J. R. R. Tolkien & Birmingham, 1896-1916: The Formative Years, Part One (to 1908) – Middle English

The South African Prelude – Beginnings in Bloemfontein:

Arthur Reuel Tolkien and Mabel Suffield (pictured above in the family group), both from Birmingham, were married in Cape Town Cathedral on 16th April 1891, after which came an exhausting railway journey of nearly seven hundred miles to the capital of the Orange Free State. Less than a year after proposing to Mabel, Arthur had obtained a post with the Bank of Africa and had sailed to the Cape. Mabel had celebrated her twenty-first birthday at the end of January 1891, and only a few weeks later, she was on board Roslin Castle and sailing towards South Africa. Bloemfontein was of no great size, and it certainly did not present an impressive spectacle to the newlyweds as they got off the train at the newly-built station. In the centre of the town was the market square where the Dutch-speaking farmers from the veldt trundled in aboard great ox-wagons to unload and sell the bales of wool that were the backbone of the State’s economy. Around the square were clustered solid indications of civilisation: the collonaded Parliament House, the two-towered Dutch Reformed Church, the Anglican cathedral, the hospital, the public library, and the Presidency. There was a club for European residents (Dutch, English and German), a tennis club, a law court, and a sufficiency of shops. But the trees planted by the first settlers forty years before were still sparse, and the town’s park had only ten willows and a patch of water. Only a few hundred yards beyond the houses was the open veldt, where wolves, wild dogs and jackals roamed and menaced the flocks and where after dark, a postrider might be attacked by a marauding lion. Writing to her family, Mabel summed up the town as an ‘Owlin’ Wilderness! Horrid Waste!’

However, the life she found herself leading was by no means uncomfortable. The premises of the Bank of Africa, in Maitland Street just off the market square, included a solidly built residence with a large garden. There were servants in the house, some black or coloured, some white immigrants, and there was a broader company to be found among the English-speaking residents of the town. They organised regular rounds of dances and dinner parties. But Arthur could not afford to take life easy, for although there was only one other bank in Bloemfontein, this was the National Bank, native to the Orange Free State. Arthur was the local manager of the Bank of Africa and, as such, an uitlander, and his bank was only tolerated by a special parliamentary decree.

On 3rd January 1892, Mabel gave birth to a son, John Ronald Reuel, who was christened in Bloemfontein Cathedral on 31st January. In November, he had his photograph taken (above) in the garden of Bank House in his nurse’s arms while his father posed jauntily in his white tropical suit and boater. Behind stood two black servants, a maid and a house-boy named Isaak, both looking pleased and perhaps a little surprised to be included in the photograph. Mabel found the Boer’s attitudes to the natives objectionable. However, in Bank House, there was tolerance, most notably over the unusual behaviour of Isaak. One day. he ‘stole’ the little baby and took him to his kraal, where he showed off the novelty of a white baby. The incident upset everybody, but Isaak was not dismissed, and he later named his own son ‘Tolkien’. Many months later, when Ronald began to walk, he stumbled on a tarantula. It bit him, and he ran in terror across the garden until the nurse snatched him up and sucked out the poison. When he grew up, he could remember running in fear through the long, dead grass, but the memory of the tarantula itself faded, and he said that it left him with no particular dislike of spiders. Nevertheless, in his stories, he wrote more than once of monstrous, venomous spiders, including Shelob in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy.

Soon after the baby’s first birthday, her sister and brother-in-law May and Walter Incledon arrived from England. Walter was a Birmingham merchant in his early thirties with business interests in the South African gold and diamond mines. He left May and their small daughter Marjorie at Bank House while travelling in the mining areas. It was winter in southern Africa and intensely cold, and the two sisters huddled around the dining-room stove while Mabel knitted baby garments and talked about Birmingham days. Although home leave could be taken within a year or so, Arthur was always finding reasons for postponing their visit as a family. In the end, the trip had to be delayed, as Mabel found herself pregnant again, and on 17th February 1894, she gave birth to another son, Hilary Arthur Reuel. Hilary was a healthy child, who flourished in the local climate, but his elder brother struggled with teething, which wore his mother out. Moreover, the weather was at its worst: an intense drought was followed by a plague of locusts which swarmed across the veldt and destroyed its fine harvest. Despite all this, Arthur wrote to his father the words that Mabel had dreaded to hear:

“I think I shall do well in this country and do not think I should settle down well in England again for a permanency.”

Yet whether they were to stay or not, it was clear that the heat harmed Ronald’s health and that something must be done to get him to cooler air. So in November 1894, Mabel took the boys to the coast near Cape Town. Ronald was nearly three and retained a faint memory of this trip. After the holiday, Mabel and the children returned to Bloemfontein and began preparing for the whole family’s trip to Birmingham. Arthur badly wanted to accompany them, but he could not afford to be away from his desk, for there were railway schemes underway in which the bank had a stake.

They stayed with Mabel’s parents, and the spring and summer passed with a marked improvement in Ronald’s health, but although Arthur wrote to say that he missed his wife and children very badly and longed to come and join them, there was always something to detain him. Then, in November, came the news that he had contracted rheumatic fever. He had partially recovered but could not face an English winter and would have to regain his health before making the journey. Mabel spent an anxious Christmas, though Ronald enjoyed himself and was fascinated by the sight of his first Christmas tree, which was very different from the wilting eucalyptus adorning Bank House the previous December. Finally, in January, Arthur was reported to be still in poor health, and Mabel decided that she must go back to Bloemfontein to care for him. Arrangements were made, and an excited Ronald dictated a letter for his father to the nurse in which he said:

“I hope the ship will bring us all back to you… I am got such a big man now because I have got a man’s coat and a man’s bodice… Mamie says you will not know Baby or me… we have got such big men… we have got such a lot of Christmas presents to show you… Auntie Gracie has been to see us… I walk every day and only ride my mailcart a little bit…

The letter was never sent, for a telegram arrived to say that Arthur had suffered a severe haemorrhage and Mabel must expect the worst. The next day, 15th February 1896, Arthur died. By the time a complete account of his last hours had reached his widow, his body had been buried in the Anglican graveyard at Bloemfontein, five thousand miles away from his family in Birmingham.

