Chapter 1

Chapter 1

Early Years


I was born on March 6th 1911 in a town called Palmyra in the Province of Mendoza in the Argentine Republic, the youngest of three surviving children. My father was John David William Holmes, and my mother, Barbara Janet Holmes, nee Harper.


My paternal grandfather was a John Holmes, a civil engineer, engaged on railway construction in Northern Bengal in India when my father was born. He had married a Miss Daly, the daughter of a Major William Daly of the Bengal Cavalry a year before the birth. Major Daly was an Irishman from County Cork, and had retired there when wounds suffered in the Relief of Delhi, brought his army career to a close.


John Holmes’ mother was, before she married, a Miss Holder from Kinnersley in the county of Hereford. She had eloped with a French officer, named De Fouquerelle, in exile in England with Napoleon III, and John Holmes was their child. Shortly after his birth De Fouquerelle was killed in a minor skirmish on Napoleon’s return to France. When John Holmes was about one year old, his mother met a John Holmes, a widower and a merchant with interests in India, and married him. This John Holmes legally adopted the child, and had him baptised into the Church of England with the name of John Holmes.


My Father was the eldest of 5 children, having 2 sisters; Rachel Mary, and Grace, as well as a half brother Gerald Nixon and a half sister Mona Nixon. His mother had married again on the death of John Holmes, her second husband being named Nixon.


Gerald was killed in the first World War whilst serving with The Hampshire Regiment, and Grace died just before, and Rachel, during the second War. Mona had died many years before when she was seventeen. Grace had never married,and had looked after her parents until they died, but Rachel had married twice, but had no children.


Rachel was our favourite aunt, and was a great character. Her first husband was an Admiral Parker, wealthy and retired, and much older than her, and when he died she married Edward Manville, later Sir Edward. He had a distinguished career in business and politics being M.P. for Coventry for many years. He started life as an electrical engineer, and is reputed to have designed the Buenos Aires Tramway System, and went on to become Chairman of the Daimler Car Company, and The Birmingham Small Arms Company, and a director of many other companies, one being the Roumanian Oil Company, which of course ceased to exist during WW2.


My Mother’s family is better documented. Her Father was William Peddie Harper, and her mother Janet McKerrow, both Scottish, and both I believe descended from a long line of Church of Scotland divines. My mother was born in Edinburgh where the family lived. She had 3 brothers, and a sister, our Aunt Mia whom we frequently saw until her death. The older two were twin brothers, Jim and John, one of whom later farmed in Nyasaland, now Malawi, and the other settled in Paraguay where he raised a large family. The third brother, Erskine settled in Canada after WW1, and had one son .


Mia married a Trevor Bright, from an old Worcestershire family, and had 5 daughters, Betty Phillips, Nancy Stone, Joan Astley, Pamela Bright, and Felicity Harris, all of whom, except Pamela, have had children.


On the Holmes side of the family, my older sister Ruth Jaques, born in 1908, was married to Dr. Harold Jaques who died some years ago. She was his second wife as his first wife died after having one son Timothy, and Ruth has three children of her own, Nicola Eeles, Peter Jaques, and Celia Elmhirst, all of whom have children of their own.


My older brother, Dick, born in 1909, was one of the first 90 boys at Stowe in 1923, and went on to Cambridge, where he read Military Subjects, and on graduating joined the Regular Army with a Commission in The Royal Berkshire Regiment. He was killed while leading his Company of the Sherwood Foresters, during the break out from the Anzio beachhead in Italy, in WW2. He never married.


My father was privately educated by a tutor in England at Wallingford in Berkshire where the tutor and his wife lived, but at 15 went out to join his mother in India when his father died. After a month or two it was decided that it was better that he should return to England to continue his education, and he did so. Later his mother decided to get married again to an old friend called Nixon. At the age of 18 Father decided to return to India, and his mother agreed. In India he enrolled at the Government College of Civil and Military Engineering at Roorkee and studied civil engineering. On completion of this course he did a short spell on a survey of north Bengal, and was contemplating applying for a similar position on a survey in China, when he heard that a volunteer mounted regiment was to be formed in India for service in South Africa for the Boer war, and volunteered to enlist in it: he was selected as one of 75 recruits out of over 1000 applicants.


The Regiment served in South Africa for the duration of the Boer war, and father remained with it for the whole time. He always said that this period of his life was the most interesting, and adventurous of his whole life, The Regiment was employed for the most part on reconnaissance and scouting,and troopers were usually off in the veldt in small parties of three or four living off the land for days or weeks at a time. An ideal life for a young man of 22 or so, which he was at the time. It was the last of the Gentlemen’s Wars.


