Threads from the Family Tapestry

I think I only met my Great Aunt Elsa Steer once. We went to visit en famille c1960 in the Thames-side house at Moulsford where she was cared for by cousins. She was quite a lively old lady. It is said that in youth she led a fairly high life, having to be bailed out on a visit to Cairo on one occasion; and on another investing in a cinema in the Grays Inn Rd – which lightened her pockets no little. Elsa never married. Her family history is more anecdotal than systematic. All, but I remember of her conversation was a reference to the conglomerate manufacturer GKN as 'the family firm', which struck me as quaint even then, given that none .

Copies of the little memoir that Catherine Steer (nee Biddlecombe) wrote about herself and her husband, John Steer, were long ago distributed amongst members of the family. An attempt is here being made to carry on the story. The earliest part of what follows is derived from her grand-daughter May (Wyman)’s endless reminiscences.

Concerning John Steer, they have been able to supply the information that he had two brothers, Sam and Luke. Luke, who was a schoolmaster at Stourbridge, had two daughters, Harriet, a schoolmistress and governess, and Janet an actress who was better known in the United States than in England. Curiously, May Wyman said that there was a shop in her day near Waterloo Station under the name of Janet Steer, where theatrical properties were sold. From an unknown source, most likely May Wyman, we have the following note “John’s father is unknown, but he is presumed to have been Samuel Steer, a working jeweller at Chesterfield. John’s father and mother had both died before his marriage, and Mrs. John Steer knew nothing of them, though she did know his maternal grandmother, a Mrs. Brampton. John, starting life as a jeweller’s apprentice, worked his own way up to the Bar to which he was admitted in 1816”.

From the same source it appears that John’s brother Sam was a newspaper reporter and then a barrister, and died young, unmarried, in the West Indies. Also that his other brother Luke was a working jeweller, probably in Birmingham, and that he died before 1868—this contradicts the above statement that he was a schoolmaster. Catherine does not mention that John wrote a treatise on Parish Law which, after revisions, was still a standard work in legal quarters in his great-grandchildren’s lifetime.

The seal mentioned in her memoir represents the coat of arms borne by the Steere family of “Jayes”, Ockley, Surrey. In later years Edward Steer, on being appointed High Sheriff of Monmouthshire, applied to the College of Arms to establish his right to use it, but this could not be done and a new and slightly different one was made for him. At about the same time he made exhaustive enquiries, but was unable to establish any connection with any other families of the name. The papers which resulted from these enquiries are in the possession of his branch of the family. Two other valuable relics of her days Catherine does not mention—the family picture and the shoe-buckle, which last is supposed to have come into our possession through her slight connection with the Royalist Lord Strafford who was beheaded in the days of Charles I. It is a tiny miniature of a man with the Stuart cast of face, set in brilliants, and is thought to be more probably the head of a tie pin. The large picture not mentioned by her shows John and Catherine with their eldest and youngest children, Charles (I) and little William Shakespeare, and it seems likely to have been painted about 1835. It bears no signature, but tradition has it that it was painted and presented to them as a token of friendship by one of the many friends who haunted their house in Chancery Lane and who was considered a leading artist of his day. When the picture passed to their grandson Charles (III), he had it cleaned in Birmingham by a knowledgeable and experienced old man, who opined that the painter might have been named Davis (or Davies). The picture, the shoebuckle and the seal are with the Charles Steers.

In her cradle Catherine had been a really rich infant, but her father disposed of her money, and her husband did not live long enough to put much by, so in her latter days she was very straitened for means. At one time she had £4,930 in 3% Govt. Stock and seems to have lent £3,000 of this to her son at 4%, doubtless to enable him to start his stationer’s business. After his marriage she lived in cheap lodgings (bedroom and sitting-room).

At one time she had many friends, but the number of them fell off naturally as the years advanced. Also she became very infirm and seldom went out. Though reduced to existing in very poor surroundings she never complained and was always cheerful. When her grandchildren were old enough, the three boys always went to see her on Sunday afternoons in her lodgings at 8, Roman Road, Brondesbury, Islington and used to find her with the table set out with a very coarse white cloth, and the kind of black-handled knives that were then seen in the kitchens of the rich. But she was never well enough off to be able to invite them to stay for a meal. In a letter that she wrote to her grandson Charles (II) at his school in Brighton she says she wishes that he may live to be “a very excellent and happy man, a blessing to dear Mama and all of us. If we follow high and noble examples we cannot fail to accomplish much that is good, and pursuing the path of duty steadily will always give our minds satisfaction. Mine is and ever has been, a mind to love nature in all her varieties, and manual labour also, and I derive much pleasure from seeing everything that comes within my reach—while books, when alone, are my untiring companions. A dull hour does not often oppress me”.

When in later years her widowed daughter-in-law, Martha Steer, moved from London to Birmingham to provide a home there for her two eldest sons, she tried very hard to persuade Catherine also to make the move, but she had her own circle of friends which she did not wish to leave, and the prison visiting with Elizabeth Fry still interested her. Her grandson Charles (II) and his wife Emily had the pleasure of showing her her first great-grandchild, Mildred. Emily described her as a most charming and lively old lady in spite of having become very infirm through lameness. She was born March 12th 1799. Martha and her eldest daughter May were with her when she died on April 15th 1879. She was buried in the same grave with her husband, her son and his wife in Highgate Cemetery. Two of her little fancies have come down to us—viz., she never drank tea, and she always wanted her bedroom to look over a railway line, as she liked the company of passing trains at night!

The one impression I got from her papers was what an exceedingly fine man John must have been.

The school to which Catherine sent Charles I after his father’s death was the University College School in Gower Street, the leading school for Dissenters at that time, and it was possibly here that he met his future brothers-in-law, the Nettlefold children who were Unitarians, and through them his future wife. (Catherine mentions the name of a Mrs. Nettlefold in her Memoir.) But he was so anxious to cease being a burden to his mother and to make his way in the world that he left school at about fifteen and began to earn his living in the publishing business in the office of Mr. Knight, a friend of his mother. Sometime later he joined Letts, stationers, as a partner and finally started a business of his own in Long Acre. Here he made cardboard, also playing cards, mottled covers for exercise books and substitutes for slates (i.e., paper on which the writing could be smeared out). Two packs of the playing cards have survived. They have a plain white and plain pink back respectively, their corners are square and the pips bear no printed numerals on them. In later years his grandchildren were all taught by their father, using similar ones, to play whist. Charles must have done well with his business to be able entirely through his own exertions to marry a girl from a wealthy family at the age of twenty-three.

It was as an already accepted friend from their school days that the somewhat lonely Charles Steer was welcomed into the large family of the Nettlefolds consisting of three brothers (Edward J., Joseph and Frederick) and five sisters (Martha, Anne, Ellen, Catherine and Henrietta) and his wedding to Martha, being the first one in that generation, was celebrated in great style. They were married on May 30th 1848 in the New Gravel Pit Meeting House, Paradise Fields, Middlesex, according to the rites and ceremonies of the said chapel, by the Rev. Joseph Hutton, in the presence of Anne Nettlefold and Edward W. Faithful (lst bridesmaid and best man), J. S. Nettlefold, Catherine Steer, Edward John Nettlefold, Richard Chamberlain and Henry Preston. On the marriage certificate Charles is described as “Gentleman”, and his address given is “2, Albany Cottages, Barnsbury Park, Islington”, where presumably he lived with his mother till his marriage. Martha signed her name as Martha but she had been christened Martha Sanderson by John Wynn, curate in the parish of St. George, Bloomsbury. (This caused some confusion in the settling up of her estate at her death.) Martha described to Bernard Wyman long afterwards, the happiest moment of the whole day arrived when she and her husband were alone together for the first time as man and wife as they drove away for the honeymoon. This was spent at the Lowood Hotel on the shores of Lake Windermere and is described in the letters already referred to.

Their first home was at 14, College Terrace, Barnsbury Park, lslington, where their first three children were born—Charles (II), Edward and Marion (but always called May). They were living in a larger house in Albion Road, Stoke Newington when Ethel was born in 1855 and Arnold in 1859. According to Unitarian practice all the children were christened at home. May’s description of Ethel’s christening is as follows—”Ethel’s christening took place in the drawing-room. For this, three little chairs were given to us. Charles’ and mine were square and just alike—I knew mine by a little black mark on the wood—Eddie’s had an oval seat. A beautiful old china bowl was used for the water, in which Mama floated snowdrops. The Rev. John Scott Porter officiated, a dear old white-haired man who had officiated at the Carter Lane Chapel for many years”. The Unitarian baptismal rite not being in the name of the Holy Trinity, and so not availing, Charles and Edward were both baptised in the Church of England before being confirmed at a later date.

Stoke Newington was at that time a pleasant countrified place, inhabited largely by Quakers who went about the lanes in their pretty distinctive dress, and there were fields to walk in. The little Steer boys worked very hard in their garden, trying to dig their way to Australia. Then Edward J. Nettlefold married Frances Wyman and came to live a few doors away and often the latter’s younger brother came to stay with them and joined the Steers in their games, and especially May with her hoop (he afterwards married May and there was a great mix-up of the two generations).