Birmingham at the end of the Victorian Age:

Birmingham’s diverse industrial base made it a serious rival to Manchester as England’s second city in the later nineteenth century. The Corporation gained a reputation for its municipal enterprise and public works, including one of the country’s most extensive urban tramway systems. On the map below of Birmingham in 1885, we can see how the tramways were initially drawn by horses, then gradually replaced by motorised trams by the end of the century. The grimy, haphazard industrial inner city was soon surrounded by a ring of public parks in the rapidly expanding suburbs. Despite its reputation as a factory city, Birmingham has always had more trees than people.

Re-settlement in Birmingham:

When the first wave of shock was over, the suddenly widowed Mabel Tolkien knew that she must make decisions. She and the two boys could not stay forever in her parents’ crowded home, a little suburban villa, yet she scarcely had the resources to establish an independent household. Arthur had only amassed a modest sum of capital chiefly invested in South African mines for all his hard work and conscientious saving. Though the dividend was high, it would not bring her an income of more than thirty shillings a week, scarcely enough to maintain herself and two children even at the lowest standard of living. There was also the question of the boys’ education. She could manage the early years herself, for she knew Latin, French and German and could also paint, draw and play the piano. When the boys were old enough, they would take the entrance examination for King Edward’s School, widely considered the best grammar school in the City of Birmingham, which their father had attended.

Meanwhile, she must find cheap accommodation to rent. There were plenty of lodgings in the city around its urban and suburban areas, but the boys needed fresh air and countryside. So she began to search through the classified advertisements in the local newspapers. Ronald was now in his fifth year and slowly adapting to life under his grandparents’ roof. He sometimes expected to see the verandah of Bank House jutting out from his grandparents’ home in Ashfield Road, King’s Heath. In the evening, his grandfather would return from a day tramping around the streets of Birmingham, cajoling orders for Jeyes Fluid from shopkeepers and factory managers. John Suffield was sixty-three, but his long beard made him look much older, and he vowed to live to be a hundred. He did not seem to object to earning his living as a commercial traveller, even though he had once managed his own drapery shop in the city centre.

Ronald came to feel far closer to the Suffield family than his father, though his Tolkien grandfather lived only a little way up the road from the Suffields, and he was sometimes taken to see him. But John Benjamin Tolkien was eighty-nine and had been badly shaken by Arthur’s death and was in his own grave six months later. There was still, however, Ronald’s aunt, his father’s younger sister, Aunt Grace, who told him stories of the Tolkien ancestors who had, she claimed, fought with the Archduke Ferdinand of Austria at the Siege Of Vienna in 1529. He had shown great daring in leading an unofficial raid against the Turks and capturing the Sultan’s standard. Aunt Grace claimed that this was why he was nicknamed Tolkühn, meaning ‘foolhardy’. There was also a story that a later ancestor had fled the Reign of Terror in 1794 under the old Saxon family name and set up in London as a harpsichordist and clock-repairer. Indeed, the Tolkiens were present at the beginning of the nineteenth century, recorded as clock and watch manufacturers and piano-makers. As a piano-maker and music-seller, John Benjamin Tolkien had come to Birmingham some years later.

Above: A painting of the scenic countryside that inspired Tolkien’s ‘Shire.’

Like many urbanised middle-class Midland families, The Tolkiens liked to tell stories that gave a romantic colouring to their origins. Still, whatever the truth of those stories, the family at the time of Ronald’s childhood was entirely English in character and culture, indistinguishable from thousands of other middle-class tradespeople and professionals who populated the Birmingham suburbs. In any case, Ronald was rather more interested in his mother’s family. He discovered that though the family was now found in Birmingham, its origins were in the quiet Worcestershire town of Evesham, where the Suffields had lived for many generations. Being a homeless child, he held on to the concept of Evesham in particular and the whole West Midland area as his true home. He once wrote about Evesham and Worcestershire in the following terms:

‘Though a Tolkien by name, I am a Suffield by tastes, talents and upbringing… Any corner of that county (however fair or squalid) is an indefinable way “home” to me, as no other part of the world is.’

264 Wake Green Road (5 Gracewell Cottages), located behind the tree on the left. (Please note that 264 Wake Green Road is a private residence.)

By the summer of 1896, Mabel had found them a home to rent cheaply enough for herself and the children to live independently. So they moved a short distance, a mile or so beyond the southern boundary of Birmingham to the hamlet of Sarehole. The impact of this move on Ronald was both immediate and permanent. Just at the age when his imagination was opening up, he found himself in a corner of the Worcestershire countryside. The house they came to was 5 Gracewell Cottages, a semi-detached brick cottage at the end of a row. Outside the gate, the road ran up a hill into Moseley village and thence towards Edgbaston and the city centre. In the other direction, it led towards Stratford-upon-Avon.

But traffic was so limited (to the occasional farm cart or tradesman’s waggon) that it was easy to forget how near the city was.

KEY TO MAIN MAP: (1) Tolkien’s first home, 264 Wake Green Road, (2) Sarehole Mill, (3) Moseley Bog, (4) Cole Valley, (5) The Oratory, (6) Perrot’s Folley/ Edgbaston waterworks tower, (7) Highfield Road/ Plough & Harrow Hotel, (8) King Edward’s School, (9) the University of Birmingham,
(10) Library of Birmingham/ repertory Theatre (Gamgee plaque).

