Anne Evans’s brother, John Dickinson, became a stationer, and set up in business in 1804. His first original venture was to produce a new kind of paper, which would not smoulder, for cannon cartridges, and this was used in the English army in the Peninsular War and the campaign of Waterloo. It was followed by fresh inventions. Fourdrinier, another Huguenot, had in 1806 invented a paper-making machine on which paper was turned out in a continuous length, instead of being made by hand in single sheets as heretofore. John Dickinson adopted the idea, invented a rival machine, and bought a factory at Apsley in Hertfordshire. In 1811 he came to live a short mile away, at Nash Mills, with a factory—a neat little factory like the plates of the Grande Encyclopaedia—as an annexe to his house. Here the industrial drama of the nineteenth century was enacted on a small scale. In 1821 there was that horrible portent, a strike; John Dickinson dismissed all the malcontents and filled their places with local labourers. Trouble next came from the old hands, who found themselves deposed by machines. In 1830, in the days of the “Swing” riots, a large gang of machine breakers marched upon Nash Mills from Buckinghamshire; but they were routed, unwittingly, by a party of men in pink, riding to a meet of the Old Berkeley whom they mistook for soldiers. His next trouble was with the Grand Junction Canal, who stole his water power; and here he won a legal victory after many lawsuits, and took the contract for altering the locks of the canal made necessary by the judgment.
When my father was seventeen he and his elder brother, Arthur, were sent to Germany to learn the language. They had had lessons in German from their father, but his German, self taught, sounded different from what they heard in Hamburg. When they landed they asked for a priest, and, by means of Latin, told him their needs and got him to arrange their seats in the coach. At each stage the process was repeated, until finally they reached their destination at Cotta. Here were the letters that they had written home to Bosworth, with stories of the woods and of great expeditions to Dresden and Prague. They soon learned adequate German, and made their way home again more easily than they had come. On their return, my grandfather took my father by coach to Oxford to be entered at Brasenose. Oxford must have seemed a paradise to a boy with a taste for scholarship and a gift for companionship, but my father never had more than this Pisgah-sight of its undergraduate delights. For when they had driven home again to Leicestershire, a letter came from John Dickinson, my father’s maternal uncle, offering “Jack” a place in his paper mill. My grandfather had other sons; the offer had to be accepted; and though my father ended a Doctor of Oxford and Honorary Fellow of Brasenose, he never studied there.
My father arrived at Nash Mills one May morning, 1840; here were all the letters that he had written home, that dove— tailed with stories he had told me in my childhood. As he reached the door the village children who had brought the May were singing:
A branch of May I have brought you,
And at your door I stand;
It is but a sprout
But ‘tis all budded out;
‘Tis the work of the Lord’s own hand.
For sixty-six years they brought him the May in like fashion; I wonder if they still sing the same song, now that there is no one at the house to give them alms? My father’s business career was that of the virtuous apprentice. In 1850 he married John Dickinson’s daughter; in the same year he became a partner in the firm; he managed the Hertfordshire mills from 1856 to 1885 when he turned the firm into a limited company. Here were the love-letters of their courtship, and the diary of their honeymoon and early married life. The first years were spent in the Red House in the village, while my great-uncle inhabited a new house upon the hill, which he had built of the setts of grey northern stone on which the L.N.W.R. main-line track had originally been laid. Then in 1856 my father entered into possession of Nash Mills, that was to be his home for fifty years. His first wife bore him three sons and two daughters, but with the last child tragedy came to the house. The nurse came straight from an infected case, and conveyed the infection; in a few days the young mother was dead; and the letters of the time made the tragedy one of yesterday.
Then came the letters that showed my father, a widower with five young children, and five mills to look after, trying to make a new way of life, and confiding his troubles to the cousin, Fanny Phelps, who ended most of them by marrying him. It was a courtship that went side by side with intellectual adventure. His attempts to safeguard the water supply of the mills had drawn him into the study of geology, and he had pursued his studies. In 1847 M. Boucher de Perthes had astonished the learned world with his assertion of the existence of prehistoric man in the Valley of the Somme. No one took his assertions seriously, until in 1859 Joseph Prestwich decided to go out to investigate the authenticity of his finds and the validity of his claims. Prestwich, much impressed by what he saw, invited several members of the Geological Society to join him; only John Evans, restlessly awaiting the letter from Madeira with Fanny’s acceptance or refusal of his proposal, took three days off from the Mills and went. His last letter to her before their engagement was an account of their authentication of the existence of Palaeolithic man.
Fanny’s reign at Nash Mills was a happy one; here were the diaries that told its story. She had no children of her own, but mothered the others for many eventful years. Arthur’s and Norman’s youthful escapades were numerous and original; if they had an empty afternoon they would at once embark on some such exploit as mesmerizing the kitchenmaid, only to discover that they could send her into a trance but did not know how to wake her up again. My stepmother must sometimes have felt like a hen with a brood of ducklings, capable of turning into swans at any minute. My brothers grew up in a Victorian atmosphere of peace and plenty, each to exemplify an aspect of their father’s brain: Arthur archaeology, Norman, after a fashion, science, Lewis mathematics and business; while his daughter Alice, warm—hearted and impulsive, was an artist who died before she had found her way of expression, and Harriet, his youngest child, was exquisitely neat and finished in all she did, whether it were dancing, embroidery, or the arts of housewifery. In each of them the threads of family inheritance were differently interwoven. Arthur was most like his grandfather, with none of the frustration that poverty had brought and none of the discipline that it, and the strict practice of religion, had imposed: a genius, at once self-centred and generous, scholarly and irresponsible. Norman was a throwback to some forgotten Dickinson or Grover; Lewis combined his great—grandfather’s mathematics with a milder and less forceful temperament. The girls had more of French common-sense about them; and Alice, by wedding to it a love of art and learning, was most like her father of all the family.
They grew up against a background of archaeological inquiry. My father’s
investigations in the Somme Valley were continued in his own country, and here
was evidence of the difficulties under which they were pursued: all the
invitations to this and that quarry that had to be refused because he could not
leave the Mills; all the joyful reports of finds from Prestwich; all the notes
and drawings of flints that John Evans did succeed in finding. All had to be
drawn; and here was a roll of the prints my father had had engraved of the
commonest types of flint implements to distribute among road-menders and
quarry-men and others who were likely to come across them.
Then there came a great collection of the letters my father had received from about 1880, that revealed every aspect of his character and his work: his wide scientific and practical interests, his endless committees, his frequent travels, and through it all the close ties of friendship and warm family affection that made his life worth living.
[Joan Evan, Prelude and Fugue, p145...]