Contented to be a Victorian belonging to an age which still believed in progress, material and social

While digging through some old files, I found this family history written by my great-grandfather, James Tod, in the 1940s.  While I’m probably biased, I found it a fascinating account of growing up in the late Victorian era. It casts a very interesting light into a world very different from our own:


Retyped by Susan Pomeroy. Scanned by her nephew, Martin Tod.


There is nothing truer than the saying that when you are young, you live in the future and when you are old, in the past, or, as Joel has it, “Your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions”. I have had my visions and now I have my dreams.

Every one of us has, as I see it, three Egos. The first is known only to God, the second is what we imagine ourselves to be, and the third what others see of us. The first I cannot, and the second I do not wish to disclose, and the third can only be written by others.

When I think of the past I am surprised how little I know of my forebears and how much I should like to know. And as the time will come when the younger generation would like to know what happened before their time, I am trying to put down my reminiscences so as to link up past and present as far as my memory allows.

I can never stress sufficiently how fortunate I have been. How much love and affection I had as a child and how generously I was treated as a young man. I have been very fortunate in having had on the whole congenial work and plenty of it. I was trained in an atmosphere where work and duty came first but not in a commercial atmosphere, which looks at money making as the chief end of man.

I remember one lesson I had. When I went to Rochdale, Kelsall & Kemp were already the largest flannel mill in the world. I set to double the size and in a few years this was done. I remember going through the figures, the output was just double, profits had risen to some extent but not in the same proport­ion, and one’s worries had more than doubled. I remember wondering whether it had really been worth while.

On the other hand, I have never seriously regretted the step I took during the last war (the first world war), when the War Office asked me to do certain work for them which meant my giving up all my income and my business prospects. After all, it was not as great a sacrifice as that made by those in the front line. I had enough to live on and had no desire to be a war profiteer. I still remember the feeling had of walking on air that, instead of living half for oneself and half for the war, it was now everything for the war effort.

I am quite contented to be a Victorian belonging to an age which still believed in progress, material and social. We should be called strait-laced nowadays, but I think that that is preferable to no lacing at all, which is the fashion in these times.

In my twenties I often regretted that I had not had a public school education, but the training I had in the engineering works, mixing with all kinds, coupled with Aunt Hedi’s influence (for she was a clever and intellectual woman) during the formative years of my life, more than made up for this loss.

Faith was comparatively easy for me because I was brought up under the influence of those who showed their beliefs in their life and everyday conduct, and I have seen it in different spheres. In the Kemp family, two of the daughters went out to China and spent their lives working for the Chinese. While I remember one of our workers in Rochdale, a woman, who being delicate could not work in the mill and earned about ten shillings a week working at home, gave up her one and only bedroom to an old neighbour to save her from being sent to the workhouse, sleeping on the couch in her one living-room. Put those were extremes and on the whole human nature has not changed though circumstances have.

A brave new world is envisaged and no doubt much can be improved if, and only if, foundations are sound. The only foundation that will stand is based on the Golden Rule: but the old couplet still holds –

“If only the good were clever
And only the clever were good
The world would be better than ever
We possibly thought that it could.
But alas it is seldom or never
Those two agree as they should
For the good are so hard on the clever
And the clever so rude to the good.”[1]


Our forebears were, I believe, small yeoman farmers in East Lothian. My great grandfather[2] lived in Ormiston[3], a village about ten miles from Edinburgh, where he was the village baker. I was always told that he lived in the traditional two-roomed cottage, the “but and ben”; I only wish that I had asked where he found room for the bakery and the shop, to say nothing of his eleven children. That he must have been successful follows from the only anecdote I was ever told about him: only once did he ever sleep out of his own bed, and that was when he made a journey to Greenock to buy a shipload of wheat, when he spent three days away from home. The fact that he was able to buy this quantity, even though the ship was no doubt a small one, shows that he must have had some standing in business. The “but and ben” is an incredibly small cottage; the “but” (be out) being the kitchen and the “ben” (be in) the inner or living room. The beds that I have seen were press beds, with doors that closed so that the bed was as it were in a cupboard. The usual Scottish expression inviting you into a house is to this day[4] “come awa’ ben”.

There must have been something out of the ordinary in the old village baker, or in his wife, Marion Gray, or most probably in both of them; for all his ten children (one died young) received a good start in life, of which they took full advantage. They all “made good” and when I knew them, lived in comfortable surroundings in and around Edinburgh. The eldest son, Alexander, and his youngest brother, Robert, were I imagine apprenticed as bakers; when I first knew them, they had large flour mills which are still a feature in Leith[5]. Though we children heard little mention of money, I can remember being told that they had made £70,000 in one year; I was told at the same time that they might lose just as much another year. But the ups must have been greater than the downs, for on their death, one left a quarter and the other half a million. Alexander was the only brother who did not marry. As a young man he fell violently in love with a farmer’s daughter; there was a clandestine courtship, but the farmer, finding out, objected strongly to his daughter marrying a penniless young man and would not allow the match. Alexander never looked at anyone else. I remember going to see him at his villa in Peebles where he spent his time fishing and collecting water colours.

The brothers indulged in family partnerships, for my grandfather, James, of whom more anon, and his brother John founded the firm of John and James Tod (Later adding & Sons Ltd) which is today, I fancy, the largest firm of provision merchants in the East of Scotland; and the brothers George and Andrew went into tobacco and had a business in Glasgow (Stephen Mitchell & Co) which is now part of the Imperial Tobacco Co. They sold out quite early in life and retired to Edinburgh. We used to like going to see Uncle George and Aunt Sarah when we were children, he was full of fun and she always produced some ginger wine and a cake, and made us welcome. That they had no children was no doubt a disappointment to them. Paul, as a small boy, was taken to see Aunt Sarah, who sur­vived her husband for many years. He may not remember but his mother says that she will never forget how he ran out of the room saying that he couldn’t bear the smell! Fresh air was not the fetish of those days that it is now. Uncle Andrew I saw rarely, he and his wife Aunt Mary were much more prim and proper; perhaps the possession of thirteen children may have a sobering effect on one’s character. However, there were compensations for his brother-in-law, John Kennedy, who went out to America as a boy with the proverbial half-crown in his pocket, died after building innumerable miles of railway, and left his fortune to charities after leaving legacies of a million sterling to his sister and another million among his nephews and nieces.

The remaining brother, William, I never saw, he was manager of a bank in Edinburgh and died while I was quite young. Nor did I ever see the sisters, two of whom married and lived in Edinburgh, the husband of one being that rara avis, a sculptor.

I always thought that the brothers were very much alike in temperament and character. To take my grandfather as example, for he was the only one I knew well, he was keenly interested in religion and politics, an elder of the United Presbyterian Church and a keen Liberal. The day that Gladstone came to have tea at his house was a red letter day in his life[6]. He had a quiet sense of humour but I never heard him laugh wholeheartedly; he was always the father or the grandfather, never the boy; reserved, shrewd and careful, but not mean. When I lived in Edinburgh I used to go and see him in Dalkeith every two or three weeks and always got a tip (anything from a shilling to half-a-crown). He read little apart from the “Scotsman”, but then the years of adolescence are the years when the reading habit is formed and he was too busy making his way to have much time for reading then.

He rarely reminisced, though I remember one occasion when he told me that he was apprenticed to Adam Melrose, one of the leading grocers in Edinburgh. He lived in, and rations being scarce he used to supplement them on occasions by helping himself to some butter from the shop. One day as he was having his tea, he heard one of the bosses coming, so he had quickly to slap it on to the underside of the table. Fortunately for him it stuck and he was able to retrieve it when the crisis was over.

When living in Edinburgh, he and his brothers used frequently to walk the ten miles to Ormiston on the Saturday evening and back on the Sunday evening, so as to be ready for work an Monday morning, for there were several of them who were apprenticed about the same time, in various places in Edinburgh.

