Skip to main content
Menu

The personal and the historical

by Angus Trumble, 3 August 2018

Helen Borthwick née Pearson
Helen Borthwick née Pearson

Where do we draw a line between the personal and the historical? Although she died in Melbourne in 1975, when I was not quite eleven years old, I have the vividest memories of my maternal grandmother Helen Borthwick. Mrs Borthwick was the eldest daughter of the Hon. William Pearson, MLC, who represented the Province of Gippsland in the upper house of the Victorian Parliament through the years at either side of Federation, and was a member of the powerful Joint Committee on Defence. The highlight of the Pearsons’ extended visit to England, commencing towards the end of 1912, was when Lady Reid, the wife of the Australian High Commissioner, Sir George H. Reid, sometime fourth Prime Minister of the Commonwealth, 1904–05, presented Great-Grandmother Sophie Pearson to the King and Queen at an evening court at Buckingham Palace, and Mrs. Pearson in turn presented her daughters. Here is the exquisite photograph that was taken by Speaight Limited, Photographers & Portrait Painters at 157 New Bond Street (No. 42645B), to commemorate this, the apex of Gran’s “coming-out” year. Note the regulation two white ostrich feathers on top—two for unmarried ladies, three for the other sort—as well as the equally regulated veil, train and expensive “shower” bouquet, which was the size (and presumably the weight) of a mutant cabbage. Imagine, so encumbered, making the deepest possible curtsy, then walking backwards out of the royal presence. Pursuant to my researches into Edwardian Court protocol (via ample, published instructions from the office of the Lord Chamberlain), I now know you ordered two shower bouquets, one for the Evening Court and the other for when the fashionable Mayfair photographers could eventually squeeze you in.

Gran’s diary for 1914 survived among my late mother’s possessions, and it is obvious that the family extracted every moment of excitement from the London season. Apart from separate skiing holidays at Pontresina and Klosters, a visit to Menton where on 4 February 1914, she joined only a small handful of women who had ever flown in an amphibious aircraft or “hydroplane,” to say nothing of country excursions throughout England, and to Scotland and Wales, Gran’s days were largely spent cycling, or playing tennis or golf, or attending point-to-point meetings, or riding in Hyde Park, or watching the aeroplanes at Farnborough, going to the reviews at Spithead and Aldershot, and the Duke and Duchess of Connaught’s bazaar at Bagshot Park, near Windsor. She attended the regatta at Henley, the Richmond Horse Show, Royal Ascot, polo matches, and celebrity golfing and tennis tournaments. She went to innumerable dances, had her photograph taken, and went shopping almost every day. She had lunch with her brother and sister at the Trocadero. They went to the Army and Navy rugby and cricket matches. In May Week she went with friends to the Trinity and Jesus College balls at Cambridge, and in June she saw the Prince of Wales buy a cake at Stewart’s.

Above all, it is the incessant West End theatre-going, sometimes at the height of the season every single night, that stands out from her brief diary entries. It must have been heaven.

In January at the Royalty, Gran saw The Pursuit of Pamela, by Chester Bailey Fernaid, which she thought was “just ripping,” and Gladys Cooper in the title role “sweet.” The following month she saw Marie Tempest in Cosmo Gordon Lennox’s adaptation of Mme. Fred de Grésac and Francois de Croisset’s The Marriage of Kitty at the Playhouse (gowns by Maison Howard and Lucile, Ltd.), and at the Comedy Ethel Irving in a revival of C. Haddon Chambers’s The Tyranny of Tears.

The next month was much busier. At the Apollo, Gran saw Charles Hawtrey’s production of W. H. Post’s new play Never Say Die; Gerald Du Maurier and Lady Tree in Diplomacy at Wyndham’s; Gladys B. Unger’s long-running adaptation of The Marriage Market, starring Sári Petráss, who made her nightly entrance on a donkey called Jenny (gowns by Maison Agnes and Miss Fisher); Richard Pryce’s adaptation of the 1910 Arnold Bennett novel Helen With the High Hand at the Vaudeville, and, finally, at the Haymarket, Arthur Wimperis’s musical Within the Law.