In the evenings Charles, home from work and inheritor of his father’s love of the stage, encouraged the children to get up little plays and entertainments. May, who was only about six at the time of his death, gave the following account of two of the family parties. “For one of the parties at Stoke Newington the preparations were very important and amusing. The little dressmaker Mama employed came to stay for several days, and Charles, Eddie and I were constantly being fitted with big black cover-alls and black pointed witches’ caps—not a scrap of us was to be seen. We had rough sticks to walk with, and I found it so difficult to hold mine and the black stuff too, that little holes were made in the seams and my hands let through. A cauldron was arranged on a tripod in the drawing- room. All that I could remember of Shakespeare’s words was ‘Toil and bubble, toil and bubble’ as we danced round it. Then at a sign we dropped our ‘blacks’, we stepped out, Charles as Harlequin, Eddie as clown and I as Columbine, and how proud I was of my spangled dress and silver wand. Then we went about taking little presents to Mama and the dear aunts as directed”.

“On another Christmas Eve Aunt Retta came to stay and she and Mama were very busy making a mummy with endless wrappings and all sorts of things in the stuffing—the only one of which I can remember was a broken alarum clock. In the evening two of the aunts shrouded in white sheets carried the mummy into the drawing-room and laid it on two chairs. Very soon a loud double knock was heard and Papa as a Professor came in wearing an old-fashioned black suit and white wig with a pigtail. He took his place, gave us a lecture and then undid the wrappings and gave a short explanation of each article as it came out. He was full of wit and jokes and even now I can remember the laughter each thing brought from the audience”.

Charles seems to have been the life and soul of the parties. Their visits to the grand-parents at the Grove were frequent and the high lights of their lives. May also told of a visit to Margate where they were joined by their aunts who went riding with their mother. But there was a day when their father would not let her mount, the pony sent for her being so small that he feared her long skirt would get entangled with its feet and she be thrown. The party all bathed from old-fashioned bathing machines drawn into the sea on their high wheels by a strong horse. There were fat old “bathing women” to duck their heads in the water and jump them up and down in the waves.

Death of Charles I

Sometime in 1858 Charles I was travelling, very likely with Martha, to the sea coast (probably Margate) and looking from the train window lost his hat. As a result he caught a cold in his ear, which had constantly discharged ever since he had received a bad blow from a cricket ball in his boyhood. He thought nothing of this at the time except that the discharge had ceased. But after his return to London he was taken seriously ill and died soon afterwards (October 1st 1858). He was buried in Highgate Cemetery. He must have been a most charming man, for he won the deep affection of all his in-laws, and Frances, wife of E. J. Nettlefold, who was very hard to please, used to say that next to her husband he was the nicest man she had ever known. His marriage was an ideally happy one, there being perfect love and understanding between husband and wife.

The shock of his death entirely prostrated Martha, left as she was with five young children all under nine to bring up and educate on very small means, as Charles had not had time to lay much money by. For a long time she, who had been a happy and gay woman, was never seen to smile, and for the rest of her life she wore only black dresses, relieved in later years by a white shawl and pretty shirred white net cap tied under her chin with a white ribbon bow, and always a black coat and bonnet when she went out. All her family rallied round her in a wonderful way and Anne, her special sister, was a tower of strength, always there to help her in any difficulty. There was evidently a very strong bond between the two eldest sisters for when at last Anne married Peter Rooke and moved away to his little home at Weybridge they kept up a never failing daily correspondence till it was broken by Martha’s last illness and death. Her two elder brothers undertook the management of the business in Long Acre, going down there in the evenings after their own work was done.

The year after Charles’ death Martha’s sister Ellen was married to Thomas Chatfield Clarke, a London architect, and here we quote from May. “Not long after dear Papa’s death, Aunt Ellen’s marriage to Uncle Tom Clarke was to come off and we were invited. Eddie came to me and said didn’t I think we should give them a present. We collected a few pennies and got leave to walk to Stoke Newington—about two miles. Off we went to Miss Hillum’s shop, which Eddie loved because he had always bought sweets there and coaxed the old woman to put in a few overweight. She sold tallow candles, cheese and bacon and I thought the smell horrid and she looked like a witch. Years after, we saw her death in a newspaper at the age of 102 or 104. She had never slept a night out of that house or been in a train and she spoke of her nephew as a young man when he married at 70. Naturally her shop produced nothing suitable for a wedding present, but Eddie took two tiny coloured tumblers, one brown, the other green, and we returned very proud of ourselves. Dear Aunt Ellen was very sweet in her thanks. For some reason Charles, Edward and I went to the wedding in a fly with Uncle Fred to look after us. I remember well as we neared Hackney Chapel, he looked the boys over and tidied them up and then pulled up my sago silk socks (the colour of sago pudding). On the way home Eddie told me all about dear Papa’s funeral and how he cried! I don’t think he ever mentioned it again and Charles never—but they felt his death terribly”. Ellen and Tom came to live in the next door house with a communicating verandah—and there a great tragedy occurred, for their little baby was choked to death by swallowing the teat of a feeding bottle when they had gone out, leaving a young nurse-maid in charge. She rushed in for Martha but it was too late.

Some time later Martha, helped by her father, moved into a smaller house in Beresford Terrace, Highbury, where she was nearer to her family and she lived in the quietest way. The diet was very plain with very little variety, but certainly May enjoyed the oysters and winkles which were hawked about the streets at a very low price. On Sundays there was cake of poor quality and sometimes for dinner there would be Paradise Pudding, remembered and wished for by Edward in his old age. At one period her Uncle Tom Clarke often called in the afternoon to take May for a walk. But for these little treats Sundays seem to have been particularly gloomy, with a Unitarian Service in the morning far beyond the children’s understanding, and for the afternoon’s amusement the writing out of the text and such bits of the sermon as they could remember. When Charles and Edward were older they generally walked over to see their grandmother Steer at Stoke Newington but were always home for tea.

May, Ethel and Arnold were sent to a small school near by, kept by the Misses Hadow, and Charles and Edward first to a school at Margate kept by Miss Law and then Hove House School, Brighton, kept by Mr. Hutton. In an old writing case, a survival of his school days, were found a number of deeply black-edged letters written to young Charles by his mother and devoted aunts full of love and care for him, and impressing upon him that he must be a good boy, and also one from Mr. Hutton full of good advice.

At fourteen his uncles decided that Charles II should leave school and enter his father’s business, under their joint supervision and with the help of the experienced foreman, Mr. Mason, who was greatly respected and valued by Martha and her family. Edward joined him a year or so later. (Mason was badly disfigured as a result of smallpox that would have cost him his life, had not his mother seen that he was still alive just in time to rescue him from premature burial.)

Under these united efforts the business was doing very well, but in 1868 Nettlefold & Chamberlain Ltd., Birmingham, was so flourishing that there were openings in its management which their uncles advised the two young Steers to take. In old age Edward was of the opinion that they would have done much better to have refused the offer. By a somewhat curious arrangement their salaries were impounded by their uncles towards payment for the shares in the Company they, as partners, were obliged to take. Charles was twenty-five years old when at last he was suddenly granted a salary of £1,000 a year and a like sum was given to Edward a year or two later. In the meantime this arrangement entailed greater stringency than ever for Martha and a very galling experience for the two high-spirited young men. For the sake of economy she removed her family to Birmingham and took a small house in the Beaufort Road, Edgbaston. Here they lived very quietly, making few but valuable friends, with some of whom they amused themselves with private theatricals, making the dresses and scenery themselves throughout the winters. Their highlight was a production of “The Rivals”; photographs of several of the scenes survive in the family. In summer time Charles and Edward took long walks in the surrounding Worcestershire countryside and sometimes they boated on the Severn and on the Edgbaston reservoir.

It was after their arrival in Birmingham that the two elder boys found the Unitarian ministrations insufficient for their needs and began to attend St. Augustine’s Church, Edgbaston, were baptised and confirmed, and became devout and loyal members of the Church of England for the rest of their lives. Their mother, who was originally baptised in the Church of England but had joined the Unitarians, was also pining for a fuIler religion and, not wishing to be parted from her sons, foIlowed them and from this time forward attended the Services of the Church of England, though she was never confirmed. Indeed, though deeply religious, she did not accept the dogmas of any creed and always said that she was a member of the “Church of Christ”. Some of the family, if not all, occasionaIly visited the Oratory to hear Cardinal Newman’s wonderful sermons.

Through the kindness of a friend, Martha was able to send May to Mrs. Davis’s finishing school at Brighton and at the same time Arnold was not far away at Miss Smith’s preparatory school in company with Ted and Hugh Nettlefold and two CoIlier boys whose sister, Clara, he eventuaIly married. The five cousins used to meet for tea on Sunday afternoons. May became very fond of Mrs. Davis and was devastated when it was discovered that she had taken to drinking and the school was bankrupt and up for sale. A Mrs. Phipson in Clifton heard this and came to see it with an idea of purchasing it, but on discovering the truth about it, changed her mind and decided to take her daughter Annie to Germany to finish her education with a few other girls to help with the expenses. Martha gladly took the chance for May and Ethel. The party included three girls from Clifton, Mabel Thomas, Jenny Marsden, and lastly Emily Cooper who used often to describe her meeting with the two Steers on the platform at Fenchurch Street station, bound for Stuttgart. A very warm and lasting friendship sprang up between them all but particularly between Emily Cooper and the two Steers leading eventuaIly to the marriage of Charles Steer and Emily. At their last and fareweIl meeting May was heard to say to Emily, “an unkind or angry word has never passed between us.”

