‘The uncertain glory of an April day’

Two anniversaries share one April day: 23rd April, and as one of them belongs to William Shakespeare, the quotation from Two Gentlemen of Verona seems apt.

“Shakespeare’s favourite month would seem to be April … No other month is mentioned half as often in his works as showery, windy, sometimes unforgettably exquisite April.” (Germaine Greer   The New Yorker, April 11, 2013)

23rd April is long ascribed to be the day on which William Shakespeare was born although there is no specific record of it. He was baptised on 26 April 1564 and it is generally assumed that, as was the custom at the time, the infant was born about three days earlier. He definitely died on this date 52 years later so it is convenient to use the date to apply to both events.

Saint and playwright

St George, patron saint of England as well as of Germany, Portugal, Greece, Bulgaria, Georgia, Palestine, Ethiopa, Serbia, Slovenia, Lithuania, Portugal, Malta and Montenegro, has his saint’s day on 23rd April.

The two come together in Shakespeare’s Henry V when the king, at the Battle of Agincourt, rallies his troops with the stirring “Cry God for Harry, England and St George.”

It was a good bit of propaganda for George who, despite being the English patron saint, never actually set foot in the place.

The original patron saint had been Edmund (“Cry God for Harry, England and – er – St Edmund” – doesn’t really cut it, does it?) and he had been patron saint since the 9th century. His shrine, housed in an abbey built by King Canute, was at Bury St Edmunds.

Eddy;s tomb
Shrine of St Edmund

The shrine depicted above was destroyed in 1539. During the Dissolution of the Monasteries, his remains were spirited away to France to keep them safe. It obviously worked because in 1911 they came home again and now they are in Arundel castle.

‘Such was the influence of St Edmund that on St Edmund’s Day in 1214 rebel English barons held a secret meeting here before going to confront King John with the Charter of Liberties, the forerunner to Magna Carta which he signed a year later. This event is reflected in the motto of Bury St Edmunds: ‘Shrine of a King, Cradle of the Law’.’ [In Latin Sacrarium Regis Cunabula legis]

http://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/Edmund-original-patron-saint-of-England/

Suffolk crest
Bury St Edmunds coat of arms

In 1199, Edmund was unceremoniously dumped by Richard I who had visited the site of St George’s tomb in Lod (modern day Israel) and then the following day won a battle.

where geo lies
Tomb of St George

Image of tomb By OneArmedMan – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3078385

Whether he genuinely believed that his triumph had been brought about by the saint or he was quick to see the opportunities of renaming the patron saint we will never know. Richard I, nicknamed the Lionheart, has himself had an historical makeover. He comes down through history as a great King of England but he spent so little time in this country during his reign, largely limited to visits to wring out more money by taxation to fund his crusading, that it is perhaps very appropriate he selected a patron saint who had spent even less time here.

google image
St George’s Day Google doodle

The final coup de grace for St Edmund came in 1348 when Edward III founded the Knights of the Garter and selected St George as its patron. From then on, the flag of St Edmund was superseded by the flag of St George when troops went into battle.

St George lived in the 3rd century. For part of his life, he was in Lydda (now in Israel) but it is uncertain whether he was born here or in Cappadocia (modern day Turkey). Wherever it was, it was to wealthy Greek parents. He was a soldier as his father had been – probably another reason for Richard to adopt him – but despite being in the Roman army, he was a Christian and reputedly refused to give up his faith even when asked by Emperor Diocletian. Probably not a good career move to oppose your boss and George was executed, after being subjected to torture, on 23rd April 303 AD.

Our William, on the other hand, is undisputedly English, born and died in Stratford upon Avon. Conveniently neat, you have to give him that. Made his career in London but scholars argue about where he was during his ‘missing years’. Was he a schoolmaster, a travelling player, a poacher – or all three and more? And where was he – in this country or not?

