1886 - 1917 (31 years)
||Herbert Alfred Ascoli |
||Herbert - the black sheep|
Now had come the time when I could watch the growth of the children from the cradle for the rest we’re younger than I. I was just two years old when Herbert Alfred was born. My earliest recollection of him was of a poor, thin baby crying weakly in his pram - unable to sit up when he was the age to have done so, and showing violent fits of temper very often. He was born in our Edmonton home, but we moved to Walthamstow soon afterwards and it was there that I became aware of him as this whining baby with the palest of blue eyes.
You people in these more enlightened years can have no idea the struggle parents had to bring children past their infant stage. To my mother’s credit be it recorded that none, out of nine, died in infancy. The ignorant maternity nurse, whose motto seemed to be “I ought to know, I have buried six of my own,” was often in charge.
As Herbert began eventually to walk and talk he was exceedingly shy, he would hide immediately from strangers and always had a furtive look, even to those of his immediate family. At three, the age we all started school, he could not talk plainly enough for anyone to understand but the doctor said,
“Send him to school, it will help him.”
To achieve this was another matter. None of us children could manage him, he would run away screaming. I remember my mother once driven to extremity taking a cane along with her and every time he attempted to run away threatened him. How the teachers managed when he got there I can never imagine - possibly the power of numbers, finding himself one of many, was the answer. Under these circumstances, of course, he made no progress. The first piece, he learned to say sounded like,
“Yut sir, yut sir, yuttie, yuttie yo.”
We never learned what it meant. With practice, and help at home, he finally managed to learn to read and was certainly not backward in the later stages of his schooling. However, he never lost that, furtive look and no-one at home or school ever seemed to gain his confidence.
One day, when he was about eight, a dreadful thing happened. Never had anything like it occurred in the family before - a shilling was left on the mantle-piece to pay a tradesman and it disappeared. What made my mother have her suspicions I, at any rate, did not know. Possibly such things had happened before. This time my mother went to the school and saw his teacher. By judicial questioning he elicited the fact that some of his companions had been treated to sweets etc. When my father heard this the boy had a flogging. Herbert looked frightened to death, but it made no difference for after this things were continually happening - things, small in themselves, but of great importance to our parents. The type of events changed from time to time, but something seemed always wrong. He played truant. His word could not be trusted. We missed books and found he had sold them to his school fellows. Plants disappeared mysteriously from the garden - we just surmised who had taken them.
There was one thing, however, which shone in his character. He was dotedly fond of animals. One winter’s night there was a heavy-fall of snow. We were all out shopping for Christmas - Herbert was at home alone. In those days there were always numerous stray cats about - most of them filthy and diseased. When we came home he had invited in half-a-dozen of these strays and they were ranged on the hearth in front of the fire having their coats dried, and being fed with bread and milk. He kept pigeons in a house he had built himself in the garden and knew exactly what to do to breed them. He also knew the technique of catching strays. This, we found led him into bad company - there were many pigeon fanciers in the neighbourhood who did not seem very savoury characters and he was often seen with them.
His menagerie grew - there were guinea pigs, dormice, white mice and rats. These were continually coming and going. Did he sell them and buy others? I never knew. Did anyone in the family, I wonder? Again, he would go up to Epping Forest, or said he had been there, and arrived home to our distracted parents at about ten at night - having not been home from school. All these things happened before he was fourteen and due to leave school. He was continually saying he wanted to go to Canada, out west to farm, but although he never seemed short of money, he did not attempt to save up to emigrate. He did once save up cast-off boots and shoes and say he would mend them, to save up to go to Canada, but although his cupboard got stacked with them, I do not remember him either learning how to mend them or attempting one stitch, or using the shoe last to understand the mechanism of cobbling.
He was continually in trouble with his father who believed implicitly in the maxim that sparing the rod would spoil the child. Herbert always shook with fear when he saw this was Inevitable - he was as nervous as the animals he loved to help. No-one understood him - no-one stood up for him. He was the black sheep of the family.
[His part in Christmas family parties.]
When my parents were faced with the prospect of finding a job for him - they placed the problem before some of the men at the Baptist Church. They were very helpful and one offered to take him in his office, which was a wonderful gesture in those days. Even here the pilfering went on - just small sums from the petty-cash box. He was spoken to seriously about this but it seemed to make no difference. He was well over fifteen when my father was taken ill and did not recover.