On the breaking out of the Franco-Prussian war, Martha hastily sent Edward out to bring his sisters home and Emily’s parents did likewise, sending her only brother Charles James. But Ethel chose that moment to go down with scarlet fever and May was confined to bed with a very bad throat, so it was some time before they could start the return journey. Eventually they reached England safely and at the end of the war returned to Stuttgart, May for a short time, Ethel and Emily for longer, and the latter to enjoy a delightful holiday on Lake Constance. FinaIly, Emily’s parents and brother fetched her back and after traveIling in Scotland and Northern England, they took a pretty little house at Worcester, Bromwich Grange, which looked across the fields and river directly to the Cathedral, weIl within sound of its pretty beIls and chimes. The two families were now within easy reach of Birmingham by train and there was a good deal of visiting between them. In 1871 Charles Steer and Emily became engaged, but not married tiIl four years later when he had saved sufficient money to support a home of his own.

Their wedding, like that of Martha, being the first in the next generation, the NettIefolds regarded it as a great family event and as the Cooper home was quite inadequate to entertain them all, Joseph NettIefold, the kindest and most liberal of men, insisted that it must take place from his house at King’s Heath, Birmingham. So on June 1st 1875 they were married at St. Augustine’s Church, Edgbaston.

The honeymoon was spent walking in Normandy and Brittany visiting cathedrals and churches. They brought back an alabaster and ormolu clock for their drawing-room from Rouen. While they were away Martha with May and Ethel were busy putting the finishing touches to the little house in the Frederick Road that Charles had been busily preparing. At this time there was the beginning of a revival in domestic art, under the influence of Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites, and not content with the ugly and commonplace furniture which was all that could be bought in Birmingham, Emily had herself designed that for their dining-room and bedroom and Charles had had it made in oak by a c1ever carpenter in the Nettlefold works. The wardrobe and dressing-table had prettily-carved finials, and there was a handsome chest of drawers to match. The sideboard had the finials of its back panelling adorned with four delightful little carved animals—fox, cat, bear and monkey— each playing a musical instrument. These were removed by the next Charles after his mother’s death and distributed amongst his children. It has been told that the Nettlefolds did not at all approve of the new-fashioned furniture.

Married life of Charles II & Emily Steer in Birmingham

From the very beginning of his married life, Charles II continued his mother’s practice of daily household prayers before breakfast, however early that might be, using the copy in her own handwriting of those she had compiled for her own use, from the collects and prayers in the Book of Common Prayer. In his absences from home and after his death Emily followed the custom until the day came in the 1914/18 war, when she no longer had a resident staff. Grace was always said before and after meals.

Charles and Emily did not stay long in Edgbaston after Martha had gone to London. Mildred, Elsa and Charles III were born there, and then in 1880, they moved out into the country for Emily never liked suburban life. Elsa’s only memory of that first home is of her mother coming into the nursery and putting up a large piece of white paper in the window, which must have been to show that the house was to let. Mildred’s only recollection of it was of her father arriving one day leading a little yellow mongrel, Jack by name. The two girls were sent to their grandparents at Worcester while the move took place and Elsa’s next memory is of their arrival at the little country railway station at Northfield and being met by her father with a little pony trap drawn by Bob, small and rotund and rather strawberry coloured, and finding their little brother Charles there before them at West Heath House. In December 1880 John was born at Northfield and the neat little family was completed.

West Heath House, Northfield, was a pretty white rough-cast building with ample gableage for the swallows and martins outside as well as for the family within. The adjoining stabling, farmyard, rickyard and fields were let off, but provided excellent trespassing ground for the young Steers who made free of them.

They saw little of their father who left home daily soon after eight all the week. He was often busy with parish affairs, in which he took a lively interest, in the evenings and Saturday afternoons, for he was almost immediately on his arrival in the parish roped in as Rector’s Warden by the Rev. Robert Wylde. On Sunday he never failed to attend all three Services at church, reading the lessons and singing in the choir at Matins and Evensong. In the midst of all this he always made time to take Mildred and Elsa on his knees after dinner to teach them their Church Catechism by word of mouth before they could read, explaining it all most clearly from the very beginning. Emily took part in all his parish work, making the clothes for the plays he got up and singing at the concerts, etc., for at that time the results of the 1870 Education Act were beginning to show themselves and Church people were making efforts to keep their schools for the Church. Money was badly needed and Charles spent many hours over raising the necessary funds, getting up entertainments, Penny Readings and plays for the purpose. He even went so far as to shave off the beard which he habitually wore, when taking part in a presentation of “Box and Cox”.

Emily visited the cottage women in her district making many friends amongst them, and ran a very successful Mother’s Meeting for the whole parish. At home she was always busy making the children’s clothes and giving them their first lessons till they were old enough to be turned over to a daily governess, Gertrude Curzon, a distant relative of the Curzon family, very young and more a playfellow than a governess.

It was altogether an ideal childhood for the four of them with endless amusement all day long. Little dog Jack was sent for many a voyage across the pond at the drive gate, in an empty sugar box, and John, or sometimes dog Jack, were taken for drives round the garden paths in Elsa’s little wooden go-cart pulled by Punch, the brindled stray yard dog, with Mildred at his head and Elsa and Charles pushing behind. Another well loved toy, when discarded from the nursery, was the perambulator which had done duty in an earlier generation of the Nettlefold family, and then been passed down to the Steers. It was a double one for the children to sit side by side facing the way they were going, mounted on three iron-tyred wheels and completely innocent of springs. Then for a Christmas present Martha gave them one of the first children’s mail carts that appeared, and there were wonderful races between that and the perambulator, each holding an anxious younger brother being “tooled” by a sister from behind. There was often skating on the pond, followed by fruitless fishing with bent pins, and later by the watching of baby water- hens and fishing for fresh-water mussels in the other pond beyond the little orchard. There was a see-saw in the orchard and in the farmyard some delightful sheds for “playing houses”, and down the fields a pleasant stream for paddling in.

On wet days the nursery table, like the perambulator, did duty, standing up as a house, or upside down as a boat. It was ideal for both purposes, with its eight sturdy legs, and cross pieccs which made good seats when it was a boat. Then there was also the safety rocking horse, a Christmas present from Granny Steer, one of the earliest to be on the market, and quantities of bits and pieces for “dressing up”. As they grew older there were picnics and expeditions to find plovers’ eggs on the waste land by the King’s Norton reservoir, or to watch for the canal boats waiting at the entrance to the Hopwood tunnel for their turn to go through it, pulled by their owners by their hands overhead as they lay on their backs. Still later they were taken to see the pictures at the Birmingham Art Gallery and the animals at Aston Hall, at that time newly acquired by the Birmingham Corporation.

The domestic staff consisted of Mary Roberts, very short, very fat and plain but an excellent plain cook, who roasted the home-grown chickens and ducks to perfection, made lovely strawberry shortbread and summer puddings with fruit from the garden, managed the dairy and baked the bread in the brick oven, and this nearly always included a special little cottage loaf or a little pig with currants for its eyes, for each child at tea-time. When there was not one of these, the children had real Jamaica treacle on their slices of bread. Very often tea was enhanced by the arrival of Emily, carrying her own cup in her hand, to join the party. The houseparlourmaid best remembered was Emma, who left to marry a farmer and was followed by Emma Bullock. The departure of “Old Nurse” was Elsa’s first tragedy. She was followed in succession by Courtney, Leah and Deborah, who was once heard to address her charges as “little wooden-headed johnnies”. The outside staff consisted of a gardener-groom-cowman with a succession of boys from the village to clean the knives and boots and help with the pumping of the water from the well. One very hard winter the pump froze up and snow had to be thrown into the cistern to melt there. After several changes Dutton came in 1884 and stayed with the family till his death in 1920. He was a North Countryman, quite unpolished and utterly unlike a gentleman’s servant, but he was solid gold all through. He had begun life as a coal miner, but came to Charles and Emily from a neighbour, on the recommendation of Gertrude Curzon to whom he had given lifts from the station on his return journey from taking his master to the train. He was an excellent gardcner and he never had a sick animal, for as he said in his northern “clang” he “knew the ‘eart (or the art) on ‘em”. His invariable greeting to Punch as he came whistling into the yard was “Well, Poonch, ‘ow be you a-coming oop this morning?” In all the years of his service he was never known to be out of temper or to use a rude or angry word. His wife was equally faithful and true and few families can have becn served as the Steers were by them.

The Steer children’s only trials were the arrivals of visitors, which meant that they must be called in from the garden to be made clean and presentable, unless they had timely warning of a distant approach. There were no other children of their age living near them but they felt no need of any outside companionship.

In about 1884 Charles opened a little home of rest for his factory girls in a new cottage, one of a row just along the road. Two at a time came for a fortnight to enjoy country air and a holiday from work entirely free of expense. Miss Florence Willoughby filled the post of Matron extremely well, being an excellent cook and manager and a very good hostess. The children often joined her parties when there were always doughnuts or potato cake for tea, followed by games or a shadow show, i.e. figures of rabbits, etc., made by Miss Willoughby’s clever hands behind a sheet lighted from behind and hung over the doorway between the scullery and the darkened kitchen-dining-room. In the summer they all went together to gather bilberries on the Lickey Hills or to have tea at the Monument and watch the donkey climb its steps, or in the spring to gather white violets and primroses or wild daffodils near Longbridge (later to be the site of the Austin Motor Works).

