Thursday 20 December 2018

Lawrence Rowntree – A Life in Letters (Part Two): ‘I have health & strength & can probably find some way of making myself useful at last, if I look for it.’

Written by Rosie Denton and Sally-Anne Shearn

Part one can be read here

‘I want to run over & have a talk with you sometime. I have been feeling more and more lately that I oughtn’t to be here.’ So began the letter that was to change the lives of Lawrence and his mother forever. It was January 1916 and Lawrence had been on active service with the Friends’ Ambulance Unit since the outbreak of war two years earlier. The FAU, a civilian volunteer ambulance service established by Quakers, provided vital medical support to the armed forces in extremely dangerous conditions and Laurie’s famous journal from this time, entitled ‘A Nightmare in Three Acts’, attests to the horrors he and his companions faced from their arrival in Dunkirk in October 1914. 

However by early 1915 Laurie was already beginning to have doubts about his vocation. In August 1914 he had written that he would do all he could, and offer himself ‘to what ever relief works are going,’ flatly rejecting the absolutist pacifism of some Quakers who refused to refused to play any part whatsoever in the war effort. ‘Although the horrors it entails are too great to be imagined, & one realises the wickedness of it all, still I consider it would be criminal to stand out & say “you have brought this war on your selves, I will do nothing.” For a medical student the FAU offered an honorable way to make a contribution to the war effort without engaging directly in armed conflict.

In January 1916, with military conscription looming and the war no closer to being won, he admitted to his mother that he was in the FAU rather than in the Army ‘because it was the only place that offered me the work I wanted, not because of my conscience, & I couldn’t go before a tribunal & say I was a conscientious objector.’ He goes on ‘I suppose everyone gets a call of some sort some time. I’ve been getting it for about nine months. I think it started when I met some men coming out of the trenches & I was in the car, but it’s been much stronger lately.’ He had waited ‘because I never felt before that I was really wanted, but now I am sure that I am more wanted there than here… Here am I, healthy & strong, doing work that any woman could do, when there is man’s work waiting.’ 

The letter to his mother in January 1916 in which Laurie first broached the subject of joining up.

We do not have Constance’s reply, but evidently she was as supportive of her son as she could be because Lawrence’s letter the following day begins ‘You really are an absolute brick, & you understand things better than anybody I know.’ He clearly felt great guilt for his decision and its impact on her however, adding ‘I am different to what you want me to be I know. I’m frightfully sorry, because I know it is an awful disappointment to thee, & I have tried to fall in with what you would like, but the call is too strong. It doesn’t go against my conscience: I wish it did, for thy sake, & if it did I would sooner die than do it.’ 

  Lawrence left the FAU the same month and enlisted in the army, just one of hundreds of Quakers to join the armed forces. After training, he returned to France in August 1916, this time as part of ‘C’ company of what would later become known as the Tank Corps. A month later Laurie was part of the first ever deployment of tanks in battle at Flers-Courcelette, part of the Battle of the Somme. His unit’s tank, nicknamed Creme de Menthe (film of the tank can be viewed here), took part in a successful attack on a sugar factory but Laurie was wounded and returned briefly to Britain to convalesce at Edinburgh’s Royal Infirmary where his recent deployment aroused a great deal of curiosity; ‘The old tanks seem to be creating a lot of interest. Nobody knows anything detailed about them & it is amusing to hear some of the extraordinary things they say.’ It was during his time at Edinburgh that Laurie decided to apply for a commission, subsequently becoming a 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal Field Artillery. 

His letters from the Front between 1916 and 1917 are frequent and detailed, despite the occasional liberal application of the censor’s black ink. They show his characteristic sense of humour. Of his regular post from York he wrote in 1916: ‘The postal staff have got into the habit of expecting at least one for me every day & they weep bitter tears of disappointment if there isn’t. The record was sustained yesterday by one which arrived in a state of decomposition. In fact it looked as if it had been in a rather bad railway smash & arrived marked ‘died of wounds’. We gave it a decent burial, but no one present recognized the deceased. No inquest.’ In December that year he wrote that ‘Christmas day went off as well as we expected. Luckily we didn’t expect much because we didn’t get much.’ In a letter to his adventurous little sister Jean in early 1917 he simply added the postscript ‘P.S. Whatever you do, don’t.’ 