A pub in Kenilworth is convinced that the premises was patronised ‘by none other than William Shakespeare’  (http://www.virginsandcastle.co.uk/) though it offers no evidence to support this view. The Famous Virgins and Castle (the word famous is part of the title) is in the High Street in the older part of Kenilworth.

The pub
The Famous Virgins & castle, Kenilworth

Image courtesy of Google Earth Street View

Virgins & castle
Pub sign

Inn sign courtesy of http://www.virginsandcastle.co.uk/

The premises is old enough to have been known to Shakespeare. It actually appears to date from the year before his birth and there is a story that Shakespeare may have visited Kenilworth when Elizabeth I visited in 1575.

Castle and grounds
Kenilworth Castle and Elizabethan Garden

Image of Kenilworth Castle and the newly restored garden courtesy of http://www.english-heritage.org.uk

David Schajer in his blog http://shakespearesolved.blogspot.co.uk posits the idea that perhaps John Shakespeare, a glove maker, might have seized the opportunity of making a pair of gloves for Elizabeth and presenting them to her on her visit. It would be a good publicity ploy particularly since we know that, very shortly after this, the family fortunes dipped quite dramatically. It is quite feasible it was a last ditch attempt to stave off financial collapse.

But as Schajer neatly puts it:

‘There is no proof that Shakespeare was there. There is no proof that he was not there. It is impossible to know, based on the evidence that we possess today. Perhaps we may eventually discover documents or letters that put Shakespeare at Kenilworth, or not, and until that time we cannot know one way or the other’

If Shakespeare were there in 1575, he would only be 11 so presumably not frequenting the pub known then as The Two Virgins. But it does seem possible that James Burbage, of whose acting company Shakespeare was later a part, was at Kenilworth and perhaps this lends some credence to the pub’s claim.

And the connection to RMSG? (You were wondering where that fitted in weren’t you?) Well the parents of Marjorie Slingsby, former pupil, ran the pub in the late nineteenth century. Thomas Chapman Slinsgby, b 1865, was a grocer’s manager before he transferred to the drinks trade. He died in 1901 and his probate places him at Virgin’s Inn, Kenilworh. His estate was valued at probate as £16 15s which, although in modern terms is worth £722, it is hardly a living wage. Marjorie’s mother became the licensee in 1901 but by the next census is given as a boarding house keeper, not at the pub but in Waverley St, Kenilworth. Both Marjorie and her sister were working in clerical jobs.

Marjorie came to the School after her father’s death and left it in 1909. Given as a shorthand typist in 1911, we can probably assume she learned those skills at school. In 1912, Marjorie visited the School again. It seems feasible that this was for the first Old Girls’ Day since the foundation of the Old Girls’ Association (OMGA). There had been Ex-Pupils’ Days before then but the Association started in 1912. It may have been this reason or it may have been because she was planning the leave the country and wanted to see her alma mater for probably the last time. In 1913, Marjorie, her mother, her sister Kathleen and younger brother George travelled to Wellington, New Zealand on the Tainui. By 1916, she gives her address as Whataupoko, Gisburn, New Zealand.

NZ

Images of Whataupoko from http://www.tairawhitimuseum.org.nz/exhibits-galleries/collections/photography/Times_A_Changin/Whataupoko.asp

On 12 Dec 1923, she married Roy Fellows Baird the date being given in Who’s Who in New Zealand and the Western Pacific, 1925. Roy was a Solicitor and District Land Registrar who made an extensive study of Polynesia. His research notes are now held by Canterbury Museum. By 1932, the Bairds were living at 2a Selwyn Rd, Hawkes Bay, New Zealand where Marjorie remained a member of OMGA. Sadly just six years later, she died, aged only 45. It is possible that this is the property today listed as 2 Selwyn Rd, Hospital Hill, Napier which was sold in October 2015 although there is no certainty about this.

Baird home?
Napier property

Rather like the uncertainty about whether Shakespeare was, or wasn’t in Kenilworth; was or wasn’t a frequenter of The Two Virgins; whether St George was, or wasn’t born in Israel or Turkey, the was or wasn’t of New Zealand real estate is up to you.