Each summer Charles and Emily invited all the girls who had visited the Home and also the oldest hands still employed in the firm, for a day in the country when the hay was cut, bringing them in waggonettes from Smethwick. They had a good dinner on arrival and tea before they left laden with flowers. In this way the children were interested in the firm from their earliest days, and grew up with an understanding of the lives of those less fortunate than themselves. Charles, himself, was affectionately known throughout the works as “the Uncle” and it was believed that he was the first employer of labour in Birmingham to inaugurate a works canteen.

Twice the two girls went to stay with their Grandmother and Aunt Ethel at Willesden and were taken to see the sights in London, but their chief joy was, having first walked up and down the cab-rank to make their choice, to drive in a hansom cab drawn by a spanking horse, with the driver opening a lid in the roof to enquire where he was to drive to next. In 1888 the question of schooling for the two girls arose. The movement for the better education of girls was at its beginning and at Worcester Dean Butler, a great educationalist, had gathered the leading citizens to join in starting the High School as a private company with Miss Alice Ottley as its first headmistress. There were still only about thirty girls in it when Mildred and Elsa joined it, first as day girls, living with their grandparents at Bromwich Grange and returning home for weekends, later as weekly boarders when Mrs. Jerram and her daughters opened the first boarding-house, Baskerville, a large old Georgain house near the school. The schooling they had under Miss Ottley and her Staff was first rate. When they left they carried away beautiful memories of their wonderful school life and numbers of life-long friendships.

Charles, followed later by John, was sent soon afterwards to a preparatory school at Colwall near West Malvern kept by the Rev. Charles Black, a former assistant master at King Edward’s School, Birmingham, and a good friend of Charles and Emily. George Airy was among their schoolfellows and the greatest friend of both boys. John married his second sister Estrilde Josephine eventually.

The family had now outgrown little West Heath House and in 1890, at the instigation of Grosvenor Lee, they removed to Hampton Lodge, four miles from Stourbridge on the Enville—Bridgnorth road. It was pleasant and roomy, though inconvenient, was lighted by its own petrol gas plant, and was charmingly situated with woods adjoining, which stretched away almost to Enville. Rabbits, pheasants, partridges, night-jars and brown squirrels abounded. The nightingales sang close to the house and stoats could be watched playing on the lawn outside the windows.

From here, Charles, starting at 7.30 a.m., drove daily four miles to Stourbridge in his four-wheeled rubber-tyred dog cart, on the way dropping, as he passed the shops, an order for meat or fish which he collected on the return journey, and picking up the ostler at the Talbot Hotel to go on with him to the Junction station to bring his beloved mare Dolly back to the hotel stables till the evening. He only missed the 8 o’clock train once in six years, owing to frost on the road, and there was a woman on his route who set her time by his passing. There was another who looked out for him and felt happier all day when he was smiling as he went on his way to work.

Part of the reason for taking the larger house was that Emily’s parents [the Newberry Coopers] were now in need of more care than she could give them so far from Worcester, her mother having become quite blind. They came almost at once and occupied two rooms of their own.

Emily had a very busy life with her parents to look after as well as to keep the house-hold going smoothly at a distance of four miles from the nearest shops but she found time to manage a Mothers’ Meeting, as she had done at Northfield, and to teach wood carving to some of the Kinver village boys. Not long after Charles’ removal to Hampton Lodge all reason for his mother to continue living near London evaporated. Arnold had married and after living two doors from her in Craven Park now decided to move away to Pinner, and, above all, May and Harry Wyman were to be homeless, the latter having been obliged to give up his brewery for health reasons. The next door property to Hampton Lodge, Stourton Hall, chancing to be vacant, Martha took it on lease for herself, Ethel and the Wymans with their family of young children, Norman, Bernard and Hilda. There was now much coming and going between the two households and the young Steers had the opportunity of meeting their Nettlefold relations when they often came to stay at the Hall. Though they were in the parish of Kinver both households always went to Church on Sundays at Enville, Martha driving with one or two of them, the rest walking. On her return journey, Martha would nearly always leave her carriage and drop in to see Mr. and Mrs. Cooper. Charles always went to tea with her and was generally followed by his children afterwards to fetch him back.

While living at Willesden Martha had reverted to her own parents’ delightful custom of gathering all their children together for Christmas but, her house being much too small for this, she had taken rooms in a hotel, once at Buxton and twice at Malvern for her family gatherings. Now at Stourton she was able to accommodate most of them, the overflow being sent down to Hampton Lodge. On two successive Christmas evenings she sat in her pretty white shawl and white net cap at the head of the huge mahogany table that had served for so many similar occasions in her old home at Highgate, charmingly decorated and loaded with good things. Supper finished, the whole party adjourned to the large drawing-room with its folding doors, bright fire and pretty gold curtains, and every table and chair loaded with inviting parcels done up in white paper, tied with red ribbon. These having been opened and enjoyed, the young folk played snap dragon and other games, and on one occasion each family produced an item for the entertainment of their elders.

In 1894 James Newberry Cooper died after a short illness during which his widowed sister “Aunt Nuttall” came to help Emily with the nursing. He was buried in Kinver Churchyard in a rather new part of it. The following year the lease of Hampton Lodge came to an end and Charles and Emily decided not to renew it. He had recently been given a welcome rise in his salary, his children were growing up and in need of more young society than was to be had at all easily. Mildred had left school, Elsa was due to leave soon, Charles III. was at Winchester College in Mr. Cook’s House, having gained a Head Master’s Presentation in the Scholarship examination of 1894, and John would shortly be following him. Emily, too, feared the long daily journeys to and fro to work in all weathers for Charles. On hearing from the girls that their parents were contemplating a move, Edith Abell, whose father had recently moved his family from Worcester to Grafton Manor, Bromsgrove, at once decided that the neighbouring Stoke Prior Grange, now standing unoccupied, was the very place for the Steers. Charles and Emily saw and liked it and took it on a seven years’ lease from Mr. John Corbett, the Salt King of Droitwich, and the move was made. It was a very charming housc and it provided an easier journey for Charles and a very lively social entourage for his family. Charles II was immediately pressed into being Churchwarden and continued his practice of reading the lessons and singing in the choir. Charles III also sang in the choir when home on his holidays.

Mildred left school and had the winter of 1895/6 in Dresden having music, singing and German lessons. Elsa left school in 1896 and had the following winter and spring, 1896/7 in Rome painting and studying, followed by a lovely trip to Naples, Sorrento and Sicily before her return. Both girls were now “out”. There were private dances, hockey games, garden and tennis parties, Shakespeare Readings, lectures, etc. Indeed it was in attending a series of chemistry lectures given by Percy Kitto Tollit that Mildred met her future husband.

Cycling was just becoming popular and there were mixed cycling parties to Ombersley, Holt, Chaddesly Corbett, also Harvington and Huddington Halls, etc. Charles got up plays and produced “The Taming of the Shrew”, “Twelfth Night” and “School” in the gardens of the Grange and Grafton Manor.

At this time HM Millington was Headmaster of Bromsgrove School. His masters inhabited the large house known as “The Steps”, it being beside the steps leading up to the parish Church, and Percy Kitto Tollit (always known to his pupils as “Pickety”) managed it. He was second master, teaching science and mathematics; no pupil of his was ever known to fail in a public examination. Mildred became engaged to him in 1897 and they were married at Stoke Prior Church in April 1898, he having been appointed Headmaster of Derby Grammar School. Martha, Ethel Steer and May Wyman came to stay for the wedding. Elsa and Lilian Tollit were chief bridesmaids in pretty Liberty muslin frocks. Besides Lilian, only Percy’s father was there to represent the Tollit family, his mother being an invalid. A large number of old and also local friends attended the wedding reception at the Grange, after which the bridal pair went off by train to spend their honeymoon at Morthoe. So early in the year they did not have very good weather but they were ideally happy and amused themselves with walking or driving and simple games, such as throwing stones at tins set up in the sand.

Meanwhile Emily and Elsa were hard at work making the headmaster’s quarters at Derby School habitable for them. It was a fine old Georgian house that had been the town mansion of the Curzon family. The rooms were very large and handsome but the position was bad, at a cross roads, and what grounds there had been were now the site of class-rooms, chapel and playground. Some sort of order had been attained when Percy and Mildred took up residence. There were two day-preparatory schools further into the town and a playing field near the river with an old farmhouse on it where the masters and school porter were housed—altogether a large proposition, with a number of boarders to be looked after in their own house. Christopher Charles (Dick) was born in 1899 and Maurice, Francis, Andrew and Quintus followed at annual intervals and then Emily, very shortly after her grandfather’s death.

Charles and Emily Steer celebrated their silver wedding in June 1900, to which came Martha and Ethel, and Mildred with little Dick, and a photograph was taken of the four generations grouped by the porch of the Grange. Before very long it became apparent that the house would not be large enough to accommodate the growing family of grandchildren for all the school holidays, and Charles and Emily, having long considered the possibility of building their own house, now began to take practical steps.