One other anecdote of this period of his life I heard from my Uncle William. A friend of my grandfather, who afterwards became his brother-in-law, was studying in Edinburgh for the Presbyterian ministry. My grandfather who was fond of going to the theatre took William Peddie with him to a play. It was the first time that he had ever been in a theatre. A short time later William came to my grandfather in a great state of mind. He was so much attracted by the theatre that he had gone every night for a week and he felt that if this went on he would have to give up all idea of becoming a minister. My grand­father was much concerned and made a bargain with him that neither would ever go inside a theatre again. This promise was kept by both. I remember old Dr. Peddie when I was a youngster, he and his son together created a record as they were ministers in the same church for 125 years, the son being his father’s assistant for a long time, which made this record possible.

The town of Dalkeith is six miles out of Edinburgh on the road to Ormiston. There lived the Grays; old John Gray, my grandfather’s grandfather, had a grocer’s business there, a shop and a wholesale business in the villages round about, and his son, Young John, was in it too. Young John was a bachelor, very dependent on his mother. History has it that once upon a time he fell down­stairs and hurt his ankle. A friend coming in asked him how his foot was. He at once called out to his mother who was not in the room, “Mither, hoos ma fit?”.

My grandfather, when his apprenticeship was over, went into his business and lived in Dalkeith for the rest of his life, some fifty years. In early days he used to travel on horseback all round the countryside, collecting orders and cash, for it was long before the days of cheques. He had long boots and carried his money in them, for there were many highwaymen on the roads.


Of my grandfather’s bachelor life in Dalkeith I know nothing, but it cannot have lasted for long, for he married young. My grandmother, Mary Gray, was his first cousin, the daughter of Gray, a farmer in Gilmerton, a village on the road to Edinburgh. Where they lived to begin with I do not know, but before long they must have moved to Eskbank House, in the residential suburb of Dalkeith called Eskbank, for it was there they brought up their family of four sons and three daughters, which remained the centre of the family circle for the best part of fifty years. It was there my grandfather and grandmother died.

I first remember Eskbank House in the very early eighties. I think my grandfather was just as pleased with his house then as he was when he had bought it about thirty years before; he was very proud of his family and this, together with his business on weekdays and church on Sundays, satisfied him.

The house was roomy but not very large, set in a few acres of parkland, rough grass and large trees, with a pony and a cow grazing anywhere at will. Visitors were sometimes rather alarmed at seeing a horse galloping around, but as the grass was cut near the house, the animals preferred as a rule, but not always, to keep away from the house.

I knew the house very well, for not only was it our usual rendezvous for the summer holidays, but I was sent there for some months on two occasions. At one time (I was eight or nine) I developed a mastoid and a gland on my neck was badly swollen and I was sent there to run wild for a time. As my parents believed in faith healing, I had had no doctoring. When I got to Eskbank, the local doctor prescribed a poultice and I wore a handkerchief tied round my head under which was either a mess of porridge or else a rasher of fat bacon. Who had the benefit of the rashers after. I had finished with them, I never found out. Eventually the swelling came to a head and my grandmother took it in hand. I was promised a shilling if I was good while it was lanced with a pair of scissors and then squeezed out. The operation began well but it refused to be evacuated altogether and, as the job was supposed to be only half done, I had to be content with sixpence.

A year or two later I had another spell at Eskbank. I had overgrown my strength, having put on five inches in seven months. I actually grew an inch in less than a month. There was little room at home and not much to do, so again I was sent away from school.

The house was on three floors, the kitchen was in a half-basement. A large stone-floored room with a fat good-natured cook, Ellen. I used to watch the roasting jack slowly turning backwards and forwards in front of the range. Then once a week there was the butter-making and every morning the porridge, which had to be ready punctually for breakfast at 7.30. The only time when Ellen and I did not see eye to eye, was when she found me in the dairy taking too much interest in the cream that was setting. Then she used anything that was handy and I made a bolt for it. Still, she was a good soul, she carried no tales, and in a day or two we were good friends again.

Beside the kitchen there was a bedroom where all the three servants slept, and a laundry. I loved the old box mangle; a huge box full of stones on a wooden bed about the size of a small billiard table. Between the box and the bed were wooden rollers which revolved as the box was moved by a large wheel first in one direction and then in the other. The washing was wrapped round the rollers, covered by a length of hessian. After a few minutes of turning, the pieces of washing were taken off and others put on.

The front door was reached by a broad flight of steps, there were two windows on the left, the parlour, and two windows on the right, the dining-room. In these two rooms the family lived and moved and had their being. The parlour was the breakfast room, after breakfast was cleared, the room became a work­room; the table could he used for messes of all kinds. The dining-room was used for all other meals and as the living room. Only on state occasions was the drawing-room, on the floor above, used; for a wedding or a party. Otherwise it was unused for months at a time. There was the grand piano and a variety of chairs of all shapes and sizes, mostly uncomfortable, for it contained no easy chairs as we know them today. The feature of the dining-room was a large dining table, a large mahogany sideboard and two large presses in the wall occupied one end of the room. My grandmother sat in a horsehair rocking-chair at one side of the fire and my grandfather in a horsehair armchair at the other side, except for a large uncomfortable sofa, all the other chairs were hard and horsehairy. The only other piece of furniture of consequence, was a small pipe organ which was not often used.

Apart from these living rooms, there were half a dozen bedrooms and two dressing rooms which were used as bedrooms when required.

This was the house as I remember it in the early eighteen eighties, and I do not think that there had been many changes during the thirty odd years previously. It was there that he and his cousin Mary Gray had brought up their family of four sons and three daughters. There were in order of birth, James, John (my father), Janet, Marion (or Minnie as she was always called), Alexander, William and Mary. Of the early days of the children I know practically nothing. Uncle James and my father both went to the High School in Edinburgh, riding the six miles there and the six miles back on their ponies in all weathers. The education was thorough, though limited in its scope; the idea still ruling being that education was mainly based on the Latin grammar. It was rather later that the High School had a celebrated rector (as the Head Master was called), named Marshall, his father was the stationmaster at the neighbouring station of Dalhousie. The old stationmaster naturally used the vernacular on all ordinary occasions, but modified it to suit his audience. As he walked along the plat­form he called out “Dalhousie” as he passed the first class, “Dalhoosie” when passing the seconds, and “Dawassie” when he came to the third class.

After schooldays were over the two boys were sent to Charleroi to learn French for a short time and then went as a matter of course into their father’s business, and in a few years the two went into business as tea merchants in the City of London. It was a mistake, they were neither of them fitted for commercial life.

I shall never forget my father’s remark when he at last retired: “I have had fifty years of business and hated every day of it”.

Of the early life of my aunts, I know nothing. They married young. Janet married William Forbes[7], a minister, and became the mother of Edwin, Elsie and Jessie. The Forbes lived in Edinburgh until my uncle’s death, when my aunt, with her young family, moved to Eskbank, living in a house the garden door of which opened into the grounds of Eskbank House. Aunt Minnie married Richard Hunter, a Glasgow merchant on the same day (November 9th 1875) that my father and mother were married. Charles Hunter, the only living son, lives at Glentyan, Kilbarchan, where his father and mother lived before him.

The youngest, Aunt Mary, married John Boyd about four or five years later. I can just remember the occasion, being hoisted up on to some uncle’s shoulder and getting a glimpse of the bride in her veil, standing in front of the fire-place with the groom. The wedding took place in the drawing-room according to the Scottish custom.

The two younger boys followed in their older brothers’ footsteps, riding into Edinburgh to school, but they were sent, not to the High School, but to the Edinburgh Institution, a school now defunct. Instead of Belgium, they were sent to Rolle, near the Lake of Geneva, to learn French, to some old schoolmaster who took pupils. When they came home, Alexander went to A. & R. Tod’s flour mills and William went into his father’s business; the two older sons had by this time been set up in business as tea merchants in London. Alexander married Mary Whipp, whose people had cotton mills in Lancashire, and when I was still a small boy, he went into business with his brothers-in-law and lived in Didsbury, near Manchester. He died many years ago but Aunt Mary is still alive and lives in Wilmslow (at the time James wrote this). Edward Tod[8] was their only son; after many years of struggle in the cotton trade, he saw the family mills go one after another. Today he is market-gardening in Cheshire.