In April, Gran went to A Year In an Hour at the Victoria Palace; The Brass Bottle (“a farcical fantastic play in four acts by F. Anstey”), and Within the Law a second time, which she noted enthusiastically was “just a ripping play, the best in London.” At the end of the month she saw the revue Hullo, Tango! at the Hippodrome, starring Frank Carter, Isabell d’Armond, Teddie Gerard, Morris Harvey, Shirley Kellogg, Gerald Kirby, Ethel Levey, Violet Loraine, Eric Roper, and Harry Tate, and featuring the sensational new hit numbers “Get Out and Get Under!” and “Love Me While the Lovin’ Is Good.” Intriguingly, she went back to see it again less than a fortnight later.

In May, Gran saw My Lady’s Dress by Edward Knoblauch at the Royalty (gowns by Michée Zac) and Arcademy (this latter twice in the space of four days), then Potash and Perlmutter, the new American play by Montague Glass and Charles H. Klein at the Queen’s, which she thought “jolly clever.”

Then came The Land of Promise by Somerset Maugham (“rather disappointing”). This comparatively rare adverse reaction was probably due to the play’s outrageously condescending plot. According to The Times critic, dripping with sarcasm, “Londoners who dine at restaurants, dance the Tango (or its successor of the moment), and spend their evenings at crowded At Homes, or in theatres, music-halls, or picture-palaces, like to read stories or to look at plays about the rolling prairies and the free, open-air life of Manitoba. It is one of the amusements of town.” I doubt if this went down at all well with any self-respecting Gippslander or Hermitage Old Girl, almost certainly alert to snobbisme misdirected at well-connected visitors from distant colonies.

After this came a revue entitled The Passing Show at the Palace (twice in the same week: “a most ripping affair” and “just topping,” despite The Times’ critic’s opinion that it required “a little compression”), and a recital by Dame Clara Butt, who had in 1907 with her husband, the baritone Kennerly Rumford, actually stayed with the Pearsons at Kilmany Park when they performed in Sale on their sensational Australian and New Zealand tour. Then at the Lyric came Mam’selle Tralala (subtitled Oh! Be Careful, designed entirely by Baruch & Co.) (“most awfully good”); a Cambridge University Footlights Dramatic Club matinee benefit at the Queen’s for the National Institute for the Blind entitled Was It the Lobster? (“awfully clever”), and, on 29 June, George Bernard Shaw’s “new play” Pygmalion at His Majesty’s, starring Herbert Beerbohm Tree and Mrs. Patrick Campbell in the role of Eliza Doolittle.

July was busier still: Gran saw Jack Hulbert in his own adaptation of The Cinema Star by Georg Okonkowski and Julius Freund at the Shaftesbury (twice), with music by Jean Gilbert, who also composed Mam’selle Tralala. According to The Times newspaper, The Cinema Star had “a very distinctive plot. Owing to a lightning strike of electricians, a handsome film actor is imprisoned for some hours in a hotel lift with the charming daughter of a millionaire who aspires to abolish all cinema theatres.”

Gran went back to see Mam’selle Tralala again (actually two more times); Mr. Thurston’s new play, Driven, at the Haymarket, starring C. Aubrey Smith and Alexandra Howell; Charles Marlowe’s When Knights Were Bold at the Apollo, starring James Welch, C. F. Lloyd, Isla Glynn, and Queenie Thomas; the Russian ballets: almost certainly Stravinsky and Fokine’s Petrouchka or The Fire Bird at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane; Eliza Comes To Stay, H. V. Esmond’s “bizarre comedy” at the Vaudeville, which according to The Times was “preceded by a welcome revival of that hilarious satire on nursing homes, The Rest Cure, by G. E. Jennings,” and, finally, “Mr. Arnold Bennett’s delightful fantasy” The Great Adventure at the Kingsway.

Gran also went to see “the movies,” only once it seems, and to revivals of Hugh Morton and Gustave Kerker’s The Belle of New York at the Lyceum (gowns by Thelma), and, towards the end of July, as the drums of war began to beat faster and harder, the patriotic Flag Lieutenant at the Haymarket, starring Jack Hobbs, Mrs. Patrick Campbell, and Helen Haye in the role of Mrs. Gough-Bogle.