Sarehole – The Mill on the River Cole:

Over the road, a meadow led to the River Cole, little more than a broad stream, and upon this stands Sarehole Mill, an old brick building with a tall chimney. There has been a mill on this site since 1542, but the current building dates from the mid-eighteenth century. Corn had been ground there for three centuries. Still, Matthew Boulton, the local industrialist, leased the mill between 1756 and 1761 and used it as a ‘flatting mill’, producing sheet metal used for button manufacturing, before opening his Soho works in the city.

The sign outside the entrance to the museum shows its geographical relationship to the Cole Valley.

In the 1850s, a steam engine was installed, and a chimney was built to provide power when the river was low. When the Tolkiens lived in Sarehole, the mill’s chief purpose was to grind bones to make manure.

The photograph on the left shows Gracewell Cottages (on the left) in 1905, three years after the Tolkiens left no. 5. The meadow over the road (on the right) gives a clear idea of the unbroken view the young Ronald would have had to Sarehole Mill.

Yet the water still tumbled over the sluice and rushed beneath the great wheel, while inside the building, everything was covered with fine white dust. Hilary Tolkien was only two and a half, but soon he was accompanying his elder brother on expeditions across the meadow to the mill, where they would stare through the fence at the water-wheel turning in its dark cavern or run round to the yard where the sacks were were swung down onto a waiting cart.

Ronald and Hilary spent many hours exploring the grounds of Sarehole Mill and being chased off by the miller’s son. Sometimes they would venture through the gate and gaze into an open doorway, where they could see the great leather belts, pulleys, and shafts with the men at work. There were two millers, father and son. The old man had a black beard, but it was the son who frightened the boys with his dusty white clothes and sharp-eyed face. Ronald named him ‘the White Ogre.’ When he yelled at them to clear off, they would scamper away from the yard and run round to a place behind the mill where there was a silent pool with swans swimming. At the foot of the pool, the dark waters would suddenly plunge over the sluice to the great wheel below: a dangerous and exciting place. Not far from Sarehole Mill, a little way up the hill towards Moseley was a deep tree-lined sandpit that became another favourite haunt for the boys. Indeed, explorations could be made in many directions, though there were hazards. An old farmer who once chased Ronald for picking mushrooms was given the nickname ‘the Black Ogre’ by the boys. Such ‘terrors’ were the essence of those days at Sarehole, here recalled by Hilary nearly eighty years later:

“We spent lovely summers just picking flowers and trespassing. The Black Ogre used to take people’s shoes and stocking from the bank where they’d left them to paddle, and run away with them, make them go and ask for them. And then he’d thrash them! The White Ogre wasn’t quite so bad. But in order to get to the place where we used to blackberry (called the Dell) we had to go through the white one’s land, and he didn’t like us very much because the path was narrow through his field, and we traipsed off after corn-cockles and other pretty things. My mother got us lunch to have in this lovely place, but when she arrived she made a deep voice, and we both ran!”

In the 1960s, Tolkien contributed to the public appeal to restore the mill as a museum. Today it is part of the Birmingham Museums Trust. As well as being a working water mill, the museum features The Signposts to Middle-earth exhibition, which tells the story of Tolkien’s connections with Sarehole and the surrounding area. Nearby Moseley Bog became his Old Forest of Middle-earth. The contemporary painting of Sarehole Mill (above) shows how it would have looked from their home across Wake Green Road.

Moseley, Hall Green & King’s Heath:

The Ivy Bush provided the basis for the Tavern in Chapter One of The Lord of the Rings, where Gaffer Gamgee ‘held forth.’

A little further towards the city centre in Edgbaston is Perrott’s Folly tower (below right), considered the model for at least one of The Two Towers.

Tolkien later lamented the encroachment of the suburbs upon his former home, but there is one place that ‘civilisation’ missed: Moseley Bog. The Bog was an ideal place for Tolkien’s childhood adventures. It was once a storage pool for Sarehole Mill and is also the site of two Bronze Age ‘burnt mounds’. The Bog is recalled in Tolkien’s description of the ‘Old Forest,’ the last of the primaeval wild woods where ‘Tom Bombadil’ lived. It is now a Local Nature Reserve managed by the Birmingham and Black Country Wildlife Trust.

There were few houses at Sarehole beside the row of cottages where the Tolkiens lived, but Hall Green village (pictured below, 4) was only a short distance away down a lane and across a ford. Gradually they made friends with the local children, which was not always easy, for their own middle-class accents, long hair and pinafores were mocked, and they, in turn, were not used to the Worcestershire dialect or the rough ways of the country boys. But they began to pick up something of the local vocabulary: ‘chawl’ for a cheek of pork, ‘miskin’ for dustbin, ‘pikelet’ for crumpet and ‘gamgee’ for cotton wool. The last owed its origins to Dr Sampson Gamgee, a Birmingham man who had invented ‘gamgee-tissue’, a surgical dressing made from cotton wool.

His name quickly became a household name in Birmingham and the West Midlands.

The Shire Country Park follows the attractive and varied valley of the River Cole as a green ribbon for some four miles from Small Heath to Yardley Wood. It was named in 2005 to reflect Tolkien’s links with the local area. The park contains wetland, grassland, woodland and heath. Herons, mallards and moorhens are common, and kingfishers can sometimes be seen hunting along the meandering river. The ford at Green Road (formerly Green Lane, pictured above) is one of the few remaining fords along the Cole Valley and was very familiar to young Ronald Tolkien.

