I have decided to post the talk I did last night on my grandfather, Hubert Saumarez Smith, not that I expect many people to be that interested in the arcana of family history, but because I enjoyed the process of disinterring someone who left very few records of himself and his life and who I never met – and because I hope it casts some light on what it was like to be a rural parish priest in the first part of the twentieth century in a small and rural parish in deep countryside north of Dover, a world which is now so remote in many ways:-
Hubert Saumarez Smith
I suppose it is inevitable that as one grows older and as my parents have themselves died, I have got more interested in my family’s history and anything which I can learn about my grandfather, Hubert Saumarez Smith, who I never met. I was brought up to think of him as being quiet, softly spoken, rather shy, spending almost the whole of his career in this parish in East Kent, very unambitious, but with a wife who was rather snobbish and, I had the impression, disappointed that Hubert had never progressed beyond being a rural parish priest, when his father had been a more successful and worldly Archbishop of Sydney, where my grandparents had met in the Archbishop’s Palace. My mother, who could be very critical of people, always described Hubert as very sweet. The only things I ever remember her saying of my grandmother was that she liked going to Sunday lunch with the Guilfords in Waldershare Park and that she always wore a hat for dinner.
But, as time has gone by, I have been intrigued by the very opacity of this history, its blankness. Is this really all there is to say of him and his life ? So, I thought I would see what else, if anything, I could find out. A rural parish priest, who died 69 years ago and whose children are now both dead, does not leave many records of himself, his thoughts and his actions.
Hubert Saumarez Smith was born on 1st. November 1874, nearly 150 years ago, in the year of a General Election in which the Conservatives, under Disraeli, defeated the Liberals in spite of the fact of winning fewer votes overall. He was a twin, the third child and only son of my great-grandparents, William and Muriel Saumarez Smith. He was born in Birkenhead, where his father, William, my great grandfather, was Principal of St. Aidan’s, a strongly evangelical theological college, close to the banks of the Mersey, on the other side of the river from Liverpool. In 1869, William had moved from Trumpington, a parish outside Cambridge, where he had been a curate for a couple of years while simultaneously teaching scripture as a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. He had married Florence Deedes, my great grandmother, the following year, in 1870. She was herself daughter of the vicar of Bramfield in Hertfordshire, so there were strong clerical genes on both sides of Hubert’s family and it was presumably assumed that he would follow his father into the church. They had eight children — seven daughters and an only son, Hubert, who, I have an impression. was much loved, and probably a bit spoilt, by his many sisters, both older and younger. Florence, his mother, died on 14 June 1890 after twenty years of marriage, maybe exhausted by the strains of childbirth, just at the point when the family was about to emigrate to Australia, as William had been appointed Bishop of Sydney in 1889 and was consecrated on 24 June 1890, ten days after the death of his wife, in St. Paul’s Cathedral. So, aged fifteen and a half, his mother recently dead, Hubert set sail for Australia with his seven sisters and an aunt to look after the family.
This is the first aspect of Hubert’s life that I find interesting. How and why was it that a large and very conventional, middle class, Victorian family living in Birkenhead in the north of England was willing to uproot and set sail for Australia ? I assume that some of it lay in missionary conviction. Hubert’s father, William Saumarez Smith, had spent time in India in the early 1860s as chaplain to the bishop of Madras, before returning to be curate in Trumpington. He published an essay in 1868 on Obstacles to Missionary Success Among the Heathen. He probably had some sort of calling to serve the church overseas and had in any case served as Head of St. Aidan’s long enough. They arrived in Sydney at the end of September 1890 in the middle of a maritime strike and moved into Bishopscourt, the large episcopal residence in Darling Point, where the archbishop was able to cultivate his interest in botany while the rest of the family apparently liked playing cricket on the lawn.
Hubert transferred from Shrewsbury, his boarding school in England, to Sydney Grammar School, where he was a pupil for two years before going to his father’s old college, Trinity in Cambridge, where he arrived in time for the Michaelmas term 1893, graduating three years later. He then went to theological college in Durham and was ordained in 1898, only to return to Australia, after a brief period as a chaplain in Bishop Auckland, to serve as his father’s chaplain.
So far, so conventional: a strongly churchy family, father a bishop, reads theology, gets ordained. His father was a peacemaker, low church, hostile to any sign of Anglo-Catholicism. My father says of his grandfather, the Archbishop, in the brief family history that he wrote at my request in order to record those many aspects of family history which I didn’t know and wanted recorded: ‘From what I have read and heard about him, he combined real learning with serenity and simplicity of life’. I assume that Hubert inherited his peaceable temperament from his father, as well as an aversion to talking about money: these were inherited characteristics, the product of a fairly easy upbringing in the comfort of the church.