It is hardly surprising that in the midst of this busy social season—she went to dinners, suppers, or dances after the theatre most nights (and I fervently hope that she danced the thrillingly fashionable Argentine tango)—Gran fell in love.

The name of this new young man was Campbell Russell, the younger son of Mr. and Mrs. C. W. Russell of Melbourne. Mr. Russell was general manager of the Union Bank of Australia, an old Anglo-Australian bank which eventually in 1951 merged with the Bank of Australasia to form the ANZ Bank. Campbell was a submarine officer in the Royal Navy, and the brother of Gran’s school-friend Adye Russell (Waller). The two families knew each other in Melbourne, when for six months in 1905 the Pearsons lived in a big house called Woodside in Hawthorn, while Kilmany Park was being extravagantly rebuilt. And at the end of 1912 they renewed their acquaintance when the Pearsons, Mrs. Russell and her children sailed from Melbourne to London aboard the same ship. Mr. Russell followed after his retirement in the middle of 1916.

In 1912 in Sale and Melbourne, Gran spent quite a bit of time golfing, dancing, and socializing with Keith Borthwick, her future husband’s comparatively glamorous older brother, whom she had known since early childhood, and it may have been a deliberate stratagem on their parents’ part that Gran and her sister, Aunt Mim, should spend as much time as possible abroad, mixing with eligible young Australians in England. Lieutenant Keith A. Borthwick was killed in the first line at the horrific Battle of the Nek at Gallipoli on 7 August 1915.

In any event this new friendship must have been blossoming by January 1914, when Gran first mentions going to the theatre with Adye and Mrs. Russell, almost as soon as possible after returning from France and Switzerland. Campbell was a handsome sportsman. Gran went to watch him play for the Royal Navy against the Army in the rugby match at Twickenham (“Twickers”). The Navy lost, 14–26, but, she noted, “it was very exciting.” The friendship must have taken a new and serious turn by May 1914, because at the end of the month we read:

Did flowers, went into town, etc. Campbell came [to visit Mr. and Mrs. Pearson]. After lunch we played tennis, quite good fun. Dance in the evening, just splendid, I did so enjoy it, fine night so we were able to go out-side [!]. Jenny Brooke also staying here. I’m quite quite sure now [her italics].

Campbell had evidently sought Mr. Pearson’s permission to propose, and must have secured it. The young people were engaged, apparently unofficially, perhaps due to the growing threat of war.

Just before the Pearsons’ departure for Australia in December 1914, Gran went with Campbell to a Royal Navy ball in Portsmouth. Campbell had something to do with arranging the catering, and in old age she recalled that he asked her if she thought she could get through a whole magnum of champagne! “It was the first and only time I tasted cold plovers’ eggs for supper.” A little later, Gran went aboard Campbell’s submarine depot ship, the 5,750-ton second-class light cruiser H.M.S. Arrogant, to watch the King review the Fleet at Spithead, and, after the declaration of war only two weeks later, she and her mother “went down to Dover for the day to say goodbye to Campbell,” who was about to set sail on the Channel station.

Royal Navy Second Class Cruiser HMS Arrogant

It was an awful day, rained hard. We sat in a hotel most of the time, had tea on the Arrogant, it was just an awful day for rain, came back after dinner. Poor old boy!

Charles Arthur Campbell Russell joined the Royal Navy on 15 January 1913 and volunteered as a submariner. Service aboard submarines has always been voluntary, and subject to strict regulation of height and weight, and exhaustive training. Some tension existed within the admiralty arising from the old-fashioned view that submarine warfare was somehow underhand and “ungentlemanly.” However, it was also true that submariners swiftly came to see themselves, and were gradually accepted as the élite shock troops of the senior service, and its futuristic technocrats.

Campbell was at first assigned to the 1,070-ton torpedo gunboat and submarine depot vessel H.M.S. Hazard, but was soon transferred to the Arrogant. He was commissioned sub-lieutenant on 6 October 1914, and after submarine officer training, on 15 January 1915, he was promoted lieutenant. He won the gold medal awarded periodically “to the cadet who during his period of training exhibited the most gentlemanlike bearing and good influence among the cadets.”

