The Rentons: A Family History
The account that follows is a first attempt to write the history of my family, tracing rather sketchily the lives of some of my ancestors. It brings together existing accounts with fragments drawn from letters, photographs and other sources. It is of course a subjective selection. If the following is of interest to anyone who reads it, I imagine that will be as they respond in sympathy to the stories of people whom they met and knew. I have tried to push the account as back as far as I could. Yet I have made no real attempt to bring any of the story up-to-date, or not at least beyond my father's adolescence.
As for me, I was born in December 1972 in central London. My parents Jeremy and Robin Renton were then living at Walpole Street in Chelsea. Robin's parents Kurt and Olga Geiger had both died recently. Jeremy's two parents Ronnie and Eila were both alive. I knew both of them poorly. My grandparents were old and distracted by ill health. I never had the chance to see the best of them. Ronnie seemed to me kind, gentle and distant. Eila I knew as 'Ganna'. We played card games, Happy Families and later Racing Demon. Ronnie died when I was still an infant. Eila died before I had left school. One joy in collecting this material has been the chance it has given me to appreciate the sides to my grandparents that I missed when they were alive, talents for friendship, capacities for generosity and love that I am glad now to record. To understand either person, they need of course to be placed within categories of class, place and time. They had their own sense of family, of their own niche within history.
The best source for my grandfather's ancestry is a flimsy eight-page pamphlet, The Rentons of Renton. Its author was William Renton, my grandfather Ronnie's paternal uncle. William was an Extension Lecturer for the Universities of Scotland. He taught adults, cultivating an air of eccentricity. The front page shows him as an elderly man with a moustache and a heavy overcoat, and with a healthy red squirrel standing on his head. William was a talented and original writer, with the sort of quick intelligence that ranges widely across different subjects. The pamphlet advertises his many other books, Oils and Water-Colours: Nature Poems, which was published by Greening and Co in 1905; Songs: Lyrics, Sonnets, Roundels, Fisher Unwin; Songs in Sun and Shade, Frederick C. Nicholls; a novel Bishopspool, Chapman Hall; a biography of Gustav Doré, Hardwicke and Bogue; Outlines of English Literature, John Murray; The Logic of Style, Longmans, and one last, 'nearly ready', The Arithmetic of the Calculus.
William Renton was a proud lowland Scot. He wrote poems praising the mathematics of the calculus. He dedicated other verses to the poets Swinburne and Shelley. Unusually, his poems rejected the common practice of his age, which was to force all verse into iambic pentameter, tum-tee, tum-tee, tum-tee, tum-tee, tum-tee, the rhythm of epic and of elegy. William had an ear for spoken language, for comedy. Another of his poems, 'A song in Dudgeon', centred on the dialogue between an exasperated customer and an overworked waiter trying desperately to remember his drink:
I ordered tea: where is it? How the room is crammed,
And what a lot of women. 'Cocoa?' Not for me,
I ordered, Waiter! There, he's off! The door is slammed –
I ordered tea!
'Coming!' I know you're coming, you are! Let me see:
I've chopped and sandwiched, hammed and sandwiched, veal-and-hammed,
And not a drop to, Waiter!! 'Coming!'
So is he,
That other skulking idiot, stuffed with napkins, shammed
With starch and shirtfront from the necktie to the knee –
Waiter!!! 'Oh 'ere you are, sir, coffee.'
Oh be d----d! I ORDERED TEA!
William Renton studded his texts with references to the virtues of border living. Outlines argued that the geography of English creativity could be drawn quite neatly. All the great poets had lived along the old frontier dividing settlements of Saxon and Celt. It was of course pure coincidence that his native Edinburgh was on the same line!
As for his pamphlet, The Rentons of Renton, some of its references requires explanation. Tobias Smollett was born at Dalquharn House in the Vale of Leven, near the village of Renton. Smollett's novel Humphrey Clinker celebrates a 'beautiful Miss E— R—', Miss Eleonora Renton of Edinburgh who catches the eye of Smollett's hero Jerry Melford at a ball. As for the towns, Renton itself was founded in 1782 and still stands some two miles north of Dumbarton. It was for many years a manufacturing town of about five thousand people. Renton was the fourth team to win the Scottish FA cup, first in 1885 and then in 1888. The town also provided the losing finalists, in 1875, 1886 and 1895. In the 1920s, Renton briefly enjoyed a reputation as a little Moscow, a tradition renewed in 1999 when its Scottish Socialist councillor was re-elected with two-thirds of the vote. There was also a larger city, Renton, now a suburb of Seattle in Washington, USA. It is an aviation district, dominated by a Boeing plant.
Unlike William Renton's full-length books, The Rentons of Renton had no publisher. It was cheaply printed, and probably in a small print run. It has survived only because a copy was given to Ronnie's older brother Noel, and from there, it ended up in my grandfather's book collection. I have no way of knowing what he would have made of it, but I imagine him chuckling over some of the more fanciful passages, the speculation about origins, and the extraordinary reference to Ptolemy. For much as William Renton might have wanted to pass off his ancestors as 'one of the oldest families in Europe'; the Rentons were not even peers. Their position in the British class system was more modest, even middling. They were merely members of the mercantile classes, people with a certain wealth and social status, but no greater significance, neither in England, nor even in Scotland alone.
An even earlier booklet of family history was published in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. This earlier work went by the simple and blander title, Renton. Its style was more prosaic. It was primarily a collection of biographical details taken from the registers of births and marriages. A copy survived in my grandparents' library. It is primarily a list of marriages, births and deaths.
Counting back from my father, then, it would be possible to name at least seven direct paternal ancestors. These men were no longer foresters, nor did they contribute to the defence of antique Scottish castles. The elder sons, furnished with capital, tended to go into trade as merchants. The younger sons were often literate people, the types that a previous generation might have labelled 'clerks', in other words writers, lecturers, teachers, clergymen or even doctors of divinity. The women remained at home, sometimes carrying on the work of their husband after his death.
