Thursday 20 December 2018

Lawrence Rowntree - A Life in Letters (Part One)

Written by Rosie Denton

Those of you based in York may have already heard of Lawrence Edmund Rowntree, the subject of a recent exhibit at York Castle Museum which was covered in the York Press. For those to whom the name is unfamiliar, Lawrence (or Laurie as he was always known) was the son of John Wilhelm and Constance Rowntree, and the grandson of the famous chocolate-maker and philanthropist, Joseph Rowntree. Until now he has been best known for the journal he wrote while serving with the Friends Ambulance Unit during the First World War.

It is this journal that serves as the basis of the Castle Museum exhibit as well as a play based on his early wartime experiences that was performed at the museum in the summer of 2017. However in late 2017 the Borthwick Institute received a gift of more than 600 letters written by Lawrence to his mother Constance Rowntree. These reveal, in his own words, the fascinating story of his upbringing as part of York’s most famous family and his fateful decision to leave the Friends’ Ambulance Unit for active military service which led to his death at Passchendaele at the age of just 22.

Laurie was born in 1895, the only son of John Wilhelm Rowntree, who would himself die young at the age of 37 leaving a widow, Constance, and Laurie and his four sisters Margaret, Antoinette (Tony), Violet (who died aged 3), and Jean. The earliest letter surviving letter from Laurie dates from 1901 when he was just six years old. His parents were away from home, and Laurie wrote to his father to let him know that all the children were safe and happy. 

Shortly after this, Laurie and his sister Margaret were sent to live with a local tutor. While Laurie was occasionally persuaded to write to his parents during this time, these letters give the very clear impression that Laurie was relying on Margaret to pass on any important news, although he does proudly report any time their hosts let him drive the horses. One letter to his father gives a glimpse of the kind of education he was receiving. ‘I wrote down all five conjugations in Latin all by myself! Then he [the teacher] told me there are six conjugations. I’m not sure.’

Laurie started at boarding school in 1904. Over the next thirteen years he wrote to his mother at least twice a week. Initially writing from prep school, Laurie continued to write during his years studying at Bootham School in York, his year studying at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, and his brief spell at Cambridge University as a medical student. 

Some things remained constant over the thirteen years’ worth of letters. For one, Laurie was forever an athlete. His letters from school relate endless results of football, rugby, cricket, and swimming matches. Each year at Bootham School, each dorm would compete against the other dorms in a variety of sports. Laurie took this competition very seriously and updated his mother on the score after every match. While in America, Laurie attempted to play American football, but quickly decided he would rather support than play. At Cambridge, he joined the rowing team. Even when writing later from the trenches of World War One, he tells Connie about impromptu football games between the men - always being very careful to mention exactly which goals he scored.

Laurie also loved to ‘fix’ things. While in the junior years at Bootham School, Laurie and his friends became fixated with the idea of creating a hydroplane. For over a year, Laurie wrote about this hydroplane in every single letter to his mother. As the letters go on, he continues to explain why it is taking so long and why they need more money for a new part. Finally, Laurie writes that the hydroplane is almost finished and that he and his friends are planning to launch it on the river. He promises to send Constance all the details of exactly what happens, but the hydroplane is never mentioned again. A quick search through the Bootham School Archive revealed that the hydroplane sank as soon as it was put on the water! 

While in sixth form, Laurie purchased a motorbike without telling his mother. Again, he decided to try and ‘improve’ the motorbike, with varying levels of success. Eventually he was forced to give up, although a much later letter hints that Constance was now using the motorbike herself, despite her initial disapproval of the machine! Thankfully all this early experience served Laurie well. While serving with the Friends Ambulance Unit, he was using his grandfather’s Daimler car as an ambulance. Unfortunately, the Daimler was not cut out to be driven on such poor or non-existent roads, nor was it used to being driven so regularly. It broke down often, and Laurie was forced to rely on all his earlier engineering experience to keep it going.