Home Education:

Mabel Tolkien taught her two children at home. Ronald, as he was known in the family, was a keen pupil. She taught him a great deal of botany and awakened in him the enjoyment of the look and feel of plants. Young Tolkien liked to draw landscapes and trees, but his favourite lessons were those concerning languages. Her two sons could have had no better teacher, nor she an apter pupil than Ronald, who could read by the time he was four and had soon learnt to write proficiently. His mother’s own handwriting was delightfully unconventional (see her script on the Christmas postcard from Bloemfontein, top). Having acquired the skill of penmanship from her father, she chose an upright and elaborate style, ornamenting her capitals with delicate curls. Ronald soon began to practise a hand that was, though different from his mother’s, to become equally elegant and idiosyncratic. But his favourite lessons were those in languages. Early in his Sarehole days, his mother introduced him to the rudiments of Latin, which delighted him. He was just as interested in the shapes and sounds of words as in their meanings, and she realised that he had a particular aptitude for languages. She began to teach him French, but he liked this much less because the sounds did not please him as much as those of Latin or English.

She also tried to interest him in learning to play the piano, but without success. It seemed instead as if words took the place of music for him and that he enjoyed listening to them, reading and reciting them, almost regardless of their meaning. He was good at drawing, too, mainly when the subject was a landscape or a tree. His mother taught him a great deal of botany, which he soon became very knowledgeable about. But, again, he was more interested in the shape and feel of a plant than in its botanical details. This was especially true of trees, which, although he liked drawing them, he enjoyed being with them most of all. He would climb them, lean against them, and even talk to them. It saddened him to discover that not everyone shared his feelings toward them. One incident, in particular, remained in his memory:

“There was a willow hanging over the mill-pond and I learned to climb it. It belonged to a butcher on the Stratford Road, I think. One day they cut it down. They didn’t do anything with it: the log just lay there. I never forgot that.”

Outside the school-room hours, his mother gave him plenty of storybooks. He was amused by Alice in Wonderland, though he had no desire to have adventures like Alice. He did not enjoy Treasure Island, the stories of Hans Christian Andersen, nor The Pied Piper. But he liked ‘Red Indian’ stories and longed to shoot with a bow and arrow. He was even more pleased by the ‘Curdie’ books of George MacDonald, which were set in a remote kingdom where misshapen and malevolent goblins lurked beneath the mountains. The Arthurian legends also excited him. But most of all, he found delight in the Fairy Books of Andrew Lang, especially the Red Fairy Book, for tucked away in its closing pages was the best story he had ever read. This was the tale of Sigurd, who slew the dragon Fafnir: a strange and powerful tale set in the nameless North. Whenever Ronald read it, he found it absorbing:

“I desired dragons with profound desire, … Of course, I in my timid body did not wish to have them in the neighbourhood. But the world that contained even the imagination of the Fafnir was richer and more beautiful, at whatever cost of peril.”

The Viking Völsunga saga was the basis for this story, telling the story of Fafnir. Initially, the son of a dwarf king, Fafnir and his brother Regin killed their father to steal his gold. But greedy Fafnir took the gold from his brother and turned into a dragon to guard his hoard. The mortal hero Sigurd (Siegfried) avenged the deed by plunging his sword into the dragon’s heart. Fafnir and Siegfried are featured in Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, a four-part opera cycle based on Germanic and Norse mythology. But Ronald was not content merely to read about dragons. When he was about seven, he wrote his first story about a dragon. Yet all he could recall of it later in life was his mother’s typically ‘Victorian’ grammarian insistence on his correct use of the order of adjectives:

“I remember nothing about it except a philological fact. … My mother said nothing about the dragon, but pointed out that one could not say ‘a green great dragon’, but had to say ‘a great green dragon’. I wondered why, and still do. The fact that I remember this is possibly significant, as I do not think I ever tried to write a story again for many years, and was taken up with language.”

Even so, Tolkien’s later writing style was full of complex uses of adjectives, for which it was criticised. Anyone who has tried to read his books out loud to children will recognise this as an ‘issue’ if not an obstacle! Somehow Mabel managed to feed and clothe the boys on her meagre income, eked out with occasional help from the Suffields and Tolkien relatives. Yet through the daily worries of the family’s poverty-stricken existence, there shone the family’s love for each other and for the Sarehole countryside, a place for adventure and solace. Ronald revelled in his surroundings with a desperate enjoyment, perhaps sensing that this paradise would be lost one day. Occasionally a strange dream would come to trouble him, that of a great wave towering over the trees and the green fields and advancing to engulf him and all around him. It was a dream that recurred for many years.

A Divided Family – Anglicans, Nonconformists and Catholics:

Christianity had played an increasingly important part in Mabel Tolkien’s life since her husband’s death, and each Sunday, she had taken the boys on a long walk to a ‘high’ Anglican church. Then one Sunday, Ronald and Hilary found that they were going to a different place of worship: St Anne’s, Alcester Street, in the ‘slums’ near the city centre, a Roman Catholic Church. She had been thinking for some time about becoming a Catholic. Nor did she take this step alone. Her sister May had returned from South Africa, now with two children, leaving her husband Walter to follow when he had completed his business there. Unknown to him, she, too, had decided to become a Catholic. During the spring of 1900, May and Mabel received instruction at St Anne’s, and in June of the same year, they were welcomed into the Roman Church. Immediately the wrath of their family fell upon them. This was at a time when Birmingham was riven by sectarianism. Joseph Chamberlain, the former Mayor of Birmingham, was a Liberal Unionist MP for the city. Despite being a government minister, as a strong nonconformist, he was committed to the campaign against state funding for church schools, which was characterised as Rome on the rates. Nonconformity had reached its zenith in Birmingham. John Suffield, the father of Mabel and May, had gone to a Methodist School and was now, like Chamberlain, a Unitarian. To him, his daughters should turn ‘Papist’ was an outrage beyond belief. May’s husband, Walter Incledon, considered himself a pillar of his local Anglican church, and for his wife to associate herself with the Roman Catholics was simply out of the question. Returning to Birmingham, he forbade her to enter a Catholic church again, and she had to obey him, but she subsequently turned to spiritualism instead.