The next step in this conventional life was marriage. Some time in 1906 or 1907, my grandmother, Muriel Hanbury, herself a member of a large Hertfordshire family and a distant cousin of my grandfather, travelled out to Australia. According to my aunt Margaret, who also wrote a short memoir of her life, much better and more vivid than that by my father:
She was travelling round the world with an aunt, and had just been to New Zealand to visit another aunt. Someone must have given them an introduction to the Saumarez Smiths, as they went to stay at Bishopscourt. There, to her great surprise, my mother saw hanging on the wall portraits of kinsmen of her own, so they discovered that they were distant cousins. This encouraged them to make friends, and call one another by their first names (People had very formal manners in those days).
In 1907, they married back at her parents’ large and quite grand, late Victorian house, Poles, just outside Ware in Hertfordshire, which later turned into a Roman Catholic convent and is now a country house hotel. The Hanburys were brewers of Truman, Hanbury and Buxton and her father, Edmund Hanbury, was thought to be rich, although after his death in 1913 he turned out to have been badly advised financially and Poles had to be sold. In 1909, the year that the Archbishop died, they had their first child, Margaret, and Hubert moved to be curate of St. Augustine’s, Neutral Bay, a parish not far from where they had been living in Darling Point. My father, William, was born two years later, on 31 December 1911.
I have the strongest possible impression that my grandmother didn’t like Australia. She came from this big, clannish, quite rich family in Hertfordshire and she probably wanted to be closer to home. So, in 1913, following the death of her father, Edmund Hanbury, they set sail back to England by way of Cape Horn. Their boat, the Tainui, was rammed by a smaller boat in the Bay of Biscay and they had to transfer from lifeboats into another boat, the Garth Castle, so they arrived back in London with nothing but a small suitcase.
According to my aunt, they
then went to live in London. My father did not have a parish, but was appointed Secretary of the Central Board of Missions, with an office in Bedford Square, near the British Museum. However, our house was in South Hampstead, close to Primrose Hill.
They lived in 123, King Henry’s Road for seven years and I sense had a happy time when the children were small, close to the zoo, reading aloud with them, even in spite of the privations of the first world war. As you will already have gathered from my quotations from it, my aunt, Margaret, wrote a short manuscript autobiography from which I have already quoted and which she wrote in the early 1990s when she was in her early eighties to tell her grandchildren about her life (the fact that it was written for her grandchildren explains something of the way it describes details of domestic life and its overall tone, as if it was a story for children). It includes a detailed description room-by-room of their house. I will quote only the description of the drawing room, not least because it contains details of the character of my grandmother:
The drawing-room (as it was called) was an attractive room, overlooking the garden. There were lots of watercolour sketches, by my grandmother and Aunt Agatha. My mother was an artistic woman, though she didn’t paint. She did play the piano, and there was a big upright instrument called a pianola. Besides functioning as a piano, it contained a mechanism, operated by foot-pedals, which played music recorded on long paper rolls – difficult to explain. Many of the rolls were adaptations of orchestral pieces. My mother liked Wagner (she had been to the festivals at Bayreuth) and we had the Pilgrims’ Chorus from Parsifal and the Rise of the Valkyries.
In 1914, war was declared. My aunt remembered how they heard about it:
I remember hearing that war had been declared, on August 4th. 1914. We were picnicking in a stubble field – I don’t know where, some country parish which my father had taken on while its vicar went on holiday. Somebody from the village came with the news. There was an awful feeling of ‘What is going to happen now ?’. But nobody imagined it was going to go on for four years.
In London there were anti-aircraft guns in the parks, and sausage-shaped barrage balloons. Father was a Special Constable. He had a helmet, known as his tin hat, and a powerful whistle. During an air-raid, these volunteers helped people to get into air-raid shelters and lent a hand when needed.
Now, it is to my aunt’s short memoir that I can again turn for a description of the family’s move out of London to East Kent. She describes how
In 1921, when I was twelve, my father’s job at the Central Board of Missions came to an end, and he was appointed to a parish in East Kent, not far from Dover. In fact, there were two parishes, Waldershare and Coldred. In many ways our life there was more old-fashioned than our London life. For instance, Waldershare Rectory when we went there had neither electricity or gas. The downstairs rooms were lit by paraffin lamps, and when we went up to bed we had candles. There was a coal-fired kitchen range, and open fires in drawing-room and study, with portable oil heaters for the bedrooms. And in a wider sense, we lived in an almost Victorian setting.