My youngest uncle, William, was the last to marry and lived with his parents at Eskbank in my early days; eventually in 1887 he married Hedwig, my mother’s youngest sister. To them I owe everything, for in 1889, on my mother’s death, they practically adopted me and I lived with them in Edinburgh for seven years.

I have very happy recollections of Eskbank House, which was my second home, and of my grandparents, particularly my grandmother. I can see her now, always in a black dress with a white cap and usually a white cashmere shawl over her shoulders. It was a very happy and devoted family circle. She was always the same, I have never known her raise her voice or become flurried. She must have been a good manager, for everything seemed to run smoothly and without friction, and however many visitors turned up and however hungry we grandchildren were, there always was enough and to spare.

My grandfather was not nearly so calm, I often got into trouble with him and felt the riding switch across my shoulders; still, I preferred this to the slipper which my father used on a more tender part of my anatomy.

My grandfather led a very regular life. It began early, breakfast at 7.30, and we all had to be punctual, no excuses were accepted. At ten minutes past eight, Thomas Cathie, the factotum, brought the pony phaeton to the door and my grandfather drove down to the shop and after a few minutes, he drove either to Dalkeith or Eskbank station to catch the train to Leith, where J & J had their headquarters. We did not see him again until the evening. The shop was the apple of his eye; the younger generation did not care for it, as the firm had become a wholesale business and customers took objection to the firm competing with them. But it was only on my grandfather’s death that the shop was sold.

We had the day to ourselves, but there was plenty for the grandchildren to do, there were usually some brothers or some cousins there. Trees to he climbed, houses to he built, the river Esk was close by and we would try out some home-made canoe. Then there was Peggie the pony, kept for the grandchildren, and we rode all round the neighbouring country. Thomas Cathie would find something for us to do; or else we could go and make friends with John Kirk, the local engine driver, who drove the local train from Dalkeith to Edinburgh and back, and used to let us drive the engine when he was shunting at Dalkeith station. And then above all there was the shop. We would go down to Dalkeith and would slip upstairs to the rooms where the sweets were kept, or the sugar, or the raisins and sultanas. But this was forbidden ground and when the manager found us we were soon chased out.

This free and easy life which we enjoyed went on for six days a week, but on Saturday evening we often heard the rhyme repeated:

Put away your toys and play,
For tomorrow is the Sabbath Day.

Sunday was a day of prohibitions, no shouting or whistling, no running, even walking was prohibited. We were not even allowed to walk about the grounds.

We were only allowed to read certain books and our recreation was limited to making out lists of all the animals or trees mentioned in the Bible or something of that nature. In the morning we all had to get ready to go to church, the blinds were drawn in the sitting-rooms and the whole household set out for church.

The only relaxation allowed in church was a “poke of sweeties” which my grandfather produced just before the sermon began, everyone had one and we tried to make it last as long as possible, but it came to an end long before the sermon ended, for it was never less than half-an-hour and often much longer than that. When the service was over and we had walked home all together, the blinds were drawn and we had dinner and then spent the afternoon in the way I have described.

I did not enjoy these Sundays but I did not hate them, I merely accepted them as being the established order of things. I think that we grandchildren all recog­nised how sincere and single-minded our grandparents were and that there was nothing formal or hypocritical in their conduct.

I have already told how he gave up theatre going, in addition he became a teetotaller and was a non-smoker, and his children all followed his example. my Uncle William was most strict over these observances, with the one exception that whenever he went on to the continent, he drank wine as a matter of course, because in his opinion water in any continental town was not fit to drink. Uncle William was fond of games, and used to improvise cricket matches for us whenever there were enough of us children available. But the most of his spare time was spent at a Mission room which he had started in one of the closes (or back alleys) of Dalkeith. On Sunday evenings there was a religious service for children at six, followed by a service for adults. Hardly any of those who came were church-goers. We often went to the children’s service, (there were) perhaps a hundred children, most of them in rags and without shoes or stockings. This, of course, was before the days of Boys’ Brigades or scouts, when nothing was done for these slum children and they had nothing to do except to run wild on the streets. During the week there were Band of Hope meetings and a Penny Bank to encourage the people to save.

Eskbank House remained the central point of the family until the early nineties, when first my grandmother and then my grandfather died. The house was sold for a Roman Catholic convent and the land was all built over.


My mother’s people were originally peasants, yeoman farmers we should call them in this country, who lived in Holstein[9], which was then in Denmark. The only trace of them in the seventeenth century is a silver bowl[10] which I have, which has been handed down for about 300 years and goes to the eldest son on his marriage. Carsten Niebuhr, my great-great-grandfather, was trained as a lawyer[11] and entered the Danish civil service as a young man, in the first half of the eighteenth century. He was invited to form one of a scientific expedition which the King of Denmark proposed to send to Arabia. After several years spent in learning astronomy, surveying and other subjects, he and his fellow travellers set out for Arabia, which was then unexplored. The expedition spent several years in the East and all the members except Carsten died there. He returned via India and eventually settled down in his own province of Friesland where he lived at Meldorf in Ditmarschen, being in charge of the civil affairs of the district. His only son, Barthold, was born in Copenhagen, and was educated mainly by his father. Barthold, who was a devoted son, wrote an inter­esting monograph of his father, which I have translated for the sake of the mono­glots of the family[12].

Barthold, as we know, became famous all over Europe, both as a statesman and a historian. I have translated an appreciation of him[13], which was given in Bonn University on the centenary of his death in 1831. Very briefly, he entered the Danish service and had banking experience in Copenhagen. In 1812, when Prussia was overrun by Napoleon, Barthold joined von Stein in his efforts to rebuild the Prussian state, dealing with various matters of finance. Later on he became Prussian ambassador to the Vatican and lived in Rome for a number of years.

After his time in Rome, he was appointed as a professor in the Rhenish University of Bonn, where he lectured and wrote his History of Rome.

Niebuhr was the first of the modern critical school of historians. Instead of collating traditions, many of which were incorrect, he went back to original sources as far as possible, in order to get at the truth.

Barthold was a man of high character and of great scholarship. He had a marvellous memory, learning twenty languages before he was thirty.

He had one son, Marcus, and three daughters I know very little about[14]. My grandfather spent most of his childhood in Rome where he was educated by tutors. I fancy that being the only son of such a clever father was a handicap. If it is true, as I often heard, that he began to learn Latin when he was three and Greek when he was seven, I think the indications are that the illness of his later days[15] must have been brought on by being forced on too fast and not having a normal childhood. I know nothing of his youth and early manhood. The next glimpse I have, is his appointment as private secretary to Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia. He was a weak king, both in character and physique, and eventually his brother, Wilhelm I, became regent, owing to his frequent attacks of insanity.

My grandfather was very much attached to the King and served him as long as his health allowed, but he had to give up his work and lived the life of an invalid, dying soon after the king. At some time or other[16] my grandfather married Anna von Wolzogen, and there were four children, Gerhard, Gertrud (my mother), Hilda and Hedwig. Friedrich Wilhelm lived much at Sans Souci, a small but very attractive place at Potsdam, built by Frederick the Great. For a period, my grandfather was given a house in the grounds and here my mother was born.

Later on he lived in Berlin, in the Tiergarten. The only other facts I know about my grandfather are that he attempted to write a book on Assyria and Babylon. The book was published (I have a copy) but I believe that there are doubts as to whether anyone has read it through. Also, on one occasion he was sent over to England by the King to talk seriously to Bunsen, the Prussian ambassador, who was thought to favour the English point of view. I imagine that the talk had no effect, for Bunsen remained an anglophile to the end of his days, his two sons became English subjects and ambassadors. He was invited to Windsor, where he was most struck by the extreme plainness of the ladies of the Court.

The King, who was much attached to my grandfather, insisted that he should accept an Adelsdiplom[17], or patent of nobility, so that he became von Niebuhr. The same honour had been offered to his father, who had refused it on the plea that he did not wish to do anything that might seem to cast a slur on his forebears.