He seems to have served on submarines in the enormously hazardous Channel and North Sea stations throughout the war, successively attached to the light cruisers Forth (1916) and Bonaventure (1917). On 18 April 1918, he assumed the command of H.M.S. G7, working in conjunction with the special torpedo vessel H.M.S. Vulcan, based at Blyth in Northumberland. G-class submarines were specifically intended to fight German U-boats in the North Sea. It is not known how or when G7 was sunk, or in what circumstances, but the last communication was received from her on 23 October 1918, when she was on patrol, and on November 1, just ten days before the Armistice was signed, she was reported long overdue and, as a result, her commanding officer, Lieutenant C. A. C. Russell, and his thirty other officers and crew declared lost in action. Their bodies were never recovered.

Charles Arthur Campbell Russell is listed on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial, and there is a small monument to his memory in St. George’s church, Croydon, in South London, which was placed there by his grieving parents, “late of Melbourne, Australia,” who, according to the death notice in the Argus on Saturday 16 November 1918, were by then residing at Falkland House, Kensington.

It is not yet clear why Campbell Russell broke his engagement to Gran. She left us no clues at all.

Every life abounds with the severed threads of what might have been, among those from which we ourselves continue to dangle. Wars have a devastating habit of cropping them with violence, but there are innumerable other ways in which they are trimmed with varying degrees of neatness—choices, decisions, accident, good or bad luck, and happenstance. This is what one might call the “chaos theory” of every personal history, including those for which the portraits that hang in our galleries stand in loco. In the firm grip of middle age, one therefore begins to see the wisdom of neither looking too far forward, nor indeed allowing oneself the indulgence of staring quite so long over one’s shoulder. It is, to me, no accident that Dante Alighieri began his colossal Divina Commedia by striking just such a chord:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,

ché la via diritta era smarrita.

In the middle of the path of our life
I found myself passing through a dark wood,
For the straight path had been lost.

Although this situation might seem relatively innocuous, in early fourteenth-century Italy a dark wood (not even a forest) was a fearfully dangerous place, and the prospect of inadvertently straying into the depths of one was dreadful. Dante therefore touches on a universal aspect of the human condition. Who has not at one time or another felt that they have lost their way, either literally or metaphorically—when, indeed, the past seems as occluded and nonsensical as our best attempts to predict or plan for the future? Dante’s enormous poetic vision therefore begins to unfold from a point of disorientation, the head-scratching “now.” You could, I think, argue that all histories are written from a similar perspective, that history itself is an effort not so much to make sense of who we were, but rather to dredge the past and discover why we are who we are. Hence Gran, and it is tempting to follow her just a little further, for what follows set in train the subsequent century from the end of which my brothers and I may now look back with not a little gratitude:

Weddings

BORTHWICK—PEARSON

A wedding which aroused a considerable amount of district interest, affecting as it did two of our best known and leading families of a great many years standing, took place in St. Paul’s Cathedral yesterday, when Helen, second [sic] daughter of the late Mr. William and Mrs. Pearson of Kilmany Park, Sale, was married to William, fourth son of Colonel and Mrs. Wm. Borthwick, of Sale. The Cathedral was nicely decorated for the occasion by the many friends of the bride, and the sacred building was filled with interested spectators when the ceremony took place. The bride, who charmed the onlookers by her prettiness, was given away by her uncle, Mr. Alex[ander]. Gooch [Uncle Sandy], and was attended by Miss Mollie Gooch as bridesmaid, and four little pages—two cousins, and [the] two sons of Mrs. M[innie]. Grant Bruce [the novelist, and her husband and distant cousin Major George Evans Bruce]. The bridegroom’s brother, Ronald, acted as best man. The Bishop of Gippsland (Dr. Cranswick), assisted by Canon Haultain, tied the nuptial knot, and the service was choral, Mrs. S. Napper presiding at the organ. The wedding breakfast at Kilmany Park was a particularly happy one, and there were no speeches. The happy couple left on their honeymoon by the afternoon train, when again there was a very large attendance of friends to wish them well. Mr. and Mrs. W. A. Borthwick’s future home will be at Fulham [Raeshaw].

Gippsland Times, Thursday 28 October 1920, p. 4.