The farm known as Forelands with an adjacent small house and garden was purchased from the Bearcroft family of Himbleton, and the site for the new house was chosen on the highest part of the ground, at the top of Rock Hill, Bromsgrove, with magnificent views across the Severn Valley to the Malvern HilIs and the Black Mountains in the far distance beyond them. Mr. Hale of Birmingham was engaged as architect, and he co-operated most successfully in putting the plans they had already made for the arrangement of the house into execution. The builders were J&A Brazier Bros. of Bromsgrove and the stone for the window dressings, etc., which came from a small quarry just off the crest of Rock Hill, was worked to design on the site. The existing small house, previously inhabited by the artist Elijah Walton, was demolished and its garden incorporated with the new one. The making of the drive involved a deep cutting to the Worcester road at the top of Rock Hill and a very nice lodge was built by the gate to accommodate the Dutton family and the small private laundry. The house was very attractive and convenient, built to catch all the sun and to face the beautiful views. Emily carved the mantelpiece for her bedroom in oak, but teak was used for those in the hall and dining-room, for the prettily panelled staircase and all the downstairs flooring. All the bedrooms had hot and cold water and in some of them baths also were installed—a great innovation in those days, as was its own electric light plant. A nursery wing was provided for the Tollit children, above which were comfortable little bedrooms for the staff. The work was begun in 1900 and completed in 1902.

The first visitor to the house was of course Martha with Ethel and her invaluable old confidential maid, Robinson (always known affectionately in the family as Bobbie). It was hard to know which was the happier—Charles in showing his lovely home to his mother, or she in being shown it by him. It was her only visit to him there, for after failing health and a final illness she died in 1905. The next visitor was Anne Rooke (with her faithful maid Johnson), who was always looked upon by the five Steers as a second mother in consequence of all that she did for them after their father’s death.

During this period Charles III and John, on leaving Winchester [see his watercolour on R] had each gone on to New College, Oxford. Having gained his degree, Charles, who had become greatly interested in the work at Oxford House, Bethnal Green, and spent much of his vacations there, now went into residence for eighteen months, gaining invaluable experience in parish work. He followed this up with a year at Cuddesdon Theological College, and was ordained deacon to the curacy of St. Edward’s, Romford, Essex, under the Rev. R. H. Whitcombe (later to be his father-in-law) on St. Thomas’s Day 1905. This was probably the proudest day in his father’s life, for to give a son to the service of God was his dearest wish. This was shared by his two brothers, for Edward gave Reginald and Arnold gave Eric. All three of them entered the Church thoroughly well trained for the work that was before them.

John, on gaining his degree remained a time longer at Oxford taking a course in Pedagogy and then took a post as under master at Mr. Wilkinson’s School at Woodcote near Goring-on-Thames. He had become engaged to Estrilde Josephine Airy in 1904. In that same year Percy Tollit’s father, who was an architect in Oxford and devoted to horse riding, was found lying dead beside his horse on the roadside some distance from the town.

In the outside world there was the Boer War with the rejoicings over the relief of Mafeking, Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee and then her death, the anxiety over King Edward’s sudden illness (when appendicitis first was spoken of) and his postponed coronation.

For the first time the feeling of great changes at hand seemed to come into the air. On looking back it seems as if it was at about that time that the old happy sense of absolute security that the four Steers had grown up with began to diminish. Their father had suffered great distress at the death of his mother. It had been a life-long devotion on both sides. Always, directly after Sunday breakfast he had written his weekly letter to her before setting off to morning Service and her replies came as regularly to him.

From the time of her death he seemed to begin to fail, and he was not helped by the anxiety he felt about new developments in the business. Messrs. Guest Keen had approached Messrs. Nettlefold with a suggestion that the two businesses should amalgamate and the main responsibility of conducting the negotiations fell upon Charles as Chairman and Managing Director. He could see more clearly than the other Directors the advantages that would accrue, and the fusion was not accomplished without great difficulty. He began to show signs of ailing and in the early part of the year these became more prominent. On Easter Day his sons were summoned to his bedside and he died a few days later on April 21st 1906.

For further pictures and plans of the house and estate, please see the Prospectus of the Forelands Sale.

Family Connexions

Death of Charles II & life thereafter

The funeral, to the indignation of all the neighbours, was the very simple walking one that he would have desired, his sons following him on foot to Stoke Prior Church which was crowded for the occasion. For many years after his death the people of Stoke Prior kept his grave in order in recognition of all that he had done for Church and parish. He had always said that he wanted only a wooden cross put to mark his grave which could be easily removed when outworn. [In fact, contrary to his wishes, it was replaced c,1990 by his grandson CS IV when it had fallen into decay.] Emily placed an oak one designed and beautifully carved by the Bromsgrove Guild, and in the Church she placed in his memory two beautifully carved oak screens on either side of the chancel.

She was overwhelmed by the numbers of letters sent to her at his death, for he was loved and admired by all who had ever come into contact with him. Good old Dutton told how a close neighbour, a Bank Manager, had said to him “Your master always had his head in Heaven”, and Emily counted his early death as a reward for his wonderfully good life. He was a most perfectly devoted husband, son, father and friend, and he only lived to care for and help other people, never giving a thought to himself. A short time earlier he had been elected to serve on the Committee of the Birmingham Diocesan Council concerned with the Cathedral music but died before he could do so. Even on his death-bed he was asking about the Easter decorations in the church and advising Mildred and Percy as to the difficulties that had arisen, which led to their resignation of Derby School. All his affairs were in perfect order and he who started life without a penny of his own and began to work at fourteen, left his wife and children down to the next generation well provided for.

A week after his death Emily Theodora Tollit was born. Having resigned the Headmastership of Derby School, Percy was engaged by the Rev. WR Dawson to come to Brighton College as second master, teaching his own subjects of science and mathematics, and bringing with him a number of his Derby pupils. This meant that Emily Steer and her daughter Elsa would be left more or less isolated and living in a much larger house than they needed and at great expense, so that they would not be able to do much to help the other three. So the house was let unfurnished for seven years to Mr. John Middlemore JP, an old friend and owner of several well-known paintings by Holman Hunt which would look lovely on its walls. He lived in it till 1919, when Emily sold it to the Birmingham Cripples’ Union to be used for a Convalescent School for Crippled children. [It then became an asylum until it was sold by the NHS as an ‘efficiency saving’ and the land developed for ‘executive housing’, preserving the name Forelands.]

Charles III was living in very uncomfortable rooms in Romford, [serving as a curate to the vicar, Robert Whitcombe.] In 1907 Emily took the only available house in Romford for herself, Charles and Elsa. She took the Dutton family and the victoria that Charles had given her on their silver wedding day.

Romford had once been a pleasant little country town but was now the high water mark of the East End invasion from London and fast getting enveloped by it. The house, Romford Hall in South Street, had been divided and part of it was occupied by its owner as a lawyer’s office with its own entrance. The main part was roomy but dull and sunless with no outlook and the morning after arrival Dutton, dejectly standing by the dining-room window, ejaculated “Well, Miss, you ’ave come to a place”. But it was a busy life and when things were “ever so” Dutton was there to drive them for a breath of air into the rather tame country about Havering-atte-Bower and beyond.

Here they lived with the house continually full, particularly at meal times, with people wanting this and that, for four years, in close touch with the growing family of Whitcombes at the Vicarage. There also joined the Staff the Rev. Guy Vernon Smith, a Winchester and New College friend, later to become Sub Dean of Salisbury. Charles was senior curate and held a large Sunday afternoon Bible Class for older boys. Later, as curate-in-charge of the daughter Church of St. John on Mawney’s Estate he held a very successful Saturday morning school for the children from the Government schools, in addition to regular daily routine visits to his people, and helping with the Services at Noak Hill and Squirrels Heath. There were two other curates, one of them a queer old Mr. White with a bad impediment in his speech.

On June 26th 1907 John married Estrilde Airy [known as Essie], the wedding taking place at Weybridge. Her parents had recently removed there from Solihull on Dr. Airy’s appointment to a post in the office of the Ministry of Education. May Wyman and Ethel Steer, now living together after their mother’s death, were also living there, to be near the widowed Anne Rooke in her closing years, and the two households accommodated the Steer contingent. As the wedding took place in the middle of a school term the honeymoon was short. They returned from this to a pleasant little house at Woodcote, near Goring-on-Thames, where John was an under master at Mr. Wilkinson’s preparatory school, but they did not stay there long, as John was told of an opening for a preparatory school of his own at Tadworth, Surrey, then a growing place. He took a house in 1909 near the station where he could collect a nucleus of boys before launching upon building on a large scale.

Charles Steer III in Africa & WW1

The same year Mr. Whitcombe left Romford to become Suffragan Bishop of Colchester leaving Charles in charge of the whole parish until the appointment of the Rev. C. Milner Bell to the living.

The Whitcombe family c1918, with Betty at back

This done he then felt free to accept the offer made him in 1910 by Bishop Michael Bolton Furse, of the position of Rector of St. John the Divine, Randfontein, in the Pretoria Diocese in South Africa. On his departure his mother stored her furniture and with Elsa spent two years, partly at Tadworth where John had begun to build his new school St. Cross, Walton-on-the-Hill, and partly on a long visit to the Italian Lakes, Oberammergau, and the Dolomites. By 1912 his parishioners had built Charles a nice little vicarage architected by Sir Herbert Baker, so they now decided to go out to the Transvaal to make a home for him temporarily. They had a pleasant voyage to Cape Town in company with Bishop Gaul of Mashonaland, and stayed for a short time at Cape Town, making the ascent of Table Mountain on foot, and then made the railway journey up country to Randfontein. Life on the mines was unsophisticated to a degree but intensely interesting and amusing.

