Father’s mother was Emma, sister of Sir John Evans, and she was one of the most handsome, charming and gifted of all her brilliant generation. Her grandmother was
Frances de Brissac who was born in 1760, and belonged to the Huguenot branch of the ancient French house of de
Cossé-Brissac. There is a legend that our branch of the family is actually the senior,
but that, being Protestants, they were obliged to leave the family château and estates on the Loire, and flee to England after the
Revocation of the Edict Of Nantes in
“Timoléon, by the Grace of God thou art a man; by the care of thy parents thou art a gentleman; by the favour of thy King thou art a nobleman
- therefore, Timoléon, shave thyself”.
The eldest son of Thomas Dickinson and Frances de Brissac was John Dickinson, founder of the world-famous paper works, and from their second son, Major General Thomas Dickinson, descended Willoughby The First Lord Dickinson, and his grandson Richard, second Lord Dickinson. There were four daughters, Harriet, who became Mrs. Grover, Anne who became Mrs.Arthur Benoni Evans, and ultimately my great-grandmother, Elizabeth, who became Mrs. Phelps and mother of Aunt Janey, and Frances, who never married. There is a story that Frances was one of twins, the only case of twins on record throughout the whole pedigree, and that the twin brother was killed by being dropped by the nurse on the way to the christening. Frances, or Aunt Fanny as she was always known, remained “queer” to the end of her days, and was always very different from her three handsome, merry sisters.
Harriet, known as Aunt Grover, was the subject of one of the many stories told to me by Aunt Janey. Her husband, the Rev. Septimus Grover, was at one time incumbent of Farnham Royal, near Slough. At that time stag hunting was a very popular form of sport among the wealthy of the neighbourhood. One day a stag, close pressed by hounds and huntsmen, rushed in through the open front door and into the room where Aunt Grover was sitting. The old lady took this phenomenon in her stride, shut the stag in, and proceeded to the front door, where hounds and huntsmen were pouring up the drive. Taking her stance squarely in the doorway she defied the whole mob, replying to the furious demands for admission to drive out the stag by saying that it had sought sanctuary under her roof, and they would only get at it over her dead body. She added that the hounds and horses were ruining her garden and drive, and. she desired that they be removed immediately. She won the day, though history does not record how she ultimately dealt with a large and terrified stag in her drawing room. There is no doubt, however, but that she coped with the situation with complete competence.
Sir Arthur Evans
Elizabeth married Joseph Phelps, a very wealthy wine merchant who owned large estates in Madeira. They had a large family, of whom Aunt Janey was the youngest. I hope to have more to say about them when I come to tell of my experiences while living with Aunt Janey. Anne, who married the Revs Arthur Benoni Evans, was the mother of Sir John Evans, my grandmother Emma, and Dr. Sebastian Evans. The full story of the family has been told by my cousin Joan Evans, in her book “Time and Chance”, the story of Sir Arthur Evans and his forebears. Arthur Evans was the son of Sir John Evans and therefore my Father’s first cousin. They both had the same Christian names of Arthur John, and though Arthur Evans was about five years older than Father, there was a strong family likeness between them, and they had travelled widely on the continent together as young men, particularly in the Balkans during the Russo-Turkish war of the 1870’s.
Sir John Evans
Sir John Evans was one of the most brilliant men of his era. He became owner of the Dickinson paper works on the death of his uncle, and devoted all his spare time to scientific study of all sorts. His books on early flint implements are still standard works, and his private collections of flint artefacts and early coins were world famous. He was President of the Numismatic Society, Secretary and President of the Geological Society, Vice-President of the Society of Antiquaries, and of the Royal Society, in fact I have been told that he was at one time either President or Vice-President of every one of the great learned Societies in the Kingdom.
