Postcard from India

Greetings from India

Letter to 36 Maxwell Road

First Air Mail letter to be sent from Allahabad


pst.taunton school

Philip Sydney Tovell (1914-1942)

Taunton School abt 1930



Book Three - family history






... Chelmondiston is the genealogical home of our Tovells.  Suffolk and the other Counties of East Anglia together represent the genealogical homes of all the Tovells. 
     Although the family connections from this area pre-date the chosen period of this account, it would be inappropriate to omit some mention of the village that gave birth to our branch of the family tree.  This first Chapter, then, will offer the briefest outline of what is known of Chelmondiston, and of the Tovell families that lived there in the latter part of the 18th Century.
     Accordingly the writer, armed with a piece of paper and an obligation, made a journey one cold clear January day to inspect this seat of ancestry.  The piece of paper - a page from an 1851 Berkshire census indicating that his great great Windsor grandfather, Samuel Henry Tovell (Samuel Henry), had originally come from Chelmondiston.  The obligation - to the story about to be told, a commitment to begin at the beginning.  The journey - short, but significant, starting some fifty miles away in Norwich.  This fine city, interestingly enough, being the place in which the first ever reference to the name Tovell has been found – Stephen Tovild in 1473 and John Tovell in 1491. (Reaney and Wilson, 1995)...


... At the young age of twelve (on 31st May 1855), Henry William Tovell (HWT) enlisted as a Boy Bandsman in the British Army - with which Regiment is not yet known.  He is next found, a further twelve years later and at the age of 24, purchasing his discharge at Amballa, India (on 26 January 1867).  During these dozen years he became a proficient musician, either self-taught or with some guidance from the Army.  Three weeks after leaving his first Regiment, he enlisted with another - the 94th Regiment of Foot, The Connaught Rangers - in Calcutta on the19th February 1867, in which outfit he became Band Sergeant.  The 94th was the Regiment in which his brother Charles had served. 
     It is reasonable to suppose that, at least in part, he exchanged Regiments in order to improve his prospects...


... Alicia gave birth to six children between 1912 and 1927, all in India, all in different places.
     To Alicia, 'Home' (with a capital 'H') was England - but India too was home, the land in which she grew up.  It was a strange land - newly defined, yet of an instantly recognisable national culture.  India was a country fashioned by the bizarre adventures of the East India Company from a territory fractured by centuries of regional confrontation.  In time, a gradual erosion of the Company's control was replaced by an assumption of British Parliamentary and Royal authority.  To begin with this created a tolerably benign Anglo-Indian Colony.  However, benign or not, India was an occupied territory of the British Empire.  This was the era of the British raj - powerful, paternal and aloof.  Inevitably, the equilibrium of rule started to deteriorate.  An increasingly invasive and intolerant bureaucracy began to establish itself toward the end of the 19th century.  The Gentlemen Invaders were being replaced by the more middle class directives of the Indian Civil Service.  Meanwhile - and possibly as the result of the success of the Empire - the giant beast of global politics was stirring.  Nations were beginning to posture on a world scale - a pattern that would last throughout the 20th century, and into the 21st. 
     It was into this hot-pot that Alicia was born.  British - but from India, raised in India - but not Indian.  Loyal to a homeland she had barely seen.
     Albert, on the other hand, grew up under the grey skies of the British Isles.  His short tempestuous childhood, in and around the Army installations of Belfast, was terminated at the age of twelve when he enlisted.  To him, India must have seemed a myriad of things, but two in particular - hot and foreign.
     This is not to suggest that a posting to India would have been an unexpected novelty.  'Join the Army and See the World' would have been as appropriate for the British soldier in the 19th century (pre- internal combustion and jet engine) as now.  Albert, with the Army as tour guide, covered a good portion of the globe, and experienced many foreign lands in the raw.  India, though, was his principal overseas posting.  It was there that he met Alicia, raised his family, and pursued his chosen profession as an engineer with the Military Works Services.  For these years India was his home (with a small 'h')...