The last glimpse of my grandfather is contained in a diary written by my mother. He was an invalid and travelled to the Riviera for the winter in his own coach, accompanied by his wife and daughters, a manservant and a maid. Soon after, he died. I have seen his grave in the Black Forest village of Badenweiler.

My grandmother was left with her young family, and devoted herself to their education. I fancy that their income was sufficient, though they were not well- to-do[18]. I know that each of the three girls had £5000 of her own when she came of age. The Wolzogens were a numerous family, the brothers rather dilettante and given to spending money rather than making it but my grandmother was a gifted and talented woman. I have the history of the family, in two volumes, going back to the year “one”, it is the usual record of the landowning classes, whose only outlet in ‘the middle ages was fighting. At the time of the Reformation, they owned estates in Austria, but as they became protestants, they had to leave the country and settled in Germany.

My great grandfather was a general in the service of the King of Wurttemberg[19]. Uncle George has oil paintings of him and his wife. During the Napoleon 1812 campaign, he served with the Russian army and was an aide-de-camp to the Tsar. He figures in one of the scenes in “War and Peace”, but Tolstoy was not fond of Germans and speaks of him in rather a slighting way. While speaking of Germany and the Germans I should like to draw attention to the outstanding difference in the social structure of this country as compared to all the great continental nations; viz: the law of primogeniture. In this country, rank goes to the eldest son only. The result is that there is a constant mixing of the classes, the peerage is continually refreshed by regular additions from pushing men who have made their way, while younger sons are gradually filtering down among the middle class. In Germany, on the other hand, all the children take the rank of the father, though the daughters lose it when they marry. The result is more akin to the caste system. Promotions to the different ranks of the nobility are exceedingly rare, and members of the nobility tend to form a very close corporation. Conditions have no doubt altered since 1919, but in the Germany I knew, say from 1890 to 1914, I never met anyone who was in any way connec­ted with business. Many were poor but the only openings suitable for a gentleman were either the law or the army, mainly the latter. I remember Aunt Hedi telling me that where she lived as a girl there were two skating ponds, one for the “vons” and one for the others. One result of this was that Jews stepped into the lucrative positions in trade and commerce to a much greater degree than they ever did in this country. The gentry were a stiff, narrow, starchy lot, very proud, taking them­selves very seriously and looking on themselves as the salt of the earth. I remember being amused when Aunt Hilda showed me a letter she had received from an old friend, who described himself: “Ever your brother in Christ, Salm Landgrave of so-and-so, Prince of somewhere else”. Aunt Hilda was the most “other-worldly” person I ever met, but she saw nothing funny in this. It is this narrow caste who are mainly responsible for the maintenance of the Junker tradition which breeds war.

But to go back to my grandmother and her young family. Uncle Gerhard trained as a lawyer and went to the university after leaving the Gymnasium. He took after his father, was rather delicate and extremely sensitive. He became a judge, and lived and died in Bonn. He married but had no children. He naturally served his time in the army; as a volunteer and a subaltern he went through the Franco-Prussian war, but he was no fire-eater.

The three sisters were educated at home, they lived in Halle an der Saale for many years. They all learnt French, English and Italian,’ and on certain days of the week they spoke no German, but one of the foregoing languages. In addition to this, my mother spoke Dutch, having lived in Holland for a time in order to help an old pastor who had become blind. In addition to languages they learnt music and sketch­ing. They went to a finishing school at Cannstadt, where there were many English, among them two of the Kemp family, and it was this friendship that sent me to Roch­dale a generation later. Aunt Hedi stayed on at this school and taught in it for many years. She was allowed to do this but was not allowed to take a salary.

From what I have heard, the three sisters looked back on their childhood and adol­escence as a happy time; they had their grandmother living in Kalbsrieth[20] in Thüringen, their place in the country which was the equivalent of Eskbank House to the Tods, they had many friends and spent long holidays in Switzerland.


So far I have not mentioned church or religion in connection with our Danish and German forebears. I believe that they were all well-behaved, professing Lutherans, but whether they ever went to church or not, I do not know. At Kalbsrieth they must have attended the village church as I know that the parson used to send round on Saturday to enquire whether any of the family would attend church on Sunday. In that case he would prepare a sermon which otherwise would be unnecessary.

In the second half of the nineteenth century there was an evangelical revival in this country, brought in by Kingsley and Morris, the Christian Socialists, who drew attention to slums, sweating[21] and other economic disgraces. There was undoubtedly too much acceptance of the existing order. As the hymn says:

“The rich man in his castle, The poor man at his gate, God made them high and lowly And ordered their estate.”

The evangelicals stressed the importance of the soul and our responsibility not only for the body but the soul of others; that it is the duty of every Christian to draw the attention of all and sundry to the supreme need for attending to the salvation of their souls. The movement began in the middle classes and was largely spread by means of evangelists, of whom the best known were Moody and Sankey, and culminated in the work of General Booth, who founded the Salvation Army. As a boy, I was taken more than once to Moody’s meetings, where an audience of several thous­ands listened to a simple address, sincere and soul-stirring, which left its mark on the characters of many. I have also been taken to large meetings held by General Booth at which there was much enthusiasm, but I did not appreciate being asked by my neighbour (even though she was a Russian Princess) whether I was soundly saved! I was willing to say anything to avoid further questioning. The pendulum swung too far in one direction, but nowadays it seems to be swinging too far in the opposite direction.

This evangelical revival spread to the continent. It certainly made a permanent impression on the Niebuhr family, particularly my mother and Aunt Hilda. Of my mother I know little[22], as she died when I was twelve, but Aunt Hilda I knew well, as she came to keep house for my father when my mother died. She was a saint, but a saint is not necessarily an easy person to live with. She never read a newspaper or a book that was not definitely religious. Though there were six of us children to look after, and she was busy all day, it was her regular practice to get up at five o’clock and read the Bible and pray for two hours. She seemed to like doing unpleasant things just because they were unpleasant. Had she lived a couple of centuries earlier, she would certainly have worn a hair shirt. She was very narrow in some of her views. She had, for instance, a horror of slang, and I remember being scolded because I used the word “chums”, which she maintained was a slang expression.

But one could not but admire her perfect sincerity. I have never known anyone who thought no little of material things and so much of the world to come. She, and my grandmother too, believed that the world would come to an early finish and hoped every day for the Second Coming of Christ. At one time they were staying in Glasgow with the Hunters, and were wakened in the early morning by the sound of the scores of hooters and sirens which called the workers to the machine shop and shipyards. They were sure that it was the Last Trump and were horrified that instead of being caught up into the clouds, as they confidently expected, they were left behind.

In the year 1874, my mother and Aunt Hilda determined to visit England to attend an Evangelical Convention[23] that was to be held at Brighton, and it was here that they met some of the Tods.

When my father had finished his training in business, my grandfather set him and his older brother James up in business in London, as I have already said. They had an office in the city and shops in Holloway, Commercial Road and Shoreditch. I believe that they lived over the shop in Shoreditch for a time and that my Aunt Minnie kept house for them. They were all interested in the evangelical movement and Aunt Minnie went to the meetings in Brighton, where she was introduced to the two Niebuhrs. The Niebuhrs were invited to stay at Eskbank House, my father fell in love with Gertrud, and before long they were engaged. The story is that my mother, who had great faith in divine guidance, following her usual custom at the beginning of the year, opened the Bible at random and read the text “He shall be called John.” Whether this was the deciding factor or not, I do not know, but on November 9th 1875 there was a double event at Eskbank House; my father was married to my mother and Richard Hunter married Minnie Tod.


After the honeymoon spent in Germany, my parents lived at 41 Pyrland Road, Canonbury, where I was born on September 20th 1876. But they did not live there long as my father bought a pair of semi-detached houses which had just been built near Highgate station. It was a quiet little road with a score of houses in it just off Southwood Lane, which runs from the Archway Road up to the top of Highgate Hill. We lived in the one house and Uncle James lived in the other.

My earliest recollection is being told that I had a little brother, which was Marcus. I was two years and two months old when he was born. My only other recollection of the house was my grandfather’s daily letter (for he wrote every day either to James or John) being passed by my father to his brother through the bow windows.