Watercolour by CSIII in Pretoria

Only barest necessities were obtainable in Randfontein and Johannesburg, thirty miles away by train, was their shopping centre, itself still not much more than a miners’ camp. Wherever they went they found people with fresh memories of the recent Boer War. At Mafeking they saw samples of the bread that was eaten during the long siege, at Ladysmith the town clock had not yet been set going again, at Spion Kop they saw the tragic little cemetery with its message “Tell England, ye who pass by, we who died serving her rest here content”. From Randfontein they saw far away the dip in the Magaliesburg where an English regiment was overwhelmed by the Boers at Nuitgedacht. At Pretoria they saw the table on which the final peace was signed, and the school from which (Sir) Winston Churchill escaped, with the map still on the wall on which the imprisoned officers daily marked the progress of the war, to the great mystification of their captors. In connection with an earlier time, the Jameson Raid, they took part in a little memorial service far out on the veldt towards Johannesburg. Charles having found that the graves of those who fell in the raid were not properly fenced, and were in danger of being interfered with, had been able to get them put right, and well fenced in.

By the end of 1913 Charles was due for long leave to England so the three of them set out in January 1914 on a leisurely homeward journey via the East Coast. At Pretoria they met Mahatma Ghandi at the Deanery. They spent about a fortnight in British East Africa (now Kenya). Nairobi was beginning to emerge from being just a camp-it had only one primitive hotel and the roads were dust tracks. They went on to Lake Victoria, took the small steamer at Kisumu and from it visited the Ripon falls at Jinja, and on to Entebbe. At this date there was at Entebbe a curiosity dealer who sold an unspecified number of spears, each one of which was guaranteed as the one with which Speke made his journey to Victoria Nyanza. He also exhibited a number of small bulbules of pure rubber, the natives of the Belgian Congo having been required to bring in one of these for each finger on their hands. If any were lacking a similar number of fingers were removed. A few days were spent in the only solidly built building that they saw in the country, a German hotel at Kijabe with a glorious view across the Great Rift Valley, before they joined the Union Castle liner “Gascon” at Mombasa and had a very crowded and uncomfortable voyage to Port Sudan.

After a beautiful trip down the Nile passing Abu Simbel and the Aswan Dam, near which was the partially submerged Temple of Philae, they reached Luxor where they spent a few days seeing the temples there and the Tombs of the Kings. They proceeding by train to Alexandria where they parted company— Charles going on to the Holy Land, Constantinople and Athens, Emily and Elsa taking a very unfriendly German boat up the Adriatic coast to Venice where they waited for about three weeks for Charles to catch them up. They stayed at an old Palazzo on the Giudecca, which had been turned into a guest house by its owners. By the time Charles joined them Emily who had found the journey tiring was rested and able to go on. They arrived in England in May 1914 to find the war clouds gathering ominously.

Just before Emily and Elsa started for the Transvaal, John had opened his new school, St. Cross, Tadworth, designed by his school friend Edmund Hall and paid for by his share of his father’s capital. His first boarders were Graham Priest, son of Gertrude Curzon, and the four eldest Tollit boys for whom Emily, their grandmother, paid full fees. She also built stabling to house her victoria and Bob during her absence from England, and housed the Dutton family at the drive gate, where Mrs. Dutton did the St. Cross laundry work.

Charles, after spending a week with the Whitcombe family in Pontresina and getting caught there by the outbreak of war, having tried in vain for a chaplaincy with the troops, finally returned to South Africa on the “Dunvegan Castle” in September. His new parish consisted of the whole sparsely populated area from the Limpopo River in the north to Leydsdorp in the south. This entailed constant travelling and staying wherever hospitality was offered in the various small communities. He made a roadside inn in Munnit, forty miles north of Pietersburg, his headquarters. That same September Christopher Charles Tollit became a day boy at Brighton College, to be followed at yearly intervals by the four brothers, and Antony Quintus took his place at St. Cross.

A heavy time now began for John with his masters and domestic staff unsettled by the war, in spite of which he took an active part with the organisation and activities of the local Defence Force, and the school continued to grow and flourish. In June 1915 his son John Theodore was born. [Family rumour is that in adulthood he fell in with a fast crowd, and was in trouble with the police several times, before being given a one-way ticket to South America. At all events, he was never heard of again.]

When the war spread to German East Africa in 1915 and a contingent was recruited in the Transvaal, Bishop Furse, seeing that an insufficient number of chaplains were being sent with it by the Government, called for a number of volunteer priests from his diocese who should serve in the ranks and be given special facilities for conducting worship. Charles volunteered at once, trained with the South African Medical Corps at Potchefstroom and finally left for the front in December 1915.

An account of his experiences is extant in his diary amongst the family papers. He was present at the battle of Salita Hill and mentioned for the D.C.M. on that occasion. A fellow officer reported after the war that he had seen him do something that should certainly have won him the Victoria Cross. After some months of doing duty as a Red Cross Orderly in charge of the regimental water supply drawn by donkeys, and reduced to eating anything he could lay his hands on, he was appointed chaplain to the 9th South African Force, and on demobilisation in 1917 he returned to South Africa in the R.M.S.P. “Aragon” suffering from a severe attack of malaria. After a short visit to his Northern Transvaal parish he returned to England for service in France.

Marriage of Charles III to 'Betty' Whitcombe

During the few weeks he was in England he took the opportunity of becoming engaged to Elizabeth (Betty) Maud Whitcombe, elder daughter of his old Vicar at Romford. He was appointed Captain to the 4th Divisional Artillery by the Deputy Chaplain General, Bishop Gwynne, whose acquaintance he had made in Khartoum three years before, and for services on July 31st 1917 connected with the mud and blood of the Third Battle of Ypres he was awarded the M.C. His marriage, arranged for April 4th 1918 was set in great hazard by what is known as the March Retreat of that year. However he was just in time to be met by his best man, Guy Vernon Smith, and conveyed with the Flanders mud still on his boots to St. Peter’s, Cranleigh Gardens, where his bride and bridal party were waiting. After a short honeymoon in Cornwall he returned to Flanders. His division was moved to the Aisne where, with three other tired divisions, it was overwhelmed and he, being in the front lines with his gunners, was taken prisoner and sent to a former Russian prisoner-of-war camp on the shore of the Baltic Sea. Here food was very short and the prisoners were reduced to raiding the garden of the Commandant, thus becoming the first people to eat new potatoes in Germany that year.

Being a non-combatant he was exchanged and he reached Brighton in time for the Armistice, November 11th 1918. He returned to France at once as Deputy Assistant Chaplain General XIX Corps at Cassel, was demobilised in March 1919 and was at once presented to the living of Hornchurch, Essex, by New College on the death of his old friend Herbert Dale. During this time his wife wisely took a course in domestic economy at Eastbourne and was well equipped to manage a household. She and his mother Emily had supervised certain improvements to the Vicarage and bought the furniture, and they took up residence at once. Here Charles IV was born in 1920, Michael in 1922 and David in 1924.

Charles having left Hornchurch in 1925 to take up the position of the British Chaplain in Jerusalem, where he lost his little son Michael in 1926, next held the living of Royston for a short time and was then, to Emily’s joy, appointed Rector of Limpsfield, Surrey in 1928. Here later in 1928 Elizabeth Jane was born.

Betty (Whitcombe) Steer with Charles IV, Jane & David in Wales, c1935

In 1936 Emily’s sight was failing so badly that it was thought advisable for her to be nearer to him, and the Glebe House, Detillens Lane, close to his Rectory was bought and put into order for her occupation by Francis Tollit who had now started in business as a builder. She insisted on having the cataract removed as a last hope of restoring her sight, but the operation was unsuccessful. She died peacefully on March 4th 1939 and was buried in the same grave with her brother, next to that of Charles and Emily Black, and only six months before the Second World War broke out, the day following the wedding of Antony Quintus Tollit and Ailsa Christie.

Family Connexions

Edward Steer

So far little has been told of Charles and Martha Steer’s other four children in their later life, this history having been written mainly for the eldest branch of the family. It would not be complete without some account of what they meant to Mildred, Elsa, Charles and John. Having received the untold benefits lavished upon them by their Nettlefold relations in their fatherless childhood, they welI knew how to pass on the excelIent tradition and were in their turn pattern uncles and aunts. Amongst Elsa’s happiest memories are those of her many visits to the homes of Edward, Arnold, May and Ethel. In the far less spacious modern days it is to be hoped that in spite of greater difficulties in doing so, the Charles Steer, Edward Steer and ToIIit cousins may stilI find means of keeping in touch with one another through the years, and hand on the very valuable family tradition of God-fearing living and friendship between brothers, sisters and cousins in the later generations. Outside friends, though immensely valuable, can never really take the place of one’s own loved family.

For a few years longer after Charles and Emily moved to Northfield, Edward and Gussie lived in their first house at Harborne. When Edward was deputed to manage the newly acquired part of the business at Rogerston near Newport, he bought a charming house, Woodlands, at Malpas, where Mildred and Elsa often went for much enjoyed visits and dances. Gussie was a wonderfully good hostess, so bright and amusing, and Edward always so kind and welcoming. Their children were Bridget, a little younger than Elsa, Edward (Ted), Reginald, Gordon and Louise. Bridget, while very young, married Fred Donisthorpe who monopolised her and took her right away to Leicestershire where she lived in greate state at Enderby Hall.