These flashes of humour belied the terrible strain of everyday life on the Western Front. Laurie writes of the discomfort of lice, trench foot and having to sleep in a gas mask during his stints in the trenches. After one such duty in August 1917 he wrote that it was ‘blessed peace coming back to a tent & green grass after rabbit warrens & mud & everlasting smell.’ In October he reported that he and his companions had got a gramophone going ‘to try & cheer us up’, expressing the hope that the war would not last out the winter. 

 However by November he seemed less optimistic, writing of poor weather and how everyone was ‘tired and ill’. On the 8th of that month, after another turn of duty on the front line, he wrote ‘it has been so bad that it was really impossible to write. I have practically done without sleep & altogether done without any sort of a wash.’ On his return to the wagon lines he was knocked down by a car and although it did no serious damage he found it very difficult to walk as a result. He wrote longingly of family Christmases, noting on the 22 December 1916 that ‘they (whoever they are) say that the third time is lucky. This will make the third Yule-tide that I have been absent from the family board so at that rate next year I ought to be there.’ 

It was not to be. On Friday 30 November 1917, Constance met up with her sister-in-law Isabella. She remarked that she had not heard from Laurie for nearly a week. At the point, Constance said, she did not mind if it was good news or bad news, just so long as there was news. The following morning, she received a telegram: Lawrence Rowntree had been killed during the 3rd Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele) on 25 November 1917, just three months before his 23rd birthday 

Over the following weeks Constance received nearly 130 condolence letters. She kept them all tied up in an old writing paper folder. Almost all of the letters commented on Laurie’s kindness and his caring nature. Many remarked on Laurie’s great love for his mother. His housemother from prep school who had recalled Laurie’s first reaction to hearing of his father’s death as being “But who will look after my mother?” imagined that he had had the same reaction upon finding himself in heaven. She was not the only writer to imagine Laurie in heaven. A prominent American Quaker who had known Laurie’s father wrote to Constance: ‘You raised Laurie alone for 12 years. Now it is John’s turn. And when you to ascend unto Heaven, they will be there waiting for you: the man you loved and the man you created together’. Constance’s best friend Winnie took a more practical approach, offering to have the then 12-year-old Jean to stay both immediately or over the upcoming Christmas holidays if it would help. Perhaps the most heartbreaking letter came from one of Constance’s childhood friends. She described Laurie as a kind and thoughtful young man, and she recalled her favourite memory of Laurie when, as a teenager, he had helped his mother host Christmas dinner. She offered her support and prayers. Then, at the bottom of the page, she simply wrote: ‘P.S. We have both now lost three apiece. Let’s not lose any more.’ 

A letter of condolence from Laurie's FAU comrades.

After receiving news of Laurie’s death his friend Roger Derby drove straight to Constance’s house to retrieve Laurie’s documents as he had promised. He subsequently wrote a series of four letters to Constance from different parts of the country explaining what he had done on Laurie’s behalf. This included selling Laurie’s Cambridge flat and furniture, collecting Tony from a friend’s house in Edinburgh, organising for Laurie’s bank account to be closed, and coordinating with the army for the return of Laurie’s belongings. In the final letter he writes that, with Dorothy’s permission, he has taken one of Laurie’s coats and a pair of gloves, as well as a photo of Laurie and Dorothy together that Laurie kept on his bedside table. He writes 'I will return them if you would like, but I would so like to have the photo to remember him by.'

Laurie and Dorothy

Constance wrote to Dorothy, Laurie’s fiancée, immediately after receiving the telegram, but she had already heard the news from Margaret, Laurie’s sister and Dorothy’s roommate. In her reply to Constance, whom she called her ‘other Mother’, she wrote that it was terrible news but not wholly unexpected. She was grateful for the time she and Laurie had had together and thanked Constance for ‘giving me your son, the most precious gift you could bestow,’ adding that she would aim to live a life worthy of Laurie so that when they met again in Heaven he would be proud of her. 