But the house was a small one and the family showed signs of becoming a large one, so my parents moved once again and George was born in 1880, in a new “Sans Souci”, a semi-detached house on the opposite side of the road, where the family lived, or those of us who had not left home, for over thirty years. It was the usual suburban house, kitchen, etc., in the basement, drawing-room, sitting-room and parlour on the ground floor, and half a dozen bedrooms on the two floors above. There was a small­ish garden which we made full use of. But we also made use of the road and pavement after it had been asphalted, especially for tops and marbles or when we were playing with the other boys who lived in the road.

Charles was horn in 1882, then Anna, and lastly, in 1887, Hildi completed the family. We were fortunate in always having a good nurse, but as there was only one other servant, my mother must have had a very busy time of it looking after us all. At times we had long visits from Aunt Hilda or Aunt Hedi, and one year my grandmother took the house that my Uncle James lived in, as he had moved to a larger house.

My father went into the city every morning at nine o’clock and came home about six, when he had his meal alone with my mother, we children being kept out of his way because he was tired. And so we spent an uneventful but happy childhood, very satisfied with simple pleasures, for pennies were very scarce. Children were not the centre of the stage as they are now; we took it as a matter of course, for instance, that we were not allowed to speak at meal times.

How hard life was for my parents, I only learnt later when I was grown up. My father, who was of a trusting nature, was let in for some big bad debts, and told me that when we were young for some years his income was only about £200 a year. And yet we never detected anything, we had parents who loved us, though they did not spoil us, and. they had no favourites. They spent nothing on themselves, the theatre was taboo, cards were not allowed inside the house. I cannot remember that other children ever came to the house and we very rarely went elsewhere.

When I was six or seven I went to a small dame school[25] in Highgate village, where we spent our time copying out pothooks and learning a lot of jumbled facts from a small book called “Stepping Stones to Knowledge”. A year or two later I was sent to Oakfield House School, Crouch End, a private school with some boarders but mainly day boys. I was “Tod 1”, a distant cousin, Leslie, “Tod 2” and then the younger brothers when they came were 3, 4 and 5 respectively. The school was about three miles away from home, and we travelled by train to Crouch End station, which made the journey much more interesting. The lessons were very simple and elementary, our homework taking only a few minutes every evening; but some of the boys were lazy, and Marcus and I added largely to our stamp collection by trading “cribs” for stamps; he did the Latin cribs, while I did arithmetic and algebra. Oakfield was all the schooling I got; barring illness, I stayed there till I was thirteen, when I left home[26].

When I was small I was rather a handful, and it was always difficult to keep me employed, but in our school days we were always busy what with stamps and craps[27] and writing. I remember writing a gazetteer of the United Kingdom with maps, a history of all the regiments of the army and even a novel, all written on the backs of railway excursion bills and stuck into books. Then we were given a small tricycle by Uncle Alexander and we loved going ten or fifteen miles along the Great North Road, then a quiet lane, to Stanmore, High Barnet, sometimes alone, at other times with my father who had a tandem tricycle and would take my mother or one of us with him.

In the evenings my father would often read to us. I can still remember the outlines of Carlyle’s “Oliver Cromwell”, although it must be nearly sixty years since it was read to us. We saw very little of our neighbours, but there were three or four families whose tastes were similar to my parents’, and whom they saw a lot of; they lived in villas and we children enjoyed playing in the grounds round about their houses.

The weekend was not a Scotch one and we always liked the Sundays: as Father was at home. In his religion he was a wanderer, and I remember going with him to many churches and chapels. For a time it would be a Congregational chapel, then perhaps a Baptist, or the English church. For a year or two he took services in Methodist chapels and at one time took a fancy to the Salvation Army. But when I was eight or nine, a Presbyterian church was built on Highgate Hill and we all went there.

He remained a member and an elder until he married for the second time, when my stepmother, being a rigid Anglican, persuaded him to he confirmed in the Church of England. We were regular attenders at the “Presby”, Marcus and going with my father and the younger ones following behind. When we all went it was quite a church parade. Then when we got back to the gate of “Sans Souci” we were very formal.

The parents naturally went in first, then the two sisters and finally the four of us boys in strict order of age. A younger one would not dream of going before an older brother.

Once a week my parents gave an open invitation to the police of the district. They usually came in uniform, perhaps half a dozen: there was a. simple tea followed. by Bible reading and a prayer meeting, which we were allowed to attend. With such busy life their holidays must have been a great refreshment for my parents. The children were usually sent off to Eskbank House, but not always, for I was taken to Switzerland when I was three and again when I was four years old. I can rem­ember very well the walk up from Lauterbrunnen to Wengen, long before the railway was built. My mother on a mule and I occasionally rode pillion but walked most of the way. Ladies were not expected to walk in those days, and I can remember my grandmother being carried on mountain excursions by two porters in a chair with two long poles, like an open sedan chair. And then one summer when I was about ten, my father and mother took lodgings in a keeper’s cottage in Rothiemurchus Forest, where we walked and tramped. We saw the golden eagles who were nesting in the ruined castle on Loch au Eilan and came close up to one as he was finishing off a lamb on the hills; another day we were walking along a sunk road, when a herd of deer passed across us, taking the road from bank to bank in one jump. Then one day we drove half way up Cairngorm and then climbed Cairngorm and Ben MacDhui. We lost our bearings on the way home and stumbled along in the dark, not caring whether we were walking in a river bed or on the banks, until we met some people who had come to look for us, and we got home tired out near midnight. Another holiday I had was owing to the swollen gland in my neck, when, as I have already said, I spent some months at Eskbank. My time at school must have been somewhat disturbed, for when I was twelve I had this fit of growing, and as I was unfit for school, I was shipped off to Germany to my grandmother, then living in Godesberg on the Rhine.

In Württemberg, near Stuttgart, there was a small spa named Bad Boll[28]. It had been a failure and was taken over by a certain Pastor Blumhardt, who ran it as a Pension, with a certain amount of religious instruction thrown in. The Blumhardts were friends of the Niebuhrs, and Aunt Hilda took me there and left me in the charge of my great aunt Pauline, a sister of my grandmother. Here I stayed with Tante Polli, as we called her, for several months. She was a dear old roundabout and I got on very well with her. There were any number of children about, and what with learning German, games and excursions, the time passed pleasantly. The Blumhardt family were scattered about the neighbourhood, I remember a child being born in one of the families, which was the old grandmother’s hundredth grandchild. The nearest railway station was about ten miles away, I used to walk there, spend twopence on a sweet syrup and take the “Postwagen” back. I must have been advanced for my age for I remember the porter offering to shave me as there were untidy signs of a beard. I declined but I had to buy razors, and shave occasionally before I was fourteen.

Then I was sent for suddenly for my grandmother was dying. Most of the way travelled alone, though at one place where I had to change, a cousin met me.

Travelling was a leisurely and friendly process, once when I was in a hurry the ticket collector said to me “langsam, langsam, immer nur langsam”; while I got into serious trouble with a porter because I jumped off the train before it was at a standstill.

The ticket collectors crawled along the running boards and at any time, night or day, the carriage door was liable to be opened and a demand made for tickets. The stock joke was that of the young couple sitting opposite to each other who, trying to take advantage of the darkness of a tunnel, found that they were each kissing the cheeks of a surprised ticket collector who had just opened the door and put his head in the line of fire.

I got to Godesberg just in time to attend my grandmother’s funeral. I remember being surprised at the custom that after the service at the graveside, the mourners filed past and all the principal mourners and such of the others that cared, made some remarks or bade an audible farewell to the deceased.

Aunt Hedi had come over for the funeral and took me hack to England with her. My mother was very ill and I was sent off, first to Eskbank House and then to Kilcreggan on the Clyde where the Hunters lived at that time. We spent our time boating and sailing a small cutter, playing tennis and going for excursions on the Clyde steamers.

While with the Hunters I was told of my mother’s death and came home via Eskbank. Aunt Hedi was most kind and said she would do what she could to make up for her loss, a promise which she most nobly fulfilled.

