tram fares and free rides on the ferries across the Clyde were in striking contrast to the charges I had been used to, while the ferry service showed that some things in Scotland are free! This short sketch gives a glimpse of the environs of the great city of Glasgow as I saw them. One of my memories of the upper Clyde is the incessant noise of the riveters at work.

I called on a distant relative on the Dalziel side of the family; I also called at the home of Mr. McGill, my Chief on the Claverhill—he was away on still another trip to the Far East. I spent an evening with a brother of my uncle Wattie Sneddon, who was married to my father's sister in New Zealand. I was overwhelmed with the welcome from people of Scotland whom I met.

After old friends of my mother's had paid one of their visits to our home in New Zealand when they would often revert to the words and accent of their youth, one of us would cause merriment by saying to mother, “It's a braw, brecht moonlecht necht, the necht!” This was the limit of our Scottish vocabulary. Here they all spoke Scotch! In Edinburgh the speech was more cultured; in fact, the educated people, like those of Boston in America, prided themselves on speaking perfect English, Glasgow, on the other hand, was a great industrial centre, with a preponderance of the artisan class and, while one detected varying degrees of accent in the speech of the educated, the man in the street spoke of “doon the river,” “o'or the brig,” “she's a braw lassie”; this was like music to my ears, and much more melodious than the “hinnying” of the Tyneside.

The philosophy of old Mr. Montgomery of Newcastle was even more evident in Scotland. The Scots are a happy people; their sense of humour and the subtleness of their jokes were always apparent wherever one went.

I wanted to see something of the countryside, so set out for page 350 a trip to Loch Lomond—“The Bonnie Banks o' Loch Lomond!” Away I went along the north bank of the Clyde, through Dumbarton, the centre of the activities of Denny Brothers of ship-building fame, and then on to Balloch at the most southern point of the lake; Loch Lomond was worth seeing and worth remembering—no wonder Scotsmen refer to their homeland as Bonnie Scotland.

I had time for one more trip. Where should I go? The call of the Land o' Burns was insistent and irresistible. I still have my father's well-worn volumes of Burns's works. Bobbie Burns was one of the best-known names in our old home. I was born on January 26th, the day after Burns's birthday. I learned many years afterwards that my father laughingly chaffed my mother about not going to bed a day earlier! Two years later, my brother Alex was born on January 25th! I have already referred to our own “Cotter's Saturday Night” that we had around the fireside. Needless to say, Burns's stories figured prominently. My father, reading aloud and then putting the poems into story form, used to thrill our little hearts, and we kept on asking for “just one more”: “Bonnie Mary,” then “Wee, Sleekit, Cow'rin', Tim'rous Beastie,” followed by the charming explanatory story of the plough turning up the mouse's nest in the stubble. “Tarn O'Shanter”! This story always moved us. Our volumes are what is known as the Kilmarnoch edition of Burns's works; they are beautifully illustrated with steel engravings. The somewhat terrifying picture of Tarn O'Shanter on his mare Maggie, being chased by witches, thrilled us all. It depicted him just reaching the centre of the bridge that he must cross to escape the visionary clutches. One witch grabs the horse's tail; this is the climax to a sensational story. It will thus be seen that I just had to go to Ayrshire.

The pride of the Scots in their immortal Bobbie, or Robbie, as they always call him in Scotland, is to be found at every turn around Ayr. His original cottage is preserved just as it was when he lived in it; the large grandfather's clock, the bed in the recess of the living-room, the kitchen table with hundreds of names carved on it—even on its legs (the work of visitors of earlier years); the kitchen crockery still in the rack. The whole scene enthralled me. The tavern in the town, where Bobbie and his friends used to forgather, still preserves his wooden mug. page 351 I drank out of it! The Twa Brigs and the Au'd Brig O'Ayr still stand as they were when his pen immortalized them. The statue of Burns … the Burns monument, and Alloway Kirk … the au'd and the new Brigs O'Doon; it was all very exciting. Imagine my surprise when, walking along the banks of the Doon, I came suddenly upon the life-sized statues of two, jolly, laughing men in sitting position; one resting a big mug on his knee, the other raising his glass to his lips. They represented Tarn O'Shanter and Souter Johnny.

The Ayr and the Doon were beautiful rivers and added further claims to the title of Bonnie Scotland. I should have loved to see the tree that figured in one of Bobbie's escapades. This is the story. Burns loved the lassies, as well as the bright nights with his cronies in the tavern; he arranged to meet Jean “So-and-so” at dusk on a lovely summer's evening. The appointed place was under a spreading tree. Jean was there- to time, but soon Mary turned up.