Walter Incledon had provided a small amount of financial support for Mabel since Arthur’s death, but now there would be no more money from that source. Instead, she faced hostility not just from Walter and other members of the Suffield family but also from the Tolkiens, many of whom were Baptists and therefore strongly opposed to Catholicism. The strain of this, coupled with the additional financial hardship, did no good for her health. Still, nothing would shake her loyalty to her new faith, and against the opposition of both families, she began to instruct Ronald and Hilary in that faith. Meanwhile, it was time for Ronald to be sent to school. In the autumn of 1899, aged seven, he took the entrance examination for King Edward’s but failed to obtain a place. A year later, he retook the examination and passed, entering ‘KEGS’ in September 1900. A Tolkien uncle better-disposed towards Mabel paid the fees, then twelve pounds per annum. The school was in the centre of the city, four miles from Sarehole but close to New Street Station, but for the first few weeks, Ronald had to walk much of the way, for his mother could not afford the train fare, and the trams did not run as far as his home, or even close to it.

Starting School – King Edward’s, Moseley & King’s Heath:

His four-mile morning walks could not continue, and Mabel regretfully decided that their days in the ‘shire’ would have to end. Instead, she found a house to rent on Alcester Road in Moseley, nearer the centre and already on the tram route to New Street Station and King Edward’s. So, late in 1900, she and the boys packed their belongings and left the cottage where they had been so happy for the past four years. ‘Four years,’ Ronald Tolkien wrote, looking back from old age, ‘but the longest-seeming and most formative part of my life.’ His home life was very different from what he had known at Sarehole. His mother had rented a small house on the main road in Moseley, which, though originally a village like Hall Green, had become a city suburb by then. The view from the windows was a sad contrast to the shire countryside of Sarehole, which Ronald was desperately forlorn at being severed from. The trams struggled up the hill, and in the distance were the smoking chimneys factory chimneys of Sparkbrook and Small Heath. But no sooner had they settled than they had to move again since the house was to be demolished to make way for a fire station. Mable found a villa less than a mile away in a terrace row behind King’s Heath Station. The family soon moved again to Westfield Road in Kings Heath, where they were now not far from her parental home, but what had really dictated her choice was the presence in the road of the new Roman Catholic church at St Dunstan, corrugated outside and pitch-pine within.

Ronald found some comfort in this new home. The King’s Heath house backed onto a railway line, and life was punctuated by the roar of trains and the shunting of trucks in the nearby coal yard. Yet the railway cutting had grass slopes, and he discovered flowers and plants here. And something else attracted his attention: the curious Welsh placenames on the coal trucks in the sidings below, which he could not pronounce. So it came about that he began to learn the Welsh language by pondering over the signs for Nantyglo, Senghenydd, Blaenrhondda, Penrhiwceiber, and Tredegar. Then, later in his childhood, he went on a railway journey to Wales, and as the station names flashed by him, he knew that there were words more appealing to him than any he had yet encountered, an ancient language but one which was still alive. He asked for information about it, but the only Welsh books that could be found for him were incomprehensible. Yet he had found another linguistic world to fire his creative talents, one to which he later returned.

King Edward’s School could scarcely be missed by the traveller arriving in Birmingham on the London and North Western Railway, for it rose majestically above New Street Station’s subterranean smoke and steam. It resembled an Oxford college, a heavy and soot-blackened Victorian gothic construction that was designed by Sir Charles Barry and AWN Pugin, the architects of the rebuilt Palace of Westminster (Houses of Parliament). Sadly, Barry’s building was demolished after the school had moved to new premises in Edgbaston, just outside the city centre, in 1935. However, a whole corridor was saved and rebuilt in Edgbaston as the new school chapel. Founded by Edward VI, the school was generously endowed, and the governors had been able to open branch schools in many of the poorer parts of the city, which formed the King Edward’s Foundation Schools. But the standards at the original ‘High School’ were still unrivalled in Birmingham, and many of the hundreds of boys went on to win awards at major universities. By the time Tolkien joined them, ‘KEGS’ had almost outgrown its buildings and was cramped, crowded and noisy. It presented a daunting prospect for a boy who had been brought up in a quiet country village, and, unsurprisingly, Ronald spent much of his first term absent from school due to ill health. But he soon grew accustomed to the school’s rough-and-tumble routine.

The Oratory & Ladywood:

Although he did not initially show any outstanding aptitude in classwork, Tolkien proved to be a good all-rounder. Besides diligently pursuing his academic studies, he was an enthusiastic sportsman, actor, librarian and secretary of the school debating and literary societies. Meanwhile, his mother was becoming restless. She did not like the King’s Heath house and discovered that she did not like St Dunstan’s Church. So she began to search around, once again taking the boys on long Sunday walks in search of a place of worship that appealed to her. She soon discovered the Birmingham Oratory, a large church in the Ladywood suburb of Birmingham that was looked after by a community of priests. The Birmingham Oratory had been established in 1849 by John Henry Newman, then a recent convert to the Catholic faith. He had spent the last four decades of his life within its walls, dying there in 1890. Surely, she thought, she would find a friend, sympathetic counsellor, and confessor among them. Newman’s spirit still presided over the high-ceilinged rooms of the Oratory House on The Hagley Road, and in 1902, the community still included many priests who had been his friends and had served under him.

When Tolkien’s mother converted to Catholicism in 1900, the family worshipped at St Anne’s Church in Alcester Street, Digbeth. After moving to Edgbaston in 1902, Mabel and the boys attended Cardinal Newman’s Oratory on the Hagley Road. The family lived in nearby Oliver Road, and, for a time, Ronald was enrolled at St Philip’s School on the same street.