My aunt goes on to describe the garden and surroundings. Her view was that her father ‘was a very good and conscientious parish priest, and he got to know everybody, whether they were regular church-goers or not. He quite often took me with him when he visited, but more often walked, taking the dog with him’. There are intriguing glimpses of what life was like then, as when she describes how ‘we needed a watch-dog to warn us of tramps. Dan would not have hurt a fly, but he was big, and he did bark at strangers’.
My aunt’s memoir gives a very strong sense of the constraints of rural life in the 1920s, but also of its intellectual horizons. There were no girls of her age to be friends with, apart from Lady Cynthia North, the third child of the Guilfords; but my aunt said, ‘Cynthia was a tall, good-looking girl, madly keen on horses. She and I had almost nothing in common, which was a pity, as there wasn’t anyone else in the immediate neighbourhood for me to be friends with’. She was taught at home because her parents could not afford to send her away to boarding school, as they did my father, so she learned Latin and algebra with my grandfather, and French, history and the piano with my grandmother, through a scheme called P.N.E.U. (Parents’ National Educational Union). By the time she was fourteen, she had read the whole of Dickens and she later won an English scholarship to Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, so being educated at home wasn’t that bad.
What do we learn of my grandfather and of the life of the vicarage ? He liked the Rectory garden, its greenhouse with a vine, and he cultivated roses with the help of a full-time gardener. They had no car and used to take the bus into Dover to do their shopping. He had a good baritone singing voice. They would all go off to Canterbury for Cricket Week where ‘Father loved watching cricket, and taught us to look for the finer points of the game’. One gets a sense from reading my aunt’s memoir of the even tempo of rural parish life – the week spent in gardening, writing the weekly sermon and parish visits, the weekly service in the heavily Victorianised Waldershare parish church, chasing bats out of the bedroom with a tennis racquet, and occasional visits by his aunts and cousins and holidays with other relatives. He remained here as rector until his death on 21st. January 1950.
Having described, in bald outline, the life of a member of the rural clergy in the first half of the twentieth century, I want now to stand back and reflect on some of its characteristics.
The first I think was the power of the church of England, nowadays pretty well lost, to create and perpetuate a professional cadre of people to run it. My great-great grandfather was an evangelical clergyman. My great grandfather was an archbishop. My grandfather was a clergyman. My father was as close as it was possible to be to being a clergyman, working for the church as a layman, first as Diocesan Secretary in Salisbury, then working for the Central Board of Finance in Church House, ending up as the first Patronage Secretary to the two Archbishops. Four generations of working for the church, father to son, stretching from when Richard Snowdon Smith left the rifle brigade in 1838 in order to prepare to be ordained through, I suppose, to when my father retired from working for the Church of England in 1975, a period of well over a hundred years. It was a professional structure of education and training: Marlborough, Shrewsbury, Winchester, one of the leading public schools, some of which had been established precisely in order to provide an education for the sons of the clergy, followed by Trinity College, Cambridge and ordination; no apparent wavering of belief; what appears in retrospect to be an amazingly rock solid belief in the role of the church as part of a wider social system, not just in England, but equally as much overseas, in India, where my father and great-grandfather worked, and in Australia, where my grandfather and great-grandfather preached and served.
The second thing that I think is interesting about my grandfather’s life is how experientially much richer it was than it first appears, at least when it is subject to reasonably close scrutiny through reconstructing it in as much detail as is now possible. I was brought up to think of him as nothing more than the rector of Waldershare, a small rural parish in East Kent, where not much changed. But he had lived on Merseyside and had emigrated to, and lived in, Australia as a young man. He had travelled back and forth across continents. He taught his daughter Latin and chess. He was apparently an active Freemason, travelling in to Canterbury to attend meetings of the Lodge on Saturday mornings. One should not underestimate the rural clergy for their role as members of a local community — preaching, giving advice, part of the social glue which has traditionally held communities together.
Much of the life of the Church of England may look in retrospect as too much of a social, more than a religious, ritual, too conservative (with a small c), too closely allied to the class system, a middle class, professional and self-perpetuating social construct. But I think, in looking back on it, that there were very honourable aspects to it as well: a strong belief in the benefits of education; looking for a spiritual life beyond the turmoil and torments of the everyday; and giving people a sense of hope, of service to the community at large, and of the importance of self-abnegation, aspects of community life which have been lost, together with belief in the value of the church.