At Home With The Bennet-Clarks
From 1937 to 1945 Birch House was the home of the Professor of Botany at Nottingham's University College and his family. The house and its occupants are recalled for us by his son, H.C. Bennet-Clark, who is at present lecturer in Zoology at Oxford University.
Birch House in the late 1930s with one of the two mulberry bushes trees
in the foreground. Photograph supplied by H.C. Bennet-Clark.
Birch House was not large and at best was attractive rather than beautiful. I would imagine it was built in the early 1700s. In the garden were a number of over mature acacias and two mulberry trees, possibly as old as the house. Apart from some tidying of their wonderfully gnarled growth, the mulberries survived both the war and my attempts to climb them. The drive swept in off Sherwin Road, past the house to a space in front of the stable block. When we first moved in, the front and two sides of the garden were surrounded by a low wall surmounted by cast iron railings and wooden fence at the front, and at the north east corner there were tall brick walls, all that remained of two rows of property that had once stood adjoining the boundary of our garden. On the other side of Sherwin Road, there were three large blocks of flats, also separated from the road by iron railings. To my amazement and admiration, workmen came along in the early part of the war and cut down all this ironwork with oxyacetylene torches and removed it, so thereafter we just had a wooden fence along the top of the south wall.
The ground floor of Birch House consisted of a hall, dining room and drawing room behind which were a kitchen and two rooms used for preparation and storage of food. Above these were three bedrooms, a bathroom and my father's workshop. On the second floor were a further set of rooms, originally used by the family as a children's play area and a room for the maid. That all stopped sharply in 1939 and it was turned into a more or less self-contained flat for a lodger. The edge of the roof had a low parapet with a lead gutter behind and, when it snowed heavily, my father used to go up and shovel out the gutter as, otherwise, the melt backed up and then leaked through the slates - I was too little ever to be allowed up on the roof as the parapet was only about two feet high. Beneath the house was an extensive cellar, with vast beams about one foot square in section, which was used both for storage and as a nightly refuge when there were air raid warnings.
The stable block, the tiny cottage enveloped in Russian Vine and the side
of Birch House. Photograph supplied by H.C. Bennet-Clark.
The outhouses to the north of the house included a two storey stable block, with large hay lofts above, and below an area we turned into accommodation for sundry goats and rabbits. The car lived (or languished, propped up by bricks under its axles, from 1940 until 1945) in the northernmost part of the stable block, in what must have been the old coach house with large double gates. Off to the north of the dining room, tacked on to the house, was a tiny cottage which may originally have been used for servants' quarters, but had now fallen into disrepair and was almost totally covered by a Russian Vine.
Curiously I cannot recall any of those features that so characterise houses dating from the eighteenth century. So I think that the cornices and original fireplaces must either have been very plain or been ripped out. Downstairs the windows had been 'improved' by fitting large pane new windows plus a bow window in the drawing room. Upstairs the windows retained the multitude of small panes and narrow glazing bars typical of the period.
The lease that Sir Albert Ball had required my father to sign made him more or less responsible for maintenance and decoration. In this context, remember that the move to 'originality', with white painted woodwork, picked-out plasterwork and 'Adam' fireplaces and colours, is a phenomenon of the 'Islington 60s'. My parents then were firmly in the pastel yellow paint school and thus it was within Birch House. The house had been let unfurnished but it was quite easy to buy Georgian furniture, particularly if it was undistinguished and a bit shaky, at what now seem quite silly prices. So Birch House was furnished in dilapidated Georgian: I don't think anything except food was ever bought new! My Scottish grandfather had been quite well to do, though he died broke, but the Irish side had always been as poor as the clergy inevitably are and principles of thrift and decayed elegance, though tacit, ruled.
Professor Bennet-Clark and son, Henry, at work on the site of their air
raid shelter in 1939. Photograph supplied by H.C. Bennet-Clark.
My father, Thomas Archibald Bennet-Clark, was born in 1903 in Edinburgh but educated in England. He was, during our period in Nottingham, just establishing what was to be a very distinguished career as an academic botanist and plant physiologist. In 1936, at the age of 33, after a brilliant career at Cambridge and subsequent success in Trinity College Dublin and Manchester University, he was appointed to be the first Professor of Botany with a new department in the northeast part of the still very white and new University College buildings. Then in 1944 he was appointed Professor of Botany at Kings College London where he was elected to the Royal Society in 1950. In 1962 he became the first Dean of Biology and, in effect, then moulded the course of development of biological teaching and research during the first years of the newly founded University of East Anglia. He retired in 1967 and died in 1975.