One of these was Father Francis Xavier Morgan, then aged forty-three, who shortly after the Tolkiens moved into the Ladywood district took over the duties of a parish priest and came to call. In him, Mabel soon found not only a sympathetic priest but a valuable friend. Half-Welsh and half-Spanish, Morgan was not a man of great intellect, but he had an immense fund of kindness, humour and flamboyance often attributed to his Spanish connections. He soon became an indispensable part of the Tolkien household. Without his friendship, life for Mabel and her sons would have shown scant improvement over the previous two years. They moved to Ladywood near the Catholic Oratory church, to a house only one degree better than a slum, while all around them were mean side streets. However, next to the house was the Oratory, attached to which and under the direction of its clergy was the St Philip’s Grammar School, where the fees were lower than King Edward’s and her sons could receive a Catholic education.

Early in 1902, Ronald and Hilary were enrolled at St Philip’s School. But although it was only a step from their front door, its bare-brick classrooms were no substitute for the splendours of King Edward’s, and the school’s academic standards were correspondingly lower. Ronald quickly surpassed his classmates, and Mabel, almost as soon, realised that St Philip’s could not provide the education Ronald needed. So she removed both boys and began again to give them home tuition, with much success in Ronald’s case, as he won a Foundation Scholarship to King Edward’s and returned there a few months later. Hilary, however, failed his entry test and continued to be educated at home.

In charge of the Sixth Class at the school was George Brewerton, one of the few assistant masters who specialised in teaching English literature. At that time, this subject was scarcely featured in the curriculum. Brewerton was a medievalist and, always a fierce teacher, he demanded that his pupils should use the plain old words of the English language, for instance, not manure but muck. He encouraged them to read Chaucer and recited The Canterbury Tales in the original Middle English:

From Chaucer’s Prologue to the Canterbury Tales.

To Ronald Tolkien’s ears, this was a revelation, and he resolved to learn more about the history of the language. At Christmas 1903, Mabel Tolkien wrote to her mother-in-law about his progress:

He is going along at a great rate at school – he knows far more Greek than I do Latin – he says he is going to do German with me these holidays – though at present I feel more like Bed.

One of the clergy, a young, merry one, is teaching Ronald to play chess – he says he has read too much, everything fit for a boy under fifteen, and he doesn’t know any single classical thing to recommend him. Ronald is making his First Communion this Christmas – so it is a very great feast to us this year. I don’t say this to vex you – only you say you like to know everything about them.

A Worcestershire Convalescence; Grief & Faith:

The New Year did not begin well. Ronald and Hilary were confined to bed with measles followed by whooping cough and, in Hilary’s case, pneumonia. The additional strain of nursing them proved too much for their mother, and by April 1904, she was in the hospital, diagnosed with diabetes. Hilary was sent to his Suffield grandparents and Ronald to Hove to his Aunt Jane. Insulin treatment was not yet available for diabetes patients, and there was much anxiety about Mabel’s condition. Still, she had recovered sufficiently by the summer to be discharged from the hospital. Clearly, she must undergo a long and careful convalescence. A plan was proposed by Father Morgan. At Rednal, a Worcestershire village a few miles beyond the city boundary, Cardinal Newman had built a modest country house which served as a retreat for the Oratory clergy. On the edge of its grounds stood a cottage occupied by the local postman, whose wife could let the family have a bedroom and sitting-room, so in June 1904, the three joined together once more for a summer in the countryside. It was as if they had returned to Sarehole. The boys had the freedom of the estate and could also roam further away in the Lickey Hills. Father Morgan paid them many visits there, sitting upon the verandah of the House smoking a large cherrywood pipe, to which Tolkien traced his later addiction to the Pipe. It was an idyllic existence.

In September, Ronald – now fit and well – returned to King Edward’s. But his mother could not yet bring herself to return to the smoke and dirt of Birmingham. So, for the time being, Ronald had to get himself to school and back via train, and Hilary met him on his return with a lamp. However, Mabel’s condition began to deteriorate, and at the beginning of November, she collapsed suddenly and (for the boys) terrifyingly and sank into a diabetic coma. Six days later, on 14th November, with Father Francis and her sister May at her bedside in the cottage, she died. Nine years after her death, Ronald wrote:

My own dear mother was a martyr indeed, and it is not to everybody that God grants so easy a way to his great gifts as he did to Hilary and myself, giving us a mother who killed herself with labour and trouble to ensure us keeping the faith.

It gives some indication of the way he associated her with his membership in the Catholic Church. Indeed, it might be said that after she died, his religion took its place in the affections that she had previously occupied. The consolidation that it provided was both emotional and spiritual. Perhaps her death also had a cementing effect on his study of languages. It was she, after all, who had been his first teacher and had encouraged him to take an interest in words. Now that she was gone, he would pursue that path relentlessly. Indeed, the loss of his mother profoundly affected his personality. It made him into a pessimist, or rather it split his personality. By nature, he was a cheerful, almost irrepressible person with a great zest for life. He loved good conversation and physical activity. He had a deep sense of humour and an excellent capacity for making friends. But from this point on, there was to be another side to his personality, more private but predominant in his diaries and letters. This side of his mind was capable of bouts of profound despair. More precisely, when he was in this mood, he had a deep sense of impending loss, rather like his Sarehole dreams of a great wave. Nothing felt safe, nothing would last, and no battle would be won forever.

Mabel Tolkien was buried in the Catholic churchyard at Bromsgrove. Over her grave, Father Morgan placed a stone cross of the same design used for each of the Oratory clergy in their Rednal cemetery. Mabel had appointed him to be the guardian of the two boys in her will, which proved a wise choice, for he displayed unfailing generosity and fatherly affection to them. His generosity took a practical form, for he had a private income from his Anglo-Spanish family’s sherry business. Since, as an Oratorian, he was not obliged to surrender his property to the community, he could use this money for his own purposes. Mabel had left only eight hundred pounds of invested capital to support the boys. Still, Father Francis quietly augmented this from his pocket and ensured that Ronald and Hilary did not go short of anything essential to their well-being.