My great-grandfather James Henry Renton (Ronnie's father) lived as a tea-planter in Ceylon, today's Sri Lanka. His brother Vantosky was named after an opera singer who performed in Edinburgh at the time of his birth. Vantosky Renton became a poet, like William, who wrote the first pamphlet cited above. But where William had traded on his wits, Vantosky's talent was for sincerity. He published translations from German, French, Spanish and Italian. Vantosky also wrote poems reflecting on his life as a planter. 'This morn it flashed with the warmth awake', concluded one poem Coffee Blossom, 'For the dew had dissolved the sleep-thrall. And it seemed as if by some sweet mistake, The stars had received an impromptu shake, And had caught on the boughs in their fall'. Vantosky joined James in Colombo, the Ceylonese capital. They left Edinburgh to make their own fortunes.
James worked a tea planter and also as a tea buyer in Colombo. He was a rubber planter in Malaya before moving to Ceylon. He was also a director of a rubber company, perhaps Labu FMS Rubber. James' first plantations were of cocoa, but there was some disease and the plantations had to be converted to tea. This loss must have been harsh. Tea bushes can take years to grow to maturity. 'Pampered hopes and rosebud expectations', wrote Vantosky in 1884, 'have suffered bitter blight'. James took an interest in cardamoms as well as tea, hoping to spread the use of the seed in sweets and flavoured tobacco. James travelled widely, selling his teas to new markets. On one trip to Germany he met my great-grandmother Louise. Her father was the pastor to the Prince of Schaumburg-Lippe. (Prior to German unification in 1866, Schaumburg-Lippe had been an independent state, after 1945 it became part of Lower Saxony). The pastor’s position in a court of this type would mean that he was often the only educated person after the Prince’s family. James and Louise married in 1892.
In 1902, James' fellow Colombo growers in the Thirty Committee granted my great-grandfather the extraordinary sum of £5,000 to be spent on raising the profile of their products throughout Europe. He travelled between Russia and Britain, receiving some hostility where rival associations of planters representing Indian or Chinese Tea had influence, and greater welcome where new markets could be opened. In Germany, perhaps with the help of Louise, 36 new depots were opened for the handling of Ceylon Tea in Brandenburg alone. In Russia, by contrast, the censor banned copies of one sales brochure, Ceylon Tea for Russia. It was a harsh move, and a reflection of commercial rather than political priorities. The Russian state was then going though a period of relative liberalisation. The index of books then allowed by the Russian state included Karl Marx's Capital. James could indeed feel hard done by to see his modest trading pamphlet banned.
James Henry Renton was a fierce patriarch, with a strong Edinburgh accent. One surviving photograph shows him seated in a great, carved mahogany chair. At least fifty years old, James' face is lined above and below the eyes. He wears a dark cotton suit, a plain tie, a stiff collar and a heavy signet ring.
James and Louise had three sons, Alexander Frederick Gordon, Henry Noel Lennox (Noel) and Ronald Kenneth Duncan (Ronnie), each born in Ceylon. Frederick was shortened to Fritz, to the disquiet of his mother, who wanted to avoid her sons being though of as German. Some time after 1902, the family returned to England. They left James's brother Vantosky behind. He died in 1916 and was buried at Lindula, near the family tea estates of Middleton and Talankande. The boys were getting older, and were due to be sent to schools from the age of eight. While other colonial parents sent their children back to England, and lived apart from them, Louise regarded such a system as cruel. James kept a house at Apsley Guise in Bedford and a home at Lennox Gardens in Knightsbridge. The house at Lennox Gardens suffered from stone throwing during the war, because of the German (Louise) living there. James died in 1920, having been run over by a horse-drawn taxi in Beecham Place. He left two houses in his will, 20 Lennox Gardens and 5 Whittington Avenue. Louise was later hurt in a separate traffic accident.
All three children were keen sportsmen, with Fritz and Noel excelling at cricket. One pre-war photograph shows a young Noel attending officer's training while at Harrow public school. He would have been just fourteen or fifteen years old. Noel later played as the wicketkeeper in the 1914 Eton-Harrow cricket match at Lords, scoring 28 in the first innings and 1 in the second, as well as taking a catch and a stumping. Noel joined the army on leaving Harrow, intending to study after at Magdalen College, Oxford. He served with the Kings Royal Rifles Corps, was promoted to lieutenant and died on service on 30 July 1915 near Hooge. A million British servicemen were killed between 1914 and 1918, a much greater number than those that died between 1939 and 1945. On the day on which he was killed, Noel's battalion went into action with 21 officers and 900 men, it returned with just three officers and 200 men unhurt. Noel was one of six officers who died. Although Noel never took up his place at Oxford, his name is recorded on the Magdalen war memorial. Family legend records him as a dashing young man, a symbol of great loss to those who survived the war.
Ronnie was polite, honest, loyal and self-effacing. The photograph taken of his year at Oxford shows him far to the back and hidden in the corner, so well obscured in fact that his face is barely visible. Many of Ronnie's surviving photographs date from his undergraduate years. He seems to have enjoyed football, beagles and rugby sevens. He came first in the inter-College Cross Country, and was part of a team that won the Cricket Cup. He also excelled at tennis. He was invited into networks of sporting friendships, and lived on the fringes of the glamorous rich. Another photograph shows Ronnie officiating as best man at a wedding. Among the bridesmaids is Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the future Queen.
Ronnie competed in point-to-point races for his college. On the flat, he was an elegant rider. Speeding over the jumps, he showed less control. The problem was not so much height, for he could bring a horse up easily, with his back straight and chin high. Yet while other riders were accelerating into the jump, Ronnie's balance was too far back. Something in his eyes gives the impression of a certain lack of control. Other photos show Ronnie on horseback, during military service in the war. He was a lieutenant in the 11th Hussars. Family stories hold that Ronnie's regiment saw little action, for what use were horses against tanks, but came alive in the last weeks, harrying the Germans back towards the Rhine.