I had one more year at home. Aunt Hilda came to look after the six of us and my father too, for he was very much cut up, having always depended on my mother. I had made up my mind to be an engineer, just as Marcus at the age of five had determined to be a schoolmaster; so I went back to Oakfield School  for special training in mathematics, the idea, being that in a year’s time I would go and live with Uncle William and Aunt Hedi.

At this time George had become a keen photographer and spent his spare time in photographing locomotives in the engine sheds near St Pancras, Kings Cross and Broad Street. He did a considerable trade, having engine drivers selling prints for him on a commission basis. By means of this he made enough to cover all his expenses, because the pocket money of 2d or 3d a week, which we used to get, was not enough for slides and printing paper and, occasionally, cameras. In this he copied my father who had been a keen photographer in the days when he made his own plates and did all his own developing and printing.

During our holidays, my father frequently took either Marcus or myself with him into the city. We liked this, for it was a change, and we wandered about the city streets or watched him tasting tea, or helped him add up figures. But apart from thin, we had few amusements and had to create our own occupations as a rule. At school I was one of the older boys, as many of the others left to go to public schools, and at home I felt rather out of place, ready for the next move. So I was only too glad when the time came round for me to leave home.


I spent the years 1891 to 1897 living with Uncle William and Aunt Hedi. I was very fortunate in this, as the time from fifteen to twenty—one is when habits are formed which influence one right through life. I always look lack on thin period of my life with pleasure and satisfaction.

Uncle William’s great interest in life was his work. When he married in 1887, they lived in Eskbank, but two years later they moved into Leith, so as to be near J & J Tod’s warehouse and offices. 7 James Place was a house in a row looking right on to Leith Links, convenient to the warehouse which was only a few hundred yards away.

My uncle had few relaxations, he occasionally played golf or bowls, but most of his spare time was taken up preparing for his Bible class, held on Sunday evenings. In this he was very successful, having an attendance of eighty to one hundred. He read little and took little interest in politics.

My aunt was quite different, a clever, intellectual woman, whose interests were mainly literary and political. It was always a puzzle as to what the link was between the two of them, and yet they were devoted to each other and were very happy. It must have been a great disappointment to them that they had no children: what was their loss was my gain.

They had strong ideas of duty, my uncle, for instance, allowed no secular music on Sundays, and only one or two special friends were allowed to smoke in the house. My aunt hacked my uncle up, and I never detected any difference of opinion between them; but she had been accustomed to a totally different atmosphere and though she accepted my uncle’s views and carried them out loyally, there is no doubt that her influence told and that he became broader in his views as time went on.

My aunt was most generous but at the same time would not allow any money to be frittered away; I remember when I was about sixteen, being taken to task because I had spent a halfpenny on an evening paper. We had the “Scotsman”, that was enough. Punctuality was almost an obsession, one simply could not be late for meals: any arranged plan must be carried out. I remember that we were going to a concert in Edinburgh one Saturday afternoon. There was a keen frost and bright sunshine and I wanted to go and skate instead, my only chance of skating in daylight, but no, they had bought a ticket for me and it must be used.

But what I am most grateful to her for, was her advice about work. As she said, “You can work or play but you can’t do both, which is it to be?”. Having my way to make, I naturally chose work. And I think that she was right. My work gave me sufficient bodily exercise and books gave me mental relaxation and of course there were the Sundays when work wan not allowed. I believe that in the seven years I lived with them, I was out in the evening on three different occasions, once with my uncle and aunt to the old Alexander Tod’s in Edinburgh and twice to local friends in Leith. I jibbed at times, was very anxious to learn dancing, but they were adamant, and my only reply was to say that when I was of age I would at once go to dancing classes. (It is some time since I was 21 but I haven’t been yet!)

We had very few friends in the neighbourhood and very few came to the house with one notable exception. It is the custom in continental universities for the students to move from one university to another, more particularly towards the end of their course. In Edinburgh there were usually from half a dozen to a dozen young theological students, Swiss, German and French, attending the university, for whom my aunt kept open house. It was interesting and stimulating to meet them, for foreigners were scarce in Scotland[29] and the history and politics of central and south eastern Europe were matters concerning which the ordinary young Scot was ignorant and not interested.

There was one event to which both looked forward, more particularly my aunt – their summer holiday, which was nearly always spent on the continent, in Germany, Switz­erland or Italy. After it was over they began to think of the next one, but no actual plans were made until the turn of the year. But early in January down came the Baedeckers from the bookshelves and the continental time-tables from their corner and the details of the next trip began to take shape.

In the summer of 1891, my uncle and aunt took a house near Melrose and invited all the six of us there for the summer holidays. My recollections centre mainly round my uncle’s penny-farthing bicycle which he lent to me. It took much time and perseverance, but eventually I was able not only to hop on but to stay on. It was certainly most exhilarating to ride along a few feet off the ground, and I was as proud as a peacock. Too proud in fact, for riding down a long hill with my legs over the handlebars, I leant forward and was over the handlebars in an instant. I found myself lying on the ground with my trousers in rags and a badly bent bicycle in the hedge. As luck would have it, there was a blacksmith’s forge at the bottom of the hill and he was able to straighten the handlebars and effect repairs, but my knee bears the scars to this day. I limped home pushing the bicycle for two or three miles, but I had learnt my lesson, for though I often used the bicycle, I took no more tosses.

Then the summer holidays came to an end, the brothers and sisters went south, while I started my life in James Place.

Anyone who has read “The Fortunes of Nigel[30]” will remember George Heriot, King James’ goldsmith and moneylender, who left his fortune “to establish a hospital in which the sons of Edinburgh freemen are gratuitously brought up and educated for the station to which their talents may recommend them”. The income of this trust being in excess of what was needed by Heriot’s Hospital, a large amount was devoted to building and endowing the Heriot Watt College in Chambers St. Edinburgh, a large technical school primarily to teach all kinds of engineering. It is still in existence and now forms part of the University of Edinburgh[31]. There were day and evening classes, probably a thousand evening and a hundred day students in my time. The staff were called professors or demonstrators and we students were always addressed as “Mr”. I began work there in October 1891 (I was just fifteen). The session lasted until April and at the end were examinations, held by the City and Guilds of London on technical subjects, and by the Science and Art Department of the Board of Education in other subjects.

The College was a good two miles from James Place, and as of course I walked both ways, I had to start early, walking up Leith Walk and right up over the North Bridge, so as to be there by 9 o’clock. During the two years I attended the day courses at the College, I do not think that I took a tram more than twice, although there were trams running the whole way. I mention this just to show how customs have changed during the past fifty years. During the mid-day break some of us adjourned to the nineteenth century equivalent of the milk bar, where one got a glass of milk and a couple of buns for 3d. By the time I got down to Leith again, I was ravenous, and I had the main meal of the day then (about five o’clock), and after it was over I settled down to my books until bedtime.

The work at the College was interesting and it was largely lectures, there was a lot of work in writing up one’s notes at night. The College had its own electrical plant and during the second year of the course, two of us were on duty every evening to attend to electrical repairs, we loved hustling about in overalls and looking important when lamps had to be replaced or fuses repaired. The only other student I have kept in touch with is G.G. Braid, with whom I have corresponded regularly ever since that time. He and I divided most of the medals[32] given to the student having the highest marks in each class, he taking the electrical and I the technical subjects. This does not say very much for us for most of the students took advant­age of the absence of school discipline to take life easy, after all, most of us were only sixteen years old. The greatest surprise I had was in my second year, when I won a silver medal and £3 for being second in the examination for Mechanical Engineering held by the City and Guilds of London Institute. But I worked hard, on Saturdays I frequently was at my books from two till ten and eleven at night, and I think that I achieved a record for the family in being up at four o’clock in the morning in anticipation of an examination which was to be held the same evening.