He was a man of considerable energy and enterprise. During this late 30s re-armament and then wartime Nottingham period, as well as maintaining his teaching and a strong research output throughout the war he acted on government committees on the production and preservation of food. By his own gardening efforts at Birch House he also managed to keep our family more or less in vegetables throughout the war. I can remember potatoes being harvested and then re-interred 18 inches down in a 'clamp' surrounded by hay, the inevitable cabbages, as well as beans and various root crops. There were also currants, raspberries and gooseberries. Compost was an art form, with various vegetable wastes being interleaved with the goat and hen manure before being re-cycled into the soil. There wasn't too much space or time for flowers but one or two rather nice things used to grow in the rockery. In 1939 with war looming father dug out, lined and then roofed over an air raid shelter in the garden. As my father's civil engineering was at best empirical, this shelter would certainly have caved in with a nearby bomb but as the nearest were some way off, aimed at the Raleigh works, both we and the shelter survived.
Elizabeth Constance Haythornthwaite was born and brought up in Dublin. She first met my father at the next-door house of then Professor of Botany at Trinity College Dublin, Henry Horatio Dixon FRS, to whom he was assistant and after whom I am named. My mother was a highly intelligent woman of strong will and determination. Finding herself with a congenitally and seriously deaf daughter, Margret Aithna, she set about ensuring that Margret never went to specialist deaf schools, which my mother regarded as still very much in the dark ages; that Margret learnt to read at the age of 3 or 4; and that Margret learnt to lip-read and to speak with sufficient skill as to be able to attend Broadgate School in Nottingham throughout the major part of her pre-School Certificate education.
This self-sufficiency and determination governed our domestic activities in wartime Nottingham. There were 8 to 10 hens, a couple of goats, and 6 to 12 rabbits at Birch House. At that time meat was rationed to the value of one shilling per week and we were registered with Mrs Ball at a shop on Gregory Street. We ate scrag, neck and offal, the cheapest meats available, extensively padded out by rabbits, hens and goats. The rabbits fed through the summer in movable cages on the Birch House lawn and during the winter took their chances in the stables with the goats. The goats, though on the whole pacific, had insensitive feet and every so often would tread on a rabbit's tail. We would hear a piercing squeal and later find yet another Manx rabbit.
This eclectic flock, of course, was managed by mother who usually did the twice-daily goat milking (some 2 to 3 pints per goat a day), plus the fortnightly goat washing and grooming. Then there was the problem of winter fodder. My father's one attempt to make silage was acceptable neither to the family nor to the goats but hay was made from the mowings from a variety of odd places; grass on the railway cutting was scythed by some OAP who was only too delighted that my parents were prepared to turn the drying hay and then take it away; we also got the mowings from Lenton parish churchyard which my father regarded as a most satisfactory form of organic recycling.
The hens were fed on a mixture of our own and other locals’ kitchen or institutional scraps, boiled into a somewhat noisome mush in the back kitchen and then mixed up with 'balancer meal' to make it peckable. The hens had a two-phase career with us: they were bought in as day old month old pullets. After a year or so of active egg laying, during which they were expected to produce at least 0.8 eggs each per day, as they went off lay, seriatim they made brief but glorious appearances at table.
The hatching, matching and dispatching of this diverse flock was controlled by my mother, who set about dealing with the problem of getting a dry, on-heat goat across Nottingham to be served by the nearest billy goat with the same triumph-in-adversity spirit that arranged brief marriages between rabbits or slew, with a single rap from a hand brush, the monthly hen or rabbit for the table. Very reasonably, in this suburban 'Good Life', the livestock were treated with the greatest care and respect while they were active or productive but their demise was brought about suddenly, efficiently but without remorse or apparent distaste, by my mother.