Having secured a law qualification, Ronnie went on to work for the firm Dyson Bell and Co, and became a partner. They were Government Agents, charged with drafting private bills. When Ronnie joined the firm, private bills were more common than public bills. Any new utility company, whether it was to provide electricity, gas, water or railways, usually needed a private bill to establish their right to provide a service over land that they did not own. It was a thriving business. In his spare time, Ronnie was a member of the Carlton and St. Stephen's Clubs and the Marylebone Cricket Club.
In 1923, Ronnie married Margaret Julia Tyrrell in London. It was a moment of great happiness. Meg was a generous woman. She was the only child of Lord Tyrrell of Avon, the British Ambassador in Paris, Head of the Political Intelligence Unit, and then Under-Secretary of State at the Foreign Office (in effect, the head of the Foreign Office). Later, Tyrrell would be the first chair of the British Council and chair of the British Board of Film Censorship. Joining this family introduced Ronnie to the highest reaches of society. Meg was a Catholic, unlike Ronnie who remained an Anglican, although there is no evidence that religion caused any gap between them. Their wedding photographs show an unusually expansive Ronnie, happy to the verge of laughter. Yet this period of joy was to be brought to a premature end. In 1925, Meg died in childbirth.
Many years later, my grandmother Eila described Ronnie's first marriage. 'Meg … was my greatest friend and I was hers, because both of us found in the other the complete counterpart of our views on what mattered most in the world, only we'd been brought up to different approaches and couldn't change. Meg was a mystic, very near a saint, I think, with a clear man's brain and a lovely sense of humour. For three years her house was my second home and mine hers.' Ronnie rarely described this time afterwards. He must have gone through great sadness. Within just a few years, he had experienced several losses, his beloved elder brother, his father, and in one combined tragedy his wife and child. There would have been a time of open mourning, and a longer period, when the sadness must have remained deep in his heart. Indeed of all the emotions that eventually bound Ronnie and Eila together, this period of anguish may well have played its part. Eila had lost a friend, too, in Meg. Earlier in life, Eila's birth had coincided almost exactly with the death of her five year-old sister Lilian. An accident in early childhood had also left Eila half blind in her left eye.
My grandmother Eila was three years younger than Ronnie. While the Rentons were a family of urbanised and religious Scots, the Torrs were a clan of English landowners. In the parlance of their own day, they were landed gentry, exactly halfway in social status between the aristocrat Tyrrells and the burgher Rentons. While Ronnie could count his ancestors back for six generations, as far as he then knew, Eila could count at least ten. Her ancestors included John Torr, a Member of Parliament for Liverpool and an associate of William Gladstone. They owned their own large rural estates, founded on agricultural rents as the greatest source of wealth.
Eila's father was Herbert James Torr. Herbert stood for election at Horncastle, as a Liberal, in 1893. According to the Boston Guardian, 'Mr. Herbert James Torr, J. P., comes from an old Lincolnshire family. He is the youngest son of Mr. John Torr, who was born at Riby, near Grimsby, and afterwards became MP for Liverpool from 1872 until his death in 1880.'
Mr. H. J. Torr, who was born in 1864, was educated at Harrow, and graduated at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he took honours in History (Degree, 1887). During his college days, he acquired considerable proficiency as a speaker in the College Debating Society, a proficiency which will serve him well in the political career before him. After leaving college he travelled for some time, visiting India and all the principal British Colonies, and when the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, after the death of Bishop Wordsworth, sold Riseholme Hall, near Lincoln, Mr. Torr purchased this fine country seat and took up his residence there.
The article described the Torrs as breeders of magnificent Shorthorn cows. Mr. William Torr, the uncle of Mr. H. J. Torr, could boast of having sold 84 such animals for £43,000 in 1875, at over £500 each. Even today that would be considered a great price.
'Mr. Herbert J. Torr', the piece continued, 'married in 1889 Rosita, the eldest daughter of Duncan Graham Esq., of Willaston, Chester, first chairman of the Cheshire County Council. There are two children of the marriage. Mr. Torr is a Justice of the Peace for Lindsey, and holds a Commission as Captain of the North Lincolnshire Militia.' Unsuccessful in election, Hebert returned to the army, and a photograph from 1914 shows him thin, dapper, with a white moustache surrounded by six other officers.
Herbert's wife Rosita was half Scot, half Spaniard or Argentine, with blue eyes and dark hair. As a young woman she was photographed in white flowing dresses, her locks tied back with ribbons of white silk. Surviving into the 1940s, her hair turned white. She was pictured now in fur coats and great jewelled necklaces. Herbert and Rosita had two sons and three daughters, John, Rosita, Lilian, Cyril and Eila. My grandmother was the youngest child. The first son John left Morton Hall for a house in Kent. Eila's mother Rosita remained at Morton Hall until the army commandeered the building during the Second World War.
One photograph shows Rosita and Herbert together in a car. Judging by the smiles of the onlookers, it must have been one of the first cars in Lincolnshire. Another portrays the lawns being mown, from a cart pulled by horse. A third has the family at Swinderby in about 1905. There are thirteen people in the picture. Rosita dominates the group from the centre, directing the camera with her stare. Herbert looks on from the corner, leaning against some frame covered by a climbing flower. At the front of the group, and to the left, as we look, sits a gamekeeper with a cap, stick and two dogs.
The Torrs were farmers, soldiers and clergy. Herbert judged only one thing more important than politics, religion, and could not always reconcile the two. A Radical, Herbert was disillusioned only by the willingness of the Liberals to consider the disestablishment of the Church of England, which he opposed. His elder brother was the Reverend William Edward Torr, who lived at Carlett Park in Cheshire. William was a vicar in Cheshire and later Canon of Chester Cathedral. Edward and his wife Julia had six children. The first son was John Harold Torre, who sold Carlett Park, moving to Sussex. The second son William Wyndham Torre was military attaché in Lisbon and Madrid, Washington and the Central American Republics, and Madrid. The four daughters were Gertrude (who married Rev C. J. Holmes), Sybil (who married Frank Watson), Dona (who married Walter Holmes), and Gladys (who married Captain Ralph Edge, a winner of the Military Cross).