“Hullo, Jean,” says Mary, “what are you doing here?”

“I'm meeting Bobbie Burns.”

“So am I,” said Mary.

Then Marion, pronounced Merr'n, arrived. She, too, was meeting Bobbie! Then Annie came, then Maggie, until seven wenches were mixing anger with laughter. The conclave turned into a conference. The Scots are a determined race and these young women decided to find Bobbie and teach him a lesson; off they went back to town, but had no chance of finding the culprit for he was up the tree all the time, listening to their chatter, chuckling away to himself and getting great amusement from his joke. Had the girls found him that evening it is certain he would have been dumped into the river!

And so I left Scotland. I was filled with sentimental thoughts. My father's stories had been true ones. His pride of race and of his native heath had been justified. I could now understand the wistful look of old Bob Brown when reciting Burns at our cricket dinners at Dunedin, and his almost shedding tears over memories of such a country and such a people. But perhaps the pathos in his voice was veneration of the Bard himself, for Scotsmen the world over revere the memory of the Immortal Bobbie. No man reached the heart of his people in the way that Burns did. He could write, then recite to his companions, the wittiest of poems, many of which would not page 352 pass the censorship of to-day. He could then rise to the loftiest heights with poems breathing a reverence of God, and inspiring the best in man. The beloved Burns was a young man of virtues and failings, but his writings show that his virtues far transcended his human frailties. He died at the age of thirty-seven; his going was like the picking of a flower in full bloom. But he is greater in death than in life, and his poems are not only a monument to his genius, but a lasting inspiration.

Again back in London I still had a few weeks before the Suevic sailed. A young New Zealander named Plimmer, son of a pioneer family of Wellington, was a fellow-boarder with me. He had just passed his examination for a Chief Engineer's Certificate. As neither of us had been to Paris, we decided to go together. A Cook's tour seemed to provide a suitable opportunity for the hurried visit we proposed to make. From Dover we had a rough crossing to Calais, and a longer train journey to Paris than I expected duly landed us in the great and brilliant capital city of France. “Follow the man from Cook's,” was an old phrase used by Punch in giving title to one of its inimitable cartoons. It represented not one, but a number of tourists following close on the heels of Cook's man, as the gallant suitor followed Charlie's Aunt in the famous and screamingly funny play of that title. We were forever on our guide's trail and went here, there and everywhere at bewildering speed. In all my travels around the different cities in various parts of the world, and about which I am still able to remember so much, my knowledge was gained from visits to different and varying parts of a city and from talks with local people, especially old people who could tell me of earlier happenings. No such system of enquiry was possible on this trip! Speed seemed to be the essence of the contract. The sooner we could be landed back in London, the sooner another batch of tourists could be assembled and despatched. This may seem like an exaggeration, but it was my impression at the time, and still remains. One compensating factor that we were spared was the continuous description of the nasal-voiced narrator one hears in a 'bus tour of New York.

In Paris the even height of the buildings was at once noticeable. Regulations stipulated that no building could be higher than one and a half times the width of the street it faced. Needless to say, in the heart of the city everyone built to the limit page 353 allowed. This added to the architectural beauty of the city and made for a more pleasant appearance as one looked along the streets and boulevards. As we raced along, going here and there, I got a good, but not a lasting impression of Paris. I remember only the most outstanding places and buildings. The River Seine, spanned by many bridges in the heart of the city, adds much to the attractiveness of Paris. From what I had learned of the Seine when at Le Havre, I expected the river to be wider. The Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame, Eiffel Tower and the Champs Élysees with its lovely trees, and the boulevards and squares—or places, as the French call them—stand out among the things I remember. Some of the architecture was outstanding and of the days when decorated columns, façades, cornices and much detailed work were the vogue, yet leaving an outline that was both imposing and pleasing in its effect.

A much appreciated spell from “following the man from Cook's” was the half day we spent in the Louvre. This world-famous Art Gallery enthralled us all. I remembered noticing students and artists seated at their easels, copying famous pictures or making drawings of statues such as the world renowned “Venus de Milo.” The latter attracted much attention and our guide told of the many attempts that had been made by sculptors to reproduce the statue with the missing, broken-off arms in the position they imagined they originally had been. The Louvre was truly a feast for anyone interested in art, and needed days, instead of hours, to make a complete survey of so many wonderful works.