An Edgbaston Interlude, 1904-08:

Immediately after their mother’s death, the priest had to find somewhere new for them to live together: a tricky problem, for while ideally they should be placed with their own closest relatives, there was a danger that the Suffield or Tolkien aunts and uncles would try to move them away from the control of the Catholic Church. There had already been some talk about contesting Mabel’s will and sending the boys to a Protestant boarding school. However, one relative, an aunt by marriage, had no particularly strong religious views and had rooms to let. She lived in Edgbaston near the Oratory, and Father Francis decided that her house would be as good a home as any for the moment, at least. So a few weeks after their mother’s death, Ronald and Hilary (now thirteen and eleven) moved into their aunt’s top-floor bedroom. Her name was Beatrice Suffield, and she lived in a dark house in Stirling Road, a long side street in the district of Edgbaston.

The boys had a large room to themselves, and Hilary was happy leaning out the window. But Ronald was still numb from grief at his mother’s death and hated the view of the unbroken rooftops and factory chimneys beyond. The countryside was just visible in the distance, but it now belonged, in Ronald’s imagination, to a remote past that could no longer be regained. He felt trapped in the city, severed from the open air, the Lickey Hills, and the Rednal cottage where they had been so happy with their mother. Because her death had taken him away from all these beloved things, he came to associate them with her. His feelings towards the rural landscape, already sharpened by the earlier severance from Sarehole, now became charged with personal bereavement. These recollections of the countryside of his childhood and youth later became a central part of his writing, intimately bound up with his love for the memory of his mother.

Whilst living in Edgbaston, Ronald Tolkien would have been familiar with two distinctive landmarks. The extraordinary 96ft. Perrott’s Folly is named after John Perrott, who had it built in 1758. The crenellated Gothic tower was originally part of a hunting lodge. In the 19th century, it became one of the first weather recording stations in the country. Along the road at Edgbaston Waterworks stands a later Victorian chimney tower. The tower was part of a complex of buildings designed by J H Chamberlain and William Martin around 1870. The pair of towers, visible from Aunt Beatrice’s home in Stirling Road, is said to have suggested ‘Minas Morgul’ and ‘Minas Tirith’, the Two Towers of Gondor, after which the second part of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy is named.

The brothers lived in Stirling Road between 1904 and 1908. Aunt Beatrice gave Ronald and Hilary board and lodging but not much more. She had been recently widowed and was childless and poorly off. Sadly, she was also deficient in affection and showed little understanding of the boys’ mental and emotional states. One day, Ronald came into the kitchen, saw a pile of ashes in the grate, and discovered that she had burnt all his mother’s personal papers and letters. She had never considered that he might wish to keep them. Fortunately, the Oratory was near, and it soon became the boys’ real home. Early in the morning, they would serve mass for Father Morgan at his favourite side-altar. They would then eat breakfast in the refectory before setting off for school. Hilary had passed his entrance examination and was now at King Edward’s, and the two boys would walk together down New Street if there was time or take a horse-drawn tram if the clock at Five Ways showed that they were running late.

Studies in Old English & Middle English:

Ronald made many friends at school, and one boy in particular soon became an inseparable companion. A year younger than John Ronald, as he was known to these friends, Christopher Wiseman was the son of a Wesleyan minister living in Edgbaston. The two boys met in the Fifth Class in the autumn of 1905, Tolkien achieving first place in the class and Wiseman coming second. Their rivalry soon became a friendship based on a shared interest in Latin and Greek, a great delight in Rugby Football and an enthusiasm for discussing anything and everything. Wiseman was a staunch Methodist, but the two boys found that they could also discuss religion without bitterness. Together they moved up the school. The study of Latin and Greek was the backbone of the curriculum, and Tolkien demonstrated a natural aptitude for these. They were taught particularly well in the First (or Senior) Class, which Ronald reached shortly before his sixteenth birthday. By then, he was also developing an interest in the general principles of language. It was one thing to understand Latin, Greek, French and German, but quite another to know why they were what they were. Tolkien had begun to look for the elements that were common to them all: he had begun, in fact, to study philology, the science of words. He was encouraged to do even more when he became acquainted with Old English and Middle English.

Under George Brewerton’s tuition, Ronald Tolkien had shown an interest in Chaucerian literature. Brewerton was pleased by this and offered to lend Ronald an Anglo-Saxon primer, an offer which was eagerly accepted. Opening its covers, Tolkien found himself face to face with the language spoken by the English before the first Normans set foot in their land. Anglo-Saxon, also called Old English, was familiar and recognisable to him as an antecedent of his own language and, at the same time, was remote and obscure. In fact, Old English was the language of the Anglo-Saxon period, up to about 1150, after the Norman Conquest. Our knowledge of it is based on a few manuscripts that survive from the time, from which the grammar and vocabulary have been reconstructed by scholars, from the sixteenth century onwards, but mainly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The English were not a politically unified nation until late OE times, and they came from different parts of western Europe and spoke various dialects of West Germanic.

They settled in different parts of what became England and Scotland. Still, they were able to communicate with each other since dialects are varieties of language which differ in pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar but are not different enough to prevent understanding. The country settled by the English from the sixth to the eighth centuries is sometimes referred to as the heptarchy since it had seven kingdoms, the most powerful of which were, in turn, Northumbria, Mercia and Wessex. However, the fact that there were seven kingdoms did not mean that there were seven dialects. The evidence of the manuscripts suggests that there were three or four: Northumbrian and Mercian (developing from West Germanic ‘Anglian’), Kentish and West Saxon (originating from ‘Jutish’ and ‘Saxon’). It is usual to use the late West Saxon dialect to describe ‘Old English’ because, by the tenth century, it was a standard written form, and most surviving manuscripts were written in West Saxon.