Herbert believed in women's greater emancipation. His daughters received a good education. They were taught languages and geography. They were allowed to join their parents, in hunting although not perhaps as often as they would have liked. Eila's r sister Sita left the family home early, at seventeen. Her husband Ronald Forbes was a soldier bound for the East. Sita joined him, fully expecting to be sent to China or South America at any instant. Yet the glamour was less than anticipated and the marriage did not last. Its failure may have encouraged my great-grandparents to keep a closer eye on their younger daughter. Eila was ten years younger than Sita and seemed, to her parents' relief, less adventurous.
Eila and Ronnie married on 23 March 1929. The couple wed at All Saints church in Lincoln, in an expensive society wedding, attended in the words of one newspaper by 'many people of note and about sixty tenants of the Morton estate'. The bride 'looked charming in a mediaeval dress of heavy white satin, with double pearl embroidered girdle and an exceptionally long train of the same material.' The gifts to the bride include a square diamond pendant, a diamond watch and emerald ring from the bridegroom; as well as 'a diamond and pearl pendant from her mother; a pearl and platinum chain from her sister, Mrs McGrath; a pearl and diamond bracelet from Mrs. Renton; a fitted suitcase from Captain Renton; a grey squirrel coat, trimmed with fox's collar, from her grandmother, Mrs Graham; a silver chased old antique Sussex loving cup from her cousin, Mr. Harold Torr; an inscribed silver bowl from the tenants on the Morton estate; a silver bowl and two sweet dishes from the indoor and outdoor staff at Morton; and a smoker's companion from the Swinderby Women's Institute'.
Ronnie's brother Fritz officiated as best man. The papers described him as the Conservative candidate for Northampton. The 1929 election was of course a disaster for the Tories. Fritz's rival was Col. Cecil L'Estrange Malone. A former Liberal, Independent Socialist and even briefly a Communist, he was Labour MP for Northampton between 1928 and 1931. Story has it that Fritz was confident of victory, and spoke at an election meeting, together with his unmarried partner, with her sitting at the other end of the platform. Suddenly, he came face to face with his mother Louise. She was astonished to find Fritz there with a 'mistress'. Rather than welcoming her son, it is said, she clumped onto the stage and berated him for living in sin, causing such a furore that the necessary votes were lost.
The Torrs ranged from the resolutely British Herbert Torr to Rosita his half-Spanish wife; they comprised Wyndham Torr, a soldier who lived comfortably in Franco's Madrid, in the same generation as Dona Torr his Communist sister. Dona led perhaps the most extraordinary life. A young British woman of a keen intelligence, she was unable to study at Oxford or Cambridge, but instead attended universities in Switzerland and Germany. Returning to Britain, she worked as a journalist on George Lansbury's anti-war newspaper the Daily Herald. Along with her husband Walter Holmes, Dona moved over directly from the Herald to the Communist Party of Great Britain, becoming a founder member in 1920. She met Lenin and translated Marx into English, and accompanied the veteran trade unionist Tom Mann on his trips to nationalist China. On her death in 1957, Torr's unpublished manuscripts were considered important enough to require the consideration of Harry Pollitt, the General Secretary of her party.
Julia Torr, the wife of the Reverend William Edward Torr, seems to have had a similar temperament to Ronnie's beloved Meg. Julia died in the early 1920s. Her obituary described her in the following terms, 'The rooms are decked with sweet spring blossoms; and she is always at hand between the services to help, advise or comfort any of us who are in any difficulty. It is she who rings the chapel bell, who lights and extinguishes the altar lights, looking beautiful and dignified in every reverent movement. She reads to us at meals in her beautiful modulated voice, and who can ever forget the last chapter of the Pilgrim's Progress on the last night, or the singing at Compline of "Jerusalem my happy home".'
In 1926, a Memorial Chapel to Canon Torr opened in Chester. Various Torr attended the opening, including one 'Mrs. Holmes, Canon Torr's daughter'. The reference to Mrs. Holmes is unclear. We might naturally assume that it means Gertrude, who married the vicar C. J. Holmes. Yet Dona also married a Holmes, and we know that she was prone to religious doubt, the anxiety in this case being possible acceptance of Christian faith. Her notebooks from 1925-6 have survived. They show a passionate interest in the relationships between parents and children, and in those moments of ecstatic bliss experienced by religious converts. Following Dona's death, Walter Holmes suggested that these papers were merely 'Early notebooks on miscellaneous non-political and non-historical subjects'. At the time of writing, however, Torr was hardly a child. She was more than forty years old.
A month before Canon Torr's memorial, the General Strike began. One of the few public, historical documents that my grandparents kept was a copy of the Strand Gazette from 5 May 1926. Privately printed, this newsletter recorded the latest 'official', meaning government, account of the first day of the great Strike. 'The situation remains unchanged, although every hope is entertained of an early peaceful settlement. The weather has changed and cast a gloom over London, but taking things generally there is a still a cheerful aspect carried on.' Examples of uplifting good news included the stories that one London hotel had taken to charging its patriotic customers 1d or 2d not to purchase their own copies of the newspapers, for the print runs had been reduced by the strike, but for the privilege of reading the hotel's sole copy. The Communist MP Saklatvala had been remanded. 'A General Bus was seen in the Strand today', the paper continued, 'It is a good omen'. While Eila Torr was perhaps looking for evidence of 'loyal' bus crews, her cousin Dona was selling the Daily Worker, and delivering leaflets from her bicycle to strikers.