In June 1893, the session being over, I started my apprenticeship, but I still attended classes at the College in the winter evenings for the next four years. In fact in 1893 I was demonstrator to the Professor of Mechanical Engineering, a post which implied attendance at his evening lectures, the correction of over a hundred exercises, and taking the tutorial classes myself. For all this I received the munificent honorarium of £8 for six months work! To this day, I don’t know how I had the cheek to take a biggish tutorial class, most of the members being older than I was, especially as a good deal of my work was on a blackboard, with my back turned to the class. But it was certainly a useful experience for me and I am glad that I had this experience and also that of drilling men, which I had later when I was in the Volunteers, as they teach one to face a crowd of people without undue trepidat­ion or nervousness. In 1892 I spent the long summer vacation in Highgate, but in 1893, when the session came to an end, I began my five years apprenticeship with Carrick & Ritchie, makers of cranes and water turbines, in Abbeyhill, Edinburgh.

I began in the drawing office, where work began at 8.30 am., and after two years went through the shops where work began at 6 am., breakfast half an hour at 9 am., and dinner three quarters of an hour at 1 pm. I usually bicycled back for dinner, where I had my own chair and tablecloth, as the short time did not allow of much washing or any changing. Wages were not extravagant, nothing for the first year, three shillings and sixpence a week the second, five shillings the third, and so on. The works were small and were largely run by apprentices. I remember taking charge of the drawing office when I was twenty and was getting seven shillings a week, there were four other boys, all younger than I was.

I enjoyed working in the shops, although one got very tired, especially when we worked overtime from 6 am. to 9 pm., sometimes for a month at a time. Fitting was more interesting than turning and then there were a few jobs outside. Once I was sent to a country house in Perthshire where the electric lighting plant had failed; something like eight miles from a railway station, and there was no conveyance to meet me. I had to walk, carrying my tools. I was put in a room over the stables and had my meals in the servants’ hall. The butler was a bit too grand for me, but the cook, a motherly old body, looked after me well (I sat beside her and after we had all helped with the washing up, we spent the evening playing cards. I remember too, the parlourmaid smuggling me into the dining-room to see the table laid for dinner. I was there for a Sunday, but there were no cards that evening, we spent the evening singing hymns.

On another occasion I was sent up to London to fit up a travelling crane in the engine room of the Waterloo and City tube. I liked this job specially, because I was able to live at home and see the family.

Towards- the end of my apprenticeship, I had the experience of the national engineer­ing strike for the eight hour day. Most of the men went out, though two or three refused to do so. It did not affect us apprentices directly as we were not supposed to come out, but we had to do the men’s work, and I remember heading a deputation which pressed for, and obtained, a rise in wages as we were doing more responsible work.

But what I chiefly remember was how hard it was for the men who would not go out.

A crowd gathered every day and they were followed home and jostled by the strikers. They had to pass the pickets as they came to work, and one was knocked down and hurt; but what the men felt most of all was that their wives were sent to Coventry by all the neighbours. I made up my mind that it was not fair or just to encourage men to stand out against the opinions of the majority of their mates. The strike was un­successful, but the bitter feelings between strikers and non-strikers lasted for a long time.

My life during my apprenticeship was mainly a record of work, holidays were few and far between. No Easter or Christmas; only New Year’s Day, the Edinburgh Spring Holiday, and a week in August.

All the week-days being taken up with work, Sunday was a welcome change. Breakfast at 8.30 am. instead of 5.30; of course we went to church every morning and sat under dear old Davidson, whose son John surprised his father and a good many others by becoming rather a well-known and up-to-date poet of the late Victorian era. When I was seventeen, my uncle persuaded me to take a class of small boys in the Sunday School, which met on Sunday afternoons; then there was occasionally a young men’s class before morning church, and during the winter months my aunt and I attended my uncle’s Bible class, and during the summer months we often walked up to Edinburgh in the evening and went to some church there. It is obvious that Sunday was not an idle day.

The more I think of it, the more I am convinced of the wise way in which my aunt brought me up. I was not spoiled by any means, but though I must have been a nuisance to them at times, I was never allowed to feel this and was always with them unless work or engagements prevented it. As for charity, both my parents and they believed in the old rule of giving away at least one tenth of one’s income, and this rule I have kept all my life. As soon as I began to earn, I had to become respon­sible for a certain proportion of my expenditure. When I earned 1/6d a week, I had to buy my boots and shoes, then later on my working clothes, and soon I was often reminded of Mr Micawber saying that expenditure must not exceed income. But they were always insistent on the economy of buying good things instead of cheap ones.

Towards the end of my apprenticeship I began to get rather anxious about my future and whether I  should be a weekly wage earner all my life. V uncle and his cousin James A. Tod were making a great success of the J. & J. Tod business, neither of them had any children, and. I asked whether it was too late to change and go into the business. But my uncle was firm, he told me that I had chosen engineering and couldn’t throw it up and make another start in a different kind of business altogether. So that idea had to be given up and I was left wondering what to do when my appren­ticeship came to an end. Then came the letter which determined my future. I was at Sans Souci in December 1897; actually I was then engaged in erecting a crane at the Blackfriars power station, when Aunt Hedi sent on to my father a letter from some member of the Kemp family, asking whether any of Gertrud’s children would like to go into their flannel mills in Rochdale. There were only two of us who could go, Marcus and myself. Marcus was 19, he had won a scholarship of £100 a year to St John’s College, Oxford, and had just gone up. Ever since he was a small boy he had made up his mind to be a schoolmaster and he had no desire to go into business. I, on the other hand, had had a suitable training and the proposal appealed to me very much, so it was agreed that I should go to Rochdale for inspection.

I went up in January 1898, stayed with the Kemps at Beechwood, and it was agreed that I should go to Rochdale on six months trial. I left Carrick & Ritchie in February, and so ended my life at home, for ever since my mother’s death I had looked on Leith as home, and I continued to do so until I had a home of my own.


Most of the notes below were added by my aunt – Susan Pomeroy (SP). Those I added are marked with MT.

  1. I know a slightly different version of this verse, which scans rather better – SP:

    If all the good people were clever
    And all clever people were good
    The world would be nicer than ever
    We thought that it possible could.
    But alas it is seldom or never
    That the two hit it off as they should,
    For the good are so hard on the clever
    And the clever so rude to the good.