Since coffee was unrationed during the war, my pragmatic parents drank that: tea was very much rationed so our abundant surplus tea, whether as coupons or as leaves, became the object of barter as did some surplus eggs and vegetables and even clothing coupons. Other surplus eggs were preserved in waterglass in a vast crock. These were O.K. for cooking for about three months but then became increasingly suspect but, of course, the process kept the egg supply flowing while the new pullets were taking over from the older hens. I wouldn't say we ate gourmet food but it was there and it never seemed to be in short supply, though I didn't see a banana for five years. I was once encouraged by my mother to write a letter to Lord Woolton, the Minister of Food, complaining about the lack of fresh oranges, to which he replied most kindly but regretfully.
Activities of this type had been part of the various servants' chores in the households of her youth but my mother took on these various tasks herself, partly as a challenge and partly to do her bit for the war effort. At the same time, she acted as local organiser for collections for St. Dunstan's and Dr Barnado's. Her views were always firmly and openly expressed. She derided, to their faces, those among her friends who couldn't make do on the rationing system when we so ingeniously succeeded. As a wartime cyclist, mother was appalled by and scornful to, those who contrived to keep their cars running while she was transporting anything from groceries to live chicks or rabbits in a bicycle basket.
In retrospect, this total responsibility and ceaseless work, for a not particularly robust woman in her late thirties and early forties, and with a childhood history of asthma and allergy, was most remarkable. Later she did become a more or less chronic asthmatic and died quite suddenly in 1977 at the age of seventy-five.
Swanli and Berli, two of the Bennet-Clark goats, pictured with Margret
and Henry respectively. Photograph supplied by H.C. Bennet-Clark.
Once in Nottingham Margret Aithna had gone to Broadgate School and, when we moved south in 1945, she stayed briefly at Lenton Vicarage with the Skipper family while she finished off her school certificate. As she is five years older than me, it was I in 1940 cast in the role of Adolf Hitler by Margret, adopting the persona of Winston Churchill, who was shot in the mouth by a marble from a pop gun (the marble duly emerged somewhat less than pristine some 24 hours later). I, in my turn, quickly learnt to lip-speak, silently, to her lip-reading eyes insults that, across the dining room table, reduced her to a fury about which she could do nothing. The skills are still there and the need to communicate clearly with my sister has apparently caused me to enunciate rather exactly.
I (Henry Chalmers Bennet-Clark) was born in 1934 and my school days started at Nottingham in about 1938 at Mrs Dewsall-Skeggs1 day school on Derby Road. This was a very happy place where I learnt to read and write, some simple maths and a bit of French and Latin. From there, at 8, I was sent to Bramcote Hall as a day boy. The route took me on a -Barton bus through Beeston to the munitions factory at Chilwell, where virtually everyone else got out, up to the bottom of the school drive in Bramcote village. I was accompanied by mother on my first day but thereafter I was taken under the wing of Deidre, the bus conductor, who used to get quite solicitous if I missed her 8.15 bus. Among my contemporaries at Bramcote Hall was a son of the Barton Bus Co. and the son of Mr Parsons who had extensive gravel pits to the south of Beeston. Both these hero-parents had cars, Mr Barton's driven by a chauffeur and powered by coal gas from an enormous bag on the car's roof.
Although there was a war on, I only once or twice saw a warplane overhead – and these were British. By then I was an ace air-spotter and had the vital statistics of all allied and axis aircraft at my fingertips and longed to try out my knowledge. There were a few German night raids on Nottingham and the blackout was entire and enforced until early 1945 but, on the whole, Nottingham was a bit too far away for the Heinkels to reach and a bit peripheral as a strategic target. There were oil containing smoke generators all along the Derby Road in 1941 but I don't recall them being used. In Birch House we had empty oil drums filled with water and buckets filled with sand on every floor - incendiary bombs were more likely than HE bombs - and I suspect that my beloved childhood sandpit was not merely there for my entertainment.
Father was appointed Professor at Kings College London in the autumn of 1944, when allied victory in Europe was apparent and imminent, but the menace of the V1s and V2s was still very real. It took a further six or nine months before my parents found and bought a house in Weybridge. So we left Birch House after VE day but, as I recall, before the final surrender of Japan in August 1945. I was last in Nottingham about ten years ago, at some 'do' at the University and walked down through Lenton on my way to the station, only to find that what I had walked to see, Birch House, was, alas, no more!