Edward’s three sons went to school at Shrewsbury, then Ted and Reg to Merton College, Oxford, and Gordon straight into Army training. Ted went into Guest Keen Nettlefold under his father, who built a nice little house for him close to Woodlands when he married Bernice Southwood Jones. They both loved a sporting life and Ted was for some years Master of the Llangibby Hunt. He was a delightful person, very like his mother. Reg as a little boy made a practice of going to read to the old cottagers in Malpas. He chose to take Orders in the Church and went on from Oxford to Cuddesdon Theological College, but before he was ordained his mother had died after a long and painful illness. Reg fell in love with Esther Johnston, whose father was Warden of Cuddesdon. Just before his ordination he married her and they went together to his first curacy at St. Mary’s, Southampton. He later had livings at Tidenham, near Chepstow, St. Mary’s, Selly Oak, Birmingham, and lastly Stroud Parish Church from which he retired in failing health. Gordon gained a Commission and was sent out to China with his regiment, the Second Somerset Light Infantry, whither Edward journeyed out to visit him. He was in the First World War and died in France from wounds received at Givenchy.

Through all this Edward battled along with the business and, with failing health, he stayed on as Chairman and Managing Director till at last he was forced by age to retire. He died in 1927 and was buried with Gussie in Malpas Churchyard. He held office as High Sheriff of Monmouthshire, when Charles journeyed from Romford to act as his Chaplain. He had a gift of turning pretty little verses, which never saw the light beyond his own family circle. His last effort was to walk to Llantarnam Church for the early service and back, Eva and Elsa almost carrying him the last part of the return journey, and he had a stroke that night from which he never recovered, though he lingered a long time.

Death of Martha Steer

In 1905 Martha [wife of Charles I] died after a trying illness and was buried in the same grave with her husband and mother-in-law in Highgate Cemetery. Her funeral was attended by a very large gathering of young and old Steers and Nettlefolds, for she had been the centre of both families, greatly loved and respected by them all as a quite exceptional character. Her death removed from them a most dearly loved mother and grandmother. In her younger days she kept open house for her children’s friends and when sons-in-law and daughters-in-law arrived they were welcomed into the family circle and became integral parts of it. Beyond her own immediate family, her interest spread to her many nephews and nieces and cousins, and she kept up a lively correspondence with them all, always with a quill pen and on grey, black-edged paper: she habitually was writing for an hour or two each morning. When in her early widowhood and in great distress, she took to visiting five or six poor widows in Spitalfields, and in Birmingham she made constant helpful calls in her district. Some of these contacts continued throughout her life. To celebrate her 80th birthday, and as a recognition of her connection with the firm, she gave £1,000 to be used for the benefit of the Nettlefold’s work people. This does not mean that she was ever a rich woman however. In those days living was cheap and so, certainly from the Craven Park days, she was able to keep a cook and house-parlourmaid, and also had the services from that time till her death, of her confidential maid, “dear old Robbie”, as she was affectionately known throughout the family.

Robbie was a little bent, rather misshapen figure, always in a dark-coloured dress and pretty lace cap with a purple ribbon in it, underneath which was the sweetest face with a twinkle in its eyes, and she was always there when wanted. After Martha’s death the family joined in pensioning her off and she went to live with her own people at Great Yarmouth. Martha was a splendid needlewoman and she gave a sample of her beautiful embroidery to each of her grand-daughters. One or two examples of her very good flower paintings are still in the family. She was an extremely good reader, perhaps best of all when she was reading the Bible each morning for the household. She had a very sweet smile and infectious laugh, and talked with a low, quiet voice. All her sisters grew very stout, but she always remained slim. Like her brothers she was not musical. They used to declare that the only two tunes they could recognise were God Save the King and the Hallelujah Chorus, and these only because the audience stood up when they were sung and even so they did not know which was which.

Arnold & Clara Steer

Arnold Steer was the youngest son of Charles I & Martha. Their children were Eric, Gwen and Wilfrid. Elsa’s memories go back to their wedding when she was a bridesmaid at the age of six for the first time, very shy, very proud, wearing a pretty white wooIly frock with a green belt and large white picture hat with green pom-poms on it, and carrying a basket of single dahlias, the first she had ever seen. From that day the dear new aunt and uncle spoilt her. It was lovely to stay with them at Pinner when Eric and Gwen were a pair of very pretty fair children, always dressed charmingly, and later Wilfrid came along, a dear little boy in Highland costume. There were visits to London, to the Academy, theatres, suppers at exciting restaurants, or simply to shopgaze.

Afterwards, when Arnold retired from the old original Nettlefold ironmongery business in Holborn, they came to live in a pretty old house at Lindfield, Sussex. The First World War broke out and they were anxious about Wilfrid who had left his training for an architect and joined the Royal Flying Corps. Eric also left his curacy at Slough to be a naval chaplain and was quartered with the Fleet at Scapa Flow. At Lindfield they were within easy reach of Brighton and many were the happy weekend visits paid by Elsa to them there and later, when they moved to their charming little Old Malt House at Lurgashal near Petworth. After the war Eric was Vicar of Ascot and Gwen went to keep house for him. Then he took the living of St. Giles, Stony Stratford, and, the Vicarage being a roomy one, they were able to have their mother and father there, Arnold having become bedridden. He died in 1930 and Clara in 1937. A very nice lych-gate was built and a side chapel in the Church partiaIIy furnished by their children in their memory.

Wilfrid, on leaving the Royal Flying Corps, went out to an appointment in the Calcutta docks, and there married Madelaine Marshall. On his retirement and return to England he took a house near Seaford, but they were hardly in it before Madelaine was taken very suddenly ill and died in hospital. He then joined Eric and Gwen and moved with them to Bierton Vicarage, Bucks. He threw himself wholeheartedly into their busy life there but feII victim to an incurable disease and after a long and wearing iIIness most heroicaIIy borne, died in 1956.

The Nettlefold Family

Of John Sutton Nettlefold’s parents nothing is definitely known. It is believed that his father married a Sanderson, widow of Coxe, and that he was an ironmonger in Holborn, who died on March 18th 1827 aged 70. It seems probable that John Sutton inherited his business. In 1819 he married Martha Chamberlain, the eldest child of Joseph Chamberlain and Martha Statham Strutt, who married in 1792.

John Sutton Nettlefold seems to have had few relations. He had one brother, Sam, who died in 1847 at the age of 64 and two sisters—Anne who married in 1807 Henry Rooke who lived in the New Forest and, after gambling away his estate according to the custom of the times, took a very small house at Weybridge and Betsy who married in 1839 a rascally foreigner (Damiani) and lived at one time at Clifton.

Sometime after 1848 John and his wife Martha moved into a larger house, The Grove, Highgate, and remained there to their deaths in 186. It was from this house that Martha Sanderson Nettlefold was married to Charles Steer I in 1848. They had wonderful gatherings of the family at Christmas and May Wyman (née Steer) seems to have been with them frequently and never tired of talking of them. Suffice it to say that from these reports and from his travel diaries, John Sutton, who must have been a remarkably able and kindly man and whose memory was certainly revered by all his daughters. Edward J. Nettlefold moved into The Grove, Highgate, on the latter’s death. He had married Frances, one of two Wyman cousins who used to come to stay with his father and mother, and their first home was near Charles and Martha Steer. The marriage was a very happy one but it is known that she resented the time he spent in nursing Charles’ business for his two fatherless boys. After his death Frances moved her large family up to Birmingham, her eldest son having already gone into the Nettlefold business. She took Hallfield in Edgbaston, a large house where she lived in great state. Her stern expression and severe manner daunted the Steer children, but underneath them was the kindest of hearts.

Joseph Nettlefold married a pretty and very charming employee at the King’s Norton works. He lived in a large house “Highbury” at King’s Heath where he and Mary, the souls of hospitality, insisted on giving the wedding breakfast for Charles and Emily Steer. He was accustomed to drive to the works in his carriage and pair, but one snowy winter he astonished the neighbourhood by using a very magnificent sleigh for the purpose. To make sure that the works were guarded at nights the watchman had to fire a gun from the entrance at 10pm when Joseph stood at his front door to hear the report. Fearing that after his death his wife and three daughters might become victimised by fortune hunters, he left them only a modest sufficiency, and the bulk of his fortune to his brother Edward’s family to be distributed amongst twelve of them. In addition to the house at King’s Heath he had a property in Scotland, Alleyne, her visits to which were some of the very bright spots in May Wyman’s girlhood and early married life, and she treasured pictures of the house and a shooting party held there. It must have been a curious establishment and she had many funny stories about it. The only visitor who could really shoot seems to have been Henry Wyman, and they loved to get him there so that they could kill a few birds.

Frederick Nettlefold, the youngest of the three brothers, married Mary Warren, a little “Dresden china” lady. After the death of his father and eldest brother he managed the old original ironmongery business in Holborn with his nephews Oswald Nettlefold and Arnold Steer. Arnold began behind the counter tying up parcels, etc. In the next generation Oswald’s son, and daughter Nancy, carried on the business and moved into a large office in the Euston Road near the station. Frederick, he and Mary lived in a large house at Streatham where he had a very good collection of Cox’s paintings in his billiard room. He acquired a large interest in Courtaulds in its early days. When visiting at Putney, Elsa was taken by her two aunts to see him.