But April 23rd is definitely celebrated as St George’s Day and as Shakespeare’s birthday.

“Oh, the lovely fickleness of an April day!”

April is a month noted for two things particularly: April Fool’s Day (“The first of April is the day we remember what we are the other 364 days of the year” – Mark Twain) and April showers. Who can forget the song from Bambi ‘Drip drip drop little April showers’?

Bambi
http://disney.wikia.com/wiki/Little_April_Shower

[You’ll probably regret reading that. It’ll be an ear worm you’ll have in your head all day!]

Chaucer may not have had doe-eyed fawns in mind when he wrote: ‘Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote/ The droghte of March hath perced to the roote …’ in the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales but he summed up neatly the gentle little showers that are supposed to fall in April. It was probably those that Robert Browning had in mind when, in Home Thoughts from Abroad, he wished he was in England ‘now that April’s there’.

April in schools often brings the start of the summer term with the delicious thought of the ‘long summer hols’ to come. Fortunately for the sanity of teachers, April 1st is fleetingly brief and doesn’t always fall on a school day but most people can probably recall an April Fool’s trick perpetrated successfully on schoolchums. Sadly, it’s the sort of thing that doesn’t get recorded in the annals.

One particularly famous hoax, however, albeit not in a school, was the spaghetti tree Panorama report on April 1st 1957. Ignoring the ‘rule’ that tricks played after 12 midday don’t count, the television programme broadcast a spoof report from the Swiss canton of Ticino about harvesting spaghetti. Of course, at the time, this was not a dish many had tried at home. It wouldn’t work today!

“The last two weeks of March are an anxious time for the spaghetti farmer. There’s always the chance of a late frost which, while not entirely ruining the crop, generally impairs the flavour and makes it difficult to obtain top prices.”

The report was given greater authenticity with a discussion about the horrors inflicted on the crop by the spaghetti weevil – a dastardly little blighter which had wreaked havoc on crops in the past. Richard Dimbleby, who fronted the report, lent gravitas to the spoof which probably caused more viewers to be fooled than might otherwise have been, such was his authority. He concluded his report by declaring that ‘there’s nothing like real homegrown spaghetti.’ Following the programme, the BBC received many phone calls asking from where it might be possible to obtain their own spaghetti trees. The BBC gave up trying to explain and settled instead for telling them to take a sprig from an existing tree and plant it in a can of tomato paste.

And the connection to the School’s history? Well, it’s nothing if not contrived! Let us jump back in time a little to a young girl born just before the turn of the century. Marie Victoria Adams was born in 1897 and was always known in her family as Queenie. The family home at this time was 24 Selbourne Rd, then in Handsworth but now classed as Birmingham.

Adams home
Selbourne Rd, Handsworth

24 Selbourne Rd, courtesy of Google Earth Street View

After her father, a brass nail manufacturer in Birmingham, died, Queenie became a pupil at RMIG. We know she left the School in 1913 and, on average, pupils stayed for about 5-6 years so she probably arrived in about 1907. Unlike the school leaving age in National schools (which was 12-14), RMIG has always had a minimum leaving age of 15, which often became 16 and, at Head Governess’ request, might be 17. Queenie would have been 16 in 1913.

We don’t know exactly what she did after leaving school. The only certain occupation recorded for her is in 1939 when she is given as a shorthand typist. Both shorthand and typing lessons were undertaken at the School at this time but we can’t directly link Queenie to them. Obviously she must have learned shorthand somewhere and it might have been at school.