... The family - less Philip, who was already installed at Taunton School - set sail from Bombay in the autumn of 1930.  In David's words, "The 'Circassia' was an 'old tub' that regularly ferried retirees of the Indian Army on the six-week single-class Homeward run." 
     The fantasy of India was soon to be replaced by Hampshire.  Only Albert knew first-hand of the changes this would bring to their daily lives - the good and the bad.  Vida and Philip were old enough to have had some recollection of England from their (and their mother's) one visit in 1920.  The younger children would have had mind for little more than the novelty and excitement of the expedition.  They would have had a share, though, of the anticipation of seeing their grandmother and Aunty May - and this much talked about England.
     They were leaving behind an India no longer comfortable under its mantle of British rule.  The First War had stretched the resources of the Empire to the limit.  During the ten years that followed, India had established a commitment toward Dominion status, obtained the concession from Britain of eventual 'responsible self-government', formed the Independence for India and several other Home Rule Leagues, and applied sustained pressure on the Empire through the Indian National Congress.  India was becoming increasingly open in its unrest.  Britain was starting to release her grip.
     By 1930, whilst the West was busying itself with the aftermath of 1929's Black Thursday, Monday, Tuesday etc, two events took place on the international stage that were to have profound repercussions on India, on the Tovells, and on the world at large.  The first was the start of Gandhi's civil disobedience campaign with the Salt March - which, with other protest groups, eventually led the country to independence in 1947.  The second was the ending of the Allied occupation of the Rhineland. This cleared the stage for the rise of National Socialism, German re-armament, and the outbreak of the Second War in 1939.
     The pieces were in place.  India would eventually have self rule, the Commonwealth would replace the Empire, Britain would loose its global authority, and the Second War was on its way.  The year was 1930, the year the family sailed for England.
     The 'Circassia' berthed at Liverpool: not the intended city - should have been Southampton - but near enough.
     Moving a family of eight from Allahabad to Portsmouth in the 1930's must have been re-location big time.  For them there were no modern-day flights, travel insurances, shipping containers, safety regulations, couriers, etc etc.  Everything was black and white, like the pictures, you either made it or you didn't.  Especially, they had no bottomless pit of money to paper over fretful thoughts or calamities en route.  But, when the journey was over, they would have Aunty Jose (pronounced 'Josie'), and a place to go.
     A cold and tedious train journey still separated them from Portsmouth, the final destination.  The long voyage, their refuge between what had been and what was to become, was almost over.  They were getting near to the last item on the itinerary, the house and home they had never seen. 
     Only the thickness of the carriage window now stood between Allahabad and the new life in England.  An England in the depths of winter, not in the least showing off - just bleak, dark and depressing.  Perhaps the private thoughts of a twelve year-old boy spoke for them all.  Thoughts he may have suppressed, as he gazed in silence at the trackside ribbon that tumbled toward him revealing, in snatches from each second, a landscape and habitation alien, unfamiliar and foreign.  Probably he kept quiet.  Yet, he still recalls that journey 75 years later.  David writes, "I can remember that we landed at Liverpool on a cold wintry day, probably in January.  I can also remember the train journey across Britain to Portsmouth, and being horrified by the miles upon miles of houses all tightly packed, back to back, and wondering if that was what we were heading for."...


... On the night of the 27th of April 1941 there was an air raid over Portsmouth.  Of some note was that this raid was, perhaps, particularly heavy.  What was not unusual was that there was a raid at all.   Events had now degenerated to the extent that our people expected warplanes from foreign lands to fly over their cities at night dropping bombs.  It had become routine, normal even.  Not only this, but these bombs were deliberately dropped onto civilians in residential areas - as well as conventional military targets.  Conventional, that is, in the War Games interpretation of understanding and agreement.
     Four people were in 5 Warren Avenue that night - a mother and three daughters.  Vida had returned from Malta and had a job with a school in East Anglia.  Esther was at school at Portsmouth Girls' High, which had been evacuated out of the city to the safety of Petersfield.  Both Vida and Esther were at home for the Easter holidays.  Ruth was nursing at the local hospital (St Mary's), and was home that night.  Their mother, Alicia, was home as usual, holding the fort.  As the raid was heavy the family was sheltering in the dining room at the back of the house.  Vida announced that she was just going to make some tea when the land mine struck.
     Two of the girls, Vida and Ruth were killed.  Alicia and Esther were injured - Alicia seriously.  They were both taken to Park Prewitt Hospital in Basingstoke.  5 Warren Avenue and most of the surrounding area were completely destroyed.  Land mines were very high explosives dropped from German 'planes by parachute.  They were intended to cause maximum destruction to the buildings they targeted and, presumably, to the people within them.  The writer remembers visiting Warren Avenue many years later, in the mid-fifties.  By then cleared, nothing remained more than a few inches above ground level.  Yet, the position of all that had once been a residential road was still visible - the footprints of the houses, the roadway, pavement, gardens, even the cut-off bases of street lamps and garden gate posts.  It was as though one was standing on a giant map - a map of insane scale, too large to comprehend...


...The Castle, Dower House and grounds were huge, historic, and stunningly attractive - and where we all lived.  I was four and a bit, and ready to meet my World.
     The event, this first memory of mine, takes place at one or other end of the spring holidays of 1945.  Standing well back inside the inner castle entrance, un-noticed within the dark oak-clad hall and looking out into the medieval courtyard, I see the boys’ parents arriving or leaving in a procession of very large, very shiny, black motor cars.  The cars crunch importantly over the courtyard gravel, taking turns to draw up at the open door.  The boys and their parents come and go.  I am not part of what they are doing.  I am the observer.  The scene is black and white, and it is raining. 
     Not, I admit, especially interesting.  But, fifty years later in Inverness I spotted an advertising poster pinned askew to a tourist information notice-board.  “Visit Kilmarnock’s Top Tourist Attraction” it yelled in hideous script, partially obscuring a charming photograph of Dean Castle.  Tourist attraction, eh?   What's going on?  What had they been doing with my cherished memory?   With not quite haste, I was scheduled to be in Glasgow anyway, I poddled down to Kilmarnock to see what was going on.  My arrival was late in the day.  They were shutting up shop.  No matter, the lady official who was locking the door - yes, the door was still there and so was the courtyard - had never heard of there being a war-time school at the Castle.  Patiently, she intimated that the information was of some interest, but she had to finish locking up and go. 
     Well, that was that.  I never returned.  I hadn't managed a peep inside my old haunt, the dormitories with stacked bunk beds, the cauldron above the door ready to pour hot oil on nuisance callers, the heavily laden greasy-to-the-touch wall tapestries, the bedroom I shared with my mother, the corridors lined with hollow knights in shining armour, the matriarchal kitchen, the classrooms where I learnt to read and write... 

     Oh - and then a car draws up to collect my lady official.  Probably her husband.  The tyres crunch over the courtyard gravel.  It's late and getting dark.  The colours of the day have faded.  The scene is black and white, and it is raining.     

(Extracts - Some people named Tovell, Peter Tovell, 2005. Family History Biography, 65k)