Wednesday, July 11, 2012

St. Bees, Mr. Bean, and the Thai Burma Railroad

My father, Peter Nixon, who figures in my play Looking for Mrs. Peel attended Ste. Bees School in Cumbria in the 30's.

A few years ago I contacted a person there who sent me his school record, which I have since lost. It was a paragraph of information revealing he was a very good student (Shakespeare Society) but top athlete, captain of all the teams.

I already knew that!

It was during the Depression. My father was a Child of the Raj, as they say, born to Robert Nixon, former footman from Helmsley North Yorkshire and Dorothy Nixon, former student at a Quaker co-educational school not that far away from Helmsley.

I spent a few dollars and found their records on the British Census of 1911.

I had heard rumours Robert had been a footman, perhaps at Dunscombe, and that the Earl's daughter? had fallen in love with him and so the Earl sent  him to Malaya... Not such a calamity for only the sons of wealthy men were given the opportunity to go to Malaya to work in rubber and perhaps make their fortune.

Of course, as with all Boom Eras, it was next to impossible to get ahead as the cost of living was so high. And then came the War.

During the first war my grandfather was in Malaya and then some time after that he returned home to England to find a wife. (It was encouraged by the rubber companies, considered a civilizing tool.)

He found one in Dorothy Forster of Teesdale, County Durham, a Minister's Daughter. It's her story that I tell in Looking for Mrs. Peel.

Her Census entry says shes from Middleton in Teesdale.

Robert was 6 foot 4 inches tall, Dorothy less than 5 feet. I can see from the 1911 census that Robert's father, also Robert, was a delver, probably in the local rock quarry.

So a footman was one step up from that. Footman had to be tall and presentable. I learned that from watching Upstairs Downstairs. (My grandfather was a footman in that very era.)

I saw a video of a wedding at Dunscombe on YouTube. (The place is closed to visitors.) It is very beautiful, I can see, inside and outside.

Like Colin Firth's character in the Railway Man, Robert was interned during WWII and put to work on the Thai Burma Railroad.

My grandmother used him as an excuse to stay in Singapore during the Siege, when other women were evacuating,  so it says in Giles Playfair's book, Singapore Goes Off the Air.

Funny, she didn't much like him, she had a boyfriend even then. I personally think she was a spy..

Dorothy's 1911 Census entry.

Robert's 1911 Census entry.

(the original page. I guess it belongs to the Census people. Older Robert did work at the Quarry but no proof my grandfather worked at Dunscombe Park. I'm taking a guess and I think Mary Ellen was a Nesfield as my father's name was Peter Nesfield Forster Nixon.)

I looked up Hemsley on YouTube and Google Earth. It is a very pretty town. To think my ancestors laboured there, digging rocks and waiting on tables.

 I chose a hotel from Google Earth The Feversham Arms Hotel and Verbena Spa and looked up the price of rooms.. 500 pounds a night! A very small, very out of the way and very posh (as they say in England) hotel.

I may yet go!!

My Aunt Denise always wanted me to visit where my father went to school. Mr. Bean, (Rowan Atkinson) attended St. Bees too, I think.

The only picture that exists of my father and me,  as a child. I have a couple of others from later years. This is off a Super 8.  We are wading in the water at Ste. Marthe Sur la Lac across from Isle Bizard. He is in a suit as he must have just come from work. I am 4.

Here he is in Wabush, Labrador, outside our trailer two years later.

He looks like both his Mother and his father. It's a Norwegian look, I've heard, typical of Yorkshire. (I myself inherited French Canadian looks.) I think he's holding 'the catch of the day" little speckled trout my mother would gut and fry in butter and give to me as the only fish-eater in the house.

He has a cigarette in his mouth. He always wondered how much better an athlete he would have been had he not smoked!

He was in the ferry command during the war, which was headquartered in Montreal, at Dorval. That is the reason I am here.

He had an interesting life, but not a happy one. I found another person, Joan Kitching Hague, who led a parallel life. Read about that here. Mrs. K-Hague was a Child of the Raj too, one who also moved to Montreal after the War.

She was born two weeks after my father in Kuala Lumpur.

My father and she never met, despite the fact they sent their sons to the same school, Lower Canada College in the 60s.