Three days letter, Dorothy wrote a second letter. This one read simply: 

Dear Other Mother,

This is far harder than I thought it would be, and I think I need my family around me. Could I come and stay?

Thy Other Daughter

A letter from Roger confirms that he drove to London to collect her the following morning.

Laurie’s other close friend, Richard, was serving in the trenches at the time and didn’t hear of his death until over a month later. It was only while on leave in Paris that he bumped into an old friend and was told the terrible news. He wrote to Constance immediately, apologising firstly for the delay and secondly for not knowing how to write a condolence letter, yet his letter is one of the most heartfelt that Constance received. He wrote that he frequently imagined life after the war. He daydreamed about returning to Cambridge and completing his medical degree, and envisioned his life beyond Cambridge. He had had many variations on this daydream, but in every single one of them Laurie was there with him. While Richard had considered that he personally might not survive the war, it had never even occurred to him that Laurie might not and he struggled to imagine a future without him. 

Richard did survive the war. He did indeed return to Cambridge and complete his studies. Roger also survived the war, despite returning briefly to France. He later invested in the railways, married and had a large family. Dorothy later married the brother of her another school roommate and went on to have two children. Margaret married only a month after Laurie’s death. It’s not clear if Laurie ever met her soon-to-be husband, but hopefully he would have approved of him! Tony also married in 1925. She continued to write through much of her life, and some of her scrapbooks and journals also survive in the Borthwick archives. True to Laurie’s word, they are funny and entertaining, and tell you precisely nothing about what she was actually doing on a day to day basis. 

It was Jean, however, who led perhaps the most adventurous life of the remaining siblings. After obtaining a history degree from Somerville College, Oxford, she briefly became a teacher but took a sabbatical in 1938 to help Jews and other vulnerable refugees fleeing the newly Nazi occupied Sudetenland.   This was, after all, the girl who had attempted to shoot down zeppelins from the roof of her house with an air rifle. Following her return to England in 1940 Jean joined the BBC. She served as a producer of educational programming for many years, retiring in the 1970s. A great advocate of education for all, she was instrumental in setting up the Open University and received an OBE in 1962.  Like Tony, she kept scrapbooks and journals throughout her life. She died in 2003, aged 97. 

Constance died in 1928 at the age of 56. True to her friend’s letter, her three remaining children all outlived her. 

But let’s not end with death. Instead, let’s end with and extract from my favourite of the letters Laurie wrote. On New Year’s Day 1917 Laurie wrote the following letter to the then 11 year old Jean: 

My Dear,

Happy New Year, and much good may it do you. I’m afraid I’ve been an awfully long time answering your letters and thanking you for the soap but I knew you wouldn’t mind my taking them in age order, and that way it takes some time to come round to you. When the only time one gets for writing is half an hour to an hour in the evening.

The soap was most acceptable. Thanks awfully. Also it was in a way a relief to get something that didn’t have to be eaten – at least I suppose some people might have eaten it, but I didn’t. I gave that up at the age of two in favour of more toothsome delicacies. 

You warned me not to eat too much turkey. Unnecessary, madam, for there was no turkey to eat. But you didn’t say anything about goose, so I ate too much of that. I got a lump of green stuff with it that I couldn’t make out until it struck me that it must be what they make pate de foie gras out of. Which as a luxury I consider to be overrated, besides entailing a certain amount of cruelty in its production. 

You haven’t told me if your heart is yearning particularly over anything in the shape of a Christmas present. If it is, acquaint me with the object. It will have to continue to yearn for a little while I’m afraid, but at the first possible opportunity it shall be procured if money can buy it. That last condition does not necessarily hold true. Don’t request an elephant or anything else of a ridiculous nature… 

Thy Loving Brother, 



A catalogue for the Lawrence Rowntree Archive will be available in early 2019.

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