However, there is also the tantalising reference in her family history – and here’s the connection to the April Fool stunt – “she told me that she had been a nanny in the Dimbleby household when they lived in Teddington.” (The words of a family historian who knew her.) The opportunity when Any Questions was recorded at the School to ask Jonathan Dimbleby if he could confirm this was too great to resist. He could not recall Queenie but her family historian was unsure whether it was before or after Queenie’s marriage: i.e. before 1926 or after. The mention of Teddington, where Richard Dimbleby grew up, perhaps makes it a possibility that it was the older Dimbleby generation rather than the younger. Between 1913 and 1926 we have no specific trace of Queenie so perhaps she was indeed working as a nanny. Fast forward to 1932, and we can link Queenie to Teddington as she gave the address c/o Mrs Spencer Phillips, Denbigh House, Hampton Wick, in her OMGA membership. The fact that it is a ‘c/o’ address might suggest that Mrs Phillips was her employer but that is not known for certain. This house was completely rebuilt in 1936 by Mrs Phillips so the image of it may not be the same as the one Queenie knew. Today it is known as Denbigh Lodge.

Teddington
Denbigh House

So often in these pen portraits of past pupils, we know little of the personalities. We are fortunate in having a first-hand account by someone who actually knew her. Queenie, she recalled, had auburn hair, naturally wavy and thick.

“Grandma told me of the time the three girls, May, Queenie and Gran, went to the theatre and someone cut off Queenie’s plait which was hanging over the seat. Presumably they had a good price for it…”

Queenie also had a quick ear for music and played the piano – possibly something else she had learned at school although being able to play ‘by ear’ is a talent rather than a learned quality.

“Marie (Queenie to me) was my grandma’s cousin, younger by about 5 years. All the cousins seemed to have a close relationship. Queenie’s older sister May was Grandma’s best friend and eventually lived in the same road, as did Queenie’s mother and brother Ormsby (who emigrated to Canada) and Dorothy, known as Dolly, to whom Queenie was very close. They lived at 18 Windermere Rd Handsworth and Grandma lived at 25, with May eventually at 33!”

2 views of Windermere
Windermere Rd

Views of Windermere Rd, from Google Earth street view.

18 Windermere was sold last in 2011 for £132,000.

Queenie married on 23 December 1926 at West Bromwich Registry Office. Sadly the marriage did not last and it may well be that her husband, who was a widower, really just wanted a live-in housekeeper and someone to look after his children. We will never know the truth as it was something Queenie never discussed. By 1932 Queenie was [back] in Teddington and her name is recorded in OMGA membership as Adams and not under her married name. It was almost as if she wished to draw a veil over it.

In 1939 she was living at 25 Windermere Rd. During the war, despite the danger from air raids, “she wouldn’t go in the shelter, maintaining that if you looked at all the bombed houses the stairs were still there so that was her little shelter – under the stairs.”

houses bombed
Blitz damage

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-coventry-warwickshire-34746691

In the 1950s, she went to live in Antrobus Rd and had a bedsit there.

Bedsit street
Antrobus Rd

Antrobus Rd, courtesy of Google Earth Street View

“The last time I heard from her was in 1974, 5 years before she died. She was in a home [for the elderly] in Somerset Rd Handsworth, her sight was failing, she was doing a lot of baby knitting and had frequent visitors of nieces and nephews.”

Care Home
Somerset Rd

Somerset Rd courtesy of Google Earth Street View

Despite her advancing years, we still capture something of her personality in her comments: she complained about ‘dear England going to ruin with … all the nitwits in Parliament’ and she ‘just liked to think of happy times 50 years ago’.

Marie Victoria White died in Dudley Rd Hospital on 6th April 1979 aged 82. Causes of death included cardiac failure, bronchitis, emphysema and coronary atheroma – in short, a tired body simply shutting down. Our family historian correspondent said of her

“She was a lovely lady and I remember her with great affection and wish I had known more about her but when you are young you just don’t ask those sort of questions which could be so relevant today.”

We don’t know what her view of the spaghetti tree hoax was but “she had a good sense of humour”.

I bet she roared with laughter!

Panorama 1957
Spaghetti harvest

https://uk.news.yahoo.com/april-fools–day–best-april-fools-pranks-ever-160640356.html

(Quotation in title from William Hamilton Gibson was an American illustrator, author and naturalist.)