Amalgamation of Nettlefolds and Guest, Keen

In 1826 John Sutton Nettlefold, then thought to be an ironmonger in Red Lion Street, London, founded a business for the production of wood screws at Sunbury-on-Thames, using an old water-mill to provide the power.

Some years later he saw at an industrial exhibition—possibly the Great Exhibition in 1851—an American patent which would greatly facilitate the manufacture of his screws. He was unable to put up sufficient money to acquire it, so invited his brother-in-law, Joseph Chamberlain, to go in with him in partnership. It is not clear whether this was before or after the little original business had so far expanded that he had already moved it up to Birmingham in order to obtain the greater industrial facilities to be had there. He and Joseph were both advanced in years and neither felt inclined to remove themselves to the Midlands, as now seemed desirable, so each sent a son, both named Joseph, to carry on the expanding business. The new factory was in Baskerville Place, off Broad Street, with offices in the latter adjoining it, and the firm was known as Nettlefold & Chamberlain. The introduction of automatic machinery greatly reduced the cost of production, and caused a great stimulus in demand. This led to the erection of a large new factory for those days in Heath Street. The main screwmill covered nearly three acres, and was completely equipped with automatic screw machines, the power transmission being entirely underground, and so no overhead belting was required. The foresight and capacity of the two original partners were great factors in consolidating the position of the firm. Their sons came to Birmingham with a family tradition behind them of consideration for others and devotion to the furthering of political and municipal life. Joseph Chamberlain was a constant visitor to the factories, and interested himself in classes and clubs for boys and men, in improving the public amenities of the town, etc., and became Mayor. His brothers Walter and Herbert were also connected with the firm and were like minded. Walter, living at Harborne Hall, took a prominent part in the formation of the Smethwick school board.

At some point these three brothers retired from the firm—Joseph specifically in order to devote himself to political work. Edward J. Nettlefold (still in London) and Joseph NettIefold were now getting on in years and young blood was needed so the two young Steers, Charles and Edward, now sold their business in London and joined the firm under their Uncle Joe and it is a proof of the flourishing state of the firm that the Chamberlain share in the business was paid off in three years. Edward Nettlefold’s sons Edward, Hugh, John and Godfrey were in turn brought into the business. It had now become known as Nettlefolds Ltd. Previously four other firms had been absorbed— Imperial Mills at Sheffield, Field and Cornforth, and lastly in 1866 the King’s Norton works and the firm of James and Avery. Both these last made wood screws and in addition King’s Norton now made screwdrivers, button hooks (to do up the then fashionable ladies’ button boots), cork-screws, tin and bottle openers, as well as box-making and label printing for the whole department.

In 1886 the parent company established a works at Rogerston, nr. Newport, Mon., for the production of steel bars, hoops and wire, and Edward Steer was sent to manage it. (Later John NettJefold, succeeded by his cousin Ronald Wyman, was sent to work under him.) Edward moved his family to Woodlands, a very charming family house at Malpas, then a small scattered village a short drive from Newport. Edward drove to work daily and made frequent business journeys to the board meetings held in Birmingham when he stayed the night either with Charles or with his bachelor friend George Kenrick in Edgbaston.

In 1901 two small works in Birmingham were bought up and closed down, and the work of wire drawing that they had done was transferred to Rogerston. It must have been at about this time that Elsa Steer, staying at Woodlands, was taken to see this process. It was a dusky November evening and the works were dark, but for the light from a huge cauldron high up in the roof and filled with molten steel. An enormous ladle stirred it up, the cauldron was tipped and a huge fiery stream fell sizzling to the ground where the men, their faces shining in the light, stood ready to seize it with long iron grabs and guide it between rollers, a great writhing snake on the floor, diminishing in size and brightness, till the required size was reached. It was an extraordinary scene, calling for a painter to put it on canvas. Possibly the process became outdated and the works at Rogerston no longer needed, for in later years the factory was taken over by Northern Aluminium and altered for their purposes. Around this time an entirely new factory was started at Cwmbran, and Edward made himself largely responsible for the building of a new church for the use of the employees on the housing estate that had to be built. Eva Pemberton and Elsa were present with Edward at the dedication by a very dull old bishop.

Sometime in the early days at Northfield, Charles Steer conceived the idea of forming a Union with the screw-makers on the Continent, and it must have been in connection with this that he made a visit t0 Russia and had a narrow escape from having his face frost-bitten. The journey was unfruitful, as was, apparently, a later one to the United States, but a number of the French, German and Belgian screw-makers were enthusiastic. Meetings were held in each country by turn, Charles always in the Chair, and there was a great spirit of co-operation amongst the members. After his death this Union seems to have lapsed. Mention has already been made of the little home of rest that Charles started at Northfield, and restarted at Stoke Prior, for the Nettlefold employees. He also inaugurated a canteen where the workpeople could get a good meal cheaply, the first thing of the sort, it is believed, in Birmingham at any rate.

In 1902 the important firm of Guest Keen, a near neighbour of Nettlefold Ltd., approached the latter with the suggestion that they should amalgamate, and here a short account of it may be of interest. The same year Crawshay Bros., Cyfarthfa Ltd., iron and steel manufacturers and colliery owners, was acquired, and the amalgamation with Nettlefold Ltd. was negotiated, the new company being titled Guest Keen Nettlefold. This fusion of interests was not accomplished without difficulty. There was strong opposition from many Nettlefold shareholders who were reluctant to see their old established and renowned business lose its separate identity. But the advantages of the proposal were evident. Guest Keen’s furnished products in the way of steel wire and the bars, which provided material for Nettlefold’s screws, and the works of the two concerns were contiguous at Smethwick and offered facilities for considerable economies in production. Arthur Keen retained the Chairmanship of the Board of Directors which comprised his two sons, with Edward Nettlefold and Charles and Edward Steer representing the newly acquired interests— 30,000 people were provided with employment. But still one has heard it said that Nettlefolds carried Guest Keen on its back! However that may be, it is well worthy of note that from the inception of each of the two great businesses before and after their amalgamation there has been complete accord between management and employees.


Another length has been added to the little piece of family tapestry that Catherine Biddlecombe started to weave in response to the request of her friends more than a hundred years ago. One generation overlaps the next in all families, and so in different parts of the lengthening and broadening pattern therc arc many loose thread, left to be picked up by later generations of Charles Steers, Edward Steers, and Tollits and woven into the incomplete picture frm their own memnories, each for their, own branch of the family.

Much more could have been given about the way of life in the early days of the Nettlefolds and Chamberlains when they were still living in London, and also of their business, but a very good idea of it, together with a genealogical table, can be found in the early chapters of J. L. Garvin’s “Life of Joseph Chamberlain”, published by Macmillan and Co. in 1932.

This little book would never have seen the light of day but for the expert and most kind and patient assistance of Ailsa and Quintus Tollit in putting it into shape for the printer. The deepest thanks are owed to them for doing so.

April, 1957.
ELSA STEER, Mallards, Moulsford, Berks.

Steer Family Connexions
Steer main
Evans main
Parry memoirConnor
Catharine Biddlecombe Steer Memoir 1850
Elsa Steer Memoir 1957
Prospectus of Forelands sale 1919
Charles Steer IV Memoir 1999
Inventory of the Limpsfield Rectory 1931


Janet Steer. There are two references to a Janet Steer in the New York Times.
On July 2nd 1892 there was an announcement that certain aristos were sponsoring a theatrical fundraiser for the E London Hospital at which 'Among the artists who have volunteered their services is the well-known actress Janet Steer. She will play in a new version of "An American Bride" written by Sir George Young and Mr Maurice Noel. She will also appear in a new piece entitled "Idols of the Heart".'
On June 24th 1900 a roundup of European news states 'The quarrel between WS Gilbert, the dramatist, and Janet Steer because the actress refused to follow the letter of the playwright's instructions as to emphasis and stage "business" in producing two of his plays, has excited a great deal of comment adverse to Gilbert, who is regarded as a crank.'

The basis of this feud appears in WS Gilbert, A Classic Victorian & his Theatre by Jane W Stedman. 'During this first decade of the century, Gilbert found two protégées. The first Regina Repton, had temporarily been a member of the Savoy Chorus and had played a bit part in The Fortune Hunter. Now Gilbert cast her as Cynisca in Janet Steer's production of Pygmalion & Galatea. Steer, who was by no means a great actress, disliked Repoton and made rehearsals so vexatious that Gilbert went home ill, probably with migraine. On opening night Steer deviated from her rehearsed business and the letter of Gilbert's text in Repton's most important scene, engrossing the audience and distracting her rival. Gilbert wrote icily to her, explictly to the newsparer and applied for an injunction, which the judge refused to grant, even tho Pinero and Bancroft appeared as witnesses for Gilbert. Steer dismissed Repton, who nevertheless continued her carer, and remained a friend of the Gilberts.'
According to the Annual Register of 1901 Janet produced "The Queen's Double" at the Garrick.

For this to be 'our' Janet, the dauter of John Steer's brother, Luke would have had to be born in the 1810s, and to have fathered her in the 1850s – which is not impossible. Elsa's memoir tells us that Catherine had not known John's father, who died before their marriage. If Luke was substantially younger than John & Sam it would explain why he did not feature in John & Catherine's life. [back]

John Davis, known as 'Pope' Davis on account of having painted a portrait of the Pope while studying in Rome. [back]

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