The following story has been told to me of great uncle John, which does not appear in Joan’s book.. An extremely important meeting of the Numismatic Society was being held at Burlington House, and the speaker was a world famous authority on ancient coins, some of which, of great rarity and value, he had brought as the subject of his lecture. Great uncle John, as President, was in the Chair. One of the exhibits was the subject of special interest; it was heavy gold coin, and the speaker emphasised the fact that it was the only known specimen of its kind in existence. The coins were passed round the distinguished audience for inspection, and duly returned to to the lecturer. On checking over the coins after his speech, he found to his unutterable dismay, that the one unique specimen was missing. It was of untold value, and. the speaker and audience were shocked and stunned at its disappearance. Everyone searched frantically in every possible corner, but to no avail. Eventually, and with great embarrassment, it was announced that the doors would be locked and no-one allowed to leave until they had submitted to being searched. It is difficult for us, in this more happy-go-lucky generation, to realize the sensation that was caused in that dignified and distinguished assembly by such a procedure. Everyone submitted to being searched with a good grace, however, for they were all as anxious to find the missing coin as was the owner himself; everyone, that is, with the exception of the President, Sir John Evans. Politely, but unflinchingly, he, the most distinguished of that brilliant gathering, refused to submit to the search. He was well known as owning one of the most famous private collections of coins in the world, and he was equally well known for his rigid probity and high principles, but the embarrassment became acute throughout the assembly as at last he alone was left unexamined, and still the coin had not been found. The eyes of even his staunchest friends and supporters turned questioningly upon him, but still he faced them, calm and undaunted. At last, when the tension had become almost unbearable, someone happened to lift a book from the lecturer’s desk, and out fell the missing coin! A wave of relief and relaxation swept over the gathering, and when the hubbub of excitement had died down there was a unanimous demand addressed to the President for an explanation of his attitude. Relieved and smiling now, Sir John felt in his waistcoat pocket, and produced an exact twin of the coin whose great value had been so emphasised by the lecturer, on account of its believed uniqueness. He had brought it with him from his own collection, intending to show it round, but unaware that the lecturer was planning to make his specimen the high light of his lecture, neither man knowing that any specimen other than his own existed. When the lecturer’s coin disappeared Sir John found himself in an acute dilemma. Despite the high regard in which he was held, it would have been difficult for him, to say the least of it, to prove that another specimen existed if it were found in his pocket, so his only hope had been to sit tight and refuse to be searched, and trust to Providence that the lost coin should be found.
Great uncle John married three times. His first wife was his cousin Harriet Dickinson by whom he had five children. The eldest was Arthur, who later became equally famous
with his distinguished father, as the discoverer of the Minoan civilization in Crete. Harriet died after the birth of their youngest child, another Harriet, who later married
Charles Longman, the head of the publishing firm. Thus left with five small children under seven years of age,
great uncle John proceeded to marry another cousin, Frances Phelps, an older sister of Aunt Janey, who, though she had no children of her own, became a beloved and devoted
step-mother to the children, and remained so to the end of her life. After her death in 1890
great uncle John, then aged sixty seven, married a third time. On this occasion his niece, Father’s sister Frances, wrote to him to congratulate him on “having at last broken yourself of your habit of marrying your cousins”. The third wife became the mother of Joan Evans, who was born when her father was seventy years of age. Joan is thus in a most unusual and unique position in the family. Though only a few years older than myself, she is actually of Father’s
generation, and more than forty years younger than her eldest half brother, Sir Arthur Evans.
The family prowess reached its peak in the generation of Sir John and my grandmother; the standard was nobly borne aloft by Arthur and his generation, but since then it seems that much of the family fire and brilliance has burnt itself out, and Joan is now the only one who carries on the tradition in the grand style. The brains are still to be found in the younger generations, but the strange atmosphere of drama and romance with which the older generations so unconsciously surrounded themselves, has now disappeared. It was some quality in the personality of the individuals which created this atmosphere, some elusive hereditary characteristic which is quite indefinable, but none the less most emphatically existent. Joan traces this elusive quality to an ancestress of the name of Anne Norman, who, in 1776 married into the Evans family. In “Time and Chance” Joan writes of her thus:
“She could claim kinship with half the gentle families of South Wales... She remains the unknown quantity in the family inheritance... It seems as if it may have been from her ancestry that an unconscious taste for romantic symbolism and verbal conceits came into the family. Nearly all her descendants might be trusted to make a jeu de mots, to compose a motto or write an epitaph, or to carry a high flown metaphor to a successful conclusion. Some of them have been versifiers, though none of them strong or abundant poets; few have been without a sense of poetry and a capacity for occasional unexpected verbal felicities. That better heritage could she bring from her family traditions of the Royalist coterie of South Wales, which included her kinsmen George Herbert and Henry Vaughan?”