Back in England again I still had some time left, so spent an interesting week-end at the ancient town of Colchester. My host had spent several years in New Zealand, and took a delight in showing me round this district so full of historic interest. It was fascinating to learn that the town was a thousand years old, dating back to the days of the Romans and the Danes. The old castle was a feature of the place; it was rebuilt by the Normans somewhere about the year 1400. I remember the I had when we went inside and saw some of the eerie reminders of medieval times. There was a cavity in the stone wall just big enough to take a man's body. Fastened to the wall was a wooden frame that held a beam through which passed a threaded wooden screw. Turned by a handle, the plank at the end could be made to squeeze a man to pulp. Whether it was page 354 used as a form of torture to extract information from a victim, or press the life out of him, I do not remember, but it left me wondering how our ancestors could have been so cruel. We walked along the banks of the River Colne, and across country to the north, until, from a high vantage, we got an inspiring panoramic view of the Suffolk Downs. So here were the rolling downs of England; I had seen them from the train, but to walk over them brought home to me an understanding of what these fields meant to Englishmen.

A few months earlier I had enjoyed seeing another historic place in Essex when, during a week-end stay with the Douglases, we drove to Epping Forest on the Sunday. This was in the early days of motoring and I remember how we thought we were speeding when, with Johnnie's father at the wheel of his red Daimler, we chugged along at twenty-three miles an hour! Lunch among the trees of this famous forest was an ideal place to entertain a colonial visitor.

My last days were spent in farewell visits to friends who had shown me the utmost kindness and hospitality. At last I gathered my baggage, and thoughts, and left for Liverpool. I say “gathered my thoughts” because I was bringing to an end four of the most eventful years of my life. Whatever may have been my feelings of a few years earlier when assimilating some of the national spirit of Australia, I was now a citizen of the Empire, with a special attachment for the people of the Old Country. I had lived with, worked with, played cricket with, and met people of all ranks from almost every English county and from Scotland and Wales; this experience gave me a unique opportunity of gaining a knowledge of the manner of life and the character of the people of Britain, and to win my profound respect and admiration.

When I returned to New Zealand and said the Britisher was the greatest man in the world, I was sometimes looked upon with astonishment, for in New Zealand we have a “guid conceit o' oorsel's.” I once expressed this opinion to an Australian friend, but he did not agree with me. He preferred the Americans with whom he had large business dealings and all of whom called him Alec, generally showing towards him that quick matey friendship which is certainly pleasant to a stranger, but is not more real than the solid friendship of an Englishman. My friend said he found Englishmen cold and slow to make page 355 friends, and of course he was always “Mr.” He enjoyed a joke so I told him a story I had heard in America. It was about a young man in London who made rapid progress in his profession and was put up for membership at a rather exclusive club. The first time he strolled into the club by himself no one appeared to take any notice. He went into the smoke-room and sat down to read some newspapers and magazines. He left without anyone speaking to him. He repeated the performance shortly afterwards, this time with less confidence than previously, and again, although there were numerous members present, no one spoke. On the third occasion he went to read an article in a particular magazine. An elderly, white-bearded man was reading the weekly he wanted and held it open on top of a heap of earlier editions. As it was a month-old copy he wished to see, the new member plucked up courage walked across and said, “Excuse me, sir, would you mind if I had one of those old issues?”

With this the old man put his face down in his hands and burst out crying! Presently he looked up and speaking between his sobs said, “I've been a member of this club for twenty-five years and you're the first member who has ever spoken to me!”

A more realistic story of the Englishman's reserve was told me by the late Sir James Coates, a noted banker of years ago, and head of the National Bank of New Zealand. When on a visit to the Old Country, he joined an express in the Midlands; his destination was Scotland. When he reached the carriage, there was but one seat left and on this were the papers of an elderly gentleman who, obviously, was engaged in perusing some business documents. Sir James hesitated, then approached and said, “Excuse me, sir, this is the only seat left. Do you mind if I have it?” With that the old man put his papers in his satchel and the New Zealander sat down. The old man did not speak. Coates was a tall handsome man with a short well-trimmed beard; it is these good-looking men of whom the cautious, reserved Englishman is perhaps watchful, for to be immaculately dressed was an old trick of the confidence man. Later the ice was broken and it interested the elderly gentleman to learn that Coates was a banker from New Zealand, also an owner of race-horses. They chatted more freely and found they had many things in common. As they approached his station, in one of the Northern counties, the Englishman insisted on Sir page 356 James Coates taking his baggage out of the train and spending the week-end with him. On the Saturday, Sir James was shown over the estate and stables of his host, who was none other than Burdett-Coutts, head of the great banking family.

Yes, that is the Englishman when you get to know him, but it usually takes time.