When it finally ended, Father, being unwilling at the age of twenty one or so, to return to India to start to look for a job, joined the British South Africa Police, whose job it was to pacify the country, and help it to return to normal life after a long and damaging war. This offered the same kind of adventurous life that he had enjoyed with Lumsden’s Horse. He stayed with the Police for about a year, and then decided that he had better begin to think of a serious job that could use his Engineering qualifications.


In due course he applied for a position with the Argentine Railways, at that time owned, and built, by British companies, and he obtained a job as a civil engineer for the construction of the Railway in the Andes, and on the borders of Paraguay. So in due course he arrived in the Argentine. My Aunt Mia’s husband, Trevor Bright, was working for a British company, Forestal Land, in the Argentine, and Mia was there with him. My mother, after finishing schooling, went out to stay with her sister, and that is how she met my father. They got married in due course, and started a family. Ruth was born in the Argentine, Dick in England, and I in the Argentine.


The Great War, WW1, started on August 4th 1914, and early in 1915 Father resigned from his job, and returned to England to join the Army, taking the family with him. He was 38 years old, and could easily have remained in the Argentine with a clear conscience, but he was, and remained all his life, intensely patriotic.


This action meant relinquishing a good salary that enabled him to keep his family in considerable comfort, with house servants, nanny etc. and exchanging all this for the meagre pay of a 2nd Lieutenant in The Royal Engineers. As a result the family suffered considerable hardship, and I do not know how my mother could have managed, but for Uncle Ted Manville who helped financially; however she still had to get a job in the Censorship Office, and we children were looked after by a nanny and at Kindergarten. We lived at various addresses in London and Surrey, during the whole war until it ended in 1918. As soon as we were old enough we were sent to boarding schools, Ruth and Dick going at 7 years old, and I at 6 of my own choice. By this time father had been promoted to Major with better pay, and so the family was somewhat better off.


Because I was so young I was sent to a small school at Sunningdale in Surrey, owned, and run by the two Misses Bradnack, whose brother owned the school where Dick was, which was nearby . However after a short time for some reason or other Miss Bradnack’s school had to leave their premises, and amalgamated with the brother’s so that for some period I was at school there. I should, no doubt have remained there but for the discovery that one of my eyes was blind. It happened as follows; we new boys were to be taught rifle shooting, and were taken to the Gymnasium which was used as a rifle range. When my turn came to be shown how to aim etc, I was made to hold the air rifle off the right shoulder which was my blind side, and being too shy and nervous to say anything, I did as I was told. At that age I thought that everyone had only one good eye. I therefore lay down as instructed, pointed the rifle at what I thought must be the target, and pulled the trigger. There was an immediate howl of pain from a master who was standing to one side, who had been shot in the leg. I came under considerable adverse comment until I was able to explain that having a blind right eye placed me at a considerable disadvantage when required to shoot off the right shoulder , or words to that effect.


Aunt Rachel, who was “in loco parentis” as our parents were in India, had me immediately sent up to her in London, and she took me to the King’s oculist, Sir Arnold Lawson, who put drops in my eye so that I could not see clearly for a week or so, and then when I could see again made me wear a black eyeshade over the good eye in order to encourage the bad one. Absolutely useless of course, and I had to grope my way round school when I returned there, and could take no part in school activities, and my lessons suffered. Miss Bradnack used this disability to persuade my parents to allow her to take me to the school which she was about to open in Canford Cliffs, the experiment of merging with her brother’s school not being successful


Miss Bradnack’s new establishment was a semi-detached villa near the sea, and had room for very few boarders, but an added advantage from the parents’ point of view was that she was prepared to take us three children for the holidays as well if required, a great advantage, as in those days people working abroad could usually only get home to England every 3 or 4 years.


Thus began my life with these two elderly “Victorian “spinsters. The elder one was very much the boss, and always known as Miss Bradnack, whilst the younger was known as Miss Bea, and appeared to be terrified of her sister. I do not know their ages but to me they seemed ancient, and I suppose they were somewhere in their fifties. They dressed in Victorian fashion, with high neck whalebone stiffened collars, and their skirts were down to the ground. Miss Bradnack was just plain ugly with a squashy shapeless nose,sagging jowls,and bulbous watery eyes behind gold rimmed pince-nez worn on a chain. Miss Bea was a much more sympathetic character,and better looking, but had no say in the running of the school, except that she supervised all the domestic arrangements, and acted as a sort of matron.