The primer Brewerton lent to Tolkien explained the language in words that he could easily understand, and he was soon making light work of translating the prose examples at the back of the book. He found that Old English appealed to him, though it did not have the same aesthetic charm as Old Welsh. This was somewhat a historical appeal, the attraction of studying the ancestors of his own language. He began to find real excitement when he progressed beyond the simple passages in the primer and turned to the great Old English poem of Beowulf. Reading this first in a translation and then in the original language, he found it to be one of the most extraordinary poems he had ever read: the tale of the warrior Beowulf, his fight with two monsters, and his death after a battle with a dragon. The facsimile below is of the beginning of the manuscript poem:

The extract below is from a translation by Sam Newton (2003) in which a ship-burial, thought to be like the one uncovered at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, is described in the poem:

After discovering Beowulf, Tolkien returned to Middle English and found Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This was another poem to fire his imagination: the medieval tale of an Arthurian knight and his search for the mysterious giant who is to deal him a terrible axe blow. Tolkien was delighted by the poem, especially its language, for he realised that its dialect was approximately that which had been spoken by his mother’s West Midland ancestors. In the Anglo-Saxon incursions and settlements of Britain, the Angles occupied the Midlands, the North and what is now southern Scotland. The general term Anglian is used to describe their dialect of Old English (OE). Still, its northern and southern varieties were different enough for two dialects to be recognised: Northumbrian (north of the Humber) and Mercian (south of the Humber). During the Middle English (ME) period, the Mercian (Midlands) dialects developed differently. The East Midlands was part of the Danelaw, the area settled by Scandinavians or Norsemen and under Danish law throughout much of the ninth century, but the West Midlands was not. So the dialect of the East Midlands came under the influence of the Danish Old Norse (ON) speakers, while Old English Mercian became two ME dialects: East Midlands and West Midlands. The following two texts from the fourteenth-century poem Piers Plowman illustrate the West Midlands dialect. However, scholars have placed the dialect as being from the area covered today by Cheshire or south Lancashire rather than Warwickshire or Worcestershire.

Sir Gawain and The Green Knight is a romance in alliterative verse which tells the story of the legendary court of King Arthur. The one surviving manuscript was probably written towards the end of the fourteenth century. The author’s name is not known. The poem is written in 101 stanzas with varying unrhymed alliterative lines followed by five short rhymed lines. Like in all OE and ME poetry, it was written to be read aloud to an audience. Although it was contemporary with Chaucer’s writing, it is more difficult for the modern reader than a comparable stanza of Chaucer’s writing, partly because some vocabulary is from a stock of words which came down into modern English spoken dialects but not into written Standard English. The story of the poem is that during the New Year celebrations at King Arthur’s court, a Green Knight rides in, carrying a battle-axe and challenges any knight to strike him a blow with the axe, provided that he can strike a return blow a year and a day later. Gawain takes up the challenge:

The following stanza of the poem tells what happened when Gawain took up the Green Knight’s challenge to strike a blow with the axe.

Piers Plowman is one of the most famous poems in Middle English. It must have been a very popular work because over fifty manuscripts have survived. The poem is an allegory of the Christian life and the corruption of the contemporary church and society, written in the form of a series of dreams or ‘visions’. The following text is from the ‘Prologue,’ in which the writer dreams of a fair field full of folk, the world of contemporary society.

Piers Plowman is a humble poor West Midland labourer who stands for the ideal life of honest work and obedience to the church. The author was William Langland, but nothing is known about him apart from what can be inferred from the text of the poem. However, the reader must remember that the ‘dreamer’ of the visions is a character in the story and may not always be identified with the author. There are three versions of the poem, the A, B and C texts, which show that Langland constantly revised and extended the verse from the 1360s until the 1380s when the C-text was completed. Of course, the printed text is edited based on one of the C-text manuscripts but uses other manuscript readings or makes changes where the manuscript does not make good sense. Some modern punctuation has also been added, so we are not reading the exact form of the original manuscript. Nevertheless, it is a fine fourteenth-century example of the tradition of alliterative verse in English. The dialect is (south) West Midland ‘but rather mixed’, the dialect that Tolkien took to be that of his ancestors. But the fifty manuscripts and successive text versions also have many variant spellings. As a result, the editors of modern versions have to choose from the available alternatives. In addition, the manuscripts used by the editor are copies, not the original.

Text 45 (below) is a facsimile of an extract from one of the C-text manuscripts. In the first line, which can be described as What is parfit patience: quod Actiua uita, a question is put to Patience by Activa Vita (Active Life). They are allegorical characters in the poem. Piers Plowman is seeking how to live a good life, and the next Passus (section) describes the life of ‘Dowel’ – that is, how to do well.

Typical grammatical markers of ME West Midlands dialects, variants from OE, include:

Tolkien began to explore further in Middle English and read the Pearl, an allegorical poem about a dead child, believed to have been written by the author of Sir Gawain. Then he turned to Old Norse, reading line by line in the original words the story of Sigurd and the dragon Fafnir that had fascinated him in Andrew Lang’s Red Fairy Book when he was a small child. By this time, he had acquired a range of linguistic knowledge and awareness that was remarkable for a schoolboy. He continued his search for the ‘bones’ of all these languages, rummaging in the ‘Philology’ sections of the school library and the nearby bookshop. It was not an arid interest in the scientific principles of language; it was a deep love for the look and sound of words, springing from the days of his mother’s first Latin lessons.

From Middle England to Middle-earth:
A blue plaque on the Birmingham Repertory Theatre commemorates Dr J Sampson Gamgee, founder of the Birmingham Hospital Saturday fund. ‘Gamgee tissue’ was the local name for cotton wool, and the surgeon’s widow lived opposite Aunt Beatrice’s house in Stirling Road, so Ronald Tolkien would have been very familiar with the name, though unconscious of its origins when he used it for Frodo’s faithful companion in his book.

To be continued (for sources, see part two)…


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