The 'renowned explorer' described at Ronnie and Eila's wedding was Eila's sister Sita, the author of a dozen works of fiction, travel writing, journalism and autobiography. Sita was a member of the French, Royal Italian, Canadian and Royal Antwerp Geographical Societies, and lectured variously for the War Office, the Air Ministry, the Canadian Ministry of Supplies, and the National Council of Education in Canada. Sita's fame dated from the years between 1917 and 1920, when as a divorced young woman, of independent means, she was able to explore the changed post-war world. Sita met politicians and royals in Cairo, Damascus and Beirut. In December 1920 and January 1921, she became only the second Western explorer to visit the oasis of Kufra, held by the future King of Libya. 'Briefly, what I wanted to do was to cross some six hundred miles of desert ruled by the fanatical Senussi and jealously guarded by the Italians established on the Tirpolitanian coast, in order to reach a group of oases whose exact position was unknown. It would be necessary to evade or escape the Italians before reaching the desert, I should have to travel as an Arab woman, by camel, over waterless country rarely crossed even by Senussi caravans.' Travelling with an Egyptian, Ahmed Hassanein Bey, Sita later published her best-known book, The Secret of the Sahara.
Looking back on this period across two decades, Sita described her first adventure in the following terms: 'With another girl, equally undismayed by official restrictions, I had wandered round the world, mostly off the map, borrowing what we needed in the way of horses, the floor of a native hut as a bed, the pirogue of the Indo-Chinese customs or the New Guinea government yacht ... The Times, reviewing my first book, said we had asked for everything we wanted with the assurance of well-bred children who had never been refused.' The distinguished labour historian Margaret Cole would later write a short biography of Sita, 'she gives the impression of having done the things which she has done mainly because she thought it would be amusing or interesting to do them and not for any more esoteric reason.'
How much of her sister rubbed off on Eila, it is hard to say. Later in life, my grandmother enjoyed reading novels in French and Italian, and if not widely travelled herself, she was certainly free from any prejudice against foreigners. She may also have acquired Sita's habit of always dressing in glamorous hats. My uncle Timothy recalls his mother with great fondness. 'She was a passionate follower of the Institute of Contemporary Art, took me aged 15 or 16 to see exhibitions of contemporary paintings and left us a number of contemporary paintings which were very well chosen. Given a little more courage, I think she could well have followed Sita.'
Between spring and autumn 1929, meanwhile, Ronnie and Eila lived at 73 Eaton Terrace, where their guests included Rosita Torr, the bride's mother, Maude Torr and Anne Tyrrell of the British Embassy in Paris, and presumably Meg's cousin. Afterwards, they lived at 24 Chapel Street. During the war, they moved to Sudborough Common, in Ham. One visitor was Great Aunt Lil. Her Richmond home had just been bombed. Jeremy could later remember her stood at the doorstep, with her shoe broken, and a Pekinese under her arm. After the war, they lived at Mulberry Walk, then Caborn Mews and then Eaton Row.
Shortly before the outbreak of war, my grandparents purchased what would eventually be their weekend home, Folly Mill, a farm near Thaxted. Their first guests were invited for late August 1938. In an England that had long been transformed by the revolutions of canal, rail, telephone and electricity, Folly Mill was a quiet idyll. Another cottage Little Folly was attached to the grounds, but beyond that, the closest building was nearly a mile hence. For many years, Thaxted had been connected to the outside world only by a horse-drawn bus. In 1913, a train link from Thaxted to Elsenham was established, and for the next forty years there were two trains daily. The composer Gustav Holst settled at Thaxted in 1913 and lived briefly in a thatched cottage on Monk Street. One of his London pupils, Jack Putterill, later served as vicar. The town had access to electricity only from 1936.
When Eila and Ronnie settled in Thaxted, the town was known best for its vicar, Conrad Noel who held the post from 1910 to 1942. Noel made Thaxted a centre of pilgrimage. He and his helpers restored and refurnished the church, brought in a freshness of colour and form, revived ancient ceremonies, and, in his own words, transformed 'this museum of the immediate past into a fragrant shrine of God for the everyday use of his people'. Noel tried to win supporters through his sermons and by reviving high Church spectacle. 'It was my intention to bring to life again the ancient worship of the English church with the Eucharist at its centre'.
Conrad Noel was a prominent supporter of the Church Socialist League. His allies included Ernest Maxted, the red vicar of Tilty, silk weavers at Halstead, and a number of radicals in Braintree. Nearby Dunmow had possessed its own Dunmow and District Progressive Society since 1910, supporting local writers such as Sam Bensuan, author of the Essex dialect novel The Furriner. The Fabian H G Wells live in Little Easton from 1912. The Vice President of the Dunmow Society was Lady Frances Warwick, a member of the Social Democratic Federation since 1894. She had been won over to the left after hosting an extravagant party and seeing her name come in for criticism in the left-wing Clarion newspaper. Arriving in London in person to berate the editor Robert Blatchford, it was the newspaperman who persuaded the Countess. Warwick was soon contributing from her annual living of £30,000 a year. The Countess appointed Noel to the Thaxted living.
The greatest drama of Noel's career took place in spring 1921. Presented with an Irish tricolour, Noel agreed to hang it beside his chosen emblem of Christian universalism, a Red Flag. It was intended as a provocative gesture. The Triple Alliance of railway, transport and mine workers' unions had just collapsed in a failed attempt to support the miners' pay claim. The left and the trade unions were on the defensive, and Noel was determined to stand his ground. Various opponents rallied beneath a slogan of 'No Bolshevism for Thaxted', including John Oliver Barbrooke, an estate agent, Captain Fryat, the son of a coal mine owner, Lancelot Cranmer Byng, who then owned Folly Mill, and Captain Fraser, the landlord of the Swann Inn. These self-appointed representatives of the propertied classes succeeded in stirring up a considerable ferment. They appealed to the Bishops courts to have Noel's Red Flag taken down. They then appealed to the students of Cambridge, many of whom did drive down, tipping the balance of forces against Noel's allies. After squabbles, and various street meetings with up to a thousand people in attendance, which was more than two-thirds of the town's entire population, a certain compromise was reached. The offending flag was removed but Conrad Noel remained in post.