I think we all hated Miss Bradnack, she must have been rather an unpleasant creature, and I was the only unfortunate boy who stayed at school permanently, terms and holidays, and was joined by my brother Dick in the holidays, and once or twice by Ruth. As a result Miss Bradnack seemed to think that she had a proprietary interest in me, so that she even resented it when my mother wanted to have us on one of her rather rare visits home. As a matter of course all our letters to the parents were dictated to us by Miss Bradnack, so that we were never able to tell the parents of our miseries. On one occasion towards the end of our stay, when mother returned from India, all three of us were at the Bradnacks, and mother had written ahead that she was returning home and would come and see us immediately she landed, before she started to look for a house to live in for the holidays. We were not told of this, and on the afternoon that mother was due, we were sent out to a cinema, so that we were not there to greet her when she arrived. This was the final straw and proved Miss Bradnack’s undoing, as Dick and Ruth came no more, and I stayed only long enough for me to take the Common Entrance exam.


All the foregoing may give the impression that we were cruelly treated, but that was not so, and probably for most of the time I was reasonably happy. Certainly there were a great many children in the same position as us, for a large number of British worked abroad in India, Africa, the Colonies and indeed the whole world. The tour abroad would be for a minimum of three years, and usually five or more, and the only means of returning home was by boat, the journey taking between three and five weeks. There was no question of children being able to join their parents for the holidays as is the custom nowadays.


However my fading memories of the Bradnacks are not happy, and it is significant that the most vivid is of punching Miss Bradnack on her squashy nose when she wrongfully accused me of stealing two and sixpence from her bag.


I must acknowledge that the teaching I got there gave me a head start when I went on to Stowe. Miss Bradnack’s own education must have been rudimentary, as in order to coach me for the Common Entrance she had to engage a tutor for me. This good lady would arrive every afternoon by bicycle after we had been for a walk or played a game of rounders, and she taught me all the subjects necessary for the exam so that I passed easily, and was well ahead of my age group when I arrived at Stowe, except in games, of which I knew nothing.


Another early memory of Bradnacks; my first dog, Nigger, was a black retriever that got on to the bus with us one day when we were returning from Bournemouth, and we kept him thereafter. He would sleep on my bed, although he was very large, and would growl ominously if I moved my feet. He was a godsend to Miss Bea at meal times, for, terrified of her sister as she was, she dared not leave anything on her plate, and became expert at flicking unwanted bits from her plate on to her lap whence she would craftily transfer them to Nigger. We loved to watch this with the thrill that she might be caught, but as far as I can remember she never was.


Aunt Rachael and Uncle Ted used to visit us occasionally when they were on short holidays to the Royal Bath Hotel in Bournemouth, and would arrive in the grandest Daimler car driven by Kellow their chauffeur. Uncle Ted always had the very latest Daimler, and Aunt Rachael also had one for shopping. The whole road of rather horrid little semi-detached villas would have their lace curtains drawn aside while the occupants watched with avid interest the arrival of the grand personages, Aunt Rachael beautifully dressed as always, and Uncle Ted in an immaculate suit, a grey Homburg hat, and with a button hole and a large Havana cigar, looking every inch a millionaire. Miss Bradnack, the tyrant ,would hover around bobbing , and smarming. We would then all go off, and eat ourselves to repletion at the Royal Bath.


In spite of all my unhappy memories of the Bradnacks I think that I have a lot to thank it for. Having no mother to run to when hurt or miserable, must have given me a certain mental hardihood, and a sense of independence.


At the end of the war in 1918, father had stayed on in the army, and had been promoted to Lt. Colonel and had been employed as a Royal Engineer on clearing up the battlefield in north France, and we children spent a very happy summer holiday in hutted camp with him, and the troops under his command, and toured all over the Lille, Mons, and Poperinhge area, in an army car mounted on railway wheels, which ran on tracks laid previously, roads being almost non existent, due to the intensive shelling of the war. We saw the areas before they were cleaned up, with wrecked tanks, guns, trenches, and occasional corpses, and collected numerous small souvenirs, and generally had a wonderful time


When this work was completed he was posted to India on the North West Frontier, and later to the post of C.R.E. Calcutta in, I believe, 1921. After some time he decided to leave the army and took a position as general manager of a railway which had its headquarters in Delhi. During this period he was very seriously injured when the inspection trolley on which he was travelling, ran at speed into an obstruction of railway sleepers deliberately placed on the track. He was thrown off, and broke a leg and his pelvis, and was told that he would never walk again without crutches. However within a few months he was fully mobile again, without a trace of a limp,and for the rest of his long life remained a very active man, riding and playing tennis until an advanced age.


However after a time, Father decided that he would look for another job, and through the good offices of Uncle Ted he was interviewed for the position as General Manager of the Mexican Railway, which at that time was controlled by the Firm of S. Pearson and Son , a very large civil engineering company, who had designed and built it. It ran from Mexico City to Vera Cruz, and was a scenic wonder. Father’s previous experience well qualified him for the job, and he was appointed to it at a salary of £5000 per year payable in gold, an enormous amount in those days. At the same time he became General Manager of the port of Vera Cruz, which was a subsidiary of the Railway.


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