Grandmother Emma Evans
The last years of my grandmother’s life were spent at Kew, and though I was only five when she died, I well remember being taken over to see her when we lived at Ealing. I was always rather in awe of the beautiful old lady but, young as I was, I fell completely under the spell of the family charm of personality with which she was so richly endowed. She was a wonderful artist, and I have never seen any water colour sketches or pencil drawings to equal hers. The walls of our house were lined with her water colours, and many years later a whole gallery in one of the houses in Kew Gardens was given over to a collection of sketches she made there. She was a great friend of W.H. Hudson, and was largely instrumental in obtaining for him the Civil list pension. She also did the pencil sketches for some of his books. Like all her family she was a friend and admirer of Professor T. H. Huxley, and of all the scientific “nobs” as great uncle John described them. Her brilliant mind could not bow to the narrow and restricted Church doctrines in which her generation had been brought up, and this was the basis of much of the thinly veiled disapproval with which Mother regarded them. With the exception of Father almost all his family were “atheists”, a word which for many years struck a note of hushed horror to my young heart. I grew up with the feeling that there was something slightly “wicked” about Father’s people, which I regret to confess, merely had the effect of making them even more intoxicating and desirable than ever. Father’s people have always exercised a fascination over me; as a child I longed to know more of them, and the moment the opportunity offered I threw in my lot with them, despite all Mother’s disapproval. I found every member that I was privileged to know, fully as fascinating and inspiring as I had always expected them to be. They all, with scarcely an exception, had that strange stimulating glamour, and somehow unearthly quality which set them apart from the common herd.
My grandmother was born at Market Bosworth soon after her father, the Rev. Arthur Benoni Evans, had been appointed to the Head Mastership of the Grammar school there. Some twenty five years later a new young doctor came to take over the practice in the district, and. the following story has been told to me.
While on the subject of the merry-thought I would like to digress for a moment and record another occasion in the family when precisely the same thing occurred. Emma’s
grand-daughter met the brother of a college friend in 1920, and after one or two brief meetings, during which they took a violent dislike to each other, they entirely lost touch for nearly ten years, with
no regrets on either side. She had kept in touch with her college friend, who was by that time married and living abroad, and the friend wrote and asked her to invite her brother to her home for Christmas, as he was then living
alone in digs. This she rather ungraciously agreed to do, though she was at that time engaged to someone else, and not at all keen to renew her acquaintance with “that great rough bear”. At dinner she and the “bear” pulled the
merry-thought, and it split straight up the centre! The girl immediately thought of the story she had been told about her grandmother, but dismissed it at once, as she had not the slightest wish or intention of marrying anyone other than her then
fiancé, and certainly not that “bear”, neither had he the smallest wish to marry
that “tow-headed chatterer”. But the merry-thought fore told the truth to her as unerringly as it had to her grandmother,
seventy five years before. Her engagement went the way of other evanescent
attachments, and despite another three years of angry resistance to the fate announced by the merry-thought, the
oracle proved true.
Dr. Sebastian Evans
It was at my grandmother’s house that I once met her brother Dr. Sebastian Evans. He was as handsome and brilliant as she was, though with the erratic temperament which keeps recurring unmistakeably throughout the generations. His life story is told by Joan in “Time and Chance”, and I can only add my sole recollection of my great—uncle Bassy. I was so small that I remember having to pull myself up on tip toe with my fingers on the edge of the table, while the kind old gentleman, then approaching eighty, spun a number of tee-to-turns all over the polished surface for the entertainment of his tiny relative. Father had all Uncle Bassy’s writings, and. it was at a very early age that I discovered and fell under the spell of his poems. The two books, ”Brother Fabian’s Manuscript” and “In the Studio” have never received the attention they merit, and are hardly known outside the family. One of the poems, “Judas Iscariot’s Paradise” was, however, set to music by (I believe) Honnegar, and performed as a choral work at the Queen's Hall in the 1920’s, though unfortunately I did not hear it.
Many of the family have had a strange propensity for vivid dreams, which usually take the form of clear cut stories, or even poems. In 1916 Father published a small collection of his dreams, which also included one of my own, and in the preface he gives so interesting an account this family gift that I make no apology for here reproducing his preface verbatim. It must be explained that “Peter Blobbs” was one of the nicknames by which Father was known among his family and friends. It arose during his medical studentship at St. Thomas’ Hospital. At that time there was a popular slogan, “ ‘Oo done it? Peter Blobbs, ‘e done it,” and as Father was always the originator of any mischief in his vicinity, the name attached itself to him, and stuck for the rest of his life. The preface is quoted exactly as he wrote it, and I have merely added the real names in brackets.