I remember well that evening. We were all sitting gloomily looking at one another when Herbert came in. In his hand he carried a paper bag and he looked happier than I ever remember seeing him.
“How’s Papa?” he called eagerly.
Then, seeing us all sitting there without answering, he burst into tears. Was it a way of repentance and seeking forgiveness? It looked like it for in the bag was a beautiful pear he had bought for his father, on his way home.
It was in that year that a scheme was inaugurated for sending lads out to Canada as apprentices to farmers. When they were proficient they could apply for a grant of land. They were sent by some charitable organisation at very little cost. With the help of a few of the Church people who knew him he applied and, at the age of seventeen, he departed for Canada. Every one of us had a gift when he went. He wrote to Mother quite regularly, bright letters - he sounded content and happy and loved the farm horses, so that he was soon in charge of them. No complaints ever came from Canada, Year after year went by - he continued to correspond with one and another of the family. He had his grant of land and in his spare time began clearing it - he had horses of his own and loved them.
During one of the terrible slumps in trade from which England suffered at this time - one of the younger ones of the family lost his job. He was not a bright boy and we saw no prospect for him in England. It was then that Herbert came to the rescue. He suggested that Arthur should be sent out to him and he would teach him on his farm. It would be good for the two to work together and the farm was still far from being cleared altogether. So he had a companion from the family. This was in 1907. The two seemed to get on well together, although he did not find Arthur very quick at learning.
Then came 1914 and the War. In 1915 Herbert thought he should “join up” and left every thing in his younger brother’s charge. So he came home to England to finish his training. We were amazed at his appearance. He went from us a puny looking lad, short for a boy of seventeen. When he came back to England in 1916 he was well over six feet in height - broad shouldered and upright. His voice was soft and mellow. Most wonderful of all, he could now look one straight in the face. He was thirty years of age, had never married - in fact was not interested in the female sex at all. We said we thought he would have joined the cavalry. His answer was typical - he could not have borne to see horses suffering - bad enough for men.
He was home only for a fortnight, and was then sent out to France. We heard from him continually. He was sent up to the front line almost at once and was killed when on sentry duty at Vimy Ridge in 1917.
So Herbert, the Black Sheep of the family was dead. Was he really a Black Sheep, or was he just the victim of circumstances? He had about one hundred pounds in his pay-book left to my mother. She expressed the wish to go out to see for herself the place where he lived and to hear the estimate of his character from his associates on the spot. My sister, Elizabeth, said she would like to accompany her. She had leave from the Education Committee for two months June and July, in the year 1921 and the two of them set out over the Atlantic and half-way across the continent of America where the younger brother was still living. They were made very welcome at the farms in Manitoba by those who remembered Herbert. They all spoke very highly of him as a farmer and of his strange influence over animals. They told about an epidemic of chest complaints among the horses and one of his own contracted it. He lay all night in the stable with his sick creature who was gasping for breath. Together they lay on the straw all night, the man’s arms round the horse, his body between its front legs to keep the chest warm. This horse was one of the very few of the stricken ones to recover. How typical, we thought of the small boy who had brought in the stray cats to warm on a winter’s evening.
Another story they told us. All the farmers and farm labourers in the district were in the habit of meeting in a hall in the neighbourhood for a concert on each Saturday evening. The artistes were all local talent, so they asked Herbert could he play or sing, or do anything in the entertainment line. For a long time he declined, and then he consented to give them a sample of the same kind of singing which had amused us all so much a lot in Christmas entertainments. He thought he would be hurled down from the platform and never asked again. However, this particular kind of singing without tune seemed to be accepted as a star turn and from then on no concert was complete without a song from Herbert. His friends were amazed when my sister said,
“Oh yes, he never had any tune in him.”
They had all accepted it as his form of humour - all the songs of the moment went over with the queer half-smile on his face which we knew as a boy.
Having watched, just as an onlooker, the life of the boy with his strange eccentricities, then seen this young clear-eyed giant return, can you wonder that I looked on corporal punishment as no deterrent whatever to wrong doing? The only thing to my mind is to gain the confidence of the child, by any available means, and to encourage each one to tell of their difficulties and strive together to solve them. 
||Lisgar, MA, Canada
||10 Apr 1917
||Vimy Ridge, France
||Chingford Cemetery, London, England
- Memorial at the family grave in Chingford cemetery.
||1 Jan 2010 |
- [S176] Memoirs of Alice Ascoli 1884 - 1965, Alice Ascoli.