Reading these letters, it is also possible to watch Laurie grow up, and nowhere is this more evident than in his sign-off. The early letters are signed ‘Thy very loving little son’ with the word ‘very’ underlined multiple times. When he started secondary school, Laurie dropped the word ‘little’. By the time he had reached sixth form, the ‘very’ had also disappeared. While serving on the western front, Laurie’s letters became quite hurried, and the word ‘loving’ also disappears, leaving simply ‘Thy son.’ However, there is one letter written in early 1917 in which Laurie signs himself ‘Thy very loving little son.’ He then crosses out ‘little’ and adds underneath 'sorry – nostalgic habit!'

Laurie and his mother were clearly very close. In 1917 the housemother from Laurie’s school would recall that when he was told of his father’s death in March 1905, his first response was ‘But who will look after my mother?’ His letters from school show frequent concern for her health, in one he sends sympathy for her hay fever, adding with concern ‘Please don’t let him cut off your nose, as you said he was going to. I’m sure it will get better without that. And besides, it would hurt.’ 

Out of his three sisters, Laurie was especially close to his older sister Margaret. Margaret was at the Mount School in York, so as soon as Laurie started at Bootham Margaret arranged regular visits between the two of them. Laurie refers to the two of them visiting relatives together, going for walks around York, or attending social events at each other’s schools. When Margaret began to collect a series of beaus and fiancées, none of them quite met with his approval. In a letter from 1912, he wrote scathingly of Margaret’s latest romantic entanglement. In the next letter, he apologises profusely and takes back all earlier comments. However, on a separate sheet of paper with ‘DO NOT SHOW MARGARET’ written in capitals across the top, he writes that he will make enquiries about this mysterious fiancée (a missionary from Tasmania who none of the family had ever met) amongst other Quakers. 

Laurie's sisters Jean and Tony.

During the war, Margaret moved to London to help with the war effort. While at officer training camp, Laurie couldn’t often get home to Yorkshire, but he did make regular trips to London to visit Margaret. While in France, Laurie didn’t get much time to write letters, but when he did there was a strict order in which he wrote them. Margaret was third after his fiancée and his mother.

Tony photographed by Lawrence on a family holiday in  1914
Shortly after Margaret left the Mount School, Laurie’s younger sister Tony started there. Now it was Laurie’s turn to organise familial visits. He took Tony to tea in town, as well as to visit the full cohort of nearby relatives. He even put up with what he referred to as her ‘group of giggling girls.’ After Laurie left Bootham, the two siblings began to correspond regularly. The pair of them had seen Peter Pan together as young children, and it had clearly made an impression. They kept a close eye on the career of Pauline Chase (who had played Peter), and often make references to the play in their letters. Laurie wrote from America that he thoroughly enjoyed receiving Tony’s letters; they were funny, well-written, and entertaining, yet managed to tell the reader precisely nothing at all about what was going on in her life.

'Better a girl than none' - Laurie's verdict on
the birth of Jean.
Laurie’s youngest sister was born in 1905. Upon hearing of her birth, Laurie wrote to his mother ‘As I have had opportunity to say twice before – better a girl than none.’ He was clearly delighted at the idea of having another sibling, and suggested that she be called Cello. Perhaps understandably, Constance decided not to name her new baby after a musical instrument, but instead named the child Jean. As a teenager, Laurie complained about having to write to the young Jean, a decade his junior. ‘She’s just so little I don’t know what to say,’ he wrote. While Laurie was in America, the then seven-year-old Jean started to write back to him. Much like Tony’s letters, Laurie wrote that he enjoyed receiving them, but they only spoke of ‘childish nonsense’ and gave him no real news. However, by 1915 it’s clear the siblings were very fond of each other and perhaps the most similar of the four. For her tenth birthday, Jean requested a crossbow. She wanted to be able to shoot down the German zeppelins from the roof of their house. Laurie sent her an air rifle, explaining to his mother that it was simply the duty of older brothers to encourage their younger sisters.