  2. James Tod, born 1780 – SP
  3. A village a few miles from Dalkeith – SP
  4. Written in the 1940s – SP
  5. Originally a separate town, a port on the Firth of Forth, has been part of Edinburgh since 1920. SP
  6. July 5th, 1892. MT
  7. I think Christopher was at school with some Forbes cousins – SP
  8. Edward Tod is the father of Margaret Tod, who is unmarried and lives in Kensington. SP
  9. Holstein – Meldorf is in Dithmarschen, which was originally not part of Holstein, but was joined to it in 1559. Although Holstein had been Danish since the eleventh century, my encyclopaedia says that Dithmarschen was “incorporated with the Danish crown in 1773”, just 5 years before Carsten Niebuhr went to live there. However his birthplace was the village of Lüdingworth, near Cuxhaven, in “Land Hadeln”, originally part of Friesland, but now in Niedersachsen. His native language was Friesian, rather than Danish or German. SP
  10. I do not know this, but I suppose Christopher has it. It sounds as though Martin should get it on his wedding day! SP
  11. This is incorrect, he trained as a surveyor. Perhaps James remembered wrongly in his old age. Carsten studied mathematics and astronomy. When he was appointed a member of the expedition to Arabia, he was given the title of “Engineer-Lieutenant”, so was technically in the Danish army, rather than the civil service. This was in 1758, so not exactly in the first half of the century. SP
  12. I do not know what happened to this translation. I may try to make a new translation myself, as the geographical details above seem to be at variance with those in Barthold’s text. SP
  13. I have a copy of the original German. SP
  14. They were
    1. Amalie, who married Karl Philipp Francke,
    2. Lucia, who married Wilhelm von Wolzogen (not Anna’s uncle, he was married to Schiller’s sister-in-law, so I do not know how he fits in),
    3. Cornelia, married Bernhard Rathgen, and was the great-grandmother of Gustav von Schmoller, (who I knew well), Barthold Witte (who wrote a life of BGH) and his sister Barbara von Mirbach, who lives in Augsburg, and with whom I correspond. Cornelia was an interesting woman, in contact with many important people of the time, and very active in the liberation movement in Schleswig-Holstein in the mid-nineteenth century.
  15. As far as I can rake out from Gertrud’s diary, which I translated in 1967, he was epileptic. It seems unlikely that pressure in childhood was the cause. I think I remember being told that my grandfather’s youngest brother, Charles, also had this disease, but I am not certain. SP
  16. July 4th 1844 – SP
  17. I have the original Adelsdiplom – MT
  18. £5,000 must have been a small fortune in those days! SP
  19. Ludwig von Wolzogen, brother of Wilhelm von Wolzogen, who was friend and “Schwippschwager” (married to his sister-in-law) of the poet Schiller. SP
  20. A tiny village near Artern south of the Harz. I went there once. There is the one big house, now an old people’s home, the church, with some Wolzogen tombs in the churchyard, the parsonage, and a few farms. Mile there I by chance met the Mayor (she was out pushing her bicycle!) who said the house was only used as a summer residence by the Wolzogens. SP
  21. Sweatshops. SP
  22. Her diaries before her marriage show her too to have been an excessively devout woman. SP
  23. Family legend has it that the Niebuhr girls travelled by train from London to Brighton, of course in a “ladies only” compartment. Through the wall they could hear some men in the next compartment singing hymns, so concluded that it would it be in order to speak to them. SP
  24. You can see it on Google Maps, here.
  25. In a very simple story of his life to date, written when he was still a child, James tells of his first lessons with a Mrs Griffiths, in 1881 (when he was 5), learning to read from a primer called “Reading without Tears”. In 1882 he had lessons with his Aunt Edith, the wife of his Uncle James, who”gave prizes all round’: In 1883 he writes “I went to school at Miss Morris’s, and when I went I was bottom of the school, when I left I was top”. SP
  26. Later he indicates that he left home in 1891 when he was 15. SP
  27. Sic! but I wonder if it is a typing error for “scraps”? SP
  28. Georg von Schmoller, Gustav’s son, now lives there and has a practice as an orthopaedic doctor. SP
  29. About ten years later, when William and Hedi had moved to a different part of Edinburgh, they had a visit from King Lewanika, the Litunga of Barotseland (now part of Zambia). He had come to England for Edward. VII’s coronation, which had to be postponed because the King was ill, and I suppose various people were asked to entertain the various distinguished guests. Why the Tods were chosen, I have no idea, but the visit is well documented, both in letters of Aunt Hedi to James, and in photographs taken by his brother George, who was in the house at the time. SP
  30. by Sir Walter Scott. SP
  31. Heriot-Watt is now a university in its own right. SP
  32. I am now the custodian of 7 of these medals, he had three in 1891/2 (including one for German), one in 1892/3, and three in 1893/4 (including the silver one mentioned below, which says it was the first prize, not the second, and one for electrical engineering, so that year he must have beaten his friend). SP
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15 Responses to Contented to be a Victorian belonging to an age which still believed in progress, material and social

  1. David says:

    “Uncle William’s great interest in life was his work. When he married in 19R7, they lived in Eskbank,”


    “In the summer of 1991, my uncle and aunt took a house near Melrose and invited all the six of us there for the summer holidays. ”


    • Martin says:

      Hmmm. Suspect I may need to go and have a look at the original typewritten copy… 🙂

    • Martin says:

      Now sorted… 🙂

      • Palle Niebuhr says:

        Attention og Martin Tod.

        Interesting family story by your grandfather.
        Do you know if Hildegard Niebuhr got any children?
        Are you sure that Gerhard Niebuhr did not get any children?
        If you would be so kind to take your time to answer this, I would be wery greatfull.

        Kind Regards
        Palle Niebuhr

        • Martin says:

          I don’t know I’m afraid. Gerhard is normally listed as Gerhard von Niebuhr – as is Hildegard – which makes them easier to find on Google. I’m fairly certain she didn’t have children, but I can check both with my aunt!

          Best wishes,


          • Martin says:

            I’ve checked and she didn’t. Here’s a quote from James Tod’s memoir:

            My aunt was quite different, a clever, intellectual woman, whose interests were mainly literary and political. It was always a puzzle as to what the link was between the two of them, and yet they were devoted to each other and were very happy. It must have been a great disappointment to them that they had no children: what was their loss was my gain.

  2. Wynn Rees says:

    I followed links from a Tweet “could this sentence bring down Cameron?” to get to this blog.
    I enjoyed the read. Hard to keep track of who was whom, but not a problem as the tale runs on.
    I am commenting because I saw the name Canonbury, the London district. My grandmother, Megan Edwards (later Wheldon) was born to Hugh and Annie Edwards and lived in Canonbury. Hugh died when Megan was about 12. He had worked for an insurance company, and the life policy paid out sufficiently for Annie to build a small villa in Prestatyn, North Wales which she and Megan lived in – except in the holiday months when it would be rented out to wealthy holiday makers from Manchester or Liverpool, providing income to Annie. The name of the house was Canonbury.

  3. Christine Muir says:

    Fascinating account – I was brought up at 3 James Place, Leith – a beautiful house, and a happy home, and my grandmother also kept open house for students, before I was born the sons and daughhters of her sisters and brothers stayed at No.3 to study at the university,
    I love family history, and strangely enough, living in Orkney as I do, my father-in-law had a long connection with Tods, who were suppliers of goods for so many years.

  4. Sharon Gibson says:

    Hi, i am of the Tod’s of Dalkeith also. I wonder if it is the same people. James Hogg Tod and his wife Robina MaGregor Tod are my great great grandparents, their son who was killed in the ww2 in Burma in 1944 is my great grandfather, his and his wife’s (Ann Tod) son also David Tod is my Grandfather (still living).

  5. Desiree Lee Strange née Tod says:

    I am a daughter of Austin James Tod who hailed from Scotland four generations ago. I have only recently started making enquiries about our ancestors and as a a child was intrigued about Tod’s Well that my late father used to mention as being his ancestors. As mentioned I am forth generation Tod in South Africa. Does anyone have any knowledge of links to Tod family members who went to South Africa? I am trying to trace our Scottish ancestry for a family tree.

  6. Jacky Rodger says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this – it’s revelatory!

    I’m researching two Tod women who were also “clever, intellectual wom[e]n, whose interests were mainly literary and political”: the Edinburgh editor Christian Isobel Johnstone née Tod (1781-1857), and the Scottish-Irish suffragist Isabella Maria Susan Tod (1836-1896). Either may be connected to you.

    As part of this, I’m mapping Midlothian Tods. It’s wonderful to see how some of the jigsaw pieces fit together, and have flesh put on bare bones. Eg I suspected some association between Tods and Peddies, because Dr Peddie’s church was instrumental in Isabella’s aunt Ellen Tod being sent out to Jamaica as the wife of an abolitionist missionary (George Blyth) in 1824.

    There were Tods who imported grain into Bo’ness c1800, which was also a centre of tobacco importation, so it’s extremely interesting to see your grain and tobacco connections. I suspect your gt-grandfather’s gt-grandfather’s origins may have been a touch less humble than he was led to believe!

    I wonder if your grocer Adam Melrose is actually Andrew Melrose, founder of Melrose Tea Co? Andrew’s name has come up previously because he was in business with a James McCleish in the 1820s, and McCleish was the surname of Christian I Johnstone née Tod’s first husband. Might be coincidence, of course.

    Lots to unpack! Thank you so much.

  7. Tommy Hansen says:

    I have just started reading Carsten Niebuhr’s account of his travel to the orient. In the foreword there’s a picture of Carsten Niebuhr and his wife. It says that the paintings are held privately in England and printed with kind permission of Mrs. Susan Pomeroy. I got curious as to how these paintings ended up in England. I didn’t have high hopes when turning to Google but lo and behold your page here gave me a very good idea.

  8. Lynn Edwards says:

    Reading these comments is amazing. I am a ‘Tod’ descendent. My mum’s father’s family moved from Scotland to Liverpool. It’s amazing to think all the authors of the comments may be related in some way.

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