The Thaxted events were mostly exhausted by the time of my grandparent's arrival, but a small coda touched on the lives of Ronnie and Eila directly. Following the death of Conrad Noel in 1942, a replacement was appointed. Eila returned briefly to Thaxted church, and dressed, as was her style, in her best clothes. Yet the new vicar Jack Putterill's sermon concluded with the words, 'The Virgin Mary', pointing at Eila, 'Was no lah-di-dah lady in a fine, flowery hat.' My grandparent's soon transferred their loyalty to the alternative parish of Broxted and Tilty. Its own red vicar, Ernest Maxted, had failed on his retirement to secure a left-wing successor.
War again, and beyond
The family was already a complete unit. Eila's first son, my father Henry Jeremy Renton, was born 12 months after their wedding. Family tradition has it that the name Henry was dropped on the instructions of Eila's mother Rosita, who explained that she already called her footman Henry. The butlers were the senior servants, and so their names were usually remembered. The footmen were more junior, and so they were denied the same privilege. Each was called Henry. Jeremy was soon in turn shortened to J. Another family legend reports that Eila used to park baby Jeremy in the gardens of Lennox Gardens with strict instructions that the baby was not to be woken up. Unfortunately this was too much for her mother-in-law Louise, who had to come down to see how baby was, waking him up and sadly causing a row with Eila. A second son Tim was born two years later at the house on Chapel Street in May 1932.
By 1938, when they bought Folly Mill, Ronnie would have been approaching his forty-first birthday, while Eila was just a few years younger, Jeremy eight, and Tim five or six. Photographs from this time show J and Tim both learning to walk on stilts. Another records Jeremy aged eight, alone in the gardens of Folly Mill, wearing a short-sleeved shirt, his hair parted to the right. In a third, Ronnie walks along the garden path, deck chair in hand. Another shows Jeremy on a small pony, with Ronnie beside him, holding the halter from his bike. A fifth shows Eila, smiling coyly from beneath her great fox coat. A fifth has Tim sat beside Eila's close friend Egon Plesch at Newquay beach, from about 1943 or 1944.
Several of Eila's friends originated from central Europe. Freud was an influence. So was the continuing memory of the generation lost during the War. In a later book, Eila's sister Sita describes travelling to her parents' house in Morton as the news came in of the Munich treaty. There were disagreements among her friends. But the greatest number wanted peace:
It is the fashion now to abuse Mr Chamberlain and to blather that idiotic word 'appeasement' which means as little as any other shibboleth. But I wonder if there was anyone in England who did not feel relieved when terms were arranged at Munich? At Thirlestane, it was as if a new lease of life had been signed by the Almighty. In the village, on the moors, in scholastic or industrial Edinburgh, in shops and offices, on our way south by way of the Durham and Yorkshire collieries, in factories and on farms, I heard nothing but heartfelt relief. I believe those who now talk loudest of 'appeasement' grew hoarse in September 1938 babbling ecstatically on 'peace in our time'.
Most of my grandparents' friends supported Chamberlain, and I have no good reason to believe that Ronnie and Eila were any different. Years later, J could recall the headline of the Daily Express outside the back door to Folly Mill. It said 'Peace in our Time' and, knowing nothing else, he was delighted.
In September 1939, following the declaration of war, the boys were evacuated to Folly Mill, along with Elsie White, Beryl Norton and the French au pair. Ronnie and Eila had more complex decisions to make. Today, as then, all images of war reflect the gallantry of youth. My grandparents wanted to serve, but the roles open to them would not have been obvious. Sita spent the war alternating between North America and the Bahamas. In the US and Canada, she acted as a lecturer, urging countless audiences to make every sacrifice for beleaguered England. In the Bahamas, she played closer attention to the upkeep of her new estate, Unicorn Bay.
The family moved to Ham Common. 'The reason', Tim recalls, 'was that Ronnie was working in the War Office and had to get into Central London every day and it was thought that Ham Common might be out of the danger of central London. In fact it was the place (alongside Richmond Park) where the Spitfires and Hurricanes fought the German bombers as the last stand before they flew over metropolitan London. I remember, with J, lying on the roof of Sudbrooke Cottage in summer 1940 watching the dog fights in the blue sky overhead and furious that, the night after we had gone back to Sunningdale School for the Michaelmas term, two bombs had fallen on our house but we had missed the fun.'
Ronnie signed up with the intelligence corps. One of his first actions was to interview numbers of Jewish and other enemy 'aliens'. They were to be classed into one of three categories, depending on whether they were judged to be possible spies or other threats. Most survived this initial test, only to be interned afterwards on the Isle of Man, following the fall of France. To his embarrassment, several of the men and women that Ronnie interviewed were members of Eila's social 'set'. Much of the war Ronnie later spent in Algeria, where he won the Croix de Guerre. At one stage, he was responsible for liaison between French and American troops in North Africa. He worked alone, without complaint. Later, he was moved sideways, and the same work given to a senior officer with a large staff.
Ronnie's brother Fritz ran a battalion of pioneers in Crete. By April 1941, there were over 50,000 allied forces on the island. German and Italian ships attacked. On May 20, German paratroopers made a successful landing. A week later, the British decided to evacuate. Some fifteen thousand British and Dominion troops were removed, but ten thousand were left behind. While most auxiliary forces were captured, Fritz managed to ensure that his troops escaped safely. It was an act of some importance, saving valuable men and supplies. The suggestion was that Fritz should be honoured. Yet even as this discussion was taking place, or so family legend records, Fritz was found to have been consorting with prostitutes in Egypt. Even worse, he had taken them back to his headquarters, at the front line. The army was torn between disciplining and commending my great-uncle, before finally settling on a compromise, to ignore both the bravery and the disgrace. When Fritz was greeted with the news that he would not in fact received any medals, he is said to have responded, 'Don’t worry chaps, I got all those already in 1914.'
Eila like Ronnie served with intelligence. One duty involved handing out poison to British agents who were being parachuted behind enemy lines.