Popular with his peers, two names feature frequently in Laurie’s letters to his mother: Roger Derby and Richard, whose surname is unfortunately not mentioned. Roger starts to appear in Laurie’s letters very shortly after Laurie arrived at Bootham School. He was a young lad of exactly Laurie’s age, who came from a prominent Quaker family in the south west. The two shared a dorm and were both determined to win the inter-house tournament. Later, when they no longer shared a room, often be entered for all the same events, but were quite happy so long as one of them won. They were clearly close and Roger was often invited to spend the shorter school holidays with Laurie. Aged eighteen, the two of them went on a motorcycling trip of the UK. Unfortunately, they did not get very far before Roger’s motorcycle broke beyond repair and the two were forced to return to Roger’s family in Bristol. The two lost contact for a couple of years after school, but were reunited when they joined the same section of the Friends’ Ambulance Service. It was a happy reunion, and once again news of Roger begins to fill Laurie’s letters. Roger did not join up when Laurie did, but returned to England as a Conscientious Objector. As such, Laurie made Roger the executor for his will, and asked Roger to take care of his family should anything happen to him.

Richard and Laurie became friends while both serving as prefects at Bootham School and became virtually inseparable. They shared both a bedroom and a prefect office. The two stayed close during Laurie’s studies at Haverford in the USA. Despite the 3000 miles between them, Laurie writes news of Richard in pretty much every letter to his mother. When Laurie arrived at Cambridge, Richard was already studying there. He had organised Laurie’s accommodation for him, and introduced him to the local Quaker community. Richard and Laurie were together when the outbreak of war was declared. Constance and Jean were on holiday in Austria at the time, and Laurie and Richard frantically worked with Laurie’s grandfather and Uncle Duncan to get them home safely. Richard stayed on with the family, and he and Laurie took the decision to join the Friends’ Ambulance Service together. Once again, they shared a bedroom. Richard joined the army shortly before Laurie and ended up serving in a different part of France, so the two were separated. However, whenever they were in the vicinity of each other, they always made sure to meet up, and Laurie always describes these meetings with joy.

Constance knew all of Laurie’s acquaintances at least by name. Unfortunately, this makes things rather tricky for the modern reader, as they often refer to people simply by initials. While at prep school, Laurie was forced to share a dorm with a boy named Pumphrey, who Laurie described as ‘quite the softest ass I have ever met.’ The two boys despised each other, and when Pumphrey enrolled at Bootham just a year after Laurie, he does little to hide his disgust. Fortunately, Bootham was a larger school than Colwall, and the two boys were able to largely avoid each other. Many year later, when Laurie joined the Friends’ Ambulance Unit, he was serving under a man known as P. J., who Laurie respected greatly. It in only on the Christmas dinner menu from 1914 signed by all the men of the unit that it becomes clear that P. J. is Pumphrey! It’s nice to know the two boys worked out their differences in the end.

Pumphrey's signature on the 1914 'War Dinner' menu

Lawrence and Dorothy
However the most important person in Laurie’s life during this time was Dorothy Cross; Tony’s old roommate and one of the ‘group of giggling girls.’ The two first started a romantic relationship when Laurie was eighteen and Dorothy was fourteen. Like Laurie, Dorothy was an athlete and her name appears on many of the Mount School sports awards from this time. She was also a committed Quaker like Laurie. Their relationship continued throughout Laurie’s time in America and Cambridge. In 1913 Laurie mentioned that Tony had written to him about a party held at the Mount School, noting that Dorothy looked very pretty – ‘As if I didn’t already know that!’ 

Dorothy moved to London during the war (she and Margaret shared a house for a while) and briefly assisted with the Red Cross in Belgium. She and Laurie were in constant contact and Dorothy was the first person Laurie wrote to whenever he had spare time. In 1916 he wrote to his mother to request she help him buy ‘an opal ring.’ She had it sent to him and he proposed to Dorothy shortly after while on leave in London. She accepted and the next letter Laurie wrote to Constance was brimming with joy and excitement. 

The two initially decided not to marry until after the war. However, many of their friends and acquaintances tried to talk them out of this, and the two wrestled with the idea of marrying while Laurie was on leave. In late 1917, Laurie wrote a letter to his mother while on leave in York. At the end, he briefly writes ‘Mrs L.E. Rowntree sends her love in buckets. Did I tell you we were married this morning?’ However, this is all that Laurie ever writes on the topic, and no marriage certificate has been found, so it remains a mystery!

Read part two here

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