The boys were at Sunningdale and then Eton. Jeremy kept diaries of A4 sheets ripped into quarters, and then folded together. In November 1942, he recorded victories 'on all the fronts', in Tunisia, Russia and at Toulon, the latter being the scuttling of Pétain's fleet. For Christmas, dinner was turkey, two vegetables, plum pudding, claret, mine pies, cheese and biscuits, chocolate and Turkish delight, 'not bad for the fourth year of the war', J wrote. In March, the diary included a map of the Soviet advance on Kharkov. For his birthday, J was given a hectograph set, two Conrad novels and histories of Greece and Rome (from Eila), a fountain pen and various saved-up biscuits (Tim), ties and handkerchiefs (Egon), sweets (Uncle Fritz), a game called tri-tactics, a tennis racket and £3 (from his grandmother Torr). J turned his thoughts to the home front, 'Yes everybody grumbles about something … While Hitler is shouting War! Eternal War! At the top of his voice, you have some cause to grumble. But nowadays having been pulled out of a most terrible crisis there is too much grumbling. The worst form of grumbling is about money in factories. People grumble at some trifling thing and even hinder the war effort. Dissension is especially among miners who strike and cause less coal to be sent to the factories. Do the troops strike? Wouldn't it be awful if they did.'
In July 1943, Jeremy was eager for sports day, having qualified for the 100 yards, 440 yards, hurdles and long jump finals, but missed the competition with flu. 'I spent my sports day in bed. I let my imagination win everything!' By August, his mother was living in a cottage near Redhill, the occupants comprised at different times, Eila, Egon, Wick ('our cook') and Tayler ('Egon's maid'). With Tim, he attempted to dig a great tunnel, but gave up just five foot down. On another occasion a cousin Jean took the boys to see a musical Lisbon Story. J spent the summer preparing for Eton by rowing on Regents Park and Battersea Park. By the time that summer 1944 came around, he was able to report a triumph in the lower boy sculls. Rowing would be his passion for several years to come.
During the war, Folly Mill and its buildings were loaned to tenants. The architect Raymond Myerscough-Walker used the building as a school. Order in class was evidently a problem, for when my grandparents returned they found the house in a state of considerable disrepair. The roof was damaged, and several plaster walls had been knocked through. Between spring 1943 and 1944, Ronnie briefly loaned the cottage Little Folly to a young Essex farmer Joe Steele, whose son David was born on the property. Later this smaller building was loaned out again and then eventually sold. Following the end of the war, the roof at Folly Mill was repaired, and a second bathroom put in. Hens appeared, ducks, a goat and a pig.
I remember Eila as a determined woman, certain of her own place in society. Reading through her letters to her sons, a quite different picture emerges, of a very loving and gentle mother. Her son Jeremy's thirteenth birthday she celebrated in the most exuberant terms, 'Oh! Darling, I do love you so, and you get dearer every year and I am so proud of you! I do so want everything lovely for you always! I know that since the world isn't an easy place, there'll be pain and disappointment and sadness for you like everyone else, but I want you to have a full life and to be very much alive every single minute of it and to love everything.'
By autumn 1943, Ronnie had been promoted to the rank of Captain. His letters back reflect his own difficulties in the war:
Sorry J, but one of the things that the censor won't let one do is to send back stamps. Sorry son, but there it is.
I have been very busy trying to run my 'hotel', look after people, find them somewhere to shop, something to eat, and something to go about in, Rather hectic it is and I spend a lot of time running around, so that by the time the evening comes I am a bit tired. Still I have managed to get a bathe and I went out to dinner last night in this most charming little country pub. Think you and Mumplings would simply have adored it. Rather fun too. We didn't get them, but they had a lot of little seats and tables in the garden.
Rather gather that you have decided to be a wet bob. Do wonder how you will like it. I believe that when a boat is going really well and everybody is rowing really well together then there is the most marvellous thrill.
It is quite possible that the request for stamps was in fact Eila's idea, a ruse to test where exactly her husband was now stationed.
After Algeria, Ronnie was posted to Corsica. The Germans had fled, when the allies landed in Italy. The operation in Corsica involved feeding agents in behind the German lines as they were driven back through Italy, debriefing them and reporting back to the Allied Command. Light aircraft and speedboats were at their disposal. Ronnie's reference to a hotel would have been to their headquarters, something of a staging post. His letters talked of heather and flowers. He was not more forthcoming after the war.
Around the time of his fifteenth birthday, J was ill with an eye infection, and Eila thought back to his birth. 'Fifteen years ago, I was just about waking up and looking at the other bed in my room in 24 Orpington Gardens on which lay that comic slightly wriggling and very tubby roly-poly that they told me was my son there! And I lay there with a feeling of blissful content, rather sleepy … And then Pops came rushing in having been summoned by Plank from the Committee in the House on which he was sitting with the great news he had a son, and was he pleased!'
By March 1947, Jeremy was in the second eight at Eton, a year ahead of his contemporaries. It may have made up for the embarrassment of being evacuated a second time, not from the war this time, but from floods. He went on to win the school sculls, and to represent Eton at the Henley Regatta. He won the Junior Sculls at Henley by a 20-second margin. In 1948, he was part of the Eton boat that won the Ladies' Plate at Henley, beating several Oxford and Cambridge crews along the way. The Sunday Times and Observer were effusive in their praise. This was a time when rowing was a national sport, and children of all classes were expected to choose between the light and dark blues. Autumn 1948 and spring 1949, Jeremy spent on national service with the Welsh Guards. Another photograph from this period shows J on his motorcycle at Folly Mill. He suffered an accident and the bike was sold.
Having won a King's Scholarship to Eton, Tim sat above J in the school order. In 1950, Tim would became Head Boy, and Captain of Pop, the Eton prefects. His note of congratulations to J after Henley read 'Tibi voce maxima octo remes gratulator': I congratulate you with loudest cheers on the success of your rowing eight.
Back at Oxford, Jeremy resumed his rowing career, taking part in the 1950 Boat Race. The papers were by no means agreed in their predictions. 'Oxford Crew make big improvement', ran one headline, 'Boat-race ought to go to Cambridge', claimed the next. 'Renton', the Times reported, 'is still rowing well'. 'In comparing the crews at present it must be realised that Cambridge are considerably less advanced than Oxford.' The Evening News ran a short paragraph on each oarsman, 'H. J. Renton, 20. Had rather a chequered career during the practice, being out of the boat at Wallingford, and again at Putney through illness. Was a Welsh Guards officer and a member of the Eton College eight who were successful in the 1948 Ladies Plate at Henley.' By 10am, the Evening Standard reported, 'crowds of Cup Final size were jostling through Hammersmith, Chiswick, Putney and Mortlake.' Oxford led at the start, but Cambridge drew ahead in the second mile. At Hammersmith Bridge, Oxford had the bend in favour, but failed to catch and Cambridge rowed out winners. Despite the disappointment, Jeremy could still take pride in his progress. One society photograph in our family collection shows 'Mr Jeremy Renton, the Oxford rowing Blue and sculler adjust[ing] the bowler hat on Miss Jean Macdonald'. It was election night, 1950. Eila kept a large file of cuttings.
In 1951, Jeremy won the Oxford Sculls and Pairs and the Senior Sculls at Henley. He was competing against other rowers, who were or would become internationals. As he prepared for the next year's race, there was every reason for optimism. 'Renton is still short and stiff', one journalist wrote, 'but he has a much truer drive from the stretcher than last year and rows a more consistent blade.' The other member of the previous year's crew to compete again was one P. Gladstone, the great grandson of W. E., and a veteran of the Palestine Police. After five straight defeats, the Oxford crew was hoping for revenge. In fact, they rowed to disaster.
As the crews approached the stake boats, they hit a brief squall. Oxford chose the Surrey station, not realising that their choice would soon hem them in. The race began. After less than a minute, water started coming over the sides of the Oxford boat. For about twenty strokes they tried to keep going. The boat began to sink. The cox panicked: he could not swim. The race was postponed and re-run on the Monday. Oxford lost by 12 lengths. Eila took no cuttings.
In March 1951, Jeremy wrote to his parents, announcing his decision to convert to Roman Catholicism. It was not an instant decision, he insisted, but reflected several months of careful thinking. His father urged him to caution, insisting that his views might yet change. 'When Our Lord called to his disciples to follow him', J responded, 'He did not get the answer, I must wait till I am 25 because only then will I be sure that my present that Thou art the Lord is correct'. His letter ended with the following words, 'I have written as though Catholicism was a blank shell, which had to be accepted for intellectual reasons. But the more I see of it the more I become aware of it as a vital force, and a power to good and happiness. We have just been celebrating Pentecost and I can feel within the Catholic Church that Pentecost spirit, the spirit of all real goodness and all beauty ever.'
Eila attempted to argue Jeremy out of conversion, 'You needn't have worried about telling me darling heart, don't you think I've known all along, only I wasn't going to force you to tell me where you were until you wanted to. But then suddenly, as often happens with you and me, the moment came when not to talk about what was so obviously uppermost in your mind was putting a barrier between us that had no reason, and so I asked you.'
Ronnie claimed no special knowledge, nor did he treat his son's decision as even an implied criticism. 'My dear J. Mum showed me your two letters. They must have been difficult letters to write and they are difficult letters to answer, because the matter is so very important. Religion at best is a difficult subject because naturally it arouses deep feelings and I am not certain that parents are the best people with whom to discuss it. They may be over anxious lest their children make a mistake.' Ronnie tried to respond with the gifts open to him, of tact, experience and his customary good humour. He did not patronise, nor would he assume that because his son believed something, so it must be true. 'Religion often concerns one whole being, the mind, the emotions, and whatever else goes to make up a person. To my mind there must come a point when one can longer argue and all that one can say is 'I believe', yet it must have a logical basis, it must be satisfactory intellectually, because otherwise there will come a point where one rejects it.'
With the maximum of gentleness, Jeremy's father diagnosed a weakness not in the Anglican or Catholic Church, but in his son's conception of the truth, which put the greatest emphasis on abstract spirit, portraying mysticism as a refuge from a tortured world. 'I wonder whether one of your troubles has been that the Anglican would appear to disregard the first of our Lord's commandments, namely the duty to love God, and only to pay attention to the second, namely the duty to love one's neighbour.' With love, he concluded, 'I appreciate too that when the Lord called his disciples, he expected them to follow immediately. I honour you therefore for saying that at the moment you won't do anything, but it doesn't mean that you may not get another screed from me shortly. Poor J. Bless you. See you on Saturday. I hope!! Your own loving Pops.'
Ronnie and Eila settled into a routine of London in the week and Essex at weekends. He remained a quiet, charming man, so elegant and calm that he might appear diffident. Ronnie was amazingly insensitive to pain. He used to tell of going to a dentist in France. The dentist fiddled around in his mouth and then with a cry of joy exclaimed 'Voila le nerf', as a little white thing on the end of the dentist's toothpick was proudly shown to him.
Ronnie became the Government Agent. To Eila's great dissatisfaction, the predecessor was awarded a knighthood, while Ronnie was awarded only a CBE, even if that was later upgraded to an OBE. Eila meanwhile learned to keep a house without the children. Jeremy was away, first in the Bahamas, and then living his own life in London. My mother Robin was his third wife. They have been married now for more than three decades. Tim also moved away, following a two-year break in Canada. Eila received an MBE some years afterwards. In her case, the award was a recognition for many years as a volunteer supporting the British Council.
Ronnie died in April 1980 in his sleep. My father used to tell a story, gently, against himself, that in the last weekend before Ronnie's death, we had visitors to the house. One of them had been a teacher and moved in Anglo-Catholic circles. Over supper on Saturday evening he entertained us with religious stories. The next day J saw Ronnie in the garden and asked why he had not gone to Anglican mass. He replied 'Your friend was getting on so well with Eila that I left them to go together'. Ronnie died in the very next week thus missing, J reported, his last opportunity to take communion. Eila survived for another ten years, dying on 18 May 1990. Her funeral was well-attended affair with generations of friends and family. The family came from all over Britain, the friends above all from Thaxted and Tilty church. Ronnie and Eila were buried in the same plot